Helena Kriel finds herself in deep personal crisis, where she’s forced to ask herself: Where do I belong? After the writers’ strike in LA renders her useless and her marriage falls apart, she travels back in Johannesburg. Little does she know that she’ll find clarity in the African bush as she volunteers to work with baby rhinos, orphaned by poaching. Using the ancient technique of meditation, Helena finds she can access these broken beings, to connect through nature and find new homes.
I walk down the hill down to the bottom bomas to watch the dehorning. It is a young rhino named Busiso’s chance to be dehorned, with his growing horn cut down to the four fingers above his skull. Busiso has not had an easy time. Both his mother and sister were poached together, and the poor, young rhino ran into the bush for safety. But the bush wasn’t safe; he was chased and mauled by lions. In desperation, he tried to join up with an older rhino crash. This wasn’t safe either; the crash didn’t want him, the alpha male chased him out, wounding him under the neck. He arrived at the sanctuary slashed and terrified. But Busiso, which means blessings in siSwati, rehabilitated slowly, and was taken down to the big bomas and placed alongside two happily bonded rhinos, Twinkle and Lofo. Longing for contact, he broke through the fence separating them, and has been with Twinkle and Lofo ever since, though he only has eyes for Twinkle. And, in brotherly love, Lofo allows it.
He has been through enough, and I watch them ready him for dehorning. He is darted and staggers around weaving, with the team holding him, and steadying him till he topples, falling to the ground. Chris and Mark, the robust farm manager who has spent his life in the bush, catch him and make sure he positions safely. He is out. With Chris and Mark on either side, holding his head up, and facing him forwards, one of the staff holding the tip of his horn, he is ready. Petronel hovers, monitoring everything. This is not an easy day, with endless complexities that may easily arise. Humans and rhinos are stressed. The vet brings a chainsaw and he saws slowly through Busiso’s sweet young horn. Flakes of horn, just compacted hair, fly everywhere as the horn saws off, mounding into sawdust. The sadly valuable nub is put into a bag. This horn belongs to SanParks, the governmental national park authority, and it will be removed by the vets.
Everyone monitors Busiso. The effects of the dart will be wearing off now, and he should stand. Chris and Mark remain by his head. Chris is watching everything, carefully. Busiso starts twitching, then shaking.
“This isn’t good,” Chris says. “Petronel! He’s shaking! There’s complications.”
The rhino topples over. I watch with horror. He is motionless now, not moving at all. What’s happening here?
“He’s dying!” Chris shouts. “Bring oxygen!”
Everything erupts, everyone running here and there. The team surround the rhino.
“Pound!” Petronel shouts. They hit Busiso’s body hard, trying to get his heart to start. “Harder!” Petronel shouts.
Chris spreads out on his stomach, placing his mouth to the rhino’s nostril. He breathes into his nostril, deep belly breathing, using all his breath; he’s a free diver, so fortuitously he has lung capacity! The team continues to pound.
“Oxygen!” Chris shouts.
“Oxygen! Oxygen!” Petronel screams.
A veterinary assistant brings an oxygen tube and inserts it deep into Busiso’s nostril. Chris continues to breathe into the rhino. And suddenly his body heaves, and jumps back to life! He scrambles up and stands, dazed, staring at the ground. Petronel puts her arms on either side of Busiso and encourages him to move forward.
“Daar’s hy! Daar’s hy!” she says, quietly, with a deep mother’s love, walking Busiso slowly around the boma. “Kom, seun,” Petronel encourages him on. And Busiso walks between the bracket of her hands, just as Mabush walked between the bracket of mine.
“Daar’s hy!” she says again. The young rhino walks, haltingly, the sedative still running through his system. Petronel walks patiently round the boma. “Kom, seun,” she says. “Ek het jou!”
Chris stands on the side of the boma, his hands at his waist, still breathing hard, because he gave it his all; he was not going to let Busiso slip away. Every single rhino matters. And I feel sick and saddened at what these creatures have to go through, what is necessary to keep them safe.
The night sky is black, no moon, the bonfire crackles orange. It’s hot and broody. Far-off storms remain far, lightning zigzags, illuminating the cumulus of distant clouds. I sit, dazed by the dehorning drama. The tangle of volunteers continue on, as though this is a day like any other. They finish their barbecued, marinated meat by the fire, tearing the flesh and chewing and eating garlic bread, dripping with fat. Some dance to Katie Perry. Others check their phones. Some take selfies. Others stare into the fire. Some laugh. Others brood. Some have friends. Others not. Some like Katie Perry’s belting. Others not. Some want it to rain. But it won’t. The storm is heading off left, in a distant clatter and flash. The bonfire leaps around, like a drugged dancer.
I relax. I belong to this grit. I may be civilised by America, I can dress up in good shirts and expensive shoes, get a monthly blow-dry, I can sit at any table, but I am primal, a savage at my core, happy to be in the middle of nowhere in filthy clothes with animals for company. I wouldn’t substitute this for almost anything I can think of.
I sit by the fire. I cannot talk. The dehorning was too stressful and I am exhausted from the shock of it. Chris saved the rhino and Busiso will be heading into the stronghold with the others this week. Volunteers burble around me, like white noise. I have encountered many teams of volunteers through the years of visiting. They all combine into one human mush ball, I remember very few; they are fungible, one slipping into another. I hardly connect or talk to them. But the rhinos, every one matters. As Petronel says: “I have an umbilical cord into each other them.”
I take a few steps up the koppie. I elect to sit with the insects. It’s so sweet up here: full of the rattle of small night lives, their scurrying and chirping.