Kenya extract

Max, the white rhino, in front of a rainbow

An extract from Last Chance to See - Return

'We're not going to get out are we?' asked Stephen, looking a little alarmed. 'Aren't there lots of lions here, too?'

'Yes' said Batien, starting to whisper. 'But there's nothing to worry about.'

Anyone can walk in lion country, of course, but the professionals do it without being eaten. I remember going on a survival course in South Africa many years ago, and the game ranger in charge gave us this nugget of advice: 'If we stumble upon a lion', he said, 'we'll get out of the area by moving slowly backwards. We will not run. If we run, we have a 100 per cent chance of being killed.'

I told Stephen, but he just glared at me.

We slipped out of the car as quietly as possible, closing the doors without shutting them properly, and started creeping towards the rhino.

'Just listen to Dickson and the other rangers' said Batian. 'Do what they say. If something happens, don't suddenly bolt or you will leave somebody in the... in the... you know what.'

'It looks remarkably prehistoric' whispered Stephen, who was suddenly rising to the occasion. 'It wouldn't look out of place wandering alongside a woolly mammoth or a sabre-toothed tiger.'

We crept forward, very quietly, very slowly, constantly stopping, crouching and shifting our position. Gently cropping the grass, the rhino seemed to be completely undisturbed by our approach. But then it stopped eating and looked up. We froze. It started to chew a little more thoughtfully (it was hard to tell if it was regarding us with grave suspicion or without a care in the world) and then resumed the eating position.

'This is insanity' said Stephen. 'I've been brought up all my life to believe that rhinos are amongst the most dangerous and bad-tempered animals on the face of the Earth and here we are closer to one than I'd normally get to an Alsatian.'

Nervously, we set off again. At last we made it to a small clump of trees about 20 metres away and watched quietly from there. The rhino was so big it was like stalking a Cherokee Jeep.

The rhino looked up again. This time it lifted its head, clearly sniffing the air. Its tubular ears swivelled, like mini parabolic reflectors, trying to pick up the slightest sound. We hardly dared to breathe. Rhinos have poor eyesight, but this one was definitely looking at us with one eye, and then swung its head to the side to look at us with the other.

We stepped out from behind the clump.

'Should we be going any closer?' asked Stephen.

The rhino turned and walked straight towards us.

'Oh my God!' said Stephen. 'It's coming.'

The ranger signalled that it was OK and stood in front of us like a Secret Service bodyguard diving in front of the President to take the full force of an assassin's bullet.

'Oh my God!' said Stephen again, as the rhino came to nearly within touching distance. 'Surely, this isn't right?' I heard chuckling and turned around to see Dixon and the other rangers doubled-up in laughter.

'Good grief!' chuckled Stephen. 'You swines!'

We'd been tricked. It turned out to be a bottle-fed, hand-reared rhino, called Max. The three-and-a-half-year-old male southern white must have been the tamest rhino in Africa.

'That was a complete con' said Stephen. 'There we were, tip-towing around, the most frightened people in Africa, and all the time it was tamer than a Labrador!'

We patted Max on the head, introduced ourselves, and took some photographs. A storm was gathering and the sky was threatening and deep, dark blue. A rainbow appeared above Max's head. It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.

Copyright: Last Chance to See - Return by Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry, to be published in October 2009 by HarperCollins.

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