‘Have you met a rhinoceros?’ It’s not an everyday question, but not totally unexpected when writing a novel about the death of a rhino.
At the time the answer was ‘not really’. I had seen them in zoos and safari parks. I had, I realised, seen northern white rhinos in San Diego zoo when my parents took my brother and I there in about 1980, but only at a distance from the back of a tour bus driving round the zoo.
The question was asked on my birthday, a date unknown to most as it doesn’t occur in a regular earth year, honest. The questioner (my lovely Clare) promptly handed me an envelope. The envelope turned out to contain a voucher for a Rhino Experience at Knowsley safari park not far from Liverpool in the UK, which is some way from Kenya where Hunted is mostly set.
I rang up the zoo and booked myself in. I went on a Sunday. I arrived early, before the zoo opened, was directed to a closed café, made myself a coffee, and waited for the keeper who would show me around. There was another lady waiting for a Lion Experience. I didn’t envy her.
The keeper, a wonderful man called Jon Moss, pulled up in a truck and whisked me away to the part of the park where the rhinos live. At the time there were nine of them. All southern white rhinos. Three roamed one part of the park, and six the other.
They were in their enclosure, in the quiet of the Knowsley morning. Not a one in sight. Jon got out of the truck, took a sack of feed from the back, and threw a few handfuls just inside the enclosure. The sound of the pellets hitting the ground brought them running. Five grown rhinos, perhaps ten tonnes in total, heading straight for us.
The enclosure is a series of logs about two feet high, with a solitary wire a foot above that. It didn’t seem to be a very substantial barrier against ten tonnes of trotting animals.
‘It’s alright, they can’t jump,’ Jon said, throwing in more feed. ‘And they’re greedy. They’re only interested in the food.’ Sure enough, they stopped, about a foot away from me, with their huge horns even closer. And they lowered their heads and ate. I was captivated.
Jon then took out a big tub of yellow cream, scooped out a handful with his fingers, and started smearing it on the rhinos. I noticed their skin, despite looking like armour, was chapped and flaking in places.
‘It’s been very dry, there’s not enough mud for them to wallow it, and that one,’ he pointed to one of them, ‘gets sunburn. Here.’ He offered the tub to me. I scooped some of the yellow cream out and slowly, so slowly, reached out my hand to the head nearest to me. Her name is Winnie. I applied the cream.
‘The skin behind their ears is really soft,’ Jon said. ‘And they like being tickled.’
I reached for behind her ears. It was so soft, something like a cross between velvet and satin. And she definitely liked being tickled.
I fell in love.