Some years ago, I was shown a small collection of photographs reproduced from a set of slides. The images told an outline story of the export of rhino from South Africa to America in 1972. My wife’s grandfather Godfrey Symons featured in the photos and having developed a passion for rhinos over my thirty years of visiting South Africa I wanted to know more. I had the idea that I could tell the full story and mark the fiftieth anniversary of the journey, in writing, in 2022. Giving myself over a year to put everything together, my quest began with the main aim to track any surviving rhino down and trace any offspring. This was to be a conservation story as rhinos are still facing the threat of extinction.
I began at source and spoke to my father-in-law, Barry and brother-in-law Tristan. From here I gathered rough dates, a general time scale and an idea of the voyage from Durban to America. My in-laws are great family historians and record keepers. A huge collection of slides was uncovered which added much more to the story. What was missing from the family archives was Godfrey’s 1972 diary. Every other diary was there spanning decades, but there was a gap in the collection.
The next step was to contact the other two families who we knew had also travelled with the rhinos. After many months of emails that led to various archives and museums, the story was not progressing. I even tracked down the American importers and the safari parks where we believed the rhinos final destination to be. There was a distinct lack of paperwork and poor record keeping.
Out of the blue a few months ago I got an email from Rusty Barnes with the news that he had found his late father’s diary and as a family they would type it up. His father’s handwriting was, according to Rusty, shocking so this would take some time. But now the Barnes family have let me have a typed, but still work in progress, copy of the diary.
The story begins with the main players & characters. Bill Barnes, chief conservator, Natal Drakensberg. Gilbert Schutte, ranger in charge, Ndumo Name Reserve. Godfrey ‘Squeak’ Symons, farmer & great friend of Bill Barnes. I think they would like to be known as the ‘Rhino Hygiene Unit & Dung Disposal Squad PTY Ltd’ or in short ‘The Shit Shovelers’. During the early 1970’s several hundred rhinos were exported to America for conservation reasons to spread populations after numbers had started to recover from near extinction in the 1950’s. This is the story of one such export.
With twenty rhino safely loaded, in their crates, the “SA Huguenot” departed Durban harbour at 8.15am on April 24th 1972. And so, the team got to work and did their first of many dung clearances. Bill notes in his diary “Items that would have been useful would have been a garden fork to scoop up dung and grass to throw overboard. A strong wind out of Durban made cleaning and feeding difficult”
Rough seas within hours of leaving Durban proved a challenge. It was all hands-on deck to secure the crates and cover them with tarpaulins. Gilbert and Godfrey were both seasick. Bill refers to them as leaving the room “to shoot a cat”. The ship’s captain Peter Ladbrook invited the three of them for drinks on their first evening. This consisted of consuming a bottle of whiskey.
On the 26th April the ship docked for its first stop in Cape Town. This was a welcome relief, but the rough seas had taken their toll and two of the rhinos were already sick. One not being able to stand and another not eating or drinking. At 10.30am there was disastrous news so early in the journey. One of the rhinos, a male named Kakhuis, had died in his crate. A vet was called, authorities notified, and a postmortem carried out, but nothing could be found to be wrong with Kakhuis. The other sick rhino named Lap Ear was also treated by the vet. Delayed in port due to engine trouble there was more devastating news on Thursday 27th April. Lap Ear had also died in his crate. Both rhinos were buried at sea.
Prior to departing Cape Town all remaining rhinos were given a vitamin B injection which instantly gave them all a lift. The on-board chores resumed with feeding, watering, and clearing dung. Warmer weather also allowed for the rhino to be hosed down, which each one really enjoyed. Bill notes “Distance still left to travel to San Juan 4713 miles”
When not tending to the rhino’s, which a near full time job, and as the temperatures heated up under the hot sun, life on board ship consisted of taking naps, playing cards and drinking. Drinks were consumed in cabins or in the ship’s bar which had opening times dotted through the day and night. A bottle of beer would set you back R0.10c and shorts, whisky, gin, brandy less per tot. Drink seemed to flow throughout the journey with many party nights on board. On Sunday 7th May there was an added entertainment. “Our first view of T.V. for about 4 hours as we pass some 40 miles away from Barbados, an all-American program”
On Tuesday 2nd May “The ship’s position between Saint Helena and Ascension Islands meant that the land is probably 1200 miles” Bill noted in his diary and on Wednesday 3rd May “Passed the Island at midnight off the coast of Brazil” And then on Monday 8th May the ship docked in San Juan Harbor for a couple of days where all on board were allowed some shore leave, while cargo consisting of fish and mealies were unloaded. From Puerto Rico the ship sailed on through the Caribbean passing the coast of Cuba. It was here that another rhino, named Loopy, became ill, suffering with an upset stomach.
On Saturday 13th May the ship docked again, with the aid of a local pilot, at the Mexican port of Tampico. This was to be their penultimate stop before arriving in the US. Bill and Godfrey were passionate birders and here they did log a few sightings. It was also clear that they did not think much of the city. He wrote “Tampico must be one of the poorest, dirtiest, smelliest places on earth. Anyway, I am glad to have seen it. Bought a Mexican hat for $10 and 2 bags for $11. The first thing we saw as we left the docks was the cooking of two ox heads in the street”
The Huguenot docked in New Orleans on Tuesday 16th May after travelling up one hundred miles up the Mississippi River. The three-man team had been caring day and night for their precious cargo and on arrival Bill wrote “All Rhinos are well except one, SCRUFFY, who has large boils on his left back leg and stinks! Will lance when the vet has made his inspection” This was their final night together and it was spent in Bourbon Street where the conservative South Africans were shocked to be served beer by nude bar girls. The following morning all the rhinos were unloaded, Gilbert headed off to Miami with ten, Bill and Godfrey with the remaining eight, swapping the ocean to open road.
On Thursday 18th May Bill and Godfrey delivered their rhinos to Lion Country Safaris in Dallas where they were released from their crates into their new home. Sadly, on Saturday, three days after release, one of the sick rhino passed away. Out of the original twenty, seventeen had survived.
Bill and Godfreys adventure did not end here. The pair travelled through America and Canada before heading back to South Africa via the UK eventually arriving home on Friday 4th August 1972. One last note from Bills diary. Tuesday 11th July “Squeak got news of a new baby” The birth of my wife Melanie
And what of any surviving rhinos or their offspring? Well, that search continues as I chase various leads across America. I hope to bring you another chapter soon. Thank you to the Symons family, Richard Schutte & the Barnes family & in particular Rusty & Allison. As well as others like German based Horst who has researched on my behalf.