From 20 to 25 May 2013 I went on a journey to the heart of the Zulu Kingdom, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Africa`s oldest protected area. A wilderness where ancient trails still cut through the bushveld and the black iMfolozi meanders like a peaceful serpent feeding life to the natural flora and fauna. Once the royal hunting grounds of King Shaka it is a place where the soul comes alive and the call of the wild is heard within your being. I went home and this is my story.
Preceding the Wilderness Leadership Trail my apprehension grew day by day, I have never slept out in the wild without a tent, toilet, electricity, vehicle and the other comforts of modern civilization in an area filled with Africa’s ‘big five’. It is something I have always wanted to do but the fear of wild animals, particularly lions, ran through my mind so much so that I considered withdrawing my participation, in the end I did not. A lesson learnt in itself, how often we allow our fear and misguided perception stop us from doing the things our heart wish.
We arrived at the park after being transferred from King Shaka Airport by our trail guides for the week, Mandla Gumede and Sipho Buthlezi. The bus pulled off the tar road and continued a further five kilometres down a bumpy gravel road until we could go no further. Provisions and equipment was distributed amongst the eight travellers and two guides, we all carried our own sleeping bag, foam mattress, clothes and a food bag. The packs came to approximately 20 kilograms in weight and were rather cumbersome at first. After being briefed by our very adept guides, walk in single file, do not make any noise, run if you are told and if a lion charges do not move, we set off on a journey that changed my life forever.
Mandla, the lead guide, walked in front followed by Sipho and then we filled in behind, one by one. My fear I anticipated did not arrive, instead I was awash with an energy, not an adrenalin rush, rather an electric happiness, a sense of being alive and completely in the present. As we crest the first small incline out of the hollow into the open leaving behind the vehicle we were met by our first encounter, a giraffe. This literally happened within 30 seconds of walking and I said to myself, “wow we are in for something special”, I was not wrong.
After 45 minutes of walking we arrived at a river, the Black iMfolozi, we then took off our shoes and crossed to the far bank. Once on the sand we put our packs down for the first time, dried our feet and put our shoes back on. Mandla asked if anyone felt they were unable to make the next five days, if not now was the time to decide. To my joy everyone was excited for what lay ahead. Sipho showed us some elephant tracks in the sand next to the river; I placed my foot in the middle, in the track of a giant.
We walked until the sun started to set, upon arriving at camp a white rhino was directly across the river. As we veered to the right on the rock where we would be sleeping for the night the rhino entered the water and made his way towards us. He sensed our presence, ears continuously scanning, but he continued until he reached our side of the river, stopping 10 meters upstream. He paused for 30 seconds ensuring we posed no threat until moving up the hill for the night. An experience I will never forget and I better not because reality is it may never happen again.
We then laid our beds out for the evening and sat around the camp fire listening to the sounds of an elephant feeding across the river bank. Mandla made a tasty chicken la king however the portion was so large I had to force the last bit down. Sipho briefed us regarding night watch and handed the Mag Light to Nolita, who was doing the first shift. I picked shift 6, which was from 3 am to 4 am. Sipho then said welcome home everybody, I only truly felt on the third day what was this meant by this statement.
Everyone was in their sleeping bags by ten pm; I stayed up writing in my journal for an hour or so. I looked up at the acacia tree I was sleeping under; it looked like it had thousands of fairy lights with the stars from the clear sky shining through. After sleeping peacefully Prof woke me up for my hour of night shift. I poured a warm mug of coffee and sat by the fire, the hour passed as if 10 minutes went by, I wanted more. Getting to bed I was compelled to sing the South African national anthem; Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, to myself over and over until I feel asleep.
I awoke first; Cynthia was still on the last shift for the evening ensuring our safety. I again poured a warm mug of coffee from the fire, sat perched in my sleeping bag on the rock along the river awaiting the warmth of the sun. Baboons, hyena and lions native calls bellowed majestically and sporadically from the far bush, Africa’s alarm clock.
After walking for approximately three kilometres we stopped for lunch under a tree. Upon arriving we were greeted by two large white rhino’s, they checked us out for a minute then darted off into the thicket. I felt as though I was the fittest and the youngest on the trail, wanting to cover more ground. However, this was not the point of the trail; we had no watches, cell phones and laptops. It was taking some getting used to slipping out of the usual haste and stress of work life and into what Mandla terms, timelessness. Everything about our movements was slow and unrushed; we had no place to be except for the present. We were surviving and co-inhabiting the vast wilderness with all of god’s creations, sleep when you are tired, eat when you are hungry and drink when you are thirsty. Everyone had a sandwich then a siesta and wrote in their journals.
I overheard a conversation taking place between Charles and Jeanene while waking from my nap; they were discussing the possibility of giving birth to a second child with their spouses back home. I am still surprised that so few consider the over populated state of the world and the resulting predicament we face regarding energy crisis and pollution. I could not restrain myself from rolling over on the grass and highlighting the situation as well as my personal philosophy of one child per couple in todays over populated environment. Excess has lead us on the path we now find ourselves, take for example our president, Jacob Zuma, who has five wives and I am unsure how many children. Global warming, energy shortages and pollution cannot be fully addressed without tackling the rate at which the world population is multiplying. I think they agreed to some extent.
The group did not seem to be moving anytime soon so I grabbed Mandla along with his 458 rifle and we went for a short walk without the cumbersome packs hanging off our shoulders. We approached the two rhino from earlier and then moved off to the right without disturbing them. We found a raised outcrop where we stood on a fallen tree and scanned the savannah below for movement. During this time I imagined the past going back to the 1950?s, Mandla as Magqubu Ntombela and myself as Dr. Ian Player, the two men responsible for the formation of the wilderness trails. Not much has changed in the wilderness area since; it is one of the few places in the world left that is reminiscent of our roots.
Upon arriving back at the lunch spot the group was ready to move to camp, our home for the next two days. Along the way Sipho found a rubbing stone used in the past by Zulu women to grind various foods into a finer powder. Sipho informed us that King Shaka Zulu during those times was a modern day totalitarian. Concerned with growing his hoards of warriors, territorial kingdom and wealth, anyone who opposed his rule received a fatal blow with the mighty spear. Sadly it is evident that in humans earliest days on the African continent the reptilian instincts fuelled our ancestors with an insatiable need for power and greed, something we all grapple with to this day.
Arriving at a beautiful rocky platform raised 15 meters above the steadily flowing Black iMfolozi river we settled into camp. Everyone headed down to the river for our first bath while Sipho prepared the fire and readied the kettle for coffee upon our return. Knee deep is the furthest Mandla will permit as there are crocodiles in the river, although nobody seemed too perturbed, the water was just so refreshing. We then found ourselves on the rock again like dassie’s watching the day close and the evening begin. We were accompanied by Buffalo to our left and right while an elephant passed on the opposite bank. Dinner was macaroni and cheese then the majority was off to bed. I sat around the camp fire listening to the fascinating stories of our guides, these two men possess such a deep respect for the environment they inhabit and all that walk it. They have been shaped and moulded by the landscape over time into men who know their place, the effect of their actions and the connection we all hold, if only more individuals could be like them.
After the camp fire stories I wondered off to my sleeping bag and wrote in my journal. Mario, the first night shift, checked to make sure I had not fallen asleep with my headlight on and the hyenas simultaneously called out from the opposite hill.
I started night shift at 5:00 am, made a fresh cup of coffee and awaited my second sunrise. This too passed as if ten minutes went by and ended with the arrival of Mario at 6:10 am. I wouldn’t know what the exact time is we get going in the morning as we only have a watch during night watch but there is absolutely no element of hurrying along. Sipho and I sat in front of the fire overlooking the river having a discussion while waiting for everyone to ready themselves for the day. He said to me, “where do you throw away rubbish, the truth is you cannot, it will be here forever”. His words reverberated in my mind and it took me back to the day before when Charles and myself were questioning him as to his minimalist blow up mattress he had that was not supplied to us. Sipho said it had a hole and that it did not help comfort the hard rock. I told him to purchase a new one and he said: “no, I shall try to fix this one first”.
Too often we discard our possessions and replace unnecessarily without considering the necessity thereof or the ramifications, it is not purely a financial decision anymore. Eventually we get on the trail, once all have eaten breakfast, packs are on our backs and the sun is well above the horizon able to awaken our blood and warm our hearts.
We stop for an elephant to move on by so that we can continue without invading its space, I propped myself up against a tree and had a rest. Once in a while a plane fly’s overhead, it is the only reminder of civilisation along with the irritating chime of digital cameras being turned on. I sat observing Sipho searching for the red and white helicopter high up in the sky oblivious to our presence below. He looked over to me and motioned with his rifle as if to shoot the helicopter from the sky, pointing up he went, “doosh”. A part of me felt like he should, we would be removing something that is foreign to our native land we were living in and that has contributed to its slow and painful demise. Somehow the act would be like turning back time and starting over, an impossibility I know. Humankind is not intelligent enough to develop the means to alter time and is also not intelligent enough to learn from our own faults.
The overwhelming need for power, greed and authority would overcome the urge to do right by all that dwell on this land and earth itself. Being in this environment I no longer feel such a burning desire to chase the material possessions we so highly value in today’s society, greater value can be found through meaningful experiences and the joy of time with loved ones.
On return to camp we passed some zebra and the daga boys, the bachelor group of buffalo we have spotted a few times now. The routine commenced in earnest again, bath in the river and collect water followed by a session of imitating a rock monitor in the last of the light provided by the setting sun, get changed into thermals and make our beds. I did the 11 until 12 pm shift on the third night; all I heard was the sounds of zebra and lion in the distance along with the crackling of the black camphor wood fuelling the fire.
We ventured through the veld saying good bye to our home for the last two days hugging the river making our way in the direction we came. Before stopping for lunch we sat in the shade to shelter us for five minutes from the ever present heat. During this time Prof read a poem, Lost, aloud to the group which is written David Wagoner:
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost,
Wherever you are is called Here and you must treat it as a peaceful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to raven,
No to branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.
Today I learnt to appreciate the smaller creatures and organisms that surrounded us as well as the interconnectedness of all living beings including humankind. The question rang in my mind, why do men allow such supremacy and reign over all others. The wild has the effect of knocking you off your self-acclaimed pedestal right down onto the floor.
Mandla made splendid biltong pasta for dinner and we all went to bed straight afterwards, I felt rather tired and drained. A few hours went by and Prof woke me from my deep sleep for the last of the night watch. I sat by the fire listening for intruders, I only heard one, the same one I had heard during the previous three nights, the incessant snoring and shuffling of my fellow travellers. Truth be told, we were intruding on the wilderness and its ancient dwellers whom are unaffected by time and the complexities of civilisation. We had moved so far from our roots and the origins of the beginning, we have caused a split between nature and human.
Day five was the last day and this was evident in camp, everybody seemed sad as they would be leaving the wild. We packed and cleaned camp before moving off towards the car and civilisation. Half way we stopped and made a circle where we concluded with an indaba, each of us having a turn to speak our minds, say our thanks and goodbyes. I went second and read my journal entry from the night before. I coined the page of scribbling, greater understanding.
We were introduced to the ‘Buffalo Thorn’ or ‘Tree of Life’ by Mandla during our journey. The following thoughts encompass the symbolism of this tree to the indigenous Nguni people of the area as well as the first chapter of the book ‘Ecological Intelligence’ written by Dr. Ian McCallum which I had read the day before.
The symbolism of the tree and Dr. McCallum’s words helped to put the information, thoughts and feelings that flooded my mind while out in the wilderness into perspective for me.
I am out of balance, I knew this before coming on this pilgrimage, if you will, but never knew what this meant or how to go about achieving balance in my life. I have also always felt as though my soul is missing, what is soul, what were people referring to and where is mine, because I need it.
The problem, I lost my connection to my home and my spirit was drowning my soul, suffocating it until it died. I believe this must have occurred at a very early age for me, sometime in my childhood which I can no longer remember. This occurrence has resulted in a lifestyle filled with excess and a heart that felt incomplete.
Thankfully coming home has shown me where to find my soul. Reborn within me I am going to restore it so that balance can be maintained, not just for me but for my home as well. Look back Hayden, look back…