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The last of the wilderness experience?

12 May 2014, 21:45

In the 1952, when the then uMfolozi Game Reserve was handed back to the Natal Parks Board after having most of its game eliminated in the infamous nagana campaign, Ian Player started as a young cadet with the then Natal Parks Board. Fortunately the rhino had been spared, and there were about 500 of them.

These 500 rhino were the only white rhino left in the world.

Subsequently, as warden of the Park, Ian became famous for his role in ‘saving’ the white rhino from extinction by catching them and sending them to zoos and game reserves all over the world. All the Kruger Park’s white rhino originally came from the uMfolozi Game Reserve, or the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, as it is now called.

Surrounding farmers did not welcome the Park at all. They still associated it with nagana (sleeping sickness) and the loss of their cattle.

With the National Party having come into power not long before and strongly supported by the farmers, Ian was effectively up against the government in trying to save not only the rhino’s, but the Park itself.

He told me how he could not enter a pub without being assaulted by local (white) farmers.

How was he going to get the conservation message across?

He knew that no arguments could convince those in power, but the wilderness itself could. Together with his fellow ranger, friend and mentor Magqubu Ntombela, he started the Wilderness Leadership School.

This organisation has now taken close on 50 000 people from all over the world on wilderness trails in iMfolozi, and hundreds, if not thousands, have testified how one such trail changed their lives. Ian’s dedication to wilderness has had a huge effect on wilderness preservation in both the USA and the UK, but it took a long time for him to get the recognition he deserved in South Africa.

I have been privileged to lead wilderness trails in iMfolozi for the last ten years or so. On these trails we go on walks during the day, while at nights we sleep in completely undemarcated campsites without fences. All participants get a turn to do night watch. If the person on watch sees a lion or elephant or something similar, s/he has to wake me or the other guide. We then take whatever action needs to be taken.

Many trailists report that it is the night watch in particular that makes the deepest impression on them.

The purpose of the night watch is not just to keep a lookout for dangerous animals. It is, perhaps even more importantly, an opportunity to be completely alone by yourself in the African wilderness - and its silence.

Not long ago I was woken up by a terrified girl who was on night watch. There was a constant humming noise that she instinctively knew did not belong in the wilderness, and this scared her far more than the lions and hyenas which she had heard earlier.

It turned out to be the Somkhele coal mine to the east of the Park. With an easterly wind, we sometimes hear this mine on trails now, and it can substantially detract from the value of the wilderness experience.

If the proposed Fuleni anthracite mine right next to the south-western boundary of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is to get the go-ahead, this will effectively be the end of virtually the only opportunity in South Africa to still have such a wilderness experience. In Pilanesberg National Park, where similar trails are run, noise and light pollution have already taken their toll. Kruger park trails do not have the night watch system.

The scoping report for the mine found that the mine would have little impact on tourism. It did not even mention wilderness trails, which are run both by the Wilderness Leadership School and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife itself.

These were probably simply categorised under ‘tourism’. Yet they are not about tourism at all. The report contains numerous facts on soils and water and communities and all kinds of other things, but what do these facts mean when it comes to human values?

What is at stake is not some rare or endangered plant or animal. No vegetation type is threatened. It probably is not much of a threat to local communities, who do stand to benefit from a few jobs.

But the wilderness experience that has deeply influenced thousands of people all over the world will have come to an end. This includes many people who can afford to pay for them and many who cannot.

The Wilderness Leadership School has taken a particular interest in the communities surrounding Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park to get the conservation message across, and all the full-time guides come from the local communities.

By the way, first proclaimed in 1895, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is the oldest game reserve in Africa. It has huge cultural significance in that it was Shaka’s personal hunting ground. The remnants of his hunting pits will be a hundred metres or so away from the mining pit if the mine goes ahead.

Isn’t it ironic. Ian Player had to fight the Nationalist – Apartheid – government tooth and nail, and eventually managed to save both the rhino and the Park. Will the wilderness experience now eventually be lost to the ANC?

Minister Shabangu, you are the one to make the final decision.

Could one of the local guides and I - or any other guide - take you on a wilderness trail in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park while it is still possible?

Or are you willing to sacrifice the last opportunity for a wilderness experience available to all in South Africa to ultimately benefit only a few?

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