A step into the wilderness

2017-06-13 18:41
An unusually bright moon peeps behind the clouds on the second night of the iSimangaliso Wilderness Trail.

An unusually bright moon peeps behind the clouds on the second night of the iSimangaliso Wilderness Trail. (Chelsea Pieterse)

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FEATURE - Confused and disorientated, I awoke, wrapped in a sleeping bag, surrounded by long dewy grass, to our field guide, shouting “hey wena”, while he tried to ward off a curious hippo from our camp. 

With the moon our only form of light, we readied ourselves for a hippo ambush in the middle of the night.

It was my first night on the iSimangaliso Wilderness trail. We had no tents, no perimeter fencing and no blow-up mattresses, just a mat and a sleeping bag out in the wild under the stars.

I arrived at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park near St Lucia on Thursday afternoon, carrying a bag holding a few items of clothing for the warm days and cold nights, a flashlight, wetwipes, and a pair of comfortable shoes to hike in. 

Along with two other journalists, Larry Bentley from the Zululand Observer and Paul Ash from the Sunday Times, we met our Wilderness guides, Mandla Buthelezi and Vuyani Mbuzwa, who drove us to a remote spot in the park.

There we met iSimangaliso director Andrew Zaloumis and his wife Tracey as well as two environmental scientists from Hout Bay, Penny and Guy Preston, and their son, Ian.

Supplied with a backpack, a sleeping bag, a mat, ground sheet, mosquito net and lots of food and water, we left the area the cars were parked in, and headed through the bushes to our camp under two beautiful trees surrounded by grasslands.

The brilliant blue sky and kilometres of grasslands, trees and bushes stretched on forever without a single building or car in sight.

Completely disconnected from the busy highways, bustling city and technology, I immediately felt at peace, out in the wilderness, away from work, traffic, and the other stress that comes from city living.

The first day we arrived in the wilderness, there was a controlled fire that had been burning for most of the day that could be seen just on the horizon of our camp.

Settled on our “beds”, full from dinner, a delicious chicken a la king dish, and a little tired from finding and breaking firewood (which left me with a large scratch on my cheek), we were all drinking tea and munching on rusks when we noticed the wind had changed direction and the fire had begun to encroach on our camp.

Finally, with the smoke burning our lungs and eyes, a decision was made to move our camp and at 8 pm we walked silently in single file, led by Buthelezi and Mbuzwa to a safer spot.

To add to the experience, everyone was expected to complete an hour on night watch.

I took the 10.30 pm to 11.30 pm slot and was woken from a deep, peaceful slumber to take my turn.

I stood by the fire, too restless to sit, and walked around the camp, shining the torch into the distance.

I froze as I shone my torch at a nearby bush as I saw a bright pair of eyes staring back at me. I immediately switched off the torch and hurried to wake Buthelezi who stumbled from his sleeping spot, ready for any potential threats.

“Were the eyes yellow or bright? Were they far apart or close together?” he asked me in hushed tones.

After describing what I had seen he smiled. “It was a leopard. Don’t worry, he will mind his own business,” he said.

After chatting a while longer, he went back to sleep and I woke Tracey up for the next watch.
It was later that night that the curious hippo made his appearance.
Buthelezi bravely stood his ground, shouting loudly and forcefully at the disgruntled hippo, and although he held a gun, he emphasised that it would only be used in emergency cases where there was no other option than to shoot.

The next morning, we packed up and moved back to our old camp, which had been almost completely burned in the fire.
We dropped our bags, and started our walk to Lake Bangazi.
The walk was breathtaking, with the landscape changing from grasslands to greener areas with marshes, to a swamp until we eventually reached the lake.

We watched at least 75 hippos wallowing in the cool water, watching our movements with suspicion.
A few crocodiles lurked around the edge of the lake.
We eventually moved when one of the hippos started grunting threateningly and began to make his way out of the lake.

After lunch, we headed back to the burned camp and moved to an open spot about 100 metres away.

It was our last night. We saw a mother warthog guiding her two babies to their sleeping spot and heard the hyenas cackling in the distance.

On my night watch that evening, I saw three hyena watching me with great curiosity however, Vuyani said they would not be a problem unless they started coming closer to the camp.

The rest of the evening was peaceful and the next morning I woke up with slight anxiety knowing that I would be leaving the wilderness in a few hours.

The wilderness, as Andrew Zaloumis put it, is to experience nature completely without a trace of modern man.

Sleeping under the stars near a camp fire, learning the calls of different animals and birds, being shown an entire struggle between a buck and a leopard all through tracks left in the sand, is something everyone should experience.

Being out in the wilderness, I felt centred and connected.

Nothing beats falling asleep under a star-filled sky, or waking up to the grunting of hippos in the distance or the call of scores of different birds.

It is an experience unlike any other and completely available to anyone who wants to break away from modern life for a few days.

I am counting down the days until I go on my next wilderness trail, and miss the wild already.

Photo Gallery  by Chelsea Pieterse

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