Wild at heart

2009-10-03 00:00

The wilderness area and the iMfolozi Trail were the brainchild of Dr Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela, who led the first game trail into the ancient hunting grounds of the Zulu kings in March 1957. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife invited a group of journalists to experience the trail first hand, ahead of the 50 years of conservation in South Africa celebrations to be held in the park from October 16 to 18.

I AM woken at midnight by a feverish hand shaking me. “Wake up. Lions!” There is a bone-chilling roar just outside the tent, followed by a sequence of rasping groans that only a hungry lion can make. Here I am, 10 kilometres away from any form of civilisation and only a wafer-thin piece of mosquito netting separating me from becoming part of the food chain.

“Everybody stay in their tents and don’t move.” I peer through the gauze into the darkness and there they are, five lions moving like ghostly white ­hallucinations around the tents. The click of metal confirmed the seriousness of the situation as trail ranger Rick ­Wilson loaded his rifle, while making sure everyone was accounted for.

Fortunately, lions are not great engineers and after two hours of unnerving surveillance, the pride gave up and skulked off into the night after mutilating a towel left carelessly outside and dragging a full 50-litre drum of water into the darkness. Daylight turned dreams into reality when we huddled outside in the crisp morning light to view the enormous prints in the sand.

Ezemvelo spokeswoman Maureen Zimu says that wilderness refreshes the human spirit. “It allows people to distance themselves from the rat race that we generally call life and to slow down to a pace which lets them absorb the ­details around them.

“The wilderness trails are not primarily walking in a dangerous game area. They are about experiencing the smell, feel, taste and sights of nature. It is about sitting and watching a dung beetle or studying a flower. Game viewing is a part of the trail as is interpretation of nature by the guide,” Zimu says.

Ezemvelo will be celebrating 50 years of wilderness conservation in South Africa on October 17. The iMfolozi wilderness area was the first in Africa to be set aside for this use. “We will be celebrating this as well as celebrating that the wilderness concept has spread more widely in South Africa, resulting in other organisations and NGOs also making wilderness one of their primary focus areas,” Zimu says.

Well, I don’t know how many times I have driven from the Hluhluwe­iMmfolozi Nyalazi Gate to the bridge over the Umfolozi River and up the hill to Impila Camp wondering what happens in the valley to the left. I have tried to get there a hundred times only to find that no roads seem to go there. And that’s exactly it — there are no roads into the wilderness area. The only access is by foot and all evidence of human occupation, including all your litter, from orange peel to charcoal, must be removed from the site. Of the 66 000 hectares that make up the Hluhluwe-iMmfolozi Nature Reserve, 30 000 have been put aside for the wilderness area.

The trail leaves from Mndindini Camp across the White Umfolozi to Mpafa Camp, about 10 km into the wilderness ­area.

Crossing the Umfolozi River on the iMfolozi Trail in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Reserve in Zululand

We were protected by Wilson and backup guide Bonangiphiwe Mbanjwa, who both packed enough firepower to overthrow a government. The skill and bravery of the Ezemvelo guides is legendary, from diving in front of a charging black rhino to save a client to standing in the path of a male elephant and, in our case, saving us the humiliation of being eaten alive.

Above: A nervous crossing.

Mpafa Camp consists of four two-man tents and a kitchen area situated around the fireplace, a stone’s throw away from the White Umfolozi River.

Ablutions can be performed under the watchful eye of one of the armed rangers (at night) by digging a hole and then burning the toilet paper to avoid the attentions of curious ­hyenas. Showering happens under a bucket with a shower head attached and hoisted into a tree. It gives the word “naked” a new meaning.

Right: Filling the shower at Mpafa Camp.

Food and water are brought in by donkeys, which run the gauntlet through lion country. The food is prepared by master bushfire chefs, who are prone to whipping up delicious bush bread upon your arrival at the camp.

Game viewing consists mainly of avoiding being trampled, gored or eaten, and there is the unforgettable nakedness of emerging from the metal body that separates most 4x4 drivers from the Big Five and walking in single file in silence through the most spectacular scenery.

Left: An elephant on the Umfolozi River.

From the spoor-marked sands of the Umfolozi, past Iron Age smelting ovens, through the battlefields of ­Ngabaneni Hill to the real Shaka’s Rock, the range of activities and sense of history is unmatched in the wilderness area. Ezemvelo is determined to keep the area pristine and untouched by human settlement. It is a worthy effort, I think to myself, as later we drive past litter-strewn villages where children play soccer on fields while plastic bags flap on fences like fans at a cup final.


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