We woke as the sun creeped up over the treetops. We swopped stories from the night over tea, coffee and breakfast. We packed up, and got ready to go. Nunu was tireless, cleaning pots and pans, and making sure that the campsite is spotless before we leave. “No-one must know we have been here,” Nunu explained. Someone had spat a little toothpaste on a rock. Nunu didn’t say anything, went to the river, and scooped up some water to wash it off. Then he called us together.
“Let’s give thanks to the animals who visited us and who let us sleep here. I’d like to begin today with a short prayer,” Nunu said, reading again from his notebook. “Always think of the universe as one living organism, with a single substance and a single soul.”
He passed his notebook to someone else to read again. Then we headed off.
We came across an acacia tree whose bark had been stripped by an elephant. Nunu stopped to show us how the tree would eventually die because the bark had been removed.
“Where there are too many elephants, many trees are dying. But is this the elephants’ fault,” Nunu asked us. “Or is it our fault? How many elephants are there in the world, and how many humans are there? There’s no space left for elephants these days…then we have to cull them, because there are too many in a small area. It’s not their fault…it’s ours.”
We came across a fresh leopard track. Nunu pointed it out. A short while later, a large herd of impala skipped and hopped past us like ballet dancers. A herd of zebra stood their ground, seemingly bemused by our presence. They let us get quite close, then Nunu guided us onwards.
In a clearing on top of a ridge, a wildebeest snorted at us, staring us down, then loped away.
Then, a black rhino! About a hundred metres away, staring at us over the bushes. With a young calf! Nunu pointed excitedly. The mother tracked back and forth, trying to see where the human smell was coming from. Rhinos have excellent hearing and smell but poor sight. The oxpeckers on her back were screeching, alerting her to our presence.
Nunu wasn’t keen to get closer… black rhino are notoriously aggressive, far more so than white rhino. But the mother soon trotted away from us, into the thicket with her calf. Incredible luck. Imfolozi has more than 2 000 white rhino, but only a few hundred black rhino. To see one on foot is a privilege.
Once our adrenaline had slowed, Nunu turned our attention to some old iron-smelting remnants, which were left several hundred years ago by the Zulus who lived in the area. Large pieces of iron rock lay nearby. Nunu explained how the Zulus used to smelt the rock at high temperatures, and used the iron to fashion tools and weapons. Imfolozi used to be the royal hunting grounds for the Zulu kings, including Shaka. At the confluence of the Black and White Umfolozi Rivers, there are large pits, into which Zulu hunters used to chase wildlife.
At lunch time, we stopped at a magnificent view point called Shaka’s rock, high on cliffs, looking out over the White Umfolozi River. Below us, four buffalos rolled about in the sandy river bank, keeping cool. A white rhino and her calf scampered across the bushveld.
We had lunch, and a snooze. We woke up to a giraffe crossing the river, and then a bull elephant did the same. White-backed vultures circled in the sky, catching thermals. Clouds came and went. The sun was warm in the early winter sky. What a setting.
After a short walk in the afternoon, we came to our next campsite, where we would spend the next three nights. It was spectacularly positioned, on a low cliff on a horse-shoe bend in the river, giving us views both upstream and downstream for several hundred metres. We prepared for the night, laying down our sleeping bags on the stony ground, starting a fire, and washing in the river.
At sunset, a bull elephant came to drink, walking across the river near our camp. To our left, five white rhinos, including a young calf, ambled down to drink from the river, oblivious of our presence. Incredible.
We ate dinner, and some of us went to bed, while others chatted around the fire. The wilderness had started to fill us with a special energy. Even though I was tired from carrying a heavy pack, my heart and head were filled with a strong sense of connectedness and belonging.
I fell asleep, dreaming deeply. Then I was woken for my shift.
As I stared into the fire, lions roared loudly every few minutes. Then silence for a while. Then a leopard rasped in the night. Wow! I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled to hear one…again, it called. And again. And again. I shone a torch in the direction of the distinctive sound. Two white eyes blinked in the distance. That was all I could see. Again and again, the leopard called throughout my shift. An experience I will never forget.
I woke up my friend Niki who had the shift after me, and fell back to sleep quickly.
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