It didn’t take long for the ancient creatures to show themselves. We had just started the Imfolozi Wilderness Trail, when two white rhinos rose up in a cloud of dust from where they were sleeping in the shade of an acacia tree.
A mother and her young calf, thirty metres from us. Rhinos have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and smell. The mother could sense the presence of humans. Her ears turned like radars on her head, listening intently. The calf stayed close by her side. Both were clearly nervous.
We were also nervous. Nothing can prepare you for this. Seeing rhinos from the safety of a car in a wildlife reserve is one thing. Being on foot, and coming face to face with these huge prehistoric-looking animals while walking in Africa’s oldest wilderness area is entirely different.
White rhinos are huge, weighing just over two tons, standing two metres tall, and of course, there’s that horn. And rhinos can run faster than the fastest man. Besides, when you’re carrying a 15kg backpack with five days of food and gear, there’s no point in trying to outrun them. Human kebab, anyone?
But our Zulu trails ranger Nunu Jobe calmly gestured for us to walk slowly to the rhinos to get a better view. He had done this a thousand times before – literally. We followed him, placing our feet as gently on the earth as possible.
We walked closer, when another rhino – a huge bull – appeared without warning to the side of us, fifteen metres away.
Nunu held up his hand, and we froze. The bull, still groggy from his midday nap, snorted and stared at us. The other two rhinos crashed away through the bush, leaving us alone with the big bull, which stared us down.
Uh oh. Right then, nothing else in life seemed to matter. The midday sun was hot, and everything was quiet.
My senses immediately sharpened. The air was laden with wild smells, and my ears heard the slightest crunching of twigs underneath my feet. My eyes looked straight into the rhino’s. I knew I was in danger, but strangely I didn’t feel scared. Instead, I felt connection and wonder.
Then the rhino bull followed his friends, and rumbled his way through the bushveld, shaking the earth with his immense weight. We all looked at each other, not knowing what to say, but our wide-eyed expressions said it all: WOW! We were now in the wilderness.
And so it became more and more natural for us to be in close proximity to Africa’s wild animals. For five days and four nights, a group of 8 people became immersed in this soulful place of the 90 000 hectare Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal.
We were walking in the 30 000 hectare wilderness area of the reserve. This dedicated wilderness area is a place where no development of any kind is allowed, where there are no roads, no chalets, no campsites, no buildings, no telephone poles, no man-made structures at all.
The only way to experience it is on foot, as we were now doing. In fact, even the rangers who patrol the wilderness area have to do so on foot, and are only allowed to use 4x4s in emergency circumstances.
Once the exclusive hunting grounds of King Shaka, these rolling hills and meandering rivers have never been touched by modern man. And it is where the last white rhino on earth were saved from extinction.
Reduced by colonial hunters to only a handful, white rhino were protected here formally in 1895, making Imfolozi the oldest wildlife reserve in Africa. Today, every single one of the 20 000-odd white rhino in Africa has descended from those few remaining ones in Imfolozi.
The Imfolozi Wilderness Trail follows no prescribed route. Instead, Nunu guided us through the bush, heading in a general direction, but following the well-worn paths of animals. Trailists walk no more than six or seven kilometres every day. The emphasis is on appreciating Africa’s myriad wild wonders, not on hiking miles and miles just for the sake of it.
We stopped when we saw animals, or when Nunu explained the difference between different animal dung. We walked when we needed to, and rested when we were tired.
The wilderness trail forces – and inspires you – to live more simply, and more like our ancestors had done for millions of years. (Cellphones and watches are not allowed on the wilderness trail, and yes, you poo in the bush and wash in the river).
“This is our original home,” explained Nunu at the start of our trail. “These wild animals are our brothers and sisters, and we mustn’t forget that within us the wilderness still lingers. Our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us.”
Nunu’s poetic words soon proved true. That night, as we set up camp on the banks of the White Imfolozi River, the sun falling and the stars rising, it became clear: the modern world – with all its undoubted benefits – has overwhelmed humankind. Money, materialism, career ambitions and city living has disconnected us from what’s truly important.
On the wilderness trail, the things we take for granted in the modern world resumed their rightful place in our hearts as the most important and rewarding.
We drank water straight from the river, we ate simple, tasty food and we sat around a small campfire every night, talking to each other, sharing stories and experiences.
Then, soon after sunset, we’d go to sleep on the earth in our sleeping bags, honouring the natural rhythms of nature. On a wilderness trail, you’re reminded of the utmost importance of relationships: relationships with yourself, with your friends, with your environment and with God.
And there’s no more appropriate time to ponder these things while keeping watch of the campfire. Each one of us had a chance to sit alone for an hour around the fire, making sure it stayed alight.
Almost every night, we heard lions roaring and hyenas hooping their irrepressible call, as if they were challenging the blackness of night itself. Sometimes, the roars and hoops were close…other times, they echoed off the nearby cliffs.
One night, as I kept watch as everyone else was sleeping, I shone the torch around the camp, and two golden eyes in the distance blinked back at me. Blink, blink, blink. Gold, gold, gold. Then a roar, and another roar.
As I sat there, staring at the stars above, and listening to these sounds, I was as happy as ever. Despite the hard ground and the lack of modern comforts, I felt totally connected to nature – and myself. We were sleeping in the open, in the bushveld, alongside an African river, among wild animals. It might sound strange, but what more could you ask for?
Nunu explained the nightwatch protocol: “If you see something dangerous – like a buffalo, elephant, lion or leopard – walking directly towards camp, then wake me. But if the animal is walking past us, just enjoy it and don’t wake me. It’s a privilege to be alone with a wild animal like that…”
During the days that followed, we saw several white rhino, as well as a black rhino crossing the river in front of camp. One morning, we woke up to a herd of 200 buffalo drinking in the river. Giraffe, impala, blue wildebeest and zebra mingled around us. And always, reliably, that sky, the sunrise and the sunset, which always seemed to be different, yet always perfect.
On our last night, we were visited by two elephant bulls, which drank from the other side of the river, barely taking notice of us. I felt a strange mixture of elation and melancholy. Our spirits had soared while living in the wilderness.
But Africa’s remaining wild places are increasingly threatened. Although pockets still remain, most of the continent’s wildlife has disappeared already.
Imfolozi is no different. Two coal mines already operate on its borders, and during the third night on trail, I could hear the distant blasting of dynamite, or the faint rumbling of the coal train to the nearby port of Richard’s Bay.
Now a new open-cast coal mine is planned for the southern boundary of the wilderness area, right next to where we had been walking. My heart sank when I considered that this sacred place could be compromised again by the greed of man.
But whetever sadness may have haunted me during that cold night, it vanished at sunrise, when warm light flowed back into the sky, reflecting off the river like molten gold.
Then, as we were packing up, a pride of nine lions emerged on the opposite bank to watch us. Could there be a more “African” morning than this? When everything seems right with the world, and man is at peace with himself, the wild animals and the land?
Ultimately, Imfolozi’s wild animals and landscapes inspire an endless love and appreciation for life itself. That’s why everyone should do the Imfolozi wilderness trail at least once in their lives. In the midst of the madness of the modern world, immersing ourselves among the wild animals and wild places of this continent inspires and reminds us to love ourselves, each other and our environment.
[To sign the petition that is being presented to the South African government, to stop the open-cast coal mine on Imfolozi’s southern boundary, please go to: http://www.avaaz.org/en/rhinos_worst_neighbour_sa_1/?bTkNNab&v=40215]
Thanks to Cape Union Mart and K-Way for making this trail possible, and for contributing to an unbelievable experience. To book the trail, go to KZN Wildlife or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The trail costs about R2 800 per person for five days, including guides, food, backpacks and sleeping bags. Trailists only need bring their hiking shoes, clothes, hat, and any extra gear you may need.
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.
Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.