Year in the Wild Blog

Imfolozi Wilderness Trail – the home of the wild

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.

White rhinos - mother and calf - thirty metres from us. We didn't see the bull at first...

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.

Pierre and Brendon ponder their next move...as the big white rhino bull awakes from his slumber.

Nothing can prepare you for this experience...face to face with an adult white rhino bull

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.

The start...from left to right: Back up ranger Nontobeko Ncube, Bruce and Meghan Conlon (from Australia), Pierre Pienaar (from Cape Union Mart), Trails Ranger Nunu Jobe, Pinkey Ngewu (from De Hoop Nature Reserve), Brendon Muller and Christo Dippenaar (Cape Union Mart competition winners) and me. A diverse group of strangers, united by Africa’s wildlife and wilderness.

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.

The wilderness area of Imfolozi is totally offlimits to any development whatsoever, where nature remains untransformed by man, and where we resume our rightful place alongside all the other animals, as just one of millions of species which call this place home.

The White Imfolozi River meanders like a vein of life-giving blood through this breathing, pulsing land.

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.

Crossing the White Imfolozi River for the first time...the river soon became more than just a river. We relied on it every day for water, washing and protection, as we camped on it's cliffs. On the wilderness trail, we learnt to appreciate and respect nature, and by the end of the trail, I thought of the river as a friend, as something I'll miss.

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).

Washing off in the White Imfolozi River after a day's walking - at this time of year, in winter, the river here is too shallow for hippos and crocodiles, so it's perfectly safe to swim...if you keep a watch out for lions.

“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.

Our campsite on the first night...

Nunu Jobe, trails ranger and a man who laughs easily, and a lot.

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.

Our makeshift campsite on the second and third nights, with Nqabaneni Hill in the background. "Night time is the best time to connect with the echoing sounds of joy," said trailist Pinkey Ngewu. "Waiting with anticipation to see where the sound of animals come from. Frogs singing a sweet and unending song that sounds like a lullaby. Great nights of silence away from the city distractions, and enjoying the pure echoes of the wild."

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.

And nearby, two large male lions, thinking about their dinner...

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.

The herd of buffalo that came to drink from the White Imfolozi River, just in front of one of our campsites.

I photographed these two white rhino about twenty minutes after sunset, using a slow shutter speed of about 1,5 seconds to let enough light onto the camera sensor. I used a tripod to keep the camera rock steady, and fortunately the rhinos stood still so there was little blur.

Wow! A black rhino - much rarer than a white rhino - crossing the river in front of us. A fantastic sighting, considering that black rhinos are mostly nocturnal, and only emerge from thick bush after dark.

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.

Two bull elephants, coming to have a drink at sunset with us.

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.

Sunrise on the last morning, near our campsite.

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 trails@kznwildlife.com. 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.

Crossing the White Imfolozi River one last time...before heading back to the modern world.

The last morning...

Nunu does his best hard-core ranger pose...as the rest of the crew have some fun with their torches. For Nunu, who has guided the wilderness trail more than 120 times (that's more than two years in the bush!), he says he is always amazed at how people from diverse backgrounds suddenly find common ground while doing the trail. "Whether you're Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa or English, everyone seems to get on and become friends. Differences are forgotten. We are one blood, one spirit, and nature shows us this. We are animals, and if we get to know the other animals, we get to know ourselves, and understand ourselves. I think all politicians and businessmen should come do the trail. Maybe then they'd realise what's important in life."

Pierre Pienaar, enjoying a much-needed smoke break. Pierre walked for four days with a busted knee, after falling akwardly while we were tracking lions. Just goes to show: a combination of pain killers, tobacco, whiskey and determination goes a long way. Pierre's highlight from the trail: "When I saw that white rhino bull up close, and there was nothing between me and him, I had this feeling of immense awe and danger, all rolled into one. And complete respect for the animal."

Pinkey Ngewu, quick to help with cooking, laughing and teasing! Pinkey's thoughts on the trail: "Being on foot close to these mighty animals brought such great joy. Wilderness is the best therapy you can ask for. Remembering that we are animals and we need to learn life lessons from the wild animals, of which one of them is RESPECT. It's amazing how everyone in this group - despite being strangers - got on so well. That was a real highlight for me. The thought of going back to civilisation is like a life sentence, but it's such an honor to learn from wilderness and to be part of such an experience."

Christo checking out the early morning traffic on the White Imfolozi River. Christo's highlight: "Sharing this incredible place with everyone here is very special, but for me, the undoubted highlight was Nunu, and how he calmly guided us safely through this wilderness, while also showing his immense passion and respect for nature. I'll be back with my family to walk with Nunu, that's for sure."

Meghan and her dad Bruce Conlon, from Australia. Bruce is originally from South Africa, but moved to Australia about ten years ago. For Bruce, "the highlight is the soundtrack of the bush, the birds, the insects, the animals calling to each other. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world." For Meghan, who has grown up in Australia, "there is nothing like this in Australia, absolutely nothing comes close to the Imfolozi Wilderness Trail. We're very lucky that we can come here to experience this...seeing elephants drinking near our campsite is incredible."

Brendon, capturing the magic. "The time is passing way too quickly, the idea of leaving this peace and tranquillity is sad, I feel so good being out here, being so out of reach, without the hussle of life back in the city. Even a bad day in the bush, beats a good day in the office. Though even when we leave here, we will take with us a piece of this experience and we will leave a part of our hearts in the bush. I am sure for a long while when I look up into our African sky and when I see the constellation of Scorpio, I will travel back, even if it is just for a moment, I will be back on the banks of the Imfolozi river, gazing up into the night sky, listening to the night noises as one can only hear when you are close and one with Mama Africa."

Calcium tablets, anyone?! Nunu laughs at some hyena dung, full of bone and calcium.

Pierre, with the new K-Way head gear, designed to protect the head against a charging rhino.

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.

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as WildCardEeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

10 comments

  • Thanks Scott,
    This was really an exceptional trip and I enjoyed every waking moment of it. It has also opened up a new avenue of travel for us, this was a previously unexplored area to us as we did not know what this part of the world had to offer. I will most definitely be back with family and friends to further explore Hluhluwe, Imfolozi, St Lucia and what ever other beautiful places we may stumble upon.

    • Hey Brendon, it was an absolute pleasure boet. I really enjoyed doing the trail with you guys. Please stay in touch. And see you in Bloem for that talk!

  • Amazing Scott!! I read your article on your previous wilderness trail in 2012 and have wanted to do this trail for a while now. I have been to Imfolozi a few times so I will definitely plan to do this trail soon.

    By the way, all your articles are a great read, I always look for to read the next post! Keep up the good work!

    • Hey Ziggy, thanks for the comments, yes you MUST do this trail. For me, it’s the best wilderness immersion in South Africa. I’ve walked in a variety of wild areas in the country, and I don’t think there is anything else like it. For starters, the density of wildlife is higher than in Kruger, the scenery is more beautiful than most other reserves in the country, and the meandering White Imfolozi River is very mystical…it is one of the more beautiful rivers in our country. If you want to get hold of Nunu directly, then contact him on 071-896-8464 or nunujz1@gmail.com. He is a fantastic guide and person.

  • Thanks Scott, much appreciated. I will definitely save his details.

  • I could literally smell and hear the wild! Absolutely amazing! Gorgeous pictures as always.
    This just wanna make me leave Germany and come back to South Africa, but I will for sure walk this trail next year! When I’m in civilization I always feel incomplete, anxious, like there’s something missing. And that I’ll only get from nature….

  • Hi Scott! It was pure bliss winding the clock back 35 years and soaking up an ‘Africa’ ‘fix’. It was wonderful to be able to bring my daughter, Meg to such a beautiful and humbling experience. We could not have asked for better company and already there are rumblings and plans for 2015.

    • It was great to have you along Bruce!! And so glad there are rumours of another trail….all the best down there.

  • Hi Scott,
    Read your article and was thinking back about the Wilderness Trails there.
    I have done it at least 9 times with WILDERNESS LEADERSHIP SCHOOL in Yellow Wood park Durban.
    I was lucky my company sponsored me and 16 scholars from different schools every year for the past nine years.
    For me it was a second home too return too every year and I learned so much from the rangers and trackers.
    I was lucky too share some tracking experience with a 71 year old tracker who used too work for Ian Player.
    What else can I say an amazing place too hike in.
    Regards

  • Hi Scott.

    Your blog inspired a group of friends and I to experience this trail and what an experience it was. Thanks for penning this so beautifully, I could not have said it better myself.

    Nunu is one incredible individual, who’s love for the bush shines through both his words and actions. My buddies and I are so grateful to have met someone like him…a true African Eco warrior.

    I’ve now done this trail twice and will definitely be going back in the not so distant future. It is after all, our real home.

    Best,
    Zaheer

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