WILDERNESS WISDOM Sharlene Versfeld
Hit the trail with the Hluhluwe-umfolozi Wilderness Leadership School to tune into nature and find yourself, writes
WE LOOKED over the muddy waters of the White Umfolozi as the heat seared my freckled skin. I longed for the shade that the lunch-stop across the river promised.
The least of our worries were the crocodiles that could be lurking in the milky brown water. Rather, a massive “daka” boy, a lone male buffalo, known for being notoriously bad-tempered, wallowed in the shallows on the opposite bank.
His massive, muscular back was arched, his head down and relaxed on the cool sand. He was going nowhere. It was noon and hot as hell.
Our guide, Mandla Gumede, approached the river, cautiously but with enough visible movement and natural sound, in an effort to ensure our “daka boy” knew we were there.
He was conflicted. On one hand he had six tired, hungry and hot traillists collapsed in sweaty heaps on their heavy backpacks, waiting for his instructions, and on the other – a very deep “leave no trace” ethic buried beneath his skin... that “you-don’t-mess-with-anything-in-the-wilderness” kind of ethic.
I understood that, too, so I whispered, half in jest, half in desperation but oh so respectfully: “Please, please Mr Buffalo, just get up and go so we can cross.”
And he did. He just got up, turned to look at us for a while, and then trotted through the reeds and high up onto the grassy plain beyond.
“The secret to the success of the Wilderness Leadership School is hlonipha,” said Simon Blackburn, the owner of Tree Tops Lodge at Spioenkop a few weeks earlier when I met him on a wildlife medical emergency seminar.
“That’s why these guys have virtually no problems on trail in the big five reserves”.
Hlonipha, the Zulu word for respect, pervades the being of every trail guide in Ian Player’s legacy programme, which sees highly experienced guides take traillists out into the wilderness areas of the Umfolozi/ Hluhluwe Game Park.
Simply put, you leave no trace, except your tracks. And this means no emotional trace, either – no trauma, no impact on the emotional well-being of the creatures in whose home we are privileged to be able walk.
So of course Mandla was cautious, and I was glad I had, in that moment, become “a buffalo whisperer”.
The Wilderness Leadership School takes groups of six traillists at a time into pristine reserve areas. The traillists must carry all their cooking, food, bedding and personal requirements in and out of the reserve – and must leave no trace. No burnt firewood, no broken branches, no upturned rocks, no toilet paper, nothing.
Stepping into the Hluhluweumfolozi reserve, packs laden, we were briefed under a tree. It’s serious business. You could die out there.
“Just remind me again, I take cover if it’s a buffalo or rhino, and only then if you say so. And I don’t run if it’s a lion? I stand still, right? So the lion does not identify me as prey?”
“Isn’t it strange, that this is where humanity inhabited with ease not too long ago,” said our other guide, Doric Holmes, later, as Mandla was showing us the track of an extremely large lion, and our adrenalin was flowing fast.
“We lived here in the wilderness, among all of this, the animals and creatures, and were not afraid. And now we return and are so out of touch and disconnected that we fear it.”
It is an ancient place and space. This was a royal hunting area, once teeming with game. Remnants of Shaka’s Zulu people, who lived at one with the land, lie scattered around.
The pottery shards and broken grinding stones that pepper the edges of the ageless animal paths, echo a rich history of a people at one with nature.
Walking and living on a trail is the ultimate nature experience. We traillists followed, in single file, our two guides, both armed in case of a dangerous interaction with an animal. Neither of our guides has ever needed to use their rifles.
“We track, we listen and we observe the animals, so that we are not invading their comfort zones. Respect is important. Quiet is important. Being present is important.”
So present that one morning Mandla, who was lying chatting to us in his sleeping bag, as we drank our hot drinks, jumped up to show us that an elephant was crossing the river. He had heard a lone bull, a good 300m up the river bank, enter the water.
As we walked, we noticed the tracks. We stopped to discuss what it was, the direction the animal was heading and how old we thought the track was.
We sat by watering holes and watched the giraffe, zebra and impala, skittish and aware of our presence.
The “duka” boys snorted and stood, watching from afar on the banks of the rivers, alerting us to the fact they had noticed us.
The wild dogs gladly presented themselves, all nine of them, on the sand bank in front of our camp, on the first morning as we sipped tea and dunked rusks.
They watched us, ears twitching. Mocking cliff chats settled in front of us, wagging their tails on the cool rocks. Baboons barked and raucous Egyptian Geese – well, they were just raucous.
The frogs chorused, like competitive choirs, at night, reminding us that they, too, owned some fine real estate in the wilderness.
Our path crossed with a lone young bull elephant one day, and the guides moved swiftly into action. One moved left to find a safe exit through a gully lined with magnificent Sycamore Figs. The other moved us downwind behind some trees.
We removed backpacks and waited for our instructions. Our exit planned, we donned our gear and moved out of the oncoming path of the elephant.
Quickly we ascended the hill, with enough distance now to look back and observe him on the opposite bank. All the while his trunk up and alert as he monitored us.
We camped in three places over the four nights, each time setting up before dark: gathering firewood far away from camp so as not to deplete the camp areas of dead wood needed for its own ecosystems to survive.
We collected and purified enough water to wash and drink. Then we made a small fire to cook, and settled in for the night under the stars, where each traillist stood watch alone for a few hours to ensure no animals passed through the camp.
It was the first night, and having done a trail before, my adrenalin did not pump as fast as that first time on watch.
I knew that it was the anticipation of the night watch that was scarier than the watch itself. It’s an opportunity to contemplate the vastness of the great sky lit with million stars, and the crackle of the small fire, the rumble of the lions in the distance or the hyenas’ “whooooop, whoooop” and the odd owl, and the silence.
And I was present now. Not home, not trawling Facebook, or answering a Whatsapp, or planning my day tomorrow. Absolutely now. For had my mind wandered, I would have missed the stars, and the sounds or the visit by the hyena.
And therein lies the beauty of these trails. Of the connection we once had with the wilderness, with the trees, and the plants, and the bugs and snakes and the frogs and the animals. For within it we did not fear. Now without it we do.
Symbolically, I entered the wilderness with a heavy backpack and exited with one a whole lot lighter. And one thing was for sure: it is always very difficult to leave.
• The Wilderness Leadership School offers four-night, five-day trails with experienced guides in various areas including Umfolozi/hluhluwe Game Reserve, isimangaliso World Heritage Site, Drakensberg World Heritage Site, the Wild Coast, Pilanesberg National Park and Okavango Delta World Heritage site. For more information, contact 031 462 8642 or e-mail info@ wildernessleadershipschool. co.za
• Versfeld is a Durban-based communications consultant and publicist.