WILDER­NESS WIS­DOM Shar­lene Vers­feld

Hit the trail with the Hluh­luwe-um­folozi Wilder­ness Lead­er­ship School to tune into na­ture and find your­self, writes

Sunday Tribune - - NEWS&VIEWS -

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.

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