‘Stop!’ A quiet command from Mphile. We are starting to cross the White Umfolozi River and are 500m from our start point, Mndindini base camp, on a Wilderness Trail in the Hluhluwe-imfolozi. Quickly she looks through a pair of binoculars. A lioness lying exposed in the riverbed, approximately 300m away. The wind is not in our favour and as she gets our scent, she disappears into the reed bed.
This was to be a sample to an incredible 4 days of wilderness hiking in which we saw four of the Big 5 and on two of the days, walked over the tracks of all of the Big 5. We even had spoor of Wild Dog as well as the inevitable Spotted Hyena around the camp.
Moving on we looked for a safe exit from the river bed and meandered along the river bank. The thicket was crisscrossed with a maze of game trails. Piles of elephant dung, nesting material for Scarab Beetles and compost for the environment, littered the route indicating the possibility of encountering these gentle giants on our walk.
Walking south west we could see a cliff face towering above the landscape and Sinothi, our isiZulu guide, led us towards it. As birders from the Garden Route, the new bird calls were tantalizing and Sinothi patiently indulged us by pausing frequently so that we could search out a new tick on our bird list.
Approaching the cliff face, we headed down to the river and saw the ‘Old Boys Club’. Three bull elephant on the far river bank and four ‘Dagga Boys’, old bull Cape Buffalo, wallowing in a pool near the reeds. On Africa time, we stopped and watched them, the elephants focused on selecting the best leaves and the buffalo securing a balance of the cooling water and a patch of sun on their backs.
We moved on, the old boys unperturbed by our presence, and arrived at river bank opposite the cliff. We had another river crossing and short walk to our campsite. Moving down an established game trail my thoughts were ‘This would be an ideal ambush site for a pride of lions’. On the river bed we stopped to ‘read’ the tracks and discovered fresh spoor of two large male lions that had been down to drink.
Two hours in the bush and I could feel the awakening of my five senses, a subtle synchronization to the environment which is the primary reason Amanda and I try to do at least one annual wilderness trail.
The current drought of northern Kwa-Zulu Natal was dramatically evidenced in the low level of the White Umfolozi River which meant that we didn’t have to wade across the river. There was some hilarity as we attempted to hop across the broader sections of water without getting our shoes wet. Not that we needed to worry as the warm to hot dry conditions would rapidly dry any damp shoes.
In the ethos of the wilderness trails, Sinothi had us collect fire wood as we approached our campsite, a protocol to mitigate any enduring impact of human presence in the wilderness section of the reserve.
The campsite was simple with seven domed tents arranged under the trees with two tarpaulins suspended above a dinner table and kitchen area. The ‘oven’ was a smouldering open wood fire and the ‘lounge’ was some canvas cushions around a second open fire place.
Thomas the cook had baked a ‘pot bread’ for our arrival and we descended on it like a flock of vultures before settling down to a camp briefing from Sinothi. The principle was simple, we were here to reconnect with nature in the absence of sophistication. The shower was a bucket filled with hot water from a three legged pot large enough to cook a missionary in. We were shown the designated shower area and encouraged to share with someone as the ration was half a bucket per person. Nature truly is a sharing entity.
The toilet is also the epitomy of simplicity. A spade, a roll of toilet paper and a box of matches. We were shown the toilet area and told not to use any of the game paths, though the real challenge was to make sure that you did not dig your hole in a previously used location. Once finished you burnt the toilet paper and buried everything. If you need the toilet at night it was encouraged to take a partner to look out for predators while you were busy.
A campfire in the African bush is undoubtedly one of the most relaxing activities after sunset and allows strangers to bond and for everyone to relax as the soft glow and the night sounds wash over you. Allan Paton once said that you never truly understand a country until you have smelt it, and sitting around a campfire contributes to enriching your understanding of a country.
As the chorus of frogs and insects filled the night Sinothi posed a seemingly simple question : “What is your understanding of Wilderness and its relationship to modern man?” We exchanged ideas, discussed conservation and the value of nature to humans and while there was no specific answer, it was and will remain a profound question that will have me interrogate everything related to the environment forever and hopefully navigate my lifestyle towards a more harmonious balance.
The format of the iMfolozi Wilderness Trails is relaxed and structured to allow guests to engage with nature on all levels. The walks depart after breakfast and you are out all day, returning late afternoon. Lunches are simple with each person carrying a portion to be shared. Water stops are frequent allowing you to just sit and be a part of nature.
What is refreshing about this wilderness trail is that while the guides are prepared for a close encounter with a large animal, most of the walking is done so that you can observe the animals in their environment conducting their normal behaviour.
Instead of following the river bank and drainage lines where the game is concentrated in the dry months, we followed game trails up the slope and followed a contour looking down at the game from vantage points. The merits of this approach are significant as we were able to stop and watch a number of species without disturbing them.
Our lunch stops were on a cliff top looking down at the river and adjacent vegetation and it was from such a vantage point that we were able watch a White Rhino with her young calf. The adult rhino was intent on feeding while the calf spent its time frolicking around its mother. When it had exhausted itself, it flopped down onto a sandy bank to snooze for 20 minutes before bouncing up to resume its play. So while we were not close enough to get descent photos, we had some extended time watching some incredible animal behaviour.
In contrast, our three close encounters with White Rhino afforded some great photographic opportunities, but their behaviour was nervous and short lived as they crashed through the dense vegetation to evade our presence.
On our second day we watched over 50 White-Backed Vultures fly overhead and during our lunch break saw approximately 30 ridge soaring east of our vantage point. It was on our third day that we had an observation that explained some of the vulture’s behaviour. Looking down at the river we saw 35 White-Backed Vultures bathing and sunning themselves in the river.
In addition to some incredible large mammal sighting we were fortunate to have to two wonderful reptilian sightings. At the start of the trail I had teased Sinothi , requesting a sighting of a python, little expecting to see one. Heading down to the river for sundowners out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a shimmering mound in the dappled light. Between two tree trunks, coiled in layers, was an African Rock Python, the glistening sheen most likely due to a recent moult.
The second reptile sighting was a Rock Monitor Lizard sunning itself on a cliff top. The group was having a siesta and I had just woken and turned over when I saw it. No doubt we had disturbed it when we had arrived, only returning when we were sleeping. Crouching to call the rest of the group was sufficient to disturb it and it slid in under a rock and out of sight.
As birders we had a satisfying winter count of 86 species with highlights of a pair of Martial Eagles, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, Lappet-faced vulture, White-headed Vulture, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Lemon-breasted Canary and a family unit of six Ground Hornbills on two days.
We were fortunate to have numerous animal sightings, but what makes the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Wilderness Trail stand out amongst others are the relaxed non-confrontational viewings that we had. On this trail you are able to observe animal behaviour without encroaching on their comfort zone.
Watch video of Wilderness Trail.