Take a Walk on the Wildside

Thinking of taking a road trip to see the Big 5 in close-up? An adrenalin-charged wilderness trail in iMfolozi is no walk in the park!

By Lori Booth

“Walk in single file and run only if I say run!” This was the first instruction our Wilderness Trail Officer and leader for the next three days, Mark Gibbs, gave our group as we prepared to leave on our Wilderness trail in iMfolozi Game Reserve. We had signed up for adventure and were expecting nothing less.

Day 1

Setting off on a hot Friday in October, Sue and I, the two women among eight men, bravely positioned ourselves behind Mark. Within a hundred metres we met the White iMfolozi riverbed, stricken by drought, sidestepping a trickle of water and some muddy patches. The iMfolozi River is the lifeblood of the park, zigzagging through 65 kilometres of park. Using a clicking sound to alert us, Ayanda Nzuza, Mark’s second in command, pointed out three buffalo bulls fifty metres away, camouflaged against long grass, and motioned for us to move on. Awestruck by our first Big 5 sighting, we obeyed, humbly acknowledging our vulnerability. Feeling the heat of the blazing sun, Mark and Ayanda pointed to a Wild Fig tree overlooking the river and suggested we take a rest. Having checked the surrounds for any lurking predators, they joined us in the shade, rifles at the ready. Deep in the bush now, we began adapting to the heady smells and curious sounds of our wild habitat, so removed from urban environs. What struck me was the evidence of animal activity before us – mounds of elephant and rhino dung and other droppings, trees smashed, their branches strewn everywhere, and a myriad animal tracks. Preparing to leave our shady tree we sighted a white rhino bull, which picked up our scent and trundled off. Another tick on our Big 5 list. Intermittently Mark or Ayanda would point out some Nyala or Impala grazing and we spied on them until they too caught our scent and skipped off. Finally, hot and weary, we reached the satellite camp situated 150 metres from the river. Thomas, the cook, welcomed us and we revived ourselves with mugs of tea and freshly-baked bush bread and jam. The camp is a temporary base with four spacious tents for guests and three tents for the trail officers, cook and kitchen. Unfenced and deep in the wilderness, it is completely disconnected from civilization. Ablutions are adventures in themselves, with showers comprising a bucket of warm water rigged up in a tree outside camp. The toilet is anywhere private with a spade, paper and matches; husbands are handy as watchguards! After a hasty shower, we carried our drinks down to the riverbank, where we chilled to the sounds of Fiery-necked Night Jars, Hadedas and Egyptian geese. Positioned downwind we could observe the animal kingdom in disguise, as the sun sunk lower. Lying in the long grass on the opposite riverbank was an injured bull rhino, clearly distressed. Mark explained that it had been gored by another bull in a territorial dispute. Suddenly a female rhino and her calf appeared behind some bulrushes and Sue and I, accompanied by Mark, ventured up and took some close-ups of them, careful not to disturb the equilibrium. Exhilarated after our close call, we hurried back to camp and gathered around the fireside, feasting on spaghetti bolognaise a’ la Thomas. The evening passed amidst much hilarity as we got to know the other members of our group, becoming easy friends before bedtime called. Lying in our tent, the snoring of my husband and several men nearby was comforting as I listened to lions and hyenas calling in the early hours.

Day 2

We awoke to the dawn chorus of the bush: Green Pigeons, Whitebowed Robins, Scaly-throated Honeyguides and Goldentail Woodpeckers. After wolfing down a hearty English breakfast, we set off to explore the wilderness in single file, Mark up front and Ayanda behind. Both fonts of bush knowledge, they regularly explained the fascinations of nature as we passed them; a rhino midden, a Shepherd tree, a Trapdoor spider’s web, the Indaba and Mphafu trees and many others; each anecdote contributing to our appreciation of the environment we encroached on. Following a rhino track we meandered up a hill before reaching Nqabaneni cliff, 200 metres above the iMfolozi River. Awestruck by the view from this fortress, we learned it was one of King Shaka’s favourite outlooks, from where he surveyed his kingdom. Tucking into sandwiches, fruit and biscuits, we were treated to the spectacle of a breeding herd of elephant emerging from the bush. We counted more than 100 elephant as they wandered down the riverbed, ignoring several buffalo that lay cooling off in the mud. Later we almost encountered them heading in the same direction, but began a stealthy retreat as the elephant threatened to surround us. Following Mark’s lead, we exhaled only as he turned and grinned; all was safe. Returning to camp, we were last in line for the shower. As we dried off, a distinctive grunt and shuffle arose from the bushes close by. Dressing hastily we returned to camp and, mimicking the sound we described, Mark said, “Sounds like a lion you disturbed”! We stayed up later that night, devouring a lamb stew by the fireside, exaggerating the day’s incidents until our cheeks ached. Just hours later, no humour remained as we awoke to the “shick-shick” of a rifle cocking. Then, Mark’s torch and warning, “Male lion in the camp – stay in your tents guys,” caused everyone to bolt upright in their beds! The lion we’d heard earlier had entered the camp and was lying three metres from Ayanda. Snatching his rifle he’d awoken Mark but thankfully the lion sauntered off with a few grunts.

Day 3

After packing our belongings, we departed camp early the last morning. Following another rhino track, we reached Momfu, or ‘surprise’ Rock; an impressive view 100 metres above the river. From here we spotted giraffe, buffalo, elephant and zebra, as well as a Ground Hornbill and a Woollyneck Stork flying as high as the cliffs. An upwind allowed our group a safe, close encounter with a rhino grazing on open grassland. About to cross the Mphafa Swamp, Mark stopped us. A lone buffalo was lurking just below and he was loathe to lead us into its line of sight. Suddenly it turned and fled, opening the way for us. For the first time, Mark said, “Follow me and RUN!” so run we did, through several corridors of long grass and bush, anticipating the charge of a buffalo at any moment. Reaching the far edge of the swamp intact, our group whistled with relief. The last leg back to base camp was spent reflecting on the privilege we’d all experienced; of entering another dimension, observing a kingdom of animals and plants where humans are superfluous. What a lesson it was.

Good to know

We undertook the Short Wilderness Trail, from noon on Friday to Sunday lunchtime, starting at Mpila Resort, in the heart of Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal. Trailists need a fair level of fitness and stamina as you walk up to 15km a day and the route can be challenging. Two trail officers accompany the trail group of eight (maximum). Pack dark-coloured clothes that camouflage with the natural surroundings. Comfortable hiking boots or shoes and a hat are essential, as are sunglasses, sun block, insect repellant and biodegradable soap/shampoo.

Mark Gibbs: iMfolozi Wilderness Trail Officer

Go where no other man is
Go into the wilderness where once you dwelled
Pay your respects to that which has remained – has had no choice but to remain
Let what surrounds you become part of you
Feel the earth beneath, smell the air around, hear the vibrancy of survival.
Open your every sense, become part of nature, not an onlooker, nor an uninterested bystander
And nature will become part of you, a part that can never be removed
Go where no other man is,
Go into the wilderness and you will never again be the same.

(Credited to Cindy Bradburn)

Get your vehicle prepared for the road trip there and back by fitting it with BOOXE Interior Floor and Boot Mats which you can easily lift out and shake clean or hose down. They’re made of anti-slip rubber and are tailor-made for each vehicle so they fit perfectly!

Visit www.ekznw.co.za/Trails.htm or call 033 8451067.

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