Warning, this post contains no medicine! Some of you have asked to hear a bit more about what I’m up to outside of work, and I have just returned from one of the most amazing adventures of my life so read on if you choose to indulge me, otherwise a more worthy blog will be back soon!
‘Drop your bags guys. Quick, go up behind the tree’ says Mphile our guide. She and Jabulani (her right hand man) edge towards the river’s edge, rifles in hand and postures tall ‘but not too far back, remember there is a rhino over there’ … as Heather spots a grey ear in the bushes. And so began our Primitive Trail – a truly once in a lifetime experience. A four night walking safari in the iMfolozi Game Reserve where we slept out under the stars in just a sleeping bag and came face to face with wild animals. We had departed 3 minutes before and our first encounter was with 3 ‘Dagga’ (mad) bulls, old male buffalo who have been kicked out of the herd and hang around in small groups of grumpy old men, looking for trouble. As we made to cross the river the closest of the bulls stood up and started moving towards us. Mphile and Jabulani were well attuned to animal behaviour and through a combination of body language and noises, they eventually out-postured him and he moved away leaving us free to cross the river. Old male buffalo are one of the most dangerous safari animals and our guides won my trust in that moment. Mphile has been working as a guide for 9 years and has never had to use her rifle so whilst the guns gave us a sense of security, it was the experience and knowledge of our guides that really kept us safe.
That first day was a lively one. As we walked in silence in single file along the river’s edge, a troupe of chattering baboons ran out in front of us as a hyena wandered across the dry river bed (a strange daylight sight). We later crossed the river to make our camp on a rocky outcrop at the base of a cliff upon which the baboons set up noisy camp for the night. As we prepared our mats, dug for water and got the fire on the go, we spotted now four hyenas wandering around (with pesky woolly necked storks for company). On the far side of the river, 500m away, a pale yellow cat emerged from the reeds. ‘Jabulani, is it a lion?’ I ask… ‘get down quickly, she will see us’ I drop to the rock in an instant, terrified. Jabulani laughed, ‘she won’t bother us but we don’t want to scare her away!’. A second female lion emerged and we watched them face off with the hyenas for the next 30 minutes or so. Before the light went down, it was time to attempt the bush toilet (basically a shovel). Emily and I went together for company but struggled to relax as a grey hulk started moving in the reeds just 20m in front. I called to Jabu who reassured us it was just an old male white rhino who wouldn’t give us any trouble! Over the next hour we watched him graze and wander right by our camp with complete disregard for our presence.
As the sun disappeared in a blaze of fire and the milky way emerged in splendour, we munched our campfire dinner and then headed to bed, each taking turns on night watch armed with a powerful torch. The baboons were noisy that night sending out alarm calls. At one stage I thought I heard a different roar. I shone the light around but saw nothing and when it happened again I woke Mphile. She said it was probably the lions from earlier wandering in the reeds, but I could just wake her if I saw their eyes! Emily met 3 pairs of eyes on her watch belonging to the hyenas. They stood their ground as Jabu tried to chase them off but, curious not predatory, they eventually moved on their way! Woken by sunrise and having survived our first night unscathed, we went to see if we could find the lions but instead encountered a trail of their fresh footprints in the riverbed just 200m from our camp. Their prints were criss-crossed with those of hyena, rhinos, elephants and hippos leaving a fresh map of evidence of the night’s visitors. Another night I listened as an elephant came crashing closer and closer through the trees on the opposite bank of the river. I woke Jabu and he told me to just wake him again if the elephant came over! I spent the next 30 minutes intensely shining my torch in that direction. I gained the nickname ugandaganda or ‘tractor’ as I didn’t sit down much, pacing up and down on my night watch…Greg on the other hand had a cheeky snooze and took the perspective that he was there as bait anyway!
There was something very liberating about camping wild. We carried all our food with minimal clothes and equipment. With no mirror it didn’t matter how we looked, and our efforts to keep clean led us to swim in a shallow river bed (we worried about schistosomiasis afterwards!) and clean our plates with sand (a handy trick). Each day we would carry firewood to our camp spot which would always have a water source and an ‘escape route’ (or rock to climb up!). With no modern technology allowed, the night watch gave a rare opportunity for peace and solitude. At times it seemed perfect sat alone in the dark gazing at the stars with a campfire roaring away. A kettle to keep me company and I was almost at peace, until someone snored and I thought I heard a lion, or a log fell on the fire and I thought a it must be a rhino in the reeds!
After the first day we all began to relax into being out in the wilderness as we came to realise that most of the animals would prefer to keep a distance. The rhinos pottered around like blind old Grandpas that munched away regardless of our presence, the baboons reassuring noisy neighbours who would let you know if anything was going down, the lions aloof and respectful at a distance. As we followed animal trails through the bush we saw impala, wildebeest and African wild dog all running away from us. Even when the animals kept their distance, we learned how to recognise the different animal prints, dung and territory markings. We saw beautiful birds and learned about the different plant species.
Mphile and Jabu also took the opportunity to educate us about traditional Zulu practice and culture. We were shown plants that will stimulate labour (known to be a nuisance in the local hospital!) or numb your ear ache, as well as plants used in cultural traditions such as gathering the spirit of a deceased relative or protecting your house from lightening. Both of them had gown up in local villages and been trained up as guides by the government so they had a sense of pride and belonging in the park.
Hluhluwe iMfolozi park is the site of a rhino conservation programme so you encounter an amazing number of these endangered animals. The friendly rhinos saved the best until last. One the fourth day as we emerged from the bush to the river, Jabu spotted a lone male white rhino in the reeds. He called us to move down wind and indicated some trees behind. We must run there ‘if we got charged’ he instructed us calmly. Rhinos have very poor eyesight and their smell and hearing is acute but only if they are downwind of you. This majestic, leathery old beast noisily grazed on the grass and moved closer and closer, oblivious to our presence. We held our breath and didn’t move an inch. Once he was about 15 meters away he raised his head and clocked us with a ‘how long have you lot been there?’ kind of a look. Before we could panic and run, Mphile made a lisping noise and he bolted away. It was so spectacular being so close to such an ancient and threatened creature.
We trekked back to base the next day and my heart sank a little as I saw the camp hut, and we emerged from our wilderness where we thought of little but survival, daily rhythms and the plants and animal around us. Tired and grubby, I felt at calm and rested and will treasure this truly unique experience always.