Our Ranger, Jabulani, paused and raised his arm for us to stop walking. He pointed out two large white rhino less than 50 metres straight ahead. We stood in silence under the cover of a large Buffalo Thorn Tree and watched. The rhino stopped feeding and looked straight at us, ears pricked, sniffing the warm air. “Stay perfectly still”, Jabulani whispered. I looked at the trunk of the thorn tree. It was going to be a painful climb up if the Rhino charged. In an instant and without warning the pair charged straight at us.
Then as they accelerated across the clearing they flung their heads to the left and disappeared into the dense bush. We waited for our next instruction whilst both guides, with high calibre rifles at the ready, observed the scene. Ranger Thomas Mathanjwa, not taking his eye off the Rhino’s exit point, checked we were all okay. Jabulani smiled and calmly proceeded to tell us of the Buffalo Thorn we were standing under and its importance to the Zulu people. He was dramatically interrupted as again the Rhino charged, this time they were obscured by thick bush and out of sight. The thudding feet and noise of the bush being broken headed away to our right and the animals had gone.
I had returned to the iMfolozi Game Reserve in the heart of Zululand for a Wilderness Trails Weekend rather than the usual self drive ‘safari’. On previous visits and from the safety of a vehicle I had come across disgruntled rhino before and viewed a wealth of wildlife including Africa’s Big 5.
The meeting point and home for the weekend is where the dirt road stops and the Wilderness begins at Mndindini base camp. Two man tents on individual raised wooden decks, a thatched lapa dining area and rustic open air shower and toilet make up the camp. All is concealed in the bush on the banks of the White iMfolozi River. Beyond the river is over seventy thousand acres of wilderness.
It was here that I met Fortune Mkize, manager of the Trails section. He asked what I expected from the weekend and my answer, “I hoped to see plenty of game”. Fortune took his time to explain what the Wilderness entails and that the animal life is only part of it. Our guides would be showing us an area untouched by modern man where life in the bush had remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. Zulu history and there use of the area was also of uppermost importance. The Wilderness has an intricate ecosystem where plant life, insects, birds and animals all play vital roles. Fortune had not only given me an insight into what I could expect but had opened my eyes to all that would lie before me.
Introductions to the trails team are with a traditional Zulu handshakes, rooibos tea, pot-bread and rusks before an informal briefing on the coming weekend. There are ‘rules’, but these are to try and ensure the safety of all who enter the Wilderness.
Walks take place in early morning and late afternoon. The days are planned around the Zululand summer, which can be hot, humid, and at times wet. Age and fitness, are also taken into account by the experienced trails team.
During the first walk you quickly begin to get an understanding of life in the bush. Plants, insects, animals and birds provide constant stopping points and the guide’s knowledge seems endless.
There are also reminders of how harsh life here can be. We came across skeletal remains of Rhino and Buffalo.
Animal unison is often displayed. “Red Billed Ox-Peckers” Jabulani said and pointed to a small flock of birds that had taken to the air hissing loudly. They not only groom, but they act as an alarm system. This time to a small herd of Buffalo. We moved slowly so as not to disturb them. A sudden snort from close behind turned our single file column around as one. A Wildebeest letting us know of his presence
We walked amongst Giraffe, Zebra and Waterbuck. Baboons seemed ever present, running, fighting and barking as we approached them.
The Zulu people had a use for almost everything that was naturally available. Even the white Hyena dung had its benefits. Ground and added to water it can be drunk to soothe the stomach.
Shaka, the great Zulu King, knew how special this area was and declared it his private hunting ground a century before it was proclaimed a game reserve. Our guides told us of the Great Zulu nation and its history in the park. All that now physically remains are hunting pits and isivivane, Zulu burial cairns. When passing an isivivane it is good look to throw a stone onto the cairn as this will help keep your travels safe.
Food fit for kings is always on hand before, during and after walks. We spent the evenings around the fire eating Impala stew and Buffalo borewors served up with vegetables and rice. We listened to stories of the Zulu people and the wilderness.
During the dark nights around the fire, under the unfamiliar stars of the Southern Hemisphere, the nocturnal wilderness provides a constant chorus. Insects and frogs whistle and croak, hyena and jackal howl into the night.
On our last night we were even joined by Hyena in camp but there was no time to worry about them as from the river a massive splash followed by the familiar sound of the bush being broken headed our way. Jabulani grabbed his rifle and a torch. “It’s probably an elephant” he said, and made his way across camp. It was not an elephant standing behind our tents but a large white Rhino.
Under the hot sun or stars of the Southern Cross, the Zululand Wilderness is a truly remarkable place. I am privileged to have walked where Zulu Kings have gone before and follow the paths created by Rhino over many centuries.
(One month after our first meeting Fortune Mkhize was killed by an elephant whilst on duty in the Wilderness of Imfolozi.)