/ 4 July 2014

The nature of the beast

Walk on the wild side: The river is a constant feature on the iMfolozi Primitive Trail.
Walk on the wild side: The river is a constant feature on the iMfolozi Primitive Trail.

Forty metres is all that separates the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park from the site of a newly proposed mine along one of its perimeters. Africa’s resource curse strikes harshly here: already, from within the park, you can see several existing mining operations and their accompanying shanty towns. Mining and humans are bringing mother lodes of social, economic and environmental problems into what should be a KwaZulu Eden.

Just after the recent winter solstice, though, I experienced the Edenic on a four-day iMfolozi Primitive Trail. Primitive is descriptive, not pejorative. Trailists carry the barest of basics such as sleeping bag, sleeping mat and a few changes of clothing and try to leave little sign that they have passed through. Essentially, guided by a trails officer and field guide, they form a nomadic family that tries to be at one with the bush, if not of it. Although not a hunter-gatherer group – you’ll be relieved to hear that plenty of food is provided – co-operation and communality are essential to such a wilderness adventure.

At the start of the trail, provisions, cooking pots and kettle are shared out, and hefted in backpacks together with personal items, the fewer the better. Towards the end of each day, the group gathers firewood (slow-burning tamboti is in abundance) and makes camp.

Most important is the making of the fire, an operation that is almost mesmerisingly ritualistic in this context. Sand is shaped into a circular mound on top of which the kindling and wood are set. There is a Zen-like quality to gathering these elements and assembling them to provide heat for cooking, warmth for companionship and light for the night watch.

And it is that 90 minutes of being alone, looking out for eyes burning bright beyond the circle of the fire and listening for rustling foliage, all under a bowl of stars in an ink-black sky before the moon rises, that returns you to the state of being that our ancestors enjoyed. No cellphones bleeping to warn of incoming text missiles. No ringtones sundering the sounds of the frogs, improvising their free-jazz riffs by sundry lead males taking up and changing the rhythms of the chorus. Odd, yes, to hear frogs in mid-June, but then the weather was also strangely warm.

As you keep the fire stoked and scan the surroundings (headlamps are best for this), you have time to think in a way that is seldom possible in your usual hurried, harried life. The urban and the professional fall away and you are confronted with the fundamental.

Wishing to live deliberateley
Whether this turns out to be comforting or not is irrelevant – it is that fronting of essentials of which Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden (1854): “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Your watch over, you wake a fellow trailist and hand over the guard. Back in your sleeping bag with the southern constellations as your canopy there is time for further reflection if you wish, or just a childlike wondering at a shooting star or two. Come morning and it is time to strike camp and move on to the next site, usually a short distance and typically perched on rock ledges overlooking the iMfolozi river.

You camp close to water because you can’t do without it, although iMfolozi water is no longer drinkable without being treated. Magic drops dispensed into your water canteen make it potable, a reminder of just one of the effects of mining around the park.

On the trail again, it’s easier to forget the ring of mines closing in. There is so much to see, smell and hear – and I don’t only mean animals. Trees, plants (a nasty among which harbours the madness-inducing malpitte, “crazy seeds”, small, dark and vaguely ear-shaped), rocks and the roaring silence of the wilderness work their way into your consciousness, thanks to a knowledgeable and wise trails officer and field guide. The trail is not game-spotting on foot, with the trails officer an analogue of the Jeep jockey racing around private game reserves in lurid attempts to expose his clients to the Big Five. Here, so be it if there are animals.

Will I forget the elephant that padded just below our camp on the second night, just after the initial night watch began? Or the three white rhino bulls we saw in different terrains? The first at the foot of a long ridge we had just crested, bright against the shadow of the valley in mid-afternoon. The second basking in the sun near an oxbow of the river, far below our lunchtime eyrie. The third a few clearings away in the thick bush above the river – so nimble and light-footed as he moved away from us and out of sight.

Three sets of eyes
What of the hyena calls at night, lone big jaws seeking the presence and company of another? Of their ilk, the three sets of eyes above brown inelegant bodies crossing the river near camp on my night-two watch.

On the fourth and last night, lions far off in the distance, seemingly only the middle and end of their communiqués audible. But far closer the leopard that we had heard on the previous two nights, giving out that unmistakable rasping, sawing sound. This was more than a leopard; for a young Zulu man on the trail, it was his beast, which he alone had seen earlier in the day as we sat beneath giant sycamore fig trees on the river bank opposite the place of our final campsite.

Fitting it was that on the last morning our trails officer Sicelo Cabangani Mbatha should spot the creature as it stepped from the deep shadow of a rock overhang above the river on to the beach-like sand of the bank. Silhouetted against the rock, it turned and sniffed delicately at a tree, then melted into bulrushes, only to emerge again and take a dozen paces in our direction. Then it turned and was gone.

The new minerals and energy minister could do worse than take a Primitive Trail to see what is really at stake in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. It was here, half a century ago, that Dr Ian Player and his team revived the numbers and fortunes of the world’s white rhinos. It is here, today, that a unique wilderness and its citizens are being undermined by greed and short-term extraction.

As I drove out of the park towards Hlabisa, a weary, thirsty-looking lioness was making her way on the opposite side of the road. I hoped that her message was not that leaving is the only option.

Darryl Accone paid for his trail and travelled in his personal capacity