We reach the Imfolozi Wilderness at lunchtime. David has been travelling for three days, from California; Christopher only about 30 minutes, from a nearby village. We are a mixture of ages, language, heritage. Four from Cape Town, one from the US; Sicelo’s son, Hawu, is joining us, and we have sponsored two additional trailists from local communities. Together with our two guides, Sicelo and Sipho, we are a group of ten.
We climb out of the mini van, and say goodbye to our cellphones, watches and wallets. Sicelo invites us to ‘blow off the dust of the city, and embrace the clean dirt of the wilderness’. Compared to what the young men are carrying, my pack is light. Yet I need help to get it onto my back, and lugging it for five days seems an impossibility. But my body slowly adjusts to its weight.
We walk through an mthombothi forest, the dry leaves crackling under foot beneath a winter sun low in a milky sky. As we clear the forest, I see the line of the iMfolozi River ahead. Before me is a broad grassy sweep, dotted with impala, and a stand of stately spreading umkhiwane trees. The shadows of several white backed vultures sweep over the grass. I watch the birds circling the trees before they fly down to roost in the branches for the night.
I stand watching them, bathed in the golden light of late afternoon, Despite the my heavy pack, I feel the sensation of some burden falling away, some elation taking its place. I take a deep breath, smelling grass, dust, wild basil.
This is the wilderness. And I am here.
On the opposite side of the river are a lone white rhino and three buffalo. The rhino drifts away, but the buffalo seem undeterred by our presence. They stand or lie, watching us with mild curiosity, as we are watching them.
We each claim our small section of rock, spread out bedrolls and sleeping bags, chop onions with a pen knives, scoop water for cooking from the river below us in canvas buckets. Soon the mthombothi firewood we’d gathered on our walk is crackling, sending a fragrant curl of smoke into the evening air. Talk is simple, mostly about the practical tasks before us. Already this divergent group is united in common purpose.
Just after midnight, I do my first night watch. It's a spooky time at first, alone in the dark, with a chorus of unfamiliar sounds. The three-quarter moon has risen and is flooding the landscape with its otherworldly light. I busy myself with small routines, feeding the low fire, conducting a regular patrol of the camp and sweeping the torch over surrounding bush and across the river. Many things are stirring and rustling, but gradually I relax, soothed by the lapping of the water, and the calmness of the buffalo still sleeping on the bank. When I figure that an hour or more has passed, as far as I can tell from how many fingers Scorpio has a travelled above the horizon, I wake up the next watch, and crawl gratefully into my humble bed. A heavy dew has settled on my sleeping bag, which makes for chilly feet, but I drift off on a raft of insect calls and the distant barks of rutting impala, under a canopy of moonlit clouds and revolving constellations.
I wake early to a dawn bathed in milky softness. The world slowly reveals itself as the light brightens, but all is muted by cloud. A small crocodile can be seen down river, resting on a sand bar. Across the river, our buffalo have shifted, but still lie quietly.
As we eat our breakfast, Sicelo remarks on their serenity. 'If we were here with the intention to shoot them, they would not be there,’ he tells us. ‘Their calmness mirror our calm energy, just like the river mirrors the sky. We need to bring this energy with us when we return to the busy world of humans. Our world is suffering, and we need this calmness, this desire to walk in peace and inflict no harm.’
We shoulder our packs, which feel more manageable although our supper hardly lightened their load. We walk over the crest of the hill above us, through aromatic wild camphor trees, and wild basil. Small white flowers are scattered on our path. We reach a midden, the dung bed of a white rhino where it defecates and marks its territory. Although this is not the season to see the dung beetles pushing dung balls, their presence can be detected by the movement in the layers of dung. Sicelo pauses to discuss the ecology of the midden, how it gives life to so many creatures: The dung beetles, the white tailed mongooses that feed on them, the jackals and birds of prey that feed on the mongoose. The scat of the mongoose, packed tight with the exoskeletons of the beetles, tells us that they were foraging there that morning. Sicelo reflects on the generosity of nature in giving life, so different from humans who just take and take from nature, who leave waste that cannot be used and only serves to poison the rivers, air and land.
All along our path, the golden orb spiders are busy at work, stretching huge webs across the gaps between trees. We stop for lunch under Mthombothi trees, dozing as the restless night catches up, then head down through a grassy seep following the path of the shaggy Nyala ahead of us. Another white rhino stands on the bank as we head to sleeping spot for the night. Our camp is also on the river, but set back in a wooded clearing, so the water is not visible from the ‘kitchen’. We settle in, and enjoy a swim in the river, relishing the cool water on our sweaty bodies as the afternoon turns to evening.
My night watch is quiet, save for the splashing of a buffalo crossing the river a few meters downstream. It’s the last watch of the night, and I have the privilege of watching the dawn come in: the unfolding of light, the shift from night sounds to day sounds, the surge of my spirits as the birds celebrate another dawn. When the others are awake, I go to the rock overlooking the water. I think of my daughter, who was supposed to with me but could not come as she was still recovering from Covid. I offer her the quality of light on the river, the susurrations of the reeds silhouetted against the shifting pewter coloured water, the swallows meeting their reflections as they skim the surface on their journeys to and from their nests under the overhang of the rock. I try to release myself into the joy of seeing them, to block out questions of why they have not migrated so late into winter, what this might suggest about the confusion of climate and seasons.
Today brings the release of walking without packs, as we will be camping in the same spot. We head off, pausing for a “check in” on the rocks. Everyone shares what the trail is bringing to them. Many speak of the stress and uncertainty of living through the pandemic, of what a healing release it is to step into the wilderness. I am glad we could offer this opportunity to people who would not usually be able to afford it, and am grateful for the privilege of walking with people from different communities, and gaining new perspectives on life. The sharing helps me to see that I need to lay down my disappointment that my daughter could not come, lay down all intentions and expectations of the trail, and open myself to its gifts.
We walk over green hills, pausing to contemplate a family of zebra. They contemplate us back, intermingled curiosity and caution expressed in their alert and twitching ears. Orb spiders spin golden webs in the surrounding trees, hornbills and orange bee eaters fly above us, and we catch the iridescent flash of a lilac breasted roller.
We see two buffalo entering the river from opposite sides, to stand, head to tail in the middle. A lone elephant can be seen beyond them, and, in the far distance across the valley, five giraffes, ghostly and pale in a wedge of sunlight between the hills, like phantoms of another age.
The walk back grows long in the warm afternoon, and the mthombothi branch I am carrying begins to weigh on my arm. I try to focus on the comfort it will bring that evening. Back at camp, darkness comes quickly, as we prepare a simple meal of pasta and tuna. I talk to Hawu about his aspirations for the future, the difficulties of getting into university.
My night is not disturbed by night watch, as everyone is taking a little longer, and as the last person on the list I’ve been spared. But my self inflatable mat self-deflates, reminding me of of bones I never knew I had as they meet the hard earth; my sleeping bag is damp, and some fiercely itchy pepper tick bites erupt on my legs. At last the morning drifts in on the river mist, with a rousing twitter of weavers in the reeds, and all night discomforts are forgotten.
The sun soon burns off the river mist and dries our damp sleeping bags. We head off, once again with full packs, although lighter after three days of eating. We cross the river which is running high for this time of year, up to my waist. On the opposite bank, we lay down our packs to put on our shoes. A large scorpion scuttles out of Dave’s pack - the worst kind, with small pincers and a big tail. No doubt it had crawled in during the night, and he had unwittingly carted it across the river. As the first scorpion seeks shelter in the sand, another scuttles out.
We walk for some time along a wooded ridge, pausing to admire a rubbing post. The tree stump has been polished smooth by a parade of animals wearing it down over the years. Birds hover about, waiting for the ticks that the bigger animals will leave on the post.
As we wind down to the river, a buffalo crosses before us, then stands on the opposite slope, watching us uneasily. Sicelo goes ahead and greets it, saying, ‘Uxoliswa mfowethu’… excuse us, my brother, we come in peace. He draws on his kinship ties with the animal - the first Mbatha got his name from the full buffalo pelt that he used to wear.
The buffalo lets us pass, and we continue up the slope. We sit in the welcome shade of some mthombothi trees for our daily cheese sandwiches. I close my eyes and drift into dreams, to be woken by Sicelo’s sharply whispered ‘Wake up’ – a white rhino bull has wandered out of a nearby thicket and is standing, watching us, from about ten metres away.
Without speaking we scramble to our feet and retreat to a safer distance, but I still scan the surrounding trees to mark out which one I’ll duck behind should the rhino charge. We and the rhino stand watching each other for some time. I am awed by its power and beauty, moved by its poignant vulnerability to the poacher’s gun. There is such a different engagement in watching a rhino when you are on foot and defenceless, when it is aware of your presence. When you are in a vehicle, it has no awareness of you as another living creature.
We climb a slope and take a long walk through thorn trees, carrying heavy branches for firewood, fighting the heat and aching muscles. Along the way, Peter hears a black rhino snorting nearby, but it does not confront us. When we reach our intended camp, Sicelo decides that it is not suitable as the grass has grown, restricting visibility of surrounding areas and increasing the risk of snakes and ticks. We cross the river to reach our old camp upstream. Buffalos and elephants on the opposite bank dictate that we walk in the river along a sandbank where it is a bit shallower. After a few hundred metres of wading, we reach our camp - just in time to see a crocodile slip into the deep water near the bank and swim downstream past us. We cross past where the crocodile was, sinking thigh deep into mud as we attempt to climb out of the river. With the help of a nearby tree and each other, we manage to get everyone out, all wearing thick mud ‘trousers’.
We reach our familiar rock at last, the place where we spent the first night, and now it really does feel like home. Soon the fire is lit, tea is brewing, and Sicelo is reflecting on his experiences as a wilderness guide. We all feel that heady elation that comes from skirting danger. But I am less rattled by the experience of dodging big animals and walking in a river with crocodiles than some of the others because experience has taught me to trust Sicelo’s instincts completely.
I do an early night watch, around midnight. At first the stars are vivid in the black sky, but the rising moon dims their light. It reveals a skein of mist lying on the far bank, spreading Umkhiwane trees rising from it like islands on silver seas. I hear the ‘sawing’ call of a leopard, and the warning bark of a baboon, frogs and insects, a scops owl, the eerie whoop of a hyena on the far bank. Silver-lined pale clouds stipple the dark sky, the river gleams in the moonlight. I am reluctant to yield my watch to the next person, but know that we have a long day ahead of us and need to sleep.
At breakfast we are entertained by a mocking cliff chat, hopping near the fire, and eyeing us quizzically as it pauses to show off its bright orange underbelly and wedge-shaped tail. Its more reserved mate lurks in the branches nearby. Too soon we are packing up for the last time. We pause on the way out to consider a wild bee hive in an umkhiwane tree near the river. We carry on to the stand of umkhiwane’s where we first saw the vultures, which are now beginning to leave their roosts as the thermals warm up. We watch them circling up and away, moving soundlessly through the blue sky
All too soon, we are back in the human world: three hours in the van, then negotiating the shockingly bright loud cluttered environment of the airport. For days we have seen nothing but water, sky, trees, a few animals. When I close my eyes on the aeroplane, I still see the patterns of the trees behind my lids. I’d been seeing that every night, as if they were imprinted on my eyeballs. The patterns soon fade, but I know I will carry the memory of that place, of being there in such a quiet way, without ownership or agenda, wanting only to live for a fleeting time in harmonious connection with other creatures and earth. How different things might be if humans could pursue that connection, rather than destroying everything for the comfort and greed of a small minority.
As the plane takes off, I look at the lights retreating below us, and think of the golden orb spiders, patiently reminding us that we are all connected. That any tear in the web of life weakens the web and threatens us all.