Nothing but footprints: The Imfolozi Primitive Trail

One of the first things ranger Jabulani Mtshali told us was that this would be his last Primitive Trail. He was leaving the wilderness because of the people. The Imfolozi wilderness is an area of 30,000 hectares – roughly half the historic KwaZulu-Natal reserve – in which there are no roads, no permanent structures and no people except, from March to November, hikers and rangers on overnight trails.

The point of the place is to provide a resource to heal spirits crippled by fast-paced living and invasive technology. Henry Thoreau believed wilderness is a tonic man can’t get enough of; William Douglas thought it preserves our capacity for wonder; Jabu knew from experience that some folk just aren’t ready for it. And when they’re unprepared, they grumble.

Over a fry-up brunch at Mndindini trails camp, he did his best to prime us. We’d be walking through Big Five territory, he observed, so there’d be lions, buffalos and, since it was Imfolozi, lots of moody rhinos about. It would be helpful if we avoided chatting and followed him and his instructions very closely. He’d prefer not to have to shoot anything.

He’d also appreciate it if we helped carry the food and mucked in with camp chores. There was only so much he and our guard could reasonably do. It was essential we didn’t leave any vestige of our passing: no litter, no toilet paper, not even campfire ashes. He hoped we understood. Most of all, Jabu hoped we’d enjoy ourselves. He said this with a quiet resignation that made us all determined not to disappoint him.

Into the wild

It was easy to guess the first thing other trailists might grouch about. Our packs, when we shouldered them, were comfortable, but heavy as dead cows. Nonetheless, we stifled gasps and mutters and, when Jabu found a few pots that hadn’t been packed, several of us offered to carry them. Then we plodded single-file into the heat-hazy wilderness, stopping frequently to catch our breath, scan the horizon and heft our packs.

After an hour of lead-footed progress, we came upon our first rhino, standing stock still with a screen of golden reeds across his face and belly, as though this would completely hide his grey bulk.  We were thrilled, partly because as long as he stayed put, so could we. A pleasant interlude of mutual skulking followed until, realising we’d seen him, the rhino huffed off with the air of a man who’s been asked to take out the trash.

Our first buffalo, sunning himself on warm sand beside the wide river, also moved along hurriedly when he saw the peculiar herd of two-legged, hump-backed animals. ‘Are there crocodiles?’ I asked, remembering someone had talked about seeing a huge croc as they drove through the park. ‘No,’ said Jabu gravely, ‘that’s the Black Mfolozi. There are no crocodiles in the White Mfolozi.’

This was good news because, to get to the spot Jabu had in mind for that night’s camp, we had to cross the river twice. With our boots beating time on our backpacks, we staggered across the squelching riverbed, brown current swirling around our thighs. My friend, Mandy Watson, who’d never been in the bush before, got most of the way across, then toppled over. Her backpack was soaked and a multitude of electronic gadgets stashed in the pockets was fritzed.

The sun was still strong as we crossed the river again to reach our camp: a ledge of smooth rock below a steep, forested bank. While Mandy mournfully laid out soggy t-shirts, GPS and cameras, the rest of us went for a paddle.

I noticed Jabu wading up and down with his rifle. Checking for buffalos, I thought with a pleasant fizz of adrenaline. Sönke Horn, a young German chap, gleefully splashed and spun like a horizontal ballerina. ‘Good thing there aren’t any crocs,’ I remarked to Mandy as I joined the long queue of socks drying in the sun. ‘He sounds like an animal in distress.’

The beasts are ravenous

As the sun set, we gathered firewood, found flat spots for our bedrolls and sat around the cooking fire as it sent sparks up to meet the stars. It was time to decide who’d take first watch. On other Imfolozi wilderness trails, much is made of the fact that you will leave your watch behind and cast off the rigid strictures of man-made time, or something like that. On the Primitive Trail, however, you will discover exactly how long one hour can last.

At some point during the night, one of your companions will wordlessly shake you awake. You sit alone beside a wristwatch, a torch (don’t waste the batteries), a fire (keep it burning) and a kettle. If you’re lucky, the moon will be high and bright. Otherwise, there’s only cold starlight, the coals’ red glow and the eyes you imagine staring out at you from the trees. Disturbing Jabu is unthinkable, unless a hyena has actually started dragging Mandy or Sönke away.

I can’t say I enjoyed sitting watch, but it was remarkable how well I slept, considering there was nothing besides a petrified fellow trailist, armed with a torch and a mug of hot chocolate, between me and ravening wild beasts.

That this was no exaggeration was brought to our attention early next morning. We were sleepily drinking slightly muddy coffee while mist rose off the hushed river when a dreadful bellowing from the opposite bank jolted us awake. It sounded like something was being killed. It was plainly very surprised about this, but its bellows soon became weak groans, which faded into eerie silence. Jabu didn’t need his binoculars to inform us that two lions had just taken out an adult buffalo.

This was another piece of good news. For one thing, the lions were on the other side of the river – and lions aren’t noted for swimming. For another, they weren’t going to be hungry again for a while. To top it all, Jabu announced that we’d stay there another night so we needn’t carry our packs on that day’s walk. The absence of dead cow weight on my back combined with an awareness of the dead buffalo close by made me feel extraordinarily alive.

Out of our element

It was a dark and gloomy morning as we tiptoed across the White Mfolozi, past the long grass where the lions were sleeping off their supersize meal. We were fully laden once more and on our way to another camp, which apparently lay over the longest hill Jabu could find. Nobody was exactly complaining, but there was a certain dogged pensiveness to our expressions as we sat on a fallen log halfway up.

When we got to the top, this changed to awe and joy. From the edge of the Momphu cliffs, we looked out over a broad sweep of the caramel river as it performed a mighty U-turn. Buffalos squatted like ticks in reeds far below. Giraffes moved like stick insects across green plains. Even the sun came out, as if it had only ever taken cover to keep us cool.

We ate a slap-up picnic lunch, legs dangling into space, eyes fixed on the view, and reached our second camp – another shelf of rock beside the water – early enough to spend the whole afternoon swimming and sunning ourselves like grinning lizards. A candy-striped sunset seemed to herald another perfect day, but before the night’s last watch was ended, soft, wet fingers started tapping our cheeks.

At first we merely pulled flysheets over our heads and went back to sleep. Then the world was torn in two by a bowel-loosening CRRAAACK, a nuclear flash turned everything white and the sky launched into a convincing impression of the Victoria Falls. Huddled into undersized overhangs, we weren’t really willing to move until Jabu pointed out that metal-bearing granite is a potent lightning conductor. There was only one way out.

Tottering across a swollen river in the middle of one of KwaZulu-Natal’s spectacularly lethal thunderstorms felt like playing Russian roulette with God. Jabu didn’t need to mention this turned each of us into a big bull’s-eye with flashing beacons and a sign saying ‘Strike Me’. He could see we were healthily terrified.

He could also see it would be a bad idea to continue the trail. We, and all we carried, were wet through and the brimming river might soon become impassable. Although we mourned our lost last night in paradise, the thought of hot showers and dry underwear was undeniably appealing. We sloshed along paths that had become streams and through a forest doubling as a swamp, where two dejected rhinos stood dripping.

As we stepped over the low, stone wall into Mndindini, watched mistrustfully by a herd of damp buffalos, it was as though a switch flicked off and the rain stopped. Jabu beamed boyishly as we took snaps of each other: laughing drowned rats. Over a celebratory supper in the boma, he told us we’d been one of the most agreeable groups he’d ever led and that the pleasure had been all his. We basked in a warm glow of gratification. He had something to confess, however.

There are indeed crocodiles in the White Mfolozi, he said. Lots of them. Big ones. But if we’d known that, we wouldn’t have wanted to walk across it all those times, let alone swim in it. I had to admit I hadn’t been ready for that much wilderness.

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