Lying awake in my tent I had no idea what time it was because we weren’t supposed to wear our watches on this trail, or use our cellphones. It must have been close to dawn because I heard movements coming from all the tents. I decided that it would be an opportune time for me to visit the great outdoor loo myself before everybody was up and about. Apart from the ever present danger of whatever predators might be lurking in the darkness, doing your business outdoors isn’t as bad as it sounds. The only thing is that you have to remove one leg completely from your pants otherwise you run the risk of accidentally making a deposit in a place it is not supposed to go! Typically I encountered stage fright on my first attempt to make doo-doo in the darkness, so I had to be content with a long #1 and a few (ahem!) sharp methane bursts. Any predators in the area would have probably thought twice about breakfasting on this camper had they been around!
Once everybody was up, we had some tea and coffee with rusks and then Mark took us down to the river to watch the sun coming up, hopefully to also find some animals to photograph. Along the pathway, very close to where our camp was, he suddenly stopped and pointed out fresh leopard tracks. One of the big 5 had paid us a visit in the night and we didn’t even know it. Scary stuff!
Down at the river it became clear why they had chosen this particular spot to set up a satellite trail camp. It was beautiful. No other words, really. We took a short walk a bit further away from the campsite and Mark pointed out a fresh rhino midden where dung beetles were beginning to get to work on the fresh droppings. I wondered what they might think of the human droppings a couple hundred meters up the pathway? Probably not much…
Then about 50m ahead, resting on the river bed was an enormous white rhino! We approached silently to try and get a better view of him. While rhinos have poor eyesight, they have very sharp hearing and a keen sense of smell. Our guy suddenly stood up, turned to face us and what seemed like an eternity passed between us as he surmised the situation before snorting and heading off in the opposite direction, irritated that his morning sunbath had been interrupted. We had the advantage in that we were on higher ground than him, Mark explained. A rhino won’t go climbing banks to fend off an enemy, so we were pretty safe. It was a very nice sighting though.
Back at the rhino midden the dung beetles were really getting going with their chore of creating the bush equivalent of little Lindor balls in order to entice mates with, so we spent some time there getting photos of the little emerald coloured bugs. It was a good chance to show the group how to use the macro function on the 12-50mm kit lens some of them had.
Mark suggested that we should get back to camp for breakfast before Ayanda got worried and had to come looking for us. The sun was already beginning to get high in the morning sky and we had a full day’s hiking ahead of us, so we got back quickly.
Breakfast was eggs and bacon that I sandwiched between two slices of wholewheat bread and sent down the hatch with another cup of tea, hoping that this wouldn’t be the catalyst to another hurried experience out in the bush bathroom. We all packed our daypacks with what we’d need for the day, filling up our water bottles and then each taking a part of the lunch we’d make out on the trail. Typically I was more interested in making sure we had all the right camera gear we’d need, so I tried to figure out a way of packing it into my daypack without damaging it, since I wasn’t going to be taking the thinkTank Retrospective 5 that I have come to love over the past 2 years. A shoulder bag is okay for walking around in town, but out on a hike it becomes an appendage that can get in the way, especially if you have to hightail it away from dangerous animals.
I have actually come up with a pretty neat idea for packing lenses into non-camera bags that I am going to be developing soon. I had hoped to test out a prototype on this trip, but ran out of time. On the next adventure I will make sure I have these items with me. Stay close to my blog for more on that product.
Soon we found ourselves heading back towards the river and the place where we had seen the rhino earlier. True enough he had returned to a spot a little further along from where we had seen him at sunrise and once again he left the scene at the sound of our approaching. On we went until we got to a place where the river bend gave us a choice of either moving inland through a swamp area that Mark explained was where a lot of injured and rejected animals come to see out their days in relative peace from the predators, or heading up to one of iMfolozi’s best hilltop view points. Originally we were only going to climb the hill on the Sunday, but that would have meant getting back to base camp at a breakneck pace, so we decided to climb up and enjoy the view there and then instead.
One of the topics of conversation that emerged over the previous day had been about my personal involvement in photography, specifically what I was interested in photographing most of all. Seeing as I didn’t shoot weddings and getting passionate about corporate photography may indicate some kind of fundamental soul malfunction, it was a fair question. For me landscape photography is the be all and end all of photography. I find nothing more rewarding than immersing myself into a beautiful landscape and making photos of it. So up at the top of this hill with its sheer rock face overlooking the ancient White iMfolozi river, I found myself presented with one of nature’s great inspiring landscapes.
The problem from a photographic point of view was that it was probably close to midday when we got up there – never a great time to make landscape photos. Ideally if we had been there at dawn the light and shadows would have been phenomenal for making pictures. And if we’d had a way of tilting the earth’s axis about 90 degrees to the left the rising sun reflecting on the river as it meandered off down the reserve would have been quite spectacular. In spite of that inconsiderate angular oversight by mother earth, our group found itself breathing in deeply at the top of this rock, not from the minor climb to get there, but breathing in a spiritual sense. Absorbing, acknowledging and admiring what we found lying before us. Primordial Africa, the origin of mankind. I took a few photos, but knowing that they weren’t going to look anything quite like what I felt being up on that rock, I enjoyed being up there as a person amongst new friends more than being a photographer in search of a great shot.
Reluctantly we began heading back down to the river bed and once again Mark gave us an option of doing a shorter walk through the dangerous swamp area or a wider, more demanding walk where we might or might not encounter other animals. We decided unanimously that the heat of the day wasn’t lending itself to protracted walks, so going through the swamp sounded good to us, in spite of the increased danger.
Before we began passing through the thick bush of the swamp Mark advised us to stay as close together as possible, with both himself and Ayanda leading the way. Normally Ayanda would be bringing up the rear, but the rationale behind both rangers being in the front was that if we did come across something, one of them could attempt to divert the danger while the other led us to safety. It only dawned on me afterwards that these guys are literally putting their lives on the line for the enjoyment of paying guests. That takes a special kind of dedication to conservation and I have a deep respect for what these men (and women) who lead the wilderness trails in iMfolozi do.
Looking around you could almost believe you were in the jungles of Vietnam because there were wild palms and green bushes everywhere, totally different to the bush we’d been walking through up until then. I couldn’t help but laugh as I remembered the scene from the movie Forrest Gump where Lieutenant Dan is leading his platoon through the jungle and keeps telling them to “Get down! Shut up!”. If something was going to happen would I be shouting “Run, Forrest, RUN!” from the back? Or was I Forrest? At least I’d die in a good mood if the danger came from behind us.
After a while we came across a shady place where we could all take a load off, eat some lunch and relax for a while. Some of the ladies decided to have a little nap after Mark and Ayanda prepared some cold meats, onion and tomato for us to make sandwiches. More bread. No toilet! At this point I was beyond worrying and decided to tuck in. I think we were all beginning to feel our “urbanisation” leave us. Who cared if we were doing our business with a spade and matches? This was how life should be. Simple. Uncomplicated. The central message of the trail was starting to sink in.