The place where we were doing our wilderness trail was previously part of the Royal Hunting Grounds of King Shaka of the Zulu nation. History has depicted Shaka as being a ruthless leader, quick to anger and merciless when it came to his soldiers, or impi, as they were known. The ground we were walking on had at one time before colonisation been home to settlements of Zulus. King Shaka himself might have walked these very paths we were on at some point in history.
After our lunch break as we walked, both Mark and Ayanda shared with us the interesting history of the region, including explaining how the Zulus would build their kraals around a Shepherd’s tree, which is said to ward off lightning and that when they vacated a particular area they would leave behind their grinding stones, broken in half because they were too heavy to carry, amongst other reasons (which I have unfortunately forgotten). We saw a couple of these on our route back towards camp.
The day’s hiking had taken its toll on my feet, unfortunately. Walking in a compromised fashion because of my injured foot meant that I was putting strain on different parts of my feet and I could feel blisters forming on my toes. The Merrill walking shoes I had brought with me instead of my usual safari boots are comfortable to walk around in urban settings, but on uneven terrain they offer very little support in the arches due to a lack of rigidity in the Vibram soles. I decided to use these shoes instead of my Freestyle Seamus boots mainly because of the non-slip nature of their soles because in January I nearly plunged down a ravine in the Drakensberg while wearing those boots on a hike after I slipped crossing a wet rock. I was kind of reluctant to tempt fate by wearing them again. In hindsight my leather boots would have been a much better option because of their stiffer lateral and ankle support. Next time.
We marched on for what felt like an age, going through some thick bush as we steadily, but wearily drew closer to our camp. I could almost taste the mango flavoured concentrated fruit juice. It had been a pretty hot day and I was getting close to the end of my 2L bottle of water, which was a bit of a concern. While contemplating the refreshments waiting at camp, I thought about one of the other trails they do in iMfolozi, namely the Primitive Trail which is 5 nights long and where there is no tent or foam mattress to comfort you in the evenings, where you carry everything, including your food and water the entire time. That would have been pretty hard core, especially also carrying all the camera gear. It is still something I would like to do though, but I think preparation for that trail will need to be thought out a lot more.
Eventually we arrived back at the campsite, entering through the toilet area and its small graveyard of twigs sticking upright from the ground. We had no idea what time it was, but it couldn’t have been too late in the afternoon as it was still bright and fairly hot. Sipho had prepared for us another massive loaf of the famous iMfolozi cheese bread, which was wolfed down between cups of juice. Some of us retired back to our tents to relax while others sat chatting in the campfire section.
After we had recovered from the walk Mark offered to take us down to the river again to see if there were perhaps any wild dogs or other animals getting up to things on the banks. Most of our group decided to go down, but I opted to stay behind in camp, which presented me with a good opportunity to get down to the business of doing a #2 with the spade a box of matches in relative privacy. Walking past some of the previous “markers” left by our group I couldn’t help but notice that they were kind of close to the camp and not very private at all. I walked a little further down into the bush and made an attempt at digging a hole. The ground was flippin’ hard! I wondered how some of the ladies were able to dig more than 5cm into the earth here without busting a gut, especially when there was other, more urgent business to take care of. So I walked a little further on and eventually I came to what looked like a small donga where the ground was much softer. As I was in the process of being truly primitive with the earth a rather malevolent looking wasp appeared out of nowhere, hovering rather a bit too close to me for my liking. The thought of being stung by a wasp, particularly in my nether regions while out in the wilderness didn’t appeal to me at all, so I hurried up and finished up. The next part of this process requires the burning of the used toilet paper with the complimentary matches so as to minimise the impact of bringing humans into this pristine wilderness. I had never set fire to toilet paper before and when I did I was quite amazed at just how high the flames can get. At one point I seriously thought I might set fire to the surrounding bush! Eventually it burned itself out and I covered up my little hole in the earth, planting my marker before I left.
The others returned from their short walk to the river without any sightings and we all began to prepare for the evening by taking showers. There’s nothing quite like a full monty shower in the bush. It’s incredibly liberating but at the same time very daunting. The place where we had our shower was obscured from the main camp by some thick bushes, but was also in a clearing, so there was a distinct possibility of any animals walking in on you. In spite of this risk I enjoyed my turn in the shower immensely.
Dinner that night was a delicious beef stew that we all enjoyed. I went back for seconds once everyone had eaten and it was mostly all gone, barring a few morsels. We sat and talked around the camp fire, playing charades and just soaking up the wilderness. It had been a long time since I had slept, with a lot of walking inbetween but I was definitely going to sleep well that night! And I did.
The next morning the donkeys arrived and we were each given “donkey bags that we could pack our stuff that we didn’t want to carry all the way back to Mndindini base camp. I was very happy to load as much as I could into these bags so that the last stretch of this adventure could be as light as possible. I also put my watch back on. I’ve always worn a watch and whenever I am without one I feel strange. It’s not that I am constantly looking at the time – it’s just comforting to feel it’s there. I suppose as its my only form of jewellery when it’s not on my wrist I feel like I have lost something. Perhaps that’s part of what the wilderness experience is supposed to be? That you’ve lost something, but not something that is massively important in the grand scheme of life since you can do fine without marking time by somebody else’s measuring stick. Out here there are no meetings to attend, no television shows to watch, no cars to drive, no computers to consume your day. It’s just you, your companions and the endless sense of being alive and part of something primal.
We walked back across the river, stopping often along our route back to base camp, just to absorb the bush. We also came across a massive white rhino sloshing around in a watering hole and we stopped to watch him for a while, before he grew tired of our presence and stormed off into the bush, his horn enormous and magnificent. Before we knew it we were back at the last river crossing, where I had injured my foot a couple of days earlier. It seemed like an enormous amount of time had elapsed between when that had happened and now.
Before we crossed over, Mark and Ayanda gathered us together and thanked us for sharing the weekend in the wilderness with them. It was quite an emotional moment as we collectively thanked them both for showing us something that has remained unspoiled by man for eternity. I couldn’t help but feel the history of this place staring back at me while I traversed its ancient pathways. This is a place that has not changed at all since man first walked here. Apart from the broken grinding stones there were no indications of human inhabitation at all. No radio towers, no power lines, no roads. Even the paths we were often walking along were created by rhinos and elephants over long periods of time. If I could sum it up in a sentence, I would describe the iMfolozi wilderness as a living window on our past. A reminder of what the world was like before we became the complex, economic beings we are now. This is something every person should experience at least once in their lives. I do hope to return to iMfolozi with another group again later this year.
Below is a selection of my images from the trail. The featured image on this post is © Pam Benporath.