Walking with the ancestors

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Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park’s Primitive Trail in South Africa’s Zululand is a four-night guided hike that takes you through Big Five territory and into the essence of wilderness. Renata Harper walked the route with the grandson of one of its legendary founders

After being dropped at Mndindini base camp and distributing the supplies among our backpacks, we crossed the White Umfolozi River – cold, flat and steely against our shins – into the wilderness zone. “Our baptism,” mused Sean, a fellow walker.

In single file, and in silence, we navigated squiggled paths trodden only by the animals that had come before us. “We rest when we’re tired, we eat when we’re hungry,” is how Nunu Jobe, our lead guide, had introduced the trail.

As time vanished, we tried to make sense of this new landscape – the scrub and trees enclosing us, reducing all visibility to the pair of human calves traipsing in front of us, then the relief of an open patch of bone-dry grass.

A few hours later, camped on a stretch of riverside sand, we smothered giggles as a troop of baboons alternately tiptoed and dashed through the water – one youngster screeching as only toddlers can – as they made their way to their overnight spot on the cliff above us. We formed a laager around a fire with our bedrolls and sleeping bags; no tents – we would be sleeping wild.

“We’ll each take a night watch shift,” said Nunu. We allocated shifts, roughly dividing up the hours between us; all wristwatches and mobile phones had been locked away in a safe.

Until this point we’d relied almost entirely on our guides as our senses attempted to recalibrate and we adjusted to the packs on our backs.

Night watch, though, was a shared responsibility. When my turn came, to ease my nerves I reorganised my backpack. I began to understand that being alert is a stillness that sifts real from imagined danger; it is not hyper-vigilance or control. As the night and my shift ended, I sat mesmerised by the sun’s light stretching across the sand to warm my toes.

Fresh tracks revealed that a black rhino had crossed the river not far from us – suddenly we all recalled a splashing in the midst of our slumber. “It’s a highway network,” said Nunu, pointing to a scattering of other tracks, “and every part of it tells a story.”

Just keep walking
Our second day continued with an address by Nunu, who gave thanks, it seemed, to all that could be thanked – to the river for allowing us a bath that morning; to the baboons for “being on leopard watch”; for the honour of walking the trail with an Ntombela.

It is due to S’phamandla Tom Ntombela, a young tourism and field guide with a dream of starting his own eco-tourism company, that I was here at all. At an outdoor expo earlier that year, perplexed by the fully decked 4WDs that suggested our adventures might have to come at great expense, my partner and I had succumbed with relief to Tom’s enthusiastic descriptions of this uncomplicated nature experience. He’d been adamant: “This is the first, the original, the real wilderness.”

Part of today’s reserve is the ancestral homeland of the Ntombela clan. Tom’s late grandfather, Magqubu Ntombela, was born here and knew the terrain intimately, though his position as game guard since the age of 14 under a succession of white chief game conservators was bitter sweet.

In 1957, the late South African conservationist Ian Player and Ntombela would campaign for the proclamation of a dedicated wilderness area within the reserve, a buffer against the inevitable calls for tourism development that they foresaw. Today the wilderness zone accounts for almost a third of the greater reserve.

Together Player and Ntombela led the first official “wilderness trails” in the area – an on-foot safari with a focus on walking wild, treading lightly and connecting with the land. Most people thought they were mad.

May the madness continue…
For the next two nights, we perched on Shaka’s Rock, a heavenly spot that overlooks the river and the savannah landscape beyond. Sitting around the campfire, tin mugs of rooibos tea and condensed milk in hand, we watched a lanner falcon hunting bats.

“I didn’t have time to say hello to my grandfather,” said Tom. Ntombela’s grave and monument are at the family homestead, about two kilometres from the reserve’s south-eastern gate. “I hope he is here with us.”

Tom worked in the reserve too, as a trails assistant for 11 years. “It was my grandfather who taught me to respect wilderness,” he said.

Shortly before Ntombela’s death in 1993, the pair visited the reserve. “That day he shared with me his love for the animals, who he called ‘our wild brothers and sisters’. I want to continue my grandfather’s legacy but create one too.” There was something quite lovely about the thought of Tom walking in his revered grandfather’s footsteps.

Back to the very beginning, and the end
On our penultimate day, white-backed and lappet-faced vultures spun wheels above us, while the behaviour of a clan of hyena continued to puzzle us: they loped across the river before bolting back. Then we understood: six lions lay a few metres away from a big, dark carcass, and the hyena were hungry but cautious. “Must be buffalo”, we thought.

We packed up our camp and hiked quickly to a small rise with a better view. Across the river, on the edge of the water, lay a dead rhino. Given South Africa’s poaching statistics, it was difficult not to jump to conclusions. We were reminded that almost every white rhino in the reserve, and elsewhere, is an acknowledgement of the work done during Operation Rhino (in which Ntombela himself took part), the successful conservation effort of the 1960s and ’70s.

“The horn is intact,” Nunu confirmed, training his binoculars. “It’s an old rhino, probably a male given its size.” He suspected a natural death. As we waited on our perch for the anti-poaching unit, who are called in these days for every rhino death, we watched the hyena become braver as the lions, now sated and lazier, drifted away.

Suddenly we were alerted to footsteps – three tough guys with warm smiles sloshed through the water towards us; they had trekked from base camp, as no roads or vehicles are allowed in the wilderness zone. By now the hyena had mooched away, the lions moved off, and we could approach.

The area was treated as a potential crime scene – first an inspection for signs of human activity (none); then a check of the perimeter (no sign of a struggle with predators); then a closer examination of the body (no obvious bullet wounds). The old bull was not a poaching casualty and we all let go of held breaths, though the news did not dispel our sense of loss.

We left the guards to their work – removing the horns for safekeeping – and decided to spend our last night at our first campsite on the river, coming full circle. As we set up, we noticed an imprint in the sand, deep and curved. Attracted by the warmth, a hyena must have curled up on the spot where we’d buried our campfire ashes the following morning. After the day’s events, I was charmed to think we might have provided some comfort to a wild brother or sister.

Find an excellent overview of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park’s Primitive Trail please click here.

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