A Walk on the Wild Side: Trekking in South Africa
by BONNIE P. TUCKER
"Africa is not for sissies," asserted Janet, our 20-something Afrikaans guide, in response to my query about the wisdom of our group tromping across the crocodile-infested White Umfolozi river.
Follow the Leader
"Yes ma'am," I politely replied. But in truth, it was only the cocked rifle in the hands of our Zulu guide, Stef, that persuaded me to cross that river without wearing shoes.
It was exactly this type of up-close-and-personal wildlife experience that had drawn my friend Ellen and I to a four-day South African walking safari in the first place.
Early on, we were impressed with the intimate connection between human and animal offered by 240,000-acre Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park, located in the KwaZulu Natal province, about 175 miles north of Durban. Driving on our way to register, we watched in awe as a herd of zebra crossed the road in front of us, were tempted momentarily to reach out of our open car windows to touch
giraffe and wildebeests, and gazed at the comical/ugly/ beautiful (it's all in the eye
of the beholder) faces of wart-hogs.
At base camp, we joined our eight fellow hikers - including everything from English opthamologists to psychologists from New Zealand - plus our two guides, Janet and Stef. There, we were issued daypacks and heavy gallon-size metal canteens, as well as duffel bags in which to pack our clothes and personal items. All would be taken to our trail camp by horses the next morning.
Rules of the Wild
At dinner that night, Janet primed us for the adventure ahead. First, she cautioned us not to think of the coming days as a big game safari, but as an outdoor adventure in which we would "live as one with nature. We would follow animal tracks for about eight hours a day, pausing to rest, eat, discuss what we were seeing, and enjoy the beauty of the park. Any sighting of animals would constitute a plus.
Playing It Safe
Janet also made it clear that following rules would not only increase our chances of seeing animals, but could also save our lives. "The animals are not out to get us," she explained, and would only attack if they felt threatened. We were to respect their ter-ritory, walking in single file behind Janet, in complete silence. Only when we stopped were we permitted to talk. To avoid being detected, the guides would try to lead us so the wind did not carry our scent toward the animals.
Despite every precaution, dangerous moments could occur, she continued. In risky situations, Stef would walk at the rear, and both guides would carry loaded rifles. If
either guide told us to do something, we were to follow their instructions immediately, whether it was to lie flat on the ground, or even to climb a tree.
Admittedly, I experienced a moment of panic as we headed out into the wilds. Why was I walking off into a jungle/forest/desert (depending on our location in the vast park) surrounded by dangerous animals, with nothing but two experienced but outnumbered guides to protect me? Was I out of my mind? But the spectacular sights and sounds left no time for worry.
As we began our journey through the park, I first noticed the birds. South Africa has 500 species of birds, and at least half of them must live in Umfolozi. During those four days we saw colorful and majestic varieties, including martial, tawny and balateur eagles; white-backed and white-headed vultures; Egyptian geese; and blue waxbills, among others.
Each bird has its own melodious tune, such as the distinctive African hoepoe, so named because it repeatedly shouts, "hoop-hoop!" And the nests the birds made were incredible, particularly the huge mud structures made by the Hamer Kops, and the ones resembling small baskets made by weaver birds.
The terrain and scenery of the park changed so frequently, it seemed as though we were walking through different countries at any given moment. As we traipsed by the White and Black Umfolozi rivers, we constantly saw new and different sights, such as the flaming colors of fire lilies or acacia trees, with their flat, squared, leafy branches.
Our experiences went beyond the visual. As we trekked through the park, we smelled wild rosemary and camphor, tasted the very tart bushveld cherry, and were some-times stabbed by the nettles of huge thorn bushes known as "hook and pick" because of how they catch under skin.
Animal sounds also reminded us that we weren't in the protective confines of a zoo. The baboons squealed all day long, and during the night the hyenas brayed, the lions roared, and numerous other animals trumpeted, snorted and wailed. As neither the base camp nor the trail camps were fenced (unlike the tent, hotel and hut camps in which car or jeep safari-goers lodge at night), we knew that the animals were truly just a growl or a grunt away.
Although camping unprotected in the wild offered many exciting chances to feel immersed in the African bush, it also made it necessary to be aware. Leaving his tent to answer nature's call one night, a member of our group found himself face-to-face with a buffalo. Rather than taking a chance, he turned right around and waited in his tent until the animal moved on. When either Ellen or I had to go to the bathroom at night we would awaken the other, as it was deemed safer to go outside in pairs. Holding our flash-lights and each other's hand (not since childhood have I held the hand of another woman), we would creep about five feet from our tent, one shining the flashlight in all
directions like mad while the other attended to digging holes, burning toilet paper, and other necessities.
The rugged nature of the trip was also reflected in our camp, which we moved frequently to avoid permanently disrupting the animals and to protect the terrain. It consisted of simple tents, a pile of firewood encircled by foam pads to sit on, and a cooking area in which two Zulu men prepared surprisingly good dinners like spaghetti with buffalo sauce, impala stew, a vegetarian dinner and a South African brai (barbecue) with impala steak and sausage. We all carried a tenth of the lunch fixings in our daypacks, with the makings of good sandwiches, cookies and fruit. And we were given plenty of snacks to nibble on during the day.
And then there were the animals themselves, from the gigantic spiders who wove long nests limb to limb, to terrapins (turtles) and snakes living in water holes, to hippos and crocodiles lurking in the river. On a quest to spot favorite animals like zebra, giraffe, warthog and rhino, we learned tracking tips from the guides, such as how to read dung.
My favorite times were when we followed families of rhinos. It was fascinating to hide behind trees and bushes, squat down, and watch the rhinos about 25 feet in front of us. And I was equally fascinated by the seemingly endless facts we learned. Did you know (I didn't) that no two zebras have the same pattern of stripes? And did you know (I didn't) that male giraffes have two protuberances or "horns" on top of their heads (rather than where we looked for them), but that females do not?
The animals sometimes watched us as we watched them. One day, as we sat under an acacia tree, a large warthog stood about 40 feet away, staring as we ate our lunch. Another time, a herd of buffalo stood and watched as we made one of our treacherous river crossings, carrying our hiking boots in our hands or backpacks. And back at base camp on our last even-ing, we saw dozens of baboons crossing the river, all of them, including mothers with babies on their backs, leaping gracefully from rock to rock. As they reached our side of the river they spotted us, stopping to observe us for as long as we observed them.
Though jeep and car safaris offer a chance to get closer to the wild animals of Umfolozi (they are less likely to attack a car than a mere human), I much preferred our walking safari. It not only allowed for an intimate communion with the natural world, it also af-forded us the chance to change our perspective for a while, experiencing life through the eyes of a rhino, a lion, or even those elusive crocodiles.
Walking safaris in Umfolozi are offered during several months each year. They can be booked through the Natal Parks Board via phone at 011-27-331-471-961; via fax at 11-27-331-472-960; or via e-mail to email@example.com. 4-day safaris average $180 US per person, including meals.
Photo courtesy of Bonnie P. Tucker