Trailists in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Trailists in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Image: Darryl Webster

Only when it's fully dark, after we have wolfed down our supper off tin plates and put the beat-up kettle to brew on the coals, do we feel the smoke. It burns our eyes, catches in our throats. It's not our fire, which now is no more than a bed of faint embers, just enough to boil a kettle, not to set the world ablaze.

But behind us, the sky is red and the wind has shifted, bringing smoke to our camp under a spreading uMdoni tree in KwaZulu-Natal's iSimangaliso Wetland Park. As sure as night follows day, the fire will come with it.

"Get ready to move," says lead guide Mandla Buthelezi. "We will have to find somewhere else to sleep tonight."

Image: Ruby Gay-Martin

We pack fast, rolling up groundsheets and sleeping mats in deft movements, stuffing our kit into backpacks. Now we can hear it devouring the winter-dry grass, crackling like bacon in a pan. Flames peer over the ridge line a few hundred feet away.

Buthelezi picks up his rifle and shoulders his pack and leads us into the darkness, a line of shuffling humans. Vuyani Mbuzwa brings up the end of the column, sweeping his torch across the treeline to our left.

In those trees are certainly buffalo and maybe hippo too and, as we crunch over the dry earth, grass stalks and twigs snapping under our boots, we do not want any surprises. And neither do they.

Buthelezi moves slowly, pushing back the night with his torch. Soon there is sand under our feet - a game trail trod in the sand by generations of wild animals. The going is easier and soon the fire has swept past behind us. Buthelezi's torch lights up an uMdoni tree rising from the grass.

"Here," he says, dumping his pack. We drop our sleeping rolls into the grass and collect wood for our own small campfire. Every night we are out in the wilderness, we will take turns keeping watch, and every watchkeeper needs a fire.

SA'S OLDEST WORLD HERITAGE SITE
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is the country's oldest World Heritage Site. It was proclaimed in 1999 as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, and recognised by Nelson Mandela as a place where the country could begin to heal.

Its proclamation was also a stiff middle finger to all those who had ravaged it during the colonial and apartheid eras, when hunters shot out its animal life, when its people - who had lived here for hundreds of years - were forcibly removed, and its bush was tamed with eucalyptus forests, army bases and missile-launch sites.

Miners fought against conservationists to mine its mineral-rich dunes. The conservationists won but only after a bitter struggle that ruined reputations and friendships.

"Apartheid did its best to destroy iSimangaliso," says park chief executive Andrew Zaloumis early one morning.

We are standing looking out over some rippling grassland towards the treeline where, who knows, a herd of buffalo might be watching us back from the cool, leafy, primeval darkness.

"But this part is original. The planters and foresters never got this far north."

It is the one place on Earth where the world's oldest land mammal - the rhino - lives alongside its biggest - the whale - and its oldest living fossil - the coelacanth.

After 14 years of rewilding, the park is once more home to herds of elephant. There are rhinos and lions. The most recent returnees are eland.

The park's wilderness covers an area of 1,000 pristine square kilometres, where there are no roads, no lodges or cellphone masts or power lines. There is nothing here that was not here 1,000 years ago.

There is no hint of what we loosely call civilisation, no distant hum of engines, or sodium lamps lighting the horizon. The silence, when you listen to it, is deafening.

At night you will see no lights except the moon, stars and the red glow of your campfire. You will hear nothing but the sounds of nature - frogs and crickets, the wind in the grass, the ripple of wavelets on the lakeshore, the splashing of hippos, the faraway wail of a hyena, the gruntings and rustlings of wild creatures trying to make their way in the world.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Original. That's a word to savour, I think, as the first rays of sun light the branches of our uMdoni tree.

I have had the deepest sleep in a long time, roused briefly in the early hours by my companions when a lone grazing hippo came trundling out of the night.

A loud "Hey, wena!" from Buthelezi stopped it in its considerable tracks and it turned and ran off, giving us an appreciation for how such a large animal can be so light on its feet. Along with a small adrenaline spike.

Today we walk in the wilderness, on the ground with the animals. Buthelezi has given us a thorough safety briefing, complete with animal sound effects - buffalo, hippo and, in the unlikely event that we should see any, lion - on how to conduct ourselves here.

"We walk silently," he says. "We do not surprise them. If I tell you to lie flat on the ground, lie flat. If a hippo or a buffalo starts towards us, I will shout at it - hey, wena! - and make myself bigger. If I have to, I will use my powers." He cycles the bolt of his .458 rifle. Snick-snick. "Normally that sound alone will make them stop," he says.

Trailists and guides from the Wilderness Leadership School make camp under an old and much-loved uMdoni —or waterberry —tree
Trailists and guides from the Wilderness Leadership School make camp under an old and much-loved uMdoni —or waterberry —tree
Image: Darryl Webster

Even before the sun has burnt off the cool morning, we are crunching through the grass in single file, Buthelezi and Mbuzwa in the lead. We pause at the old uMdoni tree at our first campsite. The fire has swept through the clearing but the tree is green and untouched, and the water containers we left hanging from its branches are unscathed. We dump our packs and walk on into the world, forest on one side, the lake behind a low ridge on the other. We feel as light as the first people ever.

Up along the lake we go. We cannot walk along the shoreline - this is hippo country. Crocodiles too. Instead we follow a finger of marsh which points like an arrowhead between the trees.

We come to a river crossing where the forest has blocked out the light. The guides quietly go ahead to scout. "This is a place of buffalo," says Buthelezi.

There are none here today but even so, walking barefoot through the the glutinous mud of the stream bed, I am suddenly aware of all my human frailties.

A little later, we reach a point where the forest hems in the game trail. Ferns as lush as a Rousseau painting grow thickly to the left (for a moment I think I see the nude on her sofa, and the two stalking lionesses that gave the picture its primeval vigour). Then the ferns begin to move and Buthelezi lifts a hand. Stop.

"Leopard," he whispers. "We will let him know we are no threat." One by one we ease lightly past the thicket, the ferns grazing my arm, and disappear around a bend in the trail.

Later, when we head back on the same path, there are urgent hoof marks in the mud where the cat has scared an antelope. Fresh pugmarks lead into the trees. A bushbuck barks in alarm. "He was just here," whispers Buthelezi, his eyes bright with happiness.

THE HEALING POWER OF THE WILDERNESS
The idea of the healing power of wilderness was championed in South Africa by Ian Player, the legendary conservationist.

Sitting around a fire on a freezing night in the Po River valley in Italy in the last days of the war in 1945, Player promised that if he returned safely to his homeland that he would spend time in the bush.

The result, years later, was the Wilderness Leadership School, which takes people out of the industrial chaos of their daily lives and puts them in the wilderness.

"Wilderness closes that gap between humans and nature," says Mbuzwa. "It's not about taking pictures or showing off. It's that 'wow' moment when you're on foot and you see an animal and there's that little moment when you can feel people smiling - it's something inside."

Wilderness Trails guide Vuyani Mbuzwa
Wilderness Trails guide Vuyani Mbuzwa
Image: Paul Ash

The school has taken thousands of people into the wilderness since Player and his mentor Magqubu Ntombela opened it - and in these troubled times, maybe we need the wilderness and its gifts more than ever before.

It isn't only for harassed city dwellers who enjoy the luxuries of free time and money, though. Restoring iSimangaliso is about restitution as well, says Zaloumis.

"The thousands of people who once lived in the park now live around it. For local people, their spirits are in the land."

In the early days when the park was still being set up, an elder named Ephraim Mfeka taught Zaloumis a valuable lesson. "He said, 'Our memory is in the land, you destroy our memory, you destroy us.' Now we develop to conserve. If people don't have electricity, they are going to cut wood," he says.

So far, iSimangaliso is prevailing.

Some 8,000 people have permanent jobs in the park, many more than the 350 jobs mining would have created. Yet, the prying fingers are never far away.

Ian Player knew this too, even after the dust from the St Lucia dune-mining saga had settled. There was never any Waterloo in conservation, never a single, glorious battle that would turn the tide, he told me once, but only one guerrilla skirmish after the next.

NIGHT MOVES
During our last night, we camp in a clearing in a shallow depression. The cold seeps down the slopes and I roll out my mat close to the fire. At 1am I am shaken awake for my watch. "There's a hyena close by," says the person I am relieving. "But she's just watching."

I make coffee and take a slow, quiet stroll around the camp, shining a torch into the branches, the hollows, the grass, the gaps between the trees. On my second sweep, five pairs of hyena eyes gleam back at me, maybe 50m away. I wake Mbuzwa.

"Just keep an eye on them," he says and goes back to sleep. So I do. For an hour we stare at each other. Check you, check me back. Some time in the early hours, they lope off.

In the morning I ask Mbuzwa if the hyenas would have made trouble for us. "Only if you'd done something stupid," he says with an easy smile. "They were curious, drawn by the smell. This is their place, after all."

It strikes me then that the only predator we really have to fear is in us.

By the time we walk out of the wilderness area, I am a different person, if only for a little while. Next time I'll stay longer.

You should try it too.

PLAN YOUR TRIP
• iSimangaliso Wetland Park stretches from Maphelane all the way to Kosi Bay on the Mozambique border. Its wilderness area - one of only three in SA - is 70km long and 40km wide. See isimangaliso.com.

• Wilderness trails are operated by the Wilderness Leadership School and run over three or five days. The trails require a minimum of six people (maximum 8) but smaller bookings can be complemented with other prospective walkers or those from community programmes. Rates available on request. See wildernesstrails.org.za.

- Ash was a guest of iSimangaliso.


This article was originally published by the Sunday Times.
You can view the original article here.

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