It had long been my dream to witness a leopard in the wild, and on a damp and frigid morning in Imfolozi Game Reserve I finally got my wish.
I was in the inglorious position of undergoing my morning ablutions behind a bush when some baboons in the cliffs above me started up with their hue and cry.
I assumed they were offended by my activities. I would have been if I were them. After all, it was their garden I was pooing in; but then I saw the spotted beast slinking away like a snake.
He stared right at me whilst departing, and I’m almost certain I detected a look of distaste upon his face; but gosh, what a special encounter it had been; a once in a lifetime spectacle for the both of us.
When I returned to my makeshift campsite alongside the Black Umfolozi River with trowel in hand and smile on face, my fellow tribe of intrepid back country hikers paid me no heed. They continued to natter and gobble down their mieliepap and so I decided to keep my special encounter a secret.
I didn’t want to cause them any personal disappoint on this, the last morning of our five day jaunt into Imfolozi’s untouched Wilderness.
Since 1959, Imfolozi in Kwa-Zulu Natal has been the home of one of the most famous trails experiences on the continent; a multi-day outing into big five territory where encounters with Lions, Rhinos and Elephants are an everyday occurrence.
Inaugurated by the famous conservationist, Dr Ian Player and his colleague Chief Maggubu Ntombela, the Imfolozi trails have changed many people’s outlook on the intrinsic value of nature.
“Most of us are entrenched in a rat race existence” said Kim Gillings, the wilderness trails manager “And because of that, we rarely give ourselves time to relax. Walking slowly through the wilderness; sharing your experiences with like minded folk and taking time to really look at nature can have quite a profound effect on some people”
She told me this before I began the trail, and now five days and several buffalo, lion and rhino encounters later, I can report that yes, it really was the most profound experience.
Firstly, before I started, I was under the false assumption that walking through a landscape seething with potentially dangerous animals would be akin to white water rafting or shark cage diving:- an adrenalin sport of sorts. But its not like that at all.
The presence of two well armed guides allows the hiker to relax instead of always having to worry about where the next imagined attack will come from. And what’s more, these chaps are extremely well versed in the ways of Ian Player’s philosophy.
“It is our mission to show people the beautiful things in nature that will be lost should we not take care of them.” said Siphesihle Ngcobo our chief guide “ And sadly, we as South Africans are losing touch with our heritage and our connection to our wild places and animals”
“We did not create the web of life” pitched in Sicelo Mbatha, our other guide “We are merely part of it. But should we break just one strand , then the web will collapse and we shall fall with it”
“Wow” I thought to myself quietly “Now that really was profound”
The Imfolozi Wilderness Trails guides know the bush like I know the inside of my bathroom cabinet, and as such, there are very few surprises for the untested hiker. They know where potentially hazardous animals are likely to be hiding, and of course, they are well versed in the art of avoiding dangerous situations.
Most of all though, they really do understand how wild animals react to certain situations, and perhaps more intuitively, how those animals think.
“You see” said Siphesihle “Contrary to popular belief, wild animals do not go looking for you to hurt you. In fact, the opposite is true”
And this we saw with our own eyes, as time and again, we spotted brief glimpses of animal’s bottoms moving at high speed in the opposite direction of where it was we were standing.
“Unpleasant incidents are very, very rare” said Siphesihle ”But they can happen when a large animal like a rhino or elephant fails to detect our approach and we in turn did not know it was there. But that’s what we guides are here for. To detect the animals before they detect us. It is a much more beautiful thing to see an animal who is behaving naturally because he doesn’t even know we are watching him.”
And in that manner, we sneaked past buffalo and rhino and zebra and buck.
Most of the time our route took us along the side of the Umfolozi River, but when we were not traipsing up sandy beaches we were walking along game trails made from the footprints of elephants.
Imfolozi has 3300 hectares of wilderness within its boundaries, a very special and untouched place where, by its very definition, there are not allowed to be any man made structures, roads or paths.
Cell phones had to be switched off on our walk and wrist watches removed; and as such, the outside world slowly but surely melted away into obscurity.
Ahhh, magic, bliss and loveliness
There are quite a few different styles of trails available at Imfolozi, ranging from slack packing options where backpacks are not needed and every night is spent in a comfortable camp with hot showers and home cooked meals, and then there are the primitive trails.
I was on a primitive trail; and jolly exciting it was too; for every night we slept under the stars without a roof (or even a tent) to cover us up and every morning we dug a hole and deposited our offerings to the great god of soil nutrients.
The evenings were most often spent upon the flat and terraced rocks of a river bend where some protection was afforded against the nocturnal amblings of elephant and buffalo, but this was scant consolation for those amongst us who feared being eaten by carnivores.
“That’s a pride of Lions is it not” I asked Siphesihle one evening as we sat resting on some rocks, to which he replied “Indeed it is Dale, indeed it is. How beautiful they are”
They were lined up (all five of them) on a slight rise not more then a hundred meters from where our guides had instructed us to unfurl our sleeping mats and commence to building a fire. And that evening, as the sun dipped below the horizon, and we set to making a dinner of fresh beef stew, the lions sat erect and watched us with intent.
“Pass me the binoculars” I asked one of my fellow hikers “I want to see if they’re dribbling”
Vultures circled above us, seeing something I couldn’t see, or perhaps seeing into the future (I really couldn’t tell)
“Should the lions come close tonight” said Siphesihle “Enjoy the moment. Embrace them. It is beautiful”
And then they went to bed with strict instructions not to be woken unless the Lions actually came up onto the rocks.
“We cannot afford to be tired tomorrow because of lack of sleep” they told us “A tired guide will not be as alert to danger as he needs to be”
Obviously they knew the habits of lions far better than I and so I drew courage from their nonchalance, and besides, it made perfect sense. No doubt they knew that inexperienced trails guests (like me) were prone to hysterics at the slightest little sound.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some measure of risk involved in sleeping out in the open, but in order to keep us off the menu we were all allotted an hour and a half’s worth of watch duty in which we sat silently by a tiny flame whilst the others snored and slumbered.
In the dark of the night, as lions roar and hyenas hoot, and one sits alone in quite reflection, all sorts of deep and philosophical thoughts intrude into ones mind.
Ian Player had it right:- we all need to get back to nature; at least from time to time.
A wilderness trail is something very special. A brief step back into a world where once we walked amongst wildlife and left little trace of where it was we stepped.
It’s a shame its not like that anymore.
And with this melancholy thought in my mind, on the last morning of the trail, with rain pouring down, I began to feel depressed. The hum drum world awaited me back home as did the eskom bills and other sundry pressures of life, but then I saw the leopard looking at me, and suddenly I knew that everything would be alright.
There are a maximum of eight people allowed per trail but children under 14 are not permitted.
Individuals or smaller groups can usually be accommodated but its always best to enquire and book ahead by at least one month.
A reasonable level of fitness is required (but the trails are by no means an endurance test)
All overnight trails are fully catered
There are a variety if trails experiences ranging from single morning and afternoon hikes through to the five day primitive trail.
It is only on the primitive trail that one is required to carry a full pack and sleep outdoors. Other catagories of trail offer full accommodation at permanent camps.
Some trails are close din the height of summer because of temperatures and water levels in the river. Check with KZN Wildlife in advance.
Phone 035 550 8478 or reservations 033 845 1067 or 033 845 1000
Please be aware that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is a government organization and as such may not always have staff at the desk who know how to answer a phone. Be patient and keep trying! Its worth it.