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Strolling in the River copyright Brad Zembic

A Wild Time in iMfolozi

By Brad Zembic

iMfolozi Rhino © Brad Zembic
iMfolozi Rhino © Brad Zembic

“Eh-nes-tuh,” our Zulu game scout patiently repeated for our fledgling Canadian ears. Unaccustomed to his accent, we struggled to mimic every nuance of his pronunciation, wanting to respect the integrity of a name, which for all we knew, may have been borne by generations of Zulu royalty.

“Eh-nes-tuh,” we laboured, being sure to stress the second syllable, allowing our voices to taper off on the final. Proud of our linguistic skills, we were left alone on the African veld with our tongues, our determination and our first Zulu word. That evening around the campfire Russell, our English-speaking guide, asked if we'd enjoyed our chitchat with Ernest.

Cathy and I were to enjoy many experiences in our three-day/four-night walking safari through the pristine and mystical Wilderness Area in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Most were not as light as our introduction to Ernest and the Zulu language, but each left us with a deep appreciation of the African bush.

We spent our first night in iMfolozi at Mdindini camp on the banks of the White Umfolozi River. Our tent was slightly raised above the elements and only mildly comforting after our briefing on what to expect during the next three days of hiking. “If a rhino charges,” Russell told us in a low, grave voice over the campfire, “find a tree and stand behind it. It doesn't matter what size of tree. A rhino will lose sight of you, then forget what he is doing and go about his business.

“If a lion attacks,” he continued, “stand absolutely still. A lion is as afraid of you as you are of it. If it charges, it is testing you. If you run, you are prey; if you stand your ground, it will think you are a threat and retreat.”

I seriously wondered about our choice of holiday that night. We could have been frolicking in the warm surf on the South Coast near Durban or sauntering through the Company Gardens in Cape Town. Being mauled by lions, trampled by rhinos, or devoured in segments by crocodiles was not my idea of a rest. However, it was not without some kind of charm. So call it machismo; call it vacation grandstanding. That night in my tent, nestled between the whoops of hyenas and the thunderous grunts of lions, I decided to have a good time.

Our first day took us and three other trailists through thirteen kilometres of undulating bushland. Winter in the northern areas of the country is the ideal season for game viewing: grass is low, trees have few leaves, and the weather is normally warm and dry, guaranteeing pleasant, bug-free days and evenings.

Soon after leaving camp we spotted small herds of grazing impalas and nyalas and watched an enormous Cape buffalo foraging in a reedbed. We followed game trails rather than blaze our own and were surprised at the great variety of animals that inhabit the veld. Out of a seeming indiscernible tangle of spoor, Ernest unraveled the footprints of bushbuck, giraffe and zebra, and was even able to identify for us their states of mind and the approximate time that each animal had passed.

A few hours later we heard the frantic screeching of a baboon troop a kilometre into the brush. We followed their sounds and noticed five large white-backed vultures hovering above a thinly grassed area. We hiked up from a dried riverbed and discovered the source of the excitement. On surveying the site, Russell found the mangled remains of a young baboon. “Ingwe,” Ernest reported. “It was a Leopard.” Cathy and I glanced at each other with a mixture of apprehension and delight.

For the next few days Russell and Ernest, armed with high-powered rifles, zigzagged us through cool ravines and valleys forested with buffalo thorn and tamboti trees. They led us along rocky escarpments that claimed panoramic views of one of Africa's first parks. The area has been left untouched by the modern world thanks to the efforts of Ian Player and other visionary conservationists of the KwaZulu/Natal Parks Board. “The lions here,” Russell announced proudly, “are direct descendants of those hunted by the great Shaka, king of the Zulu.”

And not much has changed since Shaka's time. One still comes across the dried dung floors of Zulu huts and finds ancient Zulu artifacts just as they were left nearly a century before. One afternoon we passed a rocky cairn near where a Zulu warrior had been buried. “This is isivivane,” Ernest informed us reverently. “It is a sacred place.” Zulu tradition dictates that anyone who encounters the cairn must pay homage to the warrior's spirit by spitting on a stone and adding it to the pile. According to Russell, one person escaped certain death at the horns of a rhino because he performed the ritual.

We spent our second and third nights in the park at Ngilandi, a remote camp whose name is a corruption of the word “England,” so named because to access the camp one must cross a “great water” – the White Umfolozi River. Here we sat around the fire with Russell and our trail mates singing songs and talking enthusiastically about the game we had seen. A hundred pairs of green eyes sparkled in the darkness outside the glow of our campfire, reminding us that any personal business that would take us into the bush that night had better be completed soon. Amenities in the veld were simple—a shovel with a point in the direction of the nearest dried streambed and a shower that consisted of a water-filled bucket suspended from a tree. Environmental awareness is a cornerstone of thinking in the Wilderness Area, and the park wardens are careful to maintain iMfolozi's pristine character.

After a hearty breakfast on our second day in the wild, we stalked a pair of juvenile white rhinos as they grazed unconcernedly in a nearby clearing. Their massive bodies reminded me of military tanks as we crouched together behind a tree that seemed slim cover from being impaled by a horn thicker than my forearm. Though we were upwind from the prehistoric-looking creatures, they somehow sensed our presence and, after letting out a threatening series of snorts, stamped off into the forest.

In the afternoon we climbed an escarpment and watched a pride of iMfolozi lions dine on a buffalo. When it seemed they had finished their meal, we carefully descended the rocky cliff for a closer look at the kill. It had taken the lions just a few hours to devour the unfortunate beast, leaving only its head and skeleton for the hyenas and other scavengers. A vigilant Ernest made us aware of the nearness of the pride. “Perhaps they are not yet done,” he said, his well-trained eyes scanning the bush for movement. We anxiously posed for several pictures before hastily making our way back to the river.

Our hike that day was similar to a Tarzan movie: wildlife seemed everywhere. We saw a small herd of giraffe galloping through the forest, their heads bobbing above the tree line and their ears flapping like the wings of giant butterflies. We spied a dainty little antelope called a duiker and watched a lone hyena on a sandbar feed on a kudu, a majestic buck with enormous curling antlers. At night four white rhinos grazed peacefully near our tents, their dark silhouettes moving ghostlike beneath the starry skies. iMfolozi is home to the world's largest white rhino population. Once endangered, they have made a magnificent comeback, and the park is now exporting them to other parts of Africa.

Left Overs Again © Brad Zembic
Left Overs Again © Brad Zembic

We spent our final day on safari walking mostly barefoot through the White Umfolozi. Because winter is the dry season in KwaZulu/Natal, the waters are especially shallow and local crocodile populations move north to the Hluhluwe section of the park. As we approached Mdindini and the end of our hike, we began to step proudly. Having lived three days and nights in the wilds of Africa, our tension diminished and our spirits began to elate. No longer were we trudging rank and file behind our fearless leader, eyes skimming the veld for signs of danger. We were seasoned bushwalkers; we had seen it all and had survived to talk about it.

Cathy and I, smug at our savviness, began to sing and play little pranks on each other. Nature, however, especially African nature, is on the lookout for the unalert, and before we knew what was happening, the members of our group were banging into each other like dominoes. Stretched across our path and reared chest-height above the ground was a black mamba, the deadliest of African snakes. It swayed its enormous body back and forth and flicked its thick tongue at us before reaching into a tamboti tree and disappearing. The seven of us were left in awe at such a rare and potentially deadly encounter.

Back at Mdindini we were served up a final dinner of buffalo stew as we once again sat around the campfire. This time it was the mamba that was the focus of conversation. Cathy and I sat quietly outside the circle of light listening to the soft murmur of voices and breathing in all we could of iMfolozi's wildness. At dawn, after a peaceful night's sleep, we took our coffee down to the riverbank, squatted among the reeds and watched the sunrise. A flock of Egyptian geese flew overhead, and we heard the early morning whoop of a hyena. “The Umfolozi is flowing in my veins,” I said to Cathy. We looked at each other, sad to be leaving but filled with something permanent and indefinable.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is situated approximately 270 kilometers north of Durban. Trailists are expected to make their own way to the park. Public transport will take them as far as the town of Empangeni, approximately 100 kilometers from the park's east gate.

Trailists must be moderately healthy. Travel covers approximately 10-15 kilometers a day through undulating bushland, with occasional more extreme elevation gains. Gear is carried from camp to camp by donkeys, so there is no need for trailists to be laden with anything but lunch during the hike. Malaria precautions are advised as the park is located in a malaria belt, though I've only met one mosquito the two times I've done the trip (both in South African winters).

Booking: Book trails and accommodation through the reservations office, PO Box 13069, Cascades, Pietermaritzburg, 3202, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Book by phone at 011-27-33-845-1000/1067. Email: trails@kznwildlife.com or mftrails@kznwildlife.com.

Visas: Canadian don't currently need visa to visit South Africa. All images © Brad Zembic