2009 SA Blog Awards Runner Up Article
The Anti-Connoisseur's Guide To A Walk In The African Bush
A brainwavez.org Travel Experience
South Africa > KwaZulu-Natal > Zululand > Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve

South Africaby Mandy J Watson
Posted: 15 August 2008
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Update: 3 April 2009: This article was a runner-up in the category "Best Post On A South African Blog" at the 2009 South African Blog Awards. Thank you to everyone who voted for it!

Africa. Continent of mystery and charging wildlife. Stay in your cars, people, you don't want to get mauled! However, should someone give you the opportunity to go for a stroll with a ranger (make sure he has a big gun), well, you can't really turn something such as that down, can you? It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience... assuming you return with your life. It's pretty much guaranteed you'll return with an experience.

Usually when in a game park you cannot leave your vehicle and go for a stroll, so when the opportunity presents itself to head out into the bush you leap for it (figuratively, speaking, of course, because I don't leap). While Getaway photojournalist Alison Westwood and I were in the process of investigating every nook and cranny of the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi game parks in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, we were offered a guided morning walk with a professional ranger. There was absolutely no way I was going to turn it down.

The morning of the walk we gathered at the pre-dawn meeting point, while I seriously questioned my sanity in thinking this had been a good idea. Not only was it early and still dark, with only the hardiest rays of sunlight caressing the damp vegetation, but it was cold, and we were signing indemnity forms. That's never a heart-warming moment.

Forms signed, and our seemingly stoic ranger (and a man of few words) satisfied that all was well, we headed outside into the unknown, then paused a few metres later to regroup, or something. I was distracted in a moment of personal bewilderment (not unusual), mentally shaking my fist at the nip in the air, and daydreaming about breakfast. Nevertheless I'm pretty sure I would be accurate in saying our ranger, content that we were both still with him, then turned and flounced off onto the trail, at which point I began to suspect that we might be in for a bit of an experience.

SunriseA few seconds later he stopped near a random tree, turned, and eyed us. "Animals." He waved his hand in the distance. "Three people." He waved his hand in our direction. "Tree! Climb fast!" He waved at the tree. I must have looked rather confused as I wasn't sure what I was hearing - was he speaking English? Why was I only hearing keywords (although my hearing is a little stuffed) - was my aural interpreter failing me? It was ridiculous o' clock in the morning. The sun wasn't even up yet. Was this a safety talk? "Rhino. Run up tree!" I eyed the random tree suspiciously, which I later realised - once awake - was just an example of a tree, and wondered how all three of us were going to fit up this tree, exactly, as it seemed rather small. And, more importantly, would I be able to leap high enough to get up there? Did this have something to do with those urban myths you hear of adrenalin-powered mothers scaling 10-foot walls to save their babies? I don't think I could scale a 10-foot wall or a random tree. Thank god I didn't have a baby.

"Buffalo," the ranger continued. "Run up tree! Elephant. No climb tree. Run away!" ...What? "Lion. Stop." He froze, to demonstrate, his posture resembling a Bob Fosse pose straight out of Chicago: The Musical. Er....

With that, he turned, once again, and we were on our way. "Holy crap!" I thought. "Why didn't I get this lecture when we were on the Primitive Trail [?] amongst all manner of wild animals?"

The morning dew was still fresh on the ground, wetting our shoes and turning the sand to mud, as we scrambled up and down small hills and under and around foliage while the sky lightened as the sun began to rise. Dressed for warmth due to the nip in the air, I wondered if this early morning trek had been a good idea after all. Suddenly we popped out right near the bank of the Black Umfolozi river and there, in a pool, we spied a group of hippos lazily bobbing up and down, blowing water into the misty air and generally having a good time. Alison appeared delighted so as not to offend the ranger but internally the same panic that was beginning to grip me was gripping her. That tiresome party trivia regarding hippos being the animal that kills more people in Africa than any other was forcing its way into my consciousness, and wouldn't go away. I took a few photos - post-mortem evidence, at least, of my experience - and then waited for my inevitable demise. This would obviously be the way it would happen - I would die an addition to a popular statistic. It would be ironic, or something, considering my unintentional propensity for being enigmatic and unconventional.

Hippos In The Umfolozi

It was not to be - I was almost disappointed. Satisfied that we'd taken enough photos without managing to enrage the locals our ranger turned and trundled off into the bush. We followed; after all, he had the gun, and there was no backup ranger. In fact, I felt rather exposed, being at the end of the line. I had become accustomed, while on the Primitive Trail, to having a suitably armed last line of defence right behind me, and now the only weapons I had at my disposal were my wit(s) and a pocket knife that would probably injure me, as I worked frantically to open it, long before any charging animal got anywhere near it.

Scenes From The Veld

The post-dawn smell of the foliage was a heady mix and my attention turned to the flora around us. Most of the time I had no idea of what I was looking at as my interest in gardening has never really extended beyond herbs I can buy at Stodels, but all around I spied a large number of plants that resembled a miniature version of basil and that intrigued me. I was in the process of making a mental note to Google it should I ever be returned safely to civilisation when the ranger - to my great surprise - paused, bent down, ran his hand up a nearby plant, ripped off half the leaves, deeply inhaled their scent, and handed them to Alison. "Camphor," he said, looking pleased with himself. Alison passed them to me. I sniffed, suspicious of what had just happened.

We continued, and came to a dead tree. Alison was in the process of asking if it was tamboti when the ranger broke off a small branch, inhaled its piercing, heavy, wooded scent, and then handed it on to us. I began to wonder if too much foliage sniffing had taken its toll, as I was sure you're not supposed to damage even abundant plant life - dead or alive. I was a bit torn, though, because I was learning something - and I do love to sniff things.

A few minutes later, up a ridge and back into more open veld, we came to a bend in the river - and a white rhino sleeping on the bank. The bank on our side, although - I should probably point out - it was about a hundred metres away. Thankfully.

The White RhinoWe stood, watching in fascination, and, as Alison asked if it knew we were there, its one ear began to twitch. It awoke and slowly stood up. The sun's rays were just starting to climb over the nearby hills, the light was beautiful, I was near more instant death... so I changed lenses and took a sentimental wide-angle shot.

Suddenly the serenity of the moment was broken by the sound of the ranger clapping and whistling to get the rhino's attention. I was sure I had just stepped into some mad parallel universe in which a version of logic I don't understand dictates that that's a wise thing to do. Because it isn't, is it? My suspicions were confirmed a few seconds later as Alison turned to me with a look of utterly disturbed perturbedness, which nearly sent me into a fit of giggles. It was all I could do to stifle it lest a marauding rhino with its super-sharp hearing should zone in on me and make me its next victim. Remembering the safety talk, I began looking around for a place of safety or a tree to climb. There weren't any, only a few thorny, scrubby bushes that would offer no protection from a barrelling rhino, and a few larger, thornless bushes that - at best - I might be able to hide behind while someone else sacrificed their life to save me. I mentally chose the spot to which I would inevitably have to flee and then set about taking a few more photos.

The ranger led us a bit further on and I realised we were actually standing near the edge of a rather steep embankment that - theoretically - would be difficult for the rhino to climb. We stopped once more to watch the rhino but my relief was shortlived as the ranger began to whistle and clap wildly again. With all the happy clappiness I briefly wondered if some Christians were nearby. You have those kinds of panics when you're panicking.

There was a large thorn tree directly in front of us growing out of the bottom of the embankment, with its top just below us. I made a mental note - should all hell break loose - to dive into it and just hope for the best. Happily the rhino wasn't cooperating and when it appeared as if we were now thoroughly bored (we weren't - at best we were somewhat disquieted), the ranger wandered on, the two of us in tow, heading - I was so glad - away from the rhino.

A few minutes later, now in the hot sun away from more dense vegetation, we came upon a small tree with little purple berries - the magic guarri, or gwarra, tree (Euclea divinorum), which the Zulus know as umhlangula. We sampled some of the berries - they were surprisingly good. I hoped that these were the berries that a ranger previously on our journey had told us could be consumed by humans, rather than a variety that would kill us. All berries are not made equal and I can't tell the difference, much like with mushrooms. Thankfully nothing unpleasant happened while we were at the tree, although I spent the next few hours wondering if I was unknowingly slowly dying from the inside, with a climatic final moment still to come that would emotionally scar small children and land up on YouTube as grainy cellular phone footage.

The Marks Of Animals

We meandered on, mud and dew collecting on our boots, through open veld and wooded glades, noticing the silence interspersed with strange bird calls and hearing the sounds of our footsteps through the undergrowth. We saw a herd of impala, mainly females, that hesitated as we got too near and then scattered, more than once, as the males tentatively tried to determine whether we were friend or foe. Our ranger pointed out fresh footprints of hyena, buffalo, and rhino, marks that had been made, but a few hours previously, by animals now nowhere to be found. It was surreal contemplating one's impermanence in this world.

The Mushroom Collection

All of a sudden we arrived back to where we had started. After two hours in the bush it was almost an anticlimax being one step further than a second before and instantly being in sight of cars and lodgings, reminders that it's almost impossible to escape civilisation for any length of time.

Yet the magic of the bush never truly vanishes. You are forever changed by your experience with it. We had spent the morning in the company of an endearing, though odd, ranger listening to bird calls and a stillness that one cannot find in the city; I had marvelled at unfamiliar vegetation and fascinating mushrooms (I didn't realise how much until I got home and saw the vast collection of mushroom photos I had amassed), we had observed hippos, a rhino, impala, and spied footprints, an insect mound that had been decimated by an aardvark, numerous samples of dung; we had inhaled the invigorating scent of the bush (your quality of experience may vary); we had tasted the berries of the versatile, mystical umhlangula tree; we had touched the textures of the foliage and had been touched by the crispness in the early-morning air, followed by the heat of the African sun.

Our walk had been an indescribable sensory experience, with some farcical moments thrown in for good measure, all of which was a reminder as to why I cannot call any other place home, but Africa.

Mandy J Watson was a guest in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi parks courtesy of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Getaway magazine.

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On The Internet
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife: http://www.kznwildlife.com/
Getaway Magazine: http://www.getaway.co.za/
KwaZulu-Natal Tourism Authority, South Africa: http://www.kzn.org.za/

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