Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Walking Safari
Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
The White Imfolozi river sparkled in the quiet early light as the little cluster of mules, loaded with our possessions and supplies for the next 3 days, shuffled down the river bank and splashed away through the sandy dry season waters. We shouldered our daypacks and followed Dennis, our guide, through the long grass to the water's edge. Dennis nonchalantly brushed off two already alarmingly chubby looking ticks which had attached themselves in the 100 yards we had walked and were struggling for purchase in his leg hairs. My already well developed paranoia, fed on tales of little pods from which tiny disease bearing pepper ticks disperse like assault troops from a helicopter, reached a new crescendo.
We unbooted and waded between the sandbanks. In a depression on the far bank lay a buffalo carcass, dead two days but already crawling with maggotts and missing key limbs; hyenas had already dipped deep into its stomach, strewing entrails around the reed beds. Nature red in tooth and claw was already with us: our adventure had started.
We waited at the edge of the bush while Dennis, rifle cradled warily, scouted forward to check our route for possible dangers.
We had arrived at the simple Mndindini tented camp at nightfall the previous day, after a 3 hour drive north from Durban up the eastern coast of South Africa. Driving in through the park, we had had superb close-up views of impala, white rhino and giraffe, all unmoved by our 4WD tank but ready to flee at the first sight of a human form. Very strange.
After a brief glimpse of the last faint smudge of sunset glistening in the river and supper of Impala Spaghetti Bolognaise followed by an introductory lecture on our route from Dennis, we had bedded down at 8 (followed by torchlight reading): despite the unfeasibly early hour, we were already adapting to bush life and I was asleep by 10.
The riverside vegetation now cleared, we set off up a scrubby hillside behind the 23 year old, extremely competent, Dennis, lean and already nascently leathery. He walked in sports sandals, to my amazement given the reputation of the local serpent life (black mamba and puff adders) and the long grass we were often walking through. As well as our group of 4, there were a South African not overburdened with interpersonal skills, Liane, a 22 year old trainee ranger with attitude and Richard, a plump, grizzled Zulu with a charismatic laugh, reassuring years of experience and a rifle and bandana, who brought up the rear.
We walked in silence out into the emptiness of the Imfolozi Park, South Africa's oldest nature reserve and the place where the white rhino, then down to between 30 and 50, was saved from extinction. We were heading out for a 3 day walk into a 30,000 hectare wilderness area, where we would see no roads, buildings or any other traces of mankind. This area was the original homeland of the Zulus, and is rich in their history; some 30 kilometers to the west lies Ulundi, the royal kraal of the (last) Zulu king, Cetsawayo. Tsetse flies and malaria caused the depopulation of the area, and there are now few traces of the Zulu other than an occasional broken shard of a grinding stone.
The timeless, changeless bush had a supernatural quality as it engulfed us, busy with birdsong in the morning and evening but heavy and silent in the mid day heat, except when broken by the surprisingly loud grunts of the rutting male impala. At night, we heard a distant lion roar and, nearer at hand, the curious, drawn out yelp of the hyena. One evening, the terrified death screams of a nameless animal curdled our supper.
We plodded up a long hillside among thorn trees which thinned out as we neared the ridge top, the leader dropping to the back every few minutes, so that everyone got a turn at the front, where the viewing was likely to be best. I felt increasingly removed from the world of measurement and deadlines we normally inhabited; Dennis had instructed us to leave our watches behind, and this helped to emphasise our journey into a raw, primaeval world.
We paused and watched a large herd, perhaps 40 or 50, of delicate ochre impala; they had seen us, and were poised to run, heads erect, ears pricked. At some obscure sign, perhaps a breath of wind, a grunt from the male set them off, leaping over the undergrowth in their flight.
Shortly after, we encountered a white rhino and her calf, grazing among the trees to our right. They sensed our presence and ambled off. A group of 5 magnificent white rhino, 2 bulls, an adult female and two sub-adults, an unusually large group, were silhouetted at the top of the ridge. We had our first frisson of real threat and cowered behind some bushes, as they could run our way if they sensed our presence. We skirted them as they grazed their way slowly down the ridge.
We took a water break on the edge of a bluff overlooking a wide sweep of the river. Zebra and a buffalo grazed placidly among the reeds.
A long, fairly uneventful trek along the contours of the hillside through quietly humming bush, with wide views across the valley to the brown hills on the horizon, brought us to a spectacular clifftop some 200 ft above a 180 degree bend in the White Imfolozi. We sat in the hot sun, which was tempered by a gentle breeze, and enjoyed the view. A pair of buffalo sloshed slowly through the river and lay down on the warm sandy bank. A large group of impala grazed in a clearing in the thick vegetation inside the great river bend.
Dennis and Richard produced a delicious lunch of make-your-own salami-and-cheese sandwiches from ingredients which we had all carried in our packs. We lay on the cliff top and mused and then snoozed.
Down round the cliffs by the river, after careful reconnaisance by Dennis, we waded through refreshing ankle deep waters. We crossed the isthmus and recrossed the river uneventfully, putting on our boots under a magnificent, ancient tree.
We trekked on for a couple of hours, gradually climbing to higher ground through thick trees in the pregnant afternoon stillness. We saw glimpses of impala and startled a white rhino and her calf, which jogged off (“scuttled” captures the spirit of their flight, but no-one would believe it of such a huge beast), fortunately away from us. I was naively surprised by how many and well established the animal tracks that we followed were, and they were particularly heavily used in this area, major highways, and it felt as if traffic lights would be needed to cope with the dawn and dusk rush to the waterholes.
Finally, tired and thirsty, we reached our final river crossing and carried our boots the final 200 metres into our camp, hidden in a clearing among fine mature trees beneath Ngabanene hill, scene of a victorious assault by the great Zulu king, Shaka. We gratefully retrieved our mule-borne packs and fell on the fresh water. After an inspection of the bush-bucket shower and my first true "shovel recce" in nearly 20 years - we have to go in pairs for security and Ali stood with her back turned on pain of divorce - we attempted a swim, fumbling for anywhere deeper than our knees under Dennis' watchful eye. We eventually managed to find somewhere to float on our backs in the swift current as the last of the sun's rays receded from the far bank.
We lay on mats around the fire, our backs supported by logs, enjoying the fading light silhouetting the extraordinarily fine fan vaulting of the delicate trees above us. After some finely judged dry martinis (long story), we ate impala stew washed down by red South African wine, and chatted in the mellow firelight. We withdrew to our tents at a late seeming hour.
We woke horribly early to the laughter of Richard and his brother Shedrak. Emerging into a quiet grey dawn, which slid into another cloudless day, I showered with a self-conscious wife under a lukewarm bucket. A filling breakfast of mealy porridge by the fire set us up nicely.
We filled up on food and water and crossed back over the river, skirting the channel where Crasher and I swam last night, and picked out way gingerly through an adjacent backwater which Dennis now told us is a crocodile hangout. We clambered up the steep bank and turned westward along the riverbank. Dennis halted us on the edge of the trees; ahead, in a patch of squashed reeds, a big male buffalo lay supine in the morning sun. He was extraordinarily unaware of events around him - clearly a heavy night - and dozed on despite Dennis' attempts to get his attention; buffalo can be extremely dangerous, and he needed to be shifted. A loud shout finally brought him to his feet, bleary and cross looking. He snorted belligerently in our direction, then shuffled irritably away.
Beyond the reed bed, the day's first herd of impala shimmered away. A group of white backed vultures were hunched in a tree, flapping heavily away one by one as we approached. A long walk up a ridge through pulsing bush took us away from the river. A group of neurotically shy wildebeeste dashed off, otherwise we saw little for an hour or so, although the ridiculous grunts of rutting impala informed us that we were in company.
We eventually turned down a steep slope through long dry grass back toward the river. In a stand of trees, we met a large group of foraging banded mongooses. Dennis, who, while never blasé, at 23 had clearly already seen it all several times over, was really quite excited. We crouched and watched for half an hour as 50 or so of them moved along the hillside below us, burrowing under the dead leaves, scampering from spot to spot or silhouetted resting on logs or standing on their hind legs as they sniffed the air. They were in constant communication, an endearing sound between a purr and a dove's coo mingled with squeaks from the young and growls of warning when they saw us. They encountered us two or three times; they would all freeze, then scamper away to our front. Ten minutes later they were, surprisingly, back, coming within 20 feet at one time, beautiful dark ringed rich brown coats, with intelligent little faces, close packed as they bobbed down the path. The leaders froze and we watched each other for 10 seconds before they fled. They circled us downhill, rustling off into the brush behind us. A magical experience.
We were back at the river. Dennis reconnoitered the bank, then we crept up. A small croc slid into the water. A hundred yards upstream, a huge one basked on a sandbank, its mouth wide open in a terrifying rictus. And we were swimming in that river....
Another delicious picnic, back under the beautiful tracery of our campsite trees, and a brief digestive snooze. We then returned back to the ridge top, and walked parallel to the river through openish country with vistas of several hundred metres between the clumps of bushes. Across the river was Mpolothi hill, scene of royal elephant hunts of the great tyrant, Shaka. A large leopard tortois lay dead, stinking, on its back, apparently the victim of inquisitive hyenas. Further on, across a water hole, a nyala had its head buried so deep in an evidently juicy bush that its didn’t see us, 20 metres away, for a couple of minutes. It suddenly looked up, then dashed frantically away. Good thing we weren’t lions.
A long, uneventful walk through the thick afternoon heat brought us back to the river flats, where we encountered a delightful fine group of zebra, three adults and a foal, which pottered towards us along our track in the golden early evening light. They sensed our presence and stood, sniffing the air, before suddenly breaking away. Dennis' riverbank recce produced a large buffalo, which he shooed away with some difficulty; it stood its ground, staring aggressively, for some minutes.
We were now back at base, and gingerly crossed the river, where we had frolicked the night before (thanks, Dennis). After drinks and a little stroll with the shovel, we brought drinks back to the bank, where we sat on the sand and enjoyed a vivid, but fairly quick, sunset. Back by the fire, we chatted and ate macaroni cheese. We were again in bed at some ludicrously early hour.
Our hike started with a puff up Ngabanene hill behind the camp, rewarded with a superb view from the cliffs at the top. Immediately beneath us was a grand bend of the river, with alternating rock and reed behind the sand banks, then wide meadows of succulent looking grass populated this morning by large numbers impala and warthogs. Further back, thick woodland patched with glades covered the long slopes which rose to open ridges on the horizon. The quality of morningness was almost tangible. A small pride of lions, two females, a sub-adult male and three cubs, sunned itself on a grassy bank in the middle distance, lazy after a recent kill. We could hear the male roaring, but he never emerged from the bush.
We walked round to a rocky ledge, where we sat for an hour and watched the day develop far below us. The lions ambled down to drink, then lay in the warm sand by the river. After a quarter of an hour, they sidled up onto a rocky promontory, where they saw the impala. A leisurely pseudo stalk began, although their heart was clearly not in it. They split up and crept towards the unsuspecting impala, who at this moment wandered down onto a wide sand bar to drink, separated from safety by 30 or 40 metres of bare sand. This must have been Hunting Heaven, with a thick band of reeds hiding their approach, but the lions were so relaxed that they looked the gift impala over-carefully in the mouth. The impala seemed to take a fecklessly long time to amble back to the relative safety of the grassland, but they made it. Shortly after, they must have smelled the lions, as they bounded off to the edge of the trees, then disappeared into the bush.
A scramble down the cliff-face found us on a ledge, behind it a shallow hollow with a ochre bushman's picture of an eland; in front a huge, sweeping view of the bush a couple of hundred feet below.
A long walk along the hilltop and then down a gentle slope brought us through mixed country to the riverbank and lunch. A scraped patch was piled with grassy white rhino dung and the rough, twiggy excrement of the browsing black rhino. We had good viewings of a warthog family resting under a clump of trees; they grunted to their feet, watched us carefully for a minute or two, then scuttled off, their tails comically erect. Groups of zebra wandered across our path or trotted off from their shade at our approach.
Across the river, a large bull elephant, apparently a new arrival in the park, stood in the sand, flapping its ears and demonstrating in the direction of our mules, which had come to the ford with our possessions. It walked away, then turned and made a feint charge in our direction. After a few minutes, it wandered back to the tree line, where it browsed while keeping a watch on us. Dennis and Richard helped the muleteer drive the train across the river, while we sat in the shade of a fine, large tree and watched the scene. The elephant carried on eating, and eventually shuffled off into the trees.
A welcome picnic, then we sat in the deepest channel of the river, which swirled, chest deep, past the rock below our tree. Crocs would not, apparently, be out here in these shallows away from reedy, muddy banks. I lay and basked on the rock. It was a gorgeous, languid hour or so.
We hitched up our packs, waded across the river and scouted up through the screen of trees behind the wide sandbank on the far side. A trodden patch was piled with heaps of elephant turds, some of them spattered like cowpats; its new environment was not suiting our friend. Across the grass behind the trees, the elephant browsed at the edge of the bush. We skirted it warily, and headed off among the trees parallel with the river. After a beautiful walk along the valley through fine trees and lush grass, we saw the base camp across the river. Back at our first crossing, the buffalo had been stripped totally bare. We splashed back across the river, jumped the tick-infested grass, and sank thankfully down in the chairs round the fireplace, reaching for a gin and tonic. We had survived the wild.