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Imfolozi Wilderness Trail Day 1 - The Sacred Wilderness

By Scott Ramsay | Book Accommodation

Imfolozi Wilderness Trail – River Crossing


A few days ago I finished the primitive wilderness trail at Imfolozi Game Reserve. For five days and four nights we were led by trails ranger Nunu Jobe through the dedicated wilderness area in the south of Imfolozi Game Reserve. We walked every day through the bush, along the trails made by the animals. We slept on the ground under the stars. We drank from the river. We ate simple food. We cooked on a fire. We swam in the river. We woke up and went to sleep with the sun.

There are no roads in the wilderness area. No telephone poles. No huts. In fact, nothing man-made exists here. More than 30 000 hectares in size, the Imfolozi Wilderness Area belongs to the animals. Ian Player instigated it’s declaration in the 1950s, and it’s thanks to him and his friend and mentor Magqubu Ntombela that today we can walk through some of the most spectacular bushveld scenery in South Africa, among lions, elephants, buffalo, rhino and hundreds of other wild species. It is a place where man is just one species out of thousands.

Ian Player, in his book Zululand Wilderness, wrote of what Laurens van der Post had to say about people who spent time in the wilderness:

“Somehow they emerge from the wilderness transformed, as if they were coming from a highly sacred atmosphere. Indeed, wilderness is the original cathedral, the original temple, the original church of life in which they have been converted and healed and from which they have emerged transformed in a positive manner.”

Magqubu Ntombela and Dr Ian Player on trail

Magqubu Ntombela and Dr Ian Player on trail

Day 1

There were ten of us. “Why are you doing this trail?” Nunu asked the group. We had gathered at midday for the start of the trail, on the banks of the White Umfolozi River. The replies came: “To get out of my comfort zone”. “To get into nature”. “I love the bush”. “Needed to get out of the city”. “To walk and be in nature”.

We had signed the indemnity forms. Item 7 of the indemnity form: “Please note that cell phones and laptops are not allowed on Wilderness Trails. Should you be found with one of these, you will be dismissed from the trail.”

Nunu asked us to take off our watches and leave them behind. We wouldn’t need them. Instead, we’d wake with the sun’s appearance, and go to bed when it dropped below the horizon, like other diurnal creatures. As it turned out, we quickly learned to love this natural rhythm of living.

Imfolozi Wilderness Trail Group

Nunu looked at us, with a guinea-fowl feather in his hair, and nodded, then spoke softly:

“This is a big place. 33 000 hectares. There are no roads, no buildings. It’s such a lovely place. Because we are walking, we won’t get to see most of it. It’s not about how far we walk. It’s about enjoying the moments with the animals. There are lion, elephants, hippo, leopard, buffalo, wild dogs here…We’re going to be walking where they live. This is their home. I’m not sure we will see them. If we do, it will be a bonus.”

“Maybe this trail is not about the animals – maybe it is about us. The animals are our mirror. We will see how much we have changed, whereas they have stayed the same. I think we will learn a lot, about ourselves especially.”

“We rest when we are tired. We eat when we are hungry. There is nothing to push us. Our safety comes first, so we will keep our distance from dangerous animals. We’ll be sharing and learning from each other. Every time I come on trail, I learn something. Please don’t bury your questions – if you want to ask something, then do. It’s your trail, not mine.”

“Now, let’s go get swallowed by the wilderness.”

Nunu Jobe

We took off our boots, and crossed the White Umfolozi River, wide and sandy, braided with silvery water. On the other side, once we had laced up our boots again, Nunu called us together, and read from his notebook, which he would do at the beginning of every day:

Man cannot play in God’s garden without being aware of Him. He created everything with wisdom and love, sometimes even with a smile, and everything is His. Including us. We forget sometimes that these animals are our brothers and sisters. We need to learn about our true place in the world.”

We set off, walking into the bush. Along the way, we came across an elephant’s footprint in the sand. Nunu got us to put all our feet within the footprint of the elephant. Seven people each put a foot into it simultaneously. “See how small we are,” Nunu smiled. “We are nothing compared to an elephant.”

One elephant foot - many human feet!

One elephant foot - many human feet!

Further along, we came across a rubbing stone, used by rhino to scratch the ticks off their hides. The stone had blood on it. “This is from a black rhino…not a white rhino. You know why? Some of the black rhinos have parasites which cause open wounds on their skin. It’s not particularly sore for them…but when they rub themselves against stones or trees, they leave traces of blood…like here.”

We continued walking, and Nunu said: “We share everything here with the animals, the paths, the rocks, the water, the air…”

Along the way, we saw wildebeest, giraffe, impala, nyala…

As the sun started falling low, we came again to the White Umfolozi river, which meanders back and forth across the southern wilderness area, so that if one walks in a straight line, you’ll need to cross it several times. We crossed the river, to our first campsite on the trail.

Our campsite was on a low cliff, perched on the edge of the river. A good site, enclosed by a steep slope behind it. Nunu made a fire. We washed in the river. We ate dinner. As the sun went down, two hyenas crossed the river in the distance. We were now in the wilderness for sure.

Nune then spoke: “Thank you for your co-operation today. Thank you for coming on the trail. Thank you especially to the animals, for allowing us to pass through their home, safely.”

Imfolozi Wilderness Trail Campfire

Around the fire, we talked a while. Then to bed. Nunu instructed us on bathroom etiquette in the wilderness. A small spade, toilet paper and matches are provided. Dig yourself a small hole, squat, do your business, then burn the toilet paper. Then cover the hole with soil.

Brushing your teeth must also have no impact on the environment. “Don’t mess up the animals’ home by spitting your toothpaste onto the ground,” Nunu told us. “This is paradise, remember. So before you spit, swish some water in your mouth, dig a little hole, then spit it out, and cover the hole again.”

Our thin camping mattresses and warm sleeping bags were comfortable. The stars burned strongly. No moon had risen yet. Hyenas started wailing in the black night.

Everyone would get a chance to keep watch on their own, and to keep the fire stoked. It’s a ritual of the Imfolozi Wilderness Trail, something that has been done on every trail, ever since the first one was walked by Dr Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela in 1957.

We sorted out our shifts. I got the 2am shift. I was happy with that…I looked forward to hearing the sounds of the deep African night.

“But we don’t have any watches, so how do we know what time it is?” someone asked. Nunu told us to figure it out for ourselves, to get our own sense of time in the wilderness.

Nunu explained: “In the city we work all day, then we eat, then we watch TV, then we go to sleep. There’s no time for thinking anymore about the important things in life. This is your chance. But please, if a lion or hyena is approaching the camp, wake me up. But if you see them walking past, just enjoy it and let me sleep.”

I fell asleep quickly on the hard earth. Dreams come and went. I always dream deeply when I sleep in the open, under the stars, on the ground. I’m not sure why, but maybe I’m more connected to my subconscious. I got woken for my shift. The half-moon was perched up in the sky. I stoked the fire, and gazed into the flames. Lions roared in the distance, followed by the cackle of hyenas. “I’m alive, so alive,” I thought.