I am headed into the middle of the wetlands of St Lucia along the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast for a tour that is not your typical game drive – think more along the lines of Bear Grylls instead of a lapa in the Kruger National Park.
I arrive in a straw hat from my gran, a pair of Adidas Neo Classics and a healthy Joburg-style sag in my pants.
MEETING THE MANDLAS
At the headquarters of the Wilderness Leadership School’s tour operation in St Lucia, a group of eight, including two guides, are introduced and kitted out with supplies for the next two days.
Our guides, the Mandlas – AKA Mandla M and Mandla B – provide us with an entertaining safety session. Indemnity forms are signed and we are issued with a sleeping bag and a yoga mat, a plate, a cup and a spoon, a backpack, pots, food packs and six 25-litre containers of water.
The Wilderness Foundation’s school trains young, unemployed black people to guide tours and gain conservation skills.
SEE: iSimangaliso Wetland Park secures R75m for Sodwana redevelopment
In partnership with Woolworths, it also sells bottled water to raise funds.
It’s slowly sinking into my brain what this adventure actually entails.
“There are no toilets where we are going, so you will need to make sure you have the hardware – a spade – as well as your software – toilet paper,” jokes one of the Mandlas.
Right there and then, I decide to consume as little food as possible.
INTO THE WILD
We leave civilisation and drive into the reserve past red dunes, which form just a small part of the extraordinary biodiversity in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site.
As we marvel at the majestic dunes, we are greeted by a black rhino, which wanders over to the car. These powerful beasts look so cute on the telly, however, they are anything but when they’re standing 15m from you. The poor animal has been dehorned to deter poachers.
Eventually, we stop at a thorny tree; the Mandlas, it seems, have decided this is the spot. I hop out, relieved that we don’t have to walk anywhere with our heavy camping packs and water supplies. Not so fast. Our guides whip out two high-calibre rifles and tell us how to conduct ourselves on the walk to camp.
“If I say run, jump or duck, do not ask me why. Simply unclip your backpack as fast as you can and do exactly as I say.” Comforting sentiments.
“Buffalo and hippos are the main things we need to be worried about out here.”
Hippos, I learn, claim more human lives in South Africa than any other wild animal. Did I mention they can run as fast as 60km/h on land?
SEE: iSimangaliso Wetland Park: Wild place of superlative
The walk to the campsite helps acclimatise the body and soul. Ten paces in, I notice my body odour up the ante ... My once-dry shirt is becoming a wet floor rag. We walk in single file and in silence so we don’t alert or disturb any animals.
We reach a tree – exactly like the first one – except this one is to be our home for the next two days. It’s literally just a tree with a small sandy area the Mandlas refer to as the kitchen.
We drop the bags and head back for the water. I figure I’ll try the trick of balancing the container on top of my head, but I don’t take into consideration that I am not a strong African woman.
After a few paces, I feel my spinal cord begin to give ... Ten steps later, the container drops, followed by my body. An hour later, I stagger into camp, my sneaks and sagging shorts failing me dismally.
THE NIGHT WATCH
We collect firewood and set up our sleeping area.
“You will notice that Mandla and I have not unrolled our sleeping bags. This is because you may find a friend in there with you by the time we go to sleep,” says a Mandla. Sure enough, one of my companions found a baby snake under her sleeping mat.
Darkness sets in very quickly as we prepare dinner – chopping vegetables between a forest and a swamp. As we eat, baboons seem to be having a trap concert in the woods. I can hear what sounds like both Future and Rick Ross’ ad libs (“whoo” and “huh”). We are told about the night’s events, which are centred on sleep – and a night watch.
“While the others are asleep, each of you will do an hourlong shift. You watch the fire and shine this torch into the distance to look for approaching eyes.”
When waking a Mandla, we are to tell him about any eyes spotted on the horizon, but avoid shining the torch in his eyes as this will kill his night vision. And also to bear in mind that he has a gun.
I volunteer to do the first shift. A full moon rests in the sky in all its glory. Well, until the largest cloud I have ever seen hides the glow, plunging me into darkness with the lives of seven people in my hands.
“Make some coffee and relax, get some thinking done. Every five to 10 minutes, get up and do a perimeter check and don’t let the fire die,” advises a Mandla.
There was no coffee or deep contemplation for me – drenched in sweat and guided by fear, I patrolled that campsite nonstop, making sure the fire was alive and that no eyes were heading our way. I am so vigilant, in fact, that at one point I am told that my fire is too big.
Then I spot an eye in the distance. Just one at first, which is no cause for concern as we have been told about the night birds, which, because their eyes are on either side of their heads, only show one at a time.
No Mandla wants to be woken because of a bird. But this particular eye seems to be advancing rather quickly. In an instant, one eye becomes two, not far apart, and at knee-height. The eyes are headed towards me. Rogue hyena!
For a moment, I consider flinging myself under the Mandlas’ mosquito net, but then it changes direction. Brother hyena was just trying to locate his buddies somewhere in the darkness.
COOLING IN THE SWAMP
The next day, we take a 6km hike from the camp to the swamps so that we can see the famous hippos and crocodiles. We take small backpacks containing a light lunch.
We stop to look at the hippos as they try to find some relief from the heat in the mud. Crocodiles swim among them and one could easily be fooled into thinking that they are just floating logs.
We encounter zebra, as well as evidence of elephants and leopard, but these remain elusive. A makeshift shower (a bottle and a bar of soap) behind a thorn tree is invigorating. But nothing will match my encounter with that hyena. Believe me, friends, to walk among the animals is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For four nights and five days (with a minimum of six people per group and including food) South African adults are charged R9 320 per person. International tourists pay R12 595. South African students pay R7 200 and international students pay R8 990
For more information, visit Isimagaliso
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