Under a Watchful Eye
At Imfolozi’s base camp for hikers we meet our guide Mphile and her colleague Spha. They lead us to the tents and emphasize that the camp is not fenced. “Elephants, lions, leopards, wild dogs, giraffes, wildebeests, baboons, buffaloes and other animals that live in the park: they can all come here,” they report. The proximity to so many wild animals around us excites us. However, the rifles that Mphile and Spha constantly carry with them don’t exactly fuel that excitement. “Pay attention at night. If you see eyes, it is better not to go to the toilet block,” they caution. We hardly sleep that night because of all the animal noises. Luckily, we don’t have to go to the bathroom.
Guests in the Wild
The next morning, we pack our backpacks for the multi-day hiking expedition. Our group is unusually small: just us, Kayo and the two guides. Soon we cross a river, which fortunately turns out to be shallow. “Don’t worry, the crocodiles and hippos should be further downstream,” says Mphile with a big smile. Fortunately, she is right, and we reach the other shore safely.
“Behind the tree!” Mphile suddenly shouts. We sprint as fast as we can to the designated tree. As we hide behind the trunk, a colossal rhinoceros with her calf races right past us. This is exactly what we were warned about while studying the rhinos from a distance. “They can be very aggressive, especially if there is a calf involved”, Mphile told us. We were just focused on getting closer to get a better photo composition of the ponderous, peacefully grazing vegetarians. We know better now and are glad this ended well. What more adventures await us in the South African wilderness?
We follow Mphile and Spha over countless miles of hiking trails. “Large animals have made these trails”, Mphile explains, as if she sensed the question coming. “Just like us, they don’t like having to struggle through thorny bushes all the time either.” While she flawlessly finds her way in this labyrinth of unmarked paths, she talks extensively about excrements, plants and insects. We regularly see rhinos, zebras and impalas, an antelope species. To our disappointment, they are very wary and usually keep quite a distance. “Animals are like our brothers and sisters: we should treat them with respect. That’s why we don’t want to use our guns, only in an emergency”, Mphile says. She describes what we all feel: we are clearly guests in the wild.
Sleeping with Rhinos
After we arrive at a flat patch next to the river, we set up camp for the night. Our guides fetch a sheet against the rain. Five mats with sleeping bags fit exactly under it. We gather wood for a campfire. “The most important thing is that the fire stays on all night”, Mphile stresses. “When animals smell the smoke, they keep their distance.” After a simple but tasty meal prepared on the campfire by our guides, darkness falls. The night watches begin, and we take turns, moving the logs further and further towards the center of the campfire. We hear a cacophony of animal sounds. The screams of the baboons sound very close. “What a bizarre idea that the rhinos practically sleep next to us…” Floris whispers in awe.