Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Elephant and Fortune

The wind blew like a hairdryer.  It was hot. Too hot.  Our party stopped yet again and sank to the ground to drink from our water bottles.  Red-faced, the English girls looked at me gratefully because I was the first to call a halt.  Fortune, our leader was sanguine.  Stop any time you like, it's your call. We were in the iMfolozi Game Reserve in Zululand, originally King Shaka's hunting grounds. It was here in the 60s that the white rhino was saved from extinction. Three days of wilderness walking through baking pristine bushveld, and we had only been going for about an hour.  It was obvious the weather was going to break, and we were all worried about the river we'd had to ford to get here.  If the rains came, that river was going to become impassable.  It turned out the least of our worries, but that sums up the excitement of the bush. You never know what is going to happen.

That first night we were all strangers.  We sat around a large table and were given our first talk about walking in the wild. Whatever you do, said Fortune, keep an eye on me.  If I gesture like this, and he waved his hand behind, you must stop immediately.  There are elephant and rhino everywhere, and if we surprise them and leave them with no escape route, they are likely to charge. Then we're in trouble. But if we are downwind, we will be safe, and we can view them up close. Remember these are wild animals, you never know what they might do, and silence is vital. We listened intently, feeling nervous. The three English girls, a young German couple, me and two childhood friends were about to get to know each other well. 

That night, we slept in our little cabins next to the wide river.  We had been warned to watch out for nocturnal hippo in the camp.  I lay awake most of the night listening to the chomping outside my window.  Need to sleep, I thought.  Many kilometres to cover tomorrow, I'll need my strength. But the sound of hippo grazing five feet away from my ear was seriously unnerving  I blearily woke up and complained to my room-mate, my new friend, about lying awake.  Me too, she said.  We all had. The incessant chomping, it tuned out, was a bushbuck.

As we set off, we saw a second group leaving.  They were heading in the other direction, and were on a tougher, more rustic walk with a different camp every night.  They were going much further into the bush, and sleeping under a single shelter.  We were headed to a camp with two-man tents, and a bush kitchen, and now it was time to get across the river. Fortune was always at the head of our little line, Thandu at the rear, with Richard their assistant keeping vigil wherever he was needed.  Each Zulu had a 458-calibre rifle cocked over his shoulder, ready to shoot if things got scary. This was serious. We gingerly waded through the river up to our knees.

The going was hot, but we got used to it.  The bush was screaming with cicadas and bush shrike and a million other sounds all melding into one soothing hum that sang African bush. Fortune led us at our own pace, giving us interesting facts, like a tree still damp with mud rubbed off by a very recent rhino, or explaining the undulating yellow landscape, studded with thorny acacia trees. The next river was much shallower and the colour of coffee.  By then we were so hot, we lay down on the bank, cooling our heads in the sweet muddy water. Shampoo and set courtesy the Black Umfolozi river.

Finally the camp, tents around a campfire, and a fresh-cooked meal, our backpacks already there, carried ahead by gentle donkeys. Behind some bush, the camp shower. This was a 5 gallon drum, pierced with holes, filled with warm water and operated by string, well obscured from the camp, but wide open the rest of the way round. It was an interesting experience in trust, but oh so blissful. Below us lay the wide lazy river with wide sandy banks.

Early next morning, as we emerged from our tents we met the German. A keen photographer, he was wild-eyed with excitement. There are lions down there, I just saw three cubs playing by the river. Indeed the sand showed the heavy little pug marks all over the place. Yes, nodded our ranger, they are probably sleeping over there below our camp.  We'd spent the night cuddled up next to a pride of lions. Another hot thirsty and powerfully spiritual day, we trekked through the vast bushveld. In a particularly lush valley we came across a herd of elephant.  Huge and black, with ears waving furiously in the heat, we crept up slowly, our eyes stuck on Fortune to get a breathtaking view of these magnificent animals. The trees were swaying as branches were pulled off for their green foliage.  This was up close and it felt like we were staring into their eyes.  Eventually Fortune gestured us back, and silently we retreated, hearts pounding.

Back in our camp, the river looked very inviting.  Can we swim safely here, Fortune?  No problem, Richard will come down with you.  We waded in and Richard, rifle permanently cocked, stood near as we frolicked in the smooth running water.  Chatting to Richard, the rifle it turned out, was to shoot crocodiles. We didn't stay in too long. At dusk, I was amazed the English girls braved the shower knowing there were lions around.  I kept mine till morning.  That night, around the campfire, we got to know our hosts a bit better.  Fortune as the leader of the group, held the floor. A Durban boy, like us, he entertained us with stories of charging elephant, and being caught in cross fire during an armed robbery at a garage. He lifted his khaki shirt and showed us the scar where a bullet had got him. Also about the group of rogue elephant that were causing trouble in the reserve.  They were angry because some bush camps were slap bang in the middle of their age-old paths. Fortune obviously was a man in tune with the wild. Only 27, his father was a high-ranking government official and he could have reached any heights, but he chose to be a ranger in the bush. Our lives depended on him, and we became very fond of him.

Our final day and we headed off in single file. The weather was about to break, and Fortune was worried about the river flooding.  There was no other way back, so we kept a good speed.  Coming to a wide clearing, our hoods well up against the pounding rain, I looked across to see a black bus just 50 yards away.  It was so incongruous, it took a few seconds before we realized Thandu was running straight for it shouting and waving his rifle.  It was a huge white rhino, and startled, it turned and ran away. A very close call. We marched on, getting to the rapidly swelling river just in time to cross. And then we were home. That night, spirits were high and some wine was produced for the final evening. 

Then the other group returned.  They looked shocked and strained. They had a frightening story to tell.  On their final night in the bush, rogue elephants had attacked their camp.  They trampled through the tents, ripping everything down, and the whole group fled into the bush where they spent a terrifying night.  When they finally ventured out next morning, they found that after the elephant had wrecked the place, they had dragged all their belongings and cameras out of the shelter and had dumped them in the fire.

Exactly 12 months later, Fortune Mkize was leading the exact same trail with a small group.  They came upon an angry rheumy-eyed male elephant.  Fortune froze and signaled everyone's retreat, then faced the animal, his rifle cocked.  Slowly he tried to manoeuvre away. But the elephant charged. Fortune tripped on some branches, and in a second, the giant creature trampled him, knelt and hooked his tusks under his body, then using his trunk, tossed his body away.  He was heard to shout in Zulu,  "Ngafa mina kaBaba" - "I, my father's beloved one, am dying".  And that was it.