The Primitive Trail – the final leg

Day 4

One of the recurring themes of our trail was Matt telling us of his insomnia. What he did not mention is that when he can’t sleep he talks. He talks to whomever happens to be on watch and if he is on watch he talks to himself or into his voice recorder. We always knew when Matt was asleep because he wasn’t talking.

Yesterday evening we had watched the water level in the river rising and wondered how high it might reach during the night. By the morning though we could see that the level had started to go down.
Breakfast was becoming more and more frugal – for me at least – and this morning it was just a mug of black tea and some wine gums. We’d run out of milk and dry muesli held little appeal.
With ‘breakfast’ over we set about cleaning up our campsite; removing all traces of our stay.

Matt - packed and eager to go
Matt – packed and eager to go
With Mark and Leyland on standby in case he falls asleep
With Mark and Leyland on standby in case he falls asleep

Our day’s hike began with us crossing the river, so no need to bother with shoes and socks just yet.
I had the bright idea of setting off first so I could get some photos of the others crossing. nearly came a cropper as I slipped getting into the water; only just managed to save my camera from a dunking.

Everyone is ready
Everyone is ready
And we're off
And we’re off
Crossing the White Umfolozi
Crossing the White Umfolozi
Crossing the White Umfolozi
Crossing the White Umfolozi

Because of the high water level most of the nice dry sand that had provided a ‘beach’ by the river had disappeared and our feet were covered in mud by the time we reached the other shore. It was a struggle to try and get them clean enough to put on shoes and socks. More sand in my shoes did nothing to improve my blisters.

As usual, Sebelo would stop every once in a while to explain something about the flora we were passing. On this occasion he showed us how small wasps built their nest on a thorn bush, becoming another layer of defence against browsers.

Sebelo - our guide
Sebelo – our guide

once again our trail was brightened by wild flowers

I’m not sure why Bugs was looking so cheerful. Maybe it was because we were getting near the end, or maybe it was that strange red cocktail he’d been drinking.

Bugs - looking way too happy
Bugs – looking way too happy

We encountered a lone male giraffe who seemed completely unconcerned by our presence. When we first saw him I took a photo, expecting him walk away

A very relaxed giraffe
A very relaxed giraffe

but he just stood there and let us get closer and closer

A very relaxed giraffe
A very relaxed giraffe
I've never seen such a relaxed giraffe
I’ve never seen such a relaxed giraffe

Eventually he did decide to walk off but even then he was in no hurry.

Shortly afterwards our progress was halted when we spotted – well Sebelo spotted – a rhino ahead of us. One rhino turned out to be three. Apparently a male was trying to separate a female from her calf so that he could mate.

Rhinoceros ahead
Rhinoceros ahead

We could see bits of the encounter but mostly it was a lot of snorting and grunting and Sebelo made sure we didn’t get too close.

When Sebelo told us to start collecting firewood we knew that we were getting close to camp. Surprisingly another rocky outcrop by the river bank.

We’d arrived in camp pretty early and so once we’d dug our wells we took the opportunity to cross over the river and lie on the grass in the shade of some large trees. If only we’d remembered to bring a picnic and a chilled bottle of wine it would have been perfect.

Back on the other side I had to do some running repairs on my feet. One of the blisters had burst and was full of river sand. I needed to get the sand out and so the only thing I could do was cut it open and wash the sand out. Bugs took great glee in helping me, squirting a jet of water into the wound to flush it out. Crude, but it worked.
I poured in some Betadine solution to kill any germs and then, for good measure, I dropped in some tea tree oil. Oh shit! why did I do that?
Bugs swears that when the two solutions mingled they started fizzing, all I remember was the pain.

Like a true friend Bugs became very solicitous about the state of my blisters after that – constantly asking if I wanted him to help me do it again. Bastard, I think he’d had so much fun and wanted to see it again – he may even have been selling tickets. Strangely though, when I asked him if he wanted me to help him tend his own blisters he declined and said that they were much better now.

That evening we were treated to a wonderful sunset

Umfolozi sunset
Umfolozi sunset

Followed by a meal that I hope I never have to eat again. Tins of Chakalaka (both mild & spicy and hot & spicy varieties), tins of vegetables and a few bits of droiwors all stirred up together with a few spices. To be fair, Matt did a great job as camp cook, but the ingredients he had to work with put even his skills to the test.

This was the first night that I didn’t hear lions, but we did have buffalo and rhino splashing about in the river.

Day 5

There was a real sense of purpose in camp this morning. This was our last morning and everyone was eager to get back to base camp.

Once we’d cleaned up our camp site – The attention to detail of Sebelo in this regard was exemplary. Every trace was erased. Before even building our camp fires he and Maggie would gather sand or stones to make a base for the fire so that it did not scorch the rocks and could be swept away. Any leftover firewood was thrown into the bushes rather than leaving a pile waiting for the next people to come through. Sebelo told us that these overnight camp spots are checked regularly to ensure that they remain pristine. Admirable.

I was as eager as everyone else to get going but I had a small problem. The first thing we had to do was cross the river one last time. I’d put plasters on my blisters and the wanted to try and protect them. I thought of wearing socks to walk through the water but Bugs came up with a better idea – use a plastic bag.
Someone offered me a large plastic bag into which I put the foot with the open blister. Then, holding the bag up with one hand to stop water getting in I waded into the river. I felt ridiculous and I am sure I looked ridiculous – which I am sure was an integral part of Bugs’ plan.

We were almost halfway across when someone told us to look behind us. There, on top of the cliff above our camp was an elephant, right on the edge munching away at the bushes.
I was severely tempted to just drop the bag and grab my camera, hang the consequences.
At least Peter was occupied photographing the elephant and not me dragging my foot across the river in a plastic bag.

By the time I reached the far side it was clear that the bag had not been entirely waterproof. I sat down and got our my medical kit to change the dressings while everyone else watched the elephant which had begun to walk down from the cliff top to the river. Sebelo was getting nervous; he was sure the elephant wanted to cross the river. He kept looking anxiously at me, keen to get moving but there wasn’t much I could do to hurry up so I just concentrated on what I was doing.
The elephant reached the water’s edge and stopped to drink.

Elephant drinking from the white Umfolozi river
Elephant drinking from the white Umfolozi river

Eventually I got my shoes back on and my pack on my back.

The elephant was still there drinking. It was watching us but hadn’t yet begun to cross the river so I thought I may as well take a few photos. I don’t think Sebelo was too happy as Peter & I stood there clicking away, but I reckoned that if the elephant did begin to cross in our direction we would have plenty of time for evasive action.

Elephant drinking from the White Umfolozi river
Elephant drinking from the White Umfolozi river

It was a relatively short – but painful – hike back to base camp but we saw plenty of wildlife along the way.

There seemed to be rhinos in every thicket.

Rhino lurking
Rhino lurking

We passed a pair of white backed vultures on their nest.

White Backed Vultures nesting
White Backed Vultures nesting

Back at base camp we gratefully took off our packs and after an obligatory ‘after’ photo we returned to Ezemvelo those bits of kit that were theirs, along with any remaining food supplies.

This was where we would all go our separate ways. Mark and Leyland had to rush almost immediately. The rest of us took the opportunity to scrape off our clothes and have a shower. Sheer bliss. Charlie & Charlie then set off for Johannesburg whilst Peter, Matt, Bugs & I returned to Mpila for a cold beer. Now I was starting to feel human again.

As we passed a small group of buffaloes between base camp and Mpila it made us think about the fact that although we had seen buffalo every day they almost exclusively been old males; ‘dagga boys’.

Buffaloes
Buffaloes

We drove right through the park on our way out and were surprised by how little game we saw. Some zebras, a single Nyala, a small number of elephants but very few antelopes. This backed up what we had been told about the disproportionate number of predators in the park. Too many lions – not enough food.

On my previous visits to Hluhluwe- iMfolozi I’d seen scores of rhino out in the open, a lot more elephants and much more general game.

We did get one nice giraffe sighting though. This lone male was walking down the road towards us and just as I was explaining to Bugs that I rarely take photos of animals on tarmac he left the road to drink at a small pool.

Giraffe drinking - Hluhluwe - iMfolozi NP
Giraffe drinking – Hluhluwe – iMfolozi NP

Equipment

The only camera I used on this trip was an Olympus Stylus 1. Its light weight and versatility more than compensating for any shortcomings when compared to my usual bag full of DSLR bodies & lenses. You can read my thoughts on the Olympus after 2 field trips here https://www.wildlifephotographyafrica.com/olympus-stylus-1-punching-above-its-weight/

About The Primitive Trail

After spending 4 days slogging through the bush and criss-crossing the river I was keen to know where we’d actually been.
Each day I took a GPS reading of our campsite and then plotted them on Google Earth when I got home.

Primitive Trail map
Primitive Trail map
Primitive Trail map showing our overnight stops
Primitive Trail map showing our overnight stops

Booking Information

Cost: (At the time we booked up, obviously may change… ) 2900 Rand. (Plus a conservation levy is paid per person per night. International visitors pay 145 rand per night, South Africans, 75 rand per night.) It is worth purchasing the Ezemvelo Kzn Wildlife Rhino Card which gives free access to all of the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife reserves for 1 year from the date of purchase, so if going on to visit other reserves, as did, you will have substantial savings. (And it also goes to funding Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife conservation aims. For more details click here.)

How to book: We booked and arranged this trip directly through the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife booking office, the details of which I’ve included below.

Central Reservations Office:

KZN Wildlife
P.O. Box 13069
CASCADES 3202
Telephone: (033) 845 1067 or 845 1000. Fax: (033) 845 1001
Email : trails@kznwildlife.com
Website: www.kznwildlife.com

OR (enquiries only)

The Officer-in-Charge, iMfolozi Wilderness Trails
iMfolozi Game Reserve
Postnet Suite 30
Private Bag X013
MTUBATUBA, 3935
Telephone (035) 5508478. Fax (035) 5508480.
Email: mftrails@kznwildlife.com (make heading: ‘Trails Enquiry’)

There are also two Facebook pages, iMfolozi Game Reserve and iMfolozi Wilderness Trails Group both of which are worth joining if you use FB so as to keep up to date with happenings at iMfolozi.

Logistics

You will have to get to Mpila Camp in iMfolozi at around 9 am. The reserve is approx 270 km north of Durban, or, you can do as we did and stay in St Lucia the night prior and budget on taking 2-3 hours to get to Mpila, including signing in and the game drive from the gate to the camp. We entered via the Nyalazi Gate.

The Primitive trail runs with a minimum of 6 and maximum of 8 participants: therefore if you can get a group together and book out the whole trail it is a better option, otherwise you may not have enough people signing up to do the trail on your preferred dates. Also speaking with Sabelo, it was obvious we were very lucky in having a unified group who all worked together and helped out. By joining others you don’t know may prove to make the trail more arduous, if you don’t get on with each other…

iMfolozi is a malaria area: MALARIA WARNING All our wilderness trails take place in areas where there is a risk of contracting malaria. Participants are advised to take anti-malaria precautions as a matter of course. Please consult a medical practitioner in this regard. (Taken from the iMfolozi Wilderness Trails brochure – pdf webpage)

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