Rhino Conservation Ambassadors on the iMfolozi Wilderness Trail
Pics Penny Parker and Micah van Schalkwyk
Leaves for loo paper, voracious sand fleas, toe-nibbling river shrimp, 20kg backpacks to carry supplies for five days, taking turns on night watch to guard the camp, heat, dirt and walking among wildlife – these were some of the challenges faced by seven women who recently completed an iMfolozi Wilderness Trail in memory of the late Dr Ian Player. Teenagers Gwendolyn Isaacs from Ballito, KZN (18), Jacomé Pretorius (16) from George, Western Cape, and Kelly Dramos (16) from Maputo, Mozambique, said it was one of the best experiences of their lives. All of them participated in last year’s World Youth Rhino Summit and were chosen to join the ‘Women in the Wilderness’ trail because of their ongoing youth ambassador efforts to raise awareness of the continuing rhino poaching crisis in South Africa. They were joined by Sheelagh Antrobus (Project Rhino KZN), Micah van Schalkwyk (World Youth Rhino Summit coordinator), Bronwyn Laing (Rhino Art ‘Let our Voices Be Heard’ campaign leader) and Penny Parker (Cape Union Mart).
Player’s lifelong work to conserve the southern white rhino and the iMfolozi Wilderness area, which forms part of the greater Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, was the inspiration for the group to give up their home comforts and leave school and rhino conservation work for a few days to personally experience life in the wild, surrounded by the Big 5. The 30 000ha area is home to a large population of endangered black and white rhino and is under constant threat from armed poaching syndicates. It is also threatened by Ibutho Coal’s pending application to develop an open-cast mine close to the Wilderness boundary fence, which conservation groups are fighting to prevent, saying the continual noise, light and dust emanating from the mine will destroy the sensitive ecology of the Wilderness area, as well as intensify poaching threats.
With no communications or contact with the outside world, the group - led by Denis Zondi and Sipho Buthelezi, field guides from the Wilderness Leadership School - traversed the hills and valleys flanking the Black iMfolozi River, sleeping in the open and cooking evening meals using only two pots, one kettle and a large spoon. Tasty pasta dinners, oats porridge for breakfast, cheese and tuna sandwiches for lunch and dried fruit to snack on kept them fed. Water drawn from the river and purified provided their drinking water. The girls became quite fond of ‘Mr Dug’ – the yellow and green hand trowel, so necessary for digging that important little hole after early morning coffee.
“We weren’t allowed toilet paper!” exclaimed Bronwyn Laing. “So we became very good at identifying non-poisonous leaves and grass to use instead!” Lion, rhino, hyena, elephant and buffalo were always in close proximity and on night three, two elephants visited their campsite, causing the group to beat a hasty retreat in the darkness. “We weren’t in any real danger,” said Micah van Schalkwyk from Pietermaritzburg, who spotted the looming pachyderms during her night watch. “Moving away from them was more about showing respect: we were, after all, in their world.” Experiencing the interconnectedness of wildlife, wilderness and humanity was a constant theme of the five-day trail and each woman took away a different experience. “Wilderness represents that quiet place we all have to go sometimes when we need to look at life through a wider lens. Wilderness teaches patience, rhythm and process, and gave me time to reflect,” said Micah. “Being in the wilderness is not easy but it is simple. By un-complicating life, you leave room to learn about yourself and find peace.”
Penny Parker agreed: “For me, the most important and memorable moments of the trail where those times in which nothing was said. ‘Solo time’ spent reflecting on how profoundly the wilderness impacted us, the Night Watch and the great sense of responsibility towards your fellow trailists. The sounds of the night, the distant roar of a lion, incessant chirping of cicadas, the lullaby of a fiery-necked nightjar and the eerie whoop of a hyena all combine to create a magical moment in which you literally feel more at home than ever. “And of course, the camp life: collecting and purifying water, making the fire, preparing dinner, washing pots and ensuring no sign of our presence was left behind. ‘Leave no trace’ meant absolute respect for the land that supported us.”
“It was the personal heartache of being lead to a grassy slope on which the two-year old bones of a poached rhino still lie - a bleached, silent appeal to please do more,” said Sheelagh Antrobus. “On the opposite bank of the river, a breeding herd of elephant wandered past and buffalo wallowed in the shallows. I fingered the long rib bones and perfectly pitted vertebrae of what was once a magnificent rhino in her prime as Zondi related the tale of how she was shot by poachers and her horns forcibly removed. I felt personally responsible: it happened during my watch. ‘I’m so, so sorry…’ was all I could whisper to the bones through which the wind blew a deeply sad memorial, and make a promise to do more to protect KZN’s rhinos.”
The trail ended at the memorial iSivivane (stone cairn) at the iMfolozi Centenary Centre, built by the World Youth Rhino Summit participants last year, where each trial member laid a pebble from the Wilderness in memory of Dr Ian Player.
To show your support and contribute to the Save the iMfolozi Wilderness campaign, please visit: www.indiegogo.com/projects/women-in-the-wilderness