How on earth do we describe this trail to friends and family? This was the principal musing of the group as our trip wound down. It’s quite straightforward detailing the day-to-day rawness of the experience, but less simple describing that, through scraping away at life’s veneer, something truly extraordinary emerges. Something for which words seem inadequate, or are perhaps un-invented.
This trail had long been on my bucket list. Way too long. As you get older, so many of those bucket list items stare back at you accusingly, and suddenly you’re faced with this daunting queue … and the real possibility you might run out of time, or, my greater fear, steam. The realisation that I might be “too old” for anything, wasn’t something I was keen to face up to.
One soothing word popped up in the literature of the Wilderness Leadership School’s (WLS) trails – moderate. I thought, hey, I’m moderately everything, I can do this. Not that I had no concerns – I did, primarily the weight of the backpack, and the impact on the group if I couldn’t function effectively from around day two. Ego or concern for others, time would tell.
I knew no one on the trip. Would I be the oldest by far? The only one who hadn’t, or ever wanted to summit, Kilimanjaro? What if the average age was 18, and language Norwegian?
I deliberately avoided asking questions of WLS. I was going to do the trip come what may, and given the rising self-doubt, best to skip hard facts. What I knew was this – the trail took eight maximum, with two highly experienced and armed guides, and we’d be carrying backpacks with all our clothes, food, and sleeping gear. And we’d be sleeping without shelter.
Did I “train” for it? No. They were clear – this wasn’t a hike, safari or personal endurance test. It was a trail. Moderation my mantra.
Our ages ranged from 22 to 74. Eight complete strangers who lived for five days in extraordinary intimacy, and who become for that period, family. More than family, a tribe even. Out there it’s soon clear, you pull your weight or someone else has to pull double theirs. In the bush, every single activity that’s automated simplicity at home, needs a mindfulness and generosity of spirit. Whether it’s gathering and purifying water from the river, sourcing a loo and selecting leaves as your three-ply, washing pots with sand, or obeying a hand signal when you meet a lion, elephant, or herd of buffalo. Which we did.
You have no watch, and no cellphone. Time revolves around when you’re tired, rested, or hungry … or the stars, moon and sun. Or, increasingly, your intuition, which becomes honed into a far more trusty tool out there, than in here.
At the outset our two guides, Mandla Mkhwanazi and Siphiwe Mthethwa, laid down the ground rules about safety, about leaving no trace of ourselves, and about why we were there. A deep respect for nature is a guiding principle, so too the simple fact that we were in the domain of the animals and the environment, not the reverse. As Mandla said, “The environment doesn’t need us. But we need the environment.”
A trail such as this is a great leveller. Your BMW and your bank balance aren’t visible, and if they were, it would mean zero. It’s those intangibles which show, and show they do. A sense of caring about your comrades, a desire to play your part with the workload as much as sharing in the pleasure, and the complete absence of ego.
One thing which struck me forcibly was the great sense of humour which prevailed throughout our trip. Is it there with every group? I’ve no idea, but I do know I felt immensely fortunate to be a part of this joyfulness and often playfulness. There is a darkly humorous side to eight adults frolicking in the muddy Black iMfolozi River, watched over by Mandla – who is knee deep in the water, rifle at the ready. It was a steamy day, and we were all delirious with joy when he scoped out a small sliver of the river as unlikely to house crocodiles. Our faith in him, our desperation to submerge ourselves in cold water – the only occasion in five days – exhibited itself as a certain craziness with which we were all, by then, perfectly comfortable. This was our new normal.
Life is the essence of simplicity on a trail. Walk, prepare food, cook, eat, sleep … and do your hour-long night watch. No, you wouldn’t be sharing it with another, you’d do it alone. Not only would you keep the fire alive, ensure that no wild beasts encroached on the camp, but, importantly, this was a contemplative time for you, and you alone. Night one, nerve-wracking – a solitary primal fear of the pitch-black unknown, see-sawing with the burden of responsibility for the others’ safety. Night two and onwards, a gentle, growing curiosity, a calmness, an overwhelming sense of the majesty of a star-studded sky, and the utter thrill of lion calling to lion ricocheting through the valley, the plop of something unknown into water. Almost surreal.
On a WLS trail, it’s not a slow crescendo of emotion, with the end goal, a profound connection with the wild. For me, it was closer to a daily roller coaster, from exhaustion to elation, fear of acceptance, and so on. The wonder of the trip seeps into you, reveals itself in little bites, and now, looking back, some of the down moments are as rewarding as the up ones. And yes, you will experience a profound connection with the wild, but rather than an epiphany, it was more a drip technique. Well, for me anyway.
The wilderness – and this is wilderness, for unless you’re on foot, you will never access this part of the park – is so intensely quiet, yet not at all. The longer you submerge yourself in this environment, the more your senses are heightened. You don’t have to work at it at all, it just happens. Nature facilitates that long-lost, or perhaps, dusty, connection, and the deluge of city stresses you’ve been carrying, subsides.
It seemed as if, even if some on our trail had life issues with which they were dealing, the trail provided a hiatus. Instead of wrestling for five days, you were given the gift of a five-day break from it, simply focussing on basic needs, small pleasures, elements of survival, one foot in front of the other, and the extreme beauty all around. Everything else receded.
I’m no stranger to the bush. But never like this. I don’t camp, nor do I hike. But I love it, and I’ve always valued the peace it offers and the escape from my world. But this trail was something entirely foreign to me – nothing I’ve ever experienced before. You’re stripped down to you, with no interference between yourself and the environment.
For me, it was like coming home. Contrary to feeling exposed, I felt protected. But that was my experience, and yours might be entirely different. Whatever, it’ll be an indelible one.