Text: Paul Danckwerts | Photographs: Paul Danckwerts, Theo York and Matt Meyer
“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.” Sir David Attenborough.
At 12:55 on Saturday the 8th of May2016 four MalaMala game rangers, Greg Baldwin, Matt Meyer, Theo York and myself, shuffled on blistered feet into the colourful pages of MalaMala Game Reserve history. We had just become the first rangers to walk around the entire 33000 acre game reserve, sticking to the boundary where and when we could. In total we covered 69.20 km over a period of two days (45.2 km in 11hours on day one and 24 km in 7 hours on day two) and spent the night on mysterious Misters Koppies; one of the prominent granite outcrops in the south. Throughout the walk we recorded 70 different species of bird (seen or heard), 24 different mammalian tracks (tracks of 3 different ardvaark, 18 different leopard and 8 different lion) and on 21 different occasions we encountered a potentially dangerous game species. And it all started with a few beers amongst friends and colleagues beneath a certain sausage tree (Kigelia africana).
We woke at 04:40 on Saturday the 7th of May 2016 and met for an early morning coffee on the deck of buffalo lounge. While waiting for darkness to slither its way westwards we wagered on how many dangerous game encounters we would have over the next two days. With some serious bragging rights at stake, Greg aimed high at 30, Matt at 23, Theo at 18 and myself with a conservative estimate of 15 encounters. At 06:06 we confidently walked out the gates of MalaMala Main Camp, soon to be embraced by the bush, the crisp morning air and a breath taking sunrise that only Africa can deliver.
We had our first stop at Mlowathi open area at 08:50 and our second at Clarendon open area at 10:30 after 18.64km. We stopped briefly, took the weight of our feet, ate a few boiled eggs and in no less than 10 minutes we were on our way again. Walking at a pace of 6 km per hour we were literally eating ground across the Gowrie boundary but this was not to last. It was only at our third stop of the morning at 13:27 after 28.50km on the Kruger National Park boundary east of the windmill that we made our biggest error. Here we rested for thirty minutes as opposed to the normal ten minutes. This was enough time for the lactic acid build up in our legs to reach a crescendo. With the resultant pain in our leg muscles and fresh blisters emerging on our feet, we jettisoned our sense of humour and soldiered on. Greg and I were both wearing hard bottomed vellies, or veldskoens, (traditional leather bound bush shoes) which proved to be a poor decision. By the time we reached Charleston rock the blisters were screaming and our feet were in agony so we stopped for a short rest. It was only five minutes into our blissful respite when a herd of twenty-five elephant started meandering in our direction. It wasn’t a discussion or a “please madam matriarch will you give us five more minutes?”, we had to get out of the way of this pachyderm train. And so my blistered low range shuffle promptly turned into a high range waddle as we carried on for the final leg to Misters Koppies.
We reached the base of the little rocky outcrop that was to be our resting place for the night at 16:40 having completed 45.20km, Matt and Theo in the lead trailed by Greg and finally yours truly fifty meters behind. My strange blister induced waddle, not dissimilar to one of our camp barmen, lent much amusement to rangers Bens Marimane and Lucky Makukula who had kindly driven down with our bedding for the night which consisted of no more than three blankets each and a few supplies for that evening and the following day.
Once we had ‘showered’ using only one litre of cold water per person and lit a fire, we settled down for the night on the summit of Misters Koppies. After a dinner of boerewors (a traditional Afrikaans sausage) rolls and a cup of hot coffee we reminisced on what had so far been a challenging but very enjoyable eleven hours of walking. The fireside banter then traversed onto our ten year plans, the universe and rather predictably, to women. Also one could not help but wonder how many generations of MalaMala game rangers had enjoyed the best of Africa’s night sky from this very spot. One thing we could all agree on was only one ranger had ever carried the horns of an impala ram on such a trek. The impala horns represent the living quarters of the new rangers and therefore, at least fifty years’ worth of game ranging at MalaMala were strapped to Theo York’s backpack. While enjoying the warmth of the fire we could hear the faint roar of a lone male lion.
During one particular lull in conversation, a shooting star, the blazing likes of which none of us would ever see again, rocketed across two thirds of the star-peppered sky. It was more than enough time for Theo, in a mesmerised stutter, to say “We’re all going to die”. Needless to say the fireside talk was reinvigorated for at least another hour before one by one, we drifted off to sleep. E.A. Ritter once described Africa as a “place where space joins you at the fireside and says, look!”. He could not have described that night more perfectly. It was as though we were staring into the eye of the universe and the universe was staring right back. On occasion we would wake up to change position on the hard rocky surface and it was hard not to notice the stars as well as the deathly silence of the night. There was not a breath of wind and no sound was made by any living organism. “Barely a sight or sound to remind me of the immediate century” a quote by Mitch Reardon, the author of Shaping Kruger, certainly rang true. For some unknown reason we were all awake at 03:00 listening to the throbbing call of a Verreaux’s eagle owl as well as the rasping cough of three different leopards, one of whom walked within a stone’s throw away from our granitic island of relative safety.
We woke thirty minutes before the arrival of the sun. In the distance, a flock of Vuhututu (the onomatopoetic name in the Shangaan language for a Ground Hornbill) announced the imminent march of dawn with their drum like call. We left Misters Koppies at 07:00. Little did we know that we still had to face two buffalo bulls at extremely close quarters and an overzealous breeding herd of elephant.
The first of the two buffalo encounters unveiled itself on the Charlston-Toulon boundary not long after we had crossed west over the Sand River at Calabash crossing. Many a game ranger, nature guide and professional hunter will attest to the cantankerous nature of the Cape Buffalo, particularly the old males that have left the protection of the herd and spend most of their retirement lying in muddy waterholes chewing the cud. After six kilometres the monotonous sound of gravel underfoot and the ever present stiffness in our legs, had dulled our situational awareness. We were just approaching the Northern side of a fairly large termite mound, when Matt clicked his fingers. No words were spoken and none needed to be said. We were well within the comfort zone of a fully grown adult male Cape Buffalo who was casually grazing on the Southern side of the termite mound not more than ten meters away and we knew what that meant. When in such close proximity to a potentially dangerous animal their response is usually fight or flight and the Cape Buffalo does not know how to do the latter. We kept the termite mound between us and the Buffalo bull and made our way away from him as quietly and quickly as possible. It’s difficult to know why he didn’t sense us but maybe the combined scent of four sweaty rangers was enough to dull his situational awareness.
Our second encounter with the “banker of the bushveld” (a reference to a confrontational expression of the Cape Buffalo) materialised not fifteen minutes after the first. We were walking in a Northerly direction along the firebreak of our South Western boundary when, like an apparition, the image of an adult male Cape Buffalo materialised out of a Combretum thicket also not ten meters away. He had most definitely noticed us and, at the risk of sounding too anthropomorphic, he had probably been waiting in ambush. I am unsure who saw him first but we moved like a unit; Theo and I swivelled behind Matt and Greg as they backed off in the opposite direction, rifles at the ready. The old bull simultaneously charged through the bush in a flanking movement and stopped abruptly thirty meters away. Although Matt and Greg were sporting some serious firepower (a .458 Lott and a .375 Sako, single shot bolt action rifles respectively) the Cape Buffalo had some heavy duty protection around his brain casing and about 800 kilograms of pent up aggression. What ensued was a standoff with neither combatant taking the initiative. At that moment a vehicle from a neighbouring reserve drove past us on the main road which was enough to discourage the Cape Buffalo from further discussion. We marched on, our adrenaline pumping.
We stopped for a brief rest at Charlston North Crossing (13.86km) before continuing north along a prominent game trail on the Eastern Bank of the Sand River towards Rattray’s Camp, MalaMala’s bespoke destination. Just short of the firebreak of Rattray’s Camp where we had our fourth and final river crossing we encountered a herd of elephant of about twenty animals walking Eastwards perpendicular to our intended path. As the wind was not in our favour we quickened the pace to get passed them before they got sight of us. For some strange reason they quickened their pace too. We realised that we weren’t going to make it passed them undetected so we jogged forwards and crouched down at the base of three large Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis) trees which would afford us with some cover. The matriarch, the oldest female in the herd, stopped short exactly where we had walked only moments earlier. The whole herd, upon some inaudible cue stood dead still while her trunk searched the air like a periscope trying to locate the whereabouts of this new threat. We were about forty meters away crouched down against the trunk of the three large trees to break our profile. I could feel the breeze cooling the sweat on my skin and I could hear no sound. After what seemed an age, the herd visibly relaxed and they moved on but it was straight in our direction. We gave them the benefit of the doubt and waited until they were twenty meters from us, hoping they would turn away. I tapped on the rifle and Matt loudly clicked his tongue. Both are unnatural sounds used to announce our presence. In chaotic unison, the herd turned and fled through the bush. With the sound of breaking vegetation receding into the distance we thanked the Jackalberry gods for putting those three trees there and continued on our way. At 12:55 (24km) we arrived back at MalaMala Main Camp tired and elated.
Mitch Reardon wrote of James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first official game warden of the Sabi Game Reserve in 1902, “For him, a patrol through the bush was akin to stepping into the library of life”. For me, a walk in the bush reminds me of the senses I know I have but rarely use. Your experience in the moment comes down to the six inches in front of your face; the sights, the smells, the sounds.. The sensory experience is comparable to that of a visit to the coast; the sound of waves crashing, the blue horizon, the salty air and the feeling of sand between your toes. It’s all around you. It’s a 3D surround sensory overload that tickles your soul and allows you to forget the trials and tribulations of mundane everyday life. That is why we walk. We are a lucky few. We who get to shake hands with mother nature on a daily basis.
In loving memory of Kesayne Reed (26/12/1989 – 08/05/2016) who also loved the bush.
What we learnt
- Don’t walk long distances in vellies (or veldskoens – traditional leather-bound bush shoes)
- Wear lycra underwear to prevent chafe
- Vaseline (if you didn’t take lycra underwear, Vaseline will help with the chafe you already have)
- Carry a hlatene “bush-walking” stick
- Some sort of training will go a long way