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Hikers in the Mist

by Marie Dahl (October 2014)

One a Friday morning in October six bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hikers took off towards the Lubombo Mountains in Swaziland. We left central Swaziland and began the haul down towards the lowveld – we had about an hours drive ahead of us. It was drizzling and threatening to rain properly, when we left the Ezulwini Valley; but Swaziland’s weather varies greatly geographically, so we were all confident that the lowveld would be hot and dry as always. As we approached the small town of Siteki close to our destination it became evident that this was not to be the case. The whole town had disappeared in a thick layer of mist, and we crawled slowly on our way through the town. Further up in the mountains it cleared somewhat, and shortly after we had turned onto a remote and little used dirt track, we passed what appeared to be a football match. People, who must have gathered from miles around, were cheering the players on and from behind a fully kitted off-road vehicle appeared Kingsley Holgate, a famous South African explorer and adventurer. Kingsley Holgate explores the most remote places all over Southern Africa, so we felt like we were on a pioneer track, when we continued and went even further than Mr. Holgate himself.

After driving past several rural homesteads (traditional Swazi family residences) the dirt track turned into more of a path than a drivable track. This was as far as the vehicle was able to take us. It was time to put on the backpacks and hit the trails ahead. We followed mainly cattle tracks, as we had not yet entered any of the reserves that we would be hiking through over the next three days. Cattle are abundant in Swaziland, as people will rather invest in a good cow, than put money in the bank. Overgrazing is big problem in the rural areas, as there are not sufficient grazing areas available. Herders have often been caught cutting holes in the fences marking the protected areas, as they are desperate for their cattle to feed. This is an issue all over Swaziland, but especially in reserves, where funding is limited, as patrol and fence repair are often costly.

This day we followed the cattle tracks and we were grateful that creatures had trod the trails for us, making it easier for us to make progress. Our goal was to reach an old ranger post just within the boundary of the government run Mlawula Nature Reserve. The modest ranger post was based on top of the Lubombo Mountains at approximately the same altitude as we were at the time, but we had a deep gorge between it and us, so down we went. At the bottom of the gorge we found rock pools fed by the surrounding catchment area. The water was murky and did not look inviting for a swim nor a drink, but the cows did not seem to mind, and I suspect they were the cause of the murkiness.

By the time we started the ascent we had all become considerably warmer, and scarfs, fleeces, and hats were gradually removed. Most of us kept on the raincoats, as it continually drizzled. In a situation such as this it’s actually difficult to assess what is best: Keep on the raincoat and be protected from the rain, but at the same time get completely damp from sweat unable to escape or take off the raincoat and get wet… The result is pretty much the same. As we walked the weather cleared and we were blessed with views over the Swazi lowveld to the West and the Mozambican floodplains to the East – at the same time forgetting the discomfort of previous weather.

As per arrangement the rangers had left an unofficial gate open for us to enter into Mlawula Nature Reserve, which we locked securely after us. We found the ranger post vacant, but locked, thus we had the area to ourselves. We set up camp, boiled the kettle for tea and spent the evening chatting by the campfire. What a lovely day it had been!

The wind made great efforts to tear my tent apart that night. Luckily it didn’t succeed. But then the rain took over and decided to try and break into my tent at every possible sealing. Unfortunately the rain did succeed, and I could feel the drips landing on my sleeping bag and on my up on till now dry things. It rained most of the night with only a few breaks. It was a night of being awake between a few uncomfortable naps of short duration. As day broke I was tired and slightly damp all over. I could hear no sounds from the other tents, but what I did hear was rain dripping on my tent, so I decided to stay put a while longer. Finally, I heard one of my fellow hikers had plucked up the courage to venture out and start a campfire. I peeped out of the tent and saw nothing but a thick white blanket of mist. Gone were the views of yesterday. Luckily, we had been clever the night before and put spare firewood under cover, so we could start a fire and begin the day with a steaming hot cup of coffee.

Our backpacks must have weighed an extra 3 kgs each with all the wet tents, damp mats and wet crockery we were now carrying. We continued our way through the reserve – still on top of the mountains, where we had to imagine the beautiful views, as we were completely covered in a thick layer of mist and could see nothing but what was right in front of us. While walking my mind wandered to Dian Fossy’s book, Gorillas in the Mist, and although I felt kindred, I hoped our ending would be happier than hers. So gloomy were my thoughts, as we made our way through one of the most beautiful reserves in Swaziland. However, the dark thoughts completely vaporized when we began the descent into the grand Siphiso Valley – all of a sudden the mist lifted and we were granted views reaching as far as the eye could see. Bush and wilderness — Africa, as it was born. Despite my wet and heavy backpack I felt like I could bounce my way deep into the valley – there were certainly enough spring in my step to rupture one of my shoelaces and for me not to care.

We had lunch at the Mahogany Room, where wraps with tuna pesto and a steaming hot cup of tea was served. The Mahogany Room is a cave deep in the most remote part of the reserve and the serving of lunch was purely on our own initiative. The grand name comes from a beautiful Pod Mahogany tree that towers over the entrance to the shallow cave. We enjoyed a bit of dry ground and rested our backs from heavy packs, before we continued through the reserve.

Through deep gorges, over ridges, and along rims we trekked all day. The feeling of being sent back in the time of the great African explorers crept up on me and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk and the scenery. We saw zebras running and heard baboons expelling their characteristic bark nearby, but otherwise we saw little game. The rainy season had only just begun and most of the area we walked in had been recently burned and in turn had driven game to other parts of the reserve.

Our end destination that day was a large koppie – a fee standing rocky outcrop. However, before heading to our next campsite, we had to refill our water reservoirs, which had to be carried to the top. It felt like an impossible haul after a long day of walking, but we made it to the top before dark. Our new campsite had a 360-degree view of the reserve. Green riverine vegetation slicing through the dull grey/brown winter bush looked spectacular. The sunset was covered in clouds, so once again we had to use our imagination. Tents were pitched and luckily they dried faster than expected and we all had a dry comfortable night’s sleep.

One of the first things I remember about the third day is someone saying: “Look! There’s a bit of blue sky”. The weather had finally changed. We enjoyed a leisurely morning, before heading back down to the river we were to follow into an adjacent reserve – the private Mbuluzi Game Reserve. A big gab between the fence and the ground allowed us to crawl under into the next reserve, where we followed the splashing river. The temperature was rising quickly and a swim in the river sounded more and more appealing by the step. We knew there was safe rock pool close to our end destination, so we resisted the urge to splash into the crocodile infested river for a little longer.

The final sting of the scorpion, as one of my fellow hikers described it, was a massive hill that we had to cross. The trail went directly up the slope and each step in the now sweltering heat was felt with pain and exhaustion.

But true to form after descending on the other side of the hill the rock pool was waiting, and none of us hesitated before jumping in and letting the cool water cleanse the last three days’ muck and sweat. Between several cool dips, we basked in the sun and gone were all accounts of mist, wind and rain. I can only speak for myself, but I was ready for another three days right there and then. What an incredible trail it had been!

World Rhino Day 2014

by Marie Dahl (September 22nd 2014)

South Africa is one of the last strongholds for the African rhinos. The country has the largest population of rhinos anywhere in the world, but the rhinos are in grave danger of extinction – once again! I have had the privilege of visiting the Kruger National Park in South Africa on a regular basis over the past decade and a half; one of the few parks with a healthy rhino population. I have never visited the park without taking at least one photo of these iconic animals. And I enjoy spending time observing them in their natural habitat. Sometimes, however, I forget what impressive initiatives have been taken to make the park what it is today. When that park was founded over 100 years ago there were virtually no rhinos left. They had become a thing of legends, with so few remaining rhinos that the local people thought they were just a myth. Greedy seekers of fortune had hunted them to the brink of extinction during centuries of uncontrolled culling and harvest, and in 1936 both species of rhino were officially declared locally extinct.

When you view rhinos in the Kruger Park today you could easily think that they have been roaming these parts for millions of years, however, this is not the case. The current rhino populations in the Kruger National Park all originate from individuals transferred from other parts of South Africa, where a few core populations had been kept safe from harm (hunting and poaching). After reintroductions in the 1960’s, rhinos once again began to thrive in the Kruger Park. For many years hereafter the rhino story was one of great conservation success. Although there have been a few years of heavy poaching since then the overall population numbers were steadily growing. —That is up until 2008 where the poaching situation spiraled out of control once again.

The horn of the rhinos has historically been regarded as a status symbol, especially in Yemen where the horn is used for shafts for traditional daggers. In Asia the horn is believed to have medicinal properties, such as lowering fever, curing cancer and enhancing sexual performance. Thorough research has disproven any medicinal properties in rhino horn; the horn consists exclusively of keratin – the same material as hair, nails, feathers, horns and hoofs. Despite extensive research proving the uselessness of rhino horn (for anyone other than the rhino that is) the demand for rhino horn as a remedy has risen dramatically in resent years. The increased demand has escalated the price of horn to the point where it is now more valuable than gold pound for pound. In turn this increase has made rhino poaching virtually irresistible to many poor people around the globe, resulting in declining populations worldwide. Currently as many as 20 rhinos are poached per month in South Africa; should this trend continue there would be no more rhinos left in the wild by 2026!

The resent increase in rhino poaching has started a war; A war on poachers and the syndicates involved with organized poaching. A war dedicated to protect what remains and to make sure that there will be a future for rhinos in Africa. I have heard it mentioned many times over the last couple of years: “We’re at war against the rhino poachers”. And up until recently I thought it was perhaps a bit overrated to call it a war. The people in Afghanistan and Syria can talk about being at war. But I thought that surely in this day and age it is possible to prevent people from entering a National Park and shoot an animal the size of a car without the need for an actual war. I was wrong! It is an actual war out there. They fight against ghostly enemies such as, Mozambicans sneaking across the border at night, poachers disguised as tourists driving into the park during broad daylight, and even rangers hired to protect the rhinos, who have succumbed to the alluring price tag swinging from every rhino horn walking around. It’s a confusing war, because the enemy is so well camouflaged that it’s almost impossible to know who you’re supposed to target. Today I read that even a section ranger of the Park had been arrested as an accomplice of poaching. And there are stories of the executive top of the Kruger Park being involved and taking bribes from well-known poaching syndicates. How on Earth do you fight that?

I recently found myself in the middle of this war. No bullets were fired in my presence, and my guides assured me that I was safe from harm, but none-the-less I could feel it and I could see the war all around me. I was on the Sweni Wilderness Trial in the easternmost part of the Kruger National Park. Only a few kilometers from the Mozambican border, the Sweni area is a unique part of the park where wildlife roam in abundance. But so do the anti-poaching units and the military. We met the rangers out on patrol several times a day and we heard them chatting, as they set up camp at night; the same time as we were busy sipping our sundowners enjoying views of elephants and talking about the days most exciting sightings. It feels quite absurd that two so very different lives can be led right next to each other: One of war and one of leisure. One day they were actively searching for poachers around us. There had been shots fired in the early hours and they suspected rhino poachers. A helicopter with armed rangers in search of the culprits came close enough for us to exchanges smiles and greetings. On the ground we met them in vehicles and on foot. They were all around us, and yet we carried on looking at tracks, flowers, and stalking giraffes, elephants and other game to get the next good shot (photo). How very bizarre it was to be in the middle of this obvious war going on all around us and yet just carrying on as though it doesn’t concern us.

However, finding ourselves in the middle of this war zone did make us think and talk about the current plight of the rhinos. We hadn’t seen any rhinos so far, nor had we seen signs of them; dung or tracks. So why were there such huge efforts put into this particular part of the park? Why shouldn’t they rather increase efforts in the Southern part of the Park, where there were many more rhinos? The questions remain unanswered, but possibly the fact that tourism thrives in the southern part would make the war much more obvious and perhaps scare away some of the much needed income from visitors. Or perhaps the Sweni area serves as one of the major poacher entry points to the Park? We don’t know and our guides were reluctant to share much information, as though they suspected we were informants or poachers ourselves. Such is this war – no one can be trusted, not even bright-eyed tourists.

After long hours of walking in the bush during the day, we spent the evenings by the campfire. We talked about what we had seen – or in case of the rhinos had not seen. There is something very special about the African bush at night; A whole new array of wildlife comes to life. And we sat by the fire enjoying the majestic roars of the lions nearby, the nervous howls of hyenas and jackals calling excitedly. A cheeky genet came into camp looking for leftovers and it decided that our milk was a worthy treat to run away with. But the full 1 L milk carton proved too much for the dairy thief and he left us laughing at his futile attempts. It’s safe to say that we had a good time by the fire in the evenings. But then one night someone spotted something by the nearby waterhole. Could it be? Was it really there? Binoculars were fetched in a hurry, but despite the full moon it was difficult to make out the shape by the water. Did it have horns? Yes! Yes, there were two horns – “It’s a rhino – it definitely a rhino” someone announced excitedly!

I was so thrilled to witness such a beautiful creature having a drink in our proximity, but as soon as the initial excitement wore off, I was left feeling powerless and saddened. This gorgeous creature that stood so peacefully there in the moonlight going about its usual business was in grave danger. And although I felt like shouting “Watch Out!” and “Be careful!” there was absolutely nothing I could do to help him.

The vision of the rhino standing in the moonlight will be forever engraved in my memory as one of the most powerful sightings of rhino. The emotions I went through at the time of the sighting are still stirring, and I can’t help but to feel a bit overwhelmed by my own powerlessness and the magnitude of the issue. There are currently more than 280 organizations at work to protect the rhinos. They collect millions and millions of dollars per year, but the situation is continually worsening, leaving rangers to find more and more dehorned dead rhinos lying about the bush every day. Since 2008 the number of poached rhinos has escalated exponentially – why can’t we stop it? What will it take? Awareness campaigns in Asia? More war in the parks? Longer sentences for the poachers? Poisoning of the horns? Dehorning the remaining rhinos? Rhino farming? What is it going to take for people to start caring enough about the destiny of these species to take appropriate action?

The current state of affairs really stirs something deep within me, but I wonder do rhinos even matter to people? I mean, I know many people who care about the plight of rhinos, but I might be biased in my relations — I’m a biologist with many connections in the industry and I live in an area of Africa, where this is happening right now; A few years back I heard the killing shots of a rhino slaughtered for its horn in Swaziland, I’ve found the skulls of two rhinos with clear marks of the dehorning process in Northern Kruger, and I’ve noticed the tell tale decline in rhino sightings in the Kruger Park. It’s happening all around us and we who live here are aware of it. But I’m thinking about all those people who are not involved with rhinos or wildlife – do they care about the declining rhino populations? Or the polar bears? Or the tigers? Or the panda? All these iconic animals are under threat… People do care – all the support towards awareness campaigns and the NGOs suggests so. And the fact that South Africa considers itself at war with the poachers suggests that serious measures are being taken. But then WHY can we not beat this?

SWENI AND THE LIONS

by Marie Dahl (September 2014)

So this morning I was lying in bed thinking about how to approach this post. While thinking of opening lines, I just happened to fall back into sleep and had an interesting dream about a big male lion chasing down a vehicle with me and a guide in it. The guide was not faced about the big cat’s rapid approach, but I managed to persuade him to bring a rifle, as we stepped out of the car. As it sometimes happens in dreams – the scenario changed quickly and suddenly the big cat had disappeared, and so had my guide. As I looked around I saw yet another guide – this time a female guide who was playing with a little lion cub. She called me over and invited me to give the little cub a belly rub. Worried about my first guide and the missing male lion, I declined. I looked back towards where I had come from and saw the big beast haul the first guide out from under the vehicle. Luckily, the guide turned into a wildebeest and all was well in my dream again…

What I found most interesting about the dream was that it explains most people’s relationship with lions so well. Basically, we’re scared of them, when they are on the prowl and we find the cubs cuddly and cute.

But do we really need to fear lions? In my humble experience: Certainly not! I’ve had many encounters with lions in their habitat on foot. Only once have I been growled at — an experience I remember well, because the trembling sound felt like it came from inside myself; so deep and so powerful. Most of the time, however, you should feel privileged to view lions on foot, because chances are that they will run away, as soon as they sense that you are in their neighborhood. This was exactly what happened when I recently went on the Sweni Wilderness Trail in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

The Sweni area in Kruger is renowned for its enormous lion population. Scientists and laymen alike have recorded lion prides consisting of 30-50 members in the area, although scientific literature generally suggests a maximum of 40 lions per pride. The two guides at Sweni had experienced these super prides themselves, and happily told us stories around the campfire about their many years of encounters – once the lions even ventured inside the fenced camp!

Well, nothing quite as dramatic as that happened when we were on trail. Luckily not, I might add… The best bush experiences in my opinion are the ones where both human and wildlife are comfortable with the situation. We must remember that we are visitors in their habitat and we should at all times respect their boundaries. With lions it is difficult though, because they are so skittish and wary of humans, so by the mere sight of us they run off.

I prefer viewing an animal in its natural habitat, not disturbing it and preferably leaving it without it ever noticing I was there, but this ideal scenario is at the best of times difficult to accomplish. One of the key factors is having an experienced guide, who knows how to approach potentially dangerous game, such as lions. Many guides these days, however, want to get as close as possible to optimize the viewing for their guests and in the process scaring off the animals. We experienced this several times on the Sweni trail. The first to run are the big male lions – the mere sight of a human and they are off! The females are a little braver and will stick around a little longer, but will generally move off, if further approached. We rarely got closer than approx. 250 meters from the lions, before they ran off.

There are numerous factors involved in how an animal will react to a human approach on foot (a vehicle approach is a completely different story). A healthy individual will have no reason to stand his or her ground and risk getting hurt by a human, which in recent history have been a severe threat to lions. An injured lion, a sick lion or a lioness with young cubs on the other hand is a very different matter – they’ve got every reason in the book to defend themselves against any threat and should be avoided as such. Again an experienced guide is essential, because they will quickly realize the difference in behavior and know which animals to avoid approaching.

I’ve heard many great guides over the years say that you don’t really need to carry a rifle, when walking in the bush. If you respect the animals, read their signs and keep out of their way, they will generally leave you alone. There’s a always a risk of bumping into that one odd one out – an animal that doesn’t fit the general behavior, but then again the risk of getting hit by a bus in a big city is probably much higher… So what I mean is that if you take proper precautions the bush is as safe a place as any to take a walk. —Even when there are lions all around you, as we experienced. We had numerous encounters with the Sweni lions, but in most cases we had to use binoculars to actually view them, before they ran off.

However, as soon as dusk falls the ballgame changes completely; all roles are reversed. The daytime cowardice cats turn into the rulers of the night, and any human on foot is now fair game. The night is the time of the lions, as we were made well aware, as they began their nightly roaring shortly after dusk. A lion’s roar can be heard up to 8 kilometers away, and at times it sounded like there was a competition going on just out side camp. The sounds were coming from all directions – and we joked that you could hardly throw a stick around Sweni without hitting a lion.

Normally I’m not that interested in lions; As you can probably appreciate from the above they are not that interesting to watch, when you are on foot. But it’s curious to note that people are far more interested in hearing about lion encounters, rather than the times we were charged by an annoyed elephant or a surprised hippo (both of which unfortunately happened on this trip!)… But that’s a different story all together.

THE MISSING HILLS OF MY YOUTH

By Marie Dahl (August 2014)

There’s something about a change of perspective that never gets old. Viewing the same things, but in a different light or from a different angle. It’s like your mind is playing games with you – you know that what you are looking at is the exact same as you have looked at before, but you will never see it the same way again.

I recently spent some time in the country of my origin, Denmark. I grew up there and turned into a young adult, before leaving at the age of 19. I had a sheltered childhood and youth. I never lacked anything; Love, support and opportunities were readily at hand. In addition my family and I had the privilege of being able to travel the world. Together we visited the European capitals, went exploring in Northern Thailand, took ski holidays to Norway, walked on the Great Wall of China, visited the Aztec pyramids in Mexico, and went on charter holidays to Spain and Greece. I was thus taught about culture, history and the incredible diversity of the world. So when I left home as a teenager I thought myself prepared for anything the world could possibly throw at me. Some would argue that I was still an ignorant kid, when I left, and looking back now I would have to agree with them.

I began my solo travels in Southern Africa, a place I had come to love deeply after previous short visits to the continent with my family. I spent the first 9 months of my independence exchanging one adventure with another. Life was a game and I was winning. Travelling with my family had always been planned meticulously, but now I was free to roam, and I loved it. With a few shorter and some longer stops in Denmark I travelled far and wide over the years; South-East Asia, Central and South America as well as more of Africa. Even through my university years I always managed to find courses that either took place overseas or involved a fieldtrip to a new destination. It’s safe to say I had been bitten by the travel bug.

Ever since I left the comforts of my parental home, I have learned and developed continually, but it took a long time and many destinations for me to realize that there are no universal truths out there. Regardless of how much I search and how much I learn there’s simply no conclusion – and maybe that’s the beauty of it all; There are so many different sides to the story that It will keep us intrigued and keep us going.

A few years ago something changed though – I haven’t been to a new country in a long time. And with only 42 countries on my list there are still more than 150 countries left to see. I don’t think it’s age, and I haven’t started a family, but I might just have committed the ultimate crime and killed the explorer in me by settling down.

During my very first visit to South Africa, Africa crept under my skin and in the same smooth motion it stole my heart. I have come to think of Africa as my home and of all the 47 countries on the continent I have chosen to settle down in the second smallest of the lot, i.e. Swaziland. I only visited Swaziland for the first time in 2010, but the little Kingdom managed to sneak into a first place of my destination rank immediately. Here I have made friends, gained a foster-family, started a company, and become involved with several local initiatives that I can’t bear to neglect.

So when I visited Denmark recently, it was just that: a visit. They say home is where the heart is; and my Danish family and friends have now all realized that when it comes to me, my heart just happens to be in Africa, more specifically in Swaziland.

I have visited Denmark on numerous occasions and more than once I have spent longer periods of time in Denmark, but this time was different. I was on a two-month stay with no fixed plans and I spent a great deal of time in the area, where I grew up. When I was a teenager I used to take long walks in the countryside and by the beach, both of which was right on my doorstep. I remember gazing towards the horizon and desperately wanting to know what was beyond the next hill or around the next bend. Whenever I could I just had to climb to the highest point to get a better vantage point from which I could see further. I’ve always had the urge to climb higher and go further, something I did time and again during my many travels.

On this particular visit to Denmark I had plenty of time to explore my old paths and tracks, and I did so eagerly. However, on my first outing I noticed a difference. All the hills that I used to think were tough to climb; some of them almost insurmountable, or really challenging to peddle up on a bicycle were now simply missing! Gone! Disappeared!

I remember one time there was a Danish politician who promised “more tailwind on bicycle paths”, if he got elected. He did get elected, but failed to keep his promise. The thought of something equally silly crossed my mind, as I was looking for the hills. Perhaps someone had leveled all the hills for the comfort of lazy Danes. I investigated the surroundings for evidence of tampering but there didn’t appear to be any visible changes to the areas – other than the very suspicious lack of hills.

Puzzled by this first outing, I thought it might just have been jetlag or my mind playing tricks on me, but sure enough, during further investigations it turned out that all my old and familiar hills had been vaporized. However, the explanation quickly dawned on me. Over the years I had just gotten used to something different; Mountains! My new perspective was changing the way I looked at the hills of my youth. They no longer existed in my objective, although I remember them as very real in my childhood and youth.

During my visit to Denmark, I never really came to terms with the missing hills, and I kind of expected the mountains of Swaziland to swell to Himalaya like proportions, when I returned home. They did not, however, they looked just as I remembered them; Tall, but still accessible. Maybe the fact that I haven’t conquered all of them yet and the fact that I consider them part of my present make them more real to me than the hills of my youth.

On my way to the airport and boarding the plane back home, I thought of the numerous times I had been in that exact same situation, but had been embarking on a new adventure in stead of heading home. I caught myself longing for the feeling of being en route to new and exciting adventures. I longed for the unknown, new acquaintances, new hills and mountains to be conquered. But alas, I was on my way home in stead.

Luckily, the feeling didn’t last, and as I returned to my African home in Swaziland the warm welcome of friends and foster-family made me think I was right where I was supposed to be. I’d like to think that I was always meant to roam, perhaps not the world, but certainly the mountains and hills of Africa. I now look at the mountains surrounding me here in Swaziland with a different perspective, almost as though I’m afraid they too will disappear if I look away for too long. But Swaziland is home to some of the oldest mountains in the world, so hopefully they will still be here, even if I decide to depart on another adventure at some point. Perhaps the hills of my youth are not at all missing, they have simply relocated elsewhere for me to discover afresh.

MAKULEKE WILDERNESS TRAIL

by Marie Dahl (May 2014)

When you tell people about what you’re about to do – walk among the wild animals in the African bush for 6 days with everything that you need on your back – you get a lot of different responses; Some are outraged and think that you will most likely be killed by a wild animal attack, others are fascinated and while never having considered it themselves the thought of doing it is now forever planted in their minds.

Let me tell you about my latest experience of a wilderness trail in Northern Kruger and you can judge for yourself.

On the border with Zimbabwe in the very North of the Kruger National Park in South Africa lies a wilderness area, where large pachyderms (Elephants and rhinos) roam the bush on trails their ancestors used before them. Here in the Makuleke Region of the park wildlife rules – without asking we are granted access as mere visitors in their home. Before venturing into the wild excessive planning has ensured that our backpacks are filled only with the equipment and food we need for the next six days. There is no room for extras or luxuries, as each of us has to carry the backpack for long walks every day.

When venturing into the wilderness a capable guide is essential. The guides who lead these sorts of trails are highly qualified and well experienced; they are armed and know how to handle most situations in the African bush. On this trail we had the privilege to be accompanied by the legendary Bruce Lawson of EcoTraining. A rugged looking man of insignificant height with a stern look in his eyes scrutinized our packs before we began our trek. Being a former military medic and well-known bush specialist with a huge riffle casually slung over his shoulder, his presence made us all feel like amateurs (which we were of course). He was an impersonation of a Wilbur Smith novel’s lead character and I could easily imagine him in a cross fire with the notorious poachers of the park. However, as with most people involved with conservation and nature in general there was a lot more than met the eye. Bruce Lawson’s number one method of staying safe in the bush is positive thinking, positive energy and respect! While introducing us to these concepts in relation to the African bush we ventured out into the unknown and into the wild.

Our first campsite was on the top of a small rocky outcrop above plains flooded by the seasonal rains. With darkness falling the sounds of the night replaced the birdcalls of the day; hyenas whooping, elephants splashing in the water and hippos grunting right below our campsite. As we settled in for the night we were in for a real treat – being far removed from any type of civilization and thus light pollution – we enjoyed the full spectacle of the Milky Way across the sky. Following a satellite’s slow pace across the night sky, I fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to a glorious sunrise and were greeted by the impressive baobab tree that had stood guard over us all night. The camp was bussing with everyone sharing his or her experiences of the night. We cleared camp and made sure everything looked exactly as we had found it the day before. The bottom of my 10 L camping kitchen sink said, “Leave no trace” and this was very fitting for our exercise of clearing camp. Every inch of camp was vacuumed for traces of our activities and while we did not remove the pieces of pottery left by prehistoric man, we cleaned up after ourselves – even picking up grains of rice from last night’s dinner.

The day was spent exploring the area on foot, slowly getting used to the weight of our backpacks. The previous day our guide had made us step across a “no time line” – a line in the sand that when crossed would leave all ideas of time behind, which meant we rested when we were tired, ate when hungry, drank when thirsty and slept when tired – regardless of the time of day. The only time is now – be present and be in the moment – forget about the rest!

Later in the day we sat down to rest in a narrow gorge and our guide told us stories of how he and his wife had had a narrow escape with a breeding heard of elephants in that exact spot. Very quickly you could see heads turning looking for escape routes and the feeling of being small and vulnerable crept up on most of us. Luckily, we didn’t need our planed escape routes and we climbed the one side of the gorge and reached our new camp spot right on the edge of a cliff. Here an incredible view over the Levuvu Flood Plains was competing for our attention with our evening tasks of collecting firewood and setting up camp before nightfall. Once again hyenas were nearby and vocalizing their characteristic call in the night. Exhausted from all the impressions of the first full day in the bush I drifted into a deep sleep under seemingly dancing stars on a liquid Milky Way.

Day 3 we took it easy and found our next campsite before lunch. In the shade under an enormous Nyala Berry Tree we all found a comfortable spot and had a good rest. The huge tree grew close to the Levuvu River Bank and water looked easily accessible, until our guide told us about the big crocodiles he had seen floating down stream. We had to be quick and efficient in collecting water, as too much disturbance by the water’s edge would attract the big beasts.

In the afternoon we made our way to the top of the cliff overlooking our idyllic campsite and we enjoyed the setting sun in silence, before we once again had to collect firewood and set up camp a fresh.

Waking up under the large tree felt safe and secure compared to our previous more exposed campsites… However, It was more likely thinking positive thoughts and radiating positive energy towards the bush that kept us safe. After enjoying a steaming hot cup of morning coffee by the river we slowly got ready for the day ahead. Our guide decided that we should stay at the same campsite, so we could have a day of walking without our backpacks. We took off towards the bush and for us the unknown. Different tracks were pointed out and discussed. Our guide impressed us all by showing us where a yellow-billed hornbill had landed, jumped and run in the sand – finishing of with rubbing its beak ever so slightly in the sand. There are so many stories written in the sand or on trees out there and I cold not help but thinking that the bush is like an illustrated book written in a foreign language. We can appreciate the pictures and enjoy the scenes, but we cannot fully understand what is happening until we have someone translate the writing in the book. Bruce Lawson is a master of the language of the book and he keenly interpreted page after page in the book of the bush for us.

In the bend of a dried out river bed – or so we thought it was – we sat down and had a interesting discussing about the bush and how to survive out here like people have done for centuries before us. Being used to turning on the tap, when we need water, the bush can seem like a scary place, when you’re far away from a river or a spring, but little did we know that the river bed we were sitting in was indeed active – just underground. We dug a roughly 30 cm deep hole in the bend and much to our surprise water started filling the hole. Bruce taught us how to utilize this water by using natural filtration methods, so that we could drink it right from the ground. When we finally tasted it, it had an earthy taste, but was as clear as the water that comes from our tap at home.

In the afternoon we followed footprints left by three rhinoceros in the hope that we would catch up with them and view them in their natural environment. Rhinos are increasingly skittish in the African bush, as they are persistently pursued by poachers with the ill intent of chopping off their horns. The horns fetch premium prices on the illegal markets and are shipped off to Asia, where the horn is used for traditional medicine. The horn possess no proven medicinal effects, thus an entire group of animals (all rhinos in Asia and Africa) are under treat of extinction for no rational reason at all. We didn’t manage to catch up with the rhinos that day, but were instead treated to the sight of a large herd of buffalo surrounding us in thick bush. We sat down in the midst and enjoyed the sound and smell of these curious creatures. Returning to camp in the late afternoon we were all in awe of the bush and so excited to feel like being part of it – if only for a brief moment in time.

Obviously we could not bathe in the rivers, as crocodiles were an ever present threat, so on the last full day out in the bush we were all a bit dirty (an obvious lie of course, as we were all completely filthy and stinky) and in desperate need of a shower. We were led through the bush, once again following fresh tracks of rhino footprints, when all of a sudden we were told to get down! and be quiet! We could tell by the look on our guide’s face that this was serious. We thought we had unknowingly bumped into the rhinos and it would just be a matter of seconds before they would storm out of the bush and trample us. After laying low for moments that seemed to last forever we finally heard what our incredibly acute guide had heard. Two men talking loudly and bashing noisily through the bush. Were they poachers following the same rhinos as us? Were they going to run or shoot, when they saw us? Our guide whistled a few times and the two men stopped in their tracks and began walking in our direction. All of us tried our very best to mimic the grass around us and make ourselves as small as possible. The two men turned out to be rangers on patrol and they were indeed following the rhinos – not to poach them, but to protect them. We all thanked them for their efforts in protecting wildlife and they went happily chatting on their way again. Relieved that we did not have to dodge bullets – the adrenalin and sweat of anxiety only enhanced our body odor; we were all stinky! Luckily the bush has an answer to everything and coming out of dense bush and into a clearing we found a spring spilling over in a small waterfall. We all took turns sitting under the fall and washing off the last five days of dirt and sweat. What an experience!

The last night in the wilderness was spent on top of a cliff overlooking the spring with the waterfall. As the sun set behind the bush that we had called home for 5 days now, the sky gave us a spectacular display of an array of colors any painter would have killed to portray.

Day 6 came too soon – Feeling refreshed after the waterfall shower the previous day I could have easily stayed another few days out there; tracking rhinos, finding water, dodging thorns, picking out a million prickly grass seeds from my socks several times a day, sleeping under the stars and listening to the stories of an experienced legend of the bush. However, the backpack that we had now come to think of as old friend hugging our backs was feeling lighter than ever, because we had eaten our supply of food, so it was time to return to the modern world.

As we walked into camp, all quiet and in deep thought most of us felt alienated by the thought of having a cup of freshly brewed coffee sitting in a chair by a table. We quickly agreed that we all preferred the rocky feel of a cliff with a spectacular view and the sounds of the wild to the so-called “civilized world”.

FRIENDS ON THE MOUNTAIN

by Marie Dahl (June 2014)

It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. I had decided to finish work early to go sort out some GPS coordinates for a hike I wanted to add to Dust and Boots’ repertoire. As I signed into the logbook at the starting point, I noticed that no one had been up on the trail for days. This suited me well, as I wanted some time away from civilization. I had plenty of water and a few snacks in my backpack and was prepared to be away for a quite a few hours. I wasn’t all alone, as two little Jack Russels followed me up the mountain. They ran off into the bushes only to erupt further up running down to check on me and the off they went again. I loved the company and I loved their energy. But my own energy levels were low and I struggled hauling myself up the steep slopes of the mountain. I had been sick with a stomach bug for a while, and I guess my energy levels weren’t quite as they used to be. I climbed up little steep dirt tracks, over logs that formed bridges over the spring I knew I had to cross several times before the summit. I passed the massive boulders that seemed to be standing at an impossible angle on the slope. Toying with the idea of trying to push them to watch them roll down the hill… This was of course ridiculous, as the boulders had been standing there in the exact same spot for thousands of years – no little female pushing them would make them roll. In the undergrowth of the forest I was walking amongst enormous roots being careful not to touch the lianas with 5 cm thorns ready to pierce my hands, if I grabbed the wrong one. I could easily pretend I was on a trek back in the day, as there was no evidence of modern man here. I could pretend to be one of the early explorers conquering new land – having to reach the summit before everyone else.

I stopped to drink often – mostly to allow myself to catch my breath. I had been pushing it too hard. Walked too fast. Perhaps my imagination had carried away with me and I thought I had to beat the two little dogs to the top to conquer it – an absolutely impossible task, as they were constantly running ahead of me. About half way up the mountain I sat down for the first time, thinking that a break was what I needed. I sat there for more than an hour – enjoying the views, letting the light breeze cleanse my mind. I sat there wishing I had brought a notebook, definitely something to remember for next time, I thought. The two Jack Russels were lying by my side – I imagined they looked a little puzzled, as if wondering why on Earth we were not hastily on the way to the top. I noticed the wind playing in the grass; every straw reacted differently according to height and length. There were bugs in all shapes and sizes, flies and ants all around me – presumably going on with their usual business. As I sat there I felt a part of it all. A part of nature.

I had tried to sit in the shadow of one of the few trees along the way to the top, but as the Earth turned the shadow soon left me, and the sun warmed my skin in the cool breeze. I was no longer struggling from the effort of walking up the hill, and I contemplated continuing and reaching the top before dark. But part of me felt rooted to the spot where I had sat down to rest. Everything was so peaceful here, so serene, so magical. I decided to stay a little longer.

First one dog reacted, then shortly after the other. Both of them now intensely alert, I realized that I was no longer alone on the mountain. At first I was a little annoyed thinking that I had to share my special moment with other people. Afterwards, I felt a touch of shame that I hadn’t gone any further than I had – I had given up half way. But that was before I heard the laughter and the encouragements. The dogs ran off to investigate who was intruding on our peace – or perhaps to look for new and more active company that they could follow up the mountain. I on the other hand remained seated and just waited to see who could possibly have the same silly idea as me; climbing a mountain on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

I expected perhaps a few German backpackers, or the odd cow herder and his friends, or even some rangers on patrol, but nothing could have prepared me for the three women who appeared laughing and talking non-stop down below me. I think they might have been as surprised to see me there, as I was to see them. They certainly looked at me curiously and wanted to know what on Earth I was doing there. Sitting in the middle of nowhere – just sitting.

They encouraged me to join them, because they were going to the top, no doubt about that, they said. I must have looked a bit astounded, and I think they could see the surprised look in my eyes, because they quickly explained that they do this hike all the time. I laughed and thought the idea of three Swazi women hiking up a mountain in the middle of the week, all by them selves slightly incredulous… It was certainly nothing I had ever heard of before; so highly intrigued I agreed to join them next time. Great, they said, we walk again on Friday 2 o’clock!

The women kept walking towards the summit, and much as I suspected the two Jack Russels abandoned me and went with them. There I sat on my little spot on the mountain and thought – What on Earth just happened?! I have lived in many different cultures all over the world, and I have been surprised many times as to how people don’t seem to fit into the boxes you occasionally put them in. This was definitely one of those surprising times. I have lived in Swaziland for almost four years now, and my perception of Swazi women is not one of hiking enthusiasts and nature lovers – In fact quite the opposite.

So Friday 2 o’clock I was back. One of the women from Wednesday was already there waiting and she greeted me as an old friend with a big warm hug. We are just waiting for the others, she told me. I saw two other women arrive, and assumed they were the same ones as the ones I met on Wednesday. It was hard to tell, because these two women were dressed in high heels and beautiful dresses. I hoped they had a change of clothes with them… More people showed up, and I asked my new friend, if there were more people coming. She quickly listed a whole lot of names that I didn’t catch a single one of. More well dressed women and one lone man showed up. Everyone was laughing and teasing each other like old friends – I was the only odd one out. I introduced myself and learned that they were a group of local high school teachers that had decided to enjoy nature around them, and as an added bonus get fit.

After a bit of waiting for everyone to exchange the stilettos for hiking shoes – or in most cases high fashion Converse shoes in all the right colors, we set off on the trail. I was up front with my friend from Wednesday, but a very smart looking lady in red quickly passed us. My friend told me that they all walked at different paces, but that we would all meet at the top.

There was cheering, lots and lots of laugher and teasing. Most of the chatting was in SiSwati, which I don’t really understand much of, but I got the general gist – these were good friends and coworkers urging each other to have fun and enjoy the trail. Three of the women had never done it before, and when we reached the first clearing and could see the summit high above us, one broke out laughing and crying saying that there was no way she was going up there, another did some head shaking and lip smacking that clearly meant that we must all be stupid if we thought she was going up there. We all laughed and the encouragements became stronger than ever.

As we moved on – at a very reasonable pace, I must add – a man suddenly ran past us. He was jogging up the mountain. Oh, that’s just Toots, they said – he does that. He wants to be the first one up, and then he will come back down and collect the rest of us. Mystified I continued up the hill. My energy levels were much better this Friday compared to the Wednesday before – I had a definite feeling that I would reach the top. Maybe it was all the laughter and all the constant encouragements from the teachers around me?

As we got closer to the top, it became clear that the group had divided into several fractions; those who has already made it to the top, my little group consisting of four women and the rest behind us, who the others now started worrying about. Toots had made it to the top as the first one and he now came back down and passed us. My friend told him that some of the women had fallen behind and she was worried they might be lost. Quick as mountain goat he ran down the hill to look for them. Phones were ringing and people were shouting to find each other. We kept walking up.

Reaching the top with all these laughing people was truly amazing. Such joy and such feel of accomplishment as a group. We took group pictures as trophies and congratulated each other on the effort. We didn’t spend much time at the top, as the sun was setting and we would have to make it down again before nightfall, so after a short rest we set off again – this time down the mountain.

As we walked towards the saddle that would take us directly down the mountain, we were stopped by Toots – the man sent out to find the women falling behind. He had found them and they had made it after all – with the help and encouragement of their colleagues. We all turned around and went back up the mountain to help them to the summit. We took more trophy pictures – this time of the entire group of 11 people, who had all made it to one of the iconic peaks of Swaziland. The situation reminded me of an African proverb; “If you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far, go together.” These incredible high school teachers did indeed go far together!