Walking the wilderness trail in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
It was more than just a walk in the park. The 3 day Short iMfolozi Wilderness Trail was an experience that freed our souls and connected us to the African bush.
We can’t describe the feeling of surrendering to the iMfolozi wilderness and becoming a part of it. It’s an internal switch that was flicked on in us and we knew we had immersed ourselves in the environment and found our place in it. It’s something no amount of photographs or descriptions can really capture.
Our trio has just returned from a 3 day, 2 nights Short Wilderness Trail in the iMfolozi Wilderness area inside the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. My dad, my husband Graham and I made ourselves one with the Zululand wild on the guided walking trail through part of the most untouched wilderness in South Africa.
Being in that wild setting is a feeling of being tiny in the greater scheme of the natural area’s system but at the same time feeling so connected to it and accepted by it. We were instantly aware of our fragility out there as mere humans. So lacking in instinct and ability compared to the wilderness inhabitants. We respected it and took our place there, in awe of every rustle in a bush, bird call and rumble of an elephant’s belly. We realised we were in tune with the heartbeat of that place.
This moment of full connection happened on the morning of our third day when walking in single file, as is the trail way, through a particularly wondrous section of bushveld governed by thorn trees and diversified by more lush vegetation nearer the White Umfolozi River. We had just come across a full buffalo skull- a reminder of the circle of life, a code that is lived by in the bush. After spending the last two days and nights slowly taking in the soul-lifting as well as adrenalin fuelled moments, we were on its level and much more aware of our surroundings.
Nothing physical happened that made us realise we were in touch with the wild but walking through that area I was suddenly very aware that we were not alone. Definitely being watched and sharing that space with other creatures, hidden from sight but connected to me through an energy I felt. I felt they were there. A pulsing deep in my belly and an energy in the air I could actually feel. I mentioned this in a whisper to Graham. “I can feel there is something nearby. There’s something there in the bush that wasn’t there a few steps ago.”
When we stopped for some water a little later he eagerly confirmed that he had felt exactly the same way through that specific stretch of bush, and my dad had a similar twinge of electricity and awareness spread through him. It was an amazing moment to have shared and something that is impossible to describe. You had to feel it.
The Faces behind our Wilderness Trail
Our group comprised of 8 keen trailists. We bonded through our excitement and need to explore and encounter the wilderness on the most basic level- on foot.
We three were the South Africans in the group, the others being visitors from the UK, Germany and Italy.
Our trail was led by Mark Gibbs who has warmth to him that makes you feel like his friend immediately and a knowledge and passion for the bush that is awe-worthy. His campfire stories about trail experiences and wild animal encounters is the stuff of African legends too.
Mpila was Mark’s second in command- a confident, fearless trail guide who kept watch over all of us and our surroundings from the back of our line. She has a smile that competes with the sun and a gift for finding the best shady spots to relax in during stops. She also enthralled us with historical stories of her Zulu people who used to live in the area during Shaka Zulu’s time and their traditions and beliefs linked to certain trees and plants in the area.
Thomas was our camp cook and made magic happen with the use of fire alone. All meals were cooked in pots over the coals. Each seemingly more delicious than the last. His speciality pot bread welcomed us back to camp each day after our walk. I miss that bread already. Thomas also turned into my angel on the trail as it turns out he is not only a cook but a shoe-maker too. My well-worn walking shoes chose to give up and break apart during our first day’s walk and Thomas expertly fixed them with his specialist tools and thread. They are in perfect shape now and so neatly patched. They’ll walk another 20 trails thanks to Thomas.
Moments from our Short Wilderness Trail
In the car on our drive back home, we reminisced about our days in the bush and some of the memories that stood out:
On our first day, as we left the base camp, a lone elephant bull came down to the river and drank. It was almost as if he arrived especially to welcome us and wish us a happy trail.
One of our most “wow” animal encounters was the massive breeding herd of elephants that came down to the river to drink and play near our bush camp. We watched from the bank, unbeknownst to them. There were hundreds of them and we were sharing their home. We met some of them again from a distance on our final day too as they trumpeted and ran through the bush as we looked on from higher ground.
We walked into three white rhinos and we’re still debating who got the bigger fright- them or us! They were surprised and Mark and Mpila expertly handled the situation as the rhinos decided to flee just a few metres away from us. Mark shouted to ensure they fled away from us and not towards us and they crashed through the bush, quaking the ground as they went. It was incredible and reminded us again how vulnerable we are as humans in the big-boy world of the wild.
We also came across another rhino as well as a buffalo bull which sized us up for a few breath-held moments before moving off.
Some of the highlights were the times we pulled off our shoes and walked through the river’s water as part of our route. There is something indescribably freeing and delicious about sinking your toes into the river sand, ankle deep in river water, completely one with the environment.
We walked along animal-made trails, following the routes they had chosen best. Mark guided us to a number of unbelievable viewpoints which towered above the reserve below. We soaked in those views, perched on the cliff side at Siwasmfene – meaning “baboons view” in Zulu. We peered down over the park at Shaka’s Rock and heard harrowing stories of the Zulu king ordering his subjects to jump to their death from those heights. We lunched in the midday heat on the boulders at Nqabanene meaning “the Fortress” which is linked to the history of Shaka’s battles. Finally on route back to main base camp we got to say goodbye to the wilderness from the iconic spot at Momfu, drinking in the sights of the White Umfolozi River and bush from above. We game watched and took it all in from our God-like vantage points.
We snuck in for a look at a baboon’s cave and were treated to a very special show of vultures gliding around together at our eye level.
Our temporary bush camp home was named Mphafa after the Zulu name for the Buffalo Thorn tree. The tree is traditionally used in the Zulu culture to fetch the spirit of a dead Zulu from where he/she died and bring it home to the family dwelling. We settled into a fireside community in camp at night, seated on cushions on the ground at fire level which brought us even closer to our setting. We star gazed and went scorpion hunting in the trees guided by Mark’s special UV torch which made them glow in the dark. We also listened to the chorus of frogs from our tents at nights and heard the distant lions roar and closer hyena whoops.
Camp life is a good life and we fell into the simple ways of co-existing. The equivalent to the “occupied” sign in a loo was if the “toilet hole digging spade” was missing from its spot against the tree. The shower system was that you’d fill your bucket with hot water from the pot on the fire and take it around the back of camp to the outdoor shower spot, with stunning sunset views I might add. Similarly, if the bucket was missing from its spot, the shower was “occupied”.
We cooled ourselves in the river one afternoon after our day’s walk, the water just enough in places to cover our limbs as we absorbed it. It is winter in Zululand but still warm and very dry. There is ample mud though and we reveled in smearing the smooth “export quality” stuff all over us, making ourselves truly one with that river.
The river also doubled as a refrigerator when the South African men buried their few beers in the river bed, under the water to keep cool until our return in the evening. The result: the beers were luke-warm but still so refreshing. Next time, they’ll bury them deeper.
On our final morning in camp, the donkeys arrived with their two minders. These cute, hardy characters collect and carry the camp cooking equipment, bedding that need laundering and sometimes a few small bags belonging to trailists back to main camp.
The lead donkey is named Ngudlaphuthu which means “Eats all the porridge” and Thomas puts out left over food from our previous dinners for her to eat. She refuses to eat grass like her companions do. She eats porridge, rice and spaghetti only.
It’s a dangerous life for the donkeys in iMfolozi though and Mark told us the horrifying stories about how many of the donkeys have met their end as the lions take them out while on their route. Last year alone thirteen donkeys were hunted by lions while transporting goods in the park. It just stands as a reminder that it’s wild out there, where we walked that wilderness.
Mark explained that last year was a particularly problematic year for the donkeys in the park though as there was a pride of especially “wicked lions” in the area along the donkey route. These brutes targeted the donkeys and caused trouble for other prides of lions in the park too. They have since been translocated to other reserves to keep the balance and there has been relative peace for the donkeys ever since.
During our day walks in the game reserve we were astounded at just how many signs of the wildlife we encountered, even if we didn’t see too many of animals themselves. Our wanderings took us through numerous white rhino territories which we were certain of due to the rhino middens or territory-marking dung piles the males leave behind them. There was so much dung. So much!
We also passed lots of elephant dung, as you can imagine, as well as other animals too such as bush pig, multiple antelope, giraffe, buffalo and even black rhino. We were captivated by being able to identify which animals had passed by before us by tracking their footprints or spoor. This is a favourite bush activity for Graham in particular who was fascinated by all the different markings we found. We identified many lion, hyena, wild dog and elephant spoor just to mention a few.
Graham jumped down into the riverbed one evening while we were saluting the sunset from the banks and managed to piece together the story of a wild dog hunt and kill that had happened there recently, all by using the signs left behind. Mark shouted down questions which Graham sought the clues to by following the tracks and describing the “scene of the crime” he was in. Between the two of them it was deciphered that a pack of wild dogs had taken down an impala and would have devoured it in totality within 15 minutes of the kill. All that was left as proof was a blood stained section of sand and the frenzy of footprints all around.
We felt privileged to be able to walk through proper wilderness, never inhabited by modern man, never impacted on by anything man-made and still ruled by nature’s movements. Parts of our hearts were left behind in iMfolozi’s wilderness area, and we’re already trying to plan our return visit soon to reconnect with it even more.
Some tips and useful info:
There’s not too much information online about the details of the trail from a personal experience perspective so here are a few things we thought would have been useful to know before we went:
The Wilderness Trails Facebook group:
Our contagiously passionate trails officer guide, Mark Gibbs, also runs the Facebook group for the iMfolozi Trails. It’s a great resource to get a feel for what to expect from the trail experience as he shares pictures and stories and trip reports about past trails. It worked as a source of inspiration and pre-trail excitement for me as I browsed through it to get a personal experience feel of what to expect.
Wilderness Trails Bookings:
All trails bookings need to be made through the KZN Wildlife reservations office, but through their dedicated trail reservations team member.
I did all our booking admin via email quite easily. The reservationist is efficient enough with a reply turnaround time averaging at around a day, so if you need more immediate info or assistance in booking rather call the offices directly.
Accommodation for before or after your trail:
All trails, from the short one we did to the extended base camp trails or the ultimate wilderness trail: the 5 night primitive trail, start from the private Mndindini Base Camp which is a short drive from Mpila main camp in the iMfolozi side of the park.
All trailists will be lead to the camp by their trail guides once they meet up at Mpila main camp.
It makes sense for Short Wilderness Trail trailists to book accommodation at Mpila Camp before or after the trail if they are wanting to ensure they make it for the 11am starting time or simply want to extend their trip by staying in the park before or after the trail.
Bookings for non-trail accommodation need to be made through a different reservation contact. Make these bookings directly through KZN Wildlife’s head reservations office:
Telephone: +27 (033) 845 1000
All the individuals in our trail group had agreed that they had struggled a bit with the booking process for accommodation and trails bookings as you can’t book directly online. This was especially limiting for the international visitors.
It’s a good idea to phone to book just to make certain of everything and to feel secure about confirming details.
Wilderness Trail times and info
There is a helpful PDF info document that can be downloaded. Don’t take everything on it as law though. For example the document outlined that our trail would get back to base camp by 10:30 on the last day, when actually it ends at midday or so. (Thankfully. The more time out there the better.)
Costs of a Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Wilderness Trail:
In August 2015 the cost of a place on the Short Wilderness Trail (3 day) was R2350.
This is all inclusive of meals and camping needs.
All details on costs of all trails and other iMfolozi accommodation can be found on the KZN Wildlife website.
Nice to Knows:
All water needed for drinking, showering and cooking on the trail comes from the river. It doesn’t get more natural or delicious than that. You don’t need to bring your own water.
Backpacks are provided but if you’d prefer, you can use your own.
One 2 litre water bottle is provided per person. If you’re like me and drink a lot of water, bring an extra one. Mine fitted into my backpack easily and I felt much less panicked about the horror of possibly going thirsty.
Beer tastes better in the bush. If you can manage to carry the minimal extra weight of a few cans of beer or decant a glass or two of wine into a plastic bottle like I did, we highly recommend bringing them along. There is nothing better that being able to toast the sunset in the African bush with a few sips of your favourite beverage.
If you arrive at Mpila camp the day before the trail begins, you can send a bag of your belongings with the donkeys that will go ahead to the bush camp. They deliver goods before the trailists’ arrival. This will allow you to carry just your day pack with water and necessities in it on that first day’s walk to camp. Alternatively, on that first day you will just carry a little more in your pack including your clothes and personal items. It’s not a big deal at all as the first day’s walk is much shorter than the rest of the trail days anyway.
Pack light. Honestly you don’t need much out there at all and the necessaries are provided for such as food, towels, bedding and water. Just take a few changes of clothes, warm items, toiletries and a swimming costume and you’re set.
Daily distances walked on our Short Wilderness Trail averaged at around 12km per day (except for the first day which was shorter). This was very comfortable for our group but each trail is different and the walking pace and distances will depend on the needs of the individuals in the group. We returned to camp each evening after our walk where our belongings were left in our tents.
Mphafa camp is a temporary camp set up in the wilderness which the Short Wilderness Trail is using as its base in the bush for now. It was our home for two nights. The camp site changes frequently though to ensure minimal impact to the natural surroundings and also to make sure the wildlife doesn’t get used to having people around in specific areas only. The priority of the wilderness trails is to keep the wild areas as wild and untouched as possible.
Camp itself is lovely and simple with canvas tents, each sleeping two people, a camp kitchen area for the cook to work his magic in and a fire-side social area. It’s perfect.