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Devotion to duty in the Umfolozi Wilderness

Nobody relishes the “month end” administrative paperwork attached to any job and least of all game rangers who find offices the most intimidating concrete structures that they must periodically submit to!

This was where I was on this hot and humid Friday afternoon struggling to complete my monthly report on trail diversity, which in itself is very interesting had I been sitting under an umbrella thorn at the far end of the Hill of Refusal (Nqabaneni) deep in the wilderness area. Little did I know that that was exactly where I would be late that night and not by choice, I may say.

This incident took place in the very old days when I think the wheel was still square!! The time was 2.00 pm and our trusty switchboard operator, Vusi Nthuli who was sitting next door was trying frantically to connect with a very urgent incoming call from the ‘big smoke’ known to some as “The city of gold”. Let me explain that in the 1970’s we still used the delightful crank phone (nommer asseblief) to stay in touch with the outside world and Vusi was having trouble clearing the “party” line to receive this urgent call.

The lady phoning was in a terrible state because her husband was on a five-day wilderness trail and their newly born child was critically ill in Johannesburg and that he should hastily return and be with his wife and ailing child, an eight hour trip at the very least.

It’s amazing how a hot Zululand afternoon can so quickly turn on its head as it did then.

You see the Umfolozi wilderness area has no vehicle roads as such except for the odd service track that could be used. The term wilderness was innovated in the USA to describe a pristine area that should remain untouched by man and contain no permanent structures of any kind. Dr Ian Player ‘took on’ the wilderness concept and applied it to the southern part of Umfolozi Game Reserve – in total +- 60 000 hectares of the most amazing bush country you are ever likely to see.

So here we were at the Mpila rangers office trying to devise the best plan to get our urgently needed husband back to his car parked very neatly under a tree at the donkey boma’s. The problem was that I had to cover 11 miles on foot to get to the trail camp that the group had walked to on the first day. By now it was quite late in the afternoon, so things were becoming a tad ‘frantic’, which is a foreign word to game rangers and difficult to spell.

However, it was at this point that my trusty second in charge Ngoco Mthetwa, a well-qualified trail ranger came across and said that we should ride out to the camp on horseback and hopefully persuade Mr Husband to ride one of the horses back to connect with his car, thus enabling him to drive back at haste to Joburg. Failing which to get a landrover as close to Nqabaneni trail camp as possible. Not the easiest option as the track was very much 4×4 and would take several hours to get to the rendezvous point.

The plan was put into action and in a flash the two horses were saddled up and Ngoco and I were on our way, at a gallop where we could? Now let me remind you when you give a horse its head it just wants to go, especially when it can smell things like rhino and lion and all those big hairy ‘noonos’ that bite, however I soon realized that the opposite applies, and horses and rhino just don’t get along. I must say that it made for an interesting ride; ducking thorny acacia overhangs at a gallop should only be done by the absolute best stunt riders, not us mere rangers. I am glad to say that we managed to get to camp without incident and to the great surprise of Jack van Rensburg who was the ranger in charge of the trail group. Jack didn’t like trails and he made no bones about it. Taking a bunch of ‘townies’ on a 5-day hike was not his idea of fun. He would rather be studying birds or trees or doing a game count. The fact that I had coerced him into doing the trail for me did not add to his humour and to now be confronted with this added problem didn’t improve things.

Regrettably our ‘Mr Husband” flatly refused to get onto the horse as he had never wanted to ride one and was frankly terrified at the mere thought of it. This then complicated our plan and we had to engage the second and most dangerous option. You see, between the camp and the meeting point one of us would have to cross the White Umfolozi River twice and at night when the crocs are most active. Not an activity one should engage in unless totally mad or desperate! This along with the fact that I would be totally responsible for the man who it was my duty to convey safely to his car at the top of Mpila Hill, which now seemed a lifetime away.

Fortunately, we were now in contact with Sergeant Biyela who was going to drive Jack’s landrover to the predetermined spot in the meva (thorns in Zulu) area. So it was to be that we, being myself, Jack and a very nervous Mr Husband gingerly entered the fast flowing Umfolozi which at both points was about one hundred and fifty metres wide.

The first crossing went okay, whilst under the watchful eyes of the remainder of the group who were busy pointing out the red crocs eyes as we were treading water and searching for sand banks with our feet, hoping like hell we didn’t touch the scaly side of a crocodile as we edged our way forward. Its bad enough when you can see in the daylight but at night it’s a different “kettle of crocodiles’ let me tell you!!

Thankfully, we reached the far bank and only had one more crossing to make. This time though it would just be the two of us as Jack had to shine the torch and warn me of approaching crocs. Our man was not in good shape and was in fact falling apart rapidly at the prospect of a second crossing. Over the years I have found out that I can handle these kinds of situations and only afterwards does it really hit me. Hopefully, there was going to be an afterwards??

Before making our final crossing we had agreed to wait until we saw the vehicle lights on the opposite side to enable us to determine our direction. However, the track did peter out about a kilometre from the river which would make for an interesting stroll in the pitch blackness. Finally at 9.00pm we saw the vehicle lights way up on the other side unable to progress any further.

I must mention here that as Jack would attest, the “meva area” had probably the most lions of the whole reserve in this thorny environment west of the Umfolozi river. In fact while we were waiting to cross we were entertained by the resident pride male giving voice – the sound of Africa I say!!

Let us not be poetic, I had a job to do and an extremely dangerous one at that. So, into the river we went and tip-toed our tentative way forward, looking for any signs of movement in the river. As we were about half-way Jack suddenly shouted ‘watch our large croc heading towards you” – well!! This was enough to turn my whimpering charge into a full ‘meltdown’ as he proceeded to grab me around the neck and hang on for dear life, whiles simultaneously dunking my single action revolver into the churning water. Our only protection should one of us feel the jaws of an invisible crocodile.

It was at this point that I had to try and control our man who was causing untold commotion in the water which would attract these reptiles into thinking there was an animal in trouble in the water that would make an easy meal.

I was therefore forced to give him a ‘slight tap’ to instill some sense of control as we made our way forward. Well, I must say this had the desired effect and we reached the bank in silence. While on our way to the land rover, bare foot I saw what looked to be a bush ahead of us, until said bush started moving and snorting – a black rhino. Oh boy isn’t this fun!! I have never been so pleased to see said Biyela’s smiling face at that moment. Our friend was on his way home at 2.00am and we received confirmation that all was well!!

I do distinctly remember him opening his car boot and offering me a bottle of wine and I thought at the time a whole wine farm might have been a more just reward. Shew!! All in the name of dedication!! All of a sudden, my monthly report took on a different dimension!!