Lessons From the Other Side of the River

The truth be told, I had my concerns. They had not grown into fully fledged fears but I could hear them scampering through the wires in my brain like rats in the roof. What if the kids started crying that they had to carry their own clothes, bed and food? What if they refused to part with their phones and watches – for surely a separation from WhatsApp is akin to a separation from oxygen? What if they wouldn’t do their shift on ‘night watch’ – that holy time around a flicker of a flame alone with your thoughts and your torch beam? That holy time which is ostensibly about watching over camp for wildlife, but in reality, is more about watching a highlights reel of your own wild life and what you have become.

We were leading a party of 4 teens across the other side of the Imfolozi River into the wilderness. The real wilderness – not the glitzy plunge pool and cocktail 5* safari suite wilderness. Here, there are no roads, no dwellings, no sign of modern man. In fact shards of clay pots dating back two centuries are the only evidence that men once walked these rugged hills and valleys. We had chosen to go and confront questions about ourselves. Learn about ourselves.   Perhaps face the reality that the imminent and quiet desperation of our own lives may be more frightening than the attentions of any wild beast quietly going about its nocturnal rituals.  But these are lessons that can only be heard outside the cling and clatter of deadlines and expectations, of sirens and alarms. In short, lessons that can only be taught on THAT side of the river.

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And then, the teens arrived. The delay of the plane could not contain the enthusiasm of youth. They spilled over into the arrivals hall and into the vehicle as if the vigour of their days could not be constrained within the hallways of respectability. Before very long, we were in the Park and found ourselves straining and swivelling to catch sight of the male lions resting a short distance from the road – jockeying for position with the other vehicles to record a moment, maybe snap a blurry image of a member of the Big 5 – yet another tick on the list to give our FOMO (fear of missing out) saturated hearts the peace we think we need.

The arrival day in the park gives us a few good sightings and a pleasant paced introduction to the wild. Our first sighting of a bull elephant soon turns to a re-enactment of the Goon Show when the girls realise the extended limb on display is not one of the elephant’s 4 legs. This in turn means the elephant is named “Alfredo” (?). Hence forth, anything resembling an elephant – be it a track or a pile of dung – is certain to be the property of Alfredo.

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But we have a good afternoon and a peaceful braai in the rest camp where I am reminded of the awesome eating power of teenagers. I hear the rats of concern in my head start to scamper again knowing the food for the next 3 nights will be what we need as opposed to what we want.

The following morning, we are face to face with Nunu and Ayanda – our guides for the Trail. The .458 rifles they hold may fool you into thinking they are here for our protection, the truth is they are educators – guides into a world that we want to experience. The haunting question is whether we are experiencing this world to know we can endure it or to embrace it.

Nunu shows us how to pack a rucksack – seriously? Yes indeed…for this is a skill and one that if not mastered will create a burden that you will carry with you. Literally. For 3 days. The days of organized chaos are set aside and an era of foresight and planning begins. Our limited selection of clothes and toiletries are scorned by Nunu and cut down even further – “a man needs a fire to dry, not a towel Mfowethu (brother).”

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We eye out the meagre pile of food, pots and kettle which represents the sum total of our energy sources for the next 3 days but at the same time, we eye out each other. Waiting for someone to volunteer to carry the heavier goods like the stew and the mince – still to learn the principles of sharing the load, of working together. We are still in ‘survivalist’ mode, every man for him or herself.

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When we eventually shoulder the packs, almost all stagger beneath the weight and we feel as agile as the tortoises we now resemble. All the talk of climbing trees to escape a charging rhino is long gone. In fact, right now encountering a dangerous animal is of little concern to us as we have an animal attached to our back that feels too big to handle already! Eventually, we cross our river – we ford the White Imfolozi and sink to the sand for the introduction to the lesson. The message is simple – welcome to a world we thought we would do better leaving and now need more than ever before. We have crossed over and the trail begins…

By the time Nunu whispers to us that we are walking onto a crash of sleeping white rhinos, we have all made peace with our backpack burdens. The weight shifted to hips or shoulders depending on our body shapes and strong zones. We focus in, sharpened eyes, beating hearts. Our feet no longer slap the earth but are placed with care and thought. The silence shrieks at us and some of the group are straining their eyes to find a tree. Our bodies are asking us to leave, our guides lead us in. Closer we walk and then suddenly, the rhino know we are here. Arising, he lumbers towards us, ears like funnels, trying to place the mortal danger he knows is near. The nostrils flared like sinkholes, desperately trying to get that whiff of man that he has learned to fear with good reason before. However, the humans crouched 12m away are not here to profit from his horn – rather, to learn from his presence.

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When Nunu feels the lesson is over, he kisses the air with a “mwaa” sound and our rhino snorts in alarm and scampers away. I am lost in a question though – which party should have been more distressed? We drop our packs to the ground and allow dry mouths to suck on liquid and slowly, we begin to share. “I was looking for a tree and there was nothing.”…”OMG you guys, he was like looking right at me.” The teens are experiencing the sheer exhilaration that occurs when the fear you imagined and have now faced turns out to be far less gripping than your imagination had perceived. Is it possible that our minds have done this with our other fears?

The sun is lower when we meet the Imfolozi River again and our shoulders and feet tell us it is time to settle down as opposed to the digits on our wrist or phone. Nunu welcomes us to ‘home’ – a ledge of flat rocks that hold the river in check. The ladies immediately find their costumes and begin a bath that swiftly turns into mud wrestling whilst the men collect firewood and get the flames going.

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The smoking tambothi wood proves to be effective in drying our dripping bodies and before the silver light finally submits to inky blackness, we are settled around our fire watching Ayanda prepare mince. Right now, the outside world is watching overweight ‘masters’ casting judgements on budding chef apprentices’ efforts to produce gourmet meals with access to more ingredients than are needed for a wholesome meal. We are watching a humble and highly skilled man serve us a simple but delicious meal that we cannot finish despite eating more than we need because the taste is so good. And then, it is time to start the famous night watch.

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Tai and Hannah-Rae are allowed to take the first shift together and amongst ourselves we arrange the roster. The instructions from Nunu are simple – keep the flames going but don’t make a bonfire and burn all the wood; make yourself some tea or coffee but don’t leave the next watch without boiling water; wake the next person once your heart has had its full of the watch but don’t leave your post until they replace you at the fire; enjoy the animal sightings that happen in your torchlight and don’t wake me unless they cross that point (he indicates a mark about 10m from camp); enjoy your time!

The men had more chance of falling pregnant than convincing Hannah-Rae and Tai to take any other watch other than the first one which had one very real consequence. Every movement we made on our ‘beds’ on the rock and sand was quickly covered by a dazzling torch beam, freshly white with all the power of unused batteries. This had the knock-on effect of making sleep rather difficult and this process had already started on the back foot due to the battle being fought with our rigid bodies and very unmoveable bedrock. Hips objected to the resistance they found and necks swayed and wormed for lack of pillows. But eventually, the ladies ended their shift and Bennett replaced them to discover that his torch was as effective as the silvery moon which floodlit our setting. With the strobe light effect over, our eyes won over our hips and sleep descended.

There is something about sitting alone, armed with a torch and cup of coffee next to a few small flames alongside a wild river in Big 5 country. It is a deep tissue massage for the mind and soul without the stress of having to arrive on time. For each patient, a different touch is needed and each body, a new canvas. The night sounds and blackness begins to work through the knots in the heart, mind and soul – the fingers of the silence move with skill and certainty to those thoughts and fears that are inhibiting movement in our lives. Night watch manipulates our souls beneath the heavenly hosts and if we resist with fear and tension, the exercise becomes a painful wrestle we are forced to endure. However, if we submit to the embrace, somehow the build-up of spiritual and emotional lactic acid begins to seep away. All too soon, you realise the moon and stars have moved and you know the next patient is waiting.

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If you have never heard wild dogs feeding, you probably wouldn’t guess the sound for it is closer to a flock of birds chirping than a pack of canines ripping into flesh. This was the sound that rose with the sun on our first morning. Scampering to high ground to try and spot the dogs we held our breath until eventually, over a period of ten minutes, four burst through the cover onto the river bank. We were perched with a 180° view watching these splendid apex and endangered predators – who seem incapable of keeping still – run through, up and down the Imfolozi River. As quickly as they appeared, they were gone. A truly unique sighting. It is destined to be stored in our minds like waking from a wonderful dream and for a time, we resist talking of anything else in case our hazy memories fog the crispness of the event.

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Having made the decision to spend a 2nd night at our site, we explored the wilderness without packs and enjoyed panoramic views from the cliff tops, had lunch in a baboon cave and raced each other through river sand. Bennett and Maverick had performed a sterling job in filling our water bottles with clean, fresh water filtered through river sand, keeping us hydrated in the warm, sticky climate. Upon returning to camp, Hannah-Rae dug up the stew meat she had buried deep into the river bed with Ayanda the day before – still perfectly fresh and cool. As we settled for the evening, the sounds of the battle carried to our ears. About a 1km upstream beneath imposing red cliffs, our wild dogs had killed an inyala bull and were feeding and fighting off hyena at the same time. The sounds were defined and harrowing on the cool evening air. Without a moment’s hesitation, we jumped into the river and began the run towards the melee. Arriving a few minutes later on the battle field, the hyena and wild dogs had retreated to allow us – the ultimate predator – the chance to inspect the kill. They did not even offer a growl or snarl at us. Nunu pointed out the kill site and the drag marks and we inspected the remains of the body – the bones and skin were all that remained from an antelope that been browsing peacefully just fifteen minutes earlier. Photos taken, we left the kill to the rightful owners and we were no sooner in camp feeding on our own stew when the first roars of the lions carried to our ears – they too had joined the battle. Night watch would be fun tonight!

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The next 2 days and nights continued with lessons and adventures. The packs got lighter (or did we just getting stronger?) The beds got softer (or did we just remember how to mould to the earth again?) The wilderness continued to reveal her lessons from the rhino beetle to the ant lion, the bark of the baboons or the sounds of lion killing a zebra at night. But more importantly, we began to reveal our own secrets. Discussions ranged from the latest “hottie” at school to religion. From human sexuality to culture and teens and adults engaged equally – in the absence of time, age is not as important as experience.

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Before we knew it, we were descending into camp and had returned from THAT side of the river. A strange feeling came upon me. It was a realisation that we had experienced something pure and sacred and that the purity hadn’t come from the wilderness itself. Instead, the lesson learnt was that purity actually lives in us – the wilderness only offers a platform to rediscover it. Perhaps, we are indeed, fearfully and wonderfully made? Perhaps, anyone – techno crazed teens included – still has a beautiful and wild heart and perhaps, all we need are a few lessons from the other side of the river to be reminded what we are made of?

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And what of my rats of concern about the teens? Well, they definitely are living in a world that is changing so rapidly that even a decade and a half age gap can appear to be a broken bridge. But once they crossed the river, they showed that anyone can enjoy and find relevance in the lessons of the wilderness – even if they had to talk to us instead of text us!