Archive for October, 2010

Hard(er) Corp Safari

October 3, 2010

Jordan and I just came off an amazing backpacking trip in the (Hluhluwe)/iMfolozi wilderness area which is near St. Lucia, South Africa, just south of Swaziland. We feel very blessed to have had this opportunity to sleep out under the stars and to drink and bathe in a river shared by a lions, hyaena, baboon, buffalo, elands, elephants, wildebeest, warthogs and other magnificent animals.

This is wildest of several hiking/backpacking options offered in this game reserve and includes four days and nights exploring a pristine African wilderness with two friendly and knowledgeable guides toting large-caliber rifles. Before getting back into the wilderness though, our first challenge was getting from our site in Swaziland to the park in South Africa (about 250 miles away). Remember that we don’t have a car as PC volunteers so we used an interesting combination of public and private transport beginning with our usual kombis. These are small vans filled to the max with folks (as many as 25 counting babies when the legal limit is 15), groceries, freshly-picked produce headed for market and sometimes boxes of baby chicks! We took a kombi headed toward Durban (200 Rand or R200 each, about $25) and were dropped off at Mtubatuba, the town nearest the park. As there were no kombis that we knew of, we hired a driver from the local builder’s supply store to drive us the 30K (about 18 miles) to the park and paid him R200 total. Then, we hooked a ride with one of the park’s rangers to our campsite for the first night (R100). We had a nice spacious tent on a raised platform with a full bath, hot shower, firm beds and a full kitchen. Talk about luxury in the wilds! But we knew this was only for the first and last nights of our 7-day trip and that the real adventure would begin when we headed into the wilderness area. The next morning, we were awakened by the sound and vibrations of lions roaring near by. We later learned that the lions had killed a giraffe and were having a feast just up the road from our camp. Waking up to lions sure beat the crowing of the roosters that we are used to back at site. We took the lions’ welcome as a good sign that we were in the right place for an adventure and we were not disappointed.

We started off on our hike after a short safety briefing and orientation session. After walking only a short time, we were met by a group of 7 wide-mouth (commonly called ‘white’) rhino.

They were coming over a ridge 150 feet from us, headed to the river that we were walking beside. As rhino eyesight is poor, they didn’t notice us when we noticed them. We quickened our pace and when we were about 90 yards away, we stopped and turned to watch them pass. When they crossed our path, our cover was blown. They may not see too well but they can sure smell. A large one turned and began walking toward us too quickly for our fragile sense of safety, so we were on our way in a hurry without looking back. We were grateful to have our armed guides creating a safety buffer between us.

Another highlight was watching four adult male lions soaking up the cool of the river for an hour or so and then pitching our camp only a few hundred yards downstream. When we heard (and felt the vibrations in the air!) of their roaring that night, we could put faces with the roars. We were with our old friends.

We also had up-close and personal encounter with a bull elephant that was close to us as we stepped through the tall grass at the edge of the river. He didn’t seem to be bothered by us and the guides told us that they could tell by the way he behaved that he was not a threat to us. When a pair of spotted hyaena came too near our camp one night, one of the guides was up in a flash and while he grabbed his rifle, he only needed his voice to chase them away. A pair of huge warthogs came by us as we were taking a rest break one hot afternoon, sniffed around near us, grunted and scurried off. As we came down a bank into the river, we were greeted by a small python warming himself in the sun. He didn’t seem any more afraid of us than we were of him, so I guess it was a good interaction on both sides.

Besides the rush of being on ground level with these amazing creatures and feeling their eyes on us as they checked us out, there is the silence of the night broken only by the roar of lions and howling of hyaena. There were eight of us on the trip, three Americans (a father and his two grown sons) from California, a couple for the UK and a young woman from South Africa. All were quiet and respectful of the silence of the wilderness, which allowed the trip to be a meditative one for all of us. We took turns standing watch over our campsites through the night, stoking the fire, boiling water for tea and keeping a lookout for any predators that might confuse us with a late-night snack. This quiet alone time was some of the richest hours of the trip along with lying on the flat rocks by the river, gazing up at all those stars! We saw no tire tracks, access roads, pit latrines or other signs of man’s intrusion other than a few dozen footprints.

This was certainly a more laid-back trip than some other safari trips we’ve taken this year. No racing around in cars trying to see every animal on our checklist. No waiting for an open shower at the end of the day. No swimming pool to check out. We saw fewer animals on this trip but spent much more time with the ones that we did see. It really felt like we were visiting these guys in their home. We were clearly on their turf. And this intimacy added a depth and richness to the experience that’s simply indescribable. A fellow PC volunteer who took this trip last year, summed it up nicely when she said, “it was a spiritual experience for me.” It was for me too!

(note: the title of this article is a play on a common Peace Corps expression. When something is easy or soft, like having hot showers, it’s Soft Corps. Anything we do that is challenging, like drinking brown water or eating around the bugs in our food, that’s Hard Corps. This trip was a mix of the two.)