Snuggled under a thin blanket, trying our best to ignore the icy wind nipping at our ears, we slowly made our way up the bumpy 4×4 trail to the higher reaches of the reserve. The game viewer is by no means a comfortable ride, and it was a relief to finally reach the starting point of our much anticipated bushwalk experience. As everyone clambered out of the car, struggling to grasp the full function of their frozen motor neurons, I couldn’t help but gaze out onto the reserve in awe as the sun snuck up from behind the rolling hills of Zululand. There is truly no other place like it.
“The rules are simple. Walk silently in single file, and duck behind the nearest bush if we bump into a rhino”.
Contrast to popular belief, it is probably safer to go for a walk out in a “Big Five” game reserve than along a city sidewalk, provided that one respects the wild animals on the reserve. Our guide, Abe, carries no weapon other than his traditional “sakila”, which doubles up as an effective walking stick.
Where most guides will point out a number of different tracking techniques or mention a variety of interesting facts about African wildlife, Abe is unique in that he is able to relate scientific information to the abundant traditional ecological knowledge of the Zulu people. This is especially useful at Somkhanda, as remnants of communities long since vanished can still be found scattered around the community owned game reserve.
As much as I would have liked to embrace the aesthetic scenery, I slowly stumbled along behind the rest of the group, eyes fixed on the heavy duty hiking boots in front of me, desperately trying to not reveal my clumsy nature by potentially staggering over one of the many loose rocks scattered along the path. Thankfully, my focus did not have to span over long periods of time, as Abe somehow seemed to constantly find interesting treasures to stop and talk about.
Something as simple as an old smooth rock would grab the attention of our guide, and he would gaze thoughtfully at the seemingly boring object, as if remembering a story from long ago.
“If you look closely at this stone, you will notice how it is much smoother than those scattered around it. But more importantly, it has been broken in half”.
Abe then went on to explain that people from traditional Zulu communities would use large stones to grind maize and other grains used during food preparation.
The stone however, was not only used for practical purposes. It symbolised home. Ancestral reverence is pivotal to the Zulu culture, as these spirits act as guides, mentors and guardians of the community members. Ancestors are hence an integral component of day-to-day activities, and are personified within the vegetation surrounding the homestead in which they had once lived.
Unfortunately, there would come a point where the living members of the homestead would be forced to leave the area, often due to a lack of resources or forcible eviction by invading tribes. Breaking the stone in half would not only prevent any future inhabitants from making use of the resource, but also act as a farewell symbol to the ancestors, whom they would have to unfortunately abandon in their reluctant search for a new home.
By now the sun had risen just enough so that its rays were directed straight onto my back. The comforting warmth slowly crept down my frozen spine, permeating throughout the rest of my body as we continued our walk along the faint game trail that led deeper into the dense thicket. I had been filled with a new sense of wonderment, convinced that I could sense the rich life still embodied within our surrounding wild landscape. I couldn’t help but wonder whether these Zulu ancestors were watching us as we trundled ungracefully through their beloved land, either snickering at our ignorance towards their ancient heritage, or acknowledging our obvious appreciation for, and desire to learn about, their culture and history.
We learnt a considerable amount of interesting things during our bushwalk, ranging from facts about porcupines, plant secondary metabolite secretions and inter-plant communications, the ability for buffalo thorn branches to capture ancestral spirits, as well as a number of animal tracking techniques. We were spoilt with a couple of red duiker sightings, a close encounter with a gentle giraffe, as well as the sound of a nearby rhino, evidently in search of a mate.
Although the experience was predominantly aimed at being educational, there is something very spiritual about hiking on the reserve. Our lives are often such a busy bustle that we forget the quiet tranquility of nature and the meaningful connection that humans once shared with our environment. It renews our appreciation for the natural realm, often lost in our technological world. It reminds us of the insignificance of materialism, and reiterates the importance of environmental resources for human existence.
We arrived back at main camp, bodies filthy and exhausted but our minds refreshed and spirits renewed. Perhaps it is the increased level of oxygen intake, or the endorphins that run through our bodies after strenuous exercise, but one cannot deny the revitalising effect that hiking has on one’s overall well-being. Then again, perhaps my farm-girl views are bias, considering I have been spoiled with open, quiet, natural spaces my whole life. Regardless, in an era dominated by cyber-relations, technological advancements and a general neglect for our environment, it is of utmost importance that we remind both ourselves and others, of the ancient connection we share with our natural realm.
We were never meant to live in isolation of our environment. We are constantly reminded that nature is in desperate need of human intervention if we are to combat global environmental crises such as climate change, habitat loss, species extinction, deforestation and mass pollution. However, what we often forget is that, more than anything, humans are in as much need of being saved by nature itself. Without it, our existence will become nothing more than a hollow, empty, meaningless memory.
There is no point to conservation if we do not completely understand the environment we aim to conserve, nor will we be successful at our attempts to conserve nature without fully appreciating the magnitude to which it affects all of human kind.