Let me count the ways in which two days of exploring previously unknown history, some extraordinary royal fetishes and truly magnificent wilderness areas on foot, with a backpack and in sweltering heat, can slightly alter the way one looks at life….our present leadership could be a lot worse, Jurassic Park is ‘alive’ and well in Kruger, the Lion King may have had a German ancestor and there is a time for everything… and we have barely started.
I had the opportunity to do the Nyalaland trail, which is in the north eastern part of the Kruger National Park (KNP), between Punda Maria and Pafuri. It reminded me of interviewing Mike English, a former game ranger in Kruger. I recall his enthusiasm about the wilderness trails in the Park and how they got started.
It was during his time at Pafuri that his love for the wilderness concept developed. He was specifically inspired by a gorge on the Levuvhu River, which he named after a lanner falcon that had caught a dove in flight there. The gorge has a magnificent view and almost magical spell. Many people share Mike’s view, one of whom is Klaus Kunde-Neimoth, producer for German WDR television.
Klaus was doing a documentary about the trail, but was focusing on Christopher Muthathi, our trails guide. He and his crew, cameraman Freddy Waldner and soundman Hans Mebold, had just spent the previous few days with Chris and his family at Chris’ home in the nearby village of Mhinga.
Klaus loves the gorge, but then he just adores the Park, which he first visited in 1989. He could hardly wait to get to the gorge the following day. For him, it was no doubt the highlight the trail.
First though, we had to visit a chief. At first light on Monday morning Job Chabangu, assistant trails ranger, started the Toyota game drive vehicle’s engine, which I came to realise signalled the start of the day. We travelled to the Levuvhu river and after a short re-cap of the briefing the night before, set off towards the mountains in the distance.
A hundred metres on strange rumblings had us swapping questioning looks. First I thought it was an aircraft breaking the sound barrier, as it did not sound like any animal I know. Then Chris enlightened us. The nearby Tshikondeni coalmine had started its early blasting shift. This lasted about ten minutes. We ignored the noise and followed Chris and Job.
Our first stop was some tree, which much to my shame, I cannot remember the Latin (or common name) for and an explanation of its medicinal use. We were tested and I failed, as can be guessed. That was the one thing I enjoyed about this trip.
As we walked, Chris would stop and tell us more about an interesting tree, rock, river, view, animal or iron age tool or we could ask questions and he would answer as much as he knew.
At one stage we came across the fossils of a few dinosaurs roughly stacked in the form of a lizard. Here once roamed the massive Massospondylus carinatus, a four metre long and one metre tall lizard-type dinosaur.
Chris told us more about this herbivore and other similar ancients. We left them undisturbed as we wound our way around exquisite baobabs standing guard on the side of the mountain.
Having never done a trail before I was fortunate to have Christoper Thornhill, who will be 70 soon, and his son, Harold, as congenial and enlightening companions. Fellow media person Dirk Nel kept the questions on track.
As we approached the top of the mountain we took a welcome breather while Chris and JJ approached the late chief Makahane (“somewhere between 1280 and 1600AD”) about our arrival.
A quick stop at the cave allowed enough energy regeneration for the last leg to the top. The view alone was worth it! Chris and JJ set the table (cloth) and we tucked into the snacks, surrounded by century old walls, built Great Zimbabwean style.
Respectfully waiting until after our meal, not wanting to spoil our appetite I suspect, Chris gave us a glimpse of the cruel chief Makahane whose quarters we were visiting.
According to folklore, the chief sat almost motionless the entire day. He could or would not move on his own, but was moved by his subjects, when commanded. He had a fondness for pretty young girls and claimed them before any of the other young men of his tribe could marry them.
He loved to eat black eagle and trumpeter hornbill chicks and his favourite form of punishment would be to send young men down the cliffs to find these ‘delicatessens’. Failure would result in death if they fell from the cliff.
Another form of punishment was for tribesmen to hold the hide of slaughtered cattle between their teeth until it was dry. If any man let the hide slip, he was thrown from a nearby cliff.
He would also send naked women to work the fields in front of the men. If the men could not control themselves they would be killed. He was eventually killed by his brother’s son. The gory story stopped us from staying too long. It was not even 09h00 and the sun was scorching.
We packed up and stopped briefly to admire a breathtaking view from a huge cliff. JJ beat Chris at their weekly game of Ncuba played on an ancient rock where the game has been played probably for the last 500 years.
Downhill was more difficult than I thought and reaching the river was a small victory. The water was low but clear, with fish easily discernable. We pushed on with the heat now attacking from everywhere – the sky, the sand, the rocks, the water. We followed the river, which is also the border with the Makuya Provincial Park.
On the way, we almost crawled into a herd of buffalo, and had the satisfaction of watching them drink in the water before they ran up the opposite side of the riverbank. Eventually, we reached the vehicle and left for the camp. Thomas Hlongwani, chef and camp supervisor at Nyalaland for the last 19 years, had lunch waiting after which a shower and rest were first on my priority list.
That afternoon Christopher took us to the Chalungwa hot spring where baboons were enjoying their sundowners. We watched them as they watched us briefly. Chris imitated his Afrikaans version of their alert call bidding them farewell. We left and an elephant then showed us the way to our spot at the Levuvu River where we stayed until after sunset.
We had the privilege of spending those magic minutes before sunset when the reds turn to pinks and blues to purple on a huge rock on the banks of the Levuvhu River. The old elephant shared this quiet time of reflection and appreciation with us before he too moved on.
It was also an early night as we had to be up at 04h00 the following day. As is customary, JJ got us going with the Toyota engines starting up. This time we took a longer drive, towards Pafuri. Klaus was excited – the gorge was waiting. We were not far from the camp when we saw what was probably one of the highlights of the trail – a wild dog on the side of the road.
Chris stopped. As we watched, more ears appeared further away. Chris got out and we followed cautiously, but not too late for us to count them – 12 wild dogs! This was great and I had frozen – I have to be content with the most vivid image engraved in my mind.
Even in the middle of nowhere, time was against us and we had to go. On the way we stopped briefly for buffalo, elephant, kudu and nyala making Freddy a very happy cameraman.
Finally we got to the trail’s starting point, close to Pafuri Picnic spot, on the banks of the river. The trees are majestic, rising from red sandy soil like green beacons of hope, with bare rocky hills on both sides of the river. We had not walked for long when we spotted about 10 waterbuck some distance away on an island in the river.
Freddy set up his camera on the very heavy tripod that Klaus was carrying, but animals do not normally have the habit of obliging cameramen and disappeared. We continued along the river and later came across the waterbuck as they ventured up the hill. The scenery is incredible.
It was very dry and the heat was almost too much. But the harshness has a beauty of its own and every time we found relief from the sun in the shade of one of the huge nyala trees the sweet scent would hint at the richness and contradiction that in many ways epitomises Africa and her ways.
Our last stop before the gorge was virtually inevitable as we were called to a halt by a fish eagle. It almost appeared to have been waiting for us, much to Klaus’ delight. Perhaps Hans also found this a welcome respite from the panting and heavy footsteps he had been hearing for two days. We moved on, with Chris imitating its call and Klaus now practically leading the way.
But first we had to eat. With the mountains in the distance we set the ‘table’ under a giant nyala tree. The trail was easier and the expectation greater, so snacks somehow went faster. We set off again. As we approached the gorge, the crew went ahead to capture our approach.
We caught glimpses of the gorge, and as we rounded a huge rock, which we had to climb, it was finally in front of us – almost at eye level – and it is truly awe-inspiring. The river curves gently to the right and disappears between the two rocky outcrops on either side.
The water level was low and the river had little islands scattered throughout. Klaus was on the highest point on the rock he could find peering down the gorge like Simba, from Lion King. Freddy and Hans were filming and we were absorbing the essence of Nyalaland. We stayed awhile. On our way back Chris stopped at the place where one of Africa’s giants had died.
It was a baobab that had exploded, according to Chris because it exceeded its water tolerance thresholds. As we left for the vehicle and Thulamela I looked back and saw another living baobab behind this heap of cellulose that perhaps was once also admired by people like us. A time for everything.