Walking the Nyalaland Wilderness Trail often results in an experience greater than observing animals and plant life one would normally not see. Many trailists can attest to an inner awakening, sharing for a short time surrounds that only a small number of humans experience. The trail spans the far northern region of the Kruger National Park (KNP), between Punda Maria and Pafuri, referred to by some as the 'heart of God'.
It is known for its great diversity dating back millions of years as is evident from the numerous dinosaur fossils, bushman paintings and stone walled ruins found on the mountains. Trails ranger, Stephen Midzi, says, "Confrontation with wildlife in this paradise is inevitable, but makes man to be in partnership with all creatures of the wild."
Many of the bush encounters are with buffalo and elephant, "but never have we had serious consequences from these meetings."
On one occasion a trails group came across a breeding herd of elephants that picked up the group's scent and charged, trumpeting their intent. "We moved up the mountain slope and could see three females waiting in ambush ready to protect their young while the rest of the herd was clumped up under a sausage tree."
On most occasions buffalo bulls run away on a first encounter, except for one bull "that charged us from a distance of about 100 metres, charging from the reeds in the Luvuvhu River. "Fortunately, the riverbed had a rocky belt, which slowed him down and we managed to climb up huge boulders before he passed us. The bull was however ashamed of himself for trying to break peace."
At another time a buffalo bull was lying in the riverbed and ran as soon as it detected the trails group. It disappeared along the trails path behind dense bush. "I left the group to check his whereabouts. Just as I went up the steep slope of the bank following his tracks, I came face to face with what is known as 'black death', waiting in ambush." Spanning the 15 metres between its formidable horns and the barrel of the gun, Stephen and the bull had a two-minute man-to-man talk.
"Our spirits connected and we became one, we both understood our differences but made peace between us," recalls Stephen. The buffalo took off in the opposite direction and Stephen backed down the slope to join the rest of the group. Some encounters leave a more lasting impression and one Stephen will always remember is when "we came across an elephant bull that just did not know the meaning of peace."
When the group first stumbled upon the elephant it was in the company of another bull and all seemed to be well under a cloudy sky. "While watching the bull as he crossed in front of us, he suddenly veered into thick bush. Some time later I spotted him sneaking towards us. Soundlessly he let out a full-scale charge.
"My colleague fired a warning shot which "halted his charge, but not for long as he charged again. I yelled at him and again he stopped. "There he stood in the same spot watching us as we moved away." The group walked a considerable distance from the elephant before they stopped under a baobab tree for a short break.
They picked up the trail again and "a while later we heard the rumbling of an elephant bull ahead of us." Frozen in their tracks they decided to stay put until the animal had moved away. It had other plans and "my colleague alerted us to the elephant coming our way." It was the same elephant the group had encountered before and this time it charged again from the cover of thick mopane trees ahead.
"I yelled while we retreated and he stopped, but he was scanning for our scent all the time. At the back of our single file moving in the opposite direction, I could hear the elephant following behind us." At one point Stephen saw the huge body flattening a medium-sized mopane tree. The group moved as fast as they could towards the vehicle. By the time they got there, there was no sign of the elephant following.
"We gathered our wits at the Cruiser before we decided it must be safe for us to have breakfast along the Luvuvhu River." Initially the group intended to go to a magical spot, which overlooks deep pools in the river, "but decided against it because it lies along a game path." They branched off to the river's main slender channel surrounded by rocks towards the northern bank.
As they settled into breakfast, the group noticed an elephant bull walking along the game path on the southern bank. It was the same elephant bull. "When it was far enough from us, we sneaked back to the vehicle. The elephant's tracks covered ours on the trail from the car towards the river. He was following our scent but had lost us when we branched off onto the rocks."
After some discussion the group agreed that he must have had a very bad experience with people at some point in his life and really wanted to vent his frustrations on them. "It is very sad when mankind is the cause of unhappiness in the souls of the wilderness, which we know as beautiful and gentle," mused Stephen.
In contrast to the potential conflict in this encounter with the elephant, another group was privileged to a special sighting when they saw a Pel's fishing owl perched high on a branch of a nyala berry tree. "The bird was sighted well through the gaps and one could see the black eyes clearly when it looked straight at us. We moved on without disturbing it." The group then picked up a fresh elephant bull spoor that had passed in the opposite direction.
"It is always fulfilling to tell the activities of an animal by looking at the tracks and signs it leaves behind. It is like reading a book on an animal's life; it is endless and it reveals the most recent activities of the individual." While playing detective with the tracks, the group spotted a male Narina trogon in its breeding jacket flying towards the river ahead of the group. "When we went to investigate where it landed, a crocodile slipped into the muddy water and remained still.
The birds chattered on without paying us any attention." Just then Stephen's eyes caught the shapes of rounded ears in the grass. "In disbelief we watched as a pack of 18 adult wild dogs ran towards us barking and standing on hind legs from time to time. They approached to within 10 metres before taking off in the opposite direction."
"I looked up at the heavens and saw the sun's rays forming beams of light through the cumulus clouds in the east. Deep in my heart I knew that the lord is my shepherd and I shall not be in want. Blessed are those, who know the God of the wild!"
By Stephen Midzi