Wilderness above and below
Hanli Prinsloo is a South African freediver and ocean advocate. She is the founder of I AM WATER, a Durban-based charity that seeks to reconnect South Africa's underserved urban youth with the ocean.
After more than twenty years of freediving and extensive ocean exploration, there are not many experiences in the ocean that really get my heart rate up anymore. Occasionally when I’m surfing and the swell gets up, or when I have clients with me and the one hammerhead circling turns into five. But mostly these days, I know my aquatic habitat well enough to be prepared for just about anything. Last month, my partner Peter and I decided to try something different, away from the ocean and signed up for a five-day Wilderness Trail in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve. The reserve is a few hours north of Durban on South Africa’s east coast and is one of the oldest and most celebrated of our big parks. I am forever searching for wild: wild nature, wild ideas and a wildness within. Well…
Our friendly guides picked us up in Durban and drove straight into the famous Imfolozi Wilderness area – as far as you can get by car. Dividing five days’ worth of food and utensils between us we carefully packed our 75-litre backpacks with a sleeping bag and mat, two t-shirts, one hoodie and comfy pants for night time – that’s it! We were instructed not to pack any toiletries, definitely no deodorant and as little as possible of anything else as we would be carrying everything with us.
Sitting down just beyond the first ridge, having left the car – and roads – behind, our guides Mandla and Siphiwe give our briefing. “This is the border between civilisation and the wilderness. For those of you who haven’t been here in a long time, welcome home. Always walk in single file, close enough to touch the backpack of the person in front of you. No talking. If we shout cover, take cover. Rhinos have bad eyesight but keen smell, get behind or up a tree. Yes we are carrying guns, but we don’t want to use them. Never in twenty years of the Wilderness Leadership School have we had to shoot an animal. Be responsible so we don’t have to.”
We walk. In silence in single file. My heart rate rockets as we pass through a densely forested area and hear a loud crack. Mandla’s hand goes up and we stop, listen. He takes a few more steps and motions for us to back up and we take a different path. “Elephants feeding,” he says. The news gets whispered down the line. The paths we are on have been created by animals. Buffalo, rhino and impala tracks lead us forward, silently we follow. A quick rest and firewood collection in the early afternoon before struggling through scratching bushes to find ourselves on a series of ledges overlooking the swirling brown water of the Black Imfolozi. Named after the colour of the sediment on its banks, the river meanders through the rolling hills to meet up with her sister the White Imfolozi, before they rush down to the ocean together.
On the banks of the Black Imfolozi we make our camp. River sand is pulled onto the rock so a fire can be prepared and all ash be washed away with the sand the next morning, leaving no trace, no stain, no soot. As Siphiwe lights the fire two large buffalo watch us from the other bank, snorting and shaking their giant heads. They are worryingly unperturbed. “We used to camp higher up in the open, but too many nights we had elephant and buffalo in the camp, so now we always sleep on the river ledges,” says Mandla. Reading our anxious minds, he adds: “The only thing you really need to be careful of here is leopards – that’s why we have night watch.” He explains how each night we will take turns to protect the camp. Sitting by the fire to keep it burning low, then getting up every ten minutes to shine a bright torch into the bushes surrounding the sleeping group, no tents or covers, just the stars above us. “The only thing you need to worry about is two eyes facing forwards. That’s a cat. If a cat finds us, keep shining the torch and keep watching, call for help. Don’t turn away.” Peter and I look at each other with wide eyes. “A bit like sharks then,” Peter comments softly. Yes, a bit like sharks. But so very different and new.
Every time I take first-timers into the wild ocean I say: “You are not on the menu; sharks don’t really eat people.” I am adjusting perspectives and dismantling irrational fears. That first night on the banks of the Black Imfolozi I was certain there were leopards hunting us. Every time I fulfilled my torch duties on watch I tricked myself into believing I saw two eyes facing forwards. Like being a beginner again, I considered wilderness. Our place in nature and how vulnerable we are away from all the things we’ve built to separate ourselves from the elements and beasts. How very successful we have been and how great that separation has grown. And all we have lost with it. A loud grunting and growling wakes me from my reverie staring at the flames and I jump up to shine the torch in the sound’s direction… no eyes. “Leopard on the other side of the river,” Mandla whispers sleepily out of the dark. I take a few deep breaths and make another cup of tea. I continue with my watch until the star I’m using as my timekeeper has moved six fingers, roughly 90 minutes. I wake up Noa, who has night watch after me, tell her what I heard (not what I think I saw) and leave her to keep watch, crawling into my warm sleeping bag, counting shooting stars until I fall asleep.
For five days we walked in silence, slept on different ledges along the brown river. We swam in shallow water while the guides kept a lookout for crocodiles, ate long lunches under acacia trees during the heat of the day with rhinos grazing upwind. We grew gradually quieter, calmer and dirtier. We had come home, to a place our souls remembered.
On our last day we sat in a circle, with a talking stick in the middle and the opportunity for the stick holder to speak of their experience. One by one the stick got picked up, hearts opened and wild thoughts were shared. As I picked up the stick, worked smooth by many hands, I couldn’t stop the tears. “I don’t want to leave, I’m not ready.” I covered my face and cried. I cried for the beauty and the privilege of the days gone by, cried for the rhinos who’s middens we passed but who are no longer there because of us. Cried for what we have lost and for what we still have and how precarious it all seems. The group waited with respect and some with tears as I tried to collect myself, for once struggling to find words. “We have to move,” Mandla says softly, lifting the talking stick from my hands. “Rhinos.” A short distance from our circle three rhinos are grazing, one of them a small baby. We softly hoist our bags and cross over the ridge back to where we started.
For those five days I found the same me I usually only access underwater, on land. Swapping whales for rhinos and sharks for leopards we allowed ourselves to be assimilated into wilderness. Blurring the lines between tame and wild, human and animal. And as I always feel when I step into the ocean – my soul had found home.
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