One Wild Card member received the trip of a lifetime from Cape Union Mart: to accompany Year in the Wild’s Scott Ramsay on a five-day trek along the iMfolozi Wilderness Primitive Trail. Read about their unforgettable experience. Pictures and text by Scott Ramsay

For lucky Wild competition winner, Christo Dippenaar, the chance to take part in the iMfolozi Wilderness Primitive Trail was a dream come true. “I will remember it for the rest of my life,” says this Cape Town-based manager at a large multinational. “I’m still having difficulty sitting in the office all day.”

Scott Ramsay takes up the tale:

It didn’t take long for the ancient creatures to show themselves. We had just started the iMfolozi Wilderness Primitive Trail when two white rhinos rose up in a cloud of dust from where they were sleeping in the shade of an acacia tree.

It was a mother and her young calf, about 30 metres from us. Rhinos have poor eyesight but excellent hearing and smell. The mother could sense the presence of humans. Her ears turned, like radar detectors on her head, listening intently. The calf stayed close by her side. Both were clearly nervous.

White rhinos, mother and calf, a mere 30 metres away.

We were also nervous. Nothing can prepare you for such a sighting. Viewing rhinos from the safety of a car in a wildlife reserve is one thing – being on foot and coming face to face with these huge prehistoric-looking animals while traversing Africa’s oldest wilderness area is entirely different.

White rhinos are huge, weighing a little more than two tonnes and standing two metres tall. Then, of course, there’s that horn. Furthermore, rhinos can run faster than the fastest man. And when you’re carrying a 15-kg backpack with five days of food and gear, there’s no point in trying to outrun them…

Nevertheless, our Zulu trails ranger Nunu Jobe calmly gestured for us to slowly walk towards the rhinos to get a better view. He’d done this a thousand times before – literally. We followed him, gently placing one foot in front of the other as quietly as possible.

Suddenly, another rhino – a huge bull – appeared without warning to the side of us, only 15 metres away.

The hulking white rhino bull awakes from his slumber.

The hulking white rhino bull awakes from his slumber.

Nunu held up his hand and we froze. The bull, still groggy from his midday nap, snorted and stared at us. The other two rhinos crashed away through the bush, leaving us alone with the bull.

Uh oh. At that moment, nothing but the bull seemed to matter in life. The midday sun was hot and everything was quiet. My senses immediately sharpened. The air was laden with wild smells and my ears heard the slightest crunching of twigs beneath my feet. My eyes looked straight into the rhino’s. I knew I was in danger but strangely enough, I didn’t feel fear – only wonder and connection.

The rhino bull turned and followed his friends, rumbling his way through the bushveld and shaking the earth with his immense weight. We all looked at each other, not knowing what to say. But our wide-eyed expressions said it all: ‘Wow. We were now in the wilderness.’

And so, it became more and more natural for us to be in close proximity with Africa’s wild animals. For five days and four nights, our group of eight was immersed in this soulful place: the 90,000 hectare Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in northeastern KwaZulu-Natal.

A diverse group of strangers, united by Africa's wilderness and wildlife. From left to right: back-up ranger Nontobeko Ncube, Bruce and Meghan Conlon from Australia, Cape Union Mart's Pierre Pienaar, trails ranger Nunu Jobe, Pinkey Ngewu from De Hoop Nature Reserve, lucky competition winners Brendon Muller and Christo Dippenaar, as well as Year in the Wild's Scott Ramsay.

A diverse group of strangers, united by Africa’s wilderness and wildlife. From left to right: back-up ranger Nontobeko Ncube, Bruce and Meghan Conlon from Australia, Cape Union Mart’s Pierre Pienaar, trails ranger Nunu Jobe, Pinkey Ngewu from De Hoop Nature Reserve, lucky competition winners Brendon Muller and Christo Dippenaar, as well as Year in the Wild‘s Scott Ramsay.

We were walking in the 30,000 hectare wilderness area of the reserve, a place where no development of any kind is allowed. No roads, no chalets, no campsites, no buildings, no telephone poles or man-made structures of any kind.

The only way to experience it is on foot, as we were now doing. In fact, even the rangers who patrol the wilderness area do so on foot – 4x4s are permitted only in emergency situations.

The wilderness area of iMfolozi is completely off limits to any development, where nature remains untransformed by man, and where we resume our rightful place alongside all the other animals – as just one of millions of species that call this place home.

The wilderness area of iMfolozi is completely off limits to any development, where nature remains untransformed by man, and where we resume our rightful place alongside all the other animals – as just one of millions of species that call this place home.

Once the exclusive hunting grounds of King Shaka, these rolling hills and meandering rivers have never been touched by modern man. And it is where the last white rhino on earth were saved from extinction.

Reduced by colonial hunters to only a handful, white rhino were formally protected here in 1895, making iMfolozi the oldest wildlife reserve in Africa. Today, every single one of the 20,000 odd white rhino in Africa has descended from those few remaining ones in iMfolozi.

The wilderness trail follows no prescribed route. Instead, Nunu guided us through the bush, heading in a general direction but following the well-worn paths of animals. Trailists walk no more than six or seven kilometres each day. The emphasis is on appreciating Africa’s myriad of wild wonders – not the distance traversed.

The wilderness trail forced us – and inspired us – to live more simply; more like our ancestors had done. Cellphones and watches aren’t allowed on the trail, and yes, you relieve yourself in the bush and wash in the river.

“This is our original home,” explained Nunu at the start of our trail. “These wild animals are our brothers and sisters, and we mustn’t forget that within us the wilderness still lingers. Our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us.”

Nunu Jobe, trails ranger and a man who laughs easily – and a lot.

Nunu Jobe, trails ranger and a man who laughs easily – and a lot.

His poetic words soon proved true. That night, as we set up camp on the banks of the White iMfolozi River with the sun falling and the stars rising, it became clear: the modern world – with all its undoubted benefits – has overwhelmed humankind. Money, materialism, career ambitions and city living has disconnected us from what’s truly important.

The campsite on the first night.

The campsite on the first night.

On the wilderness trail, the things we take for granted in the modern world resumed their rightful place in our hearts as the most important and rewarding. We drank water straight from the river, ate simple and tasty food, and sat around a small campfire every night as we talked and shared stories with each other.

Then soon after sunset, we’d go to sleep on the earth in our sleeping bags, honouring the natural rhythms of nature. On a wilderness trail, you’re reminded of the utmost importance of relationships: relationships with yourself, your friends, your environment and with God.

Our makeshift campsite on the second and third nights, with Nqabaneni Hill in the background. "Night time is the best time to connect with the echoing sounds of joy," said back-up guide Pinkey Ngewu. "Waiting with anticipation to see where the sounds of animals come from. Frogs singing a sweet and unending song that sounds like a lullaby. Great nights of silence away from the city distractions when you can enjoy the pure echoes of the wild."

Our makeshift campsite on the second and third nights, with Nqabaneni Hill in the background. “Night time is the best time to connect with the echoing sounds of joy,” said back-up guide Pinkey Ngewu. “Waiting with anticipation to see where the sounds of animals come from. Frogs singing a sweet and unending song that sounds like a lullaby. Great nights of silence away from the city distractions when you can enjoy the pure echoes of the wild.”

Almost every night, we heard lions roaring and hyenas whooping their irrepressible call, as if they were challenging the darkness of the night itself. Sometimes, the roar and whoops were close. Other times, they echoed off the nearby cliffs.

Two large male lions, thinking about their dinner.

Two large male lions, thinking about their dinner.

One night as I kept watch over the campfire while everyone else was sleeping, I shone the torch around camp. Two golden eyes in the distance blinked back at me. Blink, blink, blink. Gold, gold, gold. Then a roar, and another roar.

As I sat there, staring at the stars above and listening to those sounds, I was as happy as ever. Despite the hard ground and the lack of modern comforts, I felt completely connected to nature – and myself. We were sleeping in the open, in the bushveld, alongside an African river, among wild animals. It might sound strange, but what more could you ask for?

During the days that followed, we saw several white rhino, as well as black rhino crossing the river in front of camp. One morning, we awoke to a herd of 200 buffalo drinking in the river. Giraffe, impala, blue wildebeest and zebra mingled around us.

The herd of buffalo that came to drink from the White iMfolozi River, just in front of our campsite.

The herd of buffalo that came to drink from the White iMfolozi River, just in front of our campsite.

A black rhino – much rarer than a white rhino – crossing the river in front of us. A fantastic sighting, considering that black rhino are mostly nocturnal and only emerge from thick bush after dark.

A black rhino – much rarer than a white rhino – crossing the river in front of us. A fantastic sighting, considering that black rhino are mostly nocturnal and only emerge from thick bush after dark.

On our last night, we were visited by two elephant bulls that drank from the other side of the river, barely taking note of us. I felt a strange mixture of elation and melancholy. Our spirits had soared while living in the wilderness.

Two elephant bulls at sunset.

Two elephant bulls at sunset.

But Africa’s remaining wild places are increasingly threatened. Although pockets still remain, most of the continent’s wildlife has already disappeared. iMfolozi is no different. Two coal mines already operate on its borders and during the third night on the trail, I could hear the distant blasting of dynamite and the faint rumbling of the coal train to the nearby port of Richard’s Bay.

Now, a new open-cast coal mine is planned for the southern boundary of the wilderness area, right next to where we’d been walking. My heart sank when I considered that this sacred place could be compromised again by the greed of man.

But whatever sadness may have haunted me during that cold night, it vanished at sunrise, when warm light flowed back into the sky and reflected off the river like molten gold.

Sunrise on the last morning.

Sunrise on the last morning.

Then as we were packing up, a pride of nine lions emerged on the opposite bank to watch us. Could there be a more ‘African’ morning than this? When everything seems right in the world, and man is at peace with himself, the wild animals and the land?

Ultimately, iMfolozi’s wild animals and landscapes inspire an endless love and appreciation for life itself. It’s a trail everyone should do at least once, to inspire and remind us to love ourselves, each other and our environment.

Wild competition winner Christo Dippenaar checks out the early morning traffic on the White iMfolozi River. His highlight: "Sharing this incredible place with everyone here is very special, but for me, the undoubted highlight was Nunu and how calmly he guided us safely through the wilderness, while also showing his immense passion and respect for nature. I'll be back with my family to walk with Nunu, that's for sure. I'm already planning my next trip."

Wild competition winner Christo Dippenaar checks out the early morning traffic on the White iMfolozi River. His highlight: “Sharing this incredible place with everyone here is very special, but for me, the undoubted highlight was Nunu and how calmly he guided us safely through the wilderness, while also showing his immense passion and respect for nature. I’ll be back with my family to walk with Nunu, that’s for sure. I’m already planning my next trip.”

To book the trail, visit the KZN Wildlife website or email [email protected].