In late April a group of six Postgraduate Diploma (PGD) students and myself embarked on a five day immersive learning experience in the iMfolozi National Park in KwaZulu Natal. The learning journey was part of a registered PGD module in Sustainable Development that the students got credit for. We partnered up with the Wilderness Leadership School (WLS) who run trails throughout the section of the park that is completely free of man-made infrastructure. This is a reflective essay on the experience.
Each day we would wake up with the sunrise. It is difficult to say what time that was, because we had to hand in all of our electronic equipment, including our watches, at the beginning of the trip. It was a wonderful feeling to be guided by the natural rhythm of the day and our own bodies, rather than by a watch and alarm clock. We woke up when the light became too bright and the birds too loud to ignore, we ate lunch when our stomachs grumbled, and we set up camp when the sun lowered on the horizon.
We slept in the open under the stars, usually on big cliffs next to the Umfolozi river. We would snuggle up in our sleeping bags on a thin rubber sleeping matt and stare up into the incredible night sky, a carpet of glittering stars. We’d listen to the rustling of the person currently on night duty, stoking the fire, boiling water to make tea, or quietly making their safety rounds with the flashlight checking for the reflection of eyes in the darkness. Some nights we’d listen to the roar of lions, or the cackling call of hyenas.
I woke up each morning during dawn, that beautiful time of day when the birds start chirping and temperatures drop one last time before the rays of sun hit the earth. I would quietly get up to make myself a cup of coffee, and greet the person who was on duty for the last night shift huddled by the fire warming their hands. I’d walk into the veld away from the camp to sit alone, drink my coffee and enjoy the peacefulness while most of the group was still fast asleep. Slowly everyone would rise, and our camp would start to bustle with sleepy bodies shuffling around to make tea and breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth, and pick up the shovel, toilet paper and matches to go dig a hole in the area we were told is for “number number”.
The mornings were always slow and there was never any rush to get going to “get to the next destination”. Ian McCallum, our facilitator, would come around to each of us at some point during our morning routine of coffee, breakfast and brushing teeth to share with us what question he would like us to reflect on for the morning and that we would discuss later that day.
After we packed up camp, rolled up our sleeping matts and sleeping bags, put out the last embers of the fire and removed every single visible trace that we had spent the night in this place we hoisted our heavy backpacks onto our shoulders and Sipho and Zondi, our two guides, led us out into the bush. We’d usually walk for a few minutes and then stop under some trees, or at an outcrop with a beautiful view where we would lower our backpacks and perch on the end of them where the sleeping matt was rolled up, which made for very comfortable seating. We’d sit in a small circle and Ian would repeat the question he had asked us to reflect on earlier that morning.
These sessions were underpinned by a certain stillness that felt contemplative. We were present in the moment and we were all practicing deep listening as each person shared their reflection. Ian would take notes in his journal as each person spoke, and once the last person had shared he would read out a poem that he had composed from our input. Ian has a deep and soulful voice, and the words he recited really pierced our hearts. He once said that the reason we are so moved by these words is because they are authentic, and authenticity is what makes great poetry.
For Ian poetry is a way of giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s a language that allows us to communicate with others on behalf of a river, a mountain, a lion or a baboon. He writes in his book Untamed that poems are a voice for wild animals and for the wild areas of the world, as well as for the wild parts of the human psyche. We have forgotten that we are all bound to the Earth and all living things, a part of the web of life.
After letting Ian’s words sink in we would pick up our backpacks again and carry on with our hike to our next campsite. Zondi and Sipho would stop every so often to share little pieces of knowledge about a tree, an animal we had spotted, or a spoor in the path. They would share with us the important role that the Ziziphus mucronata (Buffalo Thorn) plays within their Zulu culture, the story of the Fuleni coal mine on the boarder of the park that is threatening to encroach on the protected wilderness areas, and the poverty of the communities surrounding the park and how the coal mine is providing much needed jobs but at what price to areas such as these. They’d share stories about the intelligence of nature, like how the acacia trees develop a tannic taste in their leaves when giraffes feed on them, and that the trees can transmit messages to fellow acacias further downwind sharing the threat of a curling giraffe tongue stripping its leaves, and how giraffes outwit these attempts to make the leaves unpalatable by always feeding upwind. They also shared their own stories of how they became guides for the Wilderness Leadership School and why educating people on the intrinsic value of nature is so close to their hearts.
When the sun would hit its zenith and our backs would be soaked with sweat from carrying the heavy backpacks we would find a cool spot under some trees to stop for lunch. A day or so into the trip we had developed a kind of game in which each of us would hope that the food being consumed for lunch would come out of the food packs we each were carrying, and thus lighten our load, even if just by a few grams. We’d each unpack our food packs and shout out the ingredients in the hopes that Zondi would nod that our pack contained what we were having for lunch.
We would lay everything on the ground and gather around on our haunches, pull out our pocket knives and start slicing tomatoes and cucumber, and spread mayonnaise on bread. We’d settle back with our sandwiches and discuss interesting topics, like why one of the students had chosen to become a vegan, what the impact was that we as trailists were having on the wild and what our role was in it, what the latest rhino poaching stats were for the park, and so forth.
After lunch we’d usually take a little snooze or read some chapters from Ian McCallum’s book Ecological Intelligence. Then Zondi and Sipho would indicate that we needed to get going again to get to our next campsite well before sundown so that we could still set up in daylight to fetch water from the river, collect firewood and sand, and start preparing dinner.
On our daily hikes we would walk silently in single file. When someone spotted an animal, insect, or interesting plant we would gather in a tight group and discuss this with hushed voices. I had a feeling of heightened awareness of my own presence in this wilderness and what impact I was having by merely just being here. In every moment we were alert and present, and we gave the experience our full attention. Giving something our full attention is the greatest gift we can give and we were challenged to ask ourselves whether we are willing to give our full attention and presence to another species.
We discussed how we each swayed from feeling like intruders in this untouched, wild place, to feeling like we had come home. One night we shared our campsite with a troop of baboons that had decided to spend the night in a tree that was a few metres from where we lay sprawled out on the cliff in our sleeping bags. They settled into the tree and slept. The vulnerability the baboons displayed by sleeping in a tree right next to us humans felt special, like they had chosen to trust us with their lives. It felt like a sense of comradery, like we were each doing our bit of “night watch”, keeping an eye out for each other against the common threat of predators lurking in the dark. We’d wake up through the night to their shouts and calls, which in my head I liked to imagine ranged from a parent disciplining their young one to stop messing around and go to sleep, to warning another member of the troop that this branch is taken.
One evening Ian told us about the night sky, its stars and constellations. Looking up into this vastness, listening to Ian explain how many light years away some of the stars were gave me a sense of utter insignificance in the grander scheme of things, in the eyes of the universe and its sheer scale. I was struck by the thought that when we strip away our man-made world, this is all that remains. The night sky, the wilderness, the earth and its diversity of fauna and flora are the only things that truly matter. I would have expected that the insignificance I felt would be accompanied by a feeling of hopelessness, of despair, and of having no agency in this vast and complex web of life, but instead it was accompanied by a feeling of veneration and humbleness, which in turn allowed me to feel a great spaciousness in my mind, heart and soul to receive the gifts of the wild. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be at one with nature.
With no technological or time-related distractions we had the ability to let go of the “self” to attain a kind of deep reflection and understanding that went beyond the cognitive. It was a feeling, more than a thought. I felt the need to switch off my brain so that I could pay attention to all of my senses, and try to understand and get to know this place with my heart, not just my head. I wanted to immersive myself deeper into this experience. The feeling was like floating in the ocean and wanting to dip my head under the surface and swim down into the depths of the sea.
One of the most impactful moments of starting to understand what it means to get to know something through feeling rather than thinking came on the third morning, and it will be a moment that I will never forget. The night before we had the privilege of listening to various prides of lions calling and challenging one another across the hills and valleys of the iMfolozi park, and we even got to briefly catch one lioness in the beam of our flashlight as she crossed the river just a few metres upstream from where we had set up camp. The next morning we suggested to Ian that we should go look for her spoor.
We crossed the river onto the other side. There was a long sandbank at the edge that we started walking along, heads bent down, searching for the spoor. When we spotted the large paw prints in the muddy sand that had been imprinted there only a few hours before I couldn’t help be filled by a sense of awe and respect for this majestic creature. We stood in silence for a few minutes when Ian told us a story of how years before, when the Wilderness Leadership School (WLS) had just started, he and his good friend Dr Ian Player (founder of the WLS), had been together on a trail with some visitors from the States. He told us how they had also heard lions close by the night before and went to look for the lion spoor the next morning by the river. When they found it they were overcome by an incredible urge to strip down to their bare flesh and imitate this regal cat by following her paw prints on all fours. We giggled at the image, and probably all felt a little embarrassed at the idea of these two grown men crawling naked on all fours, following a lion spoor.
Then, Ian being Ian, he pulled off his shirt and said, “Come, I dare you to try it. Get onto your hands and knees and start by smelling the spoor. Can you pick up the scent of the lion’s paws? Can you feel her presence? Can you embody her spirit?”
We got down on our hands and knees (clothes still on, obviously) and smelled the spoor, closed our eyes and imagined this creature, trying to call forth its spirit.
He then got up and said that the thing that distinguishes the lion from all other predators is the way that it walks. The way a lion walks is a characteristic of its overall body language of confidence, of strength, of being at ease, and of being present. He said that the best way to know this creature, to understand it, to feel it in your heart, is to perhaps try to walk the way a lion would walk. He then strode off down the sandbank the way a lion would. It is an image I will never forget! Ian striding shirtless, in just his swimming trunks, along the river bank in the morning sun. In that moment, in his walk and in his expression, I could really see the lion in him. He asked us to try it out. It was difficult at first to not feel self-conscious and ridiculous, but we closed our eyes and went with it. At one point all seven of us were walking side by side along this river bank, embodying the walk and spirit of a great lioness. Just like I will never forget the image of Ian imitating a lion, he said he will never forget the sight of the seven of us walking towards him with the confidence and ease of these regal and majestic cats.
The experience in iMfolozi is hard to put into words, precisely because it was so visceral. It was an educational experience that joined the intellect with affection to the ecology of a particular place and the effect was that it bonded our minds with nature. It challenged the concept that learning can only take place in classrooms – spaces usually deprived of all sensory stimulation. We broke down the mental walls made by clocks, bells, rules, and academic schedules and requirements, and instead experienced nature, immersed ourselves in it completely to develop a first-hand knowledge thereof.
If we are going to save the wild places we have left on this planet we will have to develop deep emotional connections to these places, because, as S.J. Gould says, “we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love”.
The next time you find yourself in a wild place, ask yourself what it would mean to allow this place to come to you, to let it explain itself to you. Then declare to it:
I am here. Where are you?