ritten by Neil Harmse
Chapter 12. Wilderness Trails
My life in the bush had its moments of excitement when dealing with problem animals and I have mentioned incidents on hunts and while guiding clients on safaris. However, when I think back, one of the most rewarding periods was when I was appointed Field Director to head up the (then) Transvaal branch of the Wilderness Leadership School, which at that time was conducting environmental educational trails and courses for young people in the Timbavati game reserve bordering the Kruger National Park, as well as in the wilderness area of the Pilanesberg Reserve in the (then) Northern Province.
An early-morning wake-up with steaming pot of coffee.
The Wilderness Leadership School trails was a concept introduced by Dr Ian Player, who realised the need to increase knowledge and understanding of wildlife and conservation among the youth and future leaders of South Africa. These trails were initially conducted in (then) Natal reserves such as Umfolozi and Hluhluwe, where Dr Player was based. The Transvaal branch was initiated and mainly run by an enthusiastic group of volunteers who gave up their spare time and weekends to introduce this wilderness concept. Men and women such as Laurie Wright, Arnie Warburton, Sally Kernick and other volunteers enthusiastically and energetically did everything they could to set up trail
programmes for the branch under the direction of experienced guides such as Tim Braybrook and Bruce Dell. Being a largely volunteer operation, it was rather loosely run, and my appointment as Senior Guide and Field Director was to try to control operations and also do fundraising to support the youth trails.
One of my first challenges was when I realised that these volunteer guides, enthusiastic as they were, lacked certain bush knowledge, firearm training and discipline. The guides were issued with rifles in .458 and .375 calibres belonging to the school, but had never fired them and, in one instance, the guide carried an unloaded rifle because he was afraid of the recoil.
I immediately cancelled all trails in dangerous game areas and drew up two volumes of training manuals and courses which the guides had to study and be proficient in before they were permitted to wear the epaulettes of a WLS guide. They were then considered safe and knowledgeable enough to conduct trails in big-game areas. These training manuals and courses became the basis for training for what was later to become the Field Guide Association of SA (FGASA).
With the help and collaboration of other similar associations such as the Wildlife Society of SA under Director Fred Roux and the Endangered Wildlife Trust under Director Clive Walker, a workshop was held at the Lapalala Wilderness Reserve and together with conservationists such as Mike Landman (National Parks Board), Drummond Densham (Natal Parks), Andy Dott (Drifters) and many other experts, this was the foundation of the FGASA and a constitution was drawn up to cover guides and guiding in South Africa. With that introduction covered, I was able to use funds raised from various corporations and businesses to support underprivileged youth groups who were selected to be introduced to the trails and conservation concepts. These were strange to many of them, as they came from urban environments and had never experienced the bush. These young people would hopefully be the leaders and torch-bearers in future conservation concepts and policies. These trails were extremely rewarding and it was interesting to see the interaction between the young people from different race groups who had never mixed closely and socially before.
Anticipating comfortable rondavel accommodation and camp amenities where we could relax, we were shocked at the state of the camp. All the buildings had been virtually destroyed and featured bullet holes, roofs burned off and mortar damage from past conflicts. We decided to set up camp away from this sad sight and found an area with shady trees about 200m from the camp. Here we made ourselves comfortable and as it was getting late, we soon had a fire going and food on the grill. Being rather tired from the long drive, everyone felt we could do without showers or baths until the next morning. The ranger, Armando, mentioned that we could take an early-morning walk to the banks of the Save, where we could wash up and perform ablutions.
Planning the next walk.
The trails were extremely basic, with no tents, lamps or luxuries. The idea was to live close to nature and learn the value of natural resources such as water, wood and food. We would backpack into the area carrying all we needed to the campsite, which had no facilities. Some of the trailists were horrified to realise that they would be living in such a primitive area and conditions for the next few days. Many had never been away from their homes before. A perimeter of stones would be put in a circle for the campfire and everyone would collect dry wood from the surrounding bush. A lecture on the value of wood as a resource served to remind them that fires must be kept small, just enough to cook on and give light at night. No big bonfires were allowed. I would explain that some animals such as lion and rhino were attracted by the flames and, out of curiosity, would come closer to find out what was happening in their territory. A night-watch roster was arranged and it was up to the trailist to establish what the next person would like to have to drink when woken up – tea, coffee or hot chocolate. The one going to bed would need to hand the drink to the next person going on watch and chat for a few minutes. This not only established a bond between them, but also ensured that the one on watch was fully alert and not likely to be half-asleep. If anyone heard strange noises or was afraid, they could wake me for reassurance. Sleeping arrangements were on high-density camp mattresses in a circle around the campfire. I noted with interest that there was restlessness the first night, but on the second or third night, after daily walks and activities, everyone slept soundly. The night watch brought some amusing moments, especially when big-game animals approached the camp area. On one trail, I was lying listening to some lion in the far distance when I became aware they were approaching the camp. I could hear their muffled grunts as they approached, then silence for a while. Suddenly one of the lions let out a roar, which woke everyone. One of the young lads started screaming and shot headfirst into his sleeping bag. With his head at the bottom of it, his muffled screams continued, which I think so frightened the lions that they disappeared in a hurry. It took me quite a while to assure the poor youngster that there was no danger and persuade him to come out of the sleeping bag. No-one wanted to go to sleep and for the rest of the night, I sat up with the group telling them bush stories. Elephant, rhino and, naturally, hyena were all visitors at various times, adding excitement to the experience.
Hiking along a dry riverbed in Timbavati.
Introduction to the bush.
Most days started at dawn and after coffee or tea and rusks, we would set off through the bush, silently in single file, stopping every now and then to discuss points of interest, often about the value of various plants, trees and shrubs for medicinal, cultural or other purposes. Within about three days, many in the group would recognise the plants and talk about what they learnt. Middens and droppings of various animals were also points of interest. Spoors and tracks were studied and soon the trailists could identify and track directions. On some trails where I felt they were wasting water, I would walk the group out of camp with full water bottles. After about half an hour, we would stop and have a discussion on water as a natural resource and its importance to both humans and animals for survival. I would then have them pour the water out of their bottles and continue walking with empty bottles. Just the idea of an empty bottle would have a psychological effect, making them want a drink. We would stop under a tree and again discuss the importance of water, and they would each have an apple or orange while we rested. Once we started walking, I would head in the direction I knew was a river line and after about an hour or so, we would again stop for a rest and I would point out a green tree line in the distance and tell them there was a river where we could get water. As we approached the tree line, I would notice their pace picking up in their hurry to get to water. As we reached the riverbed, I could see their disbelief and frowns as we stood in the dry, sandy riverbed, and they would ask where the water was. I would lead them to a spot where the elephant had excavated a hole in the sand to reach water and then explain that the water was underground. To reach it, we had to dig as the elephants did. I showed them how to dig, keeping the sides in a funnel shape to prevent the hole from collapsing, and eventually heard excited voices as they found moist soil and then water seeping up into the hole. They learnt to let the water settle and clear before slowly filling their bottles. This was one of the best lessons on awareness and conservation of water.
Some of the trails had a few interesting characters. I remember one youngster called Brett who was fascinated by snakes and scorpions. He was always scratching under rocks and logs to see what was hiding there. At one stage, he gave a happy shout and came running up holding a young puff adder by the tail. I was horrified, but he was quite at ease and everyone wanted to take a photo. I eventually had him release the reptile. We then had a discussion about the role of snakes in nature. A good lesson for all. Brett was knowledgeable because he collected snakes and scorpions as a hobby, so he was in his element.
One day, a group of young trailists and I walked out for a few hours to set up a fly camp at a distant water hole. This was the second-last day of our trail and we were on ‘dry rations’: biscuits, tinned veggies and bully beef. On arrival at the water hole, we spotted a group of four lions that had pulled down an impala ram, which was lying half in the water. We watched for a while and then I said: ‘We’re incredibly lucky, because tonight we can have fresh impala steaks for dinner.’ I moved towards the lions, which grumbled and growled, but moved away from the kill. I approached the impala and, using my knife, removed two fillets from the carcass and slowly walked away, letting the
Discussing the day’s adventures.
lions return to their kill. We watched the lions as they devoured the impala and then moved off to find a shady spot in which to rest. We then set up our camp area under some trees on the opposite side of the water hole. One or two of the youngsters were horrified at the idea of eating these impala steaks: the only meat they had ever tasted came from their butcher or supermarket, wrapped in a nice plastic package. However, at dinner time, with the pangs of hunger and aroma of fresh meat on the braai, everyone tucked into the meal with enthusiasm. Another important lesson from the wilderness.
One of the interesting and rewarding aspects of these youth trails was on the final day, when I would space the young people about 20m apart along a stream bed, out of sight of each other. Each had a note pad and pen, and I would ask them to sit quietly for a while and then write down their thoughts, anything they felt they had learnt or had piqued their interest during the experiences they had shared. I was amazed by some of the notes compiled by the youngsters. Brett, the collector of snakes and scorpions, wrote that he had learnt that the secret of successful communication was to put aside all bias and misconceptions and talk openly and freely. He also wrote that he felt there was harmony between animals because they were all reliant on nature, food chains and their respective roles in the ecosystem for survival. Harmony among mankind had never existed since the fall of Adam and Eve. Racial bias was an important factor in disunity among people and Brett felt that by spending a week in the neutral environment of the bush, he had learnt respect for his new black friends, from whom he had gained greater insights into cultural and political problems. He wrote that the most striking lesson for him had been the colour-blindness of those few days spent in the bush, and he would carry that experience with him into his life ahead. By working together and co-operating for a common goal, he felt that there was a future for racial co-operation in our country. He finished off by writing that he had learnt to appreciate home comforts and the value of water and natural resources. His closing words were: ‘I will now work on inter-racial interaction, knowing that there is hope in sight, even though it is a small light at the end of the tunnel. I am a better person having had this experience.’ Wise words and a good summary of lessons learnt by a teenager over 30 years ago. Many other notes were written in a similar vein. I often think of these youngsters and wonder how their future has been shaped from lessons learnt on those wilderness experiences. For me, it was a very worthwhile and rewarding experience helping to share the wilderness and gain an insight into the changes that it made to their lives.