Head guide Raymond Khoza is laying down the ground rules for this walk into the bush. ‘Be quiet, walk in single file and whatever you do, don’t run. If we enter a dangerous situation, do what we tell you and don’t argue. Remember that we are interfering with nature, it is not interfering with us.’
Then in slightly more relaxed vein he urges us to enjoy our walk, our chance to experience the feel and smell of the bush. ‘The bush has its own unique way of talking to us,’ OB chips in.
Quietly and in single file, we fall in behind them – an Italian family who have never walked in the African bush and are overawed, and the two of us. If the Italians, in their fashionable clothes and fur-lined suede boots, think they’re here just to encounter animals, Raymond soon sets them straight when he stops at a big pile of smelly elephant poo teeming with flies.
They wrinkle their noses as he points out that it can be used to make paper, as a sinus remedy, firelighter or mosquito repellent.
A compacted round dung ball, hollowed out in the centre, is his next chance to display his prodigious knowledge of the bush and all its creatures.
‘This was made by a dung beetle, one of the 900 species of them we have in Kruger,’ he says.
They make two kinds of ball. One is a feeding ball; if they don’t want to eat the dung on the spot they make takeaways to roll away for munching on later.
The other kind – which is what this one is – is a mating ball. The male rolls a ball to attract a female, who lays her single egg inside and the dungy ball acts as an instant meal for the larva when it hatches. (More about dung beetles in the next post. Don’t laugh: without them, Kruger would be piled high with manure!)
Raymond lifts his hand to bring us to a halt. He’s heard the telltale call of the redbilled oxpeckers that alerts him to the presence of a rhino just to our left. We circle round to climb a koppie – something not in short supply in this mountainous area of the park.
From our safe vantage point we see four of them, including a huge bull and a calf. We’re standing about ten metres away from them but they don’t care. Their eyesight is poor and we’re upwind of them and very quiet, so they probably don’t even know we’re here, part of their world.
‘It’s a privilege to be seeing these animals,’ says OB. ‘They had become extinct in the park until they were reintroduced in the 1960s.’ There’s a snuffling and grunting as the mother and calf run off into the bushes to our right. OB chuckles, ‘The male is wanting to mate with her, but she’s playing hard to get.’
Fascinating facts pour from these two at a rate that must be confusing the Italians, two of whom don’t speak English all that well.
We learn that the flowers and leaves of the wild foxglove can be used as soap; that there are 200 termite species in the park and the queen can live for an astounding 20 years; and that only the alpha male and female arrowmarked babbler – those noisy, appropriately named birds you see and hear in many of Kruger’s camps – will breed, while the rest of the flock help to look after their offspring.
We even learn the uses of the buffalo thorn tree, with its one hooked and one straight thorn.
‘If that rhino back there had killed me,’ says OB with an oddly out-of-place grin, ‘my family would come here and sweep the place with a branch of this tree, so that even if my body is in the ground, my soul can fly up to heaven. The hooked thorn means we must forgive and forget, while the straight thorn is so we can focus on the future.’
It’s a multi-purpose plant. You can make coffee or porridge from the fruit as well, although its significance for burials means it’s never burnt for firewood.
I’m feeling kindly disposed towards this tree until one of them attacks me. It holds me fast and proves diabolically difficult to unlock from my leg, leaving four small puncture wounds that will take a week to disappear.
Raymond and OB are keen to let us experience the bush with all our senses, not just our eyes. They make us listen for the alarm call of the oxpecker, feel the smoothness of stones used for grinding by people long ago, touch the whole twigs in some dried out elephant dung to show how poor their digestion is.
And of course, our noses get intimately acquainted with poo of varying stages of freshness. OB even engages our sense of taste with the leaves of a red spike-thorn tree. Two chews and my mouth and tongue feel as dry as if I’d soaked up all spittle with talcum powder. He looks on with a smile as we all pull faces.
‘It’s the tannin in the leaf that dries your mouth,’ he explains, ‘and it’s a good remedy for a runny tummy.’
He picks up a rounded shell about five centimetres in diameter and starts to natter on about it being a seashell from the days when this area was under water. But this is no fossil shell, it’s a giant land snail.
‘I’m only trying to see if you’re still awake,’ he laughs, chuffed at his attempt to hoodwink us. ‘Look, you can count the brown stripes on it to see how old the snail is. This one was still a youngster that was probably eaten by a bird.’
On another rocky outcrop with a fine view of the surrounding hills and dales, we take a break for a simple snack of Provita, cheese and peanuts. Raymond and OB prop up their rifles on the stump of a fallen tree. A few impala ignore us and a lone kudu picks its way delicately through the grass, sampling leaves here and there. The morning is clear and cool, no hint yet of the heat that will bake these rocks at midday.
This is what’s special about walking in the wilderness. Apart from learning something new every time we venture into nature with a knowledgeable guide, there’s a sense of silence, a thrill at being part of something so much bigger than ourselves.
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