My Walk in the Wilderness

6 Mar 2017

A recent wilderness trail onto the Eastern Shores section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, with Wilderness Leadership School veterans Mandla Buthelezi and Mandla Mkhwanazi, gave iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis an opportunity to reflect on our efforts to understand – in a changing and tumultuous world – what wilderness truly means.

As I lay under the full moon shadow of an uMdoni (water berry) tree on the last night of our primitive wilderness trail in a place the Zulu’s call Mbizeni (the place that lures you), my thoughts settled once more on time spent with my mentor and friend – the late Ephraim Mfeka, an elder of this land and the Bhangazi people.

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(Left) iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis comes across a lone hyaena in the wilderness section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Right) The shadow of a tree falls over the edge of Tewate Bay, part of the Lake St Lucia system in the Park’s wilderness section.

Together, we used to explore the wild land – pans teeming with flamingos and pelicans as we scanned bush clumps for buffalo and spied a lone hyaena in the grasslands. While Lake Bhangazi lay placid in the soft evening light, the great dunes of Mbizeni, Nyathikazi and Umahlonzo loomed over us – shrouded in legend, mystery and the exploits of the iZinyanga (powerful diviners). We crossed the great lake at Umgudu we Ndlovu (the crossing place of elephants) where the Bhangazis once forded its crocodile-and-hippo-filled waters to seek jobs in faraway cities like eGoli (Johannesburg) and eThekwini (Durban). Always, our wanderings were woven with names – kwaNqondo, kwaMfuya, kwesoMdumo, eZimbomvini, eMakhandeni, iZindondo, kwaNhlozi, eZimbidleni – lying in layers upon this land, which according to Mfeka “has the power to revive us.”

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“This land has the power to revive us,” said Ephraim Mfeka (centre), flanked on the left by Nono Gumede and Jackonia Mhlanga on the right, as they looked across Lake Bhangazi at the three dunes known as Mbizeni, Nyathikazi, and Umahlonzo. The lake and dunes are thickly wooded and difficult to penetrate. Often shrouded in early morning mist with light continually shifting their shapes and shadows, they are steeped in the psycho-spiritual history of the Bhangazi people.

This place is the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site and home to the world’s oldest protected estuarine lake. It offers a record of our regard for the land, of our efforts to understand – in a changing and tumultuous world – what wilderness truly means.

Ubaba Ephraim, who was a founding member of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority Board, was forcibly removed, without warning, from his father’s homestead on the Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia in 1970. Ephraim’s story is writ large. Conservation in this region – like most in Southern Africa – takes place against a backdrop of poverty and underdevelopment, a recent history of apartheid’s coercive evictions and multiple layers of loss – loss of homes, livelihoods, culture, identity and place.

Remarkably, Ephraim and his people’s expulsion from their land was pre-dated by a wilderness trail taken in the then St Lucia Game Reserve (now iSimangaliso) by a young ranger, Ian Player, in 1957. The richness of this encounter saw Player and his mentor, Magqubu Ntombela, describe the area as a “blessed place” of “spiritual importance” that “touched something deep inside them”. As Warden of the then iMfolozi Game Reserve, Player secured protection for the St Lucia and iMfolozi Wilderness areas, the first to be recognised in South Africa. Conservation legends like Paul Dutton, Mdiceni Gumede and Hugh Dent then bedded it in.

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“To this day, the iSimangaliso’s Lake St Lucia wilderness, under whose uMdoni tree I lie, remains one of the few true wilderness areas in the country, and following the addition of an adjoining marine component, the only unbroken terrestrial-marine wilderness in Africa.” – Andrew Zaloumis

Player and Ntombela went on to establish the Wilderness Leadership School, the first organisation in Africa dedicated to providing a deep, raw and intimate immersion in the iSimangaliso Lake St Lucia wilderness along with Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park’s wilderness – and sixty years later, the School continues to provide life changing experiences to trailists.

While the anguish of the Bhangazis and others was deemed irrelevant by South Africa’s Nationalist Government of the time, with evictions continuing into the 1980s, Ephraim Mfeka was to assume leadership of the Bhangazi Land Claimants’ Trust. In 1996, when the land of which his people had been dispossessed was threatened by dune mining, Mfeka rose to its defence. Speaking on behalf of his people, he said that “the land still feels like a paradise to us”. He insisted that “mining would destroy its beauty” and that this beauty “could never be restored”.

Two years later, the Trust settled its land claim in iSimangaliso, bequeathing Bhangazi land in perpetuity to conservation. On settling the claim, Mfeka stated, “We do not feel that we have to occupy it, but if access is lost, then our culture is also lost. Our memories lie in this land.” Today the Bhangazi youth walk on foot on primitive wilderness trails in their land.

As a grateful friend of Mfeka, I spent much time on foot in the wild with him learning and living the truths of which he had spoken. In 1996, President Mandela’s cabinet overturned the application to dredge mine the magnificent dunes on Lake St Lucia’s Eastern Shores, acknowledging that people from many different backgrounds recognised iSimangaliso’s profound ‘sense of place’. Beautifully, Nelson Mandela later described the reintroduction of elephant into iSimangaliso in 2001 as a “form of restitution with spiritual dimensions”, and an attempt to “recreate the wholeness of Nature.”

Taking Mandela’s concept of wholeness to heart, iSimangaliso has undertaken a decade of landscape-wide restoration of both terrestrial and estuarine ecosystems. This is nurturing the biodiversity and ecosystem services that drive long-term sustainability and a development agenda based on access, equity and empowerment of local communities in an expanding tourism industry, while building skills and confidence through its higher education access, small business and internship programmes, among many others.

As the close relationship between iSimangaliso’s development and empowerment mandate and its conservation programme became apparent, local religious leaders proclaimed conservation and religion as allies, preaching that God’s glory was reflected in nature. At an interfaith gathering on Lake St Lucia’s dunes attended by many thousands of believers in 2007, the then leader of the Church of Nazareth, Inkosi yama Shembe, blessed iSimangaliso, stating that the Park’s beauty belonged to all, and should never be spoiled.

The Park’s responsibility to nurture these values lies in acknowledging the many flavours of spiritual experience in which our requirement for the sacred or the divine is met in wildness. In psychological terms, many subjective, higher-order needs for wellbeing, meaning and self-actualisation are realised in therapeutic contact with the wild, while for others, wilderness is treasured for its recreational, aesthetic, educational and scientific dimensions. If, as the history of iSimangaliso suggests, these inner potentials may be nurtured in wilderness, then we must embrace and advance this nurturing function.

In iSimangaliso, this possibility is ever-present. The intimate juxtaposition of vast marine and terrestrial wilderness areas, and the interwoven landscape elements of dune, ocean, wetland, forest and savannah overwhelm the senses. The presence of wild animals – rhino, elephant, buffalo, crocodile, hyaena, leopard and hippo – demand vigilance, heightened awareness and the primordial thrill of proximity to possible peril.

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On a recent iSimangaliso wilderness trail, guide Mandla Buthelezi got up close to a pod of hippo with Nina Sawhney and Rejane Woodroffe.

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When walking ancient game trails, one feels alive and in tune, alert to the snapping of a twig, the drone of passing dung beetles, and ever-watchful chameleons and waiting ant lions. At the end of such a day, one simply sleeps under an uMdoni tree, sharing the night watch around a fire, and moving on in the morning, leaving no trace. In the untouched expanse, no signs of modern man are evident – only a great stillness in which the land is endless and the sky infinite. Here, the wild is a teacher and healer – transforming, restorative, offering moments of truth and solace. I am reminded of Mfeka’s simple words, spoken long before the area’s World Heritage potential was mooted and recognised globally ~ “This land has the power to revive us.”

Join a Wilderness Leadership School trail in iSimangaliso’s wilderness!

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park offers one of the few true wilderness areas in the country, between the Eastern Shores and Sodwana Bay sections of the World Heritage Site. In this original, untouched expanse of land, no signs of man exist. No road, lights, structures, waste or unnatural noise. Here, you recognise the benefits of simple living and the unnecessary burden of things.

The Wilderness Leadership School (WLS) offers tailor-made trails for small groups in iSimangaliso. The trails offer a rare chance to exist for a period in the original, primitive atmosphere of true wilderness. The experience is not only about seeing wildlife or walking long distances – it’s about being embedded in Africa, about leaving the craziness of the modern world behind, unplugging from a digitally overloaded lifestyle and for a few days living like many generations did before. For some, it’s a life-changing, deeply spiritual experience; for others it’s about reconnecting with nature and themselves, whatever the outcome.

  • Trails are limited to eight people and led by two experienced guides – exclusive trails may be arranged.
  • Trailists must be fifteen years or older, healthy and able to carry a rucksack and comfortable to sleep under the stars on open ground.
  • You do not need to be especially fit – as long as you can manage a few kilometres walk each day.
  • WLS provides: All camping equipment: ground sheets, foam mattress, sleeping bags and rucksacks, cooking utensils, eating utensils, toilet-paper, spade, water bottles, three meals a day; transport from a designated meeting place to the wilderness area.

Contact info@wildernessleadershipschool.co.za for more details and to arrange a trail.

Media enquiries should be directed to info@isimangaliso.com.