“This was the best Woman’s Day ever” commented Antonia Mkhabela as she connected to the Earth hiking barefoot in the mountains. “It was a very special time which I have never thought I will ever have. I understand that Mother Earth has so much to give to me. The responsibility I have is to look after her.” Also without her boots on, Penz Malinga agreed “A real privilege to be in the Wilderness today.”
The hike was part of a three day Wilderness Awareness Weekend at Cobham Nature Reserve organised by the Southern Berg Honorary Officers and Wilderness Action Group (WAG), to provide attendees with a practical understanding and appreciation of Wilderness – philosophy, ethics, the history, value, context and importance of wilderness, and the principles of wilderness management.
Six environmental enthusiasts from Mpophomeni were invited to attend. A seminar on the concept of Wilderness was held on the first day, beginning with an introduction to why the Maloti Drakensberg Park so very special. The unique geomorphology, incredible biodiversity, outstanding cultural heritage, birthplace of rivers and immense natural beauty has led to the region achieving World Heritage Site status. There are many zones in the park, not all of them Wilderness. Pristine Wilderness is defined as untouched by modern man, where humans are only visitors – areas with an intrinsic wild appearance and character. The seven principles of Leave No Trace were explained with everyone agreeing to abide by them. Meeting the legendary Bill Bainbridge was a highlight for many, Penz asked for his autograph.
We learned that the Wilderness cause can be argued around four distinct themes:
- experiential, the direct value of the Wilderness experience
- the value of Wilderness as a scientific resource and environmental baseline
- the symbolic and spiritual values of Wilderness to the nation and the world
- the value of Wilderness as a commodity or place that generates direct or indirect economic benefits through ecosystem services.
Back at Cobham in the late afternoon, everyone headed to the river and the hills to explore, crossing the swing bridge spanning the Pholela River. “I am so afraid of heights” said Gugu Zuma nervously, but on observing Zamile Mtambo conquer her fear and cross safely, she followed suit.
Ayanda Lipheyana headed through the rocks to the plateau where the views were amazing. “We could see the farms in the distance on the one side, but on the other it was just wilderness with no manmade structures, only ecological infrastructure. I really liked that.”
Penz explored the streams, searching for invertebrates under the rocks and splashing in the icy water. “I’m a rivers person” she said, “I am enjoying this cleansing ceremony in the pristine water. Back home the water is so filthy.” Ayanda Lipheyana conducted a quick miniSASS and came up with a score of 9.8! Swimming, floating and splashing was great fun, despite the chill.
As night fell, a bonfire was lit and animated debates were fuelled by the flames. Discussions ranged from religion to vegetarianism and, of course, the state of the planet. Lindiwe Mkhize thoroughly enjoyed meeting other people, young and old, hearing their environmental ideas and learning about their lives. “The arguments around the camp fire got me thinking, I can learn from those stories. Sitting around the fire was so good I wanted to stay there forever.”
Not wanting to miss a moment of the magical star studded skies, some people snuggled down around the fire place to sleep in the open air. “I loved feeling safe here,” said Sanele Duma, “we couldn’t do this at home.” Others lay on the swing bridge watching shooting stars with the river beneath them and the call of jackals echoing across the hills, before heading to bed.
Everyone rose early the next beautiful morning in anticipation of the hike. Organiser Philip Grant explained that we would carry no water, snacks or cameras today. “This is an awareness weekend – walk in silence as much as possible. We want to you think about your needs, use all your senses and when you are thirsty search for water. We will explore the landscape as our ancestors did, without all modern conveniences.”
Starting in the Low Use Zone of the Cobham Campsite, we headed towards the snow sprinkled mountains following well-marked paths, not carrying any water or snacks. We saw all the different zones we had learnt about – buffer zones, low use zone and pristine and primitive wilderness.
While some were disappointed not to be able to take cameras, Ayanda Kwhali agreed with the idea as it would help us focus on our surroundings rather than sharing everything on social media, an excuse to stop actually looking. Nathi Majola, a teacher, was pleased to be able to put the previous day’s learning into practice – moving from theory to experiential learning.
A Bearded Vulture swooped low over the rocks. One of only 400 left in the wild – their numbers decimated by lack of suitable habitat, through poisonings and collisions or electrocutions with power lines, wind farms and traditional medicine. The hike leaders were very knowledgeable. They were able to answer questions to ensure that everything made sense in terms of environmental challenges, animals and plants.
In awe we observed herds of Eland, iMpofu, the antelope sacred to the Bushmen or San people who lived in harmony with nature in the area before colonisation by Nguni and European settlers. Sanele told us proudly “My forefathers were here, I have Khoisan ancestors and now I am home.” Ayanda Kwhali, who was visiting the Drakensberg for the very first time added “I walked on a path where the Bushmen used to walk in ancient times. I felt like I was a Bushman when I was looking at the Eland and Baboons around me.” Gugu Zuma also loved this, although she was not sure about the baboons watching her as she took a toilet break (far from the path and streams as instructed)!
We drank from the cold clear streams, marvelling at the taste of pure water. Refreshing and delicious. This was the highlight for many participants – Penz Malinga in particular loved kneeling to drink as an animal would “siwaphuza ngomlomo.”
For everyone, the opportunity to sit entirely alone for 30 minutes was a highlight. A few people relaxed so much that they fell asleep, for others it was an emotional connection to the original people and animals of the area. “I will treasure the sound of the birds, the water and the wind, being in the forest was epic,” said Lindiwe Mkhize, wishing that there had been more opportunities for quiet over the weekend.
We found rocks shaped like tortoises and another like a monkey, learned how the Escarpment was formed and explored the overhangs and caves in the sandstone. In one we found Rock Art and participated in conversations about the San people who had created the paintings.
On the last day, thick mist rolled in making it too dangerous to hike. We sat around the fire, sharing all the precious moments and the things that we felt could improve. With so many creative environmental educators in the group, there were plenty of suggestions on how to make the seminar section of the weekend more effective – with less lecture style teacher-centric methods, more interaction and challenging group activities. Nkanyiso Ndlela thought there was too much good information to grab in just one day. “We can help create fun, interactive and more effective ways of delivering the Wilderness message,” he offered, “It made me realize how essential good education in school and society is. I hope Wilderness Awareness Weekends continue, as it is possible to change one’s behaviour and that might lead to others taking responsible action towards our precious environment.” Nkululeko Mdladla thought a short illustrative video that could also be shared on social media would be the best way to get the attention of young people.
Lindiwe Mkhize loved that there was no network to get in touch with the outside world. Ayanda Lipheyana agreed that having no phone signal for four days was an amazing experience. “After the wilderness weekend I have started to look life in a different manner,” he said.
After we all got aback to the unreal world and work, Antonia Mkhabela was astonished at the synchronicity of events. “It is unbelievable that today at school we were visited by Sbusiso Velane – the first African who climbed Mount Everest. He came at the right time while I still feel the highs of the weekend in the mountains. Sibusiso spoke how to accomplish what you would like in life and of the enjoyment one gets from being in nature.
I told the learners how safe I felt in the Maloti Drakensberg compared to my usual environment – I experienced peace, love, a sense of belonging, connection with mother earth and have strengthened my relationship with nature. I really enjoyed being surrounded by lovely young people who have the same passion for the environment as me. It is so exciting to hear and see them so involved in environmental sustainability projects. They have such great minds that will make our country a better place to live.”
Hiking evolves beyond recreation. When we find it leads to call and clarity, hiking becomes meditation. And when bliss swells within us during communion with wilderness, we realise we are not just exploring the Earth but venturing into mystical terrain. We discover that our feet can take us as far as it is possible to go.
Quote from Kathy and Crag Copeland’s book Heading Outdoors Eventually Leads Within.
Funding for the MCG members to attend came from WAG, and N3TC through the Midlands Conservancies Forum Environmental Learning and Leadership Programme.