Sisters in the Wilderness

“Will they be lunch for the lions?” asked Mrs Ntombela nervously as her daughter Amanda and Wendy Mkhwanaza packed for the wilderness trail in iMfolozi Game Reserve.

“I admit I had mixed feelings about this trip,” said Wendy, “I was excited because it is a dream come true, but also apprehensive.” Amanda adds “I even Googled my feelings of fear about what to expect, to make sure I was ready for the experience of a life time.”  Understandably, the young women were a little intimidated by the idea of sleeping under the stars, having no toilets, and walking near dangerous wild animals.  iMfolozi Wilderness area is a very different place to Mpophomeni!

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Amanda and Wendy had been invited to take part in a social impact documentary film ‘Sisters of the Wilderness’ which takes a fresh and unusual look at human and Nature interconnectedness and the power of wilderness to empower young people and develop a new type of leadership based on compassion and respect.   The passion project of London based, Ronit Shapiro, Founder of One Nature Films, will tell the story of a group of young women who aspire to elevate themselves beyond challenging life conditions and become a force for good in their communities. They embark on a life-changing journey, within and without, into the wilderness of Zululand where they experience true wild Nature for the first time.  “A journey into wilderness is an intense experience where one can expect to undergo a personal transformation. It can enhance personal growth and leadership development; and it is also a soulful experience that has the capacity to heal.” says Ronit who experienced it herself on a wilderness trail few years before.

“The second we met our new sisters – Andile, Nokuphila and Thembani –  all laughing at first sight, I had this gut feeling that this is going to be more than I could ever have imagined.” There was a  jolly atmosphere with much singing all the way heading to meet their guides Baba uZondi and Janet at the Wilderness Leadership School and Lihle, who told everyone to enjoy their last shower for a week!

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Wendy and Amanda take up the story:

We woke up early to do the final packing – filling our backpacks with pots, cups, food, spades and neutral coloured clothes that we would have to carry for the rest of the week on trail – all we had to survive!  Amanda was amazed at how a whole life can fit into a backpack.  Nokuphila said to Andile “Yours doesn’t look heavy, feel mine!” Andile responded “This back pack is like troubles of life – we all get a different load that is measured for each person’s ability.” Everyone laughed but we all knew it was true.  On the three hour drive to iMfolozi we sang and shared stories of our lives.

The iMfolozi Wilderness is home to one of the biggest rhino population in Africa. “I chose this location to highlight the plight of the rhino whose numbers keep plummeting due to the illegal hunting for its highly-value horn; and the threat to this unique wilderness area and the surrounding rural communities from intensive mining. This is a place which has so much potential to enrich us but at the same time it is greatly vulnerable and threatened by man’s greed and his forces of destruction.” Ronit tells the team. “You will be exposed to the elements and have to cope with emotional and physical challenges, and learn the practical skills of survival in the wilderness.”    Wendy adds “Most people don’t understand that everything we use comes from Nature – cars, clothes and food.  If there is no Nature, we won’t be alive either.  We must be more thankful for Nature and stop polluting with toxic waste and plastics that cannot decompose.”

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Just 15 minutes after crossing the border into the Reserve, the car stopped. Right beside the road there was a gentle giant – an elephant feeding in a tree. “It was so beautiful and so massive and just on left hand side there was this amazing herd of buck. I must say at this point Nature had welcomed us really well.” At the reserve offices, everyone made use of the toilet for the last time for the rest of the week, before shouldering their packs and starting to walk. Baba uZondi told us that at this moment we must leave all the burdens of the world behind.

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As we entered the wilderness we were told to walk in a straight line and be silent all the way but to keep our senses sharp. To communicate anything we saw, we would make a clicking sound to get the attention of the others.  Before long we reached a spot that was Ian Player’s favourite place – we sat on a rock beside the umthombothi tree (Spirostachys africana) and Janet told us all about Dr Player and his friend uBaba Magqubu Ntombela – their passion for the animals and how we can all learn from Nature.

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We crossed a river, feeling nervous about crocodiles, with our feet sinking into the squishy sand. Here we were able to see many other animal’s footprints – including buffalo and rhino.  Amanda thought “I can hear my foot steps and this bag is so heavy. It feels like although I am out of the world but I seem to have it on my back. I can hear myself breathing. We walked and we walked and we sat down by the trees to drink water and my back is already so sore.”

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We collected some wood as we walked so that we could make tea and supper when we decided to camp. We got settled in and made fire.  We were advised that if we needed to use the ‘bush toilet’ it was better to do this while it was still light and to take someone along to keep watch.

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Around the fire we were given instructions about the night watch – the sun had retired and the moon was now awake.  Each person had to keep watch for an hour and 20 minutes before waking the next person to take over. Baba uZondi told us that humans have a disadvantage as we can’t see as well as animals in the night. The most important thing is to be alert as each person doing night watch is responsible for the lives of everyone in camp. He told us that it was not our job to chase the animals away, just to keep an eye out and if we see animal approaching, best we wake up one of the guides.  “Lihle told use to use the time alone to think and be at one with ourselves but as she is speaking I am thinking hell no!  I was already shaking in my boots, I could hardly even hear what she was saying.” recalls Amanda. “I tried to be brave, but there were animals moving everywhere and I woke Janet a few times,” remembers Wendy. “Then I spotted some hyenas drinking and felt happy and very lucky to be able to watch these animals all on my own.”

Each day we woke early, packed up camp leaving no trace and set off through the bush.

On the second day we got to a place where Shaka and his family had lived – even finding the grinding stone that they had used. This was incredible because it was still there after all this time, untouched. We loved this history, learning about how people lived before all the technology existed in our lives.

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We had been advised what to do if we came across any animals and were excited to see some zebras and a rhino with its baby. The wind was blowing in our direction, so they couldn’t smell us but the rhino did hear our footsteps. The next thing the rhino changed direction and started running towards us, Janet said “take cover” and we quickly hid behind some trees until Baba uZondi chased the rhino away. Amanda was so surprised at how calm she felt – just wanting to see what would happen next and remember the experience.

Every time we crossed a river we saw footprints – of lions and leopards. We were scared a lot, but had to face our fears and continue. Wendy remembers “During quiet time, sitting alone, the first thing I did was listen to the wind blowing gently and the bush moving slowly – it was like the sound of water flowing. I breathed the fresh air and could hear different animal sounds.   My problems all just disappeared. I know that when you feel stressed the best way to relax is find a quiet place and relax.  This was an exceptionally quiet place.”

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Bath time in the river was very quick – just a few seconds as we knew there were crocodiles and we were scared of being eaten! We all got into the cold water at the same time.  One afternoon, after walking far from camp to find suitable soft ground to dig a toilet hole, two of the girls looked up to find an enormous elephant right nearby!  They covered up quickly and scurried back to camp.

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Then after supper it was time for night watch again. Amanda relates her experience:  Andile was first and I was second. I was awake the whole time Andile was on watch, huddled in my sleeping bag I did not want to turn my head torch off.  Although Andile was terrified she just seemed to be in control. Then it was my turn.  I was so scared that I didn’t even want to sit down.  After about 30 minutes I heard something walking in the water and although I was scared I gain courage to find out what is it so I can act. As I was looking, Andile and Thembani woke up and came to sit with me. When we shone the bush light about 15metres away from camp, two eyes were looking at us, big and shiny.  It was a buffalo so we decided to wake up one of your guides.  I woke Lihle by mistake and she said don’t worry, it is just my socks I hung in the tree to dry!  Andile kept an eye on a buffalo while I woke Jennet. She told us to keep shining the light on it eyes and it will go away.  We all ended up awake as my shift was about to finish.  Thembani spotted some eyes across the river –  judging from their height we thought it was lions, but later figured out that it was hyena.  One night Ronit mistook a pair of bright stars for eyes – it was so funny. We had lots to laugh about.

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Soon Wendy started to enjoy the nights:  When I was not guarding, I would look up at the sky filled with sparkling stars. I would imagine my ancestors and deceased family members looking down on me and say thank you for giving us light and protecting us. This made my smile every night as I did not feel alone or afraid knowing the stars were watching over me.

Every time we left camp, we cleaned up and left no human trace behind, to show we respect the environment.  Before we reached the next camp we had an Indaba using a talking stick to share how we feel. It was a very powerful session with tears and connections.

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The days followed similar patterns with lots of learning and sharing along the way. We were fascinated learning about some trees that are special to Zulu culture.  Umlahlankosi (Ziziphus mucronata, buffalo thorn) is traditionally used to fetch the spirit of someone who has died in an accident or far from home. The thorns on the branches face in different directions – one back and one forward –  illustrating the importance of looking to the future, while never forgetting the past.  We got to see the plant which the San people used to use to collect drops of dew to drink.

After a few days, we felt at home and more comfortable. We had a chance to watch sunsets each day and somehow as the sun set our troubles seemed to set with it. At night we didn’t only see the dark but saw the stars that came out, instead.

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The sisters bonded in such a powerful way. We felt free – emotional and spiritual healing.  On the last day in the wild we didn’t want to go back.  Our bags were much lighter and so were our hearts.  With blisters on our feet, sore muscles and the smell of the wild, it is safe to say this was the greatest adventure in our lives. This has helped us look the world with different eyes.

Amanda concludes “The most important lesson I have learnt is that it ok to love, it is ok to cry and it totally fine to be scared.  Just remember to never miss out on an opportunity to be home in the Wilderness.”

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For more about this project see: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/sisters-of-the-wilderness-part-2-social-impact/x/14796140#/

 

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