Sitting in a two-man canoe on the Mzinene River inside Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa my guide Craig Hayman nonchalantly orders that “Every eight strokes I need you to just give the side of the canoe a little hit with the paddle – it just lets the hippos know we’re coming. We don’t want to startle them.”
Hayman is all about not startling the hippos and I must admit to being very much in his camp on this one.
I had read stories about dangerous hippos including a report in an old Science Digest online that “nearly all of the famous African explorers and hunters –Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Selous, Speke, DuChaillu — had boating mishaps with hippos. All considered the hippo to be a wantonly malicious beast.”
The Phinda Private Game Reserve encompasses over 23,000ha of prime wilderness made up of seven distinct habitats. Inside the reserve, there are no fences so the wildlife has free reign over where it wanders.
A case in point was that morning. Baboons had scurried across the roof of my hut before dawn. Tired and half asleep I had stumbled out onto my lodge verandah to get a closer look only to see a number of eyes glancing up at me from the forest floor below.
The night before as I handed my washing in there was a disclaimer on the laundry form stating that occasionally hyenas and baboons make their way into the yard and take the clothing. The baboons now sitting on my roof were all naked so they were probably in the market for a new wardrobe.
The previous evening was my first and I was escorted to my luxurious lodge by a security guard, as there were a few lions about. I had come face to face with them as we drove through the reserve. A couple of them had walked out of the bush and were making their way down the road close to the Mountain Lodge I was staying in.
We stopped the car and watched as a couple of lions slowly walked across the road. A dirty golden colour in the 4WD’s headlights, they were a lot bigger than I had imagined as they stopped, stared and slowly walked closer. Sealed in my motorized steel container, I didn’t feel safe. I felt like a tin of unopened baked beans. So as the lions turned and headed back into the undergrowth to look for a can opener and Themba, the driver, radioed ahead to report their position, I suggested we keep moving.
Staring back at them I realized lions sit right at the top of the food chain. We humans are not near the top. If we want to get promoted up the food chain, we have no choice but to go mano-a-mano with a lion. A no-holds barred, bare hand wrestle with the victor devouring the vanquished. It’s the only way to become the apex predator.
I was thinking about animals that could possibly eat me as Hayman and I stepped into our canoe and started our languid paddle. Gliding down the river a large water monitor eased itself into the Mzinene’s gentle flow and a couple of Nile crocodiles slid in quickly with a splash. Hayman pointed out the muddy runs of hippos on the riverbanks and said the hippos were probably underneath the canoe. Our occasional taps on the canoe made them aware we were coming and ensured they wouldn’t be too upset by our presence. I wasn’t so sure and fret about an angry hippo rising out of the water and chomping on the canoe with a Nile crocodile doing the mopping up work.
I’m assured this is not going to happen by Hayman. He was still in ranger training and had recently been left in the park for seven days on foot with nothing but a walkie-talkie as part of his final initiation. The experience had been a wonderful one and had helped him heighten his senses in the wilderness.
A trained architect originally from Durban, Hayman had well and truly caught the bush bug and hopes to one day have some of the deft tracking skills and knowledge of the local trackers at Phinda. A strong advocate of Phinda’s world-renowned conservation programs, he talked animatedly about the reserve’s leopard research project and its leading role in the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. Both programs involve strong community liaison and education.
The conservation projects are just one facet of Phinda’s parent company, &Beyond’s, three-tiered ecotourism development model. The focus is on wildlife, land and local communities. Phinda itself means “The Return” in Zulu and is part of a grander plan to return vast tracts of land taken during the apartheid era to local communities. In turn, the local communities have agreed to gazette large land parcels as wildlife refuges in perpetuity.
A reserve such as Phinda provides an excellent ecotourism model and provides employment locally and assists in building vital social infrastructure in the area. Furthermore, the income derived from Phinda and the &Beyond Foundation now assists over 40,000 people in Maputaland – at the northern end of the state of KwaZulu-Natal.
Just ahead of us two African Fish Eagles were involved in a rather amorous union, high in a Fever Tree, while, on either side of us, the birdlife is astounding. Hayman had brought a bird book with him and binoculars so I could get a closer look at all the bird markings.
White breasted cormorants, yellow-billed stork, the African darter, with its head set back awkwardly on its neck as well as Grey and Goliath heron. Hanging on vents of air above us are short-tailed bateleur canting slowly from side to side to stay balanced and almost still.
Reed beds with small water-lily covered inlets grow to our left and on the right, tall, sparsely foliaged, yellow-barked Fever Trees. Known as UmHlosinga – the tree that shines from afar – by the Zulu, its bark (when brewed into a potion) can bring good luck if your heart is true. Conversely, early European settlers who sometimes caught malaria near the trees referred to them as Fever Trees as they thought the trees made them sick. Surprisingly, it took awhile for Europeans to figure out the trees were often near water and, were a favourite haunt for a particular malaria-carrying mosquito.
Further along, a few metres to our left, a 2.5m Nile crocodile floats by as still as a log that has rolled into the river and been caught in the current. The only sound is our paddles hitting the water. Standing on a rock ahead an African darter watches attentively. The crocodile floats within centimeters of the bird. They eye each other but the darter doesn’t flinch. We all watch in silence: the croc, the bird and two men in a canoe.