Sleeping under the stars is incredible. Today we went on an overnight trail where we camped under the stars at Sundwini, which is a rustic campsite about 12km from Hlane.
We were supposed to be sleeping in what I can only describe as a portable bed, with pillow, mattress and a thick duvet. After the last couple of cold nights of camping in an army style tent at Hlane Royal National Reserve I was a little bit concerned about freezing to death but, apparently being eaten by crocodiles in the middle of the night should’ve been our biggest concern!
We left at 9am with all our walking gear and hopped onto the safari vehicles. Our guide was actually called Africa and he had been guiding at Hlane for 5 years. We started with an hour of driving around the game park where we immediately saw many impala in large herds but no big animals, such as elephant or rhino.
What we were really interested in today was whether we’d see any elephants or rhinos whilst out on foot in the bush. Africa told us that animals react differently to people on foot than vehicles, but he didn’t elaborate on quite what that meant! But we were about to find out, as to our amazement when we stumbled across a female rhino with calf Africa stopped the vehicle and ordered us out. I was pretty keen and nearly fell out of the side of the safari vehicle as I scrambled to get to the front of the small crowd to get the best view.
The rhino clearly didn’t like us being around its calf and made a start towards us. Africa, who suddenly was holding a very big stick, signalled for us to hide behind a big tree, which we did.
Despite the obvious danger, Africa began to reassure us that rhinos had very poor eye sight and that they mostly rely on their sense of smell to help them detect other things around them. We then managed to retreat to the safari vehicle and begin our walk in the bush.
The walk took us through a thicket of thorns and spiky trees. One tree’s name literally meant ‘wait a minute’ because when it hooked onto you you had to stop to untangle yourself. Many of the group got stuck, including myself. I managed to get my hat attached to the plant and had to ask people to help me escape.
After three hours of spiky trees we arrived at Sundwini. I can only describe it as a rustic campsite with two long drop toilets and a braai stand. One of the toilets was literally just a hole in the ground with a toilet seat suspended above it and a bit of canvas to convey a sense of ‘privacy’. After an hour of chromalaena clearing we sat around the camp fire and tucked into some impala steaks and pap, which is the local staple.
The sun set at 6ish and the guides went to bed right after dinner so we suddenly felt very alone. The group arranged to set up a night watch as we were sleeping in a precarious location. As when we first arrived I saw a crocodile in the river and one of the organisers told us that a lion walked through camp the year before during the night watch and nobody had noticed.
We arranged to have two people on watch per hour until 6am. I had done night duties as part of my job in the past but many of the participants had never experienced such a thing so we did have quite a few sleepy people over the next few days. We started something called the night watch diary, in which all groups wrote up their experiences in their hour slot. After a long night, I woke at 6am with the sun rise and realised that we had survived the night despite the crocs and lions.