The bookings for all of the year’s hikes are all made at the beginning of the year. Allowance is made in their timing for events such as the Comrades, the Two Oceans and the Argus as many members participate in these events but never for a Sports Final. But woe betide us when an ardent Hiker and a Rugby Fanatic is forced to choose between the two.
This was one such hike where this dilemma arose, but little was I aware of the looming travails and what it would take to view the test match despite being in the middle of the bush far from any television set. At least they could have provided some prior warning as they schemed and plotted their nefarious stratagems and communicated in ciphers.
The original Kosi Bay Trail was an absolute gem which sadly is no longer offered in that format. It was a four-day trail in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal in a coastal area called Maputaland. The Kosi Bay area comprises four interconnected lakes which are populated with irascible pods of hippos.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the hike does present some dangers in the form of itinerant hippos and crocodiles in the lake system. Inasmuch as the hippos are predominantly nocturnal animals, the possibility of a chance encounter during the day was minimal but their presence was evident everywhere.
In many ways this area is more akin to a tropical paradise than Karoo or Bushveld South Africa. With its kaleidoscope of colours, cacophony of sounds and an array of smells that is the antithesis to these areas.
Almost every day comprises a series of firsts and day one was no exception. Making one’s way from the offices one soon encounters the largest of the four lakes, Lake Makhawulani (or First Lake). Instead of circumnavigating the lake, it is a case of carrying the packs over one’s head and walking across while hippos noisily play far-off on its southern littoral. Even the assurances that the hippos would not swim across, could placate us. On our left where the lake connects to the river estuary, the water is covered with a maze of palisade fish traps made by the local Tonga people. These fish traps have been in existence as long as living memory and are passed from one generation to the next.
Day two comprises a leisurely walk southwards along wide sandy beaches which are world renowned as turtle egg laying grounds. Hidden just off the beach are superb chalets at Banga Nek. Just over a sand dune is a shebeen where one spends a languid afternoon drinking beers – this being Africa; quarts only – and generally imbibing the quintessential rural African idyll. As the afternoon proceeds one’s fluency in Zulu improves dramatically but fluent gesticulations assist in translation.
Day three is a march inland through marshland populated with raffia, wild date and palm which together with mangrove swamps and sycamore fig forests combine to provide a home for approximately 250 species of bird, among them the fish eagle and palm nut vulture and the white backed heron amongst many others. Evidence of the existence of the herbivorous hippopotami is everywhere. Fresh channels and mud wallows indicate their nocturnal pathways between the various water courses and mangrove swamps.
At our final hut next to Lake Amainiyama, huge signs warn all hikers NEVER TO VENTURE OUTSIDE AT NIGHT as hippos are known to venture over the whole area.
From the outset, the pace from the beach camp at Banga Neck to this inland camp was too hurried. With the distance provided as being 3.5 hours instead of the more usual kilometres, being in a rush was not on the order of business for the day. But there we were barrelling along the path instead of trying to spot these exotic birds. It was more a case of viewing them if they happened to almost fly into one.
For the most part it was Corrie who usually occupied the position as the back marker that was pushing the pace. Before lunch time, there we were, at our next hut. After a hurried lunch, a clearly conspiratorial Corrie suddenly broke the ice with an offhand comment, “What are we going to do this afternoon?”
Then as an afterthought he continued, “There is not too much to do here because there are crocs in the water………………”
“But, of course,” as if building to a crescendo, “We could go and watch the Rugby Final on TV.”
One could hear a pin drop. As if orchestrated, a cacophony of yeses overwhelmed me as the rest, clearly pre-briefed, replied in unison. My eventual response would only be a moot point, so I phlegmatically nodded in assent.
Never in the annuals of the Club’s glorious history had sedition on such a wide-scale been perpetrated but the Rugby Fanatics would rather risk excommunication from the Club than miss a match. More in hope than certainty, I requested a Power Point presentation of their Plan with maps of routes and projected distances, walking times and time of arrival.
Oddly enough the presentation was a perfunctory wave of the hand and the comment, “There is a lodge over there,” accompanied by even vaguer gesticulation, “About 5kms walk away and hopefully with a TV.”
After such a cogent well-prepared plan that defied all the basic tenets of forethought, the decision was made. So we set off. Most hastily grabbed some money in case the chance to purchase a beer arose but in the stampede nothing else was considered necessary or taken along.
Scattered about the circumference of the lake system, were several posh lodges which were unlikely to admit onto their premises half a dozen disreputable unshaven castaways urgently in need of a wash. But maybe hubris would succeed where common sense did not prevail.
Without any goading, a hectic pace was maintained by the least likely path finder, Corrie. In his desperation to ensure that the game commencing at 16:30 would not be missed, he led the pack. The most likely track was following more in hope than certainty.
It must have been the smell of the beer, but Corrie unerringly led us to the lodge. While the rest of us stood taciturnly at the tradesman’s entrance like some woebegone tramps, Corrie adopting a self-effacing approach, humbly entered the posh lounge.
Two minutes later a glum Corrie returned with the forlorn news that this was a private lodge and no strangers – meaning unkempt dishevelled people – were allowed in. But there was another plan, the ineluctable PLAN B: the owner would transport us in his bakkie into Manguzi where we could watch the match in a Sport’s Bar.
What could be better than that? While waiting for the game to commence, we could have some steaks and beers. All this would get us into the gees for the game.
With a hundred other men, probably all the white men for a 100 miles around was there, all shouting and screaming for the Blou Bulle. What an amazing afternoon; the hedonistic trilogy of beers, rugby and steaks without women!
Gradually an inchoate realisation dawned. Being the furthermost easterly point in South African, the sun set first at Kosi Bay. As the hordes poured out of bar, it was into a gloomy twilight, a tropical idyll.
Now we were in a mad panic and we all jumped into the bakkie as it sped off back to the Lodge somewhere on the fringes of the marsh land. Through his lack of sobriety and his promise to his wife to be back early unintoxicated, Mr Lodge Owner sped at too great a speed along the dirt roads. Like bags of potatoes we bounced up and down and sidewards as the vehicle hit all the extemporised speed bumps.
As we drew near to the lodge, the bakkie slowed to a sedate pace and gradually drew to a stop. After a pre-emptory, “I will see you now,” its owner sheepishly slunk through the lounge doors and was gone.
Five minutes passed.
Ten minutes passed.
Eventually one indomitable soul of our party silently strolled across to the lounge door to enquire whether the offer of a lift back would eventuate.
His ears were assailed by abuse being heaped upon this woebegone man by a clearly irate wife. During a break in the invective, he enquired whether we would still be getting a lift to which he replied in the negative but that he could give us a lift for part of the way.
By the time the vehicle left the lodge, it was almost pitch dark. Dropping us at the edge of the marsh, he pointed in a southerly direction and provided us with precise bearings quite matter-of-factly, “Walk in that direction.”
In an atmosphere of foreboding we set off. Between us we had no torches, lights, matches, food or water or even anything to ward off a marauding hippo.
Have you ever attempted to walk along an uneven path without looking where one was going? Well that is what it was like as we stumbled, tripped and fell our way along the path. The occasional, “Oh bloody hell” and much worse besides could be heard as somebody would smash into a bush or slide along a muddy stretch.
As if to show disdain for our predicament, the sun finally set, and the vague path now became indistinct. In trepidation we shuffled forward not really knowing whether it was the path or not or even the correct trail.
Suddenly a puny light flashed on. It was Arnold’s cellphone. Our saviour. With its tiny beam which could only be switched on intermittently, the tightly packed bunch inched along the path hoping against hope that the correct path was being followed.
Without warning, the pontoon with the dubious rope pulley was there. We are at the Shihahla River. 500 metres on the other side hidden in the bushes was our camp.
To say the least, we had been in the unenviable position of being stranded in hippo infested marsh land through a comedy of errors.
Finding our camp under such adverse conditions was called Divine Providence by some and luck by others not so religiously inclined. I am dismissive of both such explanations as I disclaim religion’s or Murphy’s part in it.
Rather I acknowledge our hiking prowess as our saviour with only a smidgen of luck.
Maybe I will concede somewhat.
Possibly it was more than an iota of chance but certainly not a dollop.
Gallery of pictures taken by Arnold Paikin
To view, press the dots at the top of the picture