Nyalaland—A Paradise Unspoiled by Man
By Awake! correspondent in South Africa
WHAT a refreshing change for us eight city dwellers!
We are in Nyalaland—a large trail area in the north of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The name comes from the handsome antelope you see illustrated on this page. This is the male nyala.
It is night, and we are sitting around a log fire eating buffalo stew. In the surrounding bushveld are elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, and other magnificent beasts. But we feel secure under the supervision of two rangers. In fact, we remind ourselves that it is much safer here than living in a crime-filled city or traveling on a busy highway.
“Did you hear that scops owl?” asks Kobus Wentzel, the ranger in charge. He skillfully repeats the call, prrrrup. “That,” he adds, “is a typical call heard in this area. On our walk tomorrow, I’m going to point out some birds, so take along a bird book.”
Nyalaland is also a botanist’s paradise. Few places on earth can match its variety of plant life. The reason for this, according to the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to the Game Parks and Nature Reserves of Southern Africa, is that “nine of Africa’s major ecosystems” converge in the north of the Kruger Park. “Here,” the book continues, “wetland meets the arid bush, forest the open plain, rock the deep sand.” About 150 square miles [400 sq km] of this unique region has been set aside as the Nyalaland trail area. With the exception of the small camp staff, no other humans live here, and there are no tourist roads.
Kobus is trying to eat his supper while answering our many questions. He has a Master of Science degree from the University of Pretoria, where he studied wildlife management, zoology, and botany. We soon learn that his knowledge is not just theoretical.
“Have you had any dangerous encounters with wild animals?”
“I’ve been mock-charged a few times,” replies Kobus, “but never by an animal really intent on killing me.”
“When a lion charges, how do you know it is just a mock charge?”
“When it stops about four or five meters [4 or 5 yards] from you and breaks a determined run,” he answers.
Rangers like Kobus are trained to keep their nerve when an animal charges. He explains: “They are challenging you, and you test the animal. A typical situation could be a lioness with cubs or a male courting. By charging, the animal is telling you, ‘You’re trespassing—you’re interfering with my privacy, and you had better go away.’ Meanwhile, I’ve cocked my rifle and am ready for him. I always draw an imaginary line. If he crosses that line, then I have to fire. But in my experience they always stop before that, and I’ve never had to kill any animal on trail.”
Obviously, Kobus is not a trophy hunter. We warm to his respect for wildlife. But it is getting late, and tomorrow we must be up early. After saying good-night, we retire to four little thatched A-frame bungalows built on stilts.
At 4:45 a.m., Wilson, the camp cook, wakes us up. After enjoying breakfast we drive to the point from which our walk will commence. We look gratefully at the overcast sky. On clear summer days, the temperature can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit [40° C.].
For some of us, this is a totally new experience. At first we feel a bit nervous about perhaps treading on a snake or being attacked by a wild animal. But soon such fears are replaced by a feeling of wonderment at the vast open spaces covered with green trees as far as the eye can see. The bushveld is alive with the song of birds and the noise of insects. Oh, what pleasure to breathe the fresh, unpolluted air!
Every now and then, Kobus and his assistant, Ellion Nkuna, stop to show us something interesting, such as a column of army ants or the tracks of an animal. We come to a tree with a termite mound around its trunk. “This,” explains Kobus, “is a nyala berry tree. You frequently see them growing on termite heaps. The termite action enriches the soil, and that benefits the tree.”
After an hour’s walk, we pass a tree knocked over by an elephant. “Although this is a tough tree,” explains Kobus, “it is no obstacle to an elephant. He just walks over it. They do this frequently. It may sound a bit negative, but there are also positive aspects. In a few months, this tree will probably be dead. As it decays, it provides food for small organisms and releases minerals into the soil.”
“I suppose,” adds one of our party, “if the elephant population is not controlled, an area like this would be turned into grassveld.”
“That’s right,” replies Kobus. “There would not be a tree left. In the Kruger Park, we try to maintain the elephant population at about 7,500, which, according to our present knowledge, is what the Kruger can carry.”
Then someone notices a clear animal track in the sand. Impulsively I exclaim: “It must be a leopard’s!”
“No,” says Kobus, “it’s a hyena’s. Notice that it is an asymmetrical, or elongated, spoor. Also, you can see nail marks because the hyena is a doglike animal. It cannot retract its nails. Now, if you compare this with the cat spoor, such as a leopard or a lion, it is quite easy to distinguish. The cat spoor is symmetrical, that is, round and without nail marks because cats retract their claws. Also, if you look at the back cushions, there are two lobes at the back in the case of a hyena, whereas catlike animals have larger back cushions with three lobes.”
By now we are starting to feel hungry. So we sit on a large termite mound and enjoy a light snack that we menfolk have been carrying in backpacks. Afterward we walk toward a hill that Kobus encourages us to climb. Halfway up we rest on some rocks and enjoy a splendid view of dense bush and trees stretching across a vast plain to a mountain range on the distant horizon. Kobus reminds us that what we are viewing is pristine, virtually untouched by 20th-century man. But on top of the hill, we are surprised to find what seems to be a well-trodden human path.
“This is an elephant path,” observes Kobus.
However, I wonder how he can be so sure that animals, not humans, made it. While these thoughts are crossing my mind, sharp-eyed Ellion finds evidence. He picks up a worn elephant tusk.
“This is possibly decades old,” says Kobus.
“Well,” I confess, “that seems to be proof that it has been a long time since any human passed this spot, since man would not leave such a valuable item.” Ellion puts the tusk in his backpack to hand over to the Kruger Park authorities.
Time has flown by, and it is almost midday when we see the Land-Rover. We have taken a circular walk of about seven miles [11 km]. When we arrive back at camp, we find that Wilson has prepared lunch, which we gratefully devour. After a siesta we leave for a late-afternoon stroll along the Luvuvhu River.
Here the scenery is magnificent, with dense green undergrowth and large trees, such as the sycamore fig with its fascinating twisted shapes. After learning the names and characteristics of various trees, we pass a troop of baboons that watch us warily from behind some bushes. Then we sit down on a rock overlooking the river.
As we listen to the rushing water, Ellion draws our attention to four nyala cows approaching the river behind us. Fortunately, a breeze is blowing in our direction, so they do not pick up our scent. We watch these beautiful antelope as they stop every now and then to browse from a bush. After about ten minutes, one of them notices us and gives a warning bark. Immediately, all of them scamper off.
Meanwhile, some of the inquisitive baboons have moved closer, and we hear what seems to be the exaggerated scream of a youngster. Possibly its mother is giving it a spanking for getting too close. We imagine her saying: ‘Don’t you dare go near those humans again!’
It’s getting dark, so we must get back to camp. After we return, it starts to rain, so we have supper in a lovely thatched shelter with open sides. We listen to the soft pitter-patter of the rain punctuated by sounds of the bush. Wild animals are in the vicinity, and the conversation again turns to lions. We ask Kobus how many times he has come face-to-face with a lion while on trail.
“About 70 times,” he replies.
“When it happens, what is the usual reaction?”
“What usually happens,” answers Kobus, “is that it is a surprise for both parties. You walk into an area, such as we did today, expecting to see the usual game, when all of a sudden, a few meters in front of you, there is a pride of lions resting in the shade. They look at you, and you see their eyes get larger as if they can’t believe what they are seeing. My eyes,” laughs Kobus, “are probably getting larger too. Then I say to the trailists: ‘Come quick! have a look!’ The next moment, you hear two or three roars, and off they go. They are much more scared of us than we are of them.
“Other times, you run into females with cubs, and then it’s a different story. Instead of a roar, you get a long threatening growl, and you see her tail flicking from side to side. I have my rifle cocked and tell the trailists to stand quietly. Then we retreat in an orderly way, keeping our eyes fixed on the animal and not turning our backs.”
The following morning, we walk through the beautiful Mashikiripoort—a narrow gorge with steep rock faces on each side. Eventually we reach a hill with a cave. Before climbing up, Ellion throws a rock, which makes a loud clatter. “I threw the stone,” he explained later, “in case there were lions or other dangerous animals. It gives them time to escape.”
“Otherwise,” adds Kobus, “you could corner a dangerous animal, and then you’ve got problems.” When we reach the cave, there, on one of the rock walls, is a Bushman painting. It is a giraffe that Kobus says could have been painted over two hundred years ago.
During the walk, we also see herds of giraffes, wildebeests, and zebras. In a motor vehicle, you can often get close to these creatures, but on foot, when the wind is blowing toward them, they invariably pick up your scent and run away before you get near. We listen to a distant herd of zebras galloping away, and I recall the truthful words in the Bible: “A fear of you and a terror of you will continue upon every living creature of the earth.”—Genesis 9:2.
By this time we have come to respect Ellion’s ability to spot animals and to identify their spoor. He is of the Tsonga nation—a people renowned for their tracking skills. We ask him about it.
“I started learning when I was a small boy herding cattle,” he explains.
Later, during our last afternoon walk, it is Ellion who alerts us to the sound of hippos. Soon we arrive at a spot overlooking the river. Sure enough, there in the water is a herd of hippos. Many consider the hippo to be the most dangerous animal in Africa. But we have learned to trust our cautious, well-trained rangers. Quietly, we sit on the bank and watch. Every now and then, a hippo’s head disappears under the water. Just when we think one is gone, it suddenly rises, snorting and spraying water from its large nostrils. Then, in unison, they give their unforgettable sonorous grunts and open their gigantic mouths.
After being entranced by these antics for about half an hour, we tear ourselves away because it is getting dark. That evening, as we sit around the camp fire, we review the enriching experiences of the past two days. We rejoice to know that the earth still has unspoiled, beautiful spots like this. As for the future, we take comfort in the Bible’s promise that, before it is too late, God will intervene and save the earth from ruin. Then, not only Nyalaland but the whole earth will benefit from God’s sure promise: “Look! I am making all things new.”—Revelation 11:18; 21:3-5; Isaiah 35:5-7.