Thursday, August 13, 2009

Day 2 - logging with ponies, hunting with dogs, chatting with Ntombikayise

This morning I am awoken to the rattling of the kettle next to the non-existent coals from the previous night’s fire. It’s pitch black outside the tent. This is a moment of déjà vu for me, taking me back more than 10 years to the Kunene River Expedition that we had undertaken down the Namibian-Angolan border. On that three week trip Johan was worse than a rooster with insomnia, up every day way before daylight playing boy scout around the fire.

“Hey, it’s 4am,” I said rather croakily.

“Wragtag?” he replied in his mother tongue. Despite his surname Johan is a born and bred boere seun, totally bilingual as most South African’s are. “I don’t have a watch,” he explained sheepishly.

After coaxing him back into his sleeping bag we were later awakened by the sounds of school children passing by and giggling at our road camp. This was a daily journey for them and the sun wasn’t even up yet. It made us wonder how far they had to walk to get to school. One hears stories of kids in Africa walking 10km or more to and from school. It’s a reality of sparsely spread communities and even more sparsely spread schools. There were no fat kids amongst the stream of them that came past us.

“Maybe if you two walked everyday to your offices, you wouldn’t feel so sore right now,” said Karen cheekily.

“Wouldn’t help,” I replied, “we both work from home.”

After a hearty breakfast of Jungle Oats we set off, crossed the Mpuluzi River, heading through a wide-open plain, up and over a neck and down into the Usutu SAPPI forest. There were immediate signs of the devastating fires that have caused SAPPI to advise of the likely closure of their pulp mill shortly. Over the past two years thousands of hectares of pine plantation have gone up in runaway winter fires. For some time now the mill has been running on salvaged burnt timber, but it seems now that this is coming to an end. This is really bad news, not only for the 600-odd mill workers who are likely to lose their jobs, but also for the Swaziland economy as a whole; It can ill-afford knocks like this right now.

In the forest our plotted track took us past a crew of foresters, busy felling trees. These were local sub-contractors. Some years back SAPPI tendered out the harvesting of trees to small local companies. Of interest to us as we passed by was the fact that they used horses, or ponies, to haul the cut timber to the road edge. Obviously the use of costly mechanical equipment has been scrapped in favour of this more traditional means of haulage. It was a very efficient operation with the sturdy ponies moving up and down the slope continuously.

Later on, after climbing continuously for more than an hour we reached a high plateau and exited the forest. On the ridge ahead we saw some boys with dogs heading west. In fact there were at least 20 dogs.

“Must be a hunting party,” I said to Johan, “I wonder if there is much wildlife left in these parts?”

Twenty minutes later as we crested the ridge we were greeted with an incredible spectacle. Across the entire rim of a steep funnel-shaped valley, hunters with dogs waited patiently, spread out 50 meters apart. Each person had two or three dogs of distinct lean greyhound ancestry. The individual dogs were decorated with bright fluffy collars made from shredded plastic.

Our route was going to take us right through the middle of their trap. We saw an old man at the centre raise his hand in a signal to halt. We paused, but his instruction appeared to be directed to the boys we had earlier seen who were entering the bottom of the valley. They were obviously the “beaters” who had been sent round to drive the game towards the waiting teeth above. The hunt was paused and we walked on, stopping to chat to the nearest hunter. He said they were hunting duiker or mpunzi in siSwati, the local language. I had heard about hunters placing bets on the success of the hunt and on whose dog would make the final kill. Perhaps the coloured collars were for this purpose? I asked him if they were gambling, and he said “no”. He posed for us with his dogs and then, so as not to disrupt them any further, we headed on.

A duiker is a small antelope. They are the only species of antelope still widely occurring outside game or nature reserves. In most areas all other species having been wiped out by unsustainable hunting on the few remaining areas of undeveloped land. They are fast, but against a pack of forty dogs would need a small miracle to escape.

No sooner had we reached the far edge of the valley when a cry rang out and the sound of dogs on the chase echoed upwards. We spun around to watch the drama. A line of dogs trailed the fleeing duiker, just centimeters from its tail. It weaved left and right, but the dogs were glued to it. Above the hunters released their dogs in unison and they all raced inwards towards their prey.

It was hard to for a moment to tell hunter from prey. In the melee, the duiker broke through the upper rim and disappeared from sight, dogs still in hot pursuit……we never saw the final result. On the one hand we were sad for the little duiker, but on the other, thrilled to have observed such a well co-ordinated traditional hunting activity. Having spent the first half of my working life in the employ of Swaziland’s Big Game Parks, I was well aware of the struggle that conservationists have in protecting the remnants of this country’s once abundant wildlife. However, it was not this type of traditional hunting that wiped out game in Swaziland. Agriculture, forestry and some pretty appalling European policies in the early 1900’s did most of the damage.

We headed onwards towards our crossing point on the Great Usutu River. Eighteen years ago Johan and I had undertaken our first expedition together, an 11-day Source-to-Sea descent of the Great Usutu, the first ever trip of its nature. It was the start of a friendship that has grown from strength-to-strength since then.

Our target for the day was Sandlane border post, otherwise known as Nerston to South Africans. Karen walked down the track to meet us and then led us to the small filling station just before the crossing. Here we had a good chat with Rose Litchfield, whose family name is well-known in Swaziland. Her grand-father had arrived here from the UK, married and settled. She was very hospitable and wanted us to camp nearby, but there was still some light in the sky so we opted to head onwards towards Dwalile.

Karen found another hospitable homestead about 6km down the road when she happened upon a girl named Zanile walking home from her job at the nearby sawmill. Zanile and her family stared on in fascination as tents went up, sleeping bags, camping stoves and piles of food were pulled from the car….. and whilst she set up camp in their mieliefield, Johan and I trudged down the gravel road.

At this point in the day we were digging deep to find motivation for the final few kilometers, but our trip was livened by Ntombikayise, a young lass, who walked with us for a short while. As we departed the settlement at the border she replied to a far off shout, “Ngitfola babe.” Roughly translated, this was: “I’ve got a man.” It wasn’t her light-hearted nature that struck us, because this is typical of Swaziland, but the way in which her voice carried effortlessly across the space between her and the distant homestead.

“Try to say that in English, and you’d just get: 'Whaaaat?', as a reply,” said Johan. It’s true, the SiSwati language, and in fact many Nguni African languages appear designed to travel vast distances between hills. Clearly the language evolved long before written contexts had come into effect and certainly long before the modern mobile phone.

Talking about mobile phones, we were putting the local MTN network to test, and in fact they were passing with flying colours so far. Not only had we hardly lost reception so far, despite being in some pretty remote valleys, but on top of this there was enough of a data connection available that I was able to keep track of goings-on via email and skype!

At last we got to Make Mgabhi’s homestead. Make means “mother” with the “k” pronounced as a “g” in Siswati. She had warmly offered us the use of her kitchen, as there was no place to safely build a fire in the grassy field where we were, but the day’s walk meant that the two or three metres between the tent and the Toyota double-cab were about as much as we could manage. I hope she didn’t think we were just unfriendly.

The day's highlights:
Bacon, mushroom, garlic, cream sauce with potatoes and the last of the battle-ship sinking b’day cake. When you’re on the move for so long it’s not surprising that food is a highlight.
The community dog hunt.

Technical bits:
Day 2 we covered 36.5km. Our moving average was 4.6km/h, overall average 3.9km/h. We burned 3783 calories and had maximum heart rate of 150, average of 116 over 9 hour period.

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