The alarm goes off – I check the time, it is 04:00am. It is a similar time to what rangers get up anyway but this day we were not guiding. What lay ahead of us today was a test of endurance, patience and pure, stubborn mental determination. It is the boundary walk.
What sounds more like a form of punishment, the boundary walk is done by a group of rangers who walk the entire perimeter of the Sabi Sabi territory totalling 44km. This may not sound like a lot but this undulating terrain is occupied by some of the fiercest animals in Africa and if we are not permanently aware, we could put ourselves at risk.
At 05:00 after some breakfast at Bush Lodge, myself, Marcus Hack, Justin Stanley (all Earth Lodge rangers), Ross Hawkins (Little Bush Camp ranger) and Joffers McCormick (Bush Lodge ranger) started our epic Journey. We took with us two trusty rifles, should anything make an attempt on our lives, but purely precautionary. The pace was good and the overcast weather on our side but the humidity was certainly taking its toll. While on the northern boundary, we witnessed a beautiful Side-striped Jackal and her two pups. To witness something like this was truly special and we took a much needed break to enjoy and appreciate this sighting. It was easy to draw a parallel with the life of these pups and our walk, both in its infancy with potential dangers ahead but with the help of each other we would all make it.
By this stage, we had found tracks for all of the Big 5 – they were there, all around us – we had to stay vigilant, aware of our surroundings and keeping our senses tuned to the bush, despite our discomfort. It was along this stretch, about 13 km`s in, when chaffing kicked in on my inner thighs. Fortunately Justin had come prepared with some baby powder, but it was the application of the powder which provided some humour for the troops. I, however, was not the only one feeling the chaff – Joffers found that by rolling up his shorts, showing his hairy white thighs was the answer to this discomfort – not that pretty but he was right!
We were all looking forward to a break at Shaws Gate, where we were meeting Assistant Head Ranger, Michell Steinberg, for some water.
We started down the cutline, one of the longest roads on our property which goes all the way down to the Sabie River, our southern boundary. You would think that going downhill would be easy, but the pressure on your joints and use of different muscles was pretty painful. This was the stage where our blisters started. The problem with blisters is that, they make you alter the way you walk which then puts strain on other areas, namely your ankles and hips. As if that was not enough, we had our first of 3 encounters with one of the most dangerous animals in the African bush – the Cape buffalo. Fortunately we were down wind of these two big males and we were able to make an approach without them even knowing. We made it to our lunch spot down on the Sabie River. This iconic setting was such an important milestone in our journey as we had travelled from the far north east of our reserve to the south west corner – a mini achievement in itself. We took the time to relax, remove our shoes and tend to our blisters. They were looking bad, but mentally we were strong and a little pain would not stop us.
We had a great lunch prepared for us by the Earth Lodge kitchen – lending their support to our team and delivered by Michell who always gave us great words of encouragement and wisdom from previous experience when she herself did the walk. We all knew the next leg would be the toughest, a slow incline up to Huntington Corner – a stretch that had broken rangers in the past. With a casual glance between each other, we packed up our food and continued our journey.
The problem with stopping is the starting again, all your muscles have relaxed and trying to get the legs moving again makes it even tougher. It was on this stretch that we encountered two herds of Cape buffalo – Marcus spotting both of them. As you start to tire, your head drops and you start to focus on one foot in front of the other, but this makes you less aware of the wildlife around you. This was certainly the case with the second sighting of buffalo as a herd of 15 males watched as we eased less than 40 meters from them. After staring at us for some time they stampeded away from us in a northerly direction with a sound of a rumbling thunder as their hooves hit the floor. As we reached Huntington Corner, the two youngest members of the group, Marcus and Joffers, thought it would be a good idea to have a dance off with some local kids. Whoever said that white people can`t dance, had obviously these two in mind. The more experienced (not old!) members of the group had justification on their decision to not participate when Joffers almost tore his hamstring in this “dance off”. The kids probably did not see this as a competition anyway.
For the last leg, we were joined by Nadia Schoeman, the Lodge Manager at Earth Lodge. Having Nadia there was not only good for morale, but being an experienced and highly qualified guide herself, she would also be far more aware of our surroundings than we would be at 35 km in. Her motivation was evident when she challenged Marcus and Joffers to a race up the hill, to which they both dually accepted. I however was struggling – it was clear for everyone to see. Blisters had popped, joints were sore but we were so close – only 2km to go!
We were there – the welcoming entrance of Bush Lodge – we had done it! 44 km`s in 10 hours and 37 minutes. The sense of accomplishment totally overtook the pain we were feeling. However – I was expecting a greater sense of achievement. Upon reflection that evening, I realised why – the moment we left Bush Lodge at 05:00am, mentally we had finished the journey. Nothing was going to stop our team from finishing this, we would not be beaten, it was just a question of putting our bodies through the physical torture. As a group, we were solid – never was there any complaining, there was always laughter and jokes, we would not give in. This was evident when Ross, numerous times, placed his hand on my back to provide extra momentum up the inclines. Joffers – always uttering words of encouragement “come on guys – we can do this!” Marcus – always cracking jokes and Justin with an infectious laugh which permeated into all of us. Yes this was a test of endurance and mental stamina, but it was so much more than that – it was a coming together of brothers in an attempt to overcome adversity and watch out for each other in a way that is not often seen in the world today.