Light had started menacing darkness as I lay awake in my tent, backpack as a pillow. The incessant dispute slowly spilled over to the birds as the deep vibrations of Southern Ground-Hornbills pilfered the silence and encouraged the day.  A discontent Square-Tailed Nightjar interrupted their chant as if to gesture his support of the dark.

The last time I had used the shaded Tamboti-leaf carpet near Matiovila as a camp was five months previous. No group had been to the area since, despite the high Trail occupancy this season. Access to the 150 000 ha Wilderness Area is restricted by the absence of a road network and exploration can only be done on foot over an extended period of time. This sense of wildness and remoteness unquestionably defines the Mphongolo Backpack Trail in northern Kruger National Park.

Our eight guests lay silent, listening from their tents as the increased radiance restores their confidence that may have evaporated in the darkness.  The principles are contradictory of air conditioned rooms, comfortable beds and the multitude of additional reassurances the conventional safari intends. Merely fundamentals hold substance at this juncture, all else counts for naught.

Wilderness is the highest category of conservation an area can ever achieve, yet it should not be restricted by a definition or physical boundary. Wilderness is a philosophy and consequently infinite.

We are familiar with the situation where we have forgotten the name of a place and cannot produce it in spite of the utmost concentration. We have it ‘on the tip of our tongue’ but it just won’t come out, until we give up and shift our attention to something else when suddenly, in a flash, we remember the forgotten name. No thinking is involved in this process, it is a sudden insight.
Another well known example of spontaneous intuitive insight is jokes. In the split second where you understand a joke you experience a moment of ‘enlightenment’. It is well known that this moment must come spontaneously. Only with a sudden intuitive insight into the nature of the joke do we experience the laughter the joke is meant to produce. It cannot be achieved by ‘explaining’ the joke using intellectual analysis.

Our guest’s connectedness with Nature lies on the periphery of their modern being. On the ‘tip of their tongue’ so to speak, and it takes moments of spontaneous intuitive insight to generate reconnection. Creating moments of enlightenment on Trail is the challenge of Wilderness guiding.  It is the challenge of not being confronted by the limitation of language. 

I am by no means suggesting that Wilderness guides are capable of choreographing life changing metaphoric dances and individual theatrical performances around a small Trail fire. However, Wilderness guides have access to a unique set of tools with which to create moments of spontaneous intuitive insight.  These tools can also be defined as the attributes of Wilderness and include remoteness, serenity, peace, wildness, solitude, harmony, inspiration and reflection opportunities.

With packs on our back and the rehabilitated camp a remembrance, we meander along a non perennial stream in search of its confluence with the Phugwane River.  We explore the Mphongolo Wilderness according to our personal requisites. Apart from water availability and heat from the midday sun, we are laden with no restriction.  Guiding with such independence and space is exhilarating, but the concept should momentarily rouse a sobering intimidation. “To be abandoned is to grow”.

Clear water filters into our excavated pit in the dry riverbed. In this moment we take nothing for granted. The realisation, discovery and understanding of Wilderness is a succession of spontaneous intuitive insights for the impending Wilderness guide. It is not something that can be absorbed from literature, but develops with experience and time in Wilderness Areas. Each individual may develop a personal definition of Wilderness over an undefined period of time. This definition may be expandable and will, in all probability, undergo multiple metamorphoses in due course.

Wilderness may eventually become a ‘state of mind’ an understanding that not only the bright stars in the sky are significant.

Wilderness guiding is the ability to provide guests with what they need and not necessarily what they want. It is far removed from competition, even though the mere realisation could nourish exponential personal development. As much as Wilderness is our message to share, it is our sustenance as guides. In a private capacity it may be described as a recipe for happiness with all the chemicals gone. 

Regrettably we live in an era where southern Africa’s affluent biodiversity and Wilderness have been reduced to five mammals and five stars. It is therefore fantastic to have a revival in primitive experiences such as the three backpack Trails currently hosted by Kruger National Park.  There seems to be an urgent longing by the human psyche, conscious or subconscious as it may be, to experience the Wilderness qualities we have been deprived of since we have become ‘civilised’.

“There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring, or the rustle of an insect’s wings. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whip-poor-will (nightjar species) or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand”. – Chief Seattle (Si’ahl), Native American Indian.

The fire is modest and serves its hypnotic purpose as the darkness consumes our new camp. Our guests have strayed from their modern being, yet the Wilderness knows exactly where they are, it will find them. The Square-Tailed Nightjar calls with restored confidence, perhaps an appropriate reminder from a savage chief that we are celebrating life in its purest form.