Muzi Pan Canoeing: Zulu Culture, Hippos, Wetland Creatures

Rob and Janet Cuthbertson work very closely with their local Zulu communities. They believe that low-impact tourism is an excellent way to provide much-needed employment in the area and to preserve the magnificent beauty of Zululand. During our stay with them, they organised a guided canoeing trip for us with Temba, a Zulu guide who is perhaps the epitome of responsible eco-tourism. Not only has Temba set up his own tour operating company, he is also encouraging his community to become more involved in eco-tourism.
Guided canoeing with hippos in South Africa

We drove from Leopard Walk Lodge just outside Hluhluwe, on Sodwana Bay road through the corridor to Muzi Pan. Muzi is the Zulu word for home. Muzi Pan is home to a multitude of species, including hippos, crocodiles and flocks of wetland birds. It’s a very important marshland area that acts as a filtration system for False Bay Lake and Lake St. Lucia, both very important water bodies for the World Natural Heritage site, called Isimangaliso Wetland Park.

En-route we noticed people gathering to collect water in large drums from trucks. Apparently there is piped water, but it gets turned off at certain times, because people were filling up their tanks and selling the water elsewhere. This is a sad reminder of just how poverty-stricken this region is.

The current methods of subsistence farming is not sustainable for the local communities and the land soon becomes infertile, forcing them to move on to other grounds, which inevitably brings new challenges with it such as land disputes and human-wildlife conflicts. Wildlife is mostly snared for “muti” which are potions made by witchdoctors / sangomas, as well as for subsistence meat and for the bush meat trade.

Age-old forests and indigenous vegetation is usually decimated. To help preserve the environment, Janet and Rob have initiated a Young Environmental Ambassador’s Leadership Course, which shows Zulu teenagers sustainable farming methods, water and sanitation management as well as how to care for and respect their natural heritage.

Coming from South Africa (and experiencing the end of the Apartheid era), it was a privilege and delight to meet Temba. He is a registered Tour Operator running his own business. What a positive, success story! He’s embracing his natural and cultural heritage and encouraging his neighbours to do the same. He can see how tourism offers a win-win solution for everyone – the communities, travellers and of course for nature and the environment.

marcel-victoria-working-muzi-panAfter chatting about the challenges and triumphs, Temba briefed us on the safety procedures and explained what we were going to do, then we headed out. I’m a bit of a birder … okay, I sheepishly acknowledge I don’t know enough to proclaim that “I am a birder”, but I loved seeing Jacana’s hopping around on lily pads and paddling past a flock of Whistling Ducks, ah man. What a beautiful sound.

You can see Temba’s passion for Muzi Pan and his love of nature. He was pointing out little specks far away, which turned out to be large birds ready to take flight. A trained eye! Aside from appreciating the nature and wildlife of this gorgeous region, what I enjoyed most about our canoe trip, were the tid-bits explaining Zulu culture and how these surroundings are interpreted.

With Janet’s involvement in wildlife protection, Temba took us to a carcass of a dead dog that had been used to bait a crocodile, which should have been snared to be utilised for muti. The Parks Board had removed the snare, but the dog was still there. There is such a fine balance between meeting the needs of people, (wild) animals and nature.

Temba also demonstrated how the local folk utilize what nature has provided, as in the water lily example shown in the video, and how they’ve adapted to living alongside a pan teeming with danger in the form of crocodiles and hippos. It’s amazing to think that more people are killed in Africa by hippos than lions – the hippos look so docile and sleepy in the water!

Mind you, on our way back we heard a small splash and saw two little ears and nostrils pop out of the water. Temba quickly instructed us to paddle on the other side of him and do our our best to avoid any danger. Just as quickly as the head appeared, it disappeared again. As did we. Hippos can hold their breath for about 5 minutes, but by that time we were long gone. Only the sound of our beating hearts lingered …

Things to do at Leopard Walk Lodge

The world needs more people like Temba, Rob and Janet. They also care passionately about conserving natural and cultural heritages. As responsible travellers, we need to choose and support tour operators who are actively involved in preserving what’s precious to us.

Orpen bush walk in Kruger Park

In the hot, baking sun we drudged ourselves, albeit rather willingly, behind two armed game rangers from Orpen Camp in the Kruger National Park. Our guides, Carol and Thomas, had fetched us in their open game-drive vehicle from the ablution facilities at Tamboti Tented Camp where we were staying. After introducing themselves and giving us a briefing of the walk, we headed out into the bumpy bushveld.

The best part about going on bush walks like this, is that you get to go into the “no-go areas” and are allowed to ignore the no-entry sign posts intended for the “normal visitors” in Kruger, as we had done earlier that morning. The drive was very pleasant, making general chit-chat over the weather, wildlife and South Africa. We came across a rather difficult patch in the road and Thomas hopped out the car to guide us through. Up until now, the ground had looked very dry, but this patch looked rather muddy. I asked if they’d had some rain lately, and Carol happily answered, “Yes, in January”. It was March. In the Netherlands, we’re happy if we get a week or two without rain …

We reached the spot where we could park the car, and while Marcel and I readied ourselves, camera and video camera, the guides readied their rifles. Just a quick reminder of the eminent dangers … lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, … without there being any rivers in the immediate vicinity we were relatively safe from being attacked by hippos or crocodiles. As instructed, we headed out quietly in single file, whistling softly or slapping our thighs gently to let the guides know we wanted to take photos or ask a question. I have no idea how they saw it, but way in the distance they spotted a giraffe moving through the brush. My word! They must have seen it enroute to fetching us … at least that makes me feel better in my spotter’s inadequacy.

Along the way, Tomas and Carol told us about trees and bushes, and their medicinal uses for both animals and indigenous people. We encounterd orb spiders, a territorial wildebeest and a lone Kudu. We discovered traces of the Shangaan Tribe who were displaced with Kruger was proclaimed as a nature reserve. We even saw remnants of clay-pots from their ancestors scattered behind an old termite mound. It was nothing for them to travel tens of km’s to fetch water each day. Being used to cycling relatively long distances, the walk itself was fine, but the sun was relentless. Even though we carefully and consistently sipped our water, by the end of the day we were knackered and my head started to pound.

Tomas then decided to play a little trick on us. He encouraged us to try the leaves of a Spiky Thorn tree to make our mouths feel all silky and smooth. Naively we nibbled on the greenery, which turned more powdery with every bite. Then Thomas couldn’t contain himself and packed up laughing. Spiky Thorn leaves are renowned for making your mouth dry. It turns out that not even impalas eat these leaves, because they make you thirsty. Animals are smart enough not to eat food that makes them more vulnerable … like needing to go to a water hole. An amazing plant however, as the leaves are also used medicinally to stop diarrhoea! Trying to be good-humoured, I managed a weak smile. “We are not amused” I was thinking in my name-sake.

On the way back, we joked about the European Roller needing to pay conservation fees during their four-month sojourn at Kruger. And perhaps to compensate for the spiky leaf trick, they dropped us off outside our tent at Tamboti. It was a hot but interesting bush walk. It’s far more sensible to stick the morning walks during Summer and leave the afternoon walks during Winter.

However, if you also enjoy the luxury of being alone on a game drive, then keep a panado ready for the inevitable head-ache, wear a good hat, lots of sunscreen and take lots of water along.