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Footprints to Devolution

Footprints to Devolution

Words By Shane Quinnell, Photos Shane and Dylan Quinnell 

The sun rose on another day. Yet on this day the sun was different. Well, no, I realised after a while. The sun was no different, it

The importance of fire is found in the wild, tea to keep us warm on watch brews away.

The importance of fire is found in the wild, tea to keep us warm on watch brews away.

was just my perception that had changed. On this day the sun according to my perception was not just the sun, it was an incredible golden orb which I had seen many times but never quite known. It was the bringer of light and life. I was no longer just a person watching the sun rise but a sentinel witnessing a natural wonder and a guardian for my beautiful new wife and our families who were soundly asleep on the rock plateau behind me.

At the time I was standing right on the edge of the White Umfolozi river which runs through the Southern section of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Myself, my wife of three days, Tarryn, and our immediate families were there undertaking the “Primitive Trails,” hike as a pre-lude to Tarryn and my honeymoon. The trail, run by KZN Wildlife and in our case by our excellent guides Sicelo and Mpile, was highly recommended by many friends and a bucket list activity for both Tarryn and I. It was a great chance to spend time with our families who we saw too little of, particularly mine who lived half a world away in Australia. Being in the middle of a game reserve there were wild animals all around us; I could hear them intermittently. I was on duty as the morning watchman to ensure the animals of the park didn’t stray too close.

The tribe gathers as Sicelo tells us the story written in animals footprints.

The tribe gathers as Sicelo tells us the story written in animals footprints.

Only the night before I was woken from a nightmare at 1.30AM to our larger than life ranger, Sicelo, scaring off a rhino which was thirty meters away by making extreme kissing noises and throwing pebbles at him. Siobhan, my brother’s Fiance, who was on watch at the time, had alerted Sicelo to the animal. Upon waking I wasn’t sure whether my nightmare or reality was worse. After a few seconds I hazily resolved in my sleepy state that Sicelo would wake us if there was anything to be worried about, rolled over and dropped back into a deep sleep. I found out the next morning that after returning to sleep a Hippo and Buffalo had also joined the late night party while my Dad was on watch. After being hit with a stone from Sicelo, the Buffalo ran into the Hippo which caused quite a commotion but no harm. I slept happily through all of it. Therefore though I would have preferred to be sleeping, I was content to watch the sun rise knowing my duty was important.

More than anything though I was entranced. It had been a long time since I had really experienced   sunrise for what it is; timeless and incredible. Despite being what friends term “an outdoor animal,” as comfortable in the bush as at home, my life in the modern world has generally kept me as wired as the rest of the world’s population. As a result of this modern lifestyle I realised I often unknowingly experienced the world with a hint of detachment, distanced from reality by the thoughts which constantly whizzed in my head. The difference in my current perception was purely due to the fact that my mind was finally relaxing. I was experiencing the world as it truly was. Our unhurried steps within the primordial realm of Umfolozi where the great animals were still roaming had helped me to “rewild,” to reconnect with nature.

The sentinel and the watchman, Shane and the rising sun.

The sentinel and the watchman, Shane and the rising sun.

To me this explains one of the most incredible parts of the Primitive Trails journey; re-finding ourselves. Our devolutionary (de-evolutionary; opposite of evolution) steps which led us away from our present day society of billboards, technology and detachment toward a more primal way of life made me feel more alive by the minute. Sicelo captured the importance poetically in one of his morning briefs with this quote from an unknown author: “We have become strangers to nature. The best way to live longer healthier lives is to rewild ourselves by returning to nature, to wilderness.”

According to the details provided to us by Sicelo and Mpile, the emotions we were experiencing were the exact intention of one of the masterminds of the trails; South African Conservationist, Ian Player. To this effect he wrote the following on the Wilderness Leadership School website:


“The Wilderness walk is an opportunity to slow down, to feel the earth beneath your feet, to connect with an ancient landscape, to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of areas that have remained untouched by human hands. To walk the wild and ancient trails forged by Elephant and Rhino is a privilege and honour. It is an intimate soul journey in an ancient landscape and opportunity to learn and understand the wilderness within our souls.”

Ian Player

South African Conservationist

One of the awe inspiring creatures we met on the trails; the African elephant.

One of the awe inspiring creatures we met on the trails; the African elephant.

However, while the mindfulness inspired by the hike was a significant part of the experience, it far from describes the excursion in its entirety. The animals and the landscape were awe inspiring and raw. We witnessed lion and elephant drinking an bathing in the river, interacted with rhino and marvelled at birds all with no fences or cars between us and the animals. More than once during our night watches we had to wake our guides to scare off Hippo, Buffalo and Rhino which became too curious and strayed too close.

On one particular occasion they got closer than usual. We lay dozing under an acacia tree waiting for the mid-day sun to cool so that we could cross the Umfolozi River and set up on the rocks. Sicelo and Mpile maintained a relaxed watch over us much like a Lion and Lioness would over their cubs. Suddenly a huge commotion erupted as Sicelo exploded off the ground like a charging African buffalo and in a split second Mpile unlocked and readied her rifle. I sat up groggily to see a massive female white rhino and her calf only 20m from us. Sicelo charged her swinging his old fashion water canister like a flail above his head and yelling “get behind a tree,” before throwing the canister at the animal.

Completely disoriented, Tarryn, started running after Sicelo toward the rhinos. My brother Dylan, who was presently hiding behind a tree, yelled at her and she turned around. Her Mom, Debbie, then pulled her behind the tree. Everyone else had scattered. Fortunately the commotion was enough to scare off the beautiful and powerful beasts. Interestingly despite the apparent chaos of the incident I always felt as if our rangers and guardians were completely in control and as such I held little concern over our safety.

Sleeping for three nights on the banks of the Umfolozi River we each spent time on watch under a sky blanketed by the universe. We walked the paths of the Great Zulu King Shaka and learnt the history of the area which was previously the royal hunting ground of the Zulu kingdom. Of particular fascination to me was to learn that the great blacksmith and Sangoma who was said to have forged the original ‘Iklwa,’ (Zulu stabbing spear) for Shaka was said to have lived close to where we walked.

Sicelo deep in discussion about Zulu culture and SA politics, a riveting discussion

Sicelo deep in discussion about Zulu culture and SA politics, a riveting discussion.

There were also moments that were profoundly sad. For example hearing the rangers’ stories of the poaching of the majestic souls which shared roamed this land for nothing more than human gain. The rangers who interacted with the major animals on a regular basis knew each intimately and said “the needless deaths of the animals… was like having friends killed.” We also saw the stark and destructive effects of the severe drought which was presently affecting most of Southern Africa and heard of the impacts of climate change on the animals and nature. Tarryn and I couldn’t help but be affected and resolved to make a difference. Our new initiative and social media presence under the banner “Team Tane,” and website are the start at our attempt to bring about awareness and positive change.

More than any one thing though, the hike was an exceptional and rare opportunity for unhindered and undistracted quality time with our

Our footprints to devolution..

Our footprints to devolution..

families and guides. We slept together, ate together, guarded each other and shared the profoundness of the venture. We witnessed sunrises and sunsets, debated politics and learnt the details of each other’s lives which are often overlooked due to time constraints. Tarryn and I enjoyed getting to know our soon to be sister–in-law, Siobhan, who we had never met despite being engaged to my brother for over a year due to the thousands of kilometres which separated us. We engaged with our respective parent-in-laws, my Dad Peter and Tarryn’s folks Grant and Debbie, who we had each known our entire lives but never spent such quality time with.

It was also a privilege to get to know both Sicelo and Mpile and to learn and share in each other’s cultures. The interactions with them really helped me understand viewpoints and behaviours which I had often been exposed to as a white South African but had never fully understood, not due to a lack of trying.

Overall the trip was absolutely incredible and is something that I believe every person should try and experience once in their life. As Sicelo put it on our last morning before re-entering civilisation “what we experienced is so sanitised, so authentic, so genuine and so special.” While I have tried my best to describe our roaming, it cannot be described in mere words. It must be experienced. More than anything I believe it is important for people to witness something like this, whether in Africa or abroad, to rekindle the connection to our ancestors and precious natural world which has largely been severed through our self-inflicted isolation. The African wilderness and wilderness areas in general are very special and should always be protected. 


Booking Information – For those interested in devolution…

The Umfolozi trails range for various numbers of days and difficulty and can be selected depending on people’s preferences. All are guided but accommodation varies from tented camps to sleeping in the wilderness. Again one can choose to carry their own gear as we did or get their gear portaged for them. Basic details are as follows:

Company: Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife


Phone: 033 845 1067