Anthracite mining looms large for our oldest wilderness area.
Words Tony Carnie Pictures Tony Carnie and Supplied
It takes men of courage and vision to stand in the middle of a powerful river, steadfastly erecting sandbags as they watch the floodwaters swirling around their knees.
The late Dr Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela were two such prescient men. Had they not stood in the rising waters nearly 60 years ago – helping to build a metaphorical sand barrier to divert a flood of development – one of Africa’s most precious natural wonders would surely have been swept away, or seriously eroded.
By lobbying for further protection and also pioneering the first wilderness trail into the famous iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, they helped to safeguard remnants of the disappearing old world, and to buttress the legal foundations of
one of the continent’s oldest nature reserves.
Now there are dark storm clouds on the horizon again, which threaten to unleash floodwaters that could sweep away the sandbags erected by Player, Ntombela and many others over the last century.
But before we get to those worrying details, what were Player and Ntombela hoping to achieve when they set out on that first wilderness trail on 19 March, 1959? What were they protecting? What did they hope to accomplish?
Although he had never been to school and could not read or write, Ntombela was much older and much wiser about the patterns of nature than his younger protégé – having worked as a game guard from the age of fourteen.
His younger colleague Ian, brother of golfing legend Gary Player, also left school early (at 16), fought in World War II and then went on to become one of South Africa’s most celebrated conservationists. Player also spearheaded Operation Rhino to save the country’s remnant white rhino population from the point of continental extinction.
On that early morning in 1959, Ntombela and Player led a group of six visitors into an area that had just been designated as the first protected wilderness area in Africa by the former Natal Parks Board. The idea was to raise global public awareness and establish very rustic, leave no impact trails into an unspoilt wilderness, exposing hikers to some of the primal conditions approximating what our ancestors might have experienced several centuries ago.
‘The concept was still far too radical for people in my own organisation, let alone in others,’ Player wrote in his 1997 memoir Zululand Wilderness – Shadow and Soul.
‘I had seen enough of development in game reserves and national parks to know that if wilderness areas were not set aside, the parks would become like city suburbs. Wilderness frightens most people, and they want either
to eliminate it or tame it.’
Both men knew that future wilderness trails would be dead in the water if any visitors were injured or killed on this first expedition. And, sure enough, late that afternoon trouble emerged when they heard, and then spotted, a black rhino bull storming towards them.
‘The trailists performed undreamed-of physical achievements, pulling themselves up into trees with one hand, or scattering in all directions, shouting at the top of their voices’, Player recalled in his book. Fortunately, no one was hurt and they were able to laugh around the campfire that night about the narrow escape.
‘Magqubu was animated by this kind of excitement and, in later years, when we were on trails, he liked nothing more than to see people running pell-mell for the trees when a black rhino threatened. It was even funnier if in their haste they climbed a thorn tree. His stomach would bob up and down and his hand would slap the ground. He elaborated on all the sounds the people made, the stifled ‘yips’ of fear, the swear words when thorns hooked into flesh, the different actions when running’.
After that first narrowly-successful trail, word spread fast locally and internationally and the number of wilderness trails into iMfolozi increased rapidly. Six decades later, small groups of visitors still venture on foot every week into this remarkable Big Five territory and other wilderness areas that cover less than one per cent of South Africa’s surface.
Here it is still possible to stand watch next to a campfire at night listening to the yipping of the hyena, the thunderous roar of territorial lions and to witness a night sky glittering with stars. Sadly, this tranquillity could be shattered quite soon.
Tendele Coal Mining, a subsidiary of the Johannesburg-based Petmin group, wants to dig up some of the rich anthracite deposits on the park’s south-eastern boundary, less than one kilometre from the wilderness fence. Initial plans suggest it will cover a strip of land about three kilometres long and one kilometre wide.
This, right next to the oldest wilderness area in South Africa and one of the oldest game reserves worldwide. It was proclaimed way back in 1875 – just three years after Yellowstone became the first national park in the world.
The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park was set aside in a great hurry, after a tiny remnant pocket of 50-100 southern white rhino was discovered near the confluence of the Black iMfolozi and White iMfolozi rivers. Although black rhino and some northern white rhino were still abundant in many parts of Africa, the southern white rhino was all but extinct.
Largely thanks to the dedication of game rangers like Player, the white rhino population of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi was multiplied slowly and then spread out gradually to game reserves across the nation, the African continent and later to safari park zoos across Europe, the UK and the USA.
More recently, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park has been targeted by wildlife crime syndicates responsible for the slaughter of more than 6 000 rhinos in South Africa over the last eight years.
Tendele has an existing blasting operation at Somkhele, about ten kilometres east of the park, but managers gave undertakings nearly 15 years ago that the company would not touch coal reserves within the five-kilometre–wide wilderness buffer zone.
But the recently-appointed chief operating officer, Ms Jarmi Steyn, met the park custodian – Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife – earlier this year to announce that the company wanted to mine less than one kilometre from the park boundary.
There seem to be no major legal hurdles to mining just outside the park, but Ezemvelo and several conservation groups fear that regular blasting, dust and other impacts will sound the death knell for the wilderness area, and harm the flagship Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.
Ezemvelo says the ancient wilderness zone, now covering nearly a third of the greater park, is also home to some of the densest populations of white rhino in the world. This zone was given special protection because it was largely unscarred by development. No cars, no roads, no lodges and no permanent human settlements are allowed here.
If Tendele is allowed to mine, Ezemvelo fears that the special character of this area will be degraded to the point that it no longer qualifies as a true wilderness area. “Our responsibility is to preserve the iMfolozi Wilderness Area, which is central to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and is a scarce, finite and irreplaceable resource,” says Ezemvelo head David Mabunda.
Steyn responds that her company has invested more than R1 billion into the surrounding rural community and that it would be ‘a socio-economic disaster if the company could not exploit’ the iMfolozi reserves to keep the main mine running. She says the company is looking at new ‘non-invasive’ mining technology that might need no dynamite and it will also try to soften the noise of machinery and dust levels.
But the Wildlife and Environment Society of Southern Africa (Wessa) has hit back, asking why the company abandoned its previous stance of acting in the best interests of the environment and the tourism economy of KwaZulu-Natal.
“To now be punting for another mine right up against the fenceline, is worrisome, selfish behaviour on the part of this company. Clearly Tendele has not paid attention to the strong groundswell of local opposition,” says Wessa spokesperson Morgan Griffiths
Player and Ntombela have left now, but their conservation legacy lives on – especially among those privileged to have journeyed into the iMfolozi wilderness. Twenty years before he died in late 2014, Player drew another line in the sand and vowed to lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent Rio Tinto from mining the ancient sand dunes at Lake St Lucia.
The environmental movement won that titanic battle and the lands around St Lucia now form part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and World Heritage Site.
Mining interests often make the case that ‘development’ creates jobs and economic upliftment – but when less than one per cent of the country’s surface area enjoys wilderness status, iMfolozi is certainly one place where another line should be drawn deeply in the sand.
Because if Tendele gets one foot in the door along the borderline, you can bet your boots that it is only a matter of time before more mining conglomerates march into other priceless protected places.