Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit. ~ Edward Abbey 

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Imagine spending days, not hours, but days without any contact with the outside world. Imagine not being at the top of the food chain, but several rungs down. Imagine sitting around the campfire keeping guard over your sleeping friends and family in case wild animals wander into the campsite. Imagine spending your days walking along paths made by those same animals and exploring areas where, quite possibly, people have left no footprints for generations. Does the mere thought of this fill you with fear and trepidation or yearning and excitement?

If it is fear and anxiety you feel, then you probably need to experience this more than anyone else and here is why.

In today’s modern world, reconnecting with nature is more important than ever and I don’t mean watching reruns on Discovery Channel, I mean really reconnect. We seem to have forgotten that being in the wild is a totally natural human experience, a rudimentary part of our not so distant past. So essential to our personal well-being and well-being of our planet that everybody should experience this at some stage in their lives.

But it runs deeper than this. Every conservation challenge, from climate change to rhino poaching to deforestation to the plundering of our oceans is not the “real environmental problem”. These are merely symptoms of a much bigger problem – people’s disconnect with nature. Only when people learn and accept that we are part of the ecosystem, that we need nature for our own survival, and most importantly being in touch with nature is our original state, then we reconnect with nature, and ego, greed and apathy are no longer options. Healing this disconnect is precisely what the Wilderness Leadership School’s wilderness trails are all about.

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The Wilderness Leadership School is one of South Africa’s oldest conservation organisation and led the growth of a network of partners around the world advocating for greater protection of wilderness. Founded by the late, legendary Dr. Ian Player back in 1955, the Wilderness Leadership School is a profound story in the annals of South African conservation history.

This was the time that Dr. Player came into contact with Magqubu Ntombela, an extraordinary game tracker for the then Natal Parks Board. He turned out to be one of the greatest influences on Dr. Player’s life and one of the foremost sponsors of the Wilderness Leadership School idea. In 1959, Dr. Player and Ntombela took the first official Natal Parks Board trail in the Imfolozi Wilderness Area – the beginning of something very special.  Sixty years on, more than 60,000 people have experienced wilderness on one of these trails with profound personal change.

On trail we are guests of the natural world, we are humbled by wilderness, in awe of its complexity, power and beauty. Outside of this our egos rule ~ Dr. Ian Player

A Wilderness Trail is an unique experience that not only brings you in touch with nature, but also in touch with yourself. Trailists are exposed to the enlightenment of connectivity of the natural environment, animals and people. The experience is uncontrived and no two trails are the same; each one is determined by the dynamics of weather, the group, animal sightings, and the natural habitat. Although many of the trails are set in big game areas, the experience is not focused on sightings of wildlife, but a means of reconnecting to the natural world and order.

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Wilderness Trails are designed to have little or no impact on its environment. There are no roads and the only paths you will encounter are those made by animals. Groups are limited to 8 participants (min age 15 years), who are fit enough to maintain a reasonable walking pace carrying a backpack.

Every cent raised by those participating in the Wilderness Leadership School trails is ploughed back into getting community leaders, change makers, influencers, business leaders, and politicians to experience the magic of wilderness themselves. One of the most wonderful examples of true responsible tourism.

Much of the recent focus of the Wilderness Leadership School has been on involvement of rural community leaders and youth, as very few have ever experienced the “other side of the fence” of game reserves and wilderness areas. Communities living adjacent to these areas see tourists coming and going, they see animals through the fences, and experience the occasional conflict with wildlife, e.g. elephants raiding crops.

Communities play an increasingly important role in nature conservation. Living alongside these wilderness areas, they can be our most effective buffers between the protected areas and outside threats. One of the most effective anti-poaching strategies has proven to be intelligence from surrounding communities. An important reason for communities to be nature conservation stewards.

Unfortunately, few communities understand the intricacies of the work and strategies employed by modern conservationists and sadly very few benefit directly from tourism in nature conservation areas, which can promote an “us and them” situation. However, that can be changed and this was Dr Ian Player’s central vision, making wilderness areas accessible to everyone.

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So here is an example of a really Good Holiday, where your experience will most certainly change your perception of nature and will bring about an almost spiritual level of personal change. Your experience will not only contribute to conservation work, but also help building a generation of leaders who care and understand our place within the environment. It will help build a network of conservationists based within communities, an army of eyes and ears in the fight against e.g. rhino poaching. It will change your life and give the Wilderness Leadership School a chance to change the life of others. I think that is pretty special.

So if those days without your mobile phone or sleeping under the stars still fill you with dread, perhaps you should consider how reconnecting at a deep, personal level with nature may just be the most important thing you have ever done for yourself and the planet.

Words and pictures: Duncan Pritchard
Copy Editor: Louise de Waal


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