WOMAN IN A FOREST
I was looking for something off the beaten track around Richards Bay and found the forest on Google Maps. There it was, a small green spec off the highway - Ngoye Forest Reserve (also known as Ongoye). "There are about 130 bird species found on the reserve. The green barbet is endemic to the forest. It has a large array of rare and endemic tree and plant species,” read KZN Wildlife's website. That settled it for me!
A few weeks later at one of Durban airport's car rental agencies, the man behind the counter looked at me curiously. “Ma’am, are you aware that you’ve requested a 4x4 vehicle?” Deciding not to engage with his presumptions, I took the key with a grin and set off.
Roughly two hours later I arrived at the reserve, over 3000h large, to find I was the only guest for the following few days. “Won’t you be afraid all by yourself in the forest?” asked Abidnigo, the local guide who showed me to the cabin. Well aware of the risks of traveling alone as a woman, I nonetheless asked whether there was something to be afraid of. “No,” he'd replied thoughtfully. “Nothing has ever happened here, but this is the world we live in.”
That night the leaves shook violently in the wind, as if fighting to be free. "Alone in a dark forest", I said, my words hollow in the empty room. The cabin cried out as the wind heaved heavily against it and the lights flickered off for the third time. I flipped the switch and stepped outside onto the porch. Through the restless branches the night sky regarded me quietly, and we stood together in silence till my feet went numb from the cold.
For two days I wandered in the rain, drawing fragrant forest air into my lungs and drinking drops from the tips of broad green leaves. My ears were alert to the calls and movements of birds hidden among the trees, at times allowing me a glimpse of brilliant colour and form. I never saw the green barbet, but I came across bushbuck and listened to thunder growl like a predator claiming the hills. A duiker drinking at a stream looked up at me from where it was framed by the trees. We both froze, locked in a rare gaze, till a sound nearby sent it racing away.
Abidnigo and I walked together one morning. His feet have trailed through the forest since the day he was born. "What do you love about what you do?” I asked and he smiled. “Just being in the forest. I once had an office job. I had to sit indoors for hours, and often I would leave to go outside. It used to make people angry. I realised it’s not for me.”
He asked about my travels. “You’re far away from your family - that is strange. I like how you do things. You go from place to place, not to stay, just to visit. Sometimes I just work and work and then get bored; I would like to go to new places.”
I realised, again, how special the opportunity to travel is, and smiled with gratitude as a honeyguide bird called out in agreement. If I hadn't taken the opportunity to travel to Ongoye despite being alone, I would not have met Abidnigo and had the chance to learn about the forest from someone who’d grown up there. I would never have known what it feels like to walk between its magnificent trees, touching ancient barks and stepping as gently as one can between the seedlings fighting their way to the sky.