There was a snort, high pitched and menacing, then the sound of bushes being trampled.
“Baleka… run,” Magqubu shouted and our trail party made for the nearest trees as a black rhino came at us, head held high, showing its hooked lip. Magqubu despite his 77 years moved with grace and speed to an Nthombothi tree, at the same time shouting loudly. I hid behind another tree and yelled too, using more intemperate language. Our combined noise turned the rhino and it trotted defiantly off into a thicket. Our trailers disentangled themselves from various trees. Magqubu stood watching as they cursed while pulling thorns out of their hands, arms and legs.
“These people climbed the wrong trees,” he said. “We must teach them that all the trees are different.”
When the adrenalin level had dropped we walked to the shade of a big mkia tree, to sit and listen to the old Zulu giving a tree lesson. I suggested the mpafa as a start. In Afrikaans it is the blinkblaar haak-en-steek and in Latin, Ziziphus mucronata.
“Look at these thorns and remember them well. One hooks and the other jabs,” Magqubu said, carefully holding a twig.
We Zulus also call it’ lahle nkoos’ because we used it to protect the graves of chiefs from hyena, jackal and prying human hands. We use it in other ways too. If my brother were to die in Durban I would take a small branch of the mpafa, go to the city, lay it on his grave and speak to the spirit telling him we were going home.
“On the bus and the train I would buy an extra ticket and lay the mpafa branch on the empty seat. The other Zulus would understand and no one would sit on the seat. When we got home I would put the branch on the graves of others departed and say to my brother. ‘You have come home now and you may remain in peace.’ Then the branch is placed in the eaves of his hut and a goat is killed to honour the return of the spirit.”
“What of other uses Baba?” I asked.
“All the animals eat the mpafa,” Magqubu said. “On the lower branches the steenbuck feeds on the leaves, a little higher the duiker feeds, then the impala and nyala. The kudu eats the leaves and stalks and the kudu bull puts his big horns in the tree, twists his head and breaks big branches. Some fall to the ground or hang low so again the smaller antelope can feed. The black rhino eats the stalks and the leaves, its hard mouth is impervious to the thorns. The giraffe browses at the top of the tree.”
Magqubu laid the twig down and picked a berry. “Humans eat these, so do the birds like hornbills, mousebirds and barbets, the monkeys and baboons love them and being greedy stuff their pouches and some fall onto the ground. The warthog, wild pig, white rhino, genet cat, aardwolf, guinea fowl, francolin and doves then feed on the fallen berries.
“But that is not all. The porcupine eats the berries as well as the bark of the tree and where the sap comes out the ants and butterflies feed. So you see around this tree there is a great circle of life. When you saw it this morning it looked like any other tree in the veld. Remember it well and do not climb it when you are chased by the ubejane because you may get up in a hurry but it will take you a long time to get down.”
Magqubu laughed, showing his incredibly perfect white teeth.
We shouldered our packs and continued walking along a rhino path. We knew that none of us would forget the mpala. tree.