Most visitors to Kruger drive around the national park in their cars on the excellent network of both tar and gravel roads. There are more than 2 000 kms of roads that give tourists access to South Africa’s largest national park. And up till a few years ago, the only way to experience the park was in your car. (For good reason, with wild animals aplenty walking around).
But many people eventually get tired of sitting in a vehicle for days on end, and besides, being trapped in a car alienates you from most of the bushveld experience. (I personally struggle to sit in a car for longer than a few hours, plus I have always felt like a bit of a fraud driving along a tar road in an airconditioned car while elephants munch on mopane trees in blistering lowveld heat.)
So a few years ago, morning walking trails were introduced at the major camps, as a unique way to experience Kruger. Two armed rangers accompany groups of no more than eight people. The walks last for about three hours, and give people a chance to experience the bush – and the animals – in a purer format.
There’s no doubt about it. If you want to experience the true essence of Kruger and its astonishing array of wildlife, vegetation and scenery you have to try the walks. I’ve been on several morning walks at the different camps, and every one is different and unique. (My most exciting so far was encountering a male lion on foot near Lower Sabie. Read the blog here.)
Sometimes you see plenty of animals, and sometimes it’s all about the trees, the birds…and the simply pleasure of smells and sounds which you don’t get to enjoy while sitting in a car. The armed guides teach you how to read the tracks of animals, how to identify the calls of the birds, which trees and plants can be used for which ailments, and how to find your way to water in the bush.
Then, for people who are not satisfied with just a short morning walk, there are the Wilderness Trails, which give small groups extended access to some of the remote areas of Kruger that are off-limits to the general visitor. The wilderness trails camps each have four cabins, with basic ablutions, and a simple kitchen. Meals are prepared by a cook, and two armed rangers guide guests from the base camp on walks every morning and afternoon. The Wilderness Trails allow for some of the comforts of a camp, while still giving people the wilderness experience for several consecutive days.
However, the ultimate in walking trails in Kruger are the Back Pack Trails. These are meant for people who really want to connect with nature…and their inner animal. Groups of no more than eight people are guided for four days and three nights through one of the wilderness areas, carrying their own packs, with food, tents and sleeping bags.
Hikers have to be entirely self-sufficient, and there are no paths or designated routes. You sleep out in the bush at a site chosen by the trails guide, and food is cooked on small portable gas stoves. A small fire to provide warmth and ambience is made from dead wood that is collected. The armed field guides have licence to walk where they want mostly, and the whole idea is to immerse oneself in one of Africa’s famous wild areas.
There are three Back Pack Trails in Kruger: the Olifants, the Mphongolo and the Lonely Bull. All of them are located in the central and northern regions of Kruger. For more info on them, check out the SANParks website.
These are the quintessential Kruger experiences, and I don’t think you can say you’ve ‘done’ Kruger, until you’ve walked one of the backpack trails. From the very start to the end of the trail, there’s a heightened sense of awareness that permeates your body and mind, which you just do not ever attain while driving in a car or living in a city.
At first, walking in the bushveld can feel a bit nerve-wracking, and understandably so with all the wild animals around…suddenly we’re not the powerful, all-controlling creatures that we think we are when we’re in the city. Your eyes, ears and nose have to work properly and accurately (as millions of years of evolution intended them to do)…but soon, you settle into a rhythm, and your senses become attuned to their environment, the sounds, the smells and the sights. It’s a highly recommended feeling, and quite addictive, probably because it’s so rare these days in our modern world.
The wilderness areas of Kruger are almost completely free of anything man-made. There are no formal roads, no buildings, no telephone poles…these wilderness areas (which make up about half of Kruger’s 2 million hectares) are really the soul of Kruger, and only hikers on wilderness and back pack trails can get to see them.
Last week, I and some friends completed the 48km Olifants Back Pack Trail, which starts in the west of Kruger on the Olifants River, and follows the watercourse in an easterly direction, to end near the camp of Olifants. Our guides were Donavan Terblanche and Joris Bertens. The trails guides are considered the best in the park, and they have to be, as there’s a constant potential threat of danger, from elephants, lion, buffalo, rhino, hippo and even leopard or snakes. You place your lives in the guides’ hands, and so we quickly learned to listen carefully to what Donovan and Joris were telling us.
Donavan picked us up at Olifants Camp early one morning, and we drove west towards Phalaborwa Gate, where Joris jumped on board. From there, we drove several kilometres into the wilderness area, where we were dropped off on the side of a tributary of the Olifants River.
Before we set off, Donavan gave us a safety briefing, which was simple: walk in single file, Donavan and Joris at the front (“danger almost always comes from the front”); don’t talk while walking (as most animals tend to run away from humans if there’s too much talking, and some animals like elephants can become more aggressive); if you see something and want to stop, don’t shout but rather whistle (again, it’s a more natural sound).
Finally, remember to look around you while you’re walking…not only is this safer, but you also notice far more. Oh, and always listen to Donavan’s instructions – and don’t run unless you’re told to, as humans are actually quite ponderous compared to a charging elephant or buffalo, and you immediately embolden animals in their charges if you try to run from them. Best to stand your ground.
For four days and three nights, we followed the course of the Olifants River. Hippos appeared around very corner. We must have seen several hundred over the four days. As it is winter, many were standing in the sun on the river banks, and on seeing us would run into the river in a massive commotion.
On our first day, we almost bumped into a buffalo that was snoozing in the reeds of the river. We encountered several of them. A highlight for everyone was seeing a Cape clawless otter which appeared briefly on the side of the river one day, while we were having lunch. (Too quick for my camera!) Waterbuck were also common, and two of us swore we saw a honey badger scuttle off into the bushes. Crocodiles were always lurking, and we saw some big monsters.
All the while, Donavan and Joris were calm and measured in their approach. At no stage did any of us feel unsafe…and even though we didn’t see that many other animals (we didn’t see any elephants, which by all accounts is very surprising), Donavan was an encyclopedia of bush knowledge. He told us which plants are used for which ailments, how an elephant’s height can be determined by the circumference of its spoor (two-and-a-half times the spoor’s circumference = shoulder height), how you can tell how old an elephant is by studying it’s poo, the average weight of a leadwood tree (eight tons)…these are things which visitors generaly don’t get to learn without doing the Back Pack Trails.
But perhaps the best part of each day is not the walking itself. It’s the camping experience. About two hours before sunset, Donavan would select a suitable site for us to pitch our tents. Usually it would be on the sandy banks of the river, with clear views in all directions to spot animals from afar (and let animals spot us from afar too).
We’d pitch our tents, collect some firewood, then all go for a refreshing swim in a shallow part of the river, but not before Donavan and Joris had scouted the area for crocs and hippos.
Then we’d light the fire, and the best part of the African day would begin. The sky would turn a thousand shades of blue and orange as we all sat round the fire, listening to the initial sounds of the wild night: a hyena howling in the distance, a lion roaring perhaps, and always the hippos snorting and grunting, and the river gurgling over the nearby rapids.
We’d prepare our own dinners which were simple but tasty – pasta with a few toppings, and then hot chocolate (yes!). After a bit of evening banter, and some characteristically tall fire-side stories, we’d all be in our sleeping bags by about two hours after sunset (which was about 7:30pm!). Early nights were welcome, because the back packs are heavy when you’re carrying tents, food and sleeping bags for four days.
Plus, everyone had a chance to carry the ogre– a beautiful contraption which facilitates the bush toilet experience. The ogre is a soil sampler that digs a deep hole into the ground with a few easy twists. Voila, your toilet is ready, madam. Just remember to burn your toilet paper, and throw soil into the hole to cover up the land mine. On the back pack trails, you soon learn to laugh at your own – and others’ – bowel movements. And snoring – you soon learn to identify the various snorers in the group. There are no real secrets on trails like these, and it’s partly why they’re so enjoyable – there’s a camaraderie that develops which bonds the group. (There’s a theory that snoring is an evolutionary trait that humans developed to warn wild animals of our presence while we were sleeping…well, if that’s the case, our group did really well to keep the animals away from our camp every night! )
On our last night, Donavan let us sleep out in the open, and not in our tents. It’s something that we all enjoyed, although a few of us needed a bit of persuasion. However, it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trail. Sleeping under the stars, in the open, watching the waning moon float across the inky blackness…while each of us took turns to keep the fire stoked and watch for animals approaching camp…this for me is the ultimate wild experience, and something that every visitor to Kruger should do.
The Back Pack Trail was a total immersion in the wild, and for city people it’s a way to rid oneself of all modern technology and contraptions which we somehow have convinced ourselves we need, yet actually we don’t. ”Do you really need that new cell phone? Why do we rush around so much in the city? What’s the point of working so hard? What is it that makes us truly happy? What were your childhood dreams, and why did they vanish when we became adults? All these questions tend to arise while losing oneself metaphorically in the African bushveld.
But after a while, even these questions disappear, and all that matters is gazing at the sunset, having a cool swim after a long, hot day, enjoying the company of friends around a fire, and wondering if lions or hyena will wander into camp tonight. All the really good, important stuff tends to come out on top when walking the Olifants Back Pack Trail.
Some of the other comments from other folk in the group (thanks Teri especially!):
“The freedom I felt with walking in the bush, and the fact that I had to pinch myself sometimes to remind me that we were in nature at its best! I felt very privileged!
“The laughing! At each other, at the ogre, at the snoring, at the pickled onions for lunch”
“The full moon”
“The silence of the night watch”
“The immense knowledge of the guides”
There are some things to note though. First, you have to take water purification tablets, as the water in the Olifants River is generally polluted from upstream mines, farming and rural communities. It’s a sad reality, and something that has caused concern for Kruger’s scientists for several decades. Most of the major rivers flowing through Kruger arise outside the park, and are heavily utilized before entering the park. Pollution, pesticides and high e-coli levels can apparently be found in the river some times, according to Donavan.
Secondly, don’t walk the trail expecting to see loads of animals. Yes, you can be lucky. Donavan has seen on various different hikes the Big 5, plus huge herds of elephants. But because humans are seen as super-predators by animals, they tend to run away from hikers. It may come as a surprise to some, but all animals – including lions, elephants and buffalo – consider humans as the supreme threat, hence their sometimes aggressive approach. But most of the time, they will run away from humans. (That’s why game viewing in a car is generally more rewarding from a visual point of view – animals aren’t threatened by cars, and they can’t distinguish the humans in the car, so they don’t run away).
Having said that, you can get really close to the animals. We almost bumped into a few buffalo, and the hippos are always nearby. On our first night, an elephant came to drink near our camp, but we only saw the evidence in the morning when we spotted his spoor. The trail is all about the total experience, and your knowledge and love of the bushveld will only be enhanced by the Back Pack Trails.
Thanks very much to Donavan and Joris for a truly wild experience!
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will we be free in our own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.” – Wallace Stegner
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