Water on tap, a mattress to sleep on and refrigeration are mundane comforts that I appreciate all over again after our sojourn into the Mpongolo wilderness. We went to this remote part of the Kruger National Park with the singular objective to survey one of the area’s nine virgin pentads… on foot!
I previously met first rifle Brenden during a Kruger NP event at Balule Camp that was arranged by the Midrand Honorary Rangers. I turned that function into a birding weekend by “selling” the idea to some of my birding friends. Balule and the nearby Olifants River walk had a reputation for producing good Pel’s fishing owl sightings and I desperately needed to get some day-time pictures of this elusive bird. On this occasion, we were super-impressed with Brenden as a Kruger birding aficionado. Talking to Niall Perrins before the time about Brenden, Niall gave him the thumbs-up: “He knows how to find birds,” was Niall’s verdict. Our guide did not disappoint!
Brenden, on the other hand, was taken with my ability to get such a general bush event turned into a birding weekend. So the two of us conspired to do the same to a Mpongolo wilderness trail. The 150 000 ha Mphongolo Wilderness Area is the newest adventure activity offered by the Kruger National Park. It is one of the greatest trekking wilderness experiences one could ever wish to have, a unique 4-day-3-night trail in open tree savannah, dominated by mopane, red bushwillow and round-leafed bloodwood woodlands, in the area directly west of Shingwedzi. It is bordered by the Punda Gate road in the north and the Shingwedzi River in the south. The northern section is dotted with low sandstone kopjes while plains gently undulate from these low hills towards the south. The trail has no fixed route, nor daily schedule. This feature lent itself perfectly for what we had in mind. Instead of the usual trek through the wilds, we planned to atlas some of the nine unvisited pentads in this wilderness area.
When I initially started sounding my birding friends to gauge levels of interest, I realised that there will be an overrun. The first trail that we earmarked was 25 – 28 March and that was filled up in no time. So the trail of 15 – 18 February came into the spotlight, it being on a special offer from SANParks and all… In spite of trying all friends, family and birding contacts, I got stuck with only two other interested persons, other than myself. As it turned out, Multiflorum and his mate, Michael were extremely keen to do the trail and suggested that the three of us shared the fee for the fourth person so that the minimum SANParks requirement could be met and this trail could go ahead. And so we ended up with three ‘mites (Multiflorum, Michael and I), two trail rangers (Breden and Julie) and a ghost!
We met in Shingwedzi Camp on Wednesday morning at around 10:30. By midday all the paperwork and packing were done and we were taken to a drop-off point that would also serve as a pick-up point when the trail concluded on Saturday. Our highly trained and skilled Wilderness Trails Rangers, Brenden and Julie, explained how they were to keep us safe and how we could enjoy this unique area by asking them to interpret the signs, sounds and interactions with the fauna and flora. Large view
Brenden who have done numerous trails in various sections of Mpongolo selected pentad 2305_3110 for its diversity in habitats. It sports some low granite hills, numerous drainage lines into the Burubu stream that in turn contains some well-filled waterholes, surrounded by lush riverine vegetation; some open grasslands and mopane stands. The broad black line on the map represents the route we followed over the four days that we spent in the area. The green dot in the "middle" is where we pitched camp.
As per the KNP rules for wilderness trails, we had to carry all our food and equipment ourselves. Brenden and I agreed that setting up camp in one spot for the duration of the trail would be ideal as we could then sally out from a central point to try and cover as much of the habitat in the area as possible. We knew that the event offered us a unique opportunity to set some really outrageous numbers with our atlas card and I did some research into what the current records are. The highest total ever submitted for any card is 212 (a pentad in the northern area of Pafuri). The highest score for a virgin pentad is 197; much higher than I suspected, and probably out of reach for a first attempt, so I looked for other milestones… The virgin pentad record for Limpopo province is 147 – that definitely was an attainable target!
After hiking for about 2 kilometres in the 40-degree midday heat, we gladly accepted Brenden’s call to halt in a shady spot while he started scouting for a suitable place to set up camp. I was sweating like a racehorse and my two-litre water supply was disappearing fast! Finding a good campsite means it had to be reasonably close to a “good” water supply, but not so close that nocturnal animal activity would be a problem. We settled on pitching camp on the eastern side of a stand of shade in open grasslands about 500 metres away from a series of waterholes and started to set up camp. As it turned out in the end, I pitched my tent the wrong way round with the head on the down side of a gentle slope. I also failed to notice a few small lumpy bits that now sat underneath my tent floor and on/around which I would have to manage to sleep…
With tent pitched and backpack turned into a daypack, we next focussed on collecting water from the pools we passed following one of the drainage lines on the way to our campsite. Since we passed the waterhole earlier, a lone male buffalo had moved in!