In the cold, dark hour just before dawn comes the bushveld wake-up call. Kak-keek, kak-keek, kak-keek screech Natal Spurfowls, followed by the raucous krraae-krraae-kraaee of Swainson’s Francolins. It’s time to scramble into boots and clobber for the day’s hike, ready for the darkness to give way to a blood-orange sunrise. It’s our first morning on the Napi Wilderness Trail in the Kruger National Park.
The privilege of Kruger’s wilderness
A Kruger wilderness trail has become an annual pilgrimage for us group of friends – John and Sue Weaver, Pierre and Rene Maynhardt, Frank Gregory and his daughter Pippa Dittberner, Jock McKenzie and me. Over the past ten years we have all undertaken five of the seven Kruger Wilderness Trails.
Only 49 per cent of the park’s two million hectares is set aside as wilderness areas closed to the public. However, if you do secure a place on one of these trails, you’ll be one of the few to experience the privilege of Kruger’s wilderness.
On a visit to Kruger you might’ve wondered about those gravel roads with a ‘No Entry’ sign, and to where they lead. Many a time it’s to one of these wilderness-trail base camps, where you really get to experience the Kruger bushveld at its best – the silence away from the beaten tracks, the sun on your back and the sounds of the bushveld all about as you set off into the wild on foot. All under the care of highly trained rangers and trackers with exceptional knowledge, and a passion for all things bush.
Our Napi Wilderness Trail of three nights with two days of hiking starts at 3pm at Pretoriuskop Rest Camp in the south-western corner of Kruger. It’s here that we meet our rangers, Raymond Khosa and Saul Hlatshwayo, who arrive in the safari vehicle with a trailer.
Once it’s packed with our belongings and camp provisions, we set off for the Napi Wilderness Trail camp situated on the undulating granite landscape between the Pretoriuskop and Skukuza camps. It’s an area dominated by the silver cluster-leaf tree (Terminalia sericea), which has silver-grey foliage that shines in the sun.
“The presence of this tree in such numbers indicates that the soil here is deep and sandy which also makes the area good for grasses,” says Raymond. “And good grasses mean big game, so look out for kudu, white rhino and buffalo.” No sooner said than we come upon a powerful kudu bull standing on the skyline, who pauses for a moment before bounding off gracefully.
5 star luxury
We drive on only to find a magnificent, mature sable bull crossing a clearing in the bush. His coat is dark and glossy, his belly white and he sports an impressive pair of recurved horns, but just ignores us and strides off. “A lucky sighting,” says Raymond. “Sable antelope are quite rare in the park.” On a granite outcrop we spot a dainty klipspringer gazing down at us, its coat blending well with the colour of the boulders. What a start to our trip.
As usual, we have our geologist friend, John Weaver with us. Frank Gregory is one too. We learn from them that Archaean granite and gneiss form the underlying material of this area. In layman’s terms it means that 3 400 million years ago molten rock forced its way through the Earth’s crust and solidified. Much later, erosion shaped these rocks into spectacular granite outcrops of koppies and tors, which are free-standing, balancing rocks. Only the Barberton Greenstone Belt and a few other places are older than this granite and gneiss.
The road descends gradually through grasses and mixed woodlands of the silver cluster-leaf, pod-bearing wild teak or kiaat (Pterocarpus angolensis), mountain syringa (Kirkia wilmsii) growing tall among the rocky outcrops, as well as red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum) and the iconic marula (Sclerocarya birrea).
At dusk we arrive at base camp, set high on the banks of the Mbiyamithi River, our tents tucked between the dark trunks of jackalberry trees (Diospyros mespiliformis) and the multi-stemmed tambotis (Spirostachys africana).
The tented accommodation of the Napi trail is five-star quality. Recently renovated, the tents now also have en suite bathrooms. While a wilderness trail offers a back to nature experience, I will not miss the trek to the loo at night guided by torch light.
Lion roars and a mournful hyena
We gather for sundowners around the fire at the boma while Raymond lays down the rules. “Saul and I will walk in front. You will follow behind us in single file and in silence. If you want our attention, snap your fingers or clap your hand against your leg, do not call out, just stay together, do not lag behind.” We know the routine well. It sounds stern, but your safety is their responsibility.
On a lighter note, the dinner drum sounds and we meet Eaglet Ngwenya, our cook and excellent housekeeper, who has only been at Napi for two months. “I would like to stay here forever,” she tells us. “It’s so peaceful in the bush.” I ask her if she is not afraid to be here by herself. “No, there are no bad people here.” How true. Our meal, cooked in the small kitchen behind the boma, is hearty and tasty and we tuck in.
The moon is just a sliver, but the stars are brilliant. In the big silence the lions seem to roar that much louder as they look for other members of their pride. The whoop of the spotted hyena sounds mournful, and the deep, repetitive hok-hok-hok of the Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl lulls me to sleep.
Next morning the sun has barely touched the tree tops as we enjoy rusks and strong coffee and condensed milk. An African Barred Owlet makes its presence known, purr-purr-purr. It sits puffed up against the chill, looking down its beak at us. The resident Black-collared Barbet finds a spot in the sun to show off its splendid red chest and black collar. Nearby, a small, golden-brown tree squirrel works at getting the kernel out of a marula stone.
With water and snacks stashed in backpacks, we set off through the dew, adhering strictly to the rules. But as the sun rises we become more relaxed, and stop to study a tree here or a track there, watch giraffe, wildebeest, kudu, zebra
Tracks and sightings
Should you pass a herd of impala in your car you would hardly be noticed, so used to vehicles have they become, but man on foot is another matter. We have caught their attention and they stop, heads up, ears flared as they stare at us for a moment. Then pandemonium erupts as they all tear off in one direction, only to turn and chase off in another, the whites of their tails flashing the ‘follow me’ signal.
In a moment, they have scattered like the leaves of the red bushwillow in the wind. Quietly Raymond and Saul follow the game trail, and we follow them closely, until we get the ‘finger to the lips’ signal. We hear branches crack and a low, tummy-rumbling sound. Elephant. My heart flip flops. Our rangers remain calm and give hand signals for us to position ourselves against a granite boulder.
A mature bull elephant emerges from the trees, head held high, ears spread wide, tusks pointed directly forward. To intimidate us.
Following Saul’s lead, we slowly back away from the giant and, as he turns away he glances over his shoulder in a huff, just to make sure we really are leaving his area. Raymond shoulders his rifle and we set off in the opposite direction.
Tracks at a mud wallow alert the rangers to white rhino. Raymond whispers, “They don’t see so well but their sense of hearing and smell is very good.” Saul points to a tamboti tree thicket, and there we see two rhinos lying side by side, resting in the heat of the day. We move on slowly and quietly but, even so, their ears twitch.
No sooner have we left the rhino when we come across a beautifully marked leopard tortoise calmly grazing. “Tortoises also eat hyena droppings as an extra source of calcium for the health of their shell,” explains Raymond. The midday heat begins to take its toll, and the camp is a welcome sight. So is the aroma of steaming mealie bread, bacon, eggs and sausage.
Face-to-face with buffalo
En route by vehicle to the sundowner rocks later that afternoon, we come across a spotted hyena den and an indulgent female hyena lying with her playful cubs and allowing them to clamber all over her. Being with our rangers on the Napi trail means we do not have to hurry back to camp at gate-closing time, and have the roads to ourselves.
This gives us an opportunity to spend an hour watching a young leopard stalk a mature impala ram. A painstaking exercise, and we hold our collective breath as the leopard crawls, creeping closer and closer to his quarry. But despite all his effort, he fails to snag his dinner. The impala tosses his horns in scorn and we head back for our second night in camp.
Our second day of hiking finds us following the course of the Mbiyamithi River where the great grey leadwoods (Combretum imberbe), common cluster figs (Ficus sycamorus), weeping boer-beans (Schotia brachypetala) and the solid glossy-leaved Natal mahogany (Trichilia emetica), thrive in the alluvial soil.
As we pull out of the sandy river bed onto the plains, our rangers put their heads together muttering over spoor and dung on the trail, the dung so fresh it glistens. Alarmed Red-billed Oxpeckers call, tisk-tisk, indicating that game is nearby.
Raymond guides us to the nearest cluster of trees where, lying in the long, dry grass ahead of us are three Cape buffalo bulls, caked in mud from the wallow. One lumbers to his feet and we stand in silence, awed at being so close to these formidable, temperamental animals.
The trees offer scant protection, but we take heed of the hand signals from Raymond. Saul stands guard while we are led away safely, back to camp for our third and last night in the Kruger wilderness.
On our last morning, we are awake and up even before the francolins. Despite having to pack up the Napi camp, Eaglet provides another sizzling breakfast. We all pile into the vehicle and head back to Pretoriuskop where we take our leave of Raymond, Saul and Eaglet. What an asset they are to Kruger. They may not remember us for long, but we will go away with them stored in our photographs and memories forever.
7 Kruger Wilderness Trails
There are seven Wilderness Trails in Kruger National Park – Bushmans departs Berg-en-Dal, Mathikithi departs Satara, Napi departs Pretoriuskop, Nyalaland departs Punda Maria, Olifants departs Letaba, Sweni departs Satara, Wolhuter departs Berg-en-Dal.
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