The grumble of the 4×4 recedes into the distance. I’m all alone in Kruger. No rifle, no map, no knife. Only instinct and (patchy) common sense to guide me. My heart is thumping. Don’t run. Listen. Breathe.
After getting my bearings, I think: ‘Find a tree.’ So I head off the track in search of one that’s easy to climb with branches high enough to keep me clear of any cats that might come snooping. We saw lions near here yesterday – they might still be about.
Time drifts in the crook of my jackalberry. A bushbuck ambles by, not noticing the human fruit dangling above; then a pod of warthogs all asnuffle. After half an hour, I feel more in tune with my surroundings and pluck up the courage to descend the tree and venture into my domain…
Our Getaway group had come to this remote corner of northern Kruger for a pioneering EcoTraining (ecotraining.co.za) field-guide course in the Makuleke concession, an area not accessible to ordinary park visitors. The concession lies in a wild region, rich in vegetation and boasting the best birding in Kruger. Scenery ranges from the lovely, languid Luvuvhu River to sublime, cliff-bound Lanner Gorge.
Our team adventure took the form of a bush course with experienced field rangers. We based ourselves on the Hutwini Plains, near the Luvuvhu. It was a rustic camp with a handful of tents, a water trailer and a spade to dig a hole for a toilet. The plan was to spend two days exploring the concession in a 4×4, two days hiking through it, and finally a day to meditate on the experience, culminating in being left alone in the bush.
The hike started early with a strict briefing: single file, stay together, no talking. We meandered along red-earth paths, among leviathan baobabs, through fever-tree forests and beside watercourses lined with lala palms. Along the way we learnt about bush survival. We discovered that the hollow trunk of a shepherd’s tree is a water reservoir for the thirsty hiker; that the fever-berry is poisonous – simply throw its leaves in a pond to kill the fish; and that the all-purpose raison bush makes delicious tea, but is also good for fashioning a fire stick, spear, arrow, bow and even rope.
That night we slept under the stars beside the Limpopo in a spot that looked suspiciously like a hippo thoroughfare. Each journalist took a turn on watch, sitting solitary guard beside the fire with only a torch or smoking log to discourage inquisitive creatures. During my stint, I heard hippos grazing close by. The shadows soon began to play tricks on my imagination, congealing into lumbering toothy shapes. It made for a nervy two hours.
The second day was Hades hot. We hiked to the hippo pool at Crook’s Corner, then swung west, trudging through sumptuous wilderness but longing for camp and ice-cold lagers. Suddenly, our guide raised a hand and unslung his rifle. On the ground lay the severed head of a warthog. Fresh lion tracks and a trail of blood led towards the buffalo-thorn thicket up ahead. We moved cautiously forward, our breathing shallow, eyes scanning left and right. The bush was too dense; the cats could be anywhere. We backed off and took a long diversion.
Our stay in Makuleke culminated with each of us being dropped in the veld for a period of contemplation. Given the presence of lions, our ‘contemplation’ was more of the ‘heightened vigilance’ variety. At least initially. But before long, I let myself be consumed by the sights, sounds and smells, allowing Kruger to work its enchantment.
After a few hours, I heard an engine: the vehicle returning to fetch me. A part of me wanted to stay in this Eden. I returned to camp feeling as though I’d been baptised in the park’s glory … and what a privilege it had been.
The eco training had opened our eyes to a way of being in Big Five territory and to a very different Kruger. In this troubled time of Covid-19, self isolating in the wild seems a perfect antidote to the cabin fever many of us have been feeling.
We hope you enjoy our ‘all-things-Kruger’ issue!