“There are only two great certainties in a game ranger’s career. The first is that you will never be well off. The second – and best by far – is that you will get to do things that most other people only get to dream about”Bruce Bryden, retired game ranger.
In 1978, the first wilderness trail in the Kruger National Park was opened. Up until then, the rare experience of being on foot in Kruger was a distant fantasy.
The concept of bringing visitors into game reserves on wilderness trails was pioneered in KwaZulu Natal. The man behind it was celebrated conservationist, Dr. Ian Player. Since then, it has become increasingly popular. There are now seven trails scattered across the various ecosystems of Kruger Park. Each lasts four days and three nights.
The first wilderness camp was named in memory of Harry Wolhuter, one of the park’s first game rangers. If you’d remember, Wolhuter famously killed a lion with his hunting knife. Walking in the footsteps of Kruger’s legends is part of the nostalgic and gripping allure of the camp. And this is perhaps best illustrated in one of the park’s most famous stories.
This centers on the epic account of how Harry Wolhuter killed a lion with his hunting knife in 1904. The story is detailed in his book “Memories of a Game Ranger” (Originally published in 1958).
The sun had just set and Wolhuter was patrolling on horseback. He was riding in what is today the S35 Lindanda Road (near the Tshokwane picnic site). Suddenly, two lions attacked him. As he fell off his horse, one of the lions grabbed him by the shoulder. It then dragged him nearly 100 metres into the bush.
Barely conscious, Wolhuter managed to pull out his hunting knife and delivered a deadly stab. The mortally wounded lion dropped Wolhuter. He then managed to climb into a tree. Wolhuter only had seconds to spare before the second lion came at him. Fortunately, Wolhuter’s dog, Bull, distracted the second lion during the attack. The brave canine tenaciously barked at it. This facilitated his master’s miraculous escape.
What are the camps like?
Although dangerous animals are part of the bigger picture, they are not the whole picture. It is more about the vast open spaces and authentic wilderness atmosphere. Together, they allow people to get away from technology and other people.
To get there, you will be transported by game vehicles to remote wilderness camps. From there, a maximum of eight guests settle into rustic tented camps or A-frame huts. Linen and towels are then provided. Afterward, simple, wholesome meals are prepared for guests. You can choose whether to go for an open fire or a gas stove.
There is light fencing around camps. However, they serve only to alert people and animals where the boundaries of the camps are. Because of this, trailists feel part of nature. All ablution facilities are communal. These consist of flush toilets with gas geyser showers. The only exceptions are the Napi tents that are en suite.
Seven magnificent trails
1. Wolhuter (Berg-en-Dal)
The Wolhuter trail is known for its wealth of historical heritage. It’s tucked away between granite outcrops and quiet valleys and flatter. It is also surrounded by undulating landscapes around Berg-en-Dal. Even more, it boasts notoriously abundant fauna and flora. In fact, the area is classified as a botanical reserve within Kruger Park.
It cradles rare archaeological evidence of Bushman, Stone and Iron Age populations. This makes high lying areas an amateur anthropologist’s paradise. Walkers also get to walk in the footsteps of the fabled Jock of the Bushveld and his owner, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick. Both frequented the area on their hunting and transport routes during the 1880s.
2. Bushman’s (Berg-en-Dal)
There are two wilderness trails in the southwestern corner of Kruger’s wilderness. This is just one proof of the abundance of wildlife and botanical species that inhabit the area.
A network of natural game paths – especially elephant and rhino paths – make for easy and comfortable walking. The camp is nestled between massive granite koppies. Because of this, trailists are completely cut off from any other tourist activity.
Nights are filled with the sounds of the freckled nightjar and spotted eagle owls. There are also safe but close-up encounters with wild animals. These include the white rhino, elephant, klipspringer, and kudu. Encounters with mountain reedbuck are almost guaranteed during the day.
3. Napi (Pretoriuskop)
The Mbiyamithi and Napi rivers meander through the Napi trail. This helps make for scenic walks along river banks with large trees and Tamboti thickets. This is further punctuated by large open sodic patches. These were formed as a result of sodium accumulation on the foot slopes of granitic catenas. They host unique plant species like the impala lily (Adenium multiflorum). The plant is known for its swollen succulent stem and striking red, pink and white flowers.
Seasonal water pans scattered across the area attract a lot of big game. Black and white rhino are frequently spotted wallowing in these pans. A large population of red-billed helmet shrikes (the parasitic host to the thick-billed cuckoo) live along the Mbiyamithi River. Thanks to this, there is a good chance that bird enthusiasts may spot this parasitic cuckoo species.
4. Sweni (Satara)
Walk in the footsteps of Kambaku and Shawu. The two were part of the Magnificent Seven elephant bulls whose tusks all weighed more than 50 kilograms each. While there, explore the open, flat thorn tree savannah. Large herds of game roam this area and attract lots of predators.
The flat and remote landscape is ideal for star gazing. There, you can listen to lions roaring over the cackling of hyenas. The calls of the Mozambican night jar and Scops Owl add fullness to the nocturnal rhapsody of the African bush.
5. Mathikithi (Satara)
Located next to the N’wanetsi creek, 6 kilometres south-west of Satara, is Mathikithi. The camp was named after Mathikithi Mathevula. He was known for living at the nearby Nsemani-N’wanetsi confluence.
Natural elephant and rhino paths make for comfortable walking in an area. It is renowned for large herds of game that attract predators.
6. Olifants (Letaba)
The Olifants and Letaba Rivers are the main attraction of the Olifants wilderness trail. Located on the banks of the Olifants River, it flows through remote valleys and gorges. It then twists and turns through the Lebombo mountains. Large concentrations of hippopotami and crocodiles inhabit these rivers. While here, expect to be captivated by the call of resident fish eagles echoing along the natural waterways.
7. Nyalaland (Punda Maria)
With its large concentration of baobab trees, this is one of the park’s most spectacular trails. Cool off in the Levhuvhu River on a hot day. You may then want to walk through the baobab forest. Finally, cap it off with a bush breakfast on top of the big rocks of a hyena cave.
Nyalaland is the most remote wilderness trail of all. It lies between Pafuri and Punda Maria in the extreme north of the park. The camp is situated in a secluded spot on the Madzaringwe River with the Soutpansberg in the background.
The Lanner and Levhuvhu gorges are prominent features of this arid landscape. Both are excellent for bird watching. Look out for localised species such as Verreauxs’ eagle, Pel’s fishing owl and the mottled spinetail. They roost in a giant baobab tree in the camp.
Botanically rich in the scarce sand veld and dry land plants, this area attracts more uncommon animal species. They include the nyala, Sharpe’s grysbok, red rock rabbits, and elephant shrews. There are also eland, roan antelope and the yellow-spotted rock hyrax.
Finally, there are two types of dinosaur fossils that only Nyalaland trail guests. This easily makes this trail a bucket list adventure for budding anthropologists.