Words & pics Dianne Tipping-Woods and Joël Roerig
Looking for a private way to explore Kruger National Park? Then get off the park’s main roads at Pretoriuskop and Satara to explore the Mananga and Madlabantu adventure trails.
The first few buffalo are mere moving shadows in the monochrome savannah of the early morning as we sit and sip from steaming mugs of coffee. Slowly, the light seeps through the veld, giving it colour and form. A hyena calls nearby. We’d seen it loping off behind us minutes before as we came slowly along the two-track road towards Malihane waterhole. The excited hissing of red-billed ox-peckers announces the herd is getting closer. We can smell them on the crisp, clean air and their bovine snorts and rumbles are more audible by the minute.
The frontline materialises from the haze about 200 metres away from where we’re patiently waiting at the crossroads of the Mananga 4x4 Adventure Trail. From their posture and gait, we know the buffalo are cautiously testing the air. Their wet snouts glint in the first sunrays as their nostrils flare towards us. Then, as though in response to an invisible signal, they come in waves towards the water. We don’t speak. We just watch, listen and absorb the spectacle.
It is fully light by the time the first two dozen have gathered at the trough to drink, hundreds ambling after them. After drinking, they continue towards our vehicle, big bulls with heavy bosses, nursing mothers and small, fawn-coloured calves. They have decided we are no threat and, within 15 minutes, the bakkie is surrounded. We are fully embedded in the herd. There are no other cars. It is only us and the buffalo. We watch them for more than an hour before restarting the engine and moving on as the herd slowly departs towards the Mavumbye riverbed.
Experiences like this are what make doing Kruger’s short 4x4 adventure trails so rewarding. They are a chance to reconnect with the bush in a close, leisurely and private way as a maximum of six vehicles are allowed on each trail each day.
The route for this trail consists of four management tracks which come together at the Malihane windmill, where we met up with the buffalo herd. If you follow the directions recommended by SANParks the trail is nearly 50 kilometres long and you will have to travel short sections over the public H1-4, S90, S41 and S100 roads to complete the circuit. Regular Kruger visitors know these open basalt plains for their marula and knobthorn trees, but also for their frequent sightings of lions, leopards, cheetah and plains game.
As the day warms up, bateleurs soar against cobalt blue skies and liquid calls of magpie shrikes weave lines of sound across the veld. We spot a white rhino bull who has organised his own body guards, a group of formidable looking ‘dagga boys.’ Our sightings set the pace for the day and we manage to stretch the Mananga Trail from dawn until dusk, meeting only one other car all day. No one asks us what we’re looking at, tries to outmanoeuvre us, or gets impatient with us for blocking the road as a massive herd of zebra amble past. We try to make sense of their complicated social interactions, but it is hard to discern what the occasional kicking and screaming is about or who is calling the shots as their stripes form a beautiful collage, an abstract study in shades of black and white.
One of the huge privileges of the trail is that you can get out of your vehicle, at your own risk, although strict preconditions apply at all times. Specific guidelines are issued with your booking. Part of the deal is you leave no trace of your visit. Of course we still stay within a few metres of the car, but it’s enough to experiment with different camera angles, investigate a chrysalis, have a closer look at a spider web and some tracks. Luckily, the Mananga, which means ‘wilderness’, has many wide open areas where we can see what’s going on around us as we stretch our legs.
At midday, when a family of elephant stands dozing in a patch of shade in the road, we doze a bit with them, lulled by their contented rumbles and occasional sighs. The network of subtle sounds on the trail tells its own story. As we listen, our bird list creeps up steadily, ending on 72 for the day. The elephants slowly stir and resume feeding, with deep concentration and obvious pleasure. A young bull startles a female bushbuck who scampers up the bank and freezes poised at the top, before disappearing into the bush, which changes to leadwood, apple-leaf and riverine shrubbery along the Mavumbye.
Earlier in the week we did the Madlabantu (‘man-eater’) 4x4 Trail near Pretoriuskop. At the time only the northern circuit was open, looping from the H1-1 near Shitlhave dam to Mtshawu Dam, which is accessible by booking this trail. The route links up with the public road again at the Shabeni, the koppie visible from all points of the trail, which changes colour as the sun arcs the veld. The southern section, which was closed due to flood damage, is an exclusive extension of the Fayi Loop.
The grass was high and thick. Ploughing through it over the double track landed an interesting array of bugs on our bonnet. We recognised the stick insects, but many of the other creatures looked like little aliens and were completely new discoveries for us. The area’s sourveld vegetation is dominated by silver cluster-leafs, interspersed with kiaat, marula and occasional knobthorns. By mid-June, most of the distinctive round kiaat pods had been eaten by baboons, monkeys and squirrels and the grass under some of the large marula trees on the route was grazed very short in contrast to the rest of the veld.
Even though the routes aren’t challenging, a 4x4 vehicle is essential for both the Mananga and the Madlabantu trails to minimise the chance of mishaps and to reduce the vehicle’s environmental impact. The trails are not intended to test a 4x4, but the Madlabantu certainly made for some scenic, hilly driving, with mist lingering in the drainage lines and small valleys which were a hive of animal and bird activity. In summer, both trails may be closed after the rains, when the terrain becomes swampy and slippery. We saw evidence of many mud wallows which must provide warthog, buffalo and even elephant hours of cool pleasure in the hotter months.
The real surprise on the Madlabantu Trail was the Mtshawu Dam. Its scenic shoreline was dotted with contented waterbuck and we surprised a hippo on his midday stroll. He looked remarkably guilty to have been found so far from the water and as our vehicle approached, quickly joined the rest of the pod in the water.
There were also plenty of African jacana, white-faced duck and spur-winged geese around, along with a magnificent saddle-billed stork. At the weir near the dam, which you have to cross during the course of the trail, we flushed nothing less than a greater painted-snipe! Other good avian finds on the Madlabantu were bushveld pipit and an African cuckoo-hawk, with croaking cisticola and gorgeous bush-shrike being other uncommon Kruger birds that are best looked for in this area.
Winding through the bush on either of the trails feels like having a long and intimate conversation with an old friend. The bumps haven’t been smoothed out, the verges aren’t cut and you can feel the gradient and the textures of the veld. Slowly, kilometre by kilometre, you reconnect and rediscover all the things you have in common, all the reasons why you love the park and why, when you leave, you’re already planning to come back.
Kruger’s adventure trails bring out the uniqueness of the different landscapes and associated fauna and flora. Participants may get out of their vehicle in open areas if there are no animals nearby. Keep a careful lookout and stay close to your vehicle! The trails can be booked only at the respective camps.
Madlabantu Trail: Book at Pretoriuskop on 013-735-5128.
Mananga Trail: Book at Satara on 013-735-6306.
Cost: R460 a vehicle, regardless of the number of occupants. Plus a R100 deposit which is refunded upon completion of the trail and serves as a method of informing camp management of your safe return. Make your reservation the night before or on the morning you wish to travel. The trails are weather sensitive and advance bookings cannot be made.
Source: Wild Magazine