Slip Slidin’ Away
Words Marion Whitehead, pics Marion Whitehead, gallo/gettyimages
Pack rocks!’ As the call goes out and we spring into action, I wonder how many people can say that they’ve carried rocks in a remote corner of the veld in Kruger National Park to do a vehicle recovery. Getting stuck in big-game country is not everyone’s cup of tea, though for our company of ‘Wild Women’, it is the highlight of the Mafunyane 4×4 Eco-Trail in the remote north-west of the park. We’ve enjoyed two days of camping and picnicking deep in the bushveld, as the normal rules of staying in your vehicle are relaxed as soon as the ranger gives the go-ahead.
Considering our first two days out of Phalaborwa Gate were characterised by heat and dust, day three is altogether wet and wild. Rain overnight has turned the management tracks we’re driving into mud pans in some places, much of it as treacherous and slippery as Hades. The rain has not been quite enough to get the Mphongolo River flowing again, though the ground is sticky and a smallish donga on a steep slope has claimed the lead vehicle, driven by our guide Vanessa Strydom.
Once ranger Karien Keet has checked the area is free of dangerous predators, the all-female team members leap out of their Isuzu KB 300s and swing into action. Karien then attaches a strap to the Toyota and secures it to a handy tree higher up the riverbank to prevent it from sliding any further while we pack rocks and branches into the donga to give her enough traction.
Then Vanessa climbs back into her vehicle and powers up. The two wheels stuck in the donga begin to bite and the Toyota inches a little further up the slope. Karien takes up the slack before we pack more rocks and branches, then the process is repeated a few times. At last, the vehicle can get enough traction on all four wheels to roar to the top of the riverbank and there are cheers all round. Women are doing it for themselves! Only six more vehicles to go. Karien powers her bakkie through the crossing like the old hand she is. At the tender age of just 21, she was appointed not just Kruger Park’s first woman section ranger, but the first in all of SANParks’ reserves. Some 16 years later, we know we’re in safe hands with her around.
The overnight camps are unfenced and as close to a real bush experience in wild Africa as you can imagine.
Mafunyane is Kruger’s newest 4×4 eco-trail and offers adventurous bush lovers the chance to venture off into a section of the north-western part of the park between Phalaborwa and Punda Maria not normally accessible to the public, away from the normal tourist roads. Vehicles are linked by two-way radio and the anecdotes about sightings open up a new level of natural wonders in the park. The overnight camps are unfenced and as close to a real bush experience in wild Africa as anything you could imagine.
Our first night out would be spent at Nyarhi Rustic Camp, where the SANParks Honorary Rangers have set up facilities comprising a fireplace, two waterless toilets and two shower enclosures beneath magnificent trees beside a river bend. Normally, participants must be fully self-sufficient, bringing all their own equipment – including water to drink and wash in.
Bush camping in style, thanks to the SANParks Honorary Rangers.
But our media group was on the first trip ever organised by the Honorary Rangers and we arrived at the camp to find a fire blazing, a couple of fancy Jurgens Safari Xplorer off-road caravans, and some dome tents that had already been pitched. ‘The idea is to offer people a chance to experience a different side of Kruger,’ explained Dave Webster, the national vice-chairman of SANParks Honorary Rangers, which raises funds for SANParks and does vital environmental education. In 2015, its bush camps, such as those used on the Mafunyane Eco-Trail, were able to generate more than R1 million of the total R11 million raised.
The second night out, at Mafunyane camp, the setting under a stand of huge jackalberry trees was even more awesome. I woke to find rain coming in through the unzipped canvas of my cantilevered bed in the Xplorer. This was a soft and steady rain, the rejuvenating variety so welcome in the bushveld. Breakfast was a damp affair, but there was plenty of mud waiting for us to play in.
The Isuzu 4×4 KB 300 managed the obstacles and challenges of the trail with ease.
The Mphongolo River crossing catches us not too long after setting out from camp and it’s a chance to test our Isuzu’s 4×4 abilities. Ace motoring journalist Jeanette Kok-Kritzinger advises each driver on which line they should take; the vehicles slide randomly down the sticky slope while the drivers battle to line up a straight approach for the uphill. I think to myself that the Paul Simon song ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’ could have been written for us. The motoring journalists are pretty bakgat, though, and power through in their Isuzus.
Then it’s my turn. I’m in the manual KB 300 LX, which the others had all rejected at Phalaborwa when they found out the air-con wasn’t working. I’m more used to 4×4ing in an old Land Rover Defender and like to drive in the park with the windows down so I can hear and smell nature, so I was pretty delighted to claim the blue bakkie with its extended cab and immediately christened it Bluebird. But would my Bluebird fly up the muddy slope straight ahead? I engage low-range first gear and inch down the track.
The Mafunyane Trail allows visitors to explore some of Kruger’s hidden back roads.
Immediately, we slip at a crazy angle and the wheels point the wrong way. Jeanette yells instructions and I regain enough control to head for the gap. The engine roars and I hang on grimly to the steering wheel, feeling the wheels sliding. Somehow, we top out and I’m high on adrenalin. Last up is 4×4 novice Toko Ramapepe from Power FM. The mud has by now been well churned and she’s a study in concentration as her Isuzu slithers down one bank and revs up the other. She’s walking on air by the time she alights from her vehicle, whooping happily with excitement. We celebrate with brunch laid out on a table under a shady jackalberry tree on the riverbank, swopping highlights and pulling each others’ legs.
This is not your normal Kruger visit. Being on the loose in big-game country with a guide and ranger, to ensure your safety and to interpret the wonderful complexity of the natural world, is just something special to put on one’s bucket list, an experience that stays with you for a lifetime. And having done it, a trip to South Africa’s premier game reserve will never be quite the same again.
Good to know
The four-day Mafunyane 4×4 Eco-Trail leaves from Phalaborwa Gate at noon on Thursdays with a guide and a ranger in their own vehicles and traverses the area between the Olifants and Luvuvhu Rivers, with a maximum of five guest vehicles. The first two nights are spent at Nyarhi and Mafunyane bush camps, where basic facilities are provided: fireplace, waterless toilets and shower enclosures. The third night is at Shidzivani, an honorary rangers’ camp with safari tents. The 270 km trail ends on Sunday morning at the Punda Maria Camp. It operates only during the dry season, from March to November.
R6 000 per vehicle (maximum of four people, no children under 12 years)
What to bring
You need a serious 4×4, with low-range capability, for the very tricky sections and must be completely self-sufficient – bring all your own water for drinking, cooking and washing, food, camping gear and firewood. Pack binoculars and a camera – you definitely will not regret it, or bringing extra batteries – and remember to take proper malaria precautions.
Source: AA Traveller