A WALK IN THE LONELY WILD
Kruger has a new backpack trail in the area between the Letaba low water bridge and Mingerhout dam. Kate Collins leapt at the chance to be one of the first participants on the Lonely Bull Backpack Trail. Pictures by Russel MacLaughlin.
Walking single file, my body froze as we rounded a corner and encountered a large elephant bull, mere metres away from us. The bull got as much of a fright and thundered off into the dense mopaneveld. This was not the first encounter we’d had with a lone bull.
A few hours earlier we’d followed a buffalo for a kilometre or so as it made its way along a riverbed. It took quite some time before it saw our group and when it did, it disappeared, a flash of black through the mopane tree landscape.
Robert Bryden, Conservation Activities Coordinator of the Kruger National Park and our guide on the Lonely Bull Trail, said hippo, elephant and buffalo were often seen on their own in the vicinity, so the name fits the trail well.
“Every step our forefathers took was thought through. Each step was taken with care. Like them, you need to think about where you place your feet,” Robert said as he briefed us before the trail. He emphasised that the trail would teach us to appreciate things a lot more. “We don’t know when we’ll find our next water, for instance. Things like water should not be taken for granted.” In true wilderness style, we would dig for water, filter and purify it. Everything that was packed should be a necessity.
Our stop breaks were chosen well, under large shady trees where we could eat, chat and nap. On one of our breaks we had a surprise greeting as an African hawk eagle swooped down from the tree above and flew down close to our heads, scanning the scene as it passed.
Walking in the late afternoon along the lush Letaba, the river was alive with activity. Hippos grunting, a buffalo walking in the reeds, a waterbuck on the other side of the river and the most gorgeous elephant herd sculptured by the afternoon light, each following one another in single file, much like our group. The elephants caught sight of something, most possibly us, and charged up the side bank creating a huge dust cloud as they went.
Robert explained that wildlife sightings differ greatly from trip to trip. “It’s like buying a lotto ticket. Each is a different experience that you can’t replicate.”
Fellow ranger Julie Bryden said you need to come with the right mental attitude. “Be ready to let nature give you what it thinks you need. Keep an open mind.”
We camped under a large jackalberry tree, a good vantage point and the safest place to be if something did come wandering in. Such as one of the many hippos we’d seen out of the water. “When there is little moonlight, hippos like to eat during the day to see better, they use their long whiskers to feel for food, much like a blind person reads Braille,” explained Robert.
When we didn’t see animals, we were aware of their presence. Aardvark and their burrows, leopard prints, a python track, the body of a tiger snake (sadly dead), buffalo, black and white rhino prints and some munched up leaves from an elephant, clearly dissatisfied with its contents. The smaller creatures were fascinating. A nifty sand lizard, caterpillars, mopani worms, and golden orb spiders, their webs adorning tree branches, causing us to reroute our pathway to avoid disrupting their intricately designed homes.
Even more than the animals, birds seemed to favour us. We saw a giant eagle owl, kingfishers, bee eaters, a grey headed parrot, bateleurs and river birds including black storks, spoonbills and Egyptian geese. The best part was trailing along after four ground hornbills for a few kilometres and listening to the distant call of a pearl-spotted owl.
Looking up we were surrounded by many different trees, from riverine forest along the Letaba to red bush willow and mopane trees. Later the trees suddenly became lala palms and at another point appleleaf, jackalberry and leadwoods.
We collected firewood in the evening for a small ambient fire. As we all noticed, it didn’t take long for us to adjust from city mode to early nights and long 12-hour sleeps. Most of our camp sites, chosen as we went along, were close to a river for collecting water and bathing. Using a cup to pour water over your heads is a superb way to cool off after a long day’s walk.
We spent our last night on a helicopter pad with a fence surrounding us. While most nights are spent in a tent, the fence around us allowed us to sleep under the stars. We counted as many as 27 shooting stars before we shut our eyes and let the insects sing us to sleep.
“This trail gives you absolute freedom,” said fellow hiker Julie. “Large untouched wilderness with bush as far as the eye can see. It’s overwhelming.” Shelly and Allard felt the same: “It’s nature at its best. There are not many places or trails like this where people can enjoy the wild.”
Early the next morning, we were awoken by a light rain. We scrambled for cover and started up our stoves for an early cup of tea to greet the day. Walking along the Letaba for the last time we spotted a pod of 28 hippos, all looking at us curiously. We decided to sit on rocks above the bank, the closest I have ever been to hippo. We did hear the vehicle coming to collect us, but no-one wanted to leave.
The Lonely Bull Trail stretches over four days, with departures from Shimuwini Camp every Wednesday and Sunday between 1 February and 31 October. The trail must be booked in advance and you have to provide your own camping equipment and food. A kitlist can be found at www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/tourism/activities/lonely-bull-trail.php
Cost: R1930 a person.
Minimum four people, maximum eight.
Minimum age: 12 years.
Contact: Bridget Bagley 012-426-5117 or [email protected]
Go online to watch our video taken on the trail at www.wildcard.co.za.
Source: Wild Magazine