Walk on the Wild Side
Words by Keith Bain, pics by Andy Nix, Gallo/Getty images, illustration by The Mark Studio
‘Stay close. Keep up,’ he whispers. ‘Please don’t lag behind.’
This latest instruction is accompanied by a sense of urgency; my pulse is racing as we unquestioningly pick up the pace, quickstepping in rhythm with our guides. My head tells me that we’re safe, we’re with experts; but my heightened senses have me on full alert, aware of every cracking twig and rustling blade of grass. It’s a wake-up call, a sudden reminder that we are in unfamiliar territory, trespassing on someone else’s turf.
Jaco, our lead guide, is earnest, vigilant, unflinching. Plus, he has two decades worth of experience. His natural wariness means he’s scanning multiple directions at once, eyes darting between our small on-foot group and the general direction of the rhino we know is nearby. Pointing to the ground, he indicates the obvious – that we’re on a path. Then he reminds us it’s not man-made: ‘It’s probably his.’
Rhinos are creatures of habit, so we may well be using his regular highway. He could come thundering through at any moment.
We’d spotted him – a white rhino bull – from across the dry Biyamiti River and then slowly crossed over, cautiously following a roundabout route so as not to startle our quarry. We’d assumed we would manage to keep his stout, grey torso in sight as we approached, while remaining undetected. But, when we arrive on his side of the river, he’s mysteriously vanished. A two-ton herbivore whose appearance has barely changed since the Miocene period, vaguely reminiscent of a rotund, dumpy-legged dinosaur – how did we manage to lose him?
There’s a mix of disappointment and concern. Our mission to spy on this lone bull has backfired, and now there’s a chance we may bump into him unexpectedly.
In the meantime, we are soon distracted as two more rhinos come into view. They’re a safe distance off, grazing in an open clearing. Triumph.
Traditional bush lore holds that rhinos have terrible eyesight, but this duo hardly seems short-sighted. They are staring directly at us, horns aimed in our direction like sights of a laser. It’s uncanny. Although their quizzical, prehistoric expressions suggest curiosity more than intent, they’re aware some-thing’s up, and they’ve pinpointed our location, perhaps nervous since they don’t know what we are. Rather than run away, they teeter along bravely for a bit, looking in our direction.
Just as we’re getting comfortably caught in the grip of this stare-off, all reaching for our cameras, something catches my attention and I glance sideways into the bush. There, larger-than-life, casually minding his own business, is the rhino bull we’ve been searching for. He has unwittingly snuck up on us.
My already-clenched butt cheeks tighten with a vacuum seal, my breathing ceasing as I stand frozen, totally silent.
He’s a solid, natural bulldozer, capable of flattening us all with a few determined strides. Nevertheless, he’s utterly unthreatening, all fluttering eyelashes and nimble, grass-hoovering lips. He seems a gentle giant, content to be left alone, munching quietly on whatever’s underfoot.
Besides, the counter-intuitive part of my brain is telling me this is the apogee of being on safari – it’s just me, beast and bush. I want to hang on to the moment, even as a million thoughts start battling it out in my head.
It’s a seismic shift, forgetting about anything even marginally urban and journeying into the wild. Just turning off the tarred roads, leaving behind the Kruger’s regular traffic, is breathtaking. Only a fraction of the park’s sprawling 2 million ha is developed and visible from its roads and rest camps – the remainder is untouched wilderness.
And here we are: a tiny group of urban escapees, off-grid and off-line, for a weekend of glamping and guided bush walks at Jock Explorer Camp, in one of Kruger’s private concessions. Even before arriving (on foot) at our camp, we’d seen buffalo and witnessed a herd of elephants investigating the vegetation around our riverside tents, which had been set up only the day before. And through the night, it’s only deep sleep on immensely comfortable beds that keeps the myriad unfamiliar sounds at bay.
We’d set off at dawn, stirred not by the usual safari wake-up call or rap on the door (our walls are canvas, after all), but, instead, a heartily voiced ‘knock, knock’ from outside the butler-style zip-up entrance through which staff access the open-air bathroom, delivering hot water for a quick wash. Then there’s coffee in the dining tent, before we’re assembled for a safety briefing.
‘We’re not cowboys,’ Jaco insists. ‘When we say, “Stand still”, we mean it.
‘If a dangerous animal approaches, don’t run,’ he warns. ‘First, we’ll try scaring it off.’
With no vehicles to climb into, we fill our water flasks, check our cameras and set off, single file, marching gingerly behind Jaco and Dumi, each of us hoping there’ll be no need for the rifles slung over their shoulders. Within moments, we’ve left behind all traces of our canvas quarters and are pursuing whatever fate may throw at us as we secretly compose mental wish lists of animals we’d most like to see.
Unlike being on a game drive, though, we’re reliant solely on signals from the bush – with no radio messages streaming in from other rangers, we’re compelled to be completely self-sufficient. It is an exercise in awareness, steadily tuning in to whatever information the bush provides or – more accurately – whatever clues our guides unearth.
It’s like having a personal pair of David Attenboroughs with us, their knowledge covering the nitty-gritty details of even the most unexpected fragments of life: how spiders colonise new habitats by hitching long-distance rides on jet streams and how female bagworms build cocoons encased in an armour of tiny sticks.
Soon, we’re watching Jaco ripping apart a handful of fresh, steaming rhino dung, offering each of us a whiff.
‘Not bad,’ says a fellow guest, who sticks her nose in as though we’re at a wine-tasting event. ‘Earthy. Musty.’
‘Grassy,’ I think to myself. ‘Very young indeed.’
Jaco explains the significance of the white rhino bull’s midden to us: ‘It’s the prehistoric equivalent of Facebook,’ he says, telling how the dominant bull not only claims first dumping rights on these territorial dung heaps, but that he also has a specialised defecation technique. He reverses into the midden and then kicks open his dung to get the scent on his feet so he can further spread his gospel as he moves around the area.
Plus, there’s an elaborate toilet protocol bestowing a hierarchy on every rhino in the bull’s domain. Besides encoding the rhinos’ social network, the dung heap is also an intricate ecosystem in which larvae, beetles and fungi thrive, only to become a buffet for insects, birds and rodents.
While Jaco explains all of this Dumi is quietly standing sentinel, keeping a sharp ear.
‘Listen,’ he says, referring to a faint, distant rumble. ‘Lion!’
This grabs our attention and we stand with our ears pricked, trying to home in on any hint that we may, in fact, track down a carnivore.
But, instead, we’ve snuck up on this rhino, or he’s inadvertently snuck up on us, and right now I am grappling with how to attract Jaco’s attention with as little fuss as possible.
Fortunately, a dilemma that feels as if it might last a lifetime is quickly laid to rest. Jaco recognises my silent, urgent hand signals, and leads us quickly out of harm’s way.
My intimate moment with the rhino bull is over and for a brief instant I’m filled with regret – could there have been any harm in just watching him for just a while longer?
And just then I remember a vital warning delivered during Jaco’s early-morning briefing: ‘The only predictable thing about a wild animal is that it is entirely unpredictable.’
GOOD TO KNOW
Jock Explorer Camp
Carefully balancing rusticity and comfort, Explorer Camp is a dedicated walking-safari base with three campaign-style fly tents set within an unfenced, untamed area alongside Kruger’s Biyamiti River. Walks happen deep within a 6 000ha concession used exclusively by Jock Safari Lodge, so it’s a million miles from the tourist bustle, with true wilderness credentials. There’s no electricity, no cellphone signal and not a single permanent structure.
Safaris run April through October over weekends, making it a convenient break from the city – two days out here will recharge your batteries and restore your soul. Guided walks with armed rangers are complemented by low-tech luxury: blow-out meals produced in a miraculous bush kitchen and attention to details, such as a hot-water bottle tucked under the sheets at night. And evenings spent around the campfire will steel you for the moments when you’re close enough to the inhabitants to hear rhinos breathe.
041 509 3000 [email protected] www.jocksafarilodge.com
Jock Explorer Camp costs R5 600 pps for two nights
The quickest way of escaping the urban rush is to hop on a plane. Airlink has daily flights from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg direct to Nelspruit (one hour from Kruger’s Malelane gate, which is around 45 minutes from Jock). You can also fly to the park directly from Livingstone in Zambia, or from Kasane and Maun in Botswana via Joburg, connecting the safari dots in as little time as possible.
More great walking safaris
Rhino Walking Safaris
Situated in another of Kruger’s large private concessions, this outfit shares a border with the famed MalaMala Game Reserve. You can start the day with a four-hour walk in the bush, then enjoy an afternoon game drive, followed by another, hour-long walk. You can also spend the night at one of the open-air, raised decks, set up with mattresses and mosquito nets so you can sleep beneath the stars. The decks are rustic, with no modern amenities, but they overlook a waterhole popular with elephant and rhino.
011 467 1886, [email protected] www.isibindi.co.za
Three-night walking safaris start from R9 145 pps
The Kruger National Park offers a number of guided day walks, as well as overnight Wilderness Trails (sleeping in catered huts or tents) and more rough-and-ready Back Packing Trails, where you carry your own gear and camp in wilderness areas within the park. If you don’t mind lugging your own tent and supplies, these walking trails are true unplugged adventures, in groups of no more than eight people, accompanied by armed rangers. There are a number of options, including the physically testing Olifants River Trail, during which you cover 42 km over four intense days, with strict no-trace camping; and the four-day Mphongolo Trail, which is as wild as you can get.
012 428 9111 (central reservations) [email protected] www.sanparks.co.za
Back Pack Trails are from R2 050 pp, Wilderness Trails are from R3 900 pp
Ngala Private Game Reserve
On Kruger’s western border, Ngala is home to one of Africa’s most lavish tented camps. In an unfenced location on the banks of the Timbavati River, fit-for-royalty pampering goes hand-in-hand with breathtaking on-foot animal tracking with expert guides.
011 809 4300, [email protected] www.andbeyondafrica.com
From R4 800 pps per night
iMfolozi Wilderness Trails
KwaZulu-Natal’s pristine 35 000 ha iMfolozi wilderness area is set within the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park with its great conservation history (this is where the white rhino was brought back from the brink of extinction). It remains a one-of-a-kind destination for walking safaris, affording visitors perhaps the best possible rhino tracking anywhere in the world.
033 845 1067 (central reservations)
[email protected], www.ekznw.co.za
Trails are from R2 290 pp for a four-night, back-to-basics Primitive Trail
Follow these online adventurers to get yourself psyched up for your walking safari – or any bush experience for that matter:
@RangerDiaries Subscribe to this feed to get regular updates live from the field, through the eyes and ears of the extraordinary men and women who call the African bush their office. Some of the stories are incredible, and the website has heaps of useful information, including tips for walking in the wild, compiled by the people who understand the environment best.
@WildAfricaLive Check out this handle to share wildlife sightings in real time, or visit the website and tag your finds where others can see them on an inter-active, zoomable map of Africa (there’s also a mobile app). It’s potentially addictive.
@GameSpotters Let other followers know where and when you’ve caught sight of what with this hashtag-intensive handle.
Source: AA Traveller