KRUGER NA­TIONAL PARK

On the Mathikithi Wilder­ness Trail in the Kruger Park, a drum­beat an­nounces meal times and a scops-owl is your alarm clock. Book your place and re­dis­cover a time when hu­mans lived much closer to na­ture.

go! - - Contents - WORDS & PIC­TURES ESMA MARNEWICK

En­joy ele­phants, bird­song and Ro­many Creams on the three-day Mathikithi Wilder­ness Trail in the Kruger Park.

One of the trails rangers, Philip Gumede, is out­side my tent. “Time to wake up,” he says gen­tly. It’s 5.30 am. He needn’t have both­ered be­cause I’ve been awake for an hour or more al­ready, shaken from sleep by the frog-like kr­rrup of a scop­sowl and the rau­cous chat­ter­ing of some vervet mon­keys. A lion also roared in the dark­ness, way too close for com­fort. One by one the other hik­ers pop out of their tents and we all head to the “din­ing area” of the bush camp. Af­ter cof­fee and bis­cuits, the group gath­ers at the camp gate: Adri Visser, a phys­io­ther­a­pist from Som­er­set West; Gert and Estelle van Dyk, farm­ers in the Napier area; Ane­le­nie and Al­bert Smit, pen­sion­ers from Pre­to­ria; Char­lotte and Richard Mayne from Ul­ster in Ire­land; and me. Yes­ter­day af­ter­noon, we all ar­rived at Satara to do the three-day Mathikithi Wilder­ness Hike (pro­nounced Mathikithi), the new­est wilder­ness trail in the Kruger Park. Mathikithi re­places the old Metsi-Metsi Trail near Or­pen Dam. From Satara, a game-drive ve­hi­cle de­liv­ered us to a bush camp south of Satara, near the Nwanetsi River. We had barely driven a kilo­me­tre on the dirt road when Philip showed us an im­pala car­cass dan­gling from a tree. Hooded vul­tures, lap­pet-faced vul­tures and even a rare white-headed vul­ture waited in the nearby trees, but the leop­ard re­spon­si­ble for the kill was nowhere to be seen. To­day I’ll get to ex­pe­ri­ence the bush as I’ve never done be­fore – on foot. Ewout Ver­schoor, our sec­ond ranger, slings his ri­fle over his shoul­der and opens the gate. Let’s go.

Bush school

The full moon is still high and the dawn sky is cot­ton candy pink. We’re sur­rounded by bird­song, as if ev­ery bird from the small­est grey pen­du­line-tit to the big­gest south­ern ground­horn­bill has some­thing very im­por­tant to say. I can hear a bearded wood­pecker drum­ming its beak against bark some­where, and also the bub­bling call of a Burchell’s cou­cal. “That cou­cal sounds like some­one pour­ing wa­ter from a bot­tle,” whis­pers Ane­le­nie be­hind me. We’re walk­ing in sin­gle file and we’ve been told to keep our voices low so as not to scare off the an­i­mals. They’re used to ve­hi­cles, but not hu­mans on foot. “If we hear a lion roar, can you tell how close it is?” I whis­per to Ewout. “Im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine,” he whis­pers back. “It de­pends on the di­rec­tion of the wind and which way the lion is fac­ing. It could be 2 m away or 20 km away.” Hmm… A green-winged pytilia flies by. A buf­falo snorts. We fol­low the course of the mostly dry Nwanetsi River, un­der tall nyala, ap­ple­leaf and clus­ter fig trees. Even­tu­ally we stop at a wild fig tree that’s slowly stran­gling a lead­wood tree. Ewout is busy ex­plain­ing this phe­nom­e­non when Philip whis­tles and points to a pearl-spot­ted owlet in an­other tree nearby. Sud­denly two fork-tailed dron­gos ar­rive and launch an at­tack to scare it off. “Fork-tailed dron­gos are some of the bravest birds in the park,” says Ewout. “They won’t hes­i­tate to at­tack a raptor. I’ve seen a drongo pluck a feather from the head of a mar­tial ea­gle.” The owlet flies off with the dron­gos hot on its heels. Ap­par­ently pearl-spot­ted owlets hunt drongo chicks, so the adult dron­gos want it as far away as pos­si­ble. We carry on along the course of the river, past hyena spoor and por­cu­pine dung. (Did you know that a por­cu­pine doesn’t ac­tu­ally shoot its quills? Myth, busted.) By 9 am our tum­mies are start­ing to rum­ble and Ewout looks for a place to have break­fast. He finds a sandy spot in the riverbed and lays out Provi­tas, cheese, ap­ples, nuts, raisins, juice and sweets. If you’re a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to the park, you’ve prob­a­bly driven past the Sweni, Tim­ba­vati and Lu­vu­vhu rivers count­less times. Maybe you saw a nyala in the sand, a hyena on a mis­sion or a saddle-billed stork for­ag­ing on the bank. But have you ever sat in the riverbed, let­ting the coarse sand run through your fin­gers, with a clus­ter fig tree lean­ing in to lis­ten to your con­ver­sa­tion?

Af­ter break­fast, we climb up the river­bank. The birds be­come less vo­cal as the sun rises higher in the sky. But even at mid­day – when most an­i­mals seek shade – you’ll see life all around. A grey go-away-bird will squawk for no dis­cernible rea­son, a horn­bill will float be­tween

trees like a pa­per aero­plane, and spur­fowl will ex­plode from the bush like fire­works and give you a heart at­tack. The sun is good for the butterflies – they can only fly when their body tem­per­a­ture is suit­ably warm. We see or­ange acraea, blue pansy and African mon­archs flut­ter­ing around. We hike in si­lence. Our boots crunch on the sand and the grass rubs against our legs. Ewout is in the lead. He points to the side: three kudus. Like the im­pala and gi­raffe we saw ear­lier, the kudus are aware of our pres­ence and bound away as we ap­proach. The walk­ing isn’t dif­fi­cult. The Mathikithi gen­er­ally goes across flat plains and there are reg­u­lar stops in the veld. Still, it’s hot and we’re get­ting tired. When Ewout starts gath­er­ing wood, we know the bush camp must be close. Half an hour later and we see the tents peek­ing through the river­ine veg­e­ta­tion. Back in camp, some peo­ple shower, oth­ers sit down to give their legs a break. Soon, cook Henry Mthethwa beats the drum: It’s time to tuck into cheese grillers, ba­con, scram­bled egg, sweet­corn and toast. Af­ter brunch, the camp goes quiet. Only the res­i­dent star­ling is still on the hunt for crumbs. I fall asleep watch­ing or­ange butterflies danc­ing in the air out­side my tent.

An af­ter­noon with the an­i­mals

At 3 pm, Henry beats the drum again: It’s time for cof­fee and Ro­many Creams. An hour later and we’re all piled into the game-drive ve­hi­cle. The ve­hi­cle takes us north to­wards the Sweni road. The rangers park it un­der a tree and we all walk down to the Nwanetsi River, up the slope of the river­bank and past a shal­low mud pool. Egyp­tian geese honk as they fly past. We cross a grass plain and re­turn to the river. A fin­ger goes up: Shhh! Ele­phants! A big el­lie am­bles past. A few min­utes later, Philip points out more: two adults and two calves in the riverbed, about 50 m away. Cam­eras click like we’ve stum­bled

onto the red car­pet at the Os­cars. We turn away from the river and go back in the di­rec­tion we came. The sun is low above the tree­tops and the land­scape is bathed in a soft, yel­low glow. Sud­denly, some­thing growls an­grily in the bush close by. Ewout is on high alert. Is it a leop­ard? A lion? No, it’s just a por­cu­pine rais­ing its quills in the grass. “The ele­phants must have dis­turbed it,” says Philip. “Por­cu­pines are noc­tur­nal and it’s too early for this one to be up and about.”

It’s al­ready dark by the time we get back to the ve­hi­cle. On our way to the bush camp, we come across two other game-drive ve­hi­cles. And their spot­lights are trained on a pride of lions! The big cats stretch, yawn and twitch their tails, get­ting ready for a night on the prowl. I’m look­ing for­ward to a night tucked up in my bed, but first: din­ner. Henry has whipped up chicken stew, vegetables and coleslaw in our ab­sence and we all tuck in hun­grily. Al­bert pours us some warm­ing sherry. Af­ter din­ner, we gather around the fire. The scops-owl starts up its croak­ing call again. “I’m go­ing to put a rub­ber band around its beak!” says Estelle.

On sa­cred ground

The next day, af­ter the morn­ing walk, I go straight to the fridge for a cold beer. It’s July and the nights are chilly, but the day­time tem­per­a­ture still hovers around 30° C. We cov­ered some se­ri­ous dis­tance this morn­ing. Ewout wanted to find at least one of the Big Five to show the Ir­ish hik­ers. We came across fresh ele­phant and rhino spoor of­ten, and at one point we saw paw prints made by a lion, but the an­i­mals kept evad­ing us. To­day’s brunch is spicy mince with baked beans and fresh bread. Brunch is fol­lowed by a cus­tom­ary nap, and then it’s time for our fi­nal walk in the bush. Ewout and Philip will trans­port us to Satara at 9 am tomorrow, but

I don’t want to think about that yet… The game-drive ve­hi­cle drops us off un­der a tree again. We cross a gravel road and head into the bush in the di­rec­tion of the Nwanetsi River. An ele­phant grazes nearby and moves away when we ap­proach. We slip and slide down the river­bank. The land­scape is scenic and pri­mal: Tall trees reach over the river from both sides, their branches touch­ing over­head. The grass along the river­bank is lush and damp. Steam rises from fresh ele­phant dung on the sand. A courser jogs past and a hamerkop sits high in a tree. Some­thing about a river makes me feel like an ex­plorer. Maybe it’s be­cause you know you won’t get lost. Af­ter all, any river will even­tu­ally take you to the sea, and you should have enough wa­ter to drink along the way. We criss-cross the riverbed and walk through the quiet land­scape back to the ve­hi­cle. The air is crisp and the sun is an af­ter­thought. We sail through the dark like a ship and it feels like we’re the only peo­ple on earth. Back at camp, the table is laden with steak, chops, pap and potato salad. We’re all good friends by now and we chat around the camp­fire with glasses of sherry. Later, we head off to our tents one last time. Just be­fore I switch off the light in mine, a hyena gig­gles some­where in the night. You do a wilder­ness hike in the hopes of see­ing a hyena in the veld or a leop­ard in the branches of a tree. But just be­ing in the an­i­mals’ ter­ri­tory and see­ing so many signs of their pres­ence – claw marks on bark, pat­terns in the sand left by an ele­phant’s trunk, fresh rhino spoor – is a spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence. It makes you long for a time when man lived along­side these an­i­mals; when life was sim­ple. Kr­rrup! There’s that scops-owl again, and ev­ery­thing is right in the world.

NO WORDS. The rangers pre­fer you to hike in si­lence so as not to dis­turb the an­i­mals. Gen­er­ally, you’ll walk about 10 km each morn­ing and about 5 km each af­ter­noon. The ter­rain is mostly level so you don’t need to be Iron­man fit.

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