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.
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.
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.