Tracing The Luvuvhu
Patrick Cruywagen ventures to South Africa for the 2017 Defender Trophy. If you fancy the sound of it you can go next year for just £1200… and that includes Defender hire and guaranteed wildlife sightings
Patrick Cruywagen ventures to South Africa for the spectacular 2017 Defender Trophy
Wednesday May 10, 2017. Flying from London to Johannesburg on BA is great: it’s an overnight affair and you don’t cross any time zones. You take off at 8.30 pm, enjoy a meal, take a nap and then wake up in Egoli, the city of gold, also known as Joburg. My best friend from school and a former African overland truck driver George Borstlap is there to collect me. George and I have done many a mile together in Africa. He is cool, calm and collected while I am always thinking of the next bribe or border crossing. We travel well together.
George drives me to the leafy and hilly suburb of Northcliff, where another great mate and Land Rover fan, Aldri van Jaarsveld lives. He owns two Defenders, one a 110 Td5 hard-top and the other a 90 300Tdi, and a Freelander 2.
The day before I flew out I got a call from Front Runner to say that their Defender was in the workshop and that I would not be able to borrow it for the 2017 Defender Trophy. Fortunately I know one or two blokes in Africa with Land Rovers and Aldri was only too happy for us to use his Defender 110. He had only just done a 6000-mile family road trip in it to Botswana and Namibia, crossing the great Kalahari in the process. And you think that Scotland is far?
We had 24 hours to get to the start of the event and so after a brief greeting we got on with the packing of the Defender 110. As we would be spending some nights wild camping, we needed to be self-sufficient. Tents, fridges, cooler boxes, recovery gear, Mellvill and Moon chairs, a table and Biffs Big Six firewood and charcoal were all loaded in. Plus enough meat to feed a full Wembley stadium. As George was the smallest of us three he got the jump seat as we headed north on the N1, which if you don’t turn off it, will take you all the way into Zimbabwe.
After about 180 miles and 181 tollgates we head east towards Phalaborwa and the gates of the Kruger National Park, this nearly two million hectare nature reserve receives way over a million visitors a year.
After paying about £40 we can proceed into the northern part of the park; this includes our park fees and a night’s camping fees. Most visitors go to the southern part of the park as this is where most of the camps, facilities and animals are. I prefer the quieter north.
The Defender Trophy route is always a well-guarded secret and organisers only give participants the GPS coordinates for the start, which this year is just outside the Punda Maria Gate of the Kruger National Park and is about 150 miles north of our current position. It would’ve been criminal to travel all the way here without taking a short drive through the park.
Within minutes we see zebra, impala, warthog, vervet monkeys, a herd of breeding elephants and several bird species. After an hour of heading north towards our overnight campsite at Shingwedzi, a nervous impala darts
“We hit a slippery section and Johan Fourie finds himself in a ditch at the side of the road”
across the road. I see something rustling at the base of a Mopane tree; it’s a leopard and he must have been chasing the impala but for now he has given up and is taking a breather. We stop for several minutes to watch him rest, as a leopard sighting is something special. Just before entering the campsite a herd of elephants make themselves heard. The alpha male in the group has an impressive set of tusks; in fact they almost touch the ground. After setting up my swag in the fenced camp we start a fire to cook on. That night I fall asleep to the sound of soft rain on the canvas of my swag. Those are not the only sounds. I also hear a laughing hyena, barking baboon and some grunting hippo. I feel at home.
Thursday May 11: It rains virtually all night and as I have not set up my swag properly, I get soaked. By 5.00 am I have had enough and head off for a shower. We need to be on the road by 7.00 am as the meet-up point is 50 miles away and they have strict speed limits in the park. We pass a large herd of buffalo just before exiting the park gates. We are now in the Limpopo Province, one of the country’s lesserknown tourist areas. As we pull up at Copacopa Lodge there are Defenders everywhere. Time to get liveried up. There are 20 Defenders of every description taking part this year and five support Defenders, which makes for a impressive convoy.
The Defender Trophy event started in 2004 and the first event was held in Lesotho. It was a joint venture between Johan Kriek (who now runs the current event on his own) and Land Rover Centurion, one of most successful Land Rover franchises in all of Africa. For the next ten years (I covered seven of them) it was held all over Southern Africa including Mozambique, Transkei, Kalahari, Swaziland and Zululand. What essentially began as a tag-along tour for Land Rover Centurion Defender customers, soon evolved into a tough, no-nonsense competition, with a new Defender as the prize in 2013. The event then took a break for two years before Johan decided to take it back to its roots as a tag-along tour as he eliminated the competition element.
Before our long convoy snakes off into the unknown we are treated to a spectacular and colourful drumming and dancing display by the local Venda tribe. While the uninformed might think that it was Miley Cyrus who gave twerking to the world, in fact the Venda people were doing it long before that.
Within a few minutes of setting off we hit a muddy and slippery track. Aldri expertly keeps our Defender going in a straight line but the convoy’s tail-end Charlie has no such luck and finds himself in a ditch at the side of the road. A quick snatch has him back on track. We drive through informal farming settlements as we make our way into the Soutpansberg Mountains, which literally translates to mountains of salt. After about two hours we reach the southernmost gate of the Makuya Nature Reserve, which shares a 30-mile-long boundary, the Luvuvhu River, with the Kruger National Park. The gate is not for tourists and one of the wardens has driven here to open it for us. The summer rains have been good to the reserve, the grass stands tall and the leaves on the trees are bright green. Makuya is one of Southern Africa’s lesser-known wildlife hotspots and this is my fifth visit here. I like to come here because no one knows about it so the chances are good that you will have the reserve to yourself.
The reserve has incredible 4x4 tracks and some of them
are pretty rocky. Within minutes the call comes over the radio that someone has a puncture and so the convoy grinds to a halt. It does not take long to change a tyre when you have so many Defender experts in a convoy. We are now on a track running alongside the Luvuvhu River. A naughty elephant has pushed over a tree into the track, but it’s nothing that a few saws and loads of male testosterone cannot sort out in a few minutes. Not long after this the allladies team blow a fuse (in their Defender, of course), someone quickly finds the correct one and we are on our way again. Big majestic baobab trees stand tall on the many rocky kopjes that we are driving over and around. They are without a doubt my favourite tree in the world.
While the reserve is home to most of the animals found in the Kruger National Park we don’t have much luck with wildlife sightings, though many elephants have left pooshaped land mines in the track for us to drive over. About an hour before sunset Johan calls a halt on a massive sandbank next to the river. A croc hurries into the water while a hippo snorts in protest; this is the perfect campsite. Tonight I will be sleeping in a proper tent instead of in a swag as I don’t fancy being stomped on by a hippo.
Friday May 12, 2017: No such thing as a lie-in when camping in the wild as the birds are already chirping away from about 5.00 am. By 7.00 am the camp is packed up and
ready to proceed but not before a morning briefing by Johan. Each participating vehicle is handed a questionnaire which they have to answer and hand back at the end of the day. The questions relate to the area we are driving through, plus Land Rovers, obviously.
As the convoy leaves the soft sand the sun is already high in the sky. It looks like today will be a scorcher. Aldri and I agree that slightly deflated tyres are better when driving over the rocky terrain, so we quickly stop and do the necessary. On the long climbs his Td5 just purrs up in second gear low range. This is what Defenders were built for.
The reserve is truly an off-roading delight and about 90 per cent of its tracks are for serious 4x4s only. We stop at the Singo Camp, which is situated on the edge of a cliff, for a relief break. The camp has several luxury tents all perched precariously on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Luvuvhu river. From this incredible vantage point we can see a herd of buffalo on the plains below. A cool breeze blows over my face, offering a short respite from the oven-like Defender and outside temperature. George has proved his worth to our little team and has put together a rather marvellous spread for lunch. Our Defender is a vegan-free zone.
About 20 minutes after lunch another halt is called as we have arrived at World’s View. It too is situated on a rocky cliff with some rather incredible views over the Luvuvhu. The herd of buffalo have hardly moved. The plan is to try and cross the Luvuvhu later this afternoon, but first we have to bump and bounce our way over the hundreds and thousands of fist-sized rocks that litter the tracks we are travelling over. A nervous warthog darts across the track as we attempt another long climb. After a few hours we are on the banks of the river again. Johan crosses first and I hitch a ride with him so that I can snap the convoy as it crosses. We are not far from Mutale Falls so there is no chance of any crocs trying to grab me as I stand on the water’s edge. I still
feel a little nervous. To get to our overnight spot we have to exit Punda Maria Gate of the Kruger National Park, and park officials are a little surprised to see our large convoy.
They ask us for our park permits but we have to explain to them that we have just crossed the Luvuvhu and don’t have permits. A quick phone call confirms this. I don’t blame them for being a little nervous as the park has lost hundreds of Rhinos to poachers over the past few years – and that’s a real tragedy.
From here it is just a few kilometres of tar road to Awelani Lodge where we will be spending the last two nights of the Defender Trophy. There is nothing like a hot shower after wild camping for a couple of nights.
Saturday 13 May: While we have spent the past few days tracing the Luvuvhu river, we now head north towards the Limpopo River which forms the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. We follow what is known as the Mdimbo Corridor, a military-controlled area between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabweans have illegally crossed over into South Africa as they try and escape the economic chaos, lack of food and jobs. We pass several South African soldiers out on patrol on the lookout for illegal crossers. The soldiers are friendly and happily pose for pictures with us.
The floods have destroyed a cement bridge that we are supposed to cross but as we are in Defenders we just drive around it. We enter Popallin Ranch, a 22,000-acre private safari ranch. Its owner, De Wet Bezuidenhout, meets us in his Land Cruiser and takes us on a guided drive through the property. They are very lucky to own this piece of Africa bushveld right on the Limpopo River; it is like living in your own very own piece of the Kruger National Park.
The highlight of the drive is when we reach a large sandy patch right next to the river. Playtime has arrived. Defenders hare off in every direction as their drivers try and show off their sand driving skills. A few get stuck in the softer, wet sand but people quickly come to their aid. They say that playing is fun until somebody gets hurt and that is exactly what happens when someone snaps a halfshaft on the steep incline off the sand. Aldri has no such concerns as he eases his way up and off the soft stuff. Less horsepower and more brainpower, I say. We end up playing for a couple of hours before Johan and De Wet call time.
From here it takes us less than an hour to get back to the Awaleni Lodge but not before stopping off to see the white lions and have a quick beer on the banks of the Nwanedzi River. The last night on the Defender Trophy is always a festive affair and the 2017 version of the event is no exception. Virtually everyone gets a prize while Brendon Lowe and son Evann Lowe are declared the overall winners. They totally deserve it. Not only did Brendon expertly drive his standard Puma Defender 110 Station Wagon, he and his son mucked in when others needed help.
Sunday 14 May 2017: As soon as we wake up we pack the Defender and hit the long road back to Johannesburg after saying goodbye to those that are still around. It takes a while to reach the N1 south as we were literally in the hidden northeastern corner of South Africa. After about 300 kms and countless tollgates we arrive in Johannesburg. I greet Aldri and George and hop on the Sunday night flight back to London.
When the plane lands I hop into my car and head to the office. On the way there I reflect on the past few days. The Defender Trophy is nothing like the event of old: the tough competitive element is no more, it’s a convoy drive through some of the lesser-known 4x4 tracks in scenic Southern Africa. So if you want to drive a Defender through a special part of Africa then the Defender Trophy is a must-do.
Above: A giraffe keeps watch as our convoy of 25 Defenders slowly rolls past him
Above: Playing in sand on the banks of the Limpopo River was definitely one of the highlights of the 2017 Defender Trophy
Guide and event organiser Johan Kriek looks for a safe place where the convoy can cross the Luvuvhu River