Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Hiking the Mphongolo trail

Sometimes you have to park your 4×4 under a tree and walk the rest of the way because the terrain is too much to handle, or because the surroundings are too sensitive to disrupt with 18-inch tyre tracks. Apart from which walking is always the best way to get close to the bush. It’s why Anton and Natasha Schutte of Sunset Adventure Travel leave their loyal Land Cruiser, Elvis, at home at least once a year to embark on a hiking trail. Recently they gathered a few friends to hit the Mphongolo hiking trail in the Kruger National Park.

Our. friend and publisher of this magazine, Anton Willemse Snr, is a true adventure junkie, and all he wants to do is travel and explore. His passion for 4×4 vehicles and overlanding made it hard to persuade him to allow content on a hiking trail in these pages.

However, what makes this magazine so unique is precisely the variety of content featured, truly encompassing its vision of “your adventure, your rules”. And what bigger adventure than wandering through the bush on foot, walking in the tracks of elephants through river beds, smelling and feeling the veld? It’s the most ancient way to get close to nature and experience its richness from a whole new perspective.

Hiking always sounds like a lot of effort, but I can guarantee that you will be hooked once you have successfully completed your first hiking trail. As experienced hikers, who have completed some challenging hiking trails, we would describe Mphongolo as one of the easier trails (even though it is described as a “primitive backpackers trail” on the SANParks website). Some hikers believe that the more challenging the trail, the better the views – and this is often true. For Mphongolo, this is not the case, as the route is by far the most beautiful in the Kruger! An online article recently caught my eye and sums it up perfectly: “The sense of wildness and remoteness unquestionably defines the Mphongolo Backpack Trail.” Mphongolo is a four-day/three-night trail where hikers camp under the stars in the African bush, without a fence – just you, your friends and nature. What is unique is that if follows a variable route that is determined by the conditions and the abilities of those in the group.

After a two-hour drive west from Shingwedzi rest camp, the Land Rover drops hikers in the bush and the trail begins with a short two- to three-hour walk. We headed for the Phugwane riverbed, and our guides immediately started to teach us about the area. Anything can happen on these hikes, and on day one, we heard pheasants being chased from a tree by a leopard.

Hidden amongst a multitude of Mopani trees, this trail leads you to the north of the Kruger National. You hike along a few tributaries of the seasonal rivers right up to the confluence of the Phugwane and the Mphongolo rivers. There is no better way to explore the secrets of the Kruger, and I believe all wildlife lovers and adventurers worth their salt should try a hiking trail like this at least once in their lives.

The Northern part of the Kruger doesn’t offer much shelter against the elements, but it is a comfortable trail, and you don’t have to be super fit. Although you have to carry your own equipment, tent, cookware and food, the beauty of the Mopani bush and river valley makes every step worth it. The biggest challenge is the heat, since the mercury can quickly rise into the high 30s and low 40s, even during the winter months. On our hike at the beginning of summer, my smartwatch showed a temperature of 41⁰C and believe me, we felt it! The struggle is real – your feet become heavy, and the enormous Ana, Jackalberry and Hardekool trees become very inviting as a place to take a nap in their shade.

Watch and learn

Any seasoned hiker will tell you that water and good shoes are your most important hiking companions. We knew that the Mphongolo is a seasonal river, but we thought there would at least be a puddle for cooling down, washing and to fill up with drinking water. But no! Luckily our competent guides taught us how to identify areas where there would be clean water and very soon we learnt how to dig in the sand, like the Bushmen of old. To find water and master the trick of preparing the hole turned into one of the expedition’s highlights. After you have failed a few times, you tend to have more appreciation for the ellies who make it look so easy. Once discovered, the water is so clean that you almost want to drink it without using purification tablets, but it’s best not to – no one wants an upset tummy out in the wild! As with every expedition into the bush – be it on foot or by vehicle – we are in awe of the unbelievable wonder of nature. If you pay attention to the animals around you, and read the conditions at hand, you will be able to survive here.

What makes this trail so different is not having to walk from a specific point A to B in a day. Instead the group, together with the main guide, will decide how far to hike every day. If the group decides on a more relaxing day, the guides take the easier trails, ensuring there is enough time and opportunity to see and appreciate the smaller wonders around you.

Our guides – Heusten and Dennis – impressed with their remarkable knowledge and passion for the bush. They had us constantly guessing: which animal’s tracks did we see, which animal made their mark, and how big is the elephant judging by his tracks? We also graduated in “Poo-MD’s”. What is that, you ask? Heusten explained that as newly graduated “Pooh Doctors” we had become experts in knowing the paths and passage of different animals simply by interpreting their dung.

You start hiking early in the morning, and when it gets too hot to hike further, you settle in for the daily siesta under a big tree. You throw your backpack on the ground, prepare something to eat and then one of my favourite parts of any Kruger trail happens: your backpack turns into a pillow, and you lie back listening to the bush sounds echoing around you. Some of us take forty winks, others don’t – they are too afraid to miss something that could be flying or walking by! During one of these siestas, Heusten told us the anecdote of how the waterbuck got its name. Apparently, it was David Livingstone’s first sighting of this beautiful buck that had him uttering “what-a-buck” – and, of course, the Afrikaners once again translated it wrong!

As you are vulnerable out on foot, you have to focus and constantly be on the lookout. You never know when a lion is sizing you up for lunch. All your senses are heightened, and you become aware of every sound or movement. No squirrel’s alarm call or redbilled oxpecker’s sound is ever ignored: they are the tattletales of the bush, after all, and will warn you of any danger. Other animals heed their warnings, so why wouldn’t we?

The trail led us close to an elephant herd that was digging for water in the riverbed near our campsite. Other amazing experiences included stumbling upon a massive herd of buffalos and interrupting a couple of leopards having a spot of ‘sexy time’. We even saw a civet in the middle of the day, along with huge kudu bulls, big herds of giraffe, baboon, and many more animal species. As an added bonus, we were able to tick 85 bird species off our list by the end of the trail.

One of the highlights was when a herd of elephants surrounded our campsite, passing close by our tents. We could only watch in awe. If this was your first-ever hiking trail in the Kruger, the nights admittedly could be a bit terrifying. Eventually, however, these incredible close experiences are the reason you return time after time. On our last morning, a leopard appeared very close to our camp. We gently tried to wake everyone up to witness this special moment, but he vanished into the dense bush almost as quietly as he appeared. Tracks in the sand around our tents suggested that he had snuck through our campsite during the night. Thankfully no one turned into a midnight snack!

The experience of this Kruger National Park is hard to describe, but as Johan Bakkes wrote in his book, Reisjoernaal, “A hiking trail like this clears your head, and you get to know yourself.”

Important to know

  • A maximum of eight people and a minimum of four people are allowed per group.
  • You have to carry all your camping equipment (including your tent, bedding, food, cookware, water and clothes).
  • Participants will be responsible for setting up their own tents and for cooking their own food. Remember that you won’t be able to braai!
  • When doing this hike during summer, you should carry extra water with you.
  • No glass items are allowed.
  • A good pair of hiking boots is worth its weight in gold.
  • A head torch is crucial – it gets dark in the African bush!
  • If you are hiking in winter or the dry months, a portable shower comes in handy.

Packing list

  • A hiking backpack/rucksack
  • Lightweight tent & sleeping bag
  • Water bottles (2 x 1-litre bottles)
  • Cookware and cutlery
  • Small gas stove and extra gas
  • Comfortable hiking boots, socks and extra laces
  • Comfortable clothes
  • Warm jacket for the cooler evenings
  • A swimsuit (if you want to cool down in the water puddles)
  • Food and snacks (keep it light – remember you have to carry all your rubbish out)
  • Hat, sunscreen and sunglasses
  • Matches or lighter
  • Eco-friendly biodegradable soap and cleaning products
  • Water purification tablets
  • Toilet paper
  • Plastic bags for garbage
  • Insect repellent and malaria prophylaxis
  • Basic first aid kit (remember extra plasters for blisters)
  • Head torch or flashlight
  • Binoculars and camera (just remember that it is extra weight and plan accordingly)

CONTACT: +27 12 428 9111 |reservations@sanparks.org

CONTACT: +27 83 381 0964

natasha@sunsetadventuretravel.co.za

www.sunsetadventuretravel.co.za

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