A little north of Shingwedzi in the mopane shrubveld of northern Kruger, a new four-day hiking trail opens up areas once inaccessible to visitors. Wild contributor Kate Collins got a taste of what it’s like to walk on foot and meet animals up-close. 

Ranger Andrew Desmet is tall and slim and so is his colleague Donavan Terreblance. Together they lead our group of five along overgrown paths towards our stop-off point for the day. It’s something we don’t plan. If we see a large tree or a riverbed that looks like a good camping spot, Andrew will say: “Hey, why don’t we sleep over here?” It’s this spontaneous, ‘camp down wherever’ attitude that makes the Mphongolo hiking trail in  Kruger National Park totally different from most trails. There’s usually a camp you have to reach or a predetermined stop-off point – not here; here you can choose and there’s no rush to get home.

We walk past a herd of impala and instead of dashing into the distance the herd stands still and looks at our group as if to say: “I’ve never seen you before.” And that’s just it; most of these animals haven’t seen people before. We are in a part of the park not far from Shingwedzi Camp but it’s a remote area that has hardly been explored. An impala in the group suddenly stands up on its hind legs and looks at us for a few seconds before moving on.

Even the leopard we come across acts strangely. Leopards are supposed to be elusive but here he is walking right towards us in the last of the evening light, scent marking along the river bank. It’s something Andrew and Donavan have never seen before and it baffles us for sometime after. Earlier three of the men on our trip had decided to have a wash in a stream in the riverbed. Six metres from the bathers, the leopard stopped, looked at them and crept slowly into the green foliage of the river bank. It’s an extraordinary sighting.

Later that night we dig for water, use a spade for ablutions and along the way adhere to the ‘leave no trace’ policy – an important prerequisite for hiking in national parks. Unlike slack packing, on hikes such as this you lug everything: your food, water, tent and cooking fuel, and you take everything back with you.

At the confluence of the Zari and Phugwane Rivers we happen to come across the graves of two Boers who were murdered. In possession of stolen gold they were pursued until found. Their graves still stand as a testament to the Boer War and the men’s notorious escapade.

After hearing about the graves that had previously lain undiscovered for 25 years, it’s time to see more animals. We realise that it’s best to be still as it is only when we make a noise that the breeding herd of buffalo on the other side of the bank spot us and thunder into the distance. When we sit quietly in the riverbed we are able to see elephants playing, using their tusks to prod at one another – their feet painting circles in the sand. We sit for some time watching them until they later pick up our scent and disappear. It’s a privilege to watch them and to see Africa’s beauties up close.

Tips for the trail

Here are some of the things to remember when preparing for the hike:

  • Make sure you read the guidelines well, don’t take anything unnecessary. On the hike I took too many clothes and too much cooking fuel and ended up walking with a heavier load then I actually needed. Take two gas bottles, you will probably only use one but take a spare in case. It is a good idea to weigh your bag before the hike and check to see what is absolutely necessary. Instead of taking more t-shirts than is necessary, rather take four – one for each day.
  • Take enough water containers. My small water bottle ran out quickly and as we had some distance to walk to get to water in the riverbed, a 2 litre water pack is recommended.
  • Hikers must take along all their own food and cooking utensils. I invested in a lightweight pot and stove that made my pack a lot easier to carry. Remember to buy foods that do not perish easily. Instead of taking tuna cans rather take tuna sachets and decant coffee, tea and snacks into packets.
  • Do some training beforehand. While the hike is not strenuous it does require you walking for long hours.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and take a comfortable backpack. I used a ladies 45 litre backpack – which was very comfortable and light and opted for a lightweight 850g sleeping bag from Cape Union Mart. The shop attendant explained that the tent can be shoved into the bag instead of rolling it up. Make sure your tent is also lightweight and in good condition.
  • Take a swimming costume along. In summer you may find streams along the way or be lucky as we were and find a hot spring.