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Take 16 women and five new 4x4s into the Kruger National Park for four days. What do you get? One unforgettable adventure. By Magriet Kruger

When the new Isuzu KB 300 4x4s lined up at Kruger’s Phalaborwa Gate on 24 November 2016 for the Mafunyane Eco-Trail, the drivers and passengers weren’t what you might have expected. Instead of rugged leather boots, pretty summer sandals tested the pedals. Tangerine nails drummed on the steering wheel. Wisps of long hair trailed out of open windows.

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New Isuzu KB 300 4x4s line up on the Mafunyane Eco-Trail. The automatic transmission proved a blessing on some of the 4×4 challenges.

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Ready to set out and everything in pristine condition. No dust, no mud… but that would soon change.

For the official launch of the new multi-day 4×4 trail, SANParks had gathered a group of female journalists to test out the adventure. “Yes, it is a departure of sorts, but SANParks has a mission to connect to society, to get all South Africans to enjoy time in nature,” explained Joep Stevens, General Manager: Strategic Tourism Services. “That means reaching out to people who wouldn’t previously have considered this type of holiday in the national parks.”

Among our group of 16 women there were some who had never been to the Kruger National Park. There were some who had never gone camping. And a few who had never driven a 4×4. Would they enjoy the experience?

Getting a taste for adventure

Mafunyane is labelled an eco-trail because the focus is on appreciating the environment rather than technical driving. Soon after leaving Phalaborwa Gate, our two-way radios crackled to life. Our guide, Vanessa Strydom, pointed out the termite mounds we were driving past. “On an aerial photo, you’ll see this region of the park is totally dotted with them. Did you know the mound is climate controlled? A vent at the top can be opened to let warm air escape,” she explained. “On a winter’s morning you’ll often see hornbills warming their wings over one.”

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Vanessa Strydom, SANParks manager of conservation interpretation and support, briefs the women on what to expect.

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We had several good sightings of buffalo on the trail.

Thanks to Vanessa’s lively commentary, the time flew as the Isuzus ate up 42km of dirt road to our first overnight stop, a clearing under some tall apple-leaf trees. That evening we heard a cough. “Lion.”

I scooted my camping chair closer to the flames and noted with reassurance the rifles of our guides – Vanessa and Karien Keet, the park’s first female section ranger.

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Time to relax and appreciate the beauty of the bush is what makes an eco-trail so special.

The next morning we got up early to cover 120km to Mafunyane, an unfenced camp named after one of Kruger’s great tuskers. Much of the day was spent driving through mopane veld where we saw plenty of evidence of ellies: spoor the size of dinner plates, broken tree branches, steaming dung. We rounded a corner and there they were, a large herd of elephants leisurely crossing the track. We watched for several minutes before the bush swallowed them up.

If anything, our site that evening was even more beautiful than the previous one, with sunlight filtering through a stand of mature tamboti trees. We settled on a conveniently placed tree trunk and toasted our good fortune.

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Unwinding at Mafunyane, an unfenced camp that lies to the west of Shingwedzi Rest Camp.

Slip sliding away

During the night I woke to the soft patter of rain on the canvas. It was still raining the next morning when we set off, going slowly to keep from sliding in the thick mud. The entire bush seemed to sigh with relief, drinking in the rain after months of drought. A giant African land snail slid alongside our convoy, large enough to fill the palm of your hand. “Listen, a woodland kingfisher,” said Vanessa over the radio. “People say they herald the rain, and it’s true we first heard them two days ago.”

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It was while we were crossing a still dry tributary of the Mphongolo River that things got interesting. A vehicle slid in the mud on the slope, stopping perilously close to a donga. Our guides immediately leapt into action. Karien secured the 4×4 to a tree while Vanessa directed us to pack stones behind the wheels. Would it work? The ignition sparked, the wheels turned… and gained traction. We’d done it! Under the guidance of the rangers and the instruction of the motoring journalists in our group, all our vehicles made it through.

We were still reliving the excitement when we got to our final stop, Shidzivane, a stunning unfenced camp overlooking the Luvuvhu River. As it grew dark, flashes of light flared up over the river. We grew silent and watched the fireflies send their love signals into the night.  A bewitching sight and a fitting end to an absolutely magical trail.

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Driving a 4×4 sure works up an appetite!

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Rugged leather boots make way for summer sandals and painted nails.

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A slightly different take on essential tools.

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The gorgeous river view at Shidzivane, the last overnight stop.

About the trail

The Mafunyane 4×4 Eco-Trail is a four-day three-night adventure in the north-western section of the Kruger National Park. The trail departs from Phalaborwa Gate every Thursday at 12:00 during the dry season (1 March to 30 November). You have to drive your own 4×4 vehicle, loaded with supplies for the duration of the trip, including water and firewood. Nights are spent in unfenced camps located in beautiful spots in the bush. Although each campsite has a firepit, enviro-toilet and shower cubicle, you have to set up your own sleeping quarters and boil water for your shower.

Rates for 2017: R6,000 per vehicle (maximum four people)

For more information, email Tshepo Mathebula.

Book with SANParks Central Reservations on +27 (012) 428 9111 or [email protected].

About the vehicles

Wild completed the Mafunyane 4×4 Eco-Trail in an Isuzu KB 300 double cab. The suspension ensured a comfortable ride across some bumpy track, while the automatic transmission makes 4×4 challenges easier to handle – and reduces wear and tear. With leather seats that are electronically adjustable, we found ourselves in the perfect viewing position on Kruger’s roads. The Isuzu also comes with a raft of safety features – like brake assist, anti-lock braking system and six airbags – to keep you safe on the considerably more dangerous roads outside the park.

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About the camping equipment

We bedded down in comfort, thanks to tents and caravans made available by Campworld. The first night I slept in a Howling Moon dome tent, large enough to stand up in and plenty of space for gear. The next night was spent in a Jurgens Safari Xplorer, an off-road caravan that can sleep four people comfortably. I didn’t get to use the pull-out kitchen with gas stove, but the hot-water shower in the outside cubicle was pure bliss!

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The support team

Wild would like to thank the SANParks and SANParks Honorary Rangers support team for their professional hosting and for looking after all the Wild Women on the Mafunyane 4×4 Eco-Trail.