Abandon the guidebook to Kruger and head out in a small convoy onto tracks less travelled along the Lebombo 4×4 Eco Trail, which traverses the park from south to north. By Romi Boom
We were lured by what lies beyond the no entry signs. We wanted to roam where few have travelled before us. So we signed up for the 500km journey along the park’s eastern boundary, from south to north, Crocodile Bridge to Crook’s Corner. A guided route, with four nights of wilderness camping. The anticipation was an escapade in itself. Meticulous planning and careful packing to ensure we would be completely self-sufficient.
Kruger’s treasures are famous: popular game drive loops, ecological diversity and much loved camps. But what happens when you explore the back roads of Kruger? We set out convinced we would be satisfied with beautiful scenery and a foray into the wildest part of the park. People said we shouldn’t expect many animals along the Mozambican border, as a result of poaching. That it can be demoralising to travel alongside a fence. That from a 4×4 point of view, the trail is hardly challenging.
On our very first day, these ideas were all proven wrong. The game was abundant, four of the Big Five on the first morning, only leopard being shy. We looked right past the wire onto amazing vistas of nothingness. One famous-brand vehicle in our convoy which could not scale a steep, stony incline had to be towed out.
That evening, the campfire ablaze with hardekool purchased for the trip, trail guide Trust Ndlovu (pictured below) got to know his convoy. Impeccable guiding credentials and admirable 4×4 skills were feathers in his cap, so too insight into human psychology. The real difference of this journey was revealed to us. Trust had the leeway to improvise, to choose his tracks and trails, to share specific places with specific groups, based on his intimate knowledge of the park. Each guide might opt for a slightly different itinerary, tailor-made to bring more pleasure to his party. No wonder the pathways did not look worn-out.
“I figure out what guests want,” said Trust, “and look for alternative routes, to keep it original. I have my own routes on a second GPS. There are enough management roads here to be able to improvise. Much depends on how punctual the group is, because we cover long distances. The trail must be managed all along the way. I try to incorporate some fun and around the campfire I listen to clients’ experience of the difficulty of each day’s trajectory.”
The seasonal limitations of the route and the dynamics of the group determine the route. Our group being small, four vehicles only rather than the maximum six, it was easy to get going in the mornings and make good time. Driving on roads less travelled, we felt very privileged.
It is a good idea to keep a journal on a trail like this, to keep memories vivid. It is so easy to lose yourself in an environment where the days are punctuated not by places or events but by the changing topography and vegetation. But it is equally satisfying to wander without the constraints of chronicling, to simply keep absorbing it all, day after day. The Lebombo caravan keeps moving, the pace slow and steady. Highlights were plentiful.
At night, the remoteness of the park’s furthest reaches, and the vulnerability of humans passing through, was accentuated once we pitched camp. We used the vehicles to draw laager, and shortly thereafter the lions made their presence obvious. The reverberation of throaty growls boomed from everywhere. The roars seemed endless, in the wee hours of the infinite night.
On a hiking trail, surprises are not always good. In the safety of our own vehicles we did not mind being startled. Amazements materialised from everywhere. We cautiously crossed water courses, only to be welcomed on the other side by elephant in the track. We hobnobbed with buffalo, their sorry bank manager’s faces just about peering into our vehicles. We were surprised by giraffe who would suddenly emerge from thickets alongside us, the ticks on their eyelids at an arm’s distance.
In my memory forever is the view over Nwanetsi Gorge, where we ate lunch high atop rocks overlooking the cliffs and the river bed, its water level disconcertingly low. Two martial eagles were soaring below us, adult and juvenile, with haunting calls to cajole and reassure.
From the Pafuri Picnic Spot, where the group disbanded, we made our way to the splendid and affordable Pafuri Camp (since destroyed in floods), in the forested part of the Makuleke Concession, on the Luvuvhu River. This part of the park is my all-time personal favourite. Animals abound and the spectacle at the water’s edge is never-ending. On our escorted afternoon game drive, we whiled away the dusk with a leopard in a baobab tree, watching the outline of her shadow deepen.
Our morning drive to the Mangala breakfast stop produced a mobbing of a pearl-spotted owlet by 13 species: black-backed puffback, blue waxbill, chinspot batis, collared sunbird, dark-capped bulbul, Jameson’s firefinch, long-billed crombec, red-billed firefinch, terrestrial brownbul, white-bellied sunbird, yellow-bellied greenbul, yellow-breasted apalis and yellow-fronted canary. Around the next bend in the track, against the yellow lustre of a fever tree, an African harrier-hawk systematically investigating the trunk for loot to rob. Birder’s heaven, indeed.
After a 4×4 safari, creature comforts are pure bliss. The safari tents at Pafuri Camp are lavish, with the extravagance of an outdoor shower under piping hot water. My last indulgence before our departure was observed by a serene nyala bull, the peeping tom hardly two metres away. The tranquillity was palpable. Life doesn’t get any better.
Called the “wilderness experience on wheels” and highly rated due to the diversity of the fauna and flora encountered, the Lebombo Eco Trail follows the eastern boundary of the Kruger National Park along from the far south to the extreme north. The trail starts at Crocodile Bridge on Sundays and ends in Pafuri on Thursday, around lunchtime. The trail runs from April to October. It calls for high-clearance vehicles with 4×4 capabilities, not soft-roaders.
Contact Hesther van den Berg at 012 426 5117 or send an email to [email protected]. Maximum four people per vehicle, maximum five vehicles per trail. Age restrictions apply and an indemnity form must be signed. For detailed information on the trail, click here.