Long to camp wild in the bush and walk along game paths? Kruger’s Mphongolo Backpacking Trail takes you deep into the wilderness for a four-day adventure. By Hlengiwe Magagula

Spring is my favourite time to backpack in the Kruger National Park. The bushveld has thinned after months with little or no rain, making it easier to spot animals, and stay safe from unwelcome close encounters. The furnace heat of summer, when even the wildlife doesn’t like walking, has yet to descend.

Or so I thought. Now here I was, on the first day of the Mphongolo Backpacking Trail, stricken by 45°C delivered in a hairdryer northerly wind. Thankfully, we hiked only a couple of hours that day. Our little group – six hikers and two guides – found shade and watched Bjinse Visser, our lead guide, toil with a little shovel in the distance.

For most of the year the Mphongolo River does not flow, receding to a series of stagnant green pools. Yet good water is there if you know how to find it, and Bjinse was imitating the elephants by digging in the sandy riverbed. After half an hour he disappeared, as the hole consumed him. Curious, and thirsty, I went to check, and when I found him sweating over a little brown puddle, my heart sank. He asked for flat stones and used them to construct a little circular wall in the pool. He began to scoop with his camp cup. Magically the water began to clear, and he triumphantly handed me a cup of clear delicious water – no purification drops needed, just nature’s filter, the fine-grained river sand.

Sleeping in the riverbed

The locations of the three Kruger backpacking trail areas are chosen on the simple basis of water availability. Olifants Trail tracks the course of the Olifants River, while Lonely Bull hikers do not stray far from the Letaba. Mphongolo Trail is the furthest north – the base camp is Shingwedzi Rest Camp – and is another level of challenge. It hammers home the life-giving essence of water. On the downside, there’s no chance for a cooling dip after the day’s efforts, unlike the other two. But the topography is more varied, as the river twists through ancient ridges of dolerite. These volcanic rocks, polished to a glistening black by aeons of water, provide perfect resting places along the way.

In the night, the wind did not relent. With our tents pitched on the riverbed, we were somewhat sheltered. The next day Bjinse explained how the animals do not favour these conditions, as every branch and leaf moves, making them skittish. They tend to retreat in the bush and hunker down. The wind also carries our scent and advertises our presence. We’d heard lion sounds in the night, and soon found more evidence of their presence – a freshly killed buffalo. We carefully followed the lion tracks, sensing their presence. While working through a meal, the big cats will not go far from water.

Also read: On the Mphongolo: wild camping and game tracks

Camping by natural springs

The weather swung like a pendulum and we were grateful. The temperature dropped by 20°C and there was even a spattering of rain on our tents on the second night. We stayed for two nights near the park’s western boundary, where natural springs bubble up onto a pan, bringing reliable year-round water. Rhino numbers in the north of the Kruger are lower, so we were delighted to spot one that day. It had been dehorned in an effort to discourage poaching. Sadly, we also found an elephant carcass with bullet holes.

Guide Bjinse Visser drawing attention to the tracks and signs left behind by wildlife.

It was a relief to explore on the third day without our heavy packs, and we ventured away from the river, into the mopane woodland. These low trees dominate the northern parts of Kruger, well adapted to dry conditions. In the sun’s heat their leaves close to reduce evaporation. In a clearing, we found a mighty baobab standing alone, its space respected by the other trees. A giant had taken a bite from its trunk, or so it seemed. In fact, Bjinse explained how the elephants like to use their tusks to remove and chew the fibrous bark.

Our group would be one of the last to walk here this year. In a few weeks, the heat would rise again, and bring rains to green the bushveld. That’s the season to walk in other, higher places. What’s wonderful about South Africa is that there is a park to explore on foot for every season.

Good to know

The Mphongolo Backpacking Trail departs twice weekly between 1 February and 30 November.

There is no prescribed route. The trails guides determine the way and where to camp in consultation with participants.

Hikers have to be fairly fit as they must carry their own camping equipment and food. No under 12s. Hikers over 65 are allowed to join only with a doctor’s note.

Biodegradable soaps and detergents are essential.

Cost: R3,128 a person

What to pack

Hlengiwe Magagula is the author of the Guide to Walking in Kruger National Park (R80).

Also read: Walking in the Kgalagadi’s dunes