They say there’s nothing to see in Nyalaland. A remote wilderness area in the Kruger’s far north, Nyalaland has plenty of baobabs – but less game than the park’s south. Yet on a wilderness trail in late spring we saw three of the Big Five. By Magriet Kruger
A wilderness trail is an adventure, a way to experience a part of Kruger that is off-limits to most visitors. Trailists stay at a base camp and head out twice a day to walk in the wild. Two guides (with reassuringly big guns) lead the walks; the guests follow in single file and in absolute silence. Talking would scare the animals away.
The Nyalaland wilderness trail was the first time I would explore the bush on foot. I had camped wild before, but game viewing had always been from the comfort and security of a vehicle.
The night before our trail started, head guide Christopher Muthathi asked us what we hoped to experience. We’d been warned that big game sightings would be unlikely on foot, so we talked about looking at spoor, plants and insects. Christopher promised to share his knowledge of the veld with us.
We set off at sunrise the following day, the sky overcast and the air cool. One of the first plants Christopher pointed out to us was Zanthoxylum capense, the small knobwood. When he told us that it was also known as the gin-and-tonic bush, we were captivated. As we crushed the leaves between our fingers a citrusy scent filled the air, a great flavouring if you forget your tonic at home.
Christopher has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the veld. He would tell us a plant’s scientific name, describe which animals rely on it and explain traditional uses.
Every so often we would stop and our guides would draw our attention to another plant. We listened raptly as Christopher and assistant guide Jobe Shibangu told us about the zebra tree, the wild cucumber, the apple leaf and assegai grass… Our guides had many fascinating facts to share about Nyalaland’s baobabs. Did you know the baobab isn’t really a tree? An enormous succulent, it is fibrous on the inside and can store several litres of water. Even when elephants gouge great big chunks out of the trunk, the baobab can continue to grow and thrive. These towering plants support a range of species. Fruit bats feed on the nectar of the flowers, monkeys feast on the fruit, and bees nest in the hollows.
The zebra-bark corkwood has pale bark that peels in dark bands, resulting in its distinctive stripes. Jobe told us leopards like to climb these trees to wait in ambush.
Christopher and Jobe were leading us along the river back to the safari vehicle when they stopped and silently beckoned us forward, gesturing for us to move as soundlessly as possible. There, in a mix of reeds and sweet grass, was the massive bulk of a buffalo. He raised his head and looked at us with soulful eyes. The sounds of the veld faded as we stood there watching each other.
Back at our camp Christopher was wearing a T-shirt with a magnificent picture of a leopard. Printed above it were the words “Nyalaland Wilderness Trail 2005”. So it was not that unusual to see big game – we couldn’t suppress our excitement. Our guide laconically drew our attention to the wording on the back: “No guarantees.”
No matter. Christopher and Jobe’s guiding was brilliant and we eagerly listened to their bushlore. They taught us how to distinguish between leopard, lion and hyena spoor. They explained the traditional and medicinal uses of plants. They pointed out dozens of birds: Verreaux’s, tawny and fish eagles; giant, pied and malachite kingfishers; bee-eaters and rollers.
The last day
On the last day we took another walk to the river’s edge to watch the sun set. Along the way we came across elephant dung. Our guides broke it open; it was still fresh. We had just missed them. We were scanning for birds when we heard Christopher’s characteristic click calling for our attention – he had spotted something. On the opposite bank of the river were two young elephant bulls, contentedly munching on leaves. We sat down on a tree trunk and sipped our drinks while the elephants continued grazing.
Our wilderness trail came to an end all too soon and we had to return to Punda Maria camp and daily life. But Nyalaland wasn’t done with us yet. We were rumbling along the rough dirt road when Jobe stopped the vehicle and in a hushed voice told us to look left. We saw gorgeous leopard enjoying the morning sun. He allowed us to watch him for a few minutes, then slunk away, his muscled limbs swaying slowly. “He’s saying: ‘Look at me. I’m beautiful’,” Christopher said.
They say there’s nothing to see in Nyalaland. But with talented guides and a bit of luck, we enjoyed sightings that would rival any big game safari.
Fancy a walk on the wild side? Click here to book your wilderness trail in Kruger.