Exploring the Kruger National Park on foot is a thrilling way to see animals. On a guided dawn walk from Skukuza we were spoiled with sightings, but our guide’s insights were the real highlight. By Hlengiwe Magagula

Not long after passing through the Kruger National Park’s Phabeni Gate, I was following a little white hatchback when suddenly its brake lights lit up. I stopped to check their discovery – and found a little herd of impala staying cool in the shade of a thorn bush.

As I maneuvered to go around and continue my way to Skukuza Rest Camp, I was reminded that everyone has a first time in Kruger, and of the novelty of seeing animals in their natural habitat. It’s something that the best guides remember too. At times it must be hard for them to keep their enthusiasm for sharing things that become everyday when you work in the park.

Early the next morning, I was lucky to have Elliot Nkuna as a walking guide, as even at dawn he was in a laughing mood, and keen to share his stories. This sort of guide knows that a guest can be fighting time lag, even a little apprehensive. Elliot takes your nervous excitement and builds on it. He knows people like the thrill of close encounters with big animals, but also has to be prepared for their lack of appearance.

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Guides Elliot Nkuna (right) and Pilot Nxumalo are a fountain of knowledge. Pictures by Denis Costello

But that morning, the wildlife played its part – and in plenty. As we drove to our starting point, we met a pack of wild dogs hunting impala, sprinting past the feet of bemused giraffes. Elliot knows this pack, who tend to stick to their territory near Skukuza. As our little group set off in silent single file, the sightings came one by one: a lone hyena, a little family of dwarf mongoose, a skittish steenbok. A white-backed vulture on its nest high on an acacia tree. When their breeding season begins in April, they seek out sturdy branches for their heavy nests.

Between encounters, Elliot made sure we were never bored, by stopping for micro-classes in nature. He showed us chalky white hyena droppings, explaining how to tell it apart from crocodile dung which looks similar. Other animals, like tortoise, will eat these droppings to gain the calcium, a little link in the endless cycle of nature.

We found many trees knocked over, roots exposed and recently chewed. After an hour we met the culprit, a large bull elephant. They love the nutrient rich roots. And I love elephants, but I love trees too, and it’s a shame to see a 50-year-old thorn tree toppled for a snack. He soon spotted our group, and threw his ears forward and gave us a stare. Time for us to move on.

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The stripped roots of this thorn tree show that an elephant has come calling.

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Seeing an elephant is always a thrill, but even more so when you’re on foot.

The best was yet to come, as Elliot gave us an exquisite lesson in tracking. Stopping to show us some rhino prints, he first explained how we could recognise them as those of white rhino and not the rarer black rhino cousin. Then he stood with the prints between him and the sun to get the best angle of light. He pointed out the sharply defined edges of the indentation in soft sand, and the colour change where the darker sand had been exposed. “This track is very, very fresh,” he said. We moved on, keeping silent.

In just a few minutes, as if by prior arrangement, we found her. She was busy in a dry riverbed, excavating a drinking hole. Something alerted her to our presence – a scent or sound – and she jolted and trotted up the river bank. She stopped to turn and look, then moved on, understandably grumpy. We investigated the waterhole. It would first have been dug by an elephant using its trunk. They prefer not to drink from stagnant pools, and the sand filters clean water for their needs – up to 200 litres per day for an adult.

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Elephants use their trunk, tusks and feet to excavate wells for drinking water.

We looped back to the vehicle, a happy bunch. On the return drive, we didn’t stop to view the impalas. I chatted with an American honeymooner, thrilled with his first experience of the African wilds. His bride was not well, and had stayed in camp, and he was wondering how to diplomatically tell her what she’d missed. We agreed that the best thing was to plan another walk for them to share.

Good to know

  • Daily morning walks are offered by most of the main rest camps in the Kruger National Park. They usually last around 3 hours.
  • Walks are guided by armed guides and no children under 12 are allowed. Each walk takes a maximum of eight guests.
  • Cost: R540 a person. Book at camp reception.

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