Kruger’s seven wilderness trails are hugely popular but getting a place is not impossible. Here’s what you should know before you make your reservation. By Hlengiwe Magagula
Looking to take your Kruger experience to the next level? Then lace up your boots and sign up for a wilderness trail.
The words “wilderness trail” might conjure up survivalist images, but do not fear. By day you’ll explore trails made by animals in remote corners of the Kruger National Park, but by sundown you’ll be sitting in a camp chair by a fire with a cold drink, digesting a three-course meal and looking forward to a comfortable bed.
The concept of bringing visitors into parks on wilderness trails was pioneered in KwaZulu-Natal by the well-known conservationist, the late Dr Ian Player. It did not take long for SANParks to bring the idea to Kruger, and the first trails camp opened in 1978. It was named in memory of one of the first rangers, Harry Wolhuter (1877-1964). Such is their popularity that there are now seven trails spread through the park (see map). An eighth trail has been proposed in the Kruger plan.
Also read: On the Olifants Wilderness Trail
You can find a handy guide to what each trail offers in the autumn 2019 issue of Wild magazine. Honestly, whichever trail you pick will be a memorable experience. Bushmans camp is under renovation after a kitchen fire, and planned to reopen in April 2019. Olifants will be renovated from December 2019 to March 2020.
What to expect from the trail
If you’ve done the wilderness trails in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, you will find the Kruger camps a step up in comfort. After dining at a table, you’ll have a real bed, and flush toilets not too far. Once out on the trail, the experience is similar.
Walkers need to be fit for several hours of walking in often rough, sandy or hilly terrain. The rewards are worth the effort, as it is a rare and rich experience to be on foot in Kruger. Like other walks in national parks, it is not about searching for the big animals, although they are often spotted.
Walking feels like the right way to explore the bushveld – after all, we hominins have done it for a couple of million years at least. It is the chance to appreciate the smaller things – to touch a tortoise shell faded by the sun or examine a baboon spider guarding its burrow. Admire a tamboti tree scratched smooth by a rhino or a baobab sculpted by an elephant’s tusks.
A game vehicle is used to transfer guests to the wilderness camps, and it stays at the camp. This means that walks don’t usually start from camps, instead your guides will drive you to a starting point. This is to reduce regular disturbance to wildlife and the surrounding environment, and also means you will never see heavily trodden paths. The drives are a great opportunity to get close to wildlife that would be skittish or dangerous to approach on foot. As the roads are closed to other park visitors, it’s like having a private safari – no traffic jams if you spot some big cats.
It’s very important to listen to the guide’s briefing before walks begin. The five rules are:
- Walk in single file
- Stay behind the rifles
- Silence while walking
- Never run
- Obey the guides’ commands without question
The camps are fenced, but it’s still important to stay alert, and essential to use a torch when moving around camp after dark.
Five steps to booking your trail
1. The first step to getting on a trail is to check the availability, which you can find on the SANParks website. On page one you will see the seven wilderness trails, and will note that they depart on Sundays and Wednesdays all year round (except for a few weeks around Christmas, when they are maintained).
2. The minimum group size is two, the maximum eight. Note that since 1 February 2019 it is no longer possible to book on a per person basis. If you are solo or have an odd-numbered group, try and find an extra person to share the cost and the experience.
3. Hikers on Kruger’s Wilderness Trails need to be reasonably fit, as walks can be up to five hours in hot conditions. You have to be over 12 years old to participate. Walkers over 65 years old are asked to bring a letter of fitness from their doctor.
4. It’s recommended to stay in the base camp on the night before your trail, but as they meet at 15:00 and end before lunchtime, it’s possible to do them without booking other accommodation in the park. But don’t underestimate the travel time and arrive late. Check SANParks’ suggested travel time from the gate to the base camp and plan accordingly.
5. When you are ready to book, the easiest way is to sign into the SANParks site and book online. You can also email [email protected] or call Central Reservations +27 (0)12 428 9111 or mobile +27 (0)82 233 9111.
If you can’t find availability for your preferred dates, don’t despair: there are some good alternatives.
Firstly, the SANParks Honorary Rangers operate rustic bush camps, where you can enjoy a similar experience. The cost for a group of eight is R23,000 for three nights, including guided walks, but you need to bring your own food. To enquire, phone +27 (0)72 779 7728, or email [email protected].
Also, there are two private concessions in Kruger that provide escorted walks from tented camps: Pafuri Walking Trails, operated by ReturnAfrica, is in the lovely Makuleke Contract Park in the far north of Kruger; Rhino Walking Safaris operates in an area of thorn bushveld and marula woodlands north of Skukuza Rest Camp.
What to bring?
- A hat with a wide brim to keep the sun off your face
- Sunscreen – apply it before you leave camp.
- Comfortable boots or trail shoes
- Hiking socks, with special anti-tick and mozzie treatment to keep bugs away
- Binoculars are a must: 10×42 is a good size for walking, although 10×25 will also do the job and are lighter to carry.
- A water bottle or even better, a small hydration pack. The Terra-Firma Hydro Velocity is a good option, as 1.5L is enough for most walks. There’s a zip pocket for snacks and sunscreen, and side pockets for an extra water bottle if needed.
- A head torch to navigate in the camp after dark