HEATHER MASON walks on the wild side through the northern Kruger National Park
Our tiny plane flew over the Limpopo River and neared the earth. I saw no sign of a runway. Then a small patch of sand came into view. I held my breath. As we bumped to the ground, impala skittered beside us and a warthog family darted into the brush, tails erect. A primordial baobab tree loomed in the distance.
The heat affronted me as I stepped from the cabin. I stripped off jackets and sweaters; soon I was holding more clothes than I was wearing. I had arrived in the northernmost corner of Kruger National Park – an area wedged between South Africa’s borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique called the Pafuri Triangle – to hike the Pafuri Walking Trail.
This three-night, four-day trip, offered by Wilderness Adventures, allowed me to step outside my comfort zone and experience Kruger’s beauty from the ground, rather than atop a safari vehicle.
Our band of six hikers and two guides met at Pafuri Camp, a luxury tent lodge perfect for relaxing and watching the crocs sun themselves on the banks of the Luvuvu River. But this oasis was just a meeting point for us. After a light snack, we shouldered our daypacks and received instructions from Brian Masters, our hilarious wilderness trail guide:
1) Walk single file. Brian goes first and Chris, Brian’s right-hand man, goes second. The other hikers can rotate.
2) Don’t run. Ever.
3) Don’t call out when you see something, but rather whistle or snap. Animals are spooked by human voices. (Note to self: Suppress my usual game-drive habit of yelling, “LOOK! A baboon!”)
4) Follow orders first. Ask questions later.
5) Get out of city mode, open your senses, enjoy the bush.
And with that, we tramped into the wilderness. Our first afternoon was a walk on the wild side. We watched romping hippos, cavorting warthogs, hunting lionesses, and a herd of bathing elephants. When we encountered our first big game, reality hit. I was not inside a car but on foot. And I couldn’t outrun a hippo.
But the animals paid us no mind and I already trusted Brian and Chris with my life. Besides, they carried rifles.
At sunset we trudged into the Pafuri Trails Camp, home for the next three nights. The camp is a circle of dome tents, chairs, a table, bucket showers, and a fire pit set under towering trees. The camp is moved every two weeks to lessen its ecological impact.
I took my luggage, which had been shuttled to camp by truck, into my tent and investigated the nifty “eco-loo” out back. (No peeing in holes, thank goodness.) My bed was a comfortable cot.
“How far did we walk today?” I asked Brian as we sat around the fire. I figured abut 14 kms.
“About 6km,” he said.
We awoke the next morning to baboon calls. (Unlike other places in South Africa, baboons pose no threat to campers here.) We were out by 6:45, walking off the morning chill and watching tiny owls through binoculars. Brian stopped to point out medicinal plants and pottery shards from times humans inhabited this land. In addition to being the most biologically diverse section of Kruger, Pafuri also boasts a rich cultural history. (The Makuleke people were forcibly removed in 1969 to make way for the Kruger Park. Although still technically part of the park, the land was returned to the Makuleke in 1996. The Makuleke, who comprise 98% of the Pafuri Camp staff, now partner with private companies to preserve the environment and promote tourism.)
By mid-morning we were all getting along like old college mates. A couple of us forgot our instructions and chatted at the back of the line. Then Brian’s hand went up and we skidded to a stop. We stood face-to-face with an enormous bull elephant. He did not look happy. His trunk went up, then his ears flared.
Brian spoke soothingly, keeping his eyes trained on the elephant while Chris ushered the rest of us away, slowly. We walked to the top of a small ridge, where the elephant checked us out again from below.
“Can he climb up here?” I tried to sound casual. No one answered.
After a heart-to-heart chat with Brian, the elephant eventually sauntered away.
Brian has been guiding for 11 years and never fired a shot at an animal. He has only lost three hikers. (Just kidding!)
The magic moments piled up. Sunset on a flood plain dotted with water birds. An afternoon swim in the river. Watching elephants graze under a full moon. Hiking to see centuries-old Bushman paintings. Sundowners above the Luvuvu Gorge, which is like a mini Grand Canyon. Glimpsing a pair of Pel’s Fishing Owls, one of the most sought-after bird sightings in Africa. Drinking from a juice box beneath a pair of 1000-year-old baobabs.
Looking out over Lanner Gorge, which is 150 metres deep in some places.
I experienced too much to recount in this short article, and Brian says we barely scratched the surface of what the Pafuri Triangle has to offer. Please, just go. But be warned: After the Pafuri Walking Trail, game drives will never feel the same again.
Heather Mason was a guest of Wilderness Adventures
Call them on 27 11 257 5111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
A few tips for the Pafuri Walking Trail:
- It’s a six-hour drive from Joburg to Parfuri. You can also catch a two-hour flight from Lanseria on Wilderness Air.
- No couch potatoes allowed. The hikes aren’t terribly long but the terrain is difficult.
- Bring snacks. Dinners are hearty but daytime fare is light.
- If you can afford it (I couldn’t) tack on a night at the beautiful main Pafuri Camp.
- You will see animals, but this trip is more about experiencing the bush than seeing the Big Five.
- Leave your phone at home. There’s no signal. Why would you want to call anyone, anyway?