11.06.2017 - 15.06.2017 24 °C
After a wonderful breakfast overlooking the Olifants River, we drove south through the park to Satara Camp. We spotted plenty more zebras, giraffes, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, lizards and even a few turtles on the way. It is funny to see the mixture of innocent, harmless animals right beside some of the deadliest predators on earth! Sitting in the safety of the car, we felt a bit sorry for all the potential prey, knowing that there are so many predators around. Then we realised that we would soon be out on foot in the park ourselves; a bit of a scary prospect! At Satara Camp we had a picnic lunch 20m (and the other side of a small fence) from several big elephants, who were eating much more than us! They consume over 130kg of food every day (which is heavier than Jonah Lomu in his prime), washed down with up to 190 litres of water. No wonder they spend 16-18 hours eating every day, which is coincidentally the same amount of time that lions spend sleeping!
Our reason for stopping at Satara was to embark on the three night Mathikithi Wilderness Trail. There are seven such trails within the camp, organised by the national parks service. The wilderness trails involve tented accommodation somewhere in the wilderness (surprise surprise) of the park. There are two morning walks and two afternoon walks out among the deadly wildlife, led by two armed rangers. All the food is provided, so we only needed to bring clothes (with a few spare pairs of underwear just in case of any scares) and booze! Turning up on the first afternoon we weren’t too sure what to expect. The advice leaflet made it sound like you needed to be a seasoned adventurer with supreme physical fitness, preferably with experience of climbing Everest or crossing the Sahara Desert on foot with only a tube of toothpaste for nutrition. Coming from the harsh, hostile and challenging environment of County Down, Northern Ireland, we were confident we could hold our own. It was a shock, therefore, when we discovered the rest of our wilderness buddies were a bunch of very friendly South Africans of varying ages and backgrounds. None of them had even crossed the Kalahari Desert on foot, never mind the Sahara! Esma (journalist), Audrey (physio), Gert and Estelle (farmers) came from the Western Cape, while Albert (financial advisor) and Anelenie (physio) came from Pretoria. We were also pleased to see that we were not the only ones bringing along a supply of booze!
After introducing ourselves to our wilderness trail buddies, and trying in vain to memorise their unfamiliar-sounding names, we were picked up by the two rangers who would be with us for the next three days. Ervort, the lead ranger, was a tall white guy, and Philip, the second ranger, was a solidly built black guy. It has been a bit of a shock getting used to seeing how tall the South Africans are after being in Asia for a while. I suppose it’s no wonder they are so big given the cheap price of meat here! It also explains why they make such good rugby players, with over 200 professionals currently playing overseas. We headed out to Mathikithi Camp on the back of the safari jeep. Not far from the camp we saw the grizzly sight of the hind legs of an impala hanging off a branch of one of the trees, the leftovers of a leopard’s lunch not long before! We were relieved, therefore, when we saw the camp was surrounded by a tall fence, with the uppermost wires being electrified. We were amazed to find the accommodation was much more luxurious than we had expected. The tents were large and spacious, with proper beds and shared bathroom facilities. At camp we met Hendrie, a friendly-looking guy who was camp master, responsible for cooking and cleaning. The first evening we had the first of many amazing meals, cooked on a gas stove and oven. Every meal was restaurant-quality, with the huge portions we have come to expect in South Africa. Thank goodness we were doing a bit of walking, as otherwise we would have been needing to be rolled out of the camp on the final day! The highlight of the meals was on the last evening when we tucked in to a traditional braai, the South African style barbecue cooked over a fire. After eating, each evening we sat around the campfire chatting and looking up the stars in the clear night sky. The locals affectionately call the campfire “bushman TV” since it is all the entertainment you need. Each evening, beside the campfire, Ervort (a very knowledgeable guy on all matters involving nature) briefed us on the plans for the following day. He also explained about the running of the park, including the water provision policy and fire policy.
Over the following three days we went out on walks into the park. The morning walk began around 6am, at dawn, lasting for around five hours. We ate a picnic breakfast out in the park, before returning to camp around 11am prior to a hearty lunch. We then had a siesta during the early afternoon, when the animals were least active in the hottest part of the day. By late afternoon we went on another walk, finishing with sundowner drinks out in the park before coming back for a delicious dinner.
The walks in the park were an amazing experience. The rangers walked at the front, with rifles in hand in case we came under threat from anything that looked dangerous. We walked in single file behind, trying to stay as quiet as possible. It is amazing how much sound we all made as we walked, even though we were forbidden to speak unless we had stopped somewhere safe. The sound of our footfall was enough to alert all the animals in the area of our presence long before we spotted most of them. Another amazing thing is how scared animals are of humans, even though most of the herbivores, never mind carnivores, could do us serious damage if they wanted to. We learned so much on the walks, with Ervort taking time to explain about all the different plants, birds, insects and animals that we encountered along the way. There was a huge diversity of life within just a short distance of the gate to the camp.
We particularly enjoyed the evening walks, when the heat was beginning to fade and the setting sun bathed the park in a beautiful orange light. During both evening walks we encountered herds of elephants tramping through the bush like they owned the place. We certainly felt very small and insignificant in comparison! On the first evening, shortly after seeing the elephants, there was a loud, menacing growl and sudden movement right beside where Ervort was walking. He leapt a couple of feet into the air in shock, thinking he was about to be devoured by a leopard. Instead, to everyone’s relief, it was a disgruntled porcupine who had probably already been disturbed by the elephants and didn’t want any more hassle! On our drive back to camp that evening we saw a group of female lions with their cubs. Having heard about the lengths that lions will go to ensure the safety of their cubs, we were glad to see them from the safety of the jeep! On the walk the following morning, we saw the footprints of a white rhino and a large male lion. Ervoort said we were very unlucky not to see them in the flesh, given the tracks were quite fresh, but we felt happy enough not to be eyed up as a potential breakfast!
Our time on Mathikithi Wilderness Trail will go down as a major highlight of a trip full of highlights. We were very lucky with our group, a wonderful bunch of people who were great company for the duration of the trail. For anyone considering a trip to The Kruger National Park we would highly recommend one of the wilderness trails, which need to be booked well in advance. When we booked onto Mathikithi in September 2016, there were already several trails that were fully booked for duration of our trip.
After finishing the trail, we spent our final night in Lower Sabie Rest Camp, which overlooks the Sabie River not far from the Mozambican border. We previously stayed beside the same river, only further upstream, when we stayed in Sabie town on our second night of the trip. By the time we left the park through Crocodile Bridge Gate, we felt that we had seen a large amount of wildlife, including giraffes, baboon and vervet monkeys, ostriches, crocodiles, turtles, tortoises, wildebeest, elephants, buffalos, impalas, kudus, hippos, porcupines, zebras and lions!
Lion paw print
The jaw of a hippo
March of the elephants
Evert doing some explaining
Philip keeping an eye out for trouble
Our wilderness trail buddies
Why did the tortoise cross the road?