Makuleke Wilderness Trail

by Marie Dahl (May 2014)

When you tell people about what you’re about to do – walk among the wild animals in the African bush for 6 days with everything that you need on your back – you get a lot of different responses; Some are outraged and think that you will most likely be killed by a wild animal attack, others are fascinated and while never having considered it themselves the thought of doing it is now forever planted in their minds.

Let me tell you about my latest experience of a wilderness trail in Northern Kruger and you can judge for yourself.

On the border with Zimbabwe in the very North of the Kruger National Park in South Africa lies a wilderness area, where large pachyderms (Elephants and rhinos) roam the bush on trails their ancestors used before them. Here in the Makuleke Region of the park wildlife rules – without asking we are granted access as mere visitors in their home. Before venturing into the wild excessive planning has ensured that our backpacks are filled only with the equipment and food we need for the next six days. There is no room for extras or luxuries, as each of us has to carry the backpack for long walks every day.

When venturing into the wilderness a capable guide is essential. The guides who lead these sorts of trails are highly qualified and well experienced; they are armed and know how to handle most situations in the African bush. On this trail we had the privilege to be accompanied by the legendary Bruce Lawson of EcoTraining. A rugged looking man of insignificant height with a stern look in his eyes scrutinized our packs before we began our trek. Being a former military medic and well-known bush specialist with a huge riffle casually slung over his shoulder, his presence made us all feel like amateurs (which we were of course). He was an impersonation of a Wilbur Smith novel’s lead character and I could easily imagine him in a cross fire with the notorious poachers of the park. However, as with most people involved with conservation and nature in general there was a lot more than met the eye. Bruce Lawson’s number one method of staying safe in the bush is positive thinking, positive energy and respect! While introducing us to these concepts in relation to the African bush we ventured out into the unknown and into the wild.

Our first campsite was on the top of a small rocky outcrop above plains flooded by the seasonal rains. With darkness falling the sounds of the night replaced the birdcalls of the day; hyenas whooping, elephants splashing in the water and hippos grunting right below our campsite. As we settled in for the night we were in for a real treat – being far removed from any type of civilization and thus light pollution – we enjoyed the full spectacle of the Milky Way across the sky. Following a satellite’s slow pace across the night sky, I fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to a glorious sunrise and were greeted by the impressive baobab tree that had stood guard over us all night. The camp was bussing with everyone sharing his or her experiences of the night. We cleared camp and made sure everything looked exactly as we had found it the day before. The bottom of my 10 L camping kitchen sink said, “Leave no trace” and this was very fitting for our exercise of clearing camp. Every inch of camp was vacuumed for traces of our activities and while we did not remove the pieces of pottery left by prehistoric man, we cleaned up after ourselves – even picking up grains of rice from last night’s dinner.

The day was spent exploring the area on foot, slowly getting used to the weight of our backpacks. The previous day our guide had made us step across a “no time line” – a line in the sand that when crossed would leave all ideas of time behind, which meant we rested when we were tired, ate when hungry, drank when thirsty and slept when tired – regardless of the time of day. The only time is now – be present and be in the moment – forget about the rest!

Later in the day we sat down to rest in a narrow gorge and our guide told us stories of how he and his wife had had a narrow escape with a breeding heard of elephants in that exact spot. Very quickly you could see heads turning looking for escape routes and the feeling of being small and vulnerable crept up on most of us. Luckily, we didn’t need our planed escape routes and we climbed the one side of the gorge and reached our new camp spot right on the edge of a cliff. Here an incredible view over the Levuvu Flood Plains was competing for our attention with our evening tasks of collecting firewood and setting up camp before nightfall. Once again hyenas were nearby and vocalizing their characteristic call in the night. Exhausted from all the impressions of the first full day in the bush I drifted into a deep sleep under seemingly dancing stars on a liquid Milky Way.

Day 3 we took it easy and found our next campsite before lunch. In the shade under an enormous Nyala Berry Tree we all found a comfortable spot and had a good rest. The huge tree grew close to the Levuvu River Bank and water looked easily accessible, until our guide told us about the big crocodiles he had seen floating down stream. We had to be quick and efficient in collecting water, as too much disturbance by the water’s edge would attract the big beasts.

In the afternoon we made our way to the top of the cliff overlooking our idyllic campsite and we enjoyed the setting sun in silence, before we once again had to collect firewood and set up camp a fresh.

Waking up under the large tree felt safe and secure compared to our previous more exposed campsites… However, It was more likely thinking positive thoughts and radiating positive energy towards the bush that kept us safe. After enjoying a steaming hot cup of morning coffee by the river we slowly got ready for the day ahead. Our guide decided that we should stay at the same campsite, so we could have a day of walking without our backpacks. We took off towards the bush and for us the unknown. Different tracks were pointed out and discussed. Our guide impressed us all by showing us where a yellow-billed hornbill had landed, jumped and run in the sand – finishing of with rubbing its beak ever so slightly in the sand. There are so many stories written in the sand or on trees out there and I cold not help but thinking that the bush is like an illustrated book written in a foreign language. We can appreciate the pictures and enjoy the scenes, but we cannot fully understand what is happening until we have someone translate the writing in the book. Bruce Lawson is a master of the language of the book and he keenly interpreted page after page in the book of the bush for us.

In the bend of a dried out river bed – or so we thought it was – we sat down and had a interesting discussing about the bush and how to survive out here like people have done for centuries before us. Being used to turning on the tap, when we need water, the bush can seem like a scary place, when you’re far away from a river or a spring, but little did we know that the river bed we were sitting in was indeed active – just underground. We dug a roughly 30 cm deep hole in the bend and much to our surprise water started filling the hole. Bruce taught us how to utilize this water by using natural filtration methods, so that we could drink it right from the ground. When we finally tasted it, it had an earthy taste, but was as clear as the water that comes from our tap at home.

In the afternoon we followed footprints left by three rhinoceros in the hope that we would catch up with them and view them in their natural environment. Rhinos are increasingly skittish in the African bush, as they are persistently pursued by poachers with the ill intent of chopping off their horns. The horns fetch premium prices on the illegal markets and are shipped off to Asia, where the horn is used for traditional medicine. The horn possess no proven medicinal effects, thus an entire group of animals (all rhinos in Asia and Africa) are under treat of extinction for no rational reason at all. We didn’t manage to catch up with the rhinos that day, but were instead treated to the sight of a large herd of buffalo surrounding us in thick bush. We sat down in the midst and enjoyed the sound and smell of these curious creatures. Returning to camp in the late afternoon we were all in awe of the bush and so excited to feel like being part of it – if only for a brief moment in time.

Obviously we could not bathe in the rivers, as crocodiles were an ever present threat, so on the last full day out in the bush we were all a bit dirty (an obvious lie of course, as we were all completely filthy and stinky) and in desperate need of a shower. We were led through the bush, once again following fresh tracks of rhino footprints, when all of a sudden we were told to get down! and be quiet! We could tell by the look on our guide’s face that this was serious. We thought we had unknowingly bumped into the rhinos and it would just be a matter of seconds before they would storm out of the bush and trample us. After laying low for moments that seemed to last forever we finally heard what our incredibly acute guide had heard. Two men talking loudly and bashing noisily through the bush. Were they poachers following the same rhinos as us? Were they going to run or shoot, when they saw us? Our guide whistled a few times and the two men stopped in their tracks and began walking in our direction. All of us tried our very best to mimic the grass around us and make ourselves as small as possible. The two men turned out to be rangers on patrol and they were indeed following the rhinos – not to poach them, but to protect them. We all thanked them for their efforts in protecting wildlife and they went happily chatting on their way again. Relieved that we did not have to dodge bullets – the adrenalin and sweat of anxiety only enhanced our body odor; we were all stinky! Luckily the bush has an answer to everything and coming out of dense bush and into a clearing we found a spring spilling over in a small waterfall. We all took turns sitting under the fall and washing off the last five days of dirt and sweat. What an experience!

The last night in the wilderness was spent on top of a cliff overlooking the spring with the waterfall. As the sun set behind the bush that we had called home for 5 days now, the sky gave us a spectacular display of an array of colors any painter would have killed to portray.

Day 6 came too soon – Feeling refreshed after the waterfall shower the previous day I could have easily stayed another few days out there; tracking rhinos, finding water, dodging thorns, picking out a million prickly grass seeds from my socks several times a day, sleeping under the stars and listening to the stories of an experienced legend of the bush. However, the backpack that we had now come to think of as old friend hugging our backs was feeling lighter than ever, because we had eaten our supply of food, so it was time to return to the modern world.

As we walked into camp, all quiet and in deep thought most of us felt alienated by the thought of having a cup of freshly brewed coffee sitting in a chair by a table. We quickly agreed that we all preferred the rocky feel of a cliff with a spectacular view and the sounds of the wild to the so-called “civilized world”.