“Everyone get behind the marula – now!” shouted our guide. The buffaloes were coming. They say your life flashes before your eyes during such events. I do not recall this. What flashed before my eyes were, amongst others, an ill-positioned but suitably named wag-‘n-bietjie thorn bush, an anonymous man in his prime shamelessly leaving his fallen fiancé behind, and a jumbled herd of hikers hastily exercising preservation of the self. Incidents such as these can provide entertainment, excitement, adrenaline, or agony to hikers doing any of the guided backpack trails in the Kruger National Park, depending on your outlook on such things. They surely make for exciting stories afterward of just how you managed to survive the African Bush. But this is not such a story.

Kruger backpack trails are about much more than adrenaline-inducing elephant charges. Having done quite a few, but not nearly enough, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between specific trails. Memories seem to merge into a labyrinth of sights, sounds and smells like the confluence of braided river tributaries. These memories are weaved together in a rocky grid of trail routines – the whens, whats, and hows that might outline any of these bushveld adventures.

After hurriedly packing the previous evening, we finally look northeast and make a beeline for the hallowed gates of Kruger. Upon arrival we meander slowly toward the rest camp where we will meet the guides. With my invariably misjudged time-planning, we end up testing the speed limits to be on time and meet half the group already loaded and waiting on the bakkie with the guides. As we load our kit into the trailer, our guide chuckles dryly and advises that we can leave the tents behind for this trail. No problem – after all, what is life insurance there for? The drive to the drop-off spot is filled with the excitement of new adventure, premature campfire stories, and a general discussion about who is the group’s slowest runner.  

The afternoon silence of the mopane veld deafens our ears upon being dropped off in the middle of nowhere. We adjust our packs and receive instruction in the matter from the guide. The walk-in may be sobering, the like of which is natural when a heavy pack combines with office-bound fitness levels and mercury pushing north of 40°C. It may also be amusing, such as when the guide is clearly lost and needs to maintain face so early in the trail. Most of all, the walk-in settles your rhythm. You eventually stop fiddling, and your busy thoughts slowly make way for an emptiness filled only with your senses and the next step.


Setting up the first camp can be an unnerving affair for the uninitiated. No fences, running water, or loos? While a small fire keeps the beasts at bay, we prepare dinner. The first-timers are known by their 2-minute noodles. The old hands know that night one means red meat, couscous, pepper sauce and chocolate for desert. Guides pleasantly make small talk, looking bravely enthusiastic when someone asks the inevitable “what close-shaves have you had on trail?” Those wishing to savour the bush night cannot wait for everyone to test their K-Way mattresses so that the real concert can get underway. The crickets maintain a pleasant counterpoint before a pair of pearl-spotted owlets welcomes you back with their echoing duet. My consciousness fades into the glowing embers of the remaining fire.

Waking up early is pleasantly refreshing and a lazy proceeding. There will always be someone up, brewing the perfect coffee. Henro and Suné is already skropping like francolins foraging between autumn leaves. Over to the side one of the guide’s wounded buffalo snore still resonates peacefully. No rushing things here. As we watch the African sun peek above the horizon (yes, cue The Lion King) we humbly beg Chrisjan for some of his treasured condensed milk – nectar of the heavens. Now the day can begin.

After packing up and making sure no teabag is left behind, we are ready to depart. Well, as soon as Declan finishes loading all his gadgets and the kitchen sink. As we walk in silence through a forest of ancient leadwoods, I wonder just what these magnificent trees have witnessed through the ages. Perhaps the camp of a big game hunter of old, searching for the tuskers of the lonely north. Over there, his canvas tent and gunrack, and there, the wagon, mules and dogs. A fish eagle announces the river is close by – then and now. Our guide shows us the padded pug marks of a leopard that passed this way shortly before, likely hearing us coming. A while later we freeze to watch a shyly inquisitive nyala bull evaluate us before calling our bluff.

A midmorning tea-break finds us thankful for a breather. I scan the tree foliage for the origin of that chirpy call – probably a bar-throated apalis. Simoné digs out the trusty journal and makes a magnificent in-situ drawing of the dry riverbed and treelines – I still maintain she will be able to retire well if she sells it. At the back, Willie Bono-shades and Mariette Yogapants has taken a keen interest in Armand’s love-life and is offering their advice to the poor man.

Elephant / Mapungubwe

As we trample further along the dry riverbed, our footfalls in the sugary sand are hypnotic. Late morning is a fruitful time around water sources. Your ears might be filled with squeaky brown-headed parrots picking out juicy berries, chattering starlings showing off their glossy coats, or the bellowing laugh of a hippo bull making sure we know who is the boss of this pool. Your eyes might be treated with a tower of giraffes drinking dexterously, a kudu bull gracefully carrying his spiralled horns, or a small group of zebras timidly seeking shade nearing the heat of the day. The smells of dusty earth desperate for the rainy season might mix with ever-present musky elephant dung and the bovine aroma of buffaloes that must have slept here.

Lunch is traditionally an extended siesta somewhere shaded and beautiful. The soft hiss of various gas stoves singing the song of pasta surrounds us. While I try to recover some of our noodles I clumsily scattered in the river sand, Armand tries to call a fishing owl with a faithful imitation of a jackal on heat. Grant inspects a katvis carcass left by the resident fish eagle, presumably to gauge potential edibility. Someone shyly takes the ogre for a walk into no-man’s land, trying not to be self-conscious when nature calls. Bellies full, eyes closed is the modus operandi after lunch. We cherish these precious naptimes. The world is paused for a while, and all that truly matters here under the rustling jackalberry is whether or not the hovering pied kingfisher over there will succeed in its hunt. 

Mpongolo trail / Kruger

On the afternoon hike we stop regularly to inspect the small miracles of nature. An ant-lion carefully crafting its conical sand trap. The magic gwarrie toothbrush – a firm guide favourite. The sharp flavourful scent of a handful of wild aniseed. A termite colony’s inner workings – enough to make you feel very small indeed. The tracks of an aardwolf, and why it can obviously not be confused with those of a hyena, wild dog, or civet.

Just before sunset brings the golden hour of the bush. Dappled sunlight casts long shadows across the riverbank. As guineafowls and francolins announce the end of day, I brew a strong late-afternoon coffee for us without straining it (another great use of teeth). A breeding herd of elephant joins us for sundowners at the waterhole and our guide assures us that as long as we sit still all will be okay. As the ellies drink they kick up dust to set the bush sky on fire with a thousand reds fading to hues of purple and pink.    

After performing necessary camp duties such as digging for filtered water, looking for dry firewood, and watching Henro and Chrisjan return to their bushman firemaking roots, dinner is rustled up and marshmallows sacrificed brutally before everyone turns in early. Our watch-sitting slot tonight is the two bewitching hours just before sunrise. We warm our numb bodies by the cheerful little fire and cup our hands around scalding mugs of tea. The milky way watches over us and shines like never before. A fiery-necked nightjar punctures the absolute stillness and cues a far-off coughing of a leopard to remind us of our mortality. Time passes quickly as we whisper in hushed tones about the day’s events. As the eastern sky starts to pale into blue, a lion reminds us just how special this land is.