Ian Glenn relives his experience as a participant in the Wilderness Trails skills course at Makuleke and shares all his exciting encounters and memories.
“Poor Bill Bryson. The thought keeps coming into my head as 10 of us walk through the Makuleke concession in the Kruger National Park. His book, A Walk in the Woods, is funny partly because the experience is so dreadful. The Appalachian Trail feels like a grim treadmill winding people through a dense landscape without much excitement in it. In 870 miles, Bryson encounters a moose, a few deer, and perhaps a couple of bears around his campsite at night.
We, on the other hand, have been walking for half an hour when we come across eight bull elephants enjoying themselves in the water. Unfortunately for us, they have drunk copiously in the spring before their cavorting, so our water source for the night is mainly mud and we need to wait for morning to replenish. But we have sounds, sights, and glistening elephant skin.
This wilderness trails experience is a 5-night, carry-all-you-need, sleep-under-the-stars bucket-list trip. Trail leader, Bruce Lawson, is a former Captain Morgan Adventurer of the Year (for a mad walk from Cape to nearly Cairo), champion bird atlas, the most experienced walking trails guide in the country (14 000 hours logged and counting), and passionate exponent of the value of the wilderness experience. The second rifle is Varun Taneja, an Indian tiger man who come to Africa to get further qualifications at EcoTraining.
Many animal experiences only occur on foot. An impala male in a rut chases a female right through our group and then, noticing us, pronks away as startled as we are. Two young warthogs scuttle off and then return to eye us curiously, playing and feeding unconcernedly a few metres away. Varun says that they have probably lost their parents and are not going to survive long. On the banks of the Luvuvhu, a large male warthog sleeps as 10 of us walk past, confident nothing is going to dare attack him.
We have a long encounter with a herd of buffalo that are resting as we cross a floodplain. They stand up and approach, then stand a hundred metres or so away, alert. The group comments: ‘This feels like a Civil War movie.’ ‘Or Braveheart.’ But nothing comes of this African stand-off, only a relaxed realisation no harm is meant and the buffalo retreat peacefully as we move off to the top of a hill for the night.
We see lots of animals: zebra, nyala, waterbuck, impala, baboons, vervets, kudu, Sharpe’s Grysbok and, on the last morning, a herd of eland coming down like great spirits to the water hole as we are just leaving. There is something right about seeing animals on foot rather than from the great fuming hide of a vehicle. Here we are all animals with needs for water and shelter, at a respectful and proper distance. Here one is excited by tracks of animals one doesn’t see: of giraffe, rhino, a tiny elephant, or by working out how the lions killed the eland carcass we come across.
Though this is winter and the trail’s emphasis is not on birding, birding in Makuleke is always special. We see and hear about 100 species, including Arnot’s Chat, the first Thick-billed Cuckoo of the season diving to lay an egg in an unprotected nest, a Scaly-throated Honey-guide and a Shikra. But the most impressive birding moment is when Bruce asks us to diagnose evidence on the river sand – some fish scales and a few marks. We run through the usual suspects (crocodile, river monitor, fish-eagle, osprey) but kick ourselves as CSI dummies when Bruce shows that this was, unmistakably, the site of a Pel’s Fishing-Owl kill.
We hear hyenas, a lion roaring far off, and a leopard during the night when we take turns sitting and watching next to the embers of the very small fire. But the only scary moment is when Bruce sees a breeding herd of elephants coming in our direction on the trail on the second last day and we beat a hasty retreat to re-route and avoid any encounters with the angry pachyderm maternity.
The landscape of this wilderness area between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers is special: fever trees, baobabs, gorges, huge cliffs, floodplains, along with mopani forests. We camp one night on the Limpopo, almost completely dry, and have a small herd of Zimbabwean cattle close to our camp, with their owners fishing at one of the few remaining patches of water.
The Luvuvhu is still flowing when we camp on its bank. During the night, we see five elephant bathing by the full moon. The next day we get to leave our heavy packs under the nyala tree and head off barefoot or in sandals up the river. Above us, Lanner Gorge looms. When we sit down, one of the German guests says quietly, ‘This is Paradise’
Why do we all do it?
For Bruce, the wilderness should be, as in Ian Player’s vision of the Wilderness Foundation, a place and space to take stock of who and why we are, without the distractions of the everyday. Now, with the digital avalanche that breaks on our heads every day, the need seems even more pressing. A key part of the experience is taking turns keeping watch next to the glowing embers during the night. We have surrendered our watches and phones at the start of the walk and we get a watch with a minute hand only so as to know when our hour of the watch is over.
Bruce asks us to share our wilderness experience in his trails log book as we sit during the night. He asks us to walk the last few kilometres after seeing the eland in silence, to reflect on what this digital detox, this immersive reality, this experience, has taught us. I unworthily think I will never take the pleasure of creature comforts for granted again, especially chairs, tables, beds, hot showers, running water, and cold beers in the fridge, but, beyond that, to appreciate the kindness of others, to realise our basic needs, to live and love the now”.