5 years ago

Backpacks and lion tracks | Olifants River, South Africa

Getting out of the car is one of the best feelings you can have at Kruger National Park.

Now, you can only do this at a few designated spots outside of camps (and always at your own risk, as there are plenty of cunning predators out there), but it’s liberating after so much road time. And the views are usually great, too, whether at dams, bird hides, or lookout points.

Kruger National Park
The Tropic of Capricorn.
Important to read the fine print.

So when I found out that you could go on a backpacking trail (with up to 7 other people, plus 2 armed guides), completely in the bush where animals roam freely, I did not hesitate to sign up. The 3-night, 4-day Olifants backpacking trail was one of the coolest outdoor experiences of the trip thus far.

In advance of this, I spent way too much money on a lightweight tent, sleeping bag, and inflatable pad when I was home for my sister’s wedding. Once I got here, I bought a tiny little stove and a solo backpacking cookware set…and all the food I’d need to survive on the trail. Oatmeal, instant coffee/noodles/rice, nuts, dried fruits, avos, and peanut butter were my friends. The really brittle tortillas I bought were not.

I definitely had not planned on purchasing legit backpacking equipment when I started A Great Journey. But that’s been the beauty of this trip. I’ve discovered things I didn’t know about myself. Like the fact that I’m not outdoorsy, per se, but I really enjoy hiking, camping, and being outdoors. Shout-out to Mallori and Josh for enlightening me at Torres del Paine!

Kruger National Park
The equipment in action by the Olifants River.

Since there are no campsites at Olifants camp (ironic, yes), I drove a litte over an hour from Satara that morning. After some coffee, signing indemnity forms, and a brief meeting with Wayne and Eric, our guides, and the Konstams (Dominic, Sara, Emily, Olivia, and Georgia), my fellow hikers, we got the party started.

A chilly 90 minute drive with little wildlife, but plenty of giant termitariums, got us to Shingwedzi gate, where Wayne and Eric had to pick up their rifles and guns. 15 minutes later, we continued our drive, bouncing quite a bit due to the bad road and dodging branches for another hour or so before arriving at the drop-off point.

Upon arriving, Wayne briefed us on what to expect on the Olifants backpacking trail. He emphasized the importance of walking single-file behind the rifles, being quiet so everyone could enjoy the bush experience, and that animal sightings should be considered a bonus. Then he introduced us to The Ogre – the small shovel we’d use for digging a toilet and which we’d take turns carrying on the trail.

For the next three-and-a-half days we’d stay close to the Olifants river, going onto higher ground covered by Mopani trees on ocassion. Wayne’s passion for the bush and knowledge about everything (flora, fauna, geology, ecology, astronomy, poop, animal tracks, and poacher tracks) really came through. I learned a ton of stuff, including how to use the southern cross at night to find, well, south.

Our nights were spent on the river banks, hippos serenading us to sleep. Some great stories were exchanged around the fire and we found out just how cunning leopards and lion can be at the park.

Olifants backpacking trail at Kruger National Park

Several employees have been killed by leopards when by themselves. Within camps!  A smart pride of man-eating lions was a problem in the 90s. They caught on to the nighttime trail Mozambican refugees were using to escape through Kruger. And we learned that lions, hippos, and elephants have roamed into these backpacking camps. Guides have had to use their weapons before. Sweet dreams, for sure!

We woke up with the birds all three mornings, our tents covered in dew, a pleasant sunrise always reflecting on the Olifants river.

Chilly mornings quickly gave way to warm, sunny days. At midday we’d stop for a couple hours to eat lunch. And read a book, go for a dip in the river (after a quick hippo/croc check), or a enjoy a siesta. It was definitely an easy, enjoyable, flat trail.

We encountered many, many hippos (one even walked quite close to our camp one night) and antelope. Also, a few elephants nearby and herds in the distance, a lot of unique birds, and crocodiles. Fresh leopard, rhino, and hyena tracks kept things interesting, too. We even tracked a pride of lions that had been on the river banks shortly before us one afternoon. It was good fun.

Sadly, we also saw fresh poacher tracks (along with those of the rangers in pursuit), as well as an old rhino carcass missing its horn. Wayne explained that they usually from Mozambique and work in trios: one carrying the AK-47, one the machete, the third, provisions. And that they are increasingly younger and more brazen. Two or three horns generate enough money for the impoverished poachers to feed their families for a year, so it’s hard to blame them. The poaching problem got very real.

At around 10 am on the fourth day, we got picked up and taken back to Olifants camp. Much to our delight, cold beer, Savanna cider, and Cokes awaited us in a cooler on the truck. I wasn’t going to grab a beer since it was so early, but…

There are a few backpacking trails like this at Kruger National Park. Considering the fantastic experience, it’s worth the cost (don’t forget to tip your guides!) and definitely recommended! You can book online through SANParks.

Alternatively, you can reach out to Wayne directly for a custom-designed bush adventure through his company, Lowveld Trails Co.

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