Words and Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen
The Kruger National Park’s Lebombo 4×4 trail is well-known, and the Shingwedzi trail on the other side of the border is an up-and-coming attraction. But now there’s a new kid in town, a multi-day trail on the western edge of KNP. SA4x4 was lucky enough to be the first magazine to drive it!
There’s something both primal and scary about having just your tent’s outer shell between you and the wild. From the warmth of your down sleeping bag it sounds as though you’re a guest at nature’s night club – the sound of every creature and critter, now matter how great or small, seems magnified tenfold when heard against the backdrop of an otherwise noiseless wilderness. Unless your ears are well-tuned to the bush, the snoring from the guy in the tent next door could be mistaken for the growls of a prowling predator.
This is surely why we’re drawn to the bush. It’s a place where we can swap the safety and sanctity of suburbia for unpredictability and serenity. To butcher a phrase from one of my favourite movies of all time, it’s like working your way through a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. A herd of buffalo might be drinking at the next waterhole, or a family of warthog might decide to dart across the track in front of you. Yet how often do we get to travel in truly wild places? Not often enough, I say.
There are several 4×4 wilderness trails on offer in SA; the most well-known of these lie in the Kruger National Park, but you’ll find others in parks like the Karoo, Namaqua and Addo. While the Kruger National Park is normally the first port of call for foreigners or locals who want to see the Big 5, its 4×4 trails, like the 5-day / 4-night Lebombo Eco-Trail, have received mixed reviews.
Firstly, why has everyone added the word ‘eco’ to every new 4×4 trail? Secondly, this trail along the park’s eastern boundary fails to deliver the great animal sightings one associates with this park. Why else drive all the way to Kruger to camp and 4×4? Yes, I know it’s lekker innie bos, but you might as well have driven around the bush closer to home if you’re not interested in seeing animals.
So you can imagine that I was a little sceptical when we were invited to drive the brand new Luvuvhu 4×4 Trail. This is a 4-night / 5-day trip that takes one through two Limpopo parks, namely Letaba Ranch Provincial Park and Makuya Nature Reserve. It runs through an area I’ve visited several times in the past to cover various events and write a few travel features about. It’s a place I rate highly as it offers good value for money and that feeling of isolation that one always yearns for. Furthermore, both of these parks border the Kruger National Park and form part of the Greater Kruger National Park, which means there are no fences between them so the animals are free to roam as they did centuries ago.
Instead of travelling alone we decided to invite some of our advertisers along to experience the new trail with us. From LA Sport we had livewire Lionel Lewis and his wife Annalie, from 4×4 MegaWorld it was Hjalmar Kuschke and Annemarie Harms, Front Runner sent the all-boy team of Louis Zeeman and Jason Reid, and last but not least, we had Gary and Lynette Swemmer from LA Sport Menlyn.
Our trip begins at midday in Phalaborwa at the Info Centre where we’re met by our guide, Johan Kriek, who hands out radios to each vehicle before giving us a full briefing on what to expect, and some house rules on subjects such as convoy protocol, toilet habits and rubbish removal. Everything we’re taking with us has to come back, except for the toilet paper and the wood we burn en route. A maximum of six vehicles are allowed per trip which means it’s easier for everyone to see the animals.
After a short hop eastwards on the tar we enter Letaba Ranch’s southern gate; this park forms part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Normally tourists can’t enter here, but Johan has made special arrangements with the park authorities and they’re on hand to welcome us in. The Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park is a brave initiative which has seen the establishment of transfrontier conservation areas between various southern African countries.
In this case it’s between SA, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, but similar initiatives exist between SA, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. The establishment of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park has bought together some of the most precious and threatened wildlife areas in southern Africa.
The name Letaba Ranch was taken from one of the bigger properties purchased and amalgamated when this provincial park first saw the light of day as a wildlife area. We head east along the main track which goes into Kruger, entering it north of Phalaborwa gate. This track is a known poachers’ route and in the past it’s been used to smuggle stolen vehicles into Mozambique. We’re greeted by a small herd of majestically-horned kudu males, and a brown snake-eagle perched high up a knob thorn tree watches thoughtfully as our little convoy passes by.
Suddenly Johan stops in front of us. What has he seen? The radio crackles to life as we scan the bush for elephant or buffalo who love these mopani forests. “Look in this tree to the left of my vehicle, there are five Southern White-Faced Scops Owls,” says Johan. We park our Landy next to the tree once Johan moves on; the owls are tiny and well-hidden behind the branches. It’s unusual to see so many of them together and even more unusual to see them out during the day. Maybe they’re suffering from owl insomnia.
Once we reach the place where the Kruger National Park fence used to stand, we backtrack a little away from the overhanging electrical wiring and head north. At the first man-made waterhole a massive herd of buffalo awaits. They’re decidedly nervous and our trail passes within metres of them. When the first vehicle gets close the buffalo thunder off , creating a dust cloud similar to that of an advancing armoured division.
As we near the second watering hole we see a good-sized breeding herd of elephant. It is the first afternoon of our 4×4 safari and already we’ve had some great animal sightings. The elephants are very protective of their young and stay well-hidden.
By now we’re driving along the Baderoukwe River and soon we reach a place the locals call Oosthuizen; we’ll be camping here for the first night. The great thing about this trail is that it’s been designed to allow you to reach camp by 16h00 every day. This gives you lots of time to enjoy the drive and to set up camp – no pitching tents in the dark.
Our campsite is occupied by another herd of ellies but they soon move off into the bush and we’re free to settle in. During the night we hear the constant call of Pearl-spotted Owls that seem to have surrounded us. A leopard barks nearby and some hyena howl to make their presence known. Before I drift off I look up at the stars overhead and reflect on the perfection of the day.
Letaba Ranch has a southern and northern section, separated by the Groot Letaba River, which we’ll have to cross later on day two as we make our way from the one section to the next. There are two route options, one for those pulling off-road trailers and caravans, and one for those travelling without. If you’re towing something you have to go around and exit the park via the main gate and come back in again to the north of the river. Fortunately we’re in a convoy of 4×4 experts and should be okay at the crossing.
Our plan is to head for the confluence of the Groot and Klein Letaba Rivers, but this takes a little longer than expected as the elephants have pushed many mopani trees across our track. I wonder if they’re watching us as we climb out of our vehicles and hack a path through the fallen trees. At some places the track is overgrown and so to prevent vehicle damage we climb out and clear away the bush. It’s all part of the fun of being the first commercial party ever to drive this route.
There’s lots going on at the rivers’ confluence. A Fish Eagle makes its distinctive cry as a pod of hippos leave the river to look for food; fortunately, they’re headed away from us. The sun is at its peak when we reach the big river crossing. As photographer I walk it first and apart from the entrance which needs some repair with a spade, it doesn’t look too menacing. The rainy season is about two months away so the rivers here are anything but full, although you can clearly see the high-water marks.
Johan takes his Cruiser through first and easily makes it to the other side, then my mate Deon van Schalkwyk drives our Landy through. Then it’s the turn of the big Nissan Patrol, towing a Kavango off-road caravan. Something goes wrong and the wheels stop turning not long after the vehicle enters the crossing. We have to winch it across as a dead weight. It seems that the vehicle isn’t engaging gear properly. Once we get it out of the water it takes us about three hours to get it going again and even then it doesn’t sound very healthy. We attach the caravan to one of the other vehicles. The rest of the vehicles make it across without drama and we’re good to go.
Due to the time lost we don’t reach our intended campsite, but the last hour or two of driving before we set up camp is along some of the prettiest parts of the trail. We are headed north-west along the Klein Letaba River and when we reach some of the high points we can see all the way into the Kruger National Park and down the valley which lies between the two rivers. This northern part of the park is littered with koppies. In spite of the river crossing delay our animal sightings list is growing, we’ve added nyala, giraffe, zebra, baboon, vervet monkey and warthog.
Someone claims to hear a lion roar during the night but I sleep through it. During breakfast we notice that one of the Cruisers has picked up a puncture. Gary Swemmer of Menlyn LA Sport proves his worth and quickly plugs and reinflates it. The first part of our third day is spent catching up the time lost at the previous day’s water crossing.
It was also a transit day that saw us exit Letaba Ranch and make our way to the second Limpopo province park we’d be exploring, the Makuya Nature Reserve. To get there we had to go north, along the recently replaced and upgraded Kruger National Park fence. The elephants clearly don’t care about these upgrades – you can see where the fence has been damaged by their movement. We know we’re no longer in the wilderness when we spot a herd of cattle, and there’s some rubbish about – a sure sign that this is where members of the untameable human species reside.
After passing through a couple of Shangaan villages we see the imposing blue Tshamavudzi mountain range in front of us and after crossing the Luvuvhu River we start to climb again, this time towards the southern entrance of our second park. I’ve been here several times but have never before entered via this remote gate.
The terrain changes too, from forest-like to seriously rocky, almost to the point where you start to ask yourself why the hell you signed up for this.
By this point we’d been joined by Klaas Bonzaaier, who works for the Limpopo government – he’s a man who knows these roads better than anyone else. He had the following to say about the tracks: “When you drive a good road you don’t notice the environment around you. But when you have to go through a ditch or around a tree you’re more in tune with your surroundings. We must retain that wilderness feeling, otherwise the place will lose its appeal.” I couldn’t agree more.
I’m running our Landy’s tyres at 1.5 bar which makes the rocky trail a little more bearable. Our first campsite in the new park is my favourite – it lies right next to the Luvuvhu River and its red cliffs, and there are spectacular trees everywhere. The buffalos use one tree stump at the camp’s entrance as a scratch post, which has smoothed it down. A small stream flows past the campsite into the Luvuvhu River and when I hike along it I find several lovely rock pools. The only problem is that the skies have turned grey – it’s the middle of winter and cold – otherwise this might just have been the perfect place for a wash or swim.
After breakfast we have to cross the little stream I’d walked along the night before, then we head north along the Luvuvhu River. We stop several times to watch hippo and elephant that are close to the river we’re following. Big baobabs stand sentry alongside our track and they too are cause for photographic stops. At one such stop Johan rustles up some welcome bacon and eggs.
We all agree that the two parks are very different in terms of terrain but both equally pleasing to explore. A highlight after lunch is our stop at World’s View; here, from the top of the cliff s, we could look back down along the river and see where we’d travelled from. Tonight’s campsite wasn’t too far off so we allowed ourselves a beer each while we sat in silence and sipped in the views.
From here it’s a short drop into the valley and once again we’re next to the Luvuvhu River for the night. Some bad weather is moving in and the clouds seem to seal in the heat, so it’s not as cold as previous nights. This was our last night on the trail, and I was a bit bleak that it was coming to an end.
All that remained was a short journey along the foothills of the mountains. The grey skies and yellow leaves of the Mopani Trees added to the drama of the trip and we allowed ourselves one more stop to look down the valley. Our last obstacle is the Mutale River, this time with no drama as everyone deflates tyres and easily drives the shallow crossing. Just downstream from here is the Mutale Falls; if the weather had been better and we had more time they would’ve been worth a stop, just for a swim.
We arrive at the Pafuri Gate, the end of the trail. Some members of our party go into Kruger for another few days while others like me head for Gauteng and the airport. If you’re not in a hurry after the trip, try booking the tented camp at the Mutale River and going for a swim at the falls. That would be a great way to end this trail, and then you can drive home through the park and exit at one of the gates to the south.
This trail isn’t a vehicle breaker. Yes one needs low-range and they don’t allow softroaders on the trail, but anyone can drive it, even the inexperienced. You have to deflate tyres at the big river crossings and maybe during the rocky sections of Makuya, but for the most part it’s first or second gear high-range stuff.
Our game sightings had been pretty decent on the trip and while some might argue that it’s nothing compared to the wildebeest migrations, the Luvuvhu trail is right on our doorstep. Plus, it’s very affordable and offers one a good opportunity to test all your expedition gear and be totally self-sufficient while at the same time driving your 4×4 through Big 5 territory. The Luvuvhu trail ticks all the right boxes for me.
Louis Zeeman and Jason Reid of Front Runner
Louis: It was my first time travelling through this area and it was definitely worth it. It’s great spending time in the bush with nature and wild animals around you. Maybe we were a little over-accessorised, but I’d advise other people to make sure you have enough water with you to survive for five days. Another thing is to leave the campsites clean, like you found them. Recovery equipment is a must, as you never know what might happen. My last tip is to bring warm clothes as it can get chilly here at night.
Jason: I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen in the last five days. The river crossing was the highlight for me. The campsites have been at great locations, especially the last two nights. Our Front Runner equipment worked well on this trip. People need to make sure they get the basics right, like having a good tent, gas to cook with and a fridge to keep goodies cold. I want to come back to this area sometime and explore it some more.
Hjalmar Kuschke and Annemarie Harms, 4×4 Megaworld HQ
Hjalmar: I loved the baobabs – we should give each one a name. We saw more animals in Letaba Ranch than in Makuya. If driving a vehicle like the Amarok, and you’re the only one in the convoy, maybe bring a second spare; these 17” rims have different stud patterns. Annemarie: I would love to come in the summer so that I can see how the place changes with lots of water and rain. The highlight for me was how the landscape changed between the two different parks.
Gary and Lynette Swemmer from Menlyn LA Sport
Gary: The trail is not a tough drive but one needs to be prepared for little things that can go wrong like when we had to plug a tyre. Out here you need to be able to keep your vehicle going or get it out of trouble. As for the trail I was impressed with the number of animals I saw. Lynette: This was my fi rst time in a 4×4 through these areas and the place is just beautiful with the lovely baobabs and wildlife. It’s great how the only people you see are the ones in your convoy. It feels as if you have the place to yourself.
Lionel and Annalie Lewis, owners and founders of LA Sport
Lionel: It’s great to get out in nature and see God’s wonderful creation. This is a very special area and to 4×4 through it is a privilege. It’s also a good place to see the 4×4 equipment we sell in action, and a great chance to see that it works. Another great plus is that this can be a great family trip; the kids will love the animals and the beautiful locations of the campsites.
GPS Points (WGS 84)
Shonalanga Resort, Phalaborwa
WHERE WE STAYED
Shonalanga Resort, Phalaborwa
This is a great place to stay the night before the trip as it’s situated on the banks of the Olifants River, so the sounds of the hippo, hyena and Fish Eagle can be expected. They have shady camping spots with electricity, and fully-furnished self-catering chalets with flush toilets, hot showers and DStv. Camping costs R120 pppn, chalets cost R450 pppn per night. For more details see www.dolimpopo.com or call
(015) 293 3611.
LUVUVHU TRAIL BOOKINGS
To book the trail see www.dolimpopo.com or call (021) 701 7860. The cost of the trail is normally R4 900 per vehicle (max of 4 persons), but if you book before 31 December you can do it for the special price of R3 900 per vehicle. For details of shorter and soft roader-friendly trails see the website. One has to be totally self-sufficient so bring enough water, fire wood and toilet paper. Everything you take in has to be brought out so make provision for your rubbish. A trailer route is offered – this varies slightly from the normal route and excludes big river crossings.
We started in Phalaborwa at midday and finished four nights and five days later at Pafuri Gate, the northernmost gate of Kruger National Park. If you’re heading back to Gauteng, you can easily make it by nightfall.
We covered 350 km from the start of the trail in Phalaborwa to the end at Pafuri Gate; during this time we mostly drove in first and second gear high-range. We had between quarter and half a tank of fuel left over (standard Defender tank). We refuelled at Tshipise, which is just opposite the Adventura Resort.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
Phalaborwa has everything you need from ice to meat to last-minute essentials. We found the quality of the meat better at the Spar than the Pick ’n Pay, although locals tell us the butcher is even better. Once on the trail you won’t have an opportunity to buy anything except when you are in transit between the two parks and you go through several villages.
Recovery gear could be useful if a river crossing goes wrong. You have to be totally self-sufficient so don’t forget the braai grid, tin opener and spare fuses.
CONVOY OR SOLO
This is a guided-only route.
The Cooper Discoverer ATR is ideally suited to this kind of all-road terrain. It provides excellent on-road performance and the extensive zig-zag siping increases water evacuation and provides excellent traction in the wet. The tyre is also solid in off-road conditions with its 5-rib tread design and enhanced cut and chip resistance. Call 0800 335 722 (toll-free) for your nearest dealer.
It is not overly rough or extreme. Makuya is more hilly and rocky than Letaba Ranch and you need to know your stuff if the rivers are pumping, but as for the rest beginners will be comfortable on this route.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
It is guided so all you have to do is make sure you can see another vehicle or the guide all the time.
No softroaders allowed. Must have low-range and good ground clearance.
Malaria and tick bite fever do occur in these areas so one needs to make provision for this. You are in Big 5 country so take the necessary precautions.