As I climbed off the Airlink 41 turboprop at Phalaborwa airport, I was struck first by the heat, then by the smell of the warm earth, and, finally, by the sounds of the African bush.
The contrasts were startling – I’d left a grey, drizzly Cape Town a couple of hours earlier that morning. Now I was on the edge of the Kruger Park, getting ready for five days on the Luvuvhu 4x4 trail with Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD).
It wasn’t difficult to spot our guide for the trip, Janco Scott. He was the tanned, well-built oke in khaki waiting at the luggage collection point. Technical editor Grant Spolander had told me, “Janco is great… you’re in for one helluva trip.” And Grant was correct, as our small party of six were to discover over the next few days.
That morning, Janco had driven through the Kruger Park from Machampane Wilderness Camp in Mozambique to collect me. He explained that we’d be driving out to Mtomeni, a tented camp on the Groot Letaba River. A journalist and photographer from Germany would be joining us later; they had flown in from Frankfurt and were picking up a kittedout 4x4 in Joburg. Our trip would only officially start the next day; the foreign journos’ late arrival meant that I scored an extra night in the bush!
Mtomeni camp is named after the lofty Jackalberry trees that shade this tented camp on the banks of the Groot Letaba Rivier. Mtomeni lies in the Letaba Ranch Provincial Park, some 42 000 hectares that are open to the Kruger. We were going to spend the first two nights of our trip in this area. Letaba Ranch gets its name from one of the bigger properties purchased to form this provincial park.
Letaba Ranch Provincial Park is, in turn, part of a much larger initiative: a massive park called the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP). According to the SAN Parks website, “The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park will link Limpopo National Park in Mozambique; Kruger National Park in South Africa; Gonarezhou National Park, Manjinji Pan Sanctuary and Malapati Safari Area in Zimbabwe, as well as two areas between Kruger and Gonarezhou, namely the Sengwe communal land in Zimbabwe and the Makuleke region in South Africa, into one huge conservation area of 35 000 km².” Just the thought of exploring part of this vast tract of land makes one want to salivate! The ultimate plan is for the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier to cover an area of some 100 000 km². Spending five days in a minute corner of this planned park is a rare privilege.
I’m a ‘rural rustic’ from the Cape. And I’m captivated by the real bush, especially at night. When we are sitting under the ancient Jackalberry trees, brushed by the flickering flames of our fire, the sounds of the surrounding bush are intense. There’s the sometimes deafening whirr of the cicadas that almost drowns out the soft froglike prrrrup prrrrup of another bird calling in the background. It sounds familiar, and I remember the call when Janco identifies it as the ‘African Scops Owl’. Another bird adds to the chorus in the dark. It has a loud piercing chip-cherrrrrrrr, with the last notes a descending trill. Janco identifies this one as the Woodlands Kingfisher.
Our German guests, journalist René Olma and photographer Dino Eisele, arrive in the dark. Their Cruiser’s high beam sweeps over the Mopani and the Jackalberries surrounding the camp. They unpack, and are soon sitting at the fireside tucking into steak and wors. René asks whether this camp sees much wildlife.
By way of an answer, Janco describes the leopard kill – of an impala – in this very camp on his last trip. I can only wonder what the new arrivals from Germany are thinking – they’d left their Stuttgart home with the temperature hovering around 4° C. Leaving the lapa, I instinctively sweep my head-torch at the surrounding bush, hoping not to see a pair of shining eyes. Back at my tent overlooking the river, predators forgotten, I fall asleep almost instantly.
I’m up at 05h30. I hear the gurgling and whistling of a battered espresso pot starting to steam on the gas cylinder at the lapa. It’s sized for a rugby team. The boss man goes up another notch in my estimation.
The Luvuvhu 4x4 trail officially starts today, in Phalaborwa. A blue Defender 110 waits in the parking lot at the TFPD office, in the tourism centre opposite the Spar. A young couple, Kieran and Denise Walters, are in the Landy; they’re joining us, together with Hennie van der Colff, TFPD operations manager, who’s coming along for our first night camp in the Letaba Ranch.
Hennie and Janco set up a map under the trees and we have a short but comprehensive briefing on the ‘rules of the road’. Radios are handed out and we head off, with Hennie in the lead, on our way to Letaba Ranch’s southern gate – or ‘06’ as it’s known in the trade.
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