Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and Alison Cole
The first rule of the Kruger National Park (KNP) is not to get out of your vehicle, except if you’re in the confines of a camp or on a walking safari (duh). Nevertheless, we’ve left the well-engineered safety of our Pajero Sport and are sitting on Letaba River’s soft sandy bank. On the opposite side a crocodile keeps a lazy eye on us, while a hippo snorts his welcome to our sundowner party. We’re perched alongside the tracks that the hippo uses when he exits the river at dinnertime.
Everything is a beautiful golden colour, until the sun disappears behind one of the nearby koppies. I love this part of the day in the bush. Lourens Botha, our SANParks guide on the Malopeni Eco-trail, calls bottoms up and we take a stroll back to our campsite, about 100 metres away.
The Malopeni Eco-trail is the only 4×4 trail where you get to spend one night out in the bush. The Lebombo Eco-trail is a five-day and four-night affair while the several Adventure 4×4 Trails on offer are daytime only trips. Our adventure started at the Phalaborwa gate where Lourens had met us at lunchtime. After our quick equipment and radio check we take to the H9 tar road, the main road between Phalaborwa and Letaba. Before long we’re heading north on the S131; it feels good to be off the tar but we still pass the odd tourist vehicle as this is a public road.
Lourens calls our two-vehicle convoy to a halt as he’s seen something in the bush. He climbs out with a rifle over his shoulder and sticks his hand into some nearby foliage; it comes out with a Flapneck Chameleon perched on top. We climb out of our Pajero to take a closer look. The chameleon is relaxed and poses nicely for us while its eyes keep a look-out for potential enemies.
After crossing the Malopeni River we turn onto a category D road; lots of these types of roads were previously closed to tourists but now vehicles with good ground clearance are free to explore these tracks – if you’re in this part of the park, enquire about these roads at the Phalaborwa gate. It’s not long before we turn off this D road onto the Malopeni management road. It gives me a good feeling to know that right now we’re the only people in the Kruger National Park who are allowed on this track.
Our isolation begins with a great sighting: a large herd of buffalo are busy crossing the road just in front of our guide’s car. Just as they pass from view, the radio crackles into life. “There goes an adult male kudu, and another and another,” says Lourens. We see them all jump over the track only metres away from our Pajero Sport.
During previous generations the park authorities thought it clever to put up a series of windmills and manmade water points along the trail we’re driving. This led to the unnatural movement of animals and so later on these water supplies were turned off but the windmills and water troughs were left in place. We drove past two such windmills and with the sun still very high we decide to stop at the nearby man-made Black Heron Dam.
As we stand on the dam wall we count some 10 large crocodiles just below– this was one wall you didn’t want to fall off… A large elephant bull with impressive tusks sauntered down to the Letaba River. A hippo eyes the humans and the shore-based animals from the comfort of the white water which was racing down the dam wall – it’s as though he’s having a nice Jacuzzi session. This is one of the reasons why you need to come and do a trail like this one. Animal encounters happen on deserted roads or outside your 4×4. I don’t like watching a good sighting with a traffic jam around me – something that will never happen to you on the Malopeni Eco-trail.
From the dam wall it’s only a couple of minutes to our campsite, which boasts two eco-toilets, a braai drum and a fireplace. Not long after returning from our sundowners, we’re in total darkness so we light a fire and put up the tents. While Lourens was giving us a delightful talk on the stars we hear a rustle in the bushes, Lourens pauses his starry tales and we all go to investigate. We discover an elephant enjoying a night-time snack only metres away. This is the difference between staying in a formal park camp which is fenced in, and being truly in the wild. I know which environment I prefer.
After breakfast we break up camp before starting the trek back to Phalaborwa. It’s the end of the rainy season so the mixed bushwillow woodlands are very green and overgrown, making animal spotting more challenging. It also means that some tree branches have encroached onto the track; they scrape the sides of our Pajero Sport – not so great when you’re driving a brand new vehicle like ours.
We’re driving along the park’s western boundary now and manage some good antelope sightings, waterbuck, kudu and impala, as well as a lone buffalo. They say that historically this is the hangout spot for sable antelope, but we didn’t see any. By mid-morning we’re back at Phalaborwa gate again, where the trail ends. We’d covered just over 70 km and except for the overgrown bush the trail is anything but a tough challenge. Still, without a 4×4 you wouldn’t be able to access this area.
Before making our way south to do the Mananga Adventure Trail we spend the night at the Sable Hide which is only about 15 km from Phalaborwa gate. Once the sun has set and all the other visitors are safely ensconced in their lodges and campsites, you can actually overnight at the hide. Sure, the accommodation is basic and you have to pick up your bedding at Phalaborwa gate but you’re right next to a dam. Some people have seen all of the big five while staying here for the one night. On our arrival we’re greeted by a breeding herd of elephants, we spend ages watching them from hide and fall asleep to the sounds of elephants drinking in the darkness.
The Mananga Adventure trail is a 50 km circular route to the north east of Satara. We’d come from Sable Hide, which is a long drive, and so only started driving the trail at around 10h30. I’d recommend staying at Satara the night before the trail so you can get an early start. Without stops, and if it’s dry, this trail should take you between three or four hours to drive, but who doesn’t stop when driving through the Kruger National Park? “Next time bring along your gas braai and do a brekkie at the double windmill, this is where the resident leopard and other animals tend to hang out,” advises the Satara day manager, Gordon Ramsden, as we head off .
To do the trail you have to pay a small deposit over and above your fee. The reason for this is to ensure that everyone returns after doing the trail. Before this system was put in place two families actually slept out at the double windmill after getting stuck there. The resident leopard paraded around their vehicle at one stage and later a lion killed an antelope not far from them. After realising that no-one would be coming to help, one of the party took a deep breath and walked some two kilometres before he was able to acquire cellphone signal and call for recovery.
Fortunately for us the trail was bone dry, but as we bounced our way through the black dried muddy bits I could easily see how someone would get stuck here in the wet season. Once again the trail was very overgrown; we found ourselves driving through high grass so I kept an eye on the temperature gauge. When we stopped for a leg stretch I made sure there was no grass or seeds caught in the radiator. As nice as it was I didn’t want to get stuck out here.
After about an hour of driving the trail joins the public N’wanetsi River Road for a short stretch. When we turned back onto the trail it ran alongside the Mavumbye River, which helped as we saw big herds of animals here. The river still had water in it but according to experts when it’s dry (around August) then a good place to stop on the trail is the Mavumbye double windmills as all the animals come here for water. That probably explains why it has a resident leopard. We tried hard to find it once we reached the windmills, but to no avail.
I thoroughly enjoyed the two 4×4 trails within the park, especially the fact that we could overnight on the Malopeni Eco-trail. Officials restrict the number of vehicles on the trails, so often it’s just you out there. The trails aren’t technical at all so people with little or no 4×4 experience can enjoy them too. What’s more, they offer one a good opportunity to test vehicle and equipment especially on the Malopeni trail where one has to be totally self-sufficient.
Mitsubishi Pajero Sport 3.2 Di-DC GLS AT
I’ve now been on several trips in the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and once again it delivered the goods. I had my bicycle with me so I folded flat the second row of seats and was able to easily pack my bike, camera gear and camping gear. The darkened rear windows kept these valuable contents away from covetous eyes. Making our way from Gauteng towards Phalaborwa meant driving winding forest roads italics en route. Here the Sport sat nicely in the sharp turns and delivered the responsive power we needed to overtake the many logging trucks. This year’s model now boasts 17” tyres and additional air bags – now there’re six.
Once off the tar, you select 4WD by shifting the secondary gear lever. I only had to use low-range once when powering out of a riverbed and up a rocky incline. Sadly I never got to use the rear diff-lock.
The Pajero Sport is a comfortable and capable option for off-roading. It’s a vehicle you can enjoy on the tar when going to and from work and then when you get out of the city and hit the off-road tracks it has proven systems that will take you where you want to go.
WHERE WE STAYED
Sefapane Lodge and Safaris, Phalaborwa
This lodge is only a couple of km from the Phalaborwa gate at the park. We stayed in one of the comfortable luxury safari homes which are set up for your every need, including DSTV. From here we were able to enjoy several of the activities that they offer including game drives, a river cruise, a bush dinner in the park or a 20 km mountain bike trip also in the park. We did all of these and can highly recommend the mountain bike activity. The lodge has a restaurant, pool and bar. For more details see www.sefapane.co.za or (015)780 6700.
Sable Hide, Kruger National Park
Situated 15 km from the Phalaborwa gate, this is one of my favourite sleeping options in the park. You can collect your bedding for the hide at the gate. As occupation is around sunset time you have the place to yourself and there are many animals about. It has beds, toilets and a huge braai area – what else could one need? The hide can sleep up to nine people. To book call SANParks Central Reservations on (012) 428 9111. To overnight at Sable costs R415 for the first two people and then R200 for each additional person.
Malopeni Eco Trail (71 km)
The cost is R600 per vehicle with a max of four people. Only five vehicles allowed on the trail per day. No children under the age of 12 unless prior arrangement has been made. Bookings are taken through central reservations on (012) 428 9111 or contact the Phalaborwa gate on (013) 735 3547/8/9.
Mananga Adventure Trail (50 km)
You pay R460 per vehicle for this day trail plus a deposit of R100 which you get back upon your return. No pre-bookings – you pay on the day. Only six vehicles per day are allowed on the trail.
The Malopeni Eco-trail is guided-only, but for the Mananga Adventure trail they will give you a map when you check in at the Satara reception. The map is easy to read, and the trail simple to navigate.
Fill up in Phalaborwa; the Malopeni trail isn’t that long and it’s only once you head to the southern part of the park that you have to watch the fuel needle though most of the bigger park camps have fuel.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
There is a Spar, Pick n Pay and Woolworths in Phalaborwa. One has to be totally self-sufficient on the trails so take along adequate water, food and fuel.
You may not pick up wood in the park so bring your own. A bird book and good pair of binoculars will also come in handy.
CONVOY OR SOLO
The Malopeni Eco-trail is guided-only while the Mananga trail is self-drive.
Most of the tracks are in pretty good shape although the rain has damaged some sections, which makes them more fun. After the rain the place can be pretty overgrown so expect to get some scratches.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
A decent map of the Kruger National Park will be useful.
Any 4×4 with decent ground clearance will be able to do this trail.
You’re in a wildlife park and you’ll be climbing in and out of your vehicle so be on the lookout for wild animals.