The summer rains were bountiful, the veld is lush, and there will never be a better time to embark on a guided walk in a national park. Hlengiwe Magagula, co-author of Walking Safaris of South Africa, picks five top choices to lure you into the wilds on foot.
1. iMfolozi Wilderness Trails, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
The wilderness trails of Zululand are the original and, for many, still the most authentic walking safari experience in South Africa. When the late Dr Ian Player began these trails in the 1950s, his goals were very clear. He wanted to let people enjoy the wilds on foot as a way to show that wilderness preservation has a real value. In fact, he would have been quite happy to see no tarred roads or lodges in his beloved Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, and to a degree he has succeeded. The majority of the iMfolozi section is still a designated wilderness zone, without even 4×4 access. It’s a wonderful area for walks with many fine lookouts over the White Umfolozi River.
The Ezemvelo wilderness trails have evolved to several formats, but they still have the basic ingredients. Supplies are carried by donkey, water is sourced from the river, and bush toilets and bucket showers are the norm. The original Player-style experience is the Primitive Trail: backpacking, sleeping tent-free and keeping solo guard through the night by the small fire, which is also used for cooking. It’s my favourite option but backpacking is not for everyone, and the most popular Wilderness Trails (there are 2- and 3-night options) have hikers based at an unfenced fly camp that is fixed for the season. All meals are provided and the camp is basic – a mattress in a tent, camp cushions in place of chairs. The main advantage over the Primitive Trails is that the walking is much easier, with just a day pack.
• Difficulty level: High for Primitive Trail and moderate for the Wilderness Trail, with some steep terrain; suited to those who don’t mind roughing it at camp.
• Season: Mid–February to early December, April–July and September are top months
• Cost: R2,870/R3,465 pp for 3/4 nights
• Booking: www.kznwildlife.com
2. Bushmans Wilderness Trail, Kruger National Park
The SANParks wilderness trail experience in Kruger is more comfortable than that of iMfolozi, but it’s a winning formula, and they are heavily booked. The three-night trails are fully catered, the units have real beds, and the boma has camp chairs. Hot showers and flush toilets are standard – a couple of camps even have en-suites.
As camps get renovated, there has been a shift from A-frame huts to platform tents, which feel more roomy. The latest camp for a rebuild is Bushmans, a beautifully located camp nestled amidst granite hills not far from Berg-en-Dal rest camp. As well as shifting to tents with en-suite, there’s a new camp concept – the electric fence is gone, and instead guests are protected on raised decks and walkways. This sounds like a good step to me and should make for some interesting wildlife sightings.
Dawn walks explore for three to four hours, and the Bushmans Wilderness Trail area is special for its wealth of San rock art. In the afternoons there’s time for a game drive on restricted roads, and a shorter walk.
• Difficulty level: Moderate, with 3-4 hour walks in hilly terrain; suits those who like camp comforts.
• Season: January–December, best from May to September
• Cost: R11,200 per 2-bed unit for 3 nights
• Booking: www.sanparks.org
3. Mphongolo Backpack Trail, Kruger National Park
There are three SANParks backpacking trails in the northern half of the KNP, each exploring vast areas that are designated “wilderness zones” and can be accessed only on foot. The northernmost – Mphongolo – is the best for me, as it has the largest and most varied terrain.
In recent years the lack of water has restricted what areas of Mphongolo can be walked but that has changed in 2021. The best summer rains for years mean this is the year to tackle this trail. The section ranger reports ephemeral rivers flowing well, and even after they stop there should be a high water table and plenty of pools. Hikers need to be fit and totally self-sufficient for the three days, bringing tent, stove, food, and at least 4L of water carrying capacity.
• Difficulty level: High, with heavy packs in often hot conditions. Suitable for adventure addicts.
• Season: February–November and May–August are best
• Cost: R3,475 pp for the 3-night trail
• Booking: www.sanparks.org
4. Morukuru Rustic Camp, Marakele National Park
One of Kruger’s best kept secrets is the Nyarhi Rustic Bush Camp operated by the SANParks Honorary Rangers near Mopani Rest Camp. Now the formula has been applied to Marakele National Park, which is half the driving distance for folks based in Gauteng.
Morukuru Rustic Camp just hosted its first group in February 2021, and it’s designed for booking by groups of eight for weekend trips. Guests drive their own camping vehicles to the tamboti-shaded campsite and need to be totally self-sufficient, as there’s nothing there apart from a braai grid and Enviro Loo. Each morning the group sets off from the unfenced camp to walk in the big game area of Marakele, exploring the attractive kloofs and canyons, and keeping watch for elephants, black and white rhino and buffalo. The prolific bird life includes a large colony of Cape vultures.
• Difficulty level: Easy to moderate, suitable for weekend walkers with their own camping trailers
• Season: February–November; April or May and August to October are best
• Cost: Group of up to 8 costs from R18 500 (higher on long weekends)
5. !Xaus Lodge, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
The walking experience at !Xaus in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is quite different to other walking safaris. But then everything about the Kgalagadi is different. It’s a bit hot and sandy for serious walks, but it still pays to get out on foot. The place to do that is !Xaus Lodge, on the park’s south-western boundary, three hours’ drive from Twee Rivieren Camp. Access is strictly 4×4, and a new one-way system means drivers can now avoid any unwelcome sudden encounters on the many dune crests. During lockdown the lodge built a new road past some of the many pans. It joins the Auob River road closer to Mata-Mata, giving guests a different scenic option.
The walks, led by San guides, are fascinating insights into the dune ecosystem. While the focus is on plant life, meerkats, rodents and reptiles, there’s also a chance to spot gemsbok, lion and cheetah. The night skies here are simply the best, and a night drive reveals another world of wildlife, including African wild cats and bat-eared foxes on the prowl for spring hares.
• Difficulty level: Easy, accessible to all, especially 4×4 drivers (transfers are possible for others)
• Season: Year-round; March–May and September–October are best
• Cost: R2,500 pppn for South African & SADC Residents, fully inclusive of meals and activities
• Booking: xauslodge.co.za
Find more walks
In Walking Safaris of South Africa (Struik Nature, R270), Hlengiwe Magagula and Denis Costello cover guided walks in 21 parks and reserves with big game. From easy-going day walks to backpack trails deep into the wilderness, there’s a walking trail to suit your needs. The book is both a practical guide and a beautiful description of walking in wild places.
Win the book
Two Tracks4Africa users will each win a copy of the book. Simply send your contact details and the right answer to the following question to firstname.lastname@example.org. Question: In how many parks and reserves does the book cover walking safaris? Competition closes 31 March 2021. Winner will be notified by email.
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