Sunday, 22 May 2016

Walking on the wild side: Nyalaland Wilderness Trail

I think we all have a primeval need to put ourselves in harm's way sometimes just to feel that little bit more alive. Why else would one choose to go walking in the Kruger National Park? And then keep going back again and again...

The view from the fly camp on the Luvuvhu River

This was my fourth trail in the park and the second time doing the Nyalaland Wilderness Trail in the far north. Not that any trail is really the same twice even though the drill is roughly the same. You spend three nights in the bush with two rangers looking after you and a cook who keeps you well fed. You sleep in tents or huts in proper beds with sheets and blankets. Ablutions might be basic but you'll get a hot shower after your exertions. 

Our tent was between an appleleaf and leadwood tree.
Each morning, you set off early for a walk of several hours (in this instance we were out for about five hours at a time) but the rangers spend a lot of time talking to you about what you're seeing and hearing. 

There is a chance of encountering dangerous animals, but for the most part it's about the little things - the birds, the bugs, the bush. We learnt about the intricacies of dung beetles, termite mounds and what a civet's midden looks like, among other things.

The previous time I'd been on the Nyalaland Trail, the camp was located away from the river around a giant baobab. A few years ago, this camp was flooded and so the present camp is a fly camp on the bank of the Luvuvhu River, west of Punda Maria. You know it's awesome when everyone on the back of the game vehicle bursts into spontaneous applause as you arrive at your destination. And for that extra little frisson, this camp was unfenced.

Our first night out we were treated to a display of fireflies flitting over the river. One even landed on my arm as we ate our dinner.

Leopard spoor was a regular sighting.
Our guides, Christopher Muthathi and David Nemukula, warned us that we shouldn't stray too far - they created an imaginary fence for us, pointing out a couple of bushes. Beyond that, we were not allowed to walk, nor were we to go down to the river unaccompanied, although some among our party swam in the rapids to cool off after the morning walk, under Christopher's watchful eye. That we had nocturnal visitors nearby was evidenced by the spoor we found in the mornings, the whooping calls of the hyenas at night and the telltale sawing of wood that is the leopard's bark.

One of our party quickly rustled up a water colour of the view from our camp.

On one evening walk, we were lucky enough to observe a herd of buffalo coming down to the river to drink.
The buffalo were on the far side of the river but nevertheless pretty nervous of us and soon pushed off in a cloud of dust.
One of our sundowners was from a view site high above the river. We could see the hippos below getting ready to leave the water to go grazing for the night. Some of the hippos had large fish nibbling around them.
In the afternoon, you go out again, but usually for a shorter outing with a sundowner. Here Christopher urged us to observe a moment of silence at sunset, just like our brethren the baboons would, I guess.
We were served a hearty brunches and even heartier suppers by Winston Hlungwani, son of the late Thomas Hlungwani who was the chef when I last did the Nyalaland trail.
Because you are on a wilderness trail, your rangers can take you on roads that are otherwise not open to the public. The Punda Maria area is known for its spectacular trees.
Among the magnificent trees of the area are many baobabs.
Early morning, and Christopher rallies us around. The idea is you walk in silence and you whistle if you want to stop to ask a question. While one ranger talks, the other goes ahead to scout for animals.
A golden orb spider with her elaborate larder was another opportunity to learn about the intricacies of nature.
And perhaps the most dangerous encounter of all, a puffadder quietly shared our picnic spot with us one morning - and was only discovered as we were packing up to leave. Fortunately, it chose to keep its peace, but it was a salutory reminder that we were truly in the wild and help was not immediately to hand.

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There are eight wilderness trails in the Kruger, each as different as the next, and some more popular than others. Nyalaland is in a really scenic part of the park but is not known for its lions. This is rather elephant and buffalo country. For more information on the trails, visit the Kruger's activity link on the SANParks website.

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