It was on a chilly winter morning at the end of July a few years ago that we left Olifants camp in an OSV for the starting point of our backpack trail. We left at about 8 in the morning to start the four-day walking trail. A trail that would lead us 42 kilometres along the Olifants River in a remote wilderness area of the Kruger National Park.
One of the reasons I specifically wanted to do the Olifants backpack trail is that it follows a more or less pre-determined route. You have to complete the 42 odd kilometres between the starting- and the pickup point in four days. It felt like a nice physical challenge for me. And a massive adventure to be camping out in the wild with nothing between me and a potentially dangerous animal except for a thin stretch of canvas.
I was super excited and grateful for the opportunity to join Steven on this backpack trail. We had weighed my backpack a hundred times the night before; trying to make sure it was not too heavy. Steven, the gentleman that he is, would carry most of the load. We had meticulously planned and catered for meals and snacks. I brought all the essential stuff over from Holland and was geared up and ready to go!
The starting point of the trail is off a no-entry close to Phalaborwa Gate. There was a wave of excitement going through the group as we arrived there. Steven and his back-up Matt got everyone’s backpacks out of the trailer. After a few rules and do’s and don’ts Steven said: “Saddle up, guys. Time to go!”
So off we went. In single file, with Steven and Matt in front, hugging the northern bank of the Olifants River.
I think we all had to get used to the weight of our backpacks and the rough sand. Luckily Steven stopped regularly for little breaks. I loved to sit and rest my feet while admiring the view of the river. The river still had quite a bit of water for this time of the year. Watching it flow past, listening to the hippo’s call in the distance, my bare feet in the sand that was warmed by the sun, gave me such a feeling of being part of nature. It is a feeling I will never forget.
We walked about 10-11 kilometres that first day. Which was a decent stretch, considering we left a bit later than usual. Our campsite for the night was a nice, open patch of grass right next to the river. While I was pitching our tent, two hippos walked through the river and came out to graze on the other bank. I was kind of relieved they chose to move away. A hippo out of the water is an animal I have a very healthy respect for!
The sun sets quickly in Africa and before we knew it, it was getting dark. We collected some driftwood and started a small fire. While we all sat on some tree stumps around the fire, everyone got their little gas burners and pots out to cook dinner. I made a pasta with salami that, for a one pot meal, was not too shabby at all if I may say so myself!
The temperature dropped quickly after the sun set. And as much as the campfire was warm and cosy, everyone opted for an early night in their tents and warm sleeping bags. Exhausted from the first exciting day in Kruger’s wilderness.
The tent Steven and I shared was small but big enough for two sleeping bags and my one foam “mattress”. Which in hindsight was so useless I might as well have left it at home. Next time I go on a backpack trail, I am taking a self-inflatable mattress and a much better sleeping bag!
The next morning, we were literally up with the birds. As soon as the francolins started calling, Steven woke up our whole group and we had our camp packed up by the time the sun came over the horizon. It was still quite nippy and we had a nice hot cup of tea and coffee with a rusk before we set out along the river again.
We saw so many hippos the second day. Some of them were out on the sandbanks sunning themselves in the morning sun. Others were out of the water grazing. As soon as they saw us, they immediately made a b-line for the safety of the water. You might think that a hippo is slow on its feet because it is big and heavy, well nothing is further from the truth. Especially when you are on foot and you see a hippo running towards the water! (I will post a video on our Facebook page) One of them had us in stitches when it almost somersaulted off a high bank into a deep pool of water! It was such a funny sight.
The second day was also the day I started getting blisters on my feet. The slope of the riverbank and the gullies we were walking through make my shoes pinch in strange places. Luckily I had brought a needle and some blister plasters. So while our second dinner of the trail was cooking on the burner, I administered some ‘first aid’ to my feet. They still had to walk another 18 kilometres or so. Better look after them properly!
After a cold night, the francolins woke everyone up again. Much better than any alarm if you ask me!
Steven wanted to push it a bit that day and get to a camp site as close to the pickup point as possible. So we left early. Steven knew of a short cut through some Mopani scrub, but in the middle of the dense bushes, we bumped into a breeding herd of elephants! They were all around us, so we quietly backtracked and made our way around the herd without them even knowing we were there.
Around mid day we stopped at a beautiful spot along a few rapids. Two majestic Matumi trees provided some well-needed shade. Steven and Matt decided this would be the perfect place for lunch and a bit of a sleep afterwards. My blistered feet were grateful! Time to take those boots off and put my plakkies on!
While we were all resting, a herd of elephants walked past not far from us. They were in a hurry to get to the water and did not pay much attention to us. But after the elephants went past, no one was able to go back to sleep, so it was time to “saddle up!” again and continue our journey.
We were not even 10 minutes from our spot under the trees when Steven all of a sudden stopped dead in his tracks. He pointed to something to our left. I was straining my eyes trying to see what he was pointing at. Was it a hippo? Or an elephant? Steven was dead quiet, but kept pointing excitedly to something under a small tree. Then all of a sudden the picture came into focus. Steven was pointing at a LEOPARD that was busy CHOKING AN IMPALA!!!
My jaw dropped to the floor. “Stand dead still” Steven whispered to the group. But the leopard had already seen us. He dropped the impala and ran away. “Did everybody SEE that!!!?” Steven said! The whole group nodded silently, looking at each other with big, big eyes.
Then all of a sudden movement on our left caught my eye. It was the Impala! She was getting up! Obviously, we had disturbed the leopard before it was able to choke the Impala. “Guys, let’s go quietly,” Steven said. “The leopard might still come back and finish his kill if we don’t stay around.” We all felt bad the leopard lost his meal, so we followed Steven and Matt to a good distance away, where we could chat out loud and high five each other at this amazing sighting! I mean, who ever gets to see a leopard kill. ON FOOT!!
The adrenaline from our leopard sighting spurred us on and we got to our final camping spot in good time. One of the other trails guests had brought a little rugby ball and some of the group played a bit of catch, while others (including me) had a bit of a swim in a shallow part of the river. Matt stood by on crocodile watch!
The last night
Later that night, we all recounted our own versions of the leopard encounter. I brought a little half jack of old brown sherry and this last evening was the perfect opportunity for us all to have a small tot.
None of us got much sleep that night though. Around midnight lions roaring close by woke us up. I shot up straight in bed. All around us, I could see torches going on in the other tents. Everyone had heard it! “See!”, I whispered to Steven, “This is why I like to sleep with the tent door closed!” Steven smiled at me. “They are on the other side of the river. Don’t worry. Just don’t slap the side of the tent if something brushes past it.” Right. That was sleep done for me.
An hour later I heard the typical cough of a leopard not too far away. I am not much of a ‘bang broek’. But I have to be honest, I was up, dressed and ready in our tent by the time the francolins started calling. And quite relieved to see the sun peer up over the horizon!;-)
Steven had planned our walking distances and camping spots perfectly. It was not a far walk to the pickup spot at all that morning. And we spent about an hour on the river enjoying the view and recounting the events of the last three days.
Apart from a few blisters here and there and the odd uncomfortable mattress, the whole group had had a fabulous time! We were all quite sad that our adventure along the Olifants River had come to an end. I think each and every one of us would definitely do another backpack trail! It really is a very special way to experience Kruger’s vast wilderness.
In the distance, we could hear that the truck was on his way to come fetch us. And with him, came a very welcome surprise: A cooler box full of ice-cold drinks! What a treat after three days of lukewarm water! And a fantastic end to 4 amazing days walking and camping in the Kruger National Park!