Elephants passing us on the reservoir on the Mpongolo backpack trail

Stuck on the Reservoir – The Mpongolo Backpack Trail

One of my favorite swimming spots in Kruger is the large cement reservoirs you see close the waterholes. Obviously, we don’t swim in the public water-points, but out in the veld and especially on a backpack trail, having a swim in one of those is a lovely way to cool of.


These reservoirs are huge and can hold thousands of liters of water. The water is cold and clear – not clear enough to see the bottom, but very inviting on a hot Kruger day. The best thing about them: there is absolutely no chance of crocodile and hippo in these cement structures unless they learn how to jump or fly;-)


When I was on a lion capture up north of the park, after setting up the camp and getting everything ready for the night, a friend and I jumped into the reservoir to cool down. Even since that first swim, I have always been on the lookout for a good spot to go swimming. But these days with our new water policies, many of the reservoirs in the wilderness areas have been removed and the area rehabilitated. So there are not many of them left.


While inside these structures often the view of approaching animals is breathtaking. I remember one occasion, which turned into a situation on a Mpongolo Backpack Trail.


I was doing the Mpongolo backpack trail for the first time with friends of mine. Since it was my first one, my colleague and friend Mathew led the trail so that I could get used to the terrain.


The trail started after a guide from Shingwedzi dropped us off far out in the Mpongolo wilderness. After checking the guy’s packs and equipment, we set off walking. Matt said we were going to camp near a dam and he hoped there was still some water in it. When we got there, there was more mud than water. But in spite that, we had a look and found a great place to set up camp.


As it started getting dark a leopard started his typical coughing sound not far from us. We explained to the nervous looking guys it was a territorial call and there was nothing to be concerned about. But with it being the first night on trail our guests were understandably nervous.


The next thing the leopard called again and bit closer this time. So both Matt and I went to have a look with our lights attached to the barrels of our rifles. Sure enough: there was the big Tom! All during the night he kept circling us and calling and we would get brief glimpses of him as he crossed the dry riverbed. It did not take long for all the guys to be zipped up in their tents.


The next day most of them had blood-shot eyes from a semi-sleepless night. In the early hours after first light, we packed up camp and we moved out to our next camp. We passed the leopards tracks and I figure the closest he was to us was about 60 meters.


It got really hot that day and a few of the guys struggled with the heat. We found water and cooled them off and had a good rest. Unlike the Olifants River Backpack Trail, there isn’t a flowing river or stream you walk next to on the Mpongolo Backpack Trail. And water is always a precious commodity.


Matt said he has a surprise for us on the last night. We were going to camp close to one of the water holes with a reservoir. So for the rest of the trip, I was daydreaming of having a great swim in the cement structure.


On the last day, we approached the water hole and viewed a big elephant bull not far away. We got closer to the water hole and spotted a white rhino bull at the drinking trough. We approached him using the cement reservoir as cover. As we stood watching the rhino bull I noticed a lot of mud around the trough. I had a sneaking suspicion that the elephants dug up the pipes leading from the reservoir to the trough.

The reservoir at the Mpongolo backpack trail
Picture courtesy of Prenevin Govender

After the rhino left I asked one of the tallest guys to have a look in the reservoir and see how much water there is. It did not look good. As I suspected the elephants being impatient for water dug up the pipes feeding the trough. Because of this, the reservoir could not fill up to its maximum. There was green slime on the little bit of water in the reservoir. This posed a problem for us because we also needed water for the night.


So we went to find a shady place in the tree line to rest and think of a plan. While we rested on a big termite mound in the shade the elephant bull we encountered earlier moved closer to us obviously interested in what we were going to do. He was barely 10 meters away from us but so relaxed it was surreal just watching him as we lay there.


As the day moved on we developed a plan. We would go to the reservoir with our foldable buckets. Don’t try and combine those words; ) I would climb in with two of the guests, and at the spout, in the center, we would cipher water using my camelback pipe into the buckets ; )


Off we went. I had to climb this slippery pivot and balance on the top like a heron. Luckily the wind was blowing the windmill enough to ensure a steady stream of water to fill the buckets. As we were busy with our mission to get water, I heard a low rumble typical of elephants. I looked up and saw a huge herd of elephants was on their way to us. I warned Matt and the others, as they could not see them to move back to the tree line, which they did.


The elephants advanced in that silent gait of theirs, as they walked up to the reservoir I realized my rifle was still at the wall on the outside. While I was busy with that Matt and the rest of the guys had another herd of elephants to contend with. After some trumpeting and shouting that herd also headed to us.

When we looked again, about 200 elephants surrounded us. The two guys in the reservoir and I had no choice but to wait it out. We silently hoped for a gap so we could climb out and head back to our camp. Needless to say, we were stuck in the reservoir for about an hour and a half. All three of us perched on the side wall looking at all the comings and goings of the elephants below us. Eventually, there was a window of opportunity and we slipped out and snuck back to the campsite.


I felt like I was glowing in the dark that night, not because of the incredible experience but because the sun burned me red like a lobster on that reservoir without having a shirt on.


Untill we meet around the fire again!


Cheers, Steve.


7 thoughts on “Stuck on the Reservoir – The Mpongolo Backpack Trail

  1. Oh my word! As I read this its a really funny story and it gave me a good laugh, but I can imagine that it probably wasn’t so funny for those of you perched on a hard cement wall in the broiling sun! It was a clever plan to get water in that way and i bet the others were pretty relieved when you finally made it down. I see there is a pic of a large ellie drinking at the reservoir and I’m interested to know if ellies tried to drink whilst you were on the wall, and if so, did they just go to the side opposite you? Did your presence on their water supply bother them? Thanks for a great story!

  2. An adventure is an adventure – even a mishap can become one!! Nice story.
    Camped next to the Zambezi between Kazangula and Vic Falls on army exercise in late 66. There were four of us and the two junior of us ended up sleeping on the outside. A leopard had been taking dogs and goats in nearby villages. One morning we woke up to find spoor all round where we had been sleeping (under a bucksail attached to the vehicle and not inside a tent). Very grateful that the village livestock had kept Mr Leopard’s belly full!!!!

  3. Wonderful story and experience. Another great memory. Interesting to read that ellies dig up water pipes. Maybe put a note on the pipes explaining to the ellies that it is shortsighted of them to do this.

    I really enjoy seeing Kruger from the “inside”. A totally different experience.


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