On foot in Kruger



Hlengiwe Magagula set off on the four-day Olifants River Back Pack Trail offered by SANParks

When I arrived at the N’wamanzi Lookout Point at sundown, I had an extra reason to enjoy the view down to the Olifants River: the next day I would be down there on the sand, carrying my tent and four days of supplies. The Olifants River Back Pack Trail is one of three eco-friendly, “no trace camping” walks in the north of Kruger National Park. It’s the perfect way to get close to the texture, sounds and smells of the veld.

My anticipation was mixed with apprehension. After several years of poor rains in the region, South Africa’s largest park was officially in drought and the water level was low. Instead of a river, there was a series of ponds and ribbons, reflecting the sun’s glow. Seeing animals suffer was definitely not part of my plan.

The next morning, as our small group gathered in the near-by rest camp, I asked our guide Francois, a semi-retired farmer and honorary ranger, about the effects of the drought. He was somewhat reassuring but said the grazing was scarce, especially for the hippo who are forced to forage further at night. We had to be prepared to see some skinny animals and even some carcases. On the other hand, the sparse vegetation and weakened animals were good news for the big cats.

Starting upstream close to the park’s western border, we had four days to cover 40km, so the pace was not excessive. We took any excuse to pause: a pod of 50 staring hippos, an enormous eagle owl at rest overhead, and a perfect bathing spot for ourselves in the shade of a Sycamore fig.

Each afternoon we would seek the perfect campsite, learning to check spoor and terrain to pitch the tents away from favoured tracks of the olifants (Afrikaans for ‘elephants’) and buffalo.  After dark, we entered a world of strange sounds: baboon yelps, owl hoots, hyena screeches, the muted cough of a lion. On the final evening, the stillness was broken by what sounded like an approaching train. It was, in fact, the dramatic arrival of a weather front. It kicked up the fine sand, filled the tents and knocked the stoves. But no rain fell.

And just like that, our trail had come to an end. We walked out through parched mopane forests, back to cold drinks and comfy beds. Before leaving the park, I stopped again at N’wamanzi. In the middle distance, I could see a line of elephants, mothers and calves, crossing the sandbanks to a section of water that was deep enough to wallow. I whispered a ‘thank you’ for sharing their river with me.

Six months later and home in Swaziland, a sheet of water is cascading from the roof as I write. The dams are filling, and the hills are turning green. Perhaps the drought is over.


Top Tips

  • Of the three Kruger backpacking trails, the others being Mphongolo and Lonely Bull, only Olifants guarantees a refreshing river swim every day.
  • Bring water purification drops (available at Cape Union Mart in Nelspruit) so that you can drink from the river en route when you run out of water.
  • Do not carry more than a quarter of your body weight. If you exceed the maximum weight, you may be asked to leave some of your belongings behind.
  • Don’t bring new hiking boots to the trail, as you may end up developing blisters.
  • Make a packing checklist. All items are essential!

Hlengiwe Magagula is a travel writer based in the mountains of western Swaziland. To read more about the trail, click here.