Updated: Apr 27
Author: Erica Davies, May 2018
You put your heel down, first. Gently. Then you roll through the foot, towards the toe. You don’t plonk your toe down. You don’t stomp along. You aim to make no noise at all.
I realise that my footwear (solid, rigid-soled hiking boots) is not really suitable for this new method of walking. I make a mental note to bring more flexible boots, next time. We are a group of 4 friends, doing a 4-day, 3-night unsupported backpacking hike through the Letaba Ranch area of the Greater Kruger National Park. It is late January and it is very hot. We have been dropped off close to the confluence of the Greater and Little Letaba Rivers, and together with our leader and guide Lutz Otto, and his second-in-command Jake, we are making our way along the banks of the Letaba River, very aware of the force of the sun. And aware that we are singularly ill-adapted to this environment. I try to walk, or rather roll, along. This rolling affects my balance and I seem to step on every twig in sight. The sun bakes the red soil of the mopane veld and bakes the river sand. I am carrying 4 litres of water and I know that I’ll drink most of it before we set up camp in the evening. Lutz has recommended that we carry a good supply of rehydrate sachets, and, barely an hour into the trip, I understand why.
Lutz, with more than 3 decades of bush and wilderness experience, reads his surroundings as I would a Shakespeare text. He has explained how difficult it is to get permission to backpack through Big 5 country, and how, of all his guiding activities, this is his favourite. We are free to hike where we wish, to follow game trails and spoor wherever they take us, to camp where we choose. For clients who prefer some measure of comfort, he arranges day hikes from a bush camp base, but we have chosen the wild option. He and Jake carry rifles, but the onus is on all of us to be ‘situationally aware’: 6 pairs of eyes constantly scan the bush around us and the sandy soil beneath our feet. Lutz points out the ‘mopane bread’- an edible sugary excretion of the mopane psyllid - and he makes us aware of how bush signs help with navigation in the flat mopane veld. The south-facing trunks of the mopane are covered in lichen, seldom the north-facing ones. It is possible to differentiate between male and female elephant footprints if the elephant has urinated as he (or she) has walked along. Despite the heat, we all begin to look at the bush around us with new awareness. This trip is going to be about another way of walking, certainly, and another way of ‘being’’ as well.
The first day is, we think, the hottest. We move a little inland from the river where the going is easier, and then we find the snares. Simple, yet horribly effective, these wire loops, made from the freely available Kruger fence, have been cunningly placed on game trails to catch unsuspecting animals as they make their way towards the river. Some snares are old, some much newer. In the baking heat, we fan out. Soon we have collected 19 snares. We come upon the remains of an impala, its damaged leg the tell-tale sign of an animal caught in a snare. We attach the snares to our backpacks and continue. Everyone is silent. Later that evening, Lutz discusses efforts being made to curb poaching in the Park, the huge costs involved, the contentious issue of allowing hunting in certain areas to bring in much-needed revenue. For the moment, though, we all think our own thoughts. We have at least, as he points out, saved 19 animals from a slow and excruciatingly painful death.
Our first night is spent camped on the sand in the riverbed, beneath a high bank. It will be difficult for anything to ambush us in this position. We have all brought tents but, because of the heat, we pitch only the inner, breathable tent liners. Lutz explains that we should be safe within our enclosed, albeit thin, inner ten liners. We’ll need to keep the tent fronts zipped up. Animals are unlikely to bother us if we aren’t exposed, so, no heads or feet sticking out of tents at night. It’s unlikely that any of us will try anything funny. We’ve seen enough hippo and elephant tracks in the sand around our camp to know that, even though we seem to have the place to ourselves for the moment, things could well change, come nightfall.
Water we get from the river itself. Lutz sets up an ingenious gravity-feed filter (he has a video on YouTube showing how to make one of these) and soon filtered water is being collected in our water bags and bottles. We all marvel at the muck which shoots out of the filter when he uses a syringe to clean it. Two of us, with generally strong internal systems, opt to purify river water using Aqua Solveo drops only, the others filter and then purify. We have to keep track of our water consumption and prepare enough potable water for the night and for the next day. Water is a serious business.
We are not disturbed during our first night, although we hear a hyena calling close by. After a 5am start, we move a little inland from the river again, and encounter one of the large termite mounds which dot the mopane veld. All around the spike of baked earth are elephant tracks. Lutz shows us how to interpret the tracks. The elephant lean against the mound, rubbing themselves against it. They also like to sleep leaning against it – an ingenious way of saving energy when it comes to having to get up again. He examines tracks around the termite mound and tells us that the elephant have been here only a few hours before. I can imagine the lumbering beasts, in the pre-dawn half-light, getting up, then moving towards the river. This is what this place is all about. I hardly ever use my imagination to create a picture of what my local shopping mall looks like at 4am, yet here I am, becoming so much a part of the environment that imagining it in different lights and at different times is easy. In this environment one’s eyes are opened, literally and metaphorically, to how other things are, to existences beyond the self. I can see that this process, so interesting to me on a personal level, must be integral to the wilderness team-building workshops which Lutz leads.
The next 2 nights we spend camped on the river bank, under an enormous Appleleaf tree. We rest up during the heat of the day, watching nyala come down to drink on the opposite bank, and following a fish eagle as it swoops low, searching for prey. Later in the afternoon, we notice some elephant moving around in the bush on the opposite bank, about 500m away. Lutz suggests that we ‘take a look‘ at them. Down the river we move, as stealthily and as quietly as possible. He has a trick to determine wind direction: he carries a little pouch filled with ash and as we are moving about in the bush he lets some ash fall through his fingers. Wind speed and direction are indicated by the way the ash falls. Wind direction is all important. We manoeuvre ourselves between the boulders in the riverbed, upwind of the small group of elephant. My light-coloured hat is a giveaway and I yank it off. Slowly, on all fours (almost) so as not to break the silhouette of the boulders, we approach to less than 100m of a small elephant group. They are feeding and drinking in a shady spot where the steep riverbank is covered with trees and bush. I feel like a voyeur, spying right into their space. The elephant are oblivious of our presence and there is nothing between them and us. The largest elephant lumbers up the steep bank to rub itself on one of the trees growing higher up. We marvel in silence at the display of strength. This is a 5 ton elephant climbing a 40-degree bank. Who said elephants can’t climb? The elephant remaining in the river splash around, supremely unconcerned. We feel privileged to be able to watch them, and from so close by. There are other elephant around us, surprisingly difficult to see as they graze the clumps of river grass. The exhortation to remain ‘situationally aware’ makes perfect sense. We are intruders in their territory, and we know it. We decide to retreat to our side of the river and to leave the elephant in peace.
Back in camp, Lutz shows us his fire-making set: a stick and wooden base with shallow holes gouged out of it. His enthusiasm is infectious, and despite the (still considerable) heat, we squat around in the sand and have a go at twirling the vertical stick in its hole to make an ember, and then a fire. It’s hot and hard and dirty work as we take it in turns to twirl the stick. Eventually an ember falls onto the dry grass he has carefully placed close by on the wooden base. We blow in turn, some of us with stronger ‘puff’ than others, and suddenly we have fire! Spontaneously we all cheer as we fall back into the sand.
The next day we walk inland to Leopard Rock, an outcrop in the sea of mopane bush. All around there are game trails and, in the sand, lots and lots of footprints. We learn how to recognize a tortoise trail, zebra footprints, baboon prints, vervet monkey prints … A whole world has been moving out here. We pass close by an elephant herd some 50 strong, and marvel at how easily such huge creatures blend into the mopane vegetation and disappear. No-one speaks. We have our ‘elephant ears’ signal to communicate the presence of elephant to one another. As we approach Leopard Rock, we disturb a spotted hyena. On top of the outcrop, in the welcome shade of wild syringa trees, we take out our snacks and water bottles. I sit on a very convenient shady rock step. It smells of dassie, I say, then excitedly find long hyena hairs on the rock around me. The hyena has been here, probably sleeping right here … Then I notice the streams of dry hyena urine on the rock around me. Forget about being in the hyena’s bedroom, I’m having a snack in his toilet. No wonder the smell is overwhelming!
There is more excitement as we hike out on our last morning. Having cleared our section of the river of garbage (mainly plastic bottles which come down the river from settlements upstream) we set off to visit a large hippo pool where the river has formed a natural dam. The hippo pool is peaceful. Fish jump, the Jacobin Cuckoo calls, hippo move lazily about or remain stationary in the water. Somewhat reluctantly we leave the pool and continue our hike. About a kilometre from the hippo pool we stop to admire a huge mopane tree. We hear noises. Lutz suspects elephant, but can’t be sure. Off we go, more light-footed by now, in pursuit of the noise. No, these aren’t elephant making this noise, they are hippo, on land, just ahead of us. Moving in the direction of the noise, we find ourselves retracing our steps towards the hippo pool. Unfortunately, the bush and the flat terrain make it difficult to see more than a few metres ahead and when the noise stops we lose precious time trying to work out which way to move. We arrive at a large open expanse of sand. Scuff marks, lots of footprints and hollows gouged out in various places indicate that, just minutes before, two hippo have been fighting. One has been wounded and, with the victor in pursuit, has headed off to the hippo pool. There we find them, the wounded hippo ‘hurting badly’ as Lutz puts it. When conflict arises between hippo lots of mouth opening or ‘yawning’ occurs, the preliminary stage in a conflict. The next stage can take the form of a confrontation in water or on land. Territoriality is strongest in the water and, after an attack, the weaker hippo is driven away and sometimes dies as a result of its injuries. Hippo teeth can inflict terrible wounds and hippo are responsible for more human deaths than any other mammal. Lutz knows what a remarkable event we have just missed. We have been so close, surrounded by the noise of battle, and we realise that, had we run through the bush just a little faster we might have seen the gory fight itself. Ah well, as anyone who has spent hours driving around looking for game in the Kruger Park knows, the bush is like that!
We move on along the river bank. Eventually the dark green canvas tents of the bush camp come into view. Lutz warns us not to get too complacent: the camp is unfenced, the game moves freely around it and through it, buffalo and elephant have been encountered in the camp metres from the drinks fridge…. No last-minute sightings for us, however, just the realization that our time in the bush is over, for the moment at least. We’ll be back.
Erica Davies, May 2018
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