We, on the other hand, have been walking for half an hour when we come across eight bull elephants enjoying themselves in water. Unfortunately for us, they have drunk copiously at the spring before their cavorting, so our water source for the night is mainly mud and we need to wait for morning to replenish. But we have sounds, sights, glistening elephant skin.
This trail experience is a five-night, carry-all-you-need, sleep-under-the-stars bucket-list trip. Trail leader Bruce Lawson is a former Captain Morgan Adventurer of the Year (for a mad walk from the Cape nearly to Cairo), champion bird atlasser, the most experienced walking-trails guide in the country, and passionate exponent of the value of the wilderness experience.
Second rifle is Varun Taneja, an Indian tiger man come to Africa to get further qualifications in wilderness skills at EcoTraining. Many animal experiences only occur on foot. We have a long encounter with a herd of buffalo resting as we cross a flood plain. They stand up and approach, then halt a hundred metres or so away, alert. The group comments: ‘This feels like a Civil War movie. Or Braveheart.’ But nothing comes of this African stand-off, only a relaxed realisation that no harm is meant, and the buffalo retreat peacefully as we move off to the top of a hill for the night.
We see lots of animals: zebra, nyala, waterbuck, impala, baboons, vervets, kudu, Sharpe’s grysbok and, on the last morning, a herd of eland coming down like great spirits to the water hole we are just leaving. There is something right about seeing animals on foot rather than from the great fuming hide of a vehicle. Here we are all animals with needs for water and shelter, at a respectful and proper distance. Here one is excited by tracks of animals one doesn’t see – of giraffe, rhino, a tiny elephant – or by working out how the lions killed the eland carcass we come across.
Though this is winter and the trail’s emphasis is not on birding, the birding in Makuleke is always special. We see and hear about 100 species, including Arnot’s chat, the first thick-billed cuckoo of the season diving to lay an egg in an unprotected nest, a scaly-throated honeyguide and a shikra. But the most impressive birding moment is when Bruce asks us to diagnose evidence on the river sand – some fish scales and a few marks. We run through the usual suspects (crocodile, river monitor, fish eagle, osprey) but kick ourselves as CSI dummies when Bruce shows that this was, unmistakably, the site of a Pel’s fishing-owl kill.
We hear hyenas, a lion roaring far off, a leopard during the night when we take turns to sit watch next to the embers of the small fire. But the only scary moment is when Bruce sees a breeding herd of elephants coming in our direction on the second-last day and we beat a hasty retreat and rerouted to avoid any encounters with angry pachyderm maternity.
The landscape of this wilderness area between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers is special: fever trees, baobabs, gorges, huge cliffs, flood plains, along with mopani forests. We camp one night on the Limpopo, almost completely dry, and have a small herd of Zimbabwean cattle close to our camp, with their owners fishing at one of the few remaining patches of water.
The Luvuvhu is still flowing when we camp on its bank. During the night, we see five elephants bathing by full moon. The next day we get to leave our heavy packs under the nyala tree and head off barefoot or in sandals up the river. Above us Lanner Gorge looms. When we sit down, one of the German guests says quietly, ‘This is paradise.’
Why did we all do it? For Bruce the wilderness should be, as in Ian Player’s vision of the Wilderness Foundation, a place and space to take stock of who and why we are, without the distractions of the everyday. Now, with the digital avalanche that breaks on our heads every day, the need seems even more pressing. A key part of the experience is taking turns keeping watch next to the glowing embers during the night. We have surrendered our watches and phones at the start of the walk and we get a watch with a minute hand only so as to know when our hour of watch is over.
Bruce asks us to share our wilderness experience in his trails logbook as we sit during the night and reflect on what this digital detox, this immersive reality has taught us. I unworthily think, I will never again take for granted the pleasure of creature comforts, especially beds, hot showers, running water, cold beers in the fridge… but, beyond that, to value the kindness of others, to realise our basic needs, to live and love the now.
By Ian Glenn, Private Edition, Issue 34