Hiking with the Lions in the Kruger Park

Hiking through the Kruger National Park provides a close-up view of nature. If the truth be told, this is the correct way to observe nature.

There are two sacred rules when entering the Kruger National Park: never leave one’s vehicle after exiting the camps and never walk in the bush. In contrast, on the walking trails through the Kruger Park, all such safety rules are ignored in their entirety during the hike.

What a hike does is to allow one is to obtain an animal’s eye view of the environment. In the open with the sun beating down on one, one is at one with nature, imbibing it, becoming at one with it. Instead of being detached from nature one becomes an integral part of it. One’s senses become heightened and thereby become attuned to nature. All the sights and sounds of civilisation are banished and if they are ever heard or observed such as an overflying plane, it is like an intrusion into one’s private domain.

The ubiquitous Scarlet Chested Sunbird at the Skukuza Camp

The ubiquitous Scarlet Chested Sunbird at the Skukuza Camp

On the other hand when one drives through a game reserve, the detail becomes a blur and inconsequential and it is only the larger objects that one is aware of. But that is merely the tip of nature, the .0000001% of what we regard as nature. Nature is much more than that. It represents the whole ecosystem from the tiniest creature to the leviathans such as the elephants.

In fact, if the truth be told, what one wishes for on this type of hike are two things: animals wandering through the camp and to encounter one the Big Five Animals during the hike itself.

I have once before experienced nature like this and have written a series of articles entitled “Living the Rhythms of the Bush Life” about a two week sojourn in the Botswana Bush when one truly becomes one with nature.

After prevaricating for many years, the opportunity to experience the bush close-up and personal arose when the Quo Vadis Hiking Club elected to do this trail.

Under the n'watin'wambu - the milkwood tree during a hike through the bush

Under the n’watin’wambu – the milkwood tree during a hike through the bush

As the Metsi-Metsi Trail had been closed for renovations, an alternative trail had been established, the N’watin’wambu Camp, Shangaan for the Milkwood tree. Like all of Kruger’s Hiking camps, it is located in the middle of bush without perimeter fences or any other impediment to animals wandering through the living area. In this case, the camp comprised large brown rectangular tents.

The start of this hike is at the Skukuza Camp from where one is taken by game viewing vehicle through to the bush camp. Being experienced hikers what does one expect: certainly nothing lavish. The Camp exceeded my wildest expectations. When the brochure had stated two-man tents, I had visions of the portable one metre high tents used when hiking in the Berg. Instead there greeting us were huge walk-in tents. Inside were faux-wooden floors made of recycled plastic and two proper beds with sheets, blankets and pillows.

Two man tents in the middle of the bush

Two man tents in the middle of the bush

As we sat around the camp fire after dark listening to the sounds of the bush night, Ewout, our guide explained the procedure for the following days. He gently managed our expectations by making it clear that the chances of encountering one of the Big Five Animals on foot were minimal. His advice was to rather just enjoy nature in all its shapes and forms.

One of the issues that arose during the discussion was that of poaching in the Kruger Park. To our question, it was confirmed that Park’s Officials are culpable in this regard. What a heresy? Those employed to protect the game are those guilty of supplying the information to the Syndicates where to locate the Rhinos. On that sombre note, bed summonsed us.

The camp fire area at n'watin'wambu

The camp fire area at n’watin’wambu. There is no fence or any other form of barrier around the tents. One can imagine a hyena or heaven forbid, a hungry lion sneaking up on us while we are imbibing a few beers around the camp fire.

Shortly after sunrise on Monday morning, the hike commenced with the Guides Ewoet and Phillip leading the way.

Within 500 metres of the Camp, a huge rhino midden was passed. This indicates that rhino are resident in the area. The difference between this and other animal’s middens is not only the size but the fact that the males defecate in the middle whereas the females defecate on the periphery.

Rhino midden

Rhino midden

On our right, a vulture rose from its nest and soared into the sky. From the nest of a large bird, next it was the turn of smallest bird in South Africa, the Grey Penduline Tit. This bird uses spiders’ webs to construct nests in the thorn trees.

Nest made out of spider webs of the Grey Penduline Tit

Nest made out of spider webs of the Grey Penduline Tit

After having hiked only about two kilometres in one hour due to all the intermittent lectures on nature, Ewoet announced he was too ill to continue. We would have to head back to camp and another guide would have to be summonsed.

As a consolation prize, we would accompany Ewout back to Skukuza and then Phillip would take us on an extended game drive.

Andre Mabunda, the replacement guide, arrived at about 15:30 with the stunning news that two lions had been spotted at a water hole about 5 kilometres back on a restricted dirt road. Instead of walking there, he would drive us and we would follow the lions from that point on foot.

Andre Madanda, our Guide

Andre Madanda, our extremly knowledgeable Guide

By the time that we arrived at the waterhole, the lions had moved off. An irate hippo in the shallow muddy pool, made threatening lunges at us so we kept our distance from it. This solitary hippo had been banished from his pod which was based in the Sabie River some 8 kms away.

Then we were off. The guides would use their tracking skills to find these magnificent creatures. As we pushed through the dense bush in their anticipated direction, about 75 metres in front of us, two lions with manes swirling backwards, broke cover and charged to our left with our patrol of 7 charging after them in their wake.

After a desultory search and approaching darkness, we made our way back to the vehicle while again giving the irascible hippo a wide berth. A party with sun downers and snacks were held as the sun slowly set in the west over the muddy waters of the shallow mud pool. On the way back to camp, there perched on a stony outcrop was a solitary leopard nonchalantly surveying the world around him.

Dining room at N'watin'wambu

Dining room at N’watin’wambu

Andre, a local Shangaan, impressed us immensely with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush. Whatever question was raised, however obscure, he was able to answer it. What was even more amazing was his admission was that he was self-taught through reading all the various publications available. One negative however was his diction. It was so poor that often one could not understand what he was trying to tell us.


On Tuesday morning, we again set off just as the sun was rising. In spite of this being the Lowveld, the night time temperatures had been in the low single figures. The deficiencies of the tents were now plain to us: scorching hot during the day and freezing cold at night. It was so cold at night that most of us even slept within our sleeping bags under the blankets.

Then we walked past the rhino midden again but with the addition of fresh female faeces. We collectively sighed. Perhaps we would get lucky, not in the sexual sense, but in the hiking sense and cross their paths.

As white rhino are gregarious animals, this midden was theirs. Further on, there were some droppings of black rhinoceroses. As they are herbivorous browsers, they eat leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny wood bushes, and fruit. In slicing through the branches, they cut them at precisely a 45 degree angle. It is a clean professional cut worthy of any artisan.

The Tambootie Tree is endemic in the area. The sap from a standing Tambootie tree is highly irritating to the skin. According to Andre, the local Shangaans use it for fishing. The sap is thrown in a pool and the stunned fish are recovered from the water. The wood and sawdust has also been reported to cause eye and skin irritation. In extreme cases, there have been reports of blindness resulting from occupational exposure to Tambootie’s sawdust. The smoke generated from burning the wood is also toxic, and has been known to contaminate meats cooked over such firewood, resulting in diarrhea. Elephants are the only animal known not to be affected by this sap.

While still green, the fruits are frequently parasitised by a small grey moth. Larvae develop within the growing fruits which show no external damage. When the fruits are mature each splits into 3 cocci. The larvae jack-knife inside the fallen segments, causing them to move about erratically and vigorously, to the surprise of the uninitiated. This has led to the name “Jumping Bean Tree”.

Finally we spotted some Giraffe about 150 metres in front of us but more importantly, the N’watin’wambu tree. Who would have thought that a tree was more important than a large animal? Maybe we had started the process of appreciating all of nature and not just the large animals.

Giraffe near a milkwood tree

Giraffe near a milkwood tree

The Shangaan’s have a curious custom where they use the oily fruit of the torch tree which they set on fire. This nut produces copious quantities of smoke which is used to attract surrounding villages to drinking festivals. Finally we came across a civet cat which is no longer regarded as part of the cat family but rather the largest member of the mongoose family.

On Tuesday night we again did a late afternoon trip to the waterhole where we had spotted the lions the previous day in the hope of catching sight of them. The only game that we managed to view apart from the ubiquitous impala was a herd of wildebeest.

Thus ended our bush odyssey tinged with regret.

DSCF0032Of course the spotting of more of the Big Five on our hike would have been first prize but we were all humbled by the variety and the magnificence of nature in all its glory. The encyclopaedic knowledge of the guides and their willingness to impart their enthusiasm and knowledge with us, made the bush experience all the more exciting and enjoyable.

The wonders of the bush need to be appreciated in this manner by many more people. In South Africa we are blessed with these wonders yet very few will ever experience it.

Being able to view it through my hiking is an immense privilege.

Gallery of Laurie’s photos:

Gallery of my photos:

Episodes of Living the Rhythms of a Bush Life

Part 1:

Living the Rhythms of a Bush Life Part 1: Prologue & 10km Trip


Part 2:

Living the Rhythms of a Bush Life Part 2: Makgadikgadi & Nxai Pan


Part 3:

Living the Rhythms of a Bush Life Part 3: Bain’s Baobab, The Mokoro Interlude & Starvation Rations


Part 4:

Living the Rhythms of a Bush Life Part 4: Into the Heart of the Okavango


Part 5:

Living the Rhythms of a Bush Life Part 5: Through Moremi to Chobe & Home


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