It was first thing in the morning and we gathered outside the guides’ room. We had planned to walk to Xinkelengane Fly Camp and camp out there for the night. We were all excited. It was going to be an epic, long walk. Solomon was leading the walk and Coman was the back-up rifleman. As a walking mentor, I took a third rifle. I was wondering if our planning was completely out, as it was forecast that there was going to be a massive cold front approaching. Cape Town had already experienced it and there had been strong winds there that had caused roofs to be ripped off and freezing temperatures. The sun was just about to come up over the horizon and we could feel there was a bite in the air. Solomon was ready and Coman and I got our rifles out of the safe, grabbed our binoculars and put on our backpacks. We were all set. The other members joining us on the walk were Evidence, Adel, Wessel, Dickson and Chantelle. Others had expressed interest but, unfortunately, we had to limit the group to eight members (both for safety reasons and so that it would not be a mass crowd).
We headed towards Lebombo Access, where Solomon, Coman and I loaded the rifles into stage two (a safe way to carry rifles while walking, where the bullets are in the magazine, the chamber is empty and the firing pin spring is relaxed). The rifles were only going to be there in case of emergency. We were not intending on shooting anything!
We started heading down the hill towards M’beki’s Crossing and then crossed the stream where the rocks made a natural bridge. It amazed me that there was still water in the stream, because normally at this time of the year it would be completely dry. We could see two tawny eagles who were still in their nest at the top of a large tree, waiting for the sun to start warming the day up. The dawn chorus was starting and the birds were all singing and calling, establishing their territories and greeting each other as the morning started to get lighter. A male paradise flycatcher flew out of the trees as we crossed the rocks, his long orange tail fluttering behind him. In the distance we could hear some hyenas whooping as they got ready to settle down for the day. They had obviously been out patrolling during the dark hours and were now telling their clan-mates where they were going to be hiding up.
We headed north, parallel to the N’wanetsi River, with the Lebombo cliffs to our eastern side. The sun was just starting to rise and the candelabra trees were silhouetted on top of the ridge. It reminded me of some friendly alien hands, with numerous fingers and poisonous blood, waving at us as we walked on our way northward.
There was not much movement in the bush and after the dawn chorus settled down it seemed quite quiet and peaceful. The sun just started warming us up and we felt a breeze starting to blow into our faces. It was beautiful, with the golden grass contrasting with the reddish soil. After a short while Solomon stopped us and pointed to his left. There we could see three juvenile saddle-billed storks walking through the grass. Nearby, in a large knob-thorn tree we could see the empty nest where they had obviously hatched a few weeks ago. It is unusual that there were three chicks. The parent pair had obviously been quite successful this year. The young birds looked at us standing there looking at them and they then took off and flew away. Discretion being the better part of valour.
We carried on walking north and some giraffes stared over the bushes at us curiously. We then came to where the N’wanetsi River made a curve before it followed the base of the cliffs southwards past the lodge. A pair of mosque swallows was flying around a large sycamore fig that was growing on the river bank. I wondered whether they were nesting in a hole in that magnificent, old, golden-trunked tree?
We crossed the river in a dry area and headed up the northern bank. Once we got to the top of the embankment we started to change direction and head west, following the side of the river. It was not long before Solomon stopped us again and pointed to the clearing that we know as “Ostrich Open Area”. There we all saw a herd of elephants that were making their way towards the river. They were still a fair distance from us so we decided to utilise the bushes that were there as cover and approach them a bit closer. The wind was favourable for us, blowing from the elephants towards us, and we were quite certain that they could not smell or see us. We stopped for a short while, admiring these amazing great grey creatures as they munched away on the bushes. They were still slowly headed towards the river and so we decided to leave them and head to the river to see if we could find a safe place to watch them when they came down to drink.
As we started to approach the N’wanetsi we spotted a large male elephant standing on the other bank. He looked like he was sleeping. We realised that the wind would be wrong for us and so we decided to circle around and cross the river in order to view him. We crossed the river at a place where he could not see us walking in the open. On the other side we found a large tree and stood in the shade as we watched him resting and feeding in the open area ahead of us. The sun was behind us and we were not visible to him. We watched him for a while and then decided to leave him and head to Puff Adder Pool, where we were hoping that the herd would come down to drink.
As we were approaching the rocks overlooking the pool we heard a sudden sneezing sound and three klipspringers ran across the rocks ahead of us. They gave alarm calls as we approached and then stood on the rocks staring at us. Klipspringers are beautiful, dainty, golden-coloured antelope that are specialists in living in rocky areas. They have tiny hooves so that they can grip on to any size ledge and are quite capable of sprinting up and down the steep-sided rocks and cliffs. After the klipspringers disappeared over the rocks we decided to take a rest, hoping that we would see the herd of elephants arriving.
The elephants did not appear and so, after a short while, we decided to carry on. We still had a long way to go to get to Xinkelengane Fly Camp, where we were planning to sleep over. While we were taking our break we could hear the guineafowl giving alarm calls to the west of us, near Dumbana Pool. We headed through the tall riparian woodland, wondering what we could find there and what the birds were alarming about. We were moving fairly slowly, expecting that there could be some type of predator behind any bush. Then we saw it…. it was an African fish-eagle! The guineafowl had seen the eagle up in the trees and were warning each other of its presence.
After leaving Dumbana Pool we headed through the basalt grasslands, in a north-westerly direction. After walking quite a distance we came across the N’wanetsi River again, close to where it entered the concession on our western boundary. We crossed the river and headed north towards Pony Pan, where Mike had left a container with orange cordial for us. We took a second break in the shade of a tree there and felt thankful that we had something cold to drink. The temperature had certainly heated up by then and we were starting to think that the steady breeze coming from the north was actually a blessing for us.
After having some sandwiches that we had brought with us we decided to carry on walking. We headed north into the open areas of the Central Depression. As we were passing by Pebble Pan Coman spotted some buffalos to our west. We crossed the open area, utilising the bushes as cover so that we could get closer to view them. The wind was in our favour and we were able to approach them fairly closely without them noticing us. It was a fairly large herd of over 150 individuals. Some were grazing, while others had already settled down in the long grass to rest during the heat of the day.
We left the buffalos resting there and crossed the big open area towards the Xinkelengane drainage. Solomon then spotted a herd of elephants on the other side of the dry riverbed. They were all resting in the shade of a large apple-leaf tree. We quietly and sneakily crossed the river using the tall grass and spike thorn bushes as cover and crept closer to the elephants. We were able to get good views of them as they rested there and then we decided to leave them. As we were heading away from them I spotted another elephant up ahead, heading our way. Behind this elephant was another herd that was following her. We realised that if we remained where we were we would become trapped between the two herds, which would not be good. We quickly scrambled across the dry riverbed and stood in the shade of a large Delagoa thorn tree. We could see the rest of the herd crossing the riverbed up ahead and the lead female was coming closer and closer. Soon she would be able to catch our scent and so we decided to leave them and continue north.
By now it was already past the middle of the day and it was quite hot. We had already walked many kilometres. We were still walking north, across the open area with the wind blowing in our faces. Every step we took kicked up dust, which then blew into the face of the person behind. A large herd of zebras stood at the side of the open area. It seemed as if they were laughing at these mad creatures that were walking in the heat of the day. Some giraffe ran in front of us, in their typical slow-motion cantering style. It was beautiful. Some wildebeest were also staring at us. They must have been saying to themselves, “It is ironic that they call us the wild beasts!” Some warthogs were kneeling in the short grass digging up the roots and when they saw us they ran away, with their tails straight up behind them.
Eventually we got to an area where there was a small pool of water and so we decided to rest there. A brown-hooded kingfisher came and sat on a branch nearby, watching us curiously. Wessel went down to the pool and took off his boots and cooled his feet down in the water. Once we had rested a bit and Wessel had dried off his feet and put his boots back on and we continued on our way.
We crossed the riverbed and headed towards a big set of open plains. We were in the middle of the open area when Coman spotted a large rock in some taller grass, approximately 60 metres away, that should not have been there. We stopped to see what was there when suddenly two large bull buffalos leapt up and immediately started charging towards us! They lowered their heads pointing their horns towards us and gave a snorting sound. I shouted to the rest of the group to get behind some trees (unfortunately there were no big trees in the area as we were in the open plains and so Chantelle quickly led the group to a small thicket of Delagoa thorns with some longer grass that they could use as visual cover). Solomon and Coman lifted their rifles above their heads to make themselves look bigger and started shouting, whistling and hitting their hands on the rifle stocks to try and dissuade the buffalos that were now running like steam-trains towards us. Buffalos are known to be able to run at 50 km/h, or 14 metres a second and they would be upon us very soon! I lifted my rifle up and put my hand on the bolt-handle ready to load, fully expecting to have to shoot one of them! Buffalos are known for their irascible behaviour and poor temperaments and are also known not to give warning charges. Once they start, they tend to come all the way! Fortunately, with all the noise that Solomon and Coman were making the buffalos became uncertain of themselves and suddenly stopped and turned. They ran away a short distance before turning and running at us again. My rifle was up and again Solomon and Coman were shouting at them. The buffalos stopped once more and then turned around and started heading away from us. Solomon, Coman and I quickly took the opportunity to join up with the rest of the group and we all headed into a steep-sided valley where we stopped and all burst into nervous, giggling laughter. Whew! That was close!
After our hearts had settled a bit and had calmed down we headed up the embankment and not long after that we came across fresh lion tracks. We had come to a road and the tracks were going both directions, up and down the road. Maybe that was the reason the buffalos were so aggressive towards us? Perhaps they had recently been harassed by the big cats.
We looked at the tracks and tried to figure out which direction the cats had last headed. It was quite confusing with tracks on top of tracks, but eventually we decided that they had headed in an easterly direction. As we were still headed towards Xinkelengane Fly Camp, which was towards the north, we decided that we did not have enough time to trail and find the lions. We then carried on and left the tracks behind. We were approaching “Kori Clearing”, which is a large open area in which we often see lots of general game. As usual there were quite a few animals there including zebras, wildebeest and impalas. A few warthogs were kneeling and digging in the sand with their noses. We were on the eastern side of the Xinkelengane drainage and the main open area was on the west. The animals were watching us as we passed by and it was an amazing sight seeing all these different creatures standing out in the open. It was a quintessential African scene!
As we were walking, watching the animals on the other side of the dry riverbed Coman suddenly said, “Lions!” and up ahead, approximately 150 metres in front of us we could see a pride of lions lying in a small clearing amongst the trees. It was the “Mountain Pride”. There were at least six lions there, including a sub-adult male, a few females and some youngsters. The lions had already seen us and they were not going to hang around. Humans are generally considered to be one of the most dangerous creatures to wild animals and the lions were not going to wait for us to get closer to them. They immediately jumped up and quickly ran into the long grass area to the east of where they had been lying. Since they had already seen us and were moving away, and because they had their little ones with them, we decided rather to avoid the area that they had headed to and crossed the drainage and carried on walking through the open area northwards. We surmised that they had possibly circled around from the place where we had earlier seen their tracks and that they had decided to hunt wildebeest and zebras rather than the two grumpy buffalos.
It was getting quite late in the afternoon and we were getting a bit tired now. It was quite hot and we still had a few kilometres to walk. We carried on northwards, each step bringing us closer to where we were going to be sleeping, each step kicking up dust which was blowing towards the person behind, each step making our feet feel a little bit more tender and bruised. We passed by some magnificent sycamore fig trees and some beautiful, bright, yellow-stemmed fever trees. The scenery was beautiful, with the Lebombo hills behind the large trees. Unfortunately, we were tired by now and possibly not concentrating as much as what we should have been.
Once again, Coman and Solomon put up their hand with fist closed indicating that we should freeze. We almost bumped into each other as we came to an abrupt halt. They pointed to our left and in some guarri bushes, very close by, we could make out a lioness. We were all silent. Just up ahead, approximately 45 meters in front of us, was an open sandy area and just before the sandy area there was a fairly thick Delagoa thorn tree. We had not seen her up until that point, but the next thing another lioness walked across our path into the opening. She was very close! She was also followed by three cubs! By now the first lioness, the one that had been lying in the guarri thicket, had noticed us and gave a deep-throated growl. The cubs also turned around and saw us all standing in a row silently. They immediately bomb-shelled and ran towards the gulley and the thick grass. The lioness standing in front of us seemed a bit confused. She had not seen or heard us. She turned around to look at the other lioness who had just growled and then she spotted us! She got a big fright that there was a whole bunch of people standing very close by and growled at us, snarling and showing us her teeth! She then decided, rather than charge us, that she would follow the cubs into the thicket. As she did that we started to back off.
We realised that we would not be able to circle around on the eastern side as that is where the lioness and cubs had headed into the thicket, so we would have to try and circle around the western side. We would have to go pretty close to the guarri thicket where we saw the first cat. We walked very slowly and carefully, not knowing whether she was still in the thicket or not and wondering whether she was going to come charging out at us. Fortunately, we did not see or hear her again. Once we had got more than 100 metres from the area we looked back and we could see one of the lionesses come out of the grass and start calling for the cubs. We lost sight of her as we carried on walking, but we were quite sure that she would find them again.
We were not far from the camp-site now and we headed across the dry riverbed and through the apple-leaf forest towards a large jackalberry tree, and there we came across the most amazing sight! It was Quinton (one of our amazing chefs) and Tash (one of the front-of-house staff) waiting for us… with hot-dogs, nogal! What a bonus! They had also brought some stretchers and camping chairs to make our lives a bit more comfortable. What a welcome!
We collected a heap of wood for the fire and that night we sat around the flames, chatting about the incredible walk and watching the stars in the sky. Quinton cooked up a great chicken curry, which we really appreciated, and then Adel even produced some marshmallows that we could toast in the flames. As soon as the sun dropped, so did the temperature and that night we struggled to sleep (even though we were quite tired) as it was extremely cold. The wind blew and the leaves dropped from the trees and the dry branches rattled above us. We took turns standing guard (in pairs) as there were no tents and we needed to ensure that nothing dangerous was going to come and eat or squash us during the night. The only visitor that we had that night was a curious honey badger, who came to investigate. Sometime in the dark hours we could hear the kudus nearby giving alarm calls and we wondered whether the lionesses that we had seen, just before arriving here, were out hunting. At one point I remember waking up and hearing some strange sound and then realising that it was just someone snoring!
The next morning we got ready to head out again just as the sun was coming up. This time Coman was leading and Evidence backing-up. We said goodbye to Quinton and Tash and initially headed north towards “Golf-course Clearing”, a big open area where we often saw good general game. There was nothing there and so we changed direction and headed south-west, across the basalt grasslands, towards Gudzani Dam. The route there was pretty uneventful and when we arrived there, we took a short break and watched the crocodiles sun-bathing and the birds flying around. We then headed south-east and while we were walking across a large open area we came across a warthog. We all stood still and the warthog had obviously not seen us. There were quite a few other animals in the area (waterbuck, kudus, giraffes, impalas and zebras) and some of them had seen us and given alarm calls. The warthog heard the alarm calls and decided to run away. Since he had not seen us, he did not know where we were and so he came running directly towards us. We were still standing very still and he ran right up to us before Chantelle shouted, “Oi!” and the pig suddenly realised that we were only a metre or two from him. He got such a fright and spun around, doing a rapid 360 degrees – like a dog chasing his tail – and then he ran away with his tail in the air like a radio antenna.
By now our feet were getting quite sore and some of us had blisters appearing. We started heading across the basalt plains again, back towards the N’wanetsi River. As we were walking we saw a white-headed vulture taking off from the grassland and a few other vultures circling overhead (perhaps they thought that some of us would just keel over and they would have an easy meal?). We were watching the vultures when one of us noticed a buffalo bull walking through the grasslands. He was unaware of us and we watched him for a short while before carrying on. Very soon after that we found tracks of a large herd of buffalos that had been moving towards the river. We were also headed that way and it was not long before we spotted them in the distance. As we came closer they noticed us and started stampeding away towards the river, causing a huge cloud of dust in their trail. We decided to try and avoid them so we headed towards the base of the cliffs, where the river turned south. When we got there we discovered another herd of buffalos blocking our path. We walked closer to the ridge, hugging the base of the cliffs. There were buffalos all over the place and the bushes were very thick close to the river, so Coman and Evidence scaled halfway up the cliffs, while I remained with a rifle with the rest of the group, so that they could see where the buffalos were and direct us safely past them. It was literally like a wall of buffalos in front of us, but with Coman and Evidence’s guidance we made it through safely.
We were on the home stretch. I could see that some of the group were struggling now. They had blisters on their blisters and their gaits were quite strange. The pace slowed down, but finally we could see the lodge up ahead. There was only one last hill to climb! We struggled up the final hill, which felt more like a mountain and arrived back at camp! All in all, it was an amazing experience! We covered almost 50 kilometres (the equivalent of walking 4/5ths of the way across the park) through some of the most beautiful, wild stretches and having some of the most amazing encounters with wildlife along the way. I think we will all remember this epic walk for the rest of our lives! What a privilege to be able to experience this!