My husband and I grinned at each other, feeling smug, as we turned our truck off the road onto a thin set of tire tracks. A family drove by slowly in their sedan as we crossed the ditch, their eyes widening with curiosity as we brazenly exited the designated road and headed straight toward the horizon. Having acquired a permit to do so that morning, we struck out into the bush – a land of large and voracious carnivores, of quick and light-footed prey, into the ancestral wilderness of South Africa’s expansive Kruger National Park. A solitary vehicle with two tiny humans.
One of Africa’s premier Big 5 game parks, located in northeastern South Africa, Kruger’s surface area is larger than some small countries. However, as a motorist in Kruger, or any Big 5 game park in South Africa, you must stay on the roads and you’ll be slapped with a heavy fine if you get out of your vehicle. Typically, only a ranger-guided walk with a group of other tourists can provide backstage access beyond the main thoroughfares.
4×4 adventure trails
However, a series of “4×4 adventure trails” inside Kruger leads the independent traveler off the official roads, miles into the interior. Given a sheet of directions delineating the trail through landmarks, odometer readings and GPS coordinates, you’re free to spend the entire day in solitude, if you wish, far away from the thousands of other daily visitors. Although only six permits are given out for each trail each day, we had no problem obtaining permits by showing up at the appropriate camp reception desk at 7:00 A.M.
One of the fantastic perks of the 4×4 trails is the permission to get out and venture a short distance from your vehicle (though you should leave the doors open and the engine running, for a lion can cover 10 metres in a single bound). You can walk about to inspect lion and leopard tracks in the dirt, and piles of rhino and elephant poo… yeah, it’s impressive, and worth standing next to for a proper sense of scale. You can study the array of bones littering the dry spring riverbeds – the long vertebrae of the giraffe, the thick, menacing horns of the water buffalo – and feel tufts of zebra hair caught in a thorny bush.
Meeting the animals
The Madlabantu Adventure Trail, accessed from Pretoriuskop Camp, offers some iconic African bush scenery in addition to abundant animal sightings. Driving through a forest of buffalo weavers’ nests reminded me of Daphne DuMaurier’s creepy tale, The Birds. With as many as ten nests per tree, these large communal nesting sites are like avian fortresses. We saw a shy steenbok emerge from a thicket – a small antelope with short horns and enormous ears, lined with thin white hairs like the delicate lattice of frost on a window pane.
We came to a large reservoir, where we could drive across the earthen dam. An uncommonly large bachelor herd of water buck momentarily blocked our passage, their stately disposition, and the magnificent curve of tall ridged horns, granting them the right to stand wherever they pleased. Once they moved on, we got out of our truck and stood on the raised causeway. Hippos lurked just below the water’s surface, occasionally raising their snouts above the water line, flaring their enormous nostrils and flip-flapping their ears. A lone giraffe towered serenely above us. We were caught momentarily in the spell cast by his large brown eyes. Then he turned and galloped off in what seemed like slow motion, moving with an incongruous and regal fluidity through the thorny land of twisted acacia. Small matriarchal units of elephants gathered at the artificial lake to fill their trunks with water, the tiny ones still learning to control their floppy little trunks. Far out in the water, long, spiky backs belied the menace of floating crocodiles.
The sun beat down on us as we stood at the water’s edge. Fenced in with this menagerie of animals in the wild bush, my husband and I gazed mutely at the life all around us, as if we were the two representative humans on Noah’s fabled ark.
I felt invigorated, a renewed coursing of blood throughout my body. In the fierce sunlight, I squinted and turned my ear toward the water to hear it lap at the shore, but for a moment the only thing I could perceive was my own beating heart, surrounded by scores of other heartbeats – quickened by chase and slowed by capture, steady with grazing. In this incredibly spiritual moment, a tiny catty thought still crept in: how awesome it was that I was here and all the other thousands of tourists were way the heck over somewhere else, trapped inside their cars on the other side of the horizon.
How to do it
To access the adventure trails and the unique experience they offer, you must have a 4×4 vehicle. Renting a vehicle and camping in it at the clean and well-appointed campgrounds is typically cheaper than signing onto any guided safari. The campground folk were so nice, they even brought us an actual mattress from one of the rental rondavals to put in our truck bed for a comfy night’s sleep. Inquire at one of the starting campsites about permits, which are available only on the morning you wish to travel.
The trails will not be open if it is raining. There is a fee of €45 per vehicle plus a refundable deposit of €10 to use the trails (versus about €115 per person sharing for guided day safari).
- Mananga Trail: from Satara Camp
- Nonokani Trail: from Phalaborwa Gate
- Madlabantu Trail: from Pretoriuskop Camp
- Northern Plains Trail: from Shingwedzi Camp
For more information and to make inquiries, visit Kruger’s website.
Looking for a cheap safari lodge at Kruger National Park? Check out our listings here.
Author bio: Shara K Johnson, professional dreamer, lives tucked in the mountains of Colorado dreaming incessantly of far away places. Follow her adventures abroad at SKJtravel.net. View a selection of photographs from these travels at SKJphotography.net, and read essays at SharaSinor.com. She would also love to be your Facebook friend.
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All photos c. Shara K Johnson