It was the perfect day to be in the Kruger National Park (KNP). Crisp, cool but with enough winter sun to leave your jacket in the car until nightfall.
We were nine strangers waiting at the Phalaborwa Entrance Gate to share the magic of the park in areas where no visitors are allowed, the places where only rangers and researchers (and poachers) go.
I think that is part of the charm of the Malopeni Overnight Eco Trail - especially for old timers who know every bend, big tree, waterhole and windmill in their favourite places in the 'public' parts of the park. There are many of us and we relished the thought of adding previously off-limit spots to our memory banks.
Only five vehicles with a maximum of four people per vehicle are allowed on the trail. We filled the quota. After a short briefing and meet-and-greet for 15 minutes we set off on the main road to Letaba from where we took a left onto the S131. At the Ngwenyeni/Malopeni cross-road we turned off the tourist road onto what is known as a category-D road.
Three kilometres on we turned west onto the Malopeni management road. It was mid-afternoon when we made our first stop. A derelict railing was the only sign of the windmill that once fed the cement trough nearby.
The veld is pristine, and still lush after the late rains this year. Towards the left end of the clearing was a mud pool where our guide, Donavan Terblanche led Allistair Laughland and Jay Wingate for closer inspection of some rhino activity from the previous day.
We scrutinised an old but impressive giraffe bone and some spoor, mostly antelope, before we carried on towards the Malopeni spruit. The Malopeni is wide, sandy and dry this time of year. There were spoor everywhere, including perfect elephant footprints from which Donavan drew a very distinct picture of their movements. We would have stayed longer, but our shadows were outgrowing us and we had to reach the camp before sundown.
Up to that point we did not really need to engage 4x4 but when we approached a small spruit I knew why Donavan said I should rather hitch a ride in his bakkie and leave my trusty Aveo at home.
The narrow stream, sandy and dry this time of year, nestles between two very steep inclines and, granted, it looked more daunting than I thought at first sight, but it was still a thrill to follow the bakkie's nose about half a metre higher than my head as we tracked towards the top.
I snatched a few photos of the others, with Francois Opperman's smile almost as wide as his Landy's bullbar. Relief or pleasure - I forgot to ask. The sun was getting old and in perfect position to softly silhouette a group of buffalo in a cloud of dust. I glimpsed a magnificent cow before she ducked into the mopane veld, almost as if she knew we could not wait for another showing.
Our last stop before camp was breathtaking. Winding past impressive apple leaf and leadwood trees, we reached the Black Heron dam, which is absolutely beautiful and the time of day made it perfect. The dam is in the Letaba River, which stretches wide on either side of the damwall.
Standing on the damwall we watched two hippos playing as if in rehearsal for a follow-up Chomp advert. The rest of the hippos, about nine, hid underwater for most of our stay, except for one who did not seem too happy having us there.
We left a bit reluctantly but had to use the last light to pitch camp. The site is about half a kilometre away on the banks of the Letaba River and was a pleasant surprise. The terrain is neatly slashed, there are two eco-friendly toilets, a fireplace and an ashdrum.
Donavan helped us select an ideal spot and we got down to the business of camping. I had the luxury of a roof top tent, which was a first and one I thoroughly enjoyed. Within an hour we were ready to start dinner, except for Allistair who admits to the 10 thumbs he showed.
Throughout dinner we heard a not-so-happy elephant not-so-far from us who was not shy to complain. It was the perfect reminder of where we are. Donovan kept the fire going, we solved a few world problems, compared and patented best braai products and laughed - a lot.
Leo and Scorpio were watching from a clear night sky as Kyle and Japie flushed a scorpion of another kind from its tree trunk home - glowing an eerily neon green in the ultra violet purple splash. It was cold when we went to bed and still dark when whispers and the sound of coffee mugs marked the new day.
After a quick coffee Donavan took us to the banks of the Letaba River where we waited for the sun. It was a splendid sight to see the river appear like a Polaroid picture of old to the tune of southern ground hornbills and a spotted eagle owl welcoming a new day. The following night we agreed to be packed and ready by 08h00 and made good on our intentions.
We left the site with almost no sign of being there. The ash was removed, the fireplace cleaned and the trash shared our ride out. We took a different, albeit shorter route back. Our last stop was where we stopped first the day before and we beamed goodbyes with the Laughlans and Wingates who went on to Letaba Camp.
Throughout our stay, Donavan excelled at all aspects of guiding, unobtrusively sharing his love and profound knowledge of the bush, while at the same time ensuring everyone's comfort.
This is the perfect trail for someone who lives close to the park and would like to do something different but does not have a lot of time to spare. It is also the ideal start or end to a traditional holiday in Kruger. From our comments I also know we will all be back.
By Lynette Strauss