Olifants River Backpacking Trail

© Roger de la Harpe

If four days spent hiking a total of 42 km in the middle of nowhere next to a river, taking only what you can carry, is your cup of tea... then this trail is for you! I had the pleasure and privilege of going on the new and exciting Olifants River Backpacking Trail in the Kruger National Park.

Being a novice did not make the trip any easier as this trail is not for the faint hearted anyway. Don't let the distance mislead you - this is a very difficult route as it follows the Olifants River most of the way, and all those gullies can take a lot out of you.

On Sunday morning everyone gathered at Olifants Rest Camp for a gear check. It is advisable that your backpack is one-quarter of your body weight as I soon found out. I was extremely thankful to our guides, who saved my life by unpacking my backpack and then re-packing so that it felt 60kg lighter. We all tend to put in those what-ifs (what if I'm hungry, what if I run out of water, what if I need extra clothes, what if, what if, what if).

After everyone was ready we set out for our ceremonial start next to the river. Kruger's chief executive Dr Bandile Mkhize cut the ribbon to launch this first official trail. We then proceeded to the drop-off on the western side by Phalaborwa and started walking in an easterly direction.

Our team was guided by Andrew Desmet, activities manager in Kruger, and Hein Grobler, camp manager at Olifants Rest Camp. The rest of the team included Annemarie van Wyk from Weg magazine, Alethea Lindsay, Jacques Goosen and Patrick Nziyako of the 50/50 team and myself.

Day 1: Sunday March 24, 2006

We stopped at Phalaborwa Gate for our last "white porcelain" break for four days. At the drop-off, our driver helped us to unload - our last chance to back out. As the driver went off, the sense of aloneness started to set in. We walked for maybe five kilometres in the scorching heat and then found a beautiful spot right next to the Olifants River where we pitched our tents and found some firewood.

Andrew explained the importance of choosing the right kind of wood. As an example he said it would be uncomfortable if you choose a piece of tambotie, so it is important that you know a bit about trees and it is best to always ask if in doubt. Fires are not made to cook on and each hiker should bring their own gas stove.The fire is there more for security and light. At the stop we were fortunate to see an elephant across the river start to slowly move forward, testing the boundaries, before taking a long swim sometimes with only his head sticking out of the water. What a sight being so close to nature.

That night I had a nice cold bath in the Olifants River for the first time. The first step is to use a stick to see how deep it is and to make sure there are no lurking crocodiles. It is important to bring environmentally-friendly toiletries and biodegradable deodorant. For drinking and cooking we had to purify the water. After the bath, we all relaxed under the clear sky next to the fire, where we enjoyed our first real meal and exchanged stories. Then off to bed as a long day lay ahead.

Day 2: Monday March 25, 2006

We packed our backpacks for an early start. What a hot day. I recommend sunscreen and a lot of it. It is a beautiful walk with some must-see scenery especially the rock figs that we came across and a wide selection of trees that Andrew pointed out. He described how the matumi tree has its roots settled in the water, and sheds its seeds into the river where they are swept away until they nestle in a rocky part and germinate.It is here that you start revising your life and what lies ahead - when the "outside" world slowly starts to disappear and not really matter. Your priorities start to change and your main concern is not to walk into an elephant breeding herd or a pack of lions. The walk of about 15kms on day two can really drain you as the gullies are truly hard going. Up and down and up again we went.

Our guides pointed out a lot of tracks and dung middens along the way. At almost every place that we camped we found hyena tracks, sometimes over our tracks from the night before when we were looking for wood.Our breakfast stop was at a lovely spot right on the Olifants and the breakfast bars, Milo and instant oats (quick to make and filling) were real lifesavers. Breakfast is usually a 45-minute break and then you push on until siesta, which is normally a little longer break of about one to two hours.

Our siesta was at Tshutshe River mouth. It was really hot and we were eager to get to the "famous" Tshutshe River which our guides could not stop talking about, "clear clean cold water, a nice swim etc etc".Imagine our faces when we got to this famous river and it was dry. No water in sight at all, except for the sweat dripping off us and disappearing into the sand. There were some baboon in the river bed who got a fright at our presence and were later seen about 200m upstream in the river digging for water, and playing around like only baboons can.Hein took a walk down towards the mouth in the hope of finding some water. He found a little stream, where he built a dam wall to catch some of the water. He didn't have to ask us twice before our backpacks were off and we were into the little dam. This was heaven... We ate our lunch and even took naps.

Our friends from 50/50 left after lunch, so we waited for their car to arrive. After we said our goodbyes, the four of us left for our campsite - another beautiful spot in paradise. We sat on a rock admiring the sunset and got some very unhappy stares from our hippo neighbours which made bathing so much more intense than usual.It's not easy washing your hair with six or so upset hippos just about 20m away. Luckily Hein stood guard while we bathed and then Andrew did the same for him. After hot Milo and food under the night sky with only the light of the fire, we settled in our tents and were in dreamland after an exhausting day. Soon the rain set in, and lightning blazed like a 100 flashlights in our little tents, which by the way, are only dew proof and not exactly rain proof. None the less we were exhausted and slept through.

Day 3: Tuesday March 26, 2006 - Wet!

With our luck the rain stopped while we were packing up, but only while we were packing up. We had just started walking when the rain showed its face again. This made walking more difficult. Our wet backpacks now weighed four times as much as they normally did.

We came across an area where there were no elephants to be seen but you could clearly smell that they had been there not too long ago for it was a very distinct sharp smell accompanied by lots of holes and spoor in the mud.To get to our combined breakfast and lunch stop we had to go down a very unstable muddy downhill, or rather a mudslide, and I was the unstable one. While Hein and Andrew managed to stay on their feet, Annemarie and myself only stayed on our feet half way - what fun, soaking wet, full of mud and nothing dry to be seen. We stopped next to a little stream where the only heat came from our gas stoves.

This is a good time to recommend everything in a Zip Lock bag, your clothes, your food, your note book, your socks - everything - and a black bag for everything else including your whole back-pack. We came across an open area which Andrew guessed could have been inhabited by humans many years ago for there was no grass growing there.We set out to find some grinding stones used by the ancient people to grind mealies into flour, but sadly none were to be found. It was too cold to eat and we had about two cups of Milo each and maybe an energy bar. We were on our way again and by this time the rain didn't even matter for we could not get any wetter than we already were. Now just the exceptional scenery was noted.

It's strange how your perspective changes with your circumstances. We walked along a grassy area just above the river, and as my luck would have it, I fell into a metre-deep springhare hole, with my one leg disappearing down the hole all the way to my knee and then sprained my ankle.I tried for a kilometre or so to walk it out, but by this time the tears were freefalling. We stopped at a riverbed and Andrew bandaged my ankle. The wet socks did not help much but it was a start. We had to get to a place soon where we could put up camp. Hein went ahead and found a "dry" place in the riverbed. We made a fire for heat and Hein took his poncho to make a little shelter to keep us somewhat dry.

Annemarie and I lay down and tried to dry ourselves when, the next moment, we heard these panicked screams. When we got out of our tents we saw the river coming down about 12 metres from us and it was coming down fast. My sore ankle and I pulled out tent pins, grabbed the tent and dragged it across to safer ground, before the water dragged me.What a close call. When everything settled down we had good laugh, especially since the first golden rule is never camp in a riverbed when it's raining. We moved the fire in time and pitched Hein's little shelter again. Our tents inside had puddles everywhere, wet sleeping bag, wet clothes and dripping backpack. Fun, fun, fun...

Day 4: Wednesday March 27, 2006 - The End

We woke up early and to our surprise no drops from above. The fire was going and was surrounded by shoes, shirts, socks and our maps. On a nearby rock our sleeping bags, clothes and all the other wet things that we could find in our packs were spread out. We stayed for breakfast while our equipment dried out. We packed up and started the last stretch.

At this point we had mixed feelings of sadness on the one hand to leave but an eagerness to finish. Luckily there was no rain and no scorching heat so hiking conditions were perfect. My ankle was killing me and Andrew and Hein found me a walking stick. This only held up for a kilometre or so and then Hein took my backpack and carried it to the nearest firebreak.We left it there to be picked up later, along with Annemarie's sleeping bag. We had not walked for long when we saw a vehicle and four rangers. As this was not the end destination there was some concern and confusion. We were greeted with some hot Milo and cool drinks. The vehicle was sent to pick up my bag and because we were not sure if there was any trouble we decided to cut the last day short. We did however drive to the end destination, Wildevy, where the route usually ends.Back at Olifants Camp and civilisation we were greeted by Raymond Travers, Kruger's media liaison, and René Travers, marketing manager of KNP, as well as Juanita Grobler, astronomy coordinator and Ben van Eeden, regional manager of the northern part of the Park. They were all dreadfully concerned as there had been a miscommunication regarding the daily transmission at 10h00 via satellite phone. Global panic. All ended well.

We had some welldeserved cheeseburgers and coffee. For someone that does not like burgers, it went down extremely well. Every one said their goodbyes and the first thing I did was have a hot shower before leaving. All in all, what an adventure! I definitely recommend this trail to everyone who has an adventurous spirit and a feel for nature...

By Janke Strauss
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