Mphongolo Backpack Trail Explores Northern Wilderness Area

Explore Northern Kruger Wilderness Areas

©Andrew Desmet

Following the success of the Olifants backpack trail, the Kruger National Park (KNP) has now also introduced the Mphongolo Backpack Trail which starts from Shingwedzi Camp and is conducted in the large wilderness area between the Shingwedzi and Mphongolo Rivers.

Two experienced trails rangers lead a maximum of eight guests into the wilderness area where guests can set up camp as and when the trail leader decides. There is no set route for the four-day, three-night experience.

"Guests are expected to provide their own camping equipment and food for the duration of the trail. There are no overnight huts on this trail. As the safety of hikers is of major importance, all participants have to bring tents and sleep in them every night while they are walking the trail.

Participants are responsible for setting up their own tents and for cooking their own food. No rubbish bins or toilets are provided at any of the overnight stops and the trail operates on a strictly "take it in, take it out" basis and strictly adheres to a "no trace camping" ethic. We only use biodegradable products - soaps and detergents - on the trail," says Andrew Desmet, Kruger's activities manager.

Around the Bububu River

©Andrew Desmet

Below is an excerpt from Andrew's report about a trail that took place from May 9 to 12, 2010. With him were fellow trails ranger, Julie Wolhuter, and eight guests from Cape Town.

"We were dropped off at the intersection of the middle firebreak and Bububu River from where we walked to Phonda Hills where we spent our first night. We walked through some stunning areas consisting of large sodic open areas with beautiful pans. Most of the pans were still full of water. One of these was quite large and had a huge nyala tree growing at its edge and we watched a large troop of baboons feeding off the nyala tree berries and mopane tree pods.

"We saw a fair amount of general game on the first day, including a small herd of wildebeest and our trek was accompanied by the constant chirping of armoured ground crickets. We also picked up some vehicle tracks at the first large sodic area that we came across, and two sets of field ranger boot tracks heading east.

"The reservoir at Phonda Hills windmill was almost empty and there was not much water coming out of the tap at the windmill itself. We managed to get water and had a wash at one of the large pools in the river. That evening we heard lion, hyena, Mozambique and fiery necked nightjars, giant eagle/ scops/ pearl spotted owls and were woken up by the various francolins as dawn broke.

"That morning we climbed one of the hills and explored the stone walls/ ruins, where we found some pot shards and bone fragments from an old ash heap. We continued heading east following the Bububu River and came across some dagga boys (old buffalo bulls) lying in a pan at one of the many large sodic areas and saw lots of general game - impala, warthog, zebra, giraffe.

Siesta Time

©Andrew Desmet

"We had a siesta in the shade of a large jackalberry in the sandy river bed after collecting water from a very muddy little pan. Incidentally, we did not find any more pools in the actual river bed of the Bububu east of Phonda hills until its mouth but found plenty of pans that had water in them.

"That afternoon we continued for another two kilometres before setting up camp on the edge of a large sodic area with a couple of large fever trees as company.

Again we had to collect water from a muddy pan which had recently been visited by a large herd of elephants - lovely chocolate-coloured water that our friends from Cape Town were not that used to drinking after always drinking out of crystal clear mountain springs. But the water, despite its appearance, turned out fine and no one had any ill effects - we did use chlorine tablets.

We had two water purification pumps with us but these did not work well in the muddy water as they clogged up very quickly and therefore were not practical to use - perhaps if we added a flocculent to the water first they would have worked better. That night was a little quieter than the previous night except for a couple of hyena that were whooping close to camp - we had clear and dark night sky which was excellent for star gazing.

"The following morning, as Julie was diligently cleaning up the fireplace she heard a grunting noise from the west and we soon confirmed that there was a large herd of buffalo in that direction. We got the group together and quickly set off to investigate and found the tail end of the herd enjoying themselves at one of the pans.

We watched them for a while and bumped into a few more stragglers before returning to camp to continue our packing. We followed the Bububu as it wound its way eastward and again found a fair amount of general game, including an ostrich, a small herd of wildebeest, one vervet monkey and a troop of baboons and a few buffalo bulls.

"We visited Shipandi windmill and found the reservoir dry and also noted how the vegetation was changing as we entered the basalts. We had siesta in the river bed under the shade of a large sycamore fig and close to a large pan, surrounded by big trees including a beautiful nyala tree. The pan had relatively "clean" water in it. We had a good sleep, managed to use the pumps to good effect to get crystal clear water and most of us had a bath close to the pan out of the buckets.

"We continued for another three to four kilometres that afternoon heading east along the Bububu and walked along some very big sodic open areas with pans. We came across a large dagga boy resting in the middle of one of the pans, but who could not easily see us because of the setting sun which was directly behind our backs and therefore we got a good look at him.

"We decided to continue a little further before setting up camp and had hit some thick mopane woodland with tall grass, which we were planning to walk through with the idea of camping at the next open area that we came across. We had walked for about 20 minutes into this relatively thick bush when rather unexpectedly we spotted an elephant calf who was totally oblivious to us and feeding about 15m away from us with his mom not far from his side.

"We slowly backed off and soon realised that we had walked into the midst of an elephant breeding herd. There were some tense moments but we managed to get out of there without the elephants ever realising how close we were and then backtracked through this thick bush back to an open area close to where we saw the buffalo bull.

"On the way back we sighted a nyala ewe and I almost stood on a puff adder who hissed at me in the tall grass. It was basically dark by the time we got to this site but everyone was in good spirits. That night we heard the usual night sounds - lion and hyena.

"On the final morning the weather had changed slightly as it had been very hot on the first few days but now it was cool. There was a breeze and it was a little overcast. The last five kilometres to the pick-up point at the Bububu mouth (its confluence with the Shingwedzi) was quiet in terms of animal sightings, except for a chameleon which we almost stood on and impala, although stunningly beautiful."

We asked guests, Andy Wright and Lisa Mulligan for their impressions

Andy Wright

We did not know what to expect as I had never walked amongst wild animals before. On the drive out to the start with our rucksacks packed and ready to go we encountered a big bull elephant super-charged on testosterone, which gave us a bit of a scare and set the tone for the adventure.

First off we were given a detailed instruction on the rules of walking in the bush (ie, no talking while walking, that is hard for the girls) and emergency procedure should any beast get too friendly.

The walking was over relatively flat ground meandering along the river. The evening colours setting up tents at camp were beautiful. Gathering around a small fire and learning about the stars later was very interesting and because there is no light pollution you felt you could almost touch them.

The alarm clock was the pheasants at first light of dawn, a quick coffee and then a walk-about sans rucksacks in search of game in the early morning coolness was great fun.

Watched a herd of buffalo enjoying an early morning drink quite unaware of us. Back to camp, pack up and head off for a breakfast and tea at around 09h00.

Walk on till around 11h00 and a midday siesta, long slow lunch, more teas, and then head on around 14h00 hours to the next camp. En route our rangers stopped and showed us animal spoor and fielded all manner of questions from ourselves about the flora and fauna.

We gathered our water from pans which to our trepidation looked very silty but no illness befell any of our group. We did boil the water or alternately added a chlorine tablet and had a good wash after water collection every night. The three nights in the veld passed far too quickly and greeted by a ranger with the collection vehicle, a huge smile and a bulging cooler box of beers and cooldrinks gave us a fitting end to the trail. We will be back next year.

Lisa Mulligan

The best part about the Mphongolo trail is that it doesn't follow any set route, it was up to Andrew to decide where he would like to take us. It seems that they have eight wilderness areas, which make up what is called the Mphongolo trail.

They choose a different area each time. You feel as if you are the first person to walk here as there are no signs of anyone having been there recently, no campsite etc. Except when we climbed up one of the Pondo Hills where we found evidence that people had lived and built stone-walls to keep their animals in many years ago. Andrew chose our camp sites, which were generally in an open flat area and we also had to put up our tents in a row.

At night a fire was lit for camaraderie or to let the animals know we were there, as no one had to sit guard like on trails in the Umfolozi. The following morning the guide carefully removed all evidence of the ash and made sure that absolutely nothing was left behind. For some of our friends having to drink water from one of the pans in which animals had possibly swum was something they didn't really want to do, but with 33 degrees heat one had to drink even though the water looked like chocolate without the milk.

It would have been perfect if we had a flocculant to separate out the solids as I had brought along an MSR water filter, but it struggled with the silt. However the water was perfectly clean and great tasting once filtered, although it took great effort. The best part of the hike was being close to the earth, smelling the plants, and even animals that left a strong smell, as well as looking up in awe at the majestic Nyala and Sycamore fig trees, and resting up in the dry river beds in the heat of the day.

One has a better understanding of why the animals do the same. It was really great to be quiet while walking as one could truly experience the sights, sounds and smells of the veld. There was no noise from vehicles, not even aircraft and I felt like I was experiencing wilderness as it should be.

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