Going Wild … and getting wet - A Primitive Trail in Pafuri

May 31, 2022

I had been keeping an eye on the weather forecast in the days leading up to the trail, and the frequency with which I was checking was escalating as the departure day drew closer. No matter which app or forecast model I read, on the evening before we left, our fate was clear – we were going to get wet.

The planning for our five-day primitive trail in the Makuleke Contractual Reserve in Pafuri, the northern-most region of the Kruger Park, began in June 2021 when a couple of the then Grade 11 learners (Kyra and Tristan) came to me to arrange a walking trail in the Kruger. The idea had been floated before then, but the requests were now becoming politely forceful – and rightly so. Southern Cross Schools is a “bush school” and with a renewed focus on the school establishing its niche, it was important that we drove the environmental agenda. We have the wilderness on our doorstep and we need to capitalise on it – so I took us to a place six hours away.

Pafuri is the most biodiverse region of the Kruger, with 75% of Kruger’s species biodiversity found there; and the landscape of gorges, fever tree forests, koppies and floodplains overlooked by towering Ana Trees, is spectacular. It is a true wilderness and my heaven-on-earth.

I contacted EcoTraining, who have a camp in the Makuleke, to see if they could offer a ‘primitive’ trail. It had to be an authentic bush experience where we immersed ourselves in nature. We would carry everything we needed on our backs and spend the nights under the stars listening to the whoops of hyenas that could nibble our toes if we weren’t careful. No luxury lodges, no cell phone reception to contact parents, and not even tents. They gave us a fantastic deal! A four-night, five-day trail in April 2022 with their lead guide, Ross and a back-up trails guide, Rufus who had recently qualified through EcoTraining. It was an excellent pairing of experience and relatability, and a sneak peek into what it means to be a trails guide for those who are keen to do it after school.

On 17 April, Easter Sunday, at 06:00, a Southern Cross Schools Quantum, loaded with the backpacks of eight College learners and one teacher, all more excited than a five-year-old about to embark on an Easter egg hunt, set out from the school gates towards Phalaborwa and then onwards through the Kruger, to Pafuri.  

For six hours, we drove north through drizzle and rain, getting a clear picture of the weather that was also moving north to time its arrival with our primitive experience. But even the overcast sky couldn’t detract from the vast wilderness that stretched out before us as we crested the ridges north of Punda Maria – perhaps it made it even more dramatic.

We arrived at Pafuri Gate, our pick-up point, at 13:00. There we met our guides, loaded our backpacks into the Land Cruiser and rocked our way down a road sign-posted with a no-entry sign to “Palm Springs”, where our trail began.

As the rumble of the Land Cruiser drifted into the distance, we stood at the side of the road looking down a game path leading into a veld dotted with umbrella thorns and bush willows. Peace descends when we are reunited with nature, when radios are replaced by birdsong and cicadas. No doubt some trepidation also set in amongst the learners when it dawned that they were disconnected in the bush, and would be for the next five days.

After following the game path for about a kilometre, we entered Red Milkwood Gorge. A path of slate-grey river-sand eroded from the surrounding cliffs that picks its way through tall Milk Woods and Jackal Berries. You see less big game when walking, but such scenery more than makes up for it and the connection to nature, is more tangible. Snack breaks started off filled with chatter, but settled and quietened over the course of the trail as the learners increasingly connected with their surrounds.

Each day we would follow game paths in silence, listening for animals and birds, analysis animal tracks, and appreciate the wilderness around us. Birding highlights included blue-cheeked bee-eaters, Mottled Spine tails and a Verreaux’s eagle-owl. Our first encounter with big game happened shortly after our first rest. We had seen buffalo tracks on the path we were following, and no sooner had we climbed onto higher ground, as the gorge opened up, we saw a lone male buffalo grazing further down the path we had been following.

The next time we met buffalos was two days later when emerging from long grass, we saw the backs of a small herd a little distance ahead where the grass started again. The adults in the herd fanned out and raised their heads to stare down their noses at us, forming a wall of horns and stern stares while two calves stood at their feet. We gave them a wide berth. We also had two elephant encounters. The most exhilarating of which had us hunkered on rocky ground while the matriarch of the herd let us know in no uncertain terms that she wanted us to back off and leave her herd alone – we obliged.

Our first night was spent on the bank of the Luvuvhu River. Every evening as we arrived at our camp for the night, we would collect enough fire wood to keep a small flame burning through the night. Consideration for the environment was fundamental to everything we did. If there was any life on the wood – termites, lichen … anything – we would leave it and find wood elsewhere. We would then collect water from the river or spring, lay out our sleeping bags and start cooking food on our little gas cookers. The order of watch was established, and then having chatted around the fire and finished supper, we would climb into our beds. The luxury of our ground cover ranged from less than marginal foam mattresses to blow up mattresses that would reliably deflate during the night.

On our packing checklist, in bold under ‘What Not to Bring’, was tents. That night as the forecast had foretold, the rain started. For most of the night, it was light drizzle as though the cloud were settling on our faces. But, at 04:30, the weather’s indecision ended and the rain began in earnest. Some of us realised sleep for the night was over, quickly packed sleeping bags, got out ponchos, covered our belongings and huddled by the spluttering flame. Others refused to accept the reality of their situation and stubbornly hunkered further into their sleeping bags. I suspect in similar fashion to how they react when the alarm goes off on a school morning. When they did eventually emerge, when the sky went from dark to grey, they were wet and grumbling. But the rain stopped, the sun shone intermittently, we managed to dry out some of our gear, and spirits lifted.

The morning routines were the reverse of the evenings. Put out the fire, pack up sleeping bags, eat breakfast, collect water for the day ahead, and remove all evidence that we had been there.

The second day was a long day of walking over ridges and through river beds, mopane and sickle bush to get to Mashasiti Spring, a natural spring at the foot of a granite outcrop. The view from the outcrop is spectacular. The spring is a favourite watering hole for elephants and buffalos, so we camped up on the rock.

That night the rain started as we were climbing into bed. Stuart, the MacGyver of our group, fashioned a bivy (a weatherproof cover for a sleeping bag with a breathing hole) from his groundsheet, and before it was secured, all eight College learners were huddled under it. Stuart elevated himself from the situation by stringing up his hammock above the bed of bodies under the bivy. I sat on the hard rock, huddled under my poncho looking out into the rain and the silhouetted hills and trees –contemplating.

Thankfully, the rain stopped and the clouds momentarily drew back to reveal the stars. It is incredible how comfortable a rock can feel after a long day. We slept.

The next day, sleeping bags and spirits were dampened. But, after a brief chat about enjoying the moment and incredible environment around us, spirits rallied. To their credit, despite rain, blisters, and bundu bashing, there wasn’t another negative word spoken. There was endless banter, joking, seeing the funny side of situations, appreciation of where we were, and support. We all felt ourselves connecting to the incredible environment around us.

Day three took us further from the Luvuvhu and to the Limpopo flood plain. We walked over clay ground and through long grass, went into the magical fever tree forests where the towering yellow trees play with the hue of the world and birds flit overhead, we ate on the edges of natural pans listening to the sound of the wild, and pushed through riverine thickets to step onto the banks of the broad, flowing Limpopo and looked into Zimbabwe.

We camped alongside a Limpopo boarded by beautiful Ana trees on the last two nights. We stuck to the riparian bush for the remainder of the trail and we went to sleep to the hoots of wood-owls and the grunts of hippos.

Most of us managed to stay dry by crawling under croton bushes on night three, but on night four, we were exposed to the elements, and the elements took advantage of their fortune. In an effort to stay dry, Stuart and Roscoe, this time upgraded the bivy to a basic scout’s tent and Alex constructed a shelter out of sticks and leaves, and sacrificed a puffer jacket to seal the roof. It worked well, but by morning almost everyone was drenched despite the varied tactics to stay dry.

We packed up our wet gear, joked about Josh’s uncanny ability to snore through the downpour and took in our last view over the broad Limpopo. Then we turned and headed for the EcoTraining camp, the finishing point of our trail. Once at camp, there was some relief, but also a wonderful sense of accomplishment and appreciation for what we had experienced over the past four days. Animated reminiscences of the trail began the moment we were on the EcoTraining vehicle heading back to our Quantum. Highlights were the elephant and buffalo encounters, Rufus’s baked bean recipe, epic scenery, tracking the various game and Ross’s ability to read the bush, trekking through thorns, some picking their way carefully, others doggedly bulldozing their way through, and our knowledgeable guides who guided us, both through the bush and to a new found appreciation for the wilderness, through an adventure that will stay with all of us for years to come.

At the school bus, those who had the foresight changed into dry clothes left on the bus, while the rest of us found the driest things we could. Clean clothes or not, nothing could hide the aroma of a five-day hike with only one ‘bath’ in the Limpopo.

That night, the showers were warmer, the food sweeter, and beds softer and drier, but the memories were the best of all. When cookers didn’t work, or bags started breaking, or loads got too heavy, and the rain started to pour, everyone worked together. It’s the experiences where we rough it a little, but immerse ourselves in the wild that we enjoy the most and remember most fondly. We returned home with a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for what we have – an incredible environment on our doorstep, a soft bed, and a roof over our heads. Finding our place in nature was at the heart of the trip, and there is no doubt that nature found a bigger home in our hearts.

I can’t wait to do it again –even if it rains!

By: Graeme Wuth

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