Heightened senses and a digital detox. On foot with Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails

2018-08-21 12:40 - Ethan Van Diemen
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Flying high above the plateau escarpment that separates the highveld from the Mpumalanga Lowveld, one is immediately awestruck by the seemingly empty and vast bush that can be seen below.

It is an incredible sight, especially considering that the idea of it being an empty space could not be further from the truth - what with it teeming with all manner of wildlife.

This sight takes on an additional significance as the realisation sets in that this vast bushveld will be where you will be walking around exploring, literally on-foot.

For those looking for an authentic, rugged bush experience, with sensory-heightening excitement, untrammelled by the limitations of a vehicle and unpretentious in its detachment from the buzz of technology and the modern world - Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails offers visitors what they want in spades.

  • What: Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails
  • Where: Mopani District, Limpopo  
  • Cost: From R1 500 per person sharing per night for a minimum 2-night stay
  • Facilities: Braai area, housekeeping, fresh towels and linen, communal refrigerator, outdoor boma, wooden viewing deck
  • Included in Cost: Personal guided-walks and game drives as well as all meals and selected soft drinks, excludes alcoholic beverages 
  • Not included: No transportation included and guests would need to make their own transportation arrangements (it is usually a self-drive destination), closest airport to plan your flight around being Hendrik van Eck Airport in Phalaborwa. 
  • Contact: Tel/Fax: 0861 010 347or reservations@dreamresorts.co.za. For more information follow this link

The start of an adventure 

Hopping off of our small plane at one of the tiny, private airports all across safari land, we were smacked in the face by an unrelenting, unforgiving and pure African heat. Hard to believe that earlier in the day it had been mild and gloomy only a few hours away in Johannesburg. That’s one way for you to be sure you’re really in the bush.

SEE: PICS: On-foot exploration of Kruger with Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails


The front of the Hendrik van Eck Airport in Phalaborwa(Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 A panoramic photograph of the arrivals area at the airport in Phalaborwa. (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

SEE: #LoveSA: Not content with dominating the safari scene, Kruger has the prettiest airport too 

Greeted by two of the tracker-guides that would later prove, beyond measure, their tracking ability and environmental and wildlife knowledge, we were welcomed into our snack-laden motor vehicle and off we went.

Travelling across often bumpy, always dusty roads as we made our way to the Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails camp, we were given the chance to acclimatise and ask questions. It really cannot be overstated how receptive our tracker-guides would prove to be, but more on that later.

 One of the few times a vehicle was better suited than our feet and legs (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

Arriving at what would be our accommodation, one could not help but be engrossed by the environment. It is amply clear that the camp was designed to minimise both its impact on the surrounding environment and its reliance on the outside world. Yes, I said outside world because one truly does feel a sort of pioneering, out-in-the-wild feeling and experience at Mthimkhulu.

With water for showers being heated by a fire pit outdoors, energy for the electrical outlets coming from sustainable sources and the water being drawn from a natural underground reservoir - if you’re looking to go off the grid, Mthimkhulu is definitely a place for you to consider.

 Authentic, unpretentious and with a limited impact on the surroundings, Mthimkhulu is a refreshing change from the standard luxury bush lodge formula (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 Authentic, unpretentious and with a limited impact on the surroundings, Mthimkhulu is a refreshing change from the standard luxury bush lodge formula. This panoramic photograph shows the back area of the lodging with the Kruger border off in the distance (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails is located within the Greater Kruger bush in authentic, untouched and untamed African wilderness.

What would have been the only indicators of human activity have long since been removed, specifically the fence that used to run parallel to the banks of the Klein Letaba River separating Kruger proper from communal and privately owned land. This 7 500 hectare private reserve shares this unfenced border with the Kruger National Park and spans 42 kilometres of river frontage.

SEE: Kruger threatens to re-erect game fences over private reserves’ poor governance

 A view of the Klein Letaba river from its banks. Best seen on foot. (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 A panoramic view of the Klein Letaba river from its banks. Best seen on foot. (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

Now that we intrepid explorers had gotten a lay of the land and acclimatised to the temperatures, it was time for a light lunch and safety presentation. Over some juice and triangle-cut sandwiches, we were introduced, properly, to the men and woman who would be ensuring that we didn’t end up as a lion’s main course.

Gert Esterhuizen is one of those men. An unassuming man whose modest disposition belies his extensive and detailed knowledge of the local environment (and beyond) gave us the low-down on how to stay safe, how to behave in the bush in a way that minimises harm and doesn’t disturb the animals and other life forms that call it home.

SEE: SANParks launches new Kruger pilgrimage: Follow in the footsteps of giants Gert Esterhuizen is THE man you want taking you on a walking tour of the African wilderness. With deep, relevant knowledge, a witty sense of humour and a keen sense of the area - you're in great hands (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

Taking to the trails

Dripping in muted khaki greens and browns, the team comprised of Bradley Frolich, Gert and endlessly hospitable Berlize Strydom, explained how the walks would be done. They were quite thorough although it really was no steep learning curve to be honest - just listen to and follow the guy in front with the loaded rifle in a single-file line.

Thoroughly briefed and eager to get exploring in the hopes of seeing something exciting like a lion or an elephant we giddily started our walking journey along the banks of the Klein Letaba. This is where the deep knowledge of the guides first revealed itself.

Clumsily stumbling along as we the uninitiated city-dwellers do, we were walking completely oblivious to the evidence of life and activity that was all around us.

I never walk around looking at my feet but if you’re in the bush it's a great idea to tilt your head downwards regularly. Droppings, broken foliage, prints and more are all tell-tale signs of life. These are the details that make these walks an experience unlike any other. Often overlooked species, the medicinal uses of plants and trees, the secret habits of mammals in the wild - these things are just not as easy to see the finer details of the bush from the barrier of a vehicle.

SEE: #AfriTravel: Why Kruger is among the top national parks in Africa

 Bradley Frolich shows us just one of the many things people in vehicles would likely drive right by and never notice. In this instance, he shows a twig that can be used as a makeshift toothbrush (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 Gert shows the group one of the berries that are safe to eat should you find yourself in a survival situation in the bush. Make sure you know what you're eating before you put it in your mouth. (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

The group saw a number of different prints of various animal species on this first walk, each of which they could identify. Water buffalo, spotted hyena, elephant and impala - we saw all the tracks but sadly it seemed that they had long since passed on, perhaps after having their fill of water.

Asking questions about the prints, animals and plants - you could not ask a question that these guys can’t answer. With their incredible knowledge bolstered by modern technology (think bird-whistle, paw-print and tree identification apps), it was an incredible learning experience.

 These prints are unmistakable signs of life (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 Scat and underfoot prints indicate that an antelope had passed through the area (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 The variety and frequency which one sees while walking around the bush is astounding (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

As the sun slowly began its descent from our view we were told to walk up the embankment only to be surprised by tables and camp chairs laid out in wait for us, replete with snacks and drinks of our choice for sundowners.

If one needs any more reason to go to Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails, it must be to experience the arrival of the night in the bush. No noise or light pollution other than that provided by the sounds of wildlife and the stars in the sky, it is an experience to be savoured. As the sun set a deep golden glow over the bush and day became night, we were treated to a night drive back to the camp, ever-vigilant, flashlight in hand, for any nocturnal animal activity.

SEE: Wildlife spotting and photographing 101: Tips from a bush pro insider

Back at the camp for dinner and nightcaps, we gathered around a pit fire laughingly exchanging stories of the day as we waited to tuck into our meal prepared by the uber-friendly and humorous Elias Mathebula. After a meal, it was off to our respective rooms where we would stay until the morning.

Days start early in the bush, so we would meet around a roaring fire pit at 05:00 every morning spent at Mthimkhulu where we would enjoy some coffee and rusks before setting out on our next walk. Though it is ideal to head out early, the staff at Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails are infinitely amiable, accommodating and willing to tailor the schedule to the particularities of any guest or group of guests. For us, however, we wanted to move at the pace of nature.

 Days start early in the bush. Good thing then that there is hot, fresh-brewed coffee waiting for visitors to Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails ever morning (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

Setting off on the first full day of our bush adventure we made our way along the Klein Letaba riverbed in the opposite direction taken the previous day. The pace was easy enough for anyone who is moderately fit to keep up.

Walking through the bush we encountered more signs of life. Trees with branches stripped of their bark indicated that elephants had been through the area recently. Big mounds of scat on the path confirmed this as did the unmistakable tracks found further along.

 There is only one animal that leaves a print like this and it has a trunk (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 Being on foot really does connect you to the environment in a way that can't be recreated.It shows you, on a minuscule scale, just how connected the environment is in this area (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

It truly is a wonderful experience to be in the bush with persons as knowledgeable as our tracker-guides. You walk away, literally, with a greater understanding of the importance of preserving these ecosystems and the diverse fauna and flora that it is made up of. From dung beetles to termite colonies, lions to fish eagles - they all play a special role in making this area thrive. On our walks, we saw emerald spotted doves, natal spur-wings, kudu and so much more. That is part of what makes walking here so special, you cannot fully anticipate what you might see.

WATCH: Gutsy grey-headed bush shrike makes quick meal of snake

 You never know what you might see while walking around in the bush (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 The group inspects what is essentially a graveyard for elephants. These giant skulls of the animals are, according to the tracker-guides, evidence that these were 'smaller' elephants (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

After another meal in the middle of the bush, we were given the chance to be with our thoughts and relax a while before an evening walk by the Groot Letaba river. Nowhere in Mthimkhulu did it feel quite as alive than with the activity of larger mammals. On our brief walk down the banks of the river, we saw a pod of hippos. Submerging themselves, then floating and then submerging themselves again - they were staring at us as hard as we were staring at them.

WATCH: Incredible Kruger dam scene plays out as hippos rescue wildebeest The Groot Letaba River. Where all manners of life interact, from crocodile and hippo filled-waters to a watering hole for many large terrestrial animals (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 Staring at us as hard as we were staring at them. A pod of hippos (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 An amazing sight was seeing an elephant steadily lumber across the river before disappearing into the bush. Later on, when the sun had set a larger group of elephants did the same thing (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

In this one spot, we were even treated to the magnificent sight of a herd of elephants lumbering across the river. Truly a sight to behold. That was the last sighting we had before we returned to have sundowners at the top of the ridge from where we had earlier descended. Shortly thereafter, we took another nighttime drive back to camp, still hoping to spot some nocturnal activity with no luck, unfortunately.

The next morning, our last, we head up to have coffee on some of the rocky outcrops (koppies) that stand out and tall among the greens and browns of the landscape. Here we had the opportunity to see the bush from a different perspective completely. This elevated point allowed us to really understand the vastness and isolation of the location. This was a magnificent ending to our trip as it really put things into perspective.

 These rocky outcrops hold something of a mystical appeal to visitors as the most visible topographical features of this part of the bush, they were often used by indigenous peoples for a variety of reasons. (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

 Ending your experience by getting high above the canopies and looking into the distance really does contextualise things showing you the vast African wilderness that you have been traversing in all its unspoilt beauty (Photo: Ethan Van Diemen)

Nothing makes you feel your mortality more keenly than knowing there could very easily be lion nearby. And you’re exploring on foot. You are keenly aware of the thundering of your thunders and every single sense feels heightened, which just serves as a reminder that, bottom line, we're all in the game of survival at the end of the day.

If that is the feeling you’re looking for, an untouched, untamed experience in the African wilderness with the creatures that find sanctuary in its midst, look no further than Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails.

Here what you need to know should you decide to go: 

  • Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails is a community-commercial partnership that forms part of the Dream Hotels & Resorts portfolio.
  • The reserve is located 6-7 hours away from Johannesburg by way of car. The easiest way to get to the reserve is to fly into Hendrick van Eck Airport in Phalaborwa.
  • With limited electricity, it is wise to prepare accordingly by bringing fully charged devices and power-banks or solar chargers - or don't. A digital detox might be exactly what you need and with all the exploring you'll be doing this really shouldn't be an issue if you're looking to get away from all the work emails.  
  • Its cheesy and cliche but the camp is in an environmentally sensitive area so make sure you keep it clean and leave nothing but footprints and take with you only memories. 
  • The walks do require a moderate level of fitness. You don't need to be an Ironman contender but you should be able to walk 8 kilometres a day. Related to this point, a good pair of trainers or hiking boots will make your stay much more enjoyable. 
  • As far as clothes go, make sure to keep it neutral. Many animals have an amazing sense of smell and sight. They already know you're in the area so perfumes, colognes and bright coloured clothing are doing nobody any favours. Dress down in comfortable muted colours that blend into the environment. It can be both extremely hot and cold so make sure to consider that when packing. 
  • Insect repellents are provided but it's always a good idea to stock your own. Bring along repellents, anti-malaria medicine and a well-stocked first aid kit for any eventuality. 
  • All walking tour participants are required to sign an indemnity form before they head off so make sure you listen to the guides.
  • Only those 16 and older are permitted to embark on the walking trails. 

ALSO SEE: From bush to bustle: Returning to the city after spending time in Kruger


   

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