The view over the Olifants River from Barry's Rocks ... The ultimate KNP sundowner spot

Following rumours that the wilderness ethic was making a strong comeback on the Kruger’s multi-day hiking trails, I set off on a two-week Wild magazine assignment to discover whether this ‘wilderness renaissance’ was fact or fiction.

Night shooting is an essential skill for KNP Backpack Trails Guides

Having been invited to attend the Kruger Backpack Trails Guides’ Annual Workshop and AGM from the 7th – 12th of January, I spent my first week in the company of some of Kruger’s most knowledgable and experienced Trails Guides. I listened to a useful talk on bush first aid, enjoyed a practical presentation on snakes and scorpions, a lecture on Anthrax, a talk on KNP’s anti-poaching, as well as participating on a two-day track and sign evaluation. The incredibly interesting and enlightening week finished up with Advanced Rifle Handling (ARH) assessments, which included jungle lane and night shooting exercises! There’s no doubt in my mind that Kruger’s backpack trails are led by some of Africa’s most well-trained and highly skilled Trails Guides.

Aside from all the ‘hard’ skills that were being taught and tested on the workshop, Kruger’s finest spent the evenings gathered around a modest campfire honing their ‘soft’ skills by sharing personal insights into what ‘wilderness’ meant for each of them. The evening hours whizzed by as these gurus of the bush debated how best to convey the spirit and majesty of the park’s pristine wilderness areas to their trail guests.

I found it an energising experience to be in the company of these like-minded and passionate walking guides. Certainly, if my weeklong workshop experience is anything to go by, I would unreservedly recommend signing up for a primitive backpack trail with out delay. The multi-day Olifants, Lonely Bull and Mphongolo self-supported trails await you…

Wilderness appreciation and reconnecting with nature is a vital element of any Kruger trails experience

Unfortunately, the first backpack trails of the year don’t start until early February (with the strenuous Olifants River Backpack Trail only getting underway in April after the rains and extreme heat have dissipated), so I signed up instead for a couple of the traditional ‘base-camp’ wilderness trails. With a choice of the Bushman’s, Metsi-Metsi, Nyalaland, Napi, Oliphants, Sweni and Wolhuter trails, I opted for the Olifants in the north followed by the Metsi-Metsi in the south. These fully catered, three-night trails operate from fixed eight-bed camps where a highly competent cook prepares all meals while participants accompany two extremely knowledgable and highly competent Trails Guides on twice-daily walks in the surrounding wilderness area. Find out more at: www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/tourism/activities/wilderness/default.php

Our trail was led by the experienced duo of Sean Pattrick and Aron Mokansi who, over the course of the next couple of days, treated us to… a lion tracking experience on foot; walked us into a large herd of elephants; showed us (an increasingly rare) white rhino cow and calf; and shared the epic scenery that surrounds their favourite Olifants wilderness area haunts.

The trail culminated with some rare ‘alone time’ deep in the wilderness… Aron checked the area was safe while Sean selected a well-positioned rock, overlooking a vast tract of pristine riverine wildland, for each of us. For the next half-hour we were left to reflect on the beauty of nature and imbibe the wilderness spirit on our own. I found the experience of being alone with my thoughts in the wilderness an incredibly powerful – near sacred – experience.

As we reminisced around the campfire later that evening, our small group of trailists enthusiastically relived the trail’s many memorable highlights. Inevitably elephants, rhinos and the previous day’s lion tracking dominated the early fireside exchanges but later the conversation evolved into a fascinating discussion on wilderness and its immeasurable value to society. With the fire reduced to embers, I finally tore myself away and headed for bed knowing without a shadow of a doubt that Kruger’s trails were in good hands and the wilderness ethic on backpack trails was alive and kicking

The Olifants River rose three metres overnight but the worst was still to come...

Later that night the heavens opened to unleash a thunderstorm more vicious than any I’ve encountered to date. It was impossible to sleep through the deafening thunder cracks, as rain bucketed down and lightening streaked across an angry night sky.

Rising at dawn, I was shocked to see the river had risen a couple of metres overnight, transforming the Olifants into an angry, muddy maelstrom churning past our trails camp.

A bird's eye view of the flooded Kruger

It’s just as well we’re headed home today I thought… any more rain and Kruger’s rivers might start to make life difficult for us.

Joining the other trailists and guides in the open-top game-viewer, we immediately set off for Letaba. We should be there in just over an hour I mused as we slid along the waterlogged track. Ten minutes later we rounded a corner and descended towards the first of three small tributaries we needed to cross. The trickle of the day before had been replaced by an angry torrent over 15 metres wide and three metres deep.

We were stranded with no way out until the water subsided. Our guides radioed a situation report into HQ and we retreated to camp to wait it out. I crawled into bed for a nap.

The Letaba high-water bridge underwater

The thud of rotor blades invaded my slumbering mind and snapped me back from dreamland. I looked at my watch; it was 2pm. Outside the sky was heavy and foreboding.  The sound grew steadily louder.

Sean popped his head in the door and said, “Come on; let go. There’s more rain on the way and they’re choppering us outa here before it hits.”

I didn’t need another invite; I had always dreamed of flying over the Kruger Park. Charles – our lively and entertaining Zimbo pilot – strapped us in and gave us headphones before lifting off. The SANParks’ chopper dipped over the ridge and flew low over the swollen Olifants. The scenes below were incredible with hippos huddled in eddies trying to escape the powerful torrent sweeping by. We cut across to the Letaba River where I noticed the low water bridge had already disappeared underwater. (What I didn’t realise was that in just 24 hours the high water bridge would follow suit below the runaway river.)

Landing at the Letaba helipad, after a scintillating 20 minute flight enjoying a vulture’s view of Kruger’s rapidly rising rivers, I appreciated how fortunate I had been. After all, there can be no better way to end a Kruger visit than a SANParks’ helicopter evacuation: the ultimate ‘grand finale’ to an entertaining and exciting KNP Wild assignment.

Sean Pattrick and Aron Mokansi in action on the Olifants Wilderness Trail