‘In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.’ – John Muir
I love being in the bush. Stepping into the wild for time that is focussed entirely on reconnecting with nature; where the song of the birds, the call of the animals and the crackle of the campfire are the things that ground each day and where lessons are taken from the surrounding landscape. Which is exactly what was in store for me when I joined the three-day Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trail recently.
Flying from Cape Town via Johannesburg, our group of four was met at Phalaborwa Airport by our host and skilled ranger Bradley Frolich and driven to the entrance of the Mthimkhulu Reserve. Here our guide and tracker extraordinaire Gert Esterhuizen awaited us with an open 4×4 safari vehicle for the drive to Klein Letaba Camp, where we would spend our time.
Instantly engulfed by pristine bushveld and with the wind in our hair, as we took on the winding jeep tracks as we chatted about the days ahead, cameras keen and primed for any wildlife we may encounter along the way. Padkos of biltong, nuts and dried fruit, as well as icy cold water was offered as the sun baked down on our palpable excitement.
Set within a 7500 ha private reserve that shares an unfenced border with the Kruger National Park and enjoys 42km of river frontage, the Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trail offers the ultimate walking safari. The four-bed remote camp is currently the only accommodation on offer at Mthimkhulu, which means that you truly have the whole place to yourself, are personally hosted and that your days are planned to suit your group’s specific interest and needs.
After settling into our rooms, we gathered on the deck overlooking the Klein Letaba River to enjoy a high tea of neatly cut sandwiches and delicious cake. Having changed into our walking shoes and after being briefed by Gert, we headed out on our first walk, stepping right off the deck and taking a narrow path towards the river bank. Almost instantly we had animal tracks to follow, assorted long grass to take note of and across the river bank an old rather grumpy looking daga boy or lone buffalo peering curiously back across at us. We were immersed in nature.
Each morning and afternoon during the stay we were taken to a new location, sometimes enjoying a game drive en route before setting out quietly and in single file through the thicket of mopane, jackalberry, acacia and ancient wild fig trees, Gert up front, Bradley holding the back. Walking for about 5 to 6 hours a day, a distance of about 8 kilometers with water breaks and plenty of stops to take lessons from nature, find and identify the bird’s calls and animal tracks, it is easy going.
Gert and Bradley are remarkable in their knowledge and every stop enriched with further insight into this unique wilderness area. Mthimkhulu is one of the most remote and private regions in the Greater Kruger National Park, one with an abundance of wildlife and traversing it on foot is a great privilege.
After a break for sundowners, each evening as the sun set a deep golden orange over the bush and the day became night, we enjoyed a night drive back to the camp, on the lookout for nocturnal animals and activities.
Walking is a sensual experience that allows you to delve into the stories of the bushveld, the often overlooked species, the medicinal uses of plants and trees, the secret habits of mammals in the wild. It is an indulgence not always possible from the comfort of a 4X4 vehicle. We found birds, insects, reptiles and mammals that all play an important role in the ecosystem that makes up this unique landscape.
It was a time of heightened senses and humble appreciation.
Things that we saw along the way
For me, the most important take away from the trail was the reminder of how important it is to preserve these natural areas and the significance of each of the animals that live there, contributing and making up a whole, from bold dung beetles to termite colonies and tiny beetles, to the mighty lion and leopard who’s tracks we followed.
Fork-tailed drongos, emerald spotted doves, natal spur-wings, crested francolin and the call of the fish eagle kept us company as we walked. We even enjoyed the rare sighting of a brown-headed parrot and saw hammerkop on their nest. There were chacma baboons, herds of elephants coming down to drink, a journey of giraffe and kudu shyly peering from behind tree cover. There were pods of hippo, deceptively large crocs in shallow waters, bushbuck and adorable meerkat.
Here the pace slows for a fast walker like me, to that of patience and impending unpredictable discovery.
The fragility of nature and the cycle of life keeps on going. We came across the remains of elephants, buffalo, and tortoises and antelope, reminding us of the delicacy of survival in the bush.
Over our days there we had all the seasons wrapped into one. Starting with a heat the hovered around the mid 30 degrees Celsius on the day of arrival, the first night brought a gentle rain that continued on and off on the morning walk. As the clouds cleared and the sun warmed the land, mud caked underfoot to form patterns that we admired as we walked along the Klein Letaba river bed.
From black granite to soft sand, we experienced it all as we moved from the river bed up onto the rocks and boulders that lined it. Through thickets of buffalo thorn trees, mopanes and ironwoods. We stopped to learn which fruit we could consume if ever fate had us abandoned in the bush, what twig could be used to brush our teeth and how easily elephants can destruct a once heavily wooded area.
Welcome, pausing to appreciate the views, with Bradley and Berlize watching on.
The remarkable and incredibly knowledgeable guide and tracker Gert, who is the man you want on your side should you need protection, to point out all the intricate details that bushwalking brings and for hours of storytelling and deep conservation related debates under the stars, as the camp fire crackles.
Walking the Klein Letaba River Bed, which richly rewarded with a endless signs of life.
Underfoot tracks of leopard, elephant, hippo, antelope and more.
Gert pointing out the game on one of our drives.
Pausing for a water break after a morning of walking.
The accommodation has you staying in authentic rondavel style rooms with comfortable beds, table and work desk, towels and linen provided. The en-suite bathrooms are equipped with a shower, basin and toilet and all amenities are biodegradable, in keeping with the natural feel. By night, light is generated by solar power and kerosene lamp, although for reading you would do well to bring a good headlamp.
The camp itself has a long history and was originally built as stables for park rangers patrolling this part of the Kruger National Park on horseback. Overlooking the Klein Letaba River, it was later converted to a bush camp for visiting tourists and has seen upgrades over the past years with a comfortable wooden deck, boma and kitchen area added.
The fences were dropped between the Kruger National Park and Mthimkhulu in 2007 and the boundary is in the middle of the river that the camp overlooks. On our walks, we came across evidence of the old fence and posts that once divided the parks. From the deck, the views are beautiful, with a sandy riverbed and pools of water stretching to greet the trees on the other side.
Elias Mathebula has years of experience working as a tracker at a luxury lodge and is now putting his knowledge and energy into caring – and cooking, for Mthimkulu’s guests. Creating delicious meals, brewing strong coffee to warm up chilly mornings and surprising us with the most incredible bush breakfast after a morning of walking. Hot veggie stews, traditional braai’s with perfectly grilled steaks, perfectly prepared veggies and traditional pap with onion and tomato gravy were the among the specialties served over the days. The delicious thick cheese sauce served with the eggs making my day.
Elias Mathebula creator of fine meals and giver of excellent hugs.
Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails Useful Guidelines
Enhancing the experience and making your time on the trail even more special, there are never more than eight people hosted at a time and the recommendation is to book the trail as a group of family or friends, to add to the intimacy. The Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails experience runs over three days, allowing you the freedom to move with the pace of nature.
A reasonable level of fitness is required, although the walks are at a slow pace to allow you to appreciate the setting, learn about the fauna and flora and follow some of the animal tracks you will find on the ground. Good walking shoes and long socks are recommended, as ticks are a concern in this area, and you’ll do well to check for them each day.
Packing Checklist: Sandals or flip-flops to wear around the camp, good-quality walking shoes, cameras and binoculars, batteries and charging banks as there is limited electricity at the camp, walking sticks if you like to use one on your walks. Sunscreen lotion and a sun hat, reading material for your downtime, a lightweight jacket, gloves and warm hat in winter, good-quality torch for walking to your room from the campfire after dark, personal toiletries and medication as you are remote.
When it comes to clothing, think comfort and functionality. Neutral colours such as khaki, brown, beige and grey are the best. Remember, you will be spending most of your time walking through the bush so you don’t want to scare off any animals wearing bright colours. The weather is unpredictable so cover all bases.
The Kruger National Park is marked as a Malaria area by the World Health Organisation and they recommend that you take prophylactics. Also, remember your insect repellents to help avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes or other insects.
All walking trail participants must complete an indemnity form before embarking on the trek and the ranger is god while you’re in his care and must be listened to and obeyed at all times for your own safety. Only children older than 16 years may participate in the wilderness trails, a rule that applies to all walking safaris across the greater Kruger National Park.
The name Mthimkhulu is said to mean self-assurance, independence and confidence, which is exactly what I wish upon this pristine piece of wilderness and the bright future it holds under the team’s protection.
The Essential Details
Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails is an exciting community-commercial partnership that forms part of the Dreams Hotels & Resorts portfolio and can be booked at www.dreamresorts.co.za. Take a look at the listing at Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails, and email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, or call them at +27 861 010 347.
The reserve is located a 6-7 hours drive from Johannesburg and the best way to get there is by flying into Phalaborwa’s charming Hendrik van Eck Airport, which is 62km from the camp. The flight is just over an hour and serviced by SA Airlink. On arrival, you will be met by your guide and transferred to the Kruger National Park gate an hour away, and from there in an open safari vehicle to Mthimkhulu Camp.
There is limited electricity, generated by solar. Please make sure that all of your devices are charged and that you have a power bank with you. In the evenings there was light and some charging was possible, as well as warm water in the showers.
At the camp there is no cellphone reception. Allow yourself to use the walking trail as an opportunity to disconnect from the world and reconnect with nature. On a couple of occasions, Bradley took us to a spot to download messages and send a quick note to the family, but I’d encourage you to try and avoid even this. A digital detox is excellent for the soul. There is talk of introducing Wifi in the future, but I wouldn’t rush this if I was Mthimkhlulu.
The property plans to add a number of camps that will offer guests the opportunity to do safari walks from one to another, while also offering a luxury main lodge, called Bank Lodge on an exceptional site overlooking the Groot Letaba River, that we visited on the one day. Klein Letaba Camp offers guests the chance to have an intimate experience with nature. Experiences can be tailored to each group.
The experience is all about immersing yourself in the untouched, untamed African wilderness, and offers an authentic encounter with the surrounding bush and the creatures that find sanctuary in its midst. I would go back in a heartbeat and am so grateful to have had the opportunity.
Bradley and Bernize, our wonderful hosts.
On the last morning, we climbed one of the koppies that are scattered across the land to drink mugs of hot coffee and bid farewell to the endlessly inspiring views across the horizon. A soft gentle rain began to fall, as though on cue honouring the earth in appreciation of the days we’d shared at Mthimkhulu. Below is a pic of me snapped on a phone, unashamedly reveling in the moment, rather soaked and very happy, before gently being encouraged down and driven to the airport for my flight home.
I had been reminded of the things that matter, realigned the senses and fallen once again deeply in love with the wildlife that lives freely and protected in a game reserve marked out for that very purpose.
**I was invited to experience the Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails by Big Ambitions and graciously hosted throughout. Animal pics sourced.