Baboons gave the game away. On the opposite bank of the Olifants River, a troop of them shouted obscenities at an unseen enemy. Our guides, Donavan Terblanche and Dave Turner, halted, rested their rifle butts on the ground and scanned the trees across the water. Was that a leopard’s tail swinging from the outstretched branch of a jackalberry, perhaps? No, just another branch.
We walked on, single file, boots swish-cracking through soft sand and dry grass. Then Donavan stopped again, now gesturing feverishly with his free hand. Not to the right across the river, but left into the long grass less than 30 metres from us where seven lions were scrambling out of mopane shade.
They melted into the trees so fast and silently that not all of us were lucky enough to catch flashes of frost-yellow faces or blurs of tail. ‘Right. Put your packs down and follow me,’ said Donavan, shrugging off his own and staring intently into the thick bush. ‘Stay close together, keep quiet and, whatever you do, don’t run,’ he added.
We exchanged wide-eyed glances as we scurried after him. Surely we were going in the wrong direction? Shouldn’t we be hiking as fast as possible away from the lions?
Two days earlier, a safari vehicle towing a trailer full of assorted backpacks had dropped seven of us at the end of a rough dirt track, which grew fainter and bumpier until it petered out entirely. After a short briefing and an introduction to Ogre the auger (a tool used to dig holes for our dung deposits), we shouldered our burdens and turned our backs on the vehicle as it drove away. We wouldn’t see another car, road or human being until we reached the pick-up point three full days’ walk away.
We’d trudged along for almost four minutes before Donavan stopped beside a small patch of compost. He seemed rather excited about it. ‘This is a recent black rhino midden,’ he explained. ‘We’re lucky to see signs of them so close to the drop-off point.’ He could tell it was black rhino dung because there were bits of neatly snipped twigs in it.
‘Gardeners have worked out that when they prune stems, they need to cut at a 45 degree angle to stimulate growth. Black rhinos do it naturally.’ An image popped into my head: rhinos pottering happily around my grandmother’s rose garden.
After five more minutes’ hiking, it was the trailists’ turn to stop and stare at our first sight of the river and of sunbathing hippos. ‘We’ll see at least 300 hippos over the next few days,’ Donavan said in an effort to get us moving again. ‘This river’s full of them. And that story you’ve been told about hippos always running towards water? Not true. If one’s feeling threatened and the water’s too shallow, it’ll head for the bushes. So don’t get between a hippo and anything.’
A chittering cloud of oxpeckers alerted our guides to another bloat of hippos. Oxpeckers are somewhat two-faced because, when they warn their hosts of intruders, they also betray their positions. It was all of five minutes before we pulled up again: a breeding herd of elephants blocked our path. Our tip-off this time was a mother telling off one of the calves.
We gave both groups a wide berth and started to make good progress over dry river courses, up and down dusty gullies and along grassy banks lined with twisting sycamore figs that leaned recklessly over their reflections and giant Natal mahoganies with browse lines as neatly trimmed as new haircuts.
An unwelcome audience
The river was turning silver and gold when we arrived at our first night’s camp: a strip of sand and smooth stones between a steep bank and gurgling shallows. Tents pitched, we clambered over python-like roots of two matumi trees to fetch firewood, then tottered barefoot over pebbles to slosh in the shivery water. We ate dinner at dusk in the company of bats and nightjars, which flitted over the stream, gorging on insects.
A molten lava dawn was prelude to a breathless morning. The Olifants’ shining surface mirrored fleeting shapes of white-crowned lapwings, Egyptian geese, saddle-billed storks and pied kingfishers, which shattered each illusion with a splash. A honeyguide fluttered from branch to branch, noisily coaxing us to follow. Dave told us some people believe if you don’t leave a piece of honeycomb for one that leads you to a hive, it will guide you to a mamba the next time.
Gradually, we settled into the steady rhythm of walking with weighty packs, trying not to look at the feet of the person in front, but to keep our heads up for animals. Kruger’s wild inhabitants are accustomed to four-wheeled visitors and usually ignore them, despite their size and stink. Two-legged trespassers, however stealthy, provoke immediate evasive action. I started to get a funny feeling that we were disturbing their privacy, you might even say snooping.
Impalas and waterbuck bounded swiftly out of sight or splashed across sandbars to safety. Crocodiles snoozing on midstream islands quickly spotted us and slid noiselessly underwater. Elephants tolerated our whispers, but as soon as their snorkelling trunks sniffed us, retreated in polite disgust. Grey go-away-birds followed their own advice. Even the lions we were so anxious to see were yet more anxious not to be seen – and they hadn’t been told not to run.
Only the hippos didn’t seem to mind much. Three of them maintained a sporadic domestic squabble while we bathed in a pool mere metres away. And one eccentric giraffe that ambled past made sure the light was right, then turned and modelled for an extended photo-shoot. Perhaps he was still in character after performing near a road.
The days’ programme of entertainment was straightforward. We woke to starlight and crouched in our tents packing by the glow of headlamps. A cup of coffee as the grey world turned rosy, then a solid few kilometres’ walk before breakfast while the air was still cool. Lunches were idyllic: long siestas lying on thick sand in dappled shade, the hiss of gas stoves and rustle of plastic wrappers the only unnatural sounds. Required to be silent on the move, we didn’t talk much even when we stopped. We didn’t need to.
We pored over tokens that lay scattered near our path. A four-foot long elephant tusk, so old and weathered the ivory was flaking like bark, but still heavy enough to make a man bend double lifting it. A hippo’s lower incisor, honed to a razor-edge from rubbing against the upper tusk – a wordless reminder to respect our bush companions. The primitive mask of a crocodile skull, its long, pitted snout rounding into a raindrop-shaped cavity. Inside it, the perfect outline of a broken heart.
After about 15 kilometres, we’d be wearing what Donavan called our ‘afternoon faces’ and were relieved to down packs for the day. Each campsite had something particular to recommend it: a sheltering group of boulders, a broad sandy beach overlooking a fine row of trees, a comfortable spot to sit in the river safely. We washed, filtered water and fed ourselves, then sat around a small fire for a laughably short time before yielding to the siren call of sleeping bags.
Our last morning allowed for a slightly later start, so I lay with my head sticking out of the tent, watching the sun do a slow fade-up. I realised I was envious of the baboons and the hippos, the honeyguide and the lions. They all got to stay and we had to leave. Even though we were awkward, uninvited visitors, I think we all felt we belonged there anyway. Donavan took us on a long detour over a hillside through mopane woodland, ostensibly to experience a different landscape, but really just to delay our departure.
When we eventually regained the river, a long procession of 30 elephants filed across the sand, stood drinking in a row then, trunks held high, marched back the way they’d come. It looked like a reluctant curtain call – a disgruntled last bow for a small audience who couldn’t possibly appreciate this magnificent spectacle enough.