For almost as long as he’s been able to talk, Joubert expressed a wish to go walking in the Kruger National Park. The challenge with that however was that children younger than twelve years old are not allowed to take part in the guided walks on offer, due to the danger and distances covered (and, I suppose in some cases, short attention spans).
However, at short notice we were made aware of availability on the Sweni Wilderness Trail – the most popular of the trails in Kruger – running from the 18th of August 2021 and, with that being Joubert’s 12 birthday it seemed a blessing straight out of heaven, too good to pass up even if it meant he’d have to miss a week of school…
Unfortunately work commitments meant Marilize wouldn’t be able to join us, so it was just the two de Wet boys that departed Pretoria on the 15th of August for our wilderness adventure. Over the past few weeks we showed you most of what we saw and experienced in the three days leading up to the trail as we traversed the southern reaches of the Kruger Park and then made our slow way up to Satara on the 18th of August.
It is at Satara Rest Camp that the ranger-guides meet their guests at the start of the Sweni Wilderness Trail, every Wednesday and Sunday. Having been introduced to our fellow trailists as well as rangers Orbet and Rhulani who’d be guiding the trail, and with all our luggage stowed in the trailer, it was finally time to get onto the open safari vehicle and head into the wilderness. With some wonderful sightings along the way it took us quite some time to cover the distance between Satara and the Sweni Trails camp, and so it is already almost dark when we arrive. Finally Joubert’s wish was coming true, and on his birthday no less.
Guests spend three nights in a rustic, remote base camp on the southern bank of the Sweni stream, from where they are taken out into the wilderness on four guided walking excursions before being brought back to Satara at the end of the trail. Joubert and I were allocated the sleeping hut in the furthest corner of the camp. After settling in we all could sit down to the delicious cooking of James, the camp caretaker and chef, rounding off our meal with a slice of birthday cake before Orbet and Rhulani made us aware of the rules of walking in the wilderness in the days to come. Lions roaring nearby lulled us to sleep that night. What would tomorrow hold?
At sunrise, and after enjoying hot coffee and rusks, we were ready to set out exploring. A beautiful clear morning forewarned that it was going to be a hot day, so we made sure we had plenty to drink in our backpacks, in addition to the fare we’d be enjoying whilst having a picnic somewhere in the bush later.
A short drive westwards out of camp, and in the direction from where the lions were roaring the previous evening, brought us to the area where our ranger-guides determined we’d be walking this first morning. Our walk followed the course of the Sweni stream where the tracks of numerous animals around the remaining pools of water was a sure sign that we’d be encountering lots of wildlife on our morning amble.
When we came across the lion pride feeding on their wildebeest kill, I was surprised at how close we were to them. Surprised and excited, and entirely unafraid. A good chance at having close encounters with lions while on foot is after all the reason why Sweni is the most sought-after wilderness trail offered in Kruger, and the rangers are experts at keeping their guests safe under such circumstances. One of the lioness were keeping a calm eye on the approaching humans, while the others – three more females, one male and seven cubs – were feeding entirely oblivious to our presence. That was until the male looked up. When he saw the humans just a stone’s throw from where he and his pride were feasting the great beast gave a mighty growl – and fled for his life! This sent the cubs fleeing in every direction while the females were immediately ready to go to war to protect their cubs and their prey. While one female slinked away to go round up the cubs, and the male turned around after a hundred meter dash to stare at us from a distance, the three remaining females left us with no confusion that we were not welcome at their breakfast table. The intensity of their growls was like thunder rumbling from inside the earth; you could feel it resonating in your chest. With lightning in their eyes, their snarls exposing their deadly weaponry, ears pulled back and tails flicking from side to side there was only one way for us to go. Backwards. Slowly. Don’t turn your back on them, or they will charge. And when they do charge, stand still and face them. When she stops, you move backwards again. Slowly, without any sudden movements. And without turning your back! An amazing experience I will never forget. And I don’t believe Joubert will forget it either. No fear, just an amazing sense of respect and gratefulness for being there in the moment.
After the exciting encounter with the lions we continue along the Sweni, criss-crossing it and its tributaries at several points, enjoying a well deserved picnic at a beautiful turn in the stream and just soaking in the wildness around us.
Just before we arrive back at the vehicle, and with the sun sitting very high and very hot already, we sneak up on a herd of elephants sleeping in the shade of a tree.
The hot midday hours we spent in camp (after enjoying the delicious lunch James welcomed us back with). The waterhole in front of camp is a magnet for thirsty animals, there’s a lot of habituated birds attracted to the birdbath and there was even a brief appearance by a good-sized African Rock Python in one of the large trees next to the river, meaning there was more than enough entertainment to keep us occupied until the afternoon outing.
On the way to the area where we’d be walking in the afternoon, our guides took a detour to the feasting lions we encountered in the morning. They were still in the same spot, and still gnawing on the remains of their wildebeest prize. We didn’t venture off the vehicle this time, enjoying this meeting from even closer and much safer quarters.
The afternoon walks cover a shorter distance, and take in a pleasing spot from which the African sunset can be enjoyed with something cold in hand. While we didn’t cover as much ground in the afternoon we were again treated to an encounter with lions – this time a mating pair some distance away – as well as lots of other animals and inspiring scenery. From atop the rocky outcrop where we sat enjoying the sunset we also realised that the mating pair of lions were in fact a threesome – two males attending to one female in oestrus.
We arrive back at camp around 7pm that evening, but not before we enjoy some thrilling night time sightings along the way – and of course we paid “our” lions another visit!
The next morning is a lot chiller than the previous, and it soon clouds over. Our route takes along the Nungwini stream and past a natural fountain. Despite the inclement weather we again have wonderful encounters with a wide range of animals, including a lone male lion, elephant bulls, giraffes and honey badgers, and by the time the vehicle comes into sight again I’m sure all of us still had a good few kilometers in the tank.
Back at camp for lunch and (if you were so inclined) a siesta, a wildebeest bull harassing cows around the waterhole had Joubert happily clicking away, and later the little birds at the birdbath received his full attention.
On the way to our sundowner spot, Orbet and Rhulani took us to a beautiful stretch of water along the Nungwini stream, just a short walk away. We weren’t there very long, when we had to vacate our prime spot at the water’s edge to allow an approaching herd of elephants to have right of way.
Ted’s Place, a cliff in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains looking out over the plains of the central Kruger Park with the course of the Sweni River snaking through the scene, was a fitting location to reflect on a memorable trail before heading back to base camp, where a pair of honey badgers were waiting for us to return.
It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to the Sweni Trail’s base camp that final morning, and the drizzly weather certainly reflected our mood. Aside from a wet family of spotted hyenas, there wasn’t a lot of animals to be seen along the road back to Satara.
After saying goodbye to Orbet, Rhulani, James and the other guests that shared our experiences in the wilderness in those three short days, it was time for Joubert and me to head for home… Leaving through Orpen Gate really was our only option if we wanted to beat the government COVID-curfew, though we delayed our departure just a smidgeon by detouring past Muzandzeni Picnic Site and Talamati Bushveld Camp.
We were already quite some distance out the gate at Orpen, and passing one of the many game farms along the road, when we saw a leopard next to the fence of one of these farms. While we were still despondent about no longer being in Kruger this unexpected find made us realise all over again that we were still in Africa, which means we’re more blessed than 6.5-billion other people on earth…