Can a Suzuki Jimny tame the Marakele National Park eco 4x4 trail?
The challenge was simple: do I think my Suzuki Jimny and I are up to handling the rocks and crazy terrain SANParks' Marakele National Park’s eco 4x4 trail has to throw at us?
Of course, was my instant reply to SANParks. It was game on.
There is nothing the “Black Pearl” and I cannot handle. We may not charge through obstacles, but we're not afraid or intimidated by rocky terrain and we are ready to tackle any off-road challenge, any time and at any place — as long as it's at a slow and steady pace. Lets’ face it: the Jimny is built for many things but speed is not one of them.
Proviso: this challenge was made before I knew the three-day wild camping eco trail is unfenced, and the area is very much Big Five territory, with massive buffaloes and hungry lions stalking its perimeter.
The day finally came when my family and I, in our trusty third-generation Jimny, arrived at the trail located in Limpopo’s Waterberg mountain range, eager and ready for what was coming our way.
I was like a dog with a bone. I love the dust, bundu-bashing, untamed terrain and the great outdoors.
As we idled up to our meeting point, we were greeted by the park’s head guide, Tinyiko Ndlovu. His initial circumspection about the Black Pearl and its capabilities would fade quickly.
The doubts faded just as quickly as mine about how challenging this trail’s grade 3 to 5 route would be.
I had unfortunately been influenced before the trip by several fellow enthusiastic off-road adventurers, who had made quite a few disparaging remarks about some of SANParks' other eco “4x4” trails. Many had told me I was likely to get more dust on my Jimny’s rims from Johannesburg’s potholes than from the driving the trails.
How wrong they were.
Despite my lingering thoughts on the challenges, we were there, and more than ready to conquer the wildest and most remote regions of the park.
The first dusty road to the first stop to collect Tinyiko’s colleague did nothing to help my thoughts, though. Fortunately, those quickly disappeared when an exceptionally grumpy white rhino, which dwarfed the Black Pearl, emerged from behind a bush as we neared the rangers’ accommodation.
The rhino was less than impressed with us for disturbing its early morning grazing routine, snorting and kicking up dust as it feigned a charge before disappearing into the bush.
As we waited for Tinyiko’s colleague, our guide was carefully ensuring his rifle was at the ready, giving us a reassuring thumbs up as we prepared to leave. Less than an hour later, I would be very grateful to know that Tinyiko was well-armed. Trailing him in his Toyota Hilux, we did not have to wonder for long about how challenging the trail would be.
Any initial hope of seeing game or being able to circumvent or decide on how to approach a major obstacle disappeared within minutes. The trail we were on, which was day 1 of the three-day trail, was quite literally swallowed up by the long grass which dwarfed both vehicles.
As we slowly trudged up a hill along the teeth-jarring trail, I quickly realised that walking the line, wading the upcoming water crossings and packing rocks to climb over obstacles was something that would have to be done with haste. Spotting a buffalo or lion would be near-impossible in the thick grass, unless it was right on top of you — and by then it’s a little too late to do anything about it.
To the untrained eye, the trail on top of the plateaus simply disappears. With no sand, and only boulders, it seems as if there is nothing else but a few scrubby trees, wildebeest and magnificent views
Within 4km of our start, we were forced to a dead stop. Elephants had pushed over several acacia trees blocking our path. It was now a matter of working out how to get past. It became obvious: the only way we could pass was if we physically pulled the tree off the track.
Tinyiko needed help, which required me getting out and helping to haul as quickly as possible the branches and trunk that blocked our way.
It was while we were huffing and puffing that Tinyiko suddenly grabbed my shoulder and pulled-pushed me behind him. Less than 400m away were three dusty Dugga boys (grumpy male buffaloes) curiously glaring at us.
They were as unimpressed as was my wife, who was keeping watch while standing on the Jimny’s rockslider, her head barely visible above the grass. The height of the grass had completely obscured us from her, though she could clearly see the buffaloes standing on an embankment overlooking us.
Obstacles were quickly removed, and with adrenalin pumping as the buffaloes continued to stare us down, we were back on the trail.
We quickly discovered that what we had encountered so far in terms of teeth-jarring, rock-crunching 4x4ing was nothing compared to what lay ahead of us.
Steep inclines, hellish declines, crazily deep and narrow riverbeds which took careful negotiating, mind-blowing axel twisters, followed by never-ending massive steps, were encountered as we traversed several plateaus to reach the top of the mountain range which runs through the centre of the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve.
Parts of the trail, said Tinyiko, are only passable during winter, with the summer rains washing away large sections and turning the dry riverbeds into raging torrents.
Until the lunchtime break, which is at site of the first overnight camp (which is nothing more than open ground with a modest toilet facility), the trail had quite fairly been challenging. What we were to encounter later that afternoon, which is the start of day 2 of the trail, tests one’s skills, nerves, patience and, above all, rock-packing and boulder step-climbing capabilities.
To the untrained eye, the trail on top of the plateaus simply disappears. With no sand, and only boulders, it seems as if there is nothing else but a few scrubby trees, wildebeest and magnificent views.
It was only with Tinyiko’s expert guidance, that we were able to pick out the trail, which meanders back and forth on itself as you wind your way down the escarpment and on into myriad valleys below.
This trail is one of the best, if not the best, nail-biting, off-roading routes I have done this year. It tests and pushes you. Above all it is fun, with plenty of fresh air, bundu-bashing and packing of rocks.
Tinyiko’s opinion of our Black Pearl after we emerged unscathed although slightly bruised: it is one of the best 4x4 vehicles to take on the route and he wants one as his next work vehicle.
Thanks to the fantastic past lessons from our Suzuki club, we came away unscathed.
The trail, which follows the park’s eastern border management tracks, is not possible without 4x4 vehicles fitted with low range. Off-road trailers are not permitted. A maximum of five vehicles are taken out on the trail, with guided groups departing Tuesdays and Fridays.
As part of the upcoming Heritage Day public holiday and to encourage people to visit the country’s national parks, SANParks has opened its parks to all South Africans free of charge from September 16 to 24. The free access to the parks does not include accommodation and commercial activities such as guided vehicle safaris or walks.
Click here more information on which parks have free access.
Disclaimer: SANParks sponsored the reporter’s accommodation and trail and guide fees, while petrol to and from Marakele was paid for by the reporter.
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