Bush Getaways

Seven SA walking safaris that are rebooting how we experience the bush

From the fynbos-full Cape to the lush Lowveld, these new guided, on-foot safaris will immerse you in nature

02 May 2021 - 00:02 By Hlengiwe Magagula
Deciphering animal tracks in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.
Deciphering animal tracks in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.
Image: Simbavati Trails

We love walking in our wild areas. Wildlife watching on safari is wonderful too. What happens when we merge the two? Magic happens.

All of our senses sit up and pay attention. We see the true richness of wilderness ecosystems, from the smallest insects to the mightiest trees. We smell the scent of wild basil and sage as we wander in a fever tree forest at dawn. Our ears warn us of possible dangers ahead, the crunch of a browsing elephant, the alarm call of a vervet monkey, the low grunts of a lioness with her cubs. Even our sense of touch is awakened, as we discover the incisors of a long-gone hippo, caress the cracked bark of a leadwood tree, try our hand with an ancient grinding stone.

It's no surprise that new walking safari opportunities are opening in SA's parks and reserves. From the Cape to the Lowveld, from sleep-outs to ultra-luxury camps, lovers of wild walks are spoilt with novel options that meet the growing demand for healthy outdoor experiential travel.

Some new trails launched just before the pandemic, only to see park gates shut. Now, with reserves open - and staying open - they are rebounding and welcoming guests. There are tempting special deals to be had and, following widespread summer rains, rivers are flowing and the bushveld is green.

Yes, 2021 will be the year of the walking safari.

SEVEN AWESOME WALKING SAFARIS AROUND SA

1. KRUGER SLEEP-OUT: PRIMITIVE PAFURI

Have you ever dreamed of drifting to sleep under the stars in one of the world's great wilderness areas? Primitive Pafuri may be the answer. For the first time in the Kruger National Park, hikers can go totally wild and sleep tent-free, taking turns for the night watch.

After a few test runs last year, African-Born Safaris is ready to lead adventures in the Pafuri Triangle in the park's far north, with the first trails planned for April 2021.

Known to be the Kruger's most biodiverse area, the landscapes vary from the spectacular Lanner Gorge in the west to the pans and fever tree forests of the Limpopo River flood plain to the east.

Hikers supply their own food and kit - but as long as the forecast is clear, can leave that heavy tent at home.

R7,600 (four nights) or R6,000 (three nights) per person. Book via africanbornsafaris.com, info@africanbornsafaris.com, or call 021-813-5950.

2. LUXURY SEASONAL CAMP: SIMBAVATI TRAILS

Timbavati Private Nature Reserve shares long unfenced boundaries with the Kruger and other reserves, so it gets plenty of four-legged browsers and grazers - and their predators.

Here, Simbavati Trails Camp is a luxury off-grid, four-tent camp that is established by an ephemeral river for the duration of the March-to-November walking season.

Simbavati Trails Camp boasts a reservoir-style pool.
Simbavati Trails Camp boasts a reservoir-style pool.
Image: Simbavati Trails

At dawn, guides lead guests on three-hour walks that explore the rich riparian woodlands, returning to a warm bucket shower and brunch that is cooked over an open fire.

R5,450 pppn, fully inclusive. Book via simbavati.com, info@simbavati.com or call
087-151-4520.

3. OFF-ROAD CAMPER HEAVEN: MORUKURU RUSTIC CAMP

At the heart of the Waterberg Unesco Biosphere Reserve, Marakele National Park may not have the scale of the Kruger but it compensates with spectacular escarpments rich in wildlife. A big advantage is that it's only half the distance for Gauteng residents - allow three hours or so for the drive.

Guests at Morukuru Rustic Camp will find that the dramatic terrain of the Marakele National Park is best admired on foot.
Guests at Morukuru Rustic Camp will find that the dramatic terrain of the Marakele National Park is best admired on foot.
Image: SANParks Honorary Rangers

SANParks Honorary Rangers has launched a new rustic camp in Marakele, modelled on its popular Nyarhi Rustic Camp in northern Kruger. Offered as a two-night weekend adventure, Morukuru Rustic Camp is for self-sufficient campers - there's nothing at the tamboti-shaded camp other than a braai pit, Enviro Loo and screened shower area.

Each day, experienced rangers lead walks that explore the bushveld and sandstone gorges. Wild swims are possible, so bring that cozzie.

Group (max eight) cost from R18,500. Funds raised support SANParks conservation projects. Book via sanparksvolunteers.org, e-mail rroundtr@gmail.com or call 083-635-7727.

4. GARDEN ROUTE FLORA & FAUNA: GONDWANA PIONEER TRAIL

A four-hour drive from Cape Town in the heart of the Cape's Garden Route, Gondwana Game Reserve offers perfect walking terrain. The year-long wealth of flora is the star attraction of this private reserve, but it also has the lure of exciting encounters with big game including lion, hippo, elephant, rhino, and buffalo.

The tent interiors are stylish on Gondwana’s slack-packing Pioneer Trail.
The tent interiors are stylish on Gondwana’s slack-packing Pioneer Trail.
Image: Brigitte Hersch

All guests are encouraged to explore a little on foot to get intimate with the flora as part of the safari experience, and the Pioneer Trail was launched in 2020 to give guests the opportunity to traverse the 11,000ha reserve following animal trails. This three-night slackpacking adventure sees guests and their trail guides journey through the fynbos landscape via a series of luxury tented camps, carrying just their lunch and water.

R8,950 pp for three nights, special until the end of September 2021. Book via gondwanagr.co.za, reservations@gondwanagr.co.za or call 021-555-0807.

5. CAVE CAMPING: AMAKHALA WALKING TRAILS

Amakhala Game Reserve is just a short drive for residents of Nelson Mandela Bay, and it has just launched an exciting new overnight trail for backpackers.

Guests hike about four hours on gentle animal trails and then overnight on camp beds in a cave overlooking the Bushman's River.

Amakhala Game Reserve has launched a new overnight trail for backpackers.
Amakhala Game Reserve has launched a new overnight trail for backpackers.
Image: Julie Brand

If backpacking is not your style, there are also dawn walks for lodge and safari camp guests, and recently these have been opened up to day visitors. Slow explorations on foot begin at 8am with expert guides interpreting the whole ecosystem, from dung beetles to elephants.

Overnight trail R950 pp (min two, max four). Day visitor walks are R450 pp. Book via amakhala.co.za, e-mail reservations@haggardandbrand.com or call 083-565-2870.

6. WILD ZULULAND: SOMKHANDA BUSH WALKS

In the remote north of KwaZulu-Natal, halfway between Ithala and Umkhuze parks, lies the community-owned Somkhanda Game Reserve. Wild Connection has taken on the tourism concession and now walks are on the menu.

Whether staying at the lodge or one of the fenced or unfenced camps, guests can book a four-hour bush walk or tracking experience. Somkhanda has all the big game you'd expect and low visitor numbers guarantee a genuinely wild adventure.

Lodge R525 pppn, tented camps R250 pppn, walks R450 pp. Book via wildconnection.co.za, e-mail bookings@wildconnection.co.za or call 081-816-2541.

7. FACELIFT FOR AN OLD FRIEND: BUSHMANS WILDERNESS TRAIL

This one is a Kruger Park favourite thanks to its interesting hilly terrain and the chance to find a wealth of 25,000-year-old San rock art.

The new units taking shape at Bushmans Wilderness Trail in the Kruger National Park.
The new units taking shape at Bushmans Wilderness Trail in the Kruger National Park.
Image: SANParks

During lockdown, SANParks started a complete camp rebuild in a radical new style. Gone is the electric fence in favour of raised decks and walkways. Instead of A-frame huts and shared ablutions, you'll find roomy tents with en-suite facilities.

Fully catered three-night wilderness trails cost R11,200 per two-bed hut. Book via sanparks.org, reservations@sanparks.org or call 012-428-9111.

WHEN TO GO 

Good summer rains have made this an excellent year to venture out on a trail in the Lowveld and the reserves of KwaZulu-Natal.

By now the rivers should again be fordable and the bushveld at its greenest. Peak walking season runs from April to October.

Marakele National Park is best for walks in spring and autumn, which are also the nicest times to enjoy lingering evenings by the camp fire

. In the reserves of the Western and Eastern Cape, short walks are enjoyable year-round, with September to May the best time for overnight walks.

Hlengiwe Magagula is co-author of 'Walking Safaris of South Africa',  published by Struik Travel & Heritage (R270). Both a practical guide and a lyrical evocation of the pleasures of walking in wild places, the book covers 21 parks and reserves with big game and guided walks.


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