24 April 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

The palette of the Mphongolo

Exploring the most remote area in the Kruger National Park on foot is not just an activity, it’s a fully immersive experience.

Autumn-hued mopane, the dominant plant species of the northern half of Kruger, occurring in both tree and shrub form.

“The Mphongolo Back-pack Trail is not an activity, it’s an experience,” guide Brenden Pienaar assured us, as we hoisted up our backpacks and prepared to walk with him and fellow guide Julie Bryden, deep into what is one of the last untouched areas in the Kruger National Park. But we had no idea just what kind of experience we were about to discover…

You to realise that the real reward of being immersed in nature in this way is how it speaks its magic to you.

We had driven for 2 hours down a fire-break to access the remote Mphongolo Wilderness Area, 150 000 hectares to the west of Shingwedzi Camp. It's as far from tourist roads and camp amenities as it’s possible to be in the Kruger. For 3 nights and 4 days it was ours to explore. The sense of excitement amongst us was tangible as we followed Brenden and Julie through the mopane in search of a suitable campsite, where we pitched our tents, dug for water and made fire using just corkwood, elephant dung and an old waxbill nest.

That night, the sky was so full of stars that I could feel the weight of them as the roar of distant lions sent ripples through the darkness. I began to get a sense of just how special this trail was going to be.

A quiet moment with a white rhino bull. A quiet moment with a white rhino bull.

We had many memorable experiences over the next 3 days as we explored the area on daily excursions from the base camp we’d established in the dry Phugwane River bed. There was a visit from a curious hyena, an encounter with a young elephant bull, the cautious tracking of a herd of buffalo, stolen minutes with a solitary white rhino bull and a very special sighting of a three-banded courser. But the beauty of the trail doesn’t only lie in how you experience the environment; it’s about how the environment begins to act on you.

Waking with the dawn chorus on your first morning in the bush, you begin to tune into the sounds, sights, smells, colours and textures around you and begin to realise that the real reward of being immersed in nature in this way is how it speaks its magic to you.

The hook thorn, perfect and profound. The hook thorn, perfect and profound.

The hot midday rest periods provide time for drowsy contemplation under a giant jackalberry or Ana tree, listening to the life around you slow down, alert to sounds you’d never have otherwise noticed; the puff-back, the rattling cisticola, the mourning dove, the liquid call of a magpie shrike and the tap-tapping of a bearded woodpecker, that looking very carefully, you might be able to see. You are hypnotised by monarch butterflies doing intricate dances around a milkweed bush and wonder at their creation. You examine a column of industrious ants building a secret universe. You admire strangely-shaped stones in a river bed, shimmering with mica and quartz. You notice blades of grass that are rendered extraordinary through colour, form and detail that you’ve previously missed. The anatomy of trees is astounding, the blueness of the sky irreplicable and the hook-thorn is perfect and profound, with one thorn bent to the past and the other one pointing straight into the future.

A monarch butterfly on a milkweed flower A monarch butterfly on a milkweed flower

Increasingly immersed in my environment, I was humbled by evenings replete with the fragrance of wild aniseed and the beating of the wings of dozens of sandgrouse catching the last rays of the setting sun. I was moved by the music of the moon-rise; a pair of pearl-spotted owlets calling deep into the night as I slept on the ground, cradled by roots that run deep. I was roused by a symphony of sounds that rose with the sun’s soft morning rays and I felt incredibly alive as a breeding herd of elephant paused to smell messages carried on the crisp, clean air, before melting into the trees. 

Autumn-hued mopane leaves. Autumn-hued mopane leaves.

I also spent many hours marvelling at the autumn hues of the mopane, the rich palette of the Mphongolo. Its colours infused every element of the world around me with ochre, burnt umber and raw sienna, to create a masterpiece of tone and texture, a harmonious whole and me, a part of it too.

The trail involved all my senses, reconnecting me with nature in an intimate, immediate and visceral way. I found the experience hugely inspiring and it got me thinking (not unusually) about the relationship between art and nature. I wonder what a group of artists would produce if they were to experience the trail and use it as inspiration for their next poem, painting or piece of music? I'd love to get a group together and see what happens. Any takers?

You may also enjoy this trip report about the trail by fellow trail-participant Johan van Rensberg - I did.

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