Walking with wildlife

The Wolhuter Wilderness Trail is the original wilderness trail, named after one of the first rangers appointed in the Sabie Game Reserve in 1902.

The trail starts either on a Wednesday afternoon (and ends the next Saturday morning) or on a Sunday afternoon (ending the next Wednesday morning). It covers 3 nights at the same camp site with 2 days mainly spent on walking.

We were very much looking forward to this adventure – getting as close as we could (comfortably) to nature. We met our rangers and fellow trailists at Berg-en-Dal rest camp with our bags ready. We made sure to pack lightly, as was requested, so we only had our 2 big backpacks filled up. After meeting everyone – next to the rangers we got company from a French couple (Laura and Alexandre) and 2 ladies from Spain (Aïda and Laia) – we embarked on our journey into the wild, away from civilization. We drove for about an hour, going onto roads that aren’t accessible for the other tourists.

After having arrived at the trail camp, we settled down in our huts and had time to relax. We got a full safety briefing on the camp rules and how to behave in the wilderness: making sure to follow the trail rangers’ orders, remain silent as much as possible, signals to use when spotting / being in danger, etc. Exciting! Afterwards, it was time for dinner. The cook prepared delicious meals throughout the 3 days. Make sure to bring all the drinks you need – at the trail camp they only serve water.

The camp fire was lighted every evening, but given the fully packed active days, we didn’t spend much time at those. We called it an early night in order to get ready at 4.15am the next morning to start our adventure!

We got everything we wanted out of these 3 days, that’s for sure. The views were magnificent – man, that sunrise on the first day! What we didn’t realise before we left however was the fact that it would be a lot harder to see the animals up close. If you think about it, it all makes sense of course. After all of these decades of hunting, not only our smell but also our shape is associated with immediate danger. We are their N°1 threat. So, depending on where the wind is coming from, they can smell us (and see us) from far away. Whereas, when you’re in a vehicle, they don’t associate the car with hunting and the smell of the gasoline actually covers ours. The fact that the car makes a lot more noise doesn’t matter. A pity (and just sad if you think about it)…

Still, we spotted wildebeest, grey duiker, scrub hare, impala, waterbuck, giraffe and buffalo to start with. But more impressive – a lot of white rhinos (less dangerous than the black rhino who appears to be a lot more aggressive). At least, we thought we saw a lot of rhinos, but we were told that the numbers are still dramatically decreasing. Poaching is still as big as an issue and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stop it. At this rate, the prediction is that we won’t see any rhinos anymore in the wild within 5 years. We stumbled upon skeletons where we could clearly see the hole the bullet left when it entered the skull. And Kruger National Park is still a place where you find the most dense population of rhinos, so in other places it’s even worse. Gets you furious, doesn’t it?

And then there’s the elephants, of course – can’t get tired of those big guys, can you? But we needed to be careful – a few times they clearly indicated not to be so happy with our presence. Luckily it never got too far, although at one point our head ranger was getting into a defensive position, with his gun in firing position. My heart skipped a beat at that moment. So relieved the elephant decided he couldn’t win this and turned around.

When enjoying our last evening in the wilderness, before returning to the camp for dinner, we were sitting on a tree trunk looking down at the open savannah while an elephant was very slowly coming up our way. The distance was significant at that time and we had the impression that he had seen us, when he was starting to come closer. Still, in a split second he suddenly decided he didn’t like us starting at him or something and he started flapping his ears and making gestures to warn us to leave him be. So we slowly got up, moved to the car and got out. Again, at a time like that you realise how small and insignificant you are and how the most peaceful experience can turn out in immediate danger.

Talking about thrills, another great moment that will stick with us is our lion encounter! Yeah, that’s right! LION, as in the king of all animals. Crazy thing is – we didn’t even realize we were so close to them at first instance. Here’s what happened. In the late afternoon of our first day, we ended up at a dam. Again, amazing view: a large pool of water with hippos in there, a fish eagle on one of the branches in the water and buffalo and elephants making their way alongside the water. The sun was getting ready to set. We were soaking up the absolute beauty of the place when one of our rangers said he thought a black rhino was eating somewhere in the bushes. And we indeed heard the noises – first some cracking, then something that sounded like grinding of twigs and thin branches. As black rhinos eat those instead of grass, it made perfect sense. So both rangers were trying to spot the rhino from the dam, keeping sufficient distance as they are so hostile. I’m not sure what the exact trigger was, but suddenly our head ranger realized this wasn’t a rhino eating, but it were actually lions eating. The cracking were the bones and the grinding was the flesh tearing apart. The buffalo that were making their way alongside the water had crossed from the other side of the dam and at least one of them had fallen victim to the lions. We got into the car and went down the dam to see if we could see any of the lions within the bushes, but without success. That wasn’t the end of the story, though. The next morning our rangers decided to go back to the dam to see if the lions were still around. We had to be super silent and careful of course, hiding behind the bushes down the dam blocking our view. And apparently the wind was coming from the right direction. We peaked from behind the bushes and in the distance we indeed could clearly see lions laying down at the top of the dam (still a while away from us). At the right moment, we got the sign to get up onto the dam, hoping to see the lions getting away. It wasn’t the easiest thing, but somehow we got a young male running away, a cub getting back up to the hill on the other side and a female looking at us, making sure we weren’t following them. Goosebumps – can you imagine?
Oh, and I nearly forgot… We had been waiting a long time to come across a snake (but not too close). At the end of the first day, we got what we wanted… When driving back to the camp, after the sun had set – suddenly, in the headlights of the car, we saw a snake crossing the road. And not just any snake – a puff adder, which is apparently one of the most venomous and dangerous ones for humans. Check!
Besides these great stories and seeing all of these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, we enjoyed the walks, the sounds, the smell. Learning about how to recognize prints of elephant and rhino who had been lying in the sand, how to distinguish where black rhino had been feeding from twigs, spotting leopard and wildebeest tracks and so on. Even at night we really felt that we were staying in the middle of the jungle. We were woken by very high-pitched sounds of what I thought were birds, but appeared to be hyenas. Rhinos and an elephant coming to drink from the water right behind our camp. Incredible.

And not to forget about the delicious food 3 times a day, the great stories and experiences shared by the rangers and the fun we had with our fellow trailists.

Laura & Alexandre, Laia & Aïda – thanks for sharing this amazing experience with us!