Conservation Patrols in Makalali Game Reserve

Monitoring elephant on a patrol in Makalali Game Reserve

One overlooked aspect of walking safaris is their benefit in providing “eyes on the ground” in places inaccessible to vehicles. Trailists in wilderness areas can spot signs of poacher intrusion, find injured or snared animals, check fences and remove snares. In Greater Makalali Game Reserve, the “Threatened Wildlife Patrol” operated by Siyafunda Wildlife & Conservation does exactly that: participants spend three nights backpacking in the reserve’s remoter corners and camp out, either in their own tents or under the stars.

The patrol is a great opportunity to practise tracking skills, searching for elephant, rhino, buffalo and lion to check on their condition. There’s also a chance to learn how to use telemetry to locate some collared animals. With three days of supplies to carry, it’s a demanding style of trail, similar to the SANParks Backpacking Trails in Kruger National Park (See Chapter 5 of Walking Safaris of South Africa).

Siyafunda also offer easier camp-based trails, heading out for walks with just a day pack to carry water and snacks. They call this the “Slackpacking trail”, but it is not what would usually be understood by the term – there is no bush camping involved, and guests return to a comfortable bed each day at Job’s Halt lodge. Shaded by jackalberry trees next to the ephemeral Makhutswi river, the lodge is designed for self-catering, and has four en-suite twin rooms. a large shaded communal area and a boma with firewood provided.

Job’s Halt Lodge has a large airy communal area and plunge pool for cooling off

Makalali is in Limpopo’s lowveld less than an hour’s drive west of Hoedspruit. It’s a 25,000ha conservation area created by seven private landowners, and hosts a number of lodges and camps used for guide training and game viewing. When Siyafunda started operating trails in late 2020 it became another name on the growing list of reserves offering walks in an area already boasting Africa’s highest density of walking safaris.

Siyafunda is an initiative of a small group of enthusiastic professional guides. The name means “To Learn and To Teach” in Zulu, and this tells us about their main focus – the business is not so much about photographic safaris, but more geared to involving conservation-minded visitors in practical work as part of a stay. Siyafunda guests can volunteer to get hands on, helping to monitor wildlife via camera traps, and work on habitat rehabilitation such as erosion control, construction of rock gabions, brush-packing and re-seeding. The bush-volunteering aspect is not compulsory of course, and visitors can simply come to enjoy a few days of wilderness immersion on the trails.

Walk durations are tailored to the group wishes and conditions, and a vehicle is available to vary the start locations. The minimum group size is four, and maximum is eight.

Including the services of two professional guides, rates are R1350 for camp based walks and R1100 for backpacking (each per person, per night). It’s possible to mix and match – stay at the lodge, and head out into the bush for a night to camp or have a sleep-out (minimum age 14). There’s a special rate of R750 pppn to make use of the lodge before or after a trail.

Self-catering provisions can be stocked in Hoedspruit, or if coming from Gauteng, it’s easy to stop at Emalaleni before enjoying the scenic drive north on the R540 via Lydenburg. Watch out for potholes.

For more information and booking: siyafundaconservation.com / Michael Job +27 82 781 8394.

Booking a Walking Safari with the Professionals

Brett Horley guiding guests on a trail in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve

In Walking Safaris of South Africa, we cover dozens of walk experiences scattered across 21 reserves. We aim to make it easy for readers to identify a destination and walk style that suits their needs, and know what to expect and prepare accordingly. When it comes to booking the walk experience, details of walk operators are listed for direct bookings, but there is another option, and that is to use a travel professional to book the itinerary.

There are some advantages to booking through an agency, and for overseas visitors in particular it can eliminate a lot of uncertainty. However, there are also pitfalls if the agency is not familiar with walking safaris. For example, some lodges advertise walk availability, but only after the morning drive and breakfast. This means heading out into the heat as animal activity is slowing down, at a time of day that would be better spent relaxing at base. It would be bad advice to book one of these.

For this reason, the ideal booking agency is one that is expert in putting together trip itineraries that include walking safaris, and the way to guarantee that expertise is to have active trails guides on staff. One such agency is African Born Safaris (page 120 in the book) and another excellent option is Brett Horley Safaris (BHS). Brett is a certified professional trails guide and he and his partner Rosemary have over 40 years combined in organising safari travel around Africa, with a particular focus on their favourite activity – walking.

A walk is an opportunity to get tactile with nature, using all the senses

BHS is based in Hoedspruit, adjacent to the the area with the biggest density of walking safaris in Africa – the Greater Kruger. The list of options ranges from Timbavati’s luxury Tanda Tula trails camp (page 128), to wilderness trails with Pafuri Walking (page 115) and Africa on Foot (page 134) and backpacking in Timbavati Reserve (page 130). Other walk destinations, including SANParks walks, can also be booked via BHS.

What can a visitor gain by letting Brett and his team look after the arrangements? First, being on the ground in the Greater Kruger, they have up-to-the-minute information on all aspects of walking – weather conditions, camp availability, new walk venues, equipment rental and special offers – so are in a position to offer advice on topics not covered in the book. Next, BHS have a great network of trails guide contacts – so can arrange for guides with specialist knowledge or language skills.

Perhaps the best use of a travel booker is letting them build a full airport-to-airport itinerary. BHS recommend that international visitors begin their trip with a connection to Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport for a meet and greet. From there, it’s easy to access the various walking safaris in Kruger National Park and Greater Kruger Reserves, and also to enjoy the scenery and attractions of the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere.

When it comes to booking, guests can be reassured by SATSA bonding. It’s important to note that for the actual walk experience, there no cost difference to the guest in booking directly or through a safari booker such as BHS, as they operate on a commission basis. If particular guides are requested, additional guiding fees can apply.

In general, travel bookers outside of South Africa don’t have the detailed knowledge required to advise on walking safaris, and are likely to be using a ground handler such as BHS in the background. To get the best advice, it’s easier to go directly to source – let BHS advise and create the itinerary, and then book your own flights.

Contact BHS: www.bretthorley.com ¦ info@bretthorley.com

In KwaZulu Natal, a new reserve is born

The White Umfolozi river is Babanango’s big attraction for wildlife – and walkers

The White Umfolozi river twists and cuts through southern Zululand in KwaZulu Natal province, creating rugged loops and valleys. Watering a variety of wildlife-rich habitats, it has long been the focus for wilderness trails in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. And now, there’s a new option for getting on foot some 100km upstream – Babanango Game Reserve.

Babanango is one of the latest examples of the very welcome trend in South Africa which sees community-owned land shifting to conservation usage. A partnership between land-owners, private investors and conservation specialists is creating an area with the potential to be a top-class wildlife reserve. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are also involved in a stewardship programme role.

The varied terrain of mistbelt grassland, thornveld and woodlands supports a diverse ecosystem and the reserve currently has giraffe, hyena, zebra, rhino and buffalo, and several varieties of antelope. South Africa’s national bird, the Blue Crane, is one of over 285 bird species present, and the reserve is sure to become an essential destination for birders. The conservation plan will see big game introduced over the next couple of years, including elephant and big cats. At 22,000ha it is bigger than Phinda Private Game Reserve, and offers more interesting terrain.

The mix of grassland, thornveld, thickets and riparian woodlands is not just great for biodiversity, but makes Babanango fascinating to explore on foot

That plan is being brought to fruition by conservation management company African Habitats. In parallel with wildlife introductions, they are busy developing ways to enable nature lovers to enjoy the reserve, and enable the community owners to generate income and jobs.

For now, one attraction for walkers is the ability to self-guide in a 132ha section that is fenced from dangerous game. Guests overnight at Matatane Camp which overlooks one of the many loops of the White Umfolozi. It has all the essential comforts including hot showers and both catering and self-catering are options. The camp has the capacity to accommodate large educational groups, but these bookings are kept for for separate dates to other visitors. There are 13km of marked trails to explore (for no additional fee), and a guide can be arranged on request. As well as walks, a range of adventure activities including horseback trails and mountain biking is on offer, with more on the way.

Alternatively, guests can overnight at one of two comfortable lodges, where professionally-guided walks are offered at an additional fee. As well as tracking and spotting game and birdlife, the guided walks provide an opportunity to investigate historic copper mine works. The guides are adept at finding the fascinating smaller natural treasures that are missed on a vehicle safari, such as plants and butterflies.

The scale of reserve means it is perfectly suited for guided multi-day wilderness trails, and indeed these are in the pipeline for 2022. It is envisaged that the fenced self-guiding area will remain, offering walkers a family-friendly alternative for all ages. The area is malaria-free.

The two reserve lodges are open for bookings now, with opening specials from R1600 pps. See Babanango Valley Lodge and Zulu Rock. Matatane Camp is also available (contact the reserve for rates) while the luxury 12-tent Traveller’s Camp is scheduled to open in May 2022 – just in time for prime walking season.

South Africa’s Most Qualified Guiding Team

2nd rifle guide Nicola Bargiacchi and lead guide Andre Fourie head a trail in Thornybush woodlands

Professional guides are the key ingredient of any walking safari. Whenever we set out on foot in a reserve in South Africa, we’re in the hands of people with all the skills and experience to keep us safe and to share a fascinating interpretation of the natural world. These skills don’t come easy, and in Walking Safaris of South Africa, we explain the demanding requirements that must be met before qualification to lead trails in areas with big game, and how standards and certification in the private sector are administered by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA).

As with any profession, experience counts, and in guiding that means veld experience – years of mentoring and thousands of close encounters with potentially dangerous game. While guiding standards are excellent in all the venues covered in the book, the top private lodges can afford to employ the highest qualified guides, and there is no better example of this than Royal Malewane in Thornybush Private Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger.

There are ten trails guides covering the two Royal Portfolio properties in Thornybush, and six have achieved the highest level FGASA Trails Guide certification, which comes with the rather cumbersome title of “Special Knowledge and Skills Dangerous Game”, or SKS(DG) for short. To get an idea of what it takes to reach that level, read this summary on the FGASA site. The guides are also all expert trackers at various levels; tracking is undoubtedly one of the earliest skills developed by humankind, and still one of the most challenging to master. Tracking and guiding are distinct skillsets, and very few people can become truly expert at both. Those who do so are recognised with the title FGASA Scout – there are only a dozen or so in the whole of Africa, and one, Juan Pinto, works at Royal Malewane.

What does having South Africa’s best qualified roster of guiding talent mean for guests?

It offers an enriched safari experience, with more flexibility in activities. Exploring by vehicle is always core – after all it offers opportunities to get very close to big animals and take the best photos. But when all the guides are trails qualified, guests don’t need to feel trapped in the vehicle. For example, when out on a morning drive, if the fresh tracks of leopard are spotted, with a qualified guide and tracker it’s possible to get down and follow the spoor for a while.

It also means having the choice to venture out at dawn to explore on foot, to soak up some of the guide’s bush wisdom, to walk in silence amid stands of marula trees, or sit awhile atop ‘Aloe Ridge”, taking in the Drakensberg views. Or having the opportunity to spend time in the veld with a Master Tracker, one of the great African wilderness experiences. And guests will also find that the most experienced guides tend to have the most entertaining trove of campfire stories.

While Royal Malewane has always had well-qualified guides, it is only recently that walking activities have taken off. Head guide Ryan Jack says that the guides themselves enjoy being able to practice all their skills, and simply like leaving the vehicle for a while. “It really switches on the senses – we hear more, we smell more, we see all sorts of smaller things. And maybe it’s a response to the pandemic, but we find our guests are more keen to spend time on foot these days.”

Walks at Royal Malewane – which are inclusive in rates – typically last from 1.5 to 3 hours, depending on guest wishes and conditions. A nice option is to walk for a couple of hours between the main lodge and Farmstead properties through a mixed veld of tamboti thickets and open grassland, pausing to spy on any morning visitors at a large watering hole. Breakfast can then be taken at either destination, before return by vehicle.

Walking has a nice fit with the “slow safari” philosophy, and Royal Malewane has a “stay 6/pay for 5 nights” offer until 15 December 2021. Special rates are also available for SA residents – contact reservations@trp.travel or 021 671 5502 to find out more.