New Trails Base in Somkhanda, KZN

If you enjoy walking safaris, the words “new trails camp” are guaranteed to catch your attention, especially when it’s in a remote and less-visited corner of South Africa. Somkhanda is a community-owned game reserve in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal, west of the N2 and Pongolapoort Dam, with the ephemeral Mkuze river on its southern boundary. Following a land restoration to the Gumbi community in 2005, most of the land was designated for conservation and wildlife tourism and over the years the reserve has reintroduced the full range of big game. There are 12,000 ha of undulating Lowveld bushveld and as well as the Mkuze there are a number of other drainage lines with good tree cover.

The reserve allows self-drive – high clearance is essential and 4×4 recommended. There is one lodge and a couple of unfenced tented camps and a camp site, and guided walks have been offered for a few years. So what’s new? In 2021, the Community Trust established a partnership that has resulted in the addition of a camp dedicated to guided trails. Africa 4 Wild Trails Camp opened in October 2021 and it sleeps eight guests in four tents, with shared ablutions – hot showers and flush toilets. There’s a comfortable lounge tent, and evening meals are served around a camp fire. In all, it’s a step up in comfort from the trails camps operated by Ezemvelo in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, and to our knowledge the only mid-range dedicated trails camp in KZN – so a very welcome addition to the walking safari landscape.

The camp’s daily rhythm is one familiar to readers of Walking Safaris of South Africa – an early start in the company of two professional guides to explore in the most favourable conditions. After a few hours, it’s back to camp for brunch, wash and relaxation. In the afternoon there’s a shorter walk, then sundowners, dinner, stargazing and bed. When conditions are favourable, it’s also feasible to bring a packed lunch and make a day of it – taking that mid-day siesta in the wilds under the shade of a tree is one of life’s most underrated pleasures.

Flexibility in dates and duration is a differentiator of privately-operated trails compared to those run by state agencies. At Somkhanda, the typical walks package is two nights, although given its remote location, a third night is recommended. This could be at Somkhanda Lodge or, better still, as a sleep-out night. There’s a minimum group size of four – contact the operators if you need to make up the numbers, and they can find a suitable date.

What about the walking? The camp is open year round but like everywhere in the Lowveld, trails are best enjoyed outside the furnace months and April to November is ideal. It’s relatively challenging – rough terrain, hilly, dense bushveld – so suited to regular walkers. The birdlife is prolific, making it especially fun for birders. It’s always a thrill to meet African megafauna on foot, and elephant, rhino and buffalo are in residence as well as the big cats and African wild dogs. The trails are guided by Bhejane Nature Training (the name is Zulu for black rhino) who are a FGASA approved training company.

Rates are R4750 per person sharing for a 2-night stay, which is a bit lower than similar private trails in the Kruger area. Somkhanda is a good option to combine with a visit to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park which has a good selection of multi-day trails. It’s also convenient to take in with Phinda, uMhuze or Ithala. All of the above reserves are covered in Walking Safaris of South Africa.

For more information and booking: somkhanda.co.za / bookings@somkhanda.co.za / +21 76 174 8183

Photos courtesy Somkhanda Community Game Reserve.

Somkhanda’s wildlife includes elephant, rhino, African wild dog and lion

A Week in the Wilds of Splendid Selati

Late afternoon view from a Selati koppie

In a recent blog, we covered the availability of walking safaris in Makalali Game Reserve, but it’s not the only reserve in that area of the Lowveld welcoming walkers on guided trails. Selati Game Reserve is north of Makalali, accessed via the R526 south of Gravelotte. Traversed by the seasonal Great Selati River, it is 33,000ha of prime savanna habitat and hosts a range of conservation and scientific projects. Selati is known for its successful sable breeding programme, and for being the only site in the world to find the Lillie Cycad in its natural setting.

At its heart Selati has 700m granite hills, and combined with good tree cover and dense wildlife populations, it is excellent walking terrain. The reserve’s EcoTraining camp is one of the favourite venues for aspiring professional Trail Guides, but you don’t have to be in training to enjoy exploring the reserve on foot: in the winter months of 2021, iLala Safaris started running trails, with walkers based at a camp in the north-east of the reserve.

Typically, wilderness trails run for three nights, so iLala’s six night trails will appeal to those (like us) who really like to take it slow and get off-grid for as long as possible. The camp is a comfortable oasis between walks, with six large safari tents, each with its own outdoor bathroom. There’s a couple of splash pools for cooling off in the warmer months.

iLala is run by trails guides Sabrina Krattinger and Jan Hendrik Hanekom, who personally guide on all trails. As well as the usual guiding in English, they can also guide in German if that’s requested by a group; Germany supplies by far the largest numbers of overseas visitors to the Kruger area, so it makes sense to have this option.

What does a full week offer above the usual? It allows time to have a deep dive into nature, investigating aspects that can be overlooked on shorter Wilderness Trails. Most likely, guests will spot big game such as elephant, buffalo and (dehorned) rhino on the first day or two, and can then devote time to other fauna. Track big cats for a couple of hours. Learn how to distinguish eland and sable prints. Wait at a pool in the Selati river to see what turns up. Or sit at the reserve’s high point on La Bela France to spot Verreaux’s eagles.

There’s also the reserve’s plant life to study, and Jan Hendrik has a special interest in flora. He enjoys seeking out the cycads which are endemic to Selati. Alongside trail guiding, Sabrina is a yoga instructor and she runs 7-day Yoga Safari Retreats in a number of reserves.

In keeping with the Lowveld walking season, iLala has trail dates from April to October in 2022. The cost is R18000 for six nights, which includes all food.

Contact: ilalasafaris.com

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