There’s beauty in African borders. Not at the crossing points and their tiresome bureaucracy in scrappy towns; but the borderlands themselves can be areas of wonder, simply because they are often marginal and left to nature. South Africa has almost 5000km of land border and its greatest parks are all on frontiers – Ais-Richtersveld, Kgalagadi, Mapungubwe, Kruger, and Drakensberg are all far from major population centres and all the better for it.
The northern border defined by the Limpopo River is the location of not one but two Transfrontier Parks in their infancy. Great Limpopo in the East incorporates the Kruger reserves and Greater Mapungubwe is at the nexus with Botswana and Zimbabwe. It’s been a long infancy for both but at least the intention is there, and private money from conservation NGOs and individual investors is helping to stitch together vast lands worthy of conservation.
In Greater Mapungubwe, the best visitor facilities and walking opportunities are in the SANParks’ Mapungubwe National Park and across the border in the Northern Tuli area of Botswana, both of which are covered in our book Walking Safaris of South Africa. In 2023 there’s a welcome new option in Central Tuli and it is the only fly-camping walking safari in the area, complementing the walks offered in nearby Mashatu Game Reserve and Tuli Wilderness.
Harena Field Trails Camp is the name of the new multi-day walk operated on one of those splendid stretches of frontier lands. The area is community owned and the name comes from “our place” in the Setswana language. Here, the Limpopo river is sand and pools for most of the year, with steep banks shaded by enormous trees – the ancient nyalas are especially impressive. It makes for enjoyable walking in both the riverbed and atop the shady levees, with the chance to meet elephant, lion and leopard ever present.
The field camp is low impact, being erected for each group and relocated by vehicle ahead of the walkers. There are a couple of favoured locations, one of which overlooks the Mohave River, just south of the Tuli Wilderness property, while another is in a very different habitat, set amid koppies and ridges with stunning sandstone formations, in the middle of hyena country.
The trail is the brainchild of Jurgen Elbertse, Founder and Director of The Africa Experience Collection, which operates Koro River Camp and Koro Island Camp in Central Tuli. A keen wilderness walker, he explains the attraction of running such a trail in an area where he has access to 15000ha to explore. Jurgen says “Walking in this ancient landscape shows you an unknown, almost un-discovered part of Botswana. The combination of wildlife and rugged hills, big river and the remains of old civilisations, creates an image you will never be able to see from a vehicle.”
The timing for launch seems right, with the nearest border crossings finally reopened in 2022, making it easier for self-drive visitors. And as the Greater Mapungubwe project develops, it will attract some of the visitor traffic that is now pulled into the orbit of the Kruger and the renowned parks in the north of Botswana.
Harena Field Trails Camp is being offered in two formats, the main difference being in the size of the tents and camp beds. Guests just need to carry a daypack with the essentials. Lead guide is SK Manyatsa, who grew up in the area. SK guides without a rifle, using his bush experience to safely negotiate the way in elephant country (there are no buffalos in the area). As someone who feels at comfort sleeping under the stars, he welcomes the new trail. “This is my ancestors land”, says SK. “I grew up here playing in the rivers and wetland, and here is where I learned about hunting and later wildlife and nature.” Guests too are welcome to experience sleep-outs, but will need to take a turn on night watch.
The trail operates from April to October when temperatures are most comfortable, with a minimum age of 16. The minimum group size is 4 and maximum is 8, and walkers are accompanied by a lead and back-up guide. The closest crossing is Platjan, about 7 hours drive from Johannesburg and a high clearance vehicle is advised for the Tuli side.