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Break away for a day

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A massive apple-leaf tree on the bank of the Letaba River

A massive apple-leaf tree on the bank of the Letaba River

Mopane leaves are best photographed in back light

Mopane leaves are best photographed in back light

The Malopeni Eco Trail is all about getting off the beaten track

The Malopeni Eco Trail is all about getting off the beaten track

Malopeni Eco Trail, Kruger National Park. Ever wondered what it looks like on the other side of those roadside no-entry signs in the Kruger National Park? Well, the Malopeni Eco Trail gives you the opportunity to find out.

Vehicles in convoy on the first leg of the eco trail

Vehicles in convoy on the first leg of the eco trail

Camping next to the Letaba River

Camping next to the Letaba River

Time for coffee!

Time for coffee!

Two waterbuck bulls face-off in golden morning light

Two waterbuck bulls face-off in golden morning light

An early morning stroll in the Letaba River

An early morning stroll in the Letaba River

Enjoying the camp fire at the Malopeni’s unfenced wilderness campsite

Enjoying the camp fire at the Malopeni’s unfenced wilderness campsite

Buffalo are commonly seen along the edge of the river

Buffalo are commonly seen along the edge of the river

This guided adventure trail covers just over 70 kilometres on two-track management roads north-east of Phalaborwa Gate in central Kruger and is limited to only five vehicles per trip. A qualified guide leads the convoy in his own vehicle and is in constant radio contact with all the other vehicles, allowing him to interpret as you make your way through the rugged mixture of mopane and bushwillow veld. You’ll be unlucky not to spot elephant and buffalo along the way and can expect frequent stops to climb out and inspect termite mounds, animal skulls and impressive trees from up close.

The highlight of the trail is a night on the banks of the Letaba River. The unfenced wilderness campsite is well equipped with two environmentally friendly toilets, a braai-grid and fire pit on the ground. What better way to end the day than relaxing around a campfire under the stars to the bushveld soundtrack of whooping hyenas and laughing hippos? Don’t be surprised if you hear the rasping territorial call of a leopard once you’ve climbed into bed – they frequently patrol the riverbed and often investigate the camp when everything quietens down.

There’s no rush to leave the campsite the following morning, giving guests the opportunity to join their guide for a walk along the Letaba River. Scan the banks for fresh animal tracks, get a better view of the local waterbuck herd and watch an array water birds fish for breakfast in the shallows. After your own breakfast in camp it’s time to pack up camp and jump back in the cars as the convoy heads back south towards Phalaborwa Gate, but not before stopping at Malopeni North windmill to search for some thirsty elephants.

Photography

Since the majority of the Malopeni Eco Trail runs through a wilderness area where very few other cars ever drive, the animals can be quite skittish. Rather than focus on taking wildlife photographs, take some time to capture the experience of camping next to the river. Bring a tripod for those around-the-fire shots and use your wide-angle lens to capture the spectacular scenery along the Letaba River. Don’t forget to take a few photos of backlit mopane leaves!

If I want to go:

How are the roads?

This is not a true 4×4 route, but rather an adventure trail that gets you off the beaten track. The two-tracks are in a reasonable condition and it’s only during parts of the wet season that you may have to engage 4×4. When it’s dry, 2×4 vehicles with a high clearance are also allowed on the trail. During times of heavy rains the trail may be closed temporarily.

Trail details:

• The trail runs on a daily basis and covers 71 km on management trails north-east of Phalaborwa Gate.

• The trail starts at Phalaborwa Gate at 14:00 on the day of departure and returns to Phalaborwa Gatethe following day at around 12:00.

• Maximum five vehicles.

• Only genuine off-road trailers or caravans are allowed.

• No children under 12 years.

• Guests have to cater for themselves. Remember to bring your own firewood and enough water for drinking, cooking and washing dishes. Please bring bio-friendly soaps and detergents if you plan to bath in the river. Also bring your own rubbish bags.

Accommodation:

Guests camp on the bank of the Letaba River in an unfenced campsite. Bring your own tent.

Cost:

R1065 per vehicle (maximum four guests per vehicle) plus the daily conservation fee of R50/day (for SA residents) if you don’t have a Wild Card.

Bookings:

Bookings can be made at Phalaborwa Gate or through central reservations on (012) 428 9111.

About the Author:

Villiers Steyn is a freelance travel- and wildlife photographer based in Hoedspruit, South Africa. He leads photographic safaris for Tusk Photo and has had his work published in leading travel magazines, including go!, DriveOut, Getaway, Country Life and Travel Africa.

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