We are delighted to share Gill Theron’s Trip Report on their experience of the Luvuvhu 4×4 Trail, completed during the last week of July 2013. All photos are also courtsey of Gill and Tony Theron.
ROCKING IN THE BUSH
Some months back, a friend of Tony’s, Ian Sim, invited us to join him on a 4×4 trail along the Luvuvhu River all the way up to Makhuya Game Reserve, together with another friend of his, who unfortunately 3 days before the start of the trip landed up in hospital, so Dudley Walker joined the party in his place.
On the chilly morning of 15th July, we all set off, heading east (hopefully towards some warmer weather!), and travelled to Belfast (Siyathuthuka being the new name). This little town was founded in 1890. Coal mining rights had been acquired, and about 50 families were living on the mine in tin shanties at that time, and at the close of the nineties, four shops had been established. There we turned towards Dullstroom, which has the highest railway station in South Africa.
It is one of the coldest villages in S Africa, and is also the premier trout fishing area. Dullstroom is a charming little hamlet, situated in the heart of the Highlands Meander, and there are some beautiful forested areas in this region. We continued along the potholed road down to Lydenburg, name meaning place of suffering by the boers, as they had abandoned their first settlement in Ohrigstad, due to malaria killing off many people. Lydenburg was founded in 1850 by Andries Potgieter. The new name for the town is Mashishing.
We continued on our way to Ohrigstad where we had a very pleasant lunch at the Oasis Restaurant.Having realized that I had left my lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber at home, I enquired where I could purchase some more in the area, and I was directed to the local butcher, who had a fridge filled with anything that I needed. We set off again, and marvelled at the incredibly green and lush farmlands on either side of the main road driving north.
We were enjoying the warmer temperatures, as we carried on towards Phalaborwa – town of the year in 2012! It is still the home of Phalaborwa Mining Company, the massive opencast mine, being Africa’s widest man-made hole at almost 2,000 metres wide. We made our way to Lantana Lodge, which was pretty central, (they also had chalets) ~ the camping spot Ian had on his list, and it wasn’t long before we had pitched Dudley’s ground tent, (he had had a carpal tunnel operation on his wrist the previous week), and then erected Ian’s and our rooftop tents. Tony made a fire, and we enjoyed a braai that evening, having realized by then that Phalaborwa was a very busy, noisy hub of activity, but it was only for one night.
Next morning we woke up to pretty chilly temperatures, and as we only had to meet the rest of the group at 11.30am at the Information Centre, we sat in the sun trying to keep warm. Later we stocked up with a couple of essentials at the Spar just opposite the Information Centre, before meeting the others in the group.
Our guide was Hans Enslin, from the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park Wilderness Trails, and the rest of the group were some very friendly Dutch folk ~ Annet & Jeroen and their young son Sam, and Wiebe Jager & Harry Dijkstra. Hans informed us that our chances of seeing game were slim, and if we did, then it was a bonus!
The 4 vehicles set off along the Gravelotte road, with Hans in the lead, and a couple of kilometres out of town, we turned right on a gravel road travelling NW towards the little town of Lulekani, which had some nice houses, electricity, and a smart new stadium. A little further north, we stopped at a gate to enter the Letaba Ranch Nature Reserve in Limpopo Park (adjacent to the Kruger National Park with no fences between the two). At this stage, we became aware that Hans had a problem with his Land Rover – the prop shaft was giving trouble, and he said it definitely would not manage the 4×4 route that we were going to be tackling. The Park offices promised to send a replacement vehicle to him, but for the following 1 ½ days, we would just travel slowly, enabling them to meet us later on.
We carried on through mopane veld, and although there was evidence of elephants and buffalo in the area, judging by the spoor and droppings, there were no sightings, apart from impala and baboons near a waterhole. A vigilant lilac breasted roller, the only bird we had seen so far, sat on a branch of a dead tree and watched as the 4 vehicles trundled along the track. Suddenly Hans radioed through to us to say there was fresh spoor of a large lion in the sand, so we all kept our eyes peeled, but we didn’t see the elusive lion. Hans advised us that we were not to pick up any bones etc that we might come across in the veld, due to anthrax still being in the area. We also wound our way around an enormous marula tree that had fallen over during the floods in 2000. We eventually came to our camping spot – Badarukwe Camp on the Mpandeni Spruit (stream), and it was also the site of a natural spring.
We parked our vehicles under a huge Apple Leaf tree, and before long we had Dudley’s tent up, and had erected our rooftop tents. The camp was unfenced ~ open to all wild life. Hans told us to come and have a look at lion spoor (prints) which were very obvious, probably the lion had walked through the camp that morning. Hans then made a lovely big fire, and we all brought our chairs to sit warmly around it. Suddenly Hans cautioned us to be quiet, and to listen carefully. A herd of buffalo were warily approaching the stream, and just as they smelled the water, they ran just beyond the camp site to the spring water. There were also quite a few hyena in the area, all whooping to each other. One hyena came pretty close to our camp, and Hans was very wary of him as he said this particular hyena had become too accustomed to campers, and was looking for food. We had a very pleasant evening around the camp fire getting to know the group.
A sneaky breeze began to blow, and it became progressively colder as the evening wore on. Later on, most of us started getting ready for bed, but we left Hans, Tony and Ian around the fire, having more coffee trying to keep warm! When we were all in our tents and in bed, an angry elephant trumpeted a little way away and not wanting to be outdone, the hyena started to whoop whoop again!
Next morning at about 5am, we heard a lion roaring in the distance, and as the roaring got louder we realized that he was walking in our direction, probably headed for the stream. It is the most wonderful sound hearing a lion roar – particularly when you are in your roof top tent! He must have become aware of us, as suddenly the roaring became fainter, as he headed off in another direction. Pity!
The francolins then started their raucous chatter, so typical in the bush, with the grey hornbill calling out as well, mingling with the sounds of zebras and the local hyena competing with their calling to come to breakfast!
We had two scops owls giving us a duet from the heights of the Apple Leaf Tree above our tent, trilling us with their morning song. Suddenly the breeze picked up from the south, and the clouds started to blow across the blue sky, taking all the warmth from the sun.
Hans called out to us that a herd of buffalo were moving in from the opposite bank of the stream. We had parked quite close to the ravine/donga, and this is where they were coming from. We stood dead quiet, and watched them approach. All at once they stopped dead in their tracks, watching us from the other side, and then thundered off into the bush, disappearing from sight ~ just leaving dust in their wake. We gathered from Hans that two Yellowbilled storks had flown over, which frightened the francolins, which in turn gave the alarm call, and frightened the herd off!
We continued packing up and breaking camp. As we left, a magpie shrike called out to us to say goodbye! While driving along the track we saw some impala and giraffe in the bush, and as the day wore on, the clouds started to disperse, and it became warmer.
There were still however very few birds – maybe the wind had something to do with this. When we came to the confluence of the Groot Letaba and the Klein Letaba rivers, we disembarked and walked down to the edge of the river – it was very beautiful and peaceful, however enormous crocodiles were lazing around and there were hippos in the river grunting out a greeting! We had lunch at a lovely shady area over the Groot Letaba river a little further on, and just relaxed. At one stage we saw two angry fish eagles chasing a marshall eagle!
We set off for our next camp spot ~ and along the route Hans called through the radio to watch out for nyala, but we didn’t see them. We arrived at our 2nd camp spot on the banks of the Groot Letaba river ~ a beautiful setting! The river turned to the left ~ there was a small sand island in the middle, and we could hear the rumbling rapids as the river continued on its journey. As we unpacked, an inquisitive resident hippo (a junior male) raised his head out of the water to investigate our goings on. He however was a very placid hippo, and didn’t grunt as much as we would have liked him to.
The breeze picked up again in the afternoon, so we pitched Dudley’s tent in a area protected by the trees. We parked our vehicles under an apple leaf tree and a leadwood tree, and erected our roof top tents. Hans’ replacement Land Rover arrived, so I think he felt more relaxed about the serious 4×4 sections which lay ahead. We spent a lovely evening around the campfire, with lots of laughter and chatter. Annet’s young son Sam was having the most marvellous time, and everything was an adventure. Our Dutch friends’ dessert that night was bananas wrapped in tin foil with a dessertspoon of Amarula and put on the fire for a short while ~ sounds delicious! The wind eventually died down, and it became much warmer. Whilst Hans had been waiting for his replacement vehicle, we had done the two previous days at a leisurely pace, but we would have to make up time and distance the following day by leaving early. We heard a lion again that night, but the animals were being very elusive.
We woke up to a very overcast day, and after I was handed coffee in bed by Tony at 5.30am, we started packing up, and were ready to leave on time. The lazy hippo raised his head and yawned us a farewell as we left the camp.
We drove up along outside the fenced western boundary of the KNP through tribal land ~ as there were little villages dotted all over in that area. All villages have electricity and obviously running water, and some of the bigger towns have some smart houses, and it was super to see some vegetable patches in some gardens. One particular house had two graves, with granite headstones, right next to the vegetable patch ~ different! Drove through plenty of mopane veld (mopane meaning butterfly in Swahili). Crime must be all over, as quite a few of the houses had security fences and barbed wire etc. Most villages had soccer fields. One local school had scholars working in a well tended garden with lemon trees, and very lush vegetables and tomatoes. We then crossed the mighty, and very dry, Shingwezi river. However, for the most part the land was very barren and overgrazed, and of course, there were always plenty of goats and dankeys waiting to get in our way. In the village of Mogona, we visited the “Hollywood Eating House” for “refreshments and entertainment”. They advertised Castle Lite for R10.00 per bottle (330ml) and R9.80 for Black Label beer! I suppose they have to transport the beer in from some distance away. All along this route, the gravel track wasn’t too bad ~ but the rough stuff was still waiting for us!
We eventually arrived in Venda ~ what a beautiful area, being very mountainous and very rocky! The Venda area is 707 513 ha in extent and the vegetation is very tropical, but in some areas there was a lot of deforestation taking place, and people were selling the wood beside the road. From now onwards we would be travelling alongside the Luvuvhu River. We turned off the main road, and travelled a short distance when we came to a gate, bolted and locked. There was a chap there, who had been waiting for an hour for someone to open the gate, and he said he was about to go and fetch a bolt cutter. Hans reassured him that it wouldn’t be necessary, as he had one in his vehicle, and he duly performed the necessary operation!
We then continued on our way, and proceeded to traverse the rocky track up the side of the mountain, through forested areas, and between long avenues of all sorts of trees. Once we were in the Makhuya Reserve, Hans advised us to stop and inflate our tyres, as we would be driving over very rocky areas. Hans pointed out a lebombo ironwood tree, which is very similar to the tamboti tree, in that it poisons everything in the ground, so that other plants cannot grow nearby. We climbed and climbed, and then started the descent down to our 3rd camp spot, which would take us over 7 kilometres of very rocky, stony terrain ~ rocking and rolling takes on a completely new meaning! Once down in the valley, next to the Luvuvhu river, we arrived at the overnight spot, and drove on to an elevated flat area, where we quickly set up camp. There was plenty of fresh elephant dung, which restored our belief that there were animals out there! Tony washed in the little stream in front of where we had parked, and said the water was very cold.
Hans made a campfire, and we sat around and relaxed, discussing the day’s travelling down the rocky track. It was Ian’s turn to cook supper, and he dished up a very tasty chicken curry. We sat around a lovely warm fire, as the weather had turned chilly again carrying a sneaky breeze. Much laughter and chatter as our Dutch friends told us about their trips around Africa, and their various experiences. Then Hans started with his stories ~ keeping us all very amused. He advised us that we should leave by 7.30am the next morning, because although we only had to travel 30 kilometres in distance, it would probably take us the entire day to reach the final camping spot, due to the very rocky terrain and sometimes deep sand. As the evening wore on, we slowly started heading for our tents. All we heard were the rapids in the distance, and no animal noises at all !
We woke to another overcast day, and after having coffee and a rusk in bed, we got dressed, had breakfast and packed everything away, preparing for the day’s travel. We had to cross the stream on leaving camp, and drive up a steep rise in thick, deep sand. It actually looked fairly daunting! The passengers, except for Dudley, crossed the stream on foot to take photos from the other side. Jeroen drove the Dutch vehicle, known as the Big Five due to the 5 occupants, and had to literally be pushed by Hans the last little way. Ian got up the slope OK, but got stuck in the sand, and had to be towed to harder ground, and while all this was happening, Tony was watching and was busy packing flat rocks in the sand to help him get up the slope. He did very well, and didn’t need any assistance.
At very steep or tricky spots, cobbled strips had been paved many years ago, for which we were very grateful, as it made life a lot easier. Since leaving camp, we had climbed 250 metres, now making it 500 metres above sea level. We came across a lebombo potato bush – light green with yellow flowers ~ interesting. We spotted fresh lion faeces on the track, as we travelled along. Suddenly Hans stopped and got out of his vehicle, and bent down on the side of the track and called us to come and look. He had seen a double banded sand grouse mother fly up next to the track, protecting something, which made him stop. There was a tiny little sand grouse chick, about a day old, which stood stock still in the track, wanting for it’s mother ~ too sweet!
We approached more magnificent specimens of Baobabs growing all over the place ~ what a beautiful part of the country. As we descended down the rocky, bumpy track, we joined the Luvuvhu river once again, with hippos keeping cool in the water. Further along the track, Hans pulled up under a nyala tree ~ our Garmin named it the ‘picnic tree’, for lunch. Our Dutch friends walked down to the river, and before long, young Sam was swimming in the shallow water, and just loving it. It was good to stop and have a break from the ‘rocking and rolling’ of the vehicle, and just relax in beautiful surroundings listening to fish eagles calling out in the distance. As the day progressed, more and more baobabs stood proud again the horizon with their arms and fingers outstretched. However, elephants have left their mark on most of the baobabs by stripping the bark. Hans informed us that you don’t often see young baobabs, as the elephants eat them.
We drove past a quarry area, where Hans informed us that mining activities had taken place at the turn of the previous century. However, he was not sure what they were mining for. About 5 kilometres further down the track Hans said he was keen to visit the Singo Safari Lodge, and if the management were happy to allow us in, we could have a look around. This lodge was opened in 2006, and was virtually built on the edge of the cliffs, with breath-taking views. At the entrance of the lodge, there was a spectacular baobab, with green leaves! On closer inspection Hans told us that a pod mahogany had grown at the base of the Baobab, and these were the leaves we had seen. Quite remarkable. I googled Singo Safari Lodge, and this is what they had to say – Singo Safari Lodge is arguably the uncut diamond of the north with a unique geographical set-up. It’s uniquely fashioned luxury tents are well tip-toed along the edge of a cliff overlooking the banks of the Luvuvhu river. The set-up is a dream for every wild life enthusiast ~ it allows an absolutely captivating sunrise and sunset. The lodge can host up to 16 people.
We eventually arrived at our final camp spot – all shook up! We set up camp and pitched the tents and the guys sat around having a well-earned beer. We were all quite tired, as we had been traversing extremely rocky terrain for most of the day, resulting in all the rocking and rolling. It was interesting to know that the KNP was just on the eastern bank of the Luvuvhu river. We could hear rapids in the river, and there were a couple of sociable hippos in the river, grunting out a greeting as we arrived, backed up by the baboons in the kranse/cliffs across the river in the Park. Our Dutch friends went swimming in the river, which they thoroughly enjoyed, and returned a lot cleaner and more refreshed than we were.
Hans made a lovely mopani wood fire, with the help of young Sam, and we all sat around it discussing the day’s adventure over all the rocks. We heard an elephant trumpeting in the distance, and he sounded quite annoyed about something. The baboons were very active during the night with lots of squabbling going on and we could hear the young ones crying out. They were obviously being reprimanded for something. Every now and again a hyena would whoop from the depths of the bush.
We packed up early as a long day awaited ahead of us, but before we all went our separate ways, Hans said he had one last challenge for us ~ he was going to take us to see World’s View on top of the mountain nearby. We bade farewell to the Luvuvhu river, and followed Hans to the base of the mountain. The track was very very steep and rocky covered with loose stones and boulders. It was quite scary and daunting just to imagine going up. Photos don’t capture how steep it really was! I didn’t see how a vehicle could possibly make it. Hans went up first, slipping, sliding and bouncing, and once he had reached the top, he found a place to turn around, in case he had to winch us up if anyone couldn’t make it!
We were first, and I climbed out, ready with my camera to take some action photos. Talk about rocking and rolling ~ thank goodness Tony had secured the fridge, and drawers etc. with straps. The trusty Pajero did very well, and then it was the Big 5’s turn, and they also made it in their Land Cruiser. Ian’s and his trusty Hilux also did very well. Tony said the 4×4 route up to World’s View was quite a challenge. It was very steep with large loose rocks and stones, and it threw the vehicle around quite a lot. I was with Hans on the side of the rocky track half way up ~ he was directing each vehicle up this rough slope, as I was taking photos!
Well the view from the top was quite spectacular, and worth the challenge getting there. We could see far into the distance for quite a few kilometres over the expanse of Nyalaland, and when you looked down, we had the spectacular view of the Luvuvhu river finding its way over the rocks and sand banks along the valley floor. While we were all taking photos, little squirrels were darting hither and thither in amongst the bushes and trees.
Then on our way down via another route, Hans gave us a final challenge – compliments of the floods last year. There had been wash-aways down the side of one particular slope. Once again Hans directed each vehicle down over boulders and loose rocks! Somehow, Hans seemed to make it look so easy ~ with no damage to any vehicle.
When we eventually came to the gate exiting the Makhuya Game Reserve, and we were all saying our goodbyes, the lady who worked in the office ran outside pointing to Ian’s Hilux rolling driverless backwards down a gradual slope. Hans took off like a frightened rabbit, jumped into Ian’s vehicle, and jammed on the brakes as it was about to slam into a tree. Clearly the Hilux hadn’t had enough and wanted to go back.
Our 4×4 trail was fast coming to an end. Our Dutch friends were travelling down to Phalaborwa via the KNP, where they would return their hired Land Cruiser, before heading to Mozambique on a further trip, and Hans was going home to Phalaborwa to prepare for his next trail 2 days later. We were going to head for the N1, and turn south to Sasolburg.
We would like to thank Hans for everything ~ for all the help and assistance, and for being such a great informative guide! Thanks Annet & Jeroen & Sam, Harry & Wiebe for being such delightful travelling companions, and for being so full of fun, and then thanks to Ian for inviting us to join him, and to Dudley for joining the party. We all enjoyed the trip so much.
Gill & Tony Theron