My first-ever experience of the Kruger National Park was not what I expected. At first glance, it was so much drier than I could have ever imagined - the last stretches of what had been one of one of the worst droughts in a decade.
It was the end of November, and things were looking dire. I had nothing to compare it to, and wondered what all the hype around Kruger National Park was upon entering Phalaborwa gate on the park's north-western border one quiet Thursday afternoon.
But the Kruger bug got me, even before nightfall on the first day.
Despite the drought, I could see that all was not as hopeless as it first seemed - a spirit of calm resilience was apparent. Small groups of impala had given birth to the daintiest of lambs - an indication they knew rain was coming (if you believe in old wives' tales...) and red crested korhaan were going about their mating rituals as if better times were on the horizon.
Looking back now, I know that they were. The big rains came during the December holidays, and the dry landscape I remember from our visit to the Kruger is now long forgotten.
While we were there too, driving our 4x4 Isuzu bakkies like we were seasoned off-roaders, a muddy road on a drizzly day nearly got the better of us...
But it didn't! We conquered the road boots and all - and when we sat around the campfire later that evening, a round of beers were enjoyed while we gave out 'Bosbokkie' awards for the most heroic 4x4 gals.
Was this the thrill avid off-roaders were chasing all along!? I could see why...
It was in the midst of all the 4x4 excitement, standing under a Jackalberry tree while cheering on our fellow trailblazers, that it dawned on me... We were standing in the wildest place in our country - perhaps one of the wildest places left in the world - subjected to the elements of nature.
If anything, South Africans are some of the luckiest people alive to have access to such an amazing part of our country. And the new Mafunyane 4x4 eco-trail gives an even deeper and more authentic insight to Kruger.
A new world for Kruger lovers
Our guide, Kruger ranger and Kruger’s Conservation Management official Vanessa Strydom, says the trail opens up a new world for Kruger lovers. “As a visitor, you always have to keep on the roads, in line with the parks' rules," she says. "But then you start wondering… what are in those ‘no-entry’ areas. What are they hiding there…”
This is exactly what the new Mafunyane 4x4 Eco-Trail aims to share with visitors – a deeper insight into the Kruger's most-secluded parts.
Regardless of the season or reason, I need to go back. Not for the animals, not for the landscape, but to experience the magnitude and silence that you find there.
It's in this space that you can truly get to know the people you're with - whether it's your family or closest friends or a bunch of strangers...
That's what we were - a bunch of 20-odd women from all ages and all walks of life driving the four-day Mafunyane Trail... spending our days in the bakkies and our nights around the fire in the open veld.
We started out as strangers, but we left as friends.
What exactly is the Mafunyane trail?
The Mafunyane 4x4 Eco-Trail is a four day, three night, self-catering guided adventure activity in the north-western section of Kruger National Park between the Olifants and Luvuvhu Rivers.
The trail route covers a distance of approximately 270km and all participants are required to drive their own 4x4 vehicles, with provisions for the four-day trip, including tents and camping gear, sufficient supply of water, firewood and food.
The camping sites are like something out of a fairy tale. Although simple (there are only a few eco-friendly toilet stalls erected where you can camp), the sites are perched underneath sprawling old Tamboti trees or next to stunning lakes where wild animals come to quench their thirst at dawn and dusk...
Although the trail is self-drive, it requires an official, professional trail guide to lead the trail and also provide the necessary interpretation en route.
Want to go? Here's what to know
The Mafunyane 4x4 Eco-Trail operates during the dry season from 1 March to 30 November, meaning the trail will be open to visitors again from 1 March 2017. Bookings for the trail can be made via SANParks' Central Reservations.
Only 5 vehicles plus the guide vehicle are allowed on the trail at any one time. A maximum of 4 persons is allowed per vehicle.
The trail departs from Phalaborwa Gate every Thursday afternoon at 12:00 and ends at Punda Maria Camp on the Sunday morning.
No children under 12 years are allowed, unless arranged prior to departure.
Road conditions vary from reasonably good to sections with steep inclines, the crossing of streams and rivers and muddy sections during or after rain and therefore only 4x4 vehicles with proper 4x4 trailers or caravans are allowed.
When it rains, roads become a slippery mess. The route is closed during the heavy rain season, but the odd thundershower during the dry season will make your off-road adventure all the more exciting.
What to read next on Traveller24:
- Miraculous Kruger sighting as lion lies down with lamb
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- Incredible Kruger: Lions hunt impalas at waterhole