Taming the bull not just a walk in the park

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When I got asked by a friend whether I would like to join her on the Lonely Bull Trail in the Kruger National Park, there was not much thinking to do. I am always keen on new outdoor adventure activities. I have always wanted to do a wilderness hike in a place as majestic as the Kruger. Most of us only ever get the opportunity to drive around the park in the comfort of a vehicle or go on a guided walk for a short while. What is there not to love about giving up your vehicle to see what lurks behind the bushes? Why would you not jump at the opportunity of a Kruger Park walking safari?

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If you yearn to pitch a tent in the Kruger wilderness away from the crowds of the busy rest camps, then a trail like the Lonely Bull Trail might be for you. There is zero cell reception, so a Kruger National Park walking safari is the ideal opportunity to get away from technology. It, along with several other guided trails is open to the public every year between 1 February and 30 November.

The three-night Lonely Bull Trail is one of those perfect outdoor adventure activities. It departs from the Mopani Rest Camp and is conducted in the large wilderness area between the Letaba low-water bridge and the Mingerhout Dam along the Letaba River. Because the hikes take place in areas zoned as “wilderness” areas, you will connect with the wild. Going on a walking safari in the Kruger means you will not see other tourists for the duration of the trail, and nobody can call you to talk about work. The guides do have radios for emergencies.

The morning after the storm on the Lonely Bull trail
The morning after the storm on the Lonely Bull hiking trail

I went in March 2021 and would go on another Kruger Park walking safari in a heartbeat. You don’t have to be super fit, but moderate fitness levels will make the experience a lot more enjoyable. Carrying a heavy backpack is not the only challenge. It is a wild area without set trails, so expect long grass, rocks, tree branches, etc). The group sizes are limited to eight people, so the ideal situation would be to book the entire group and get together a group of friends, people with similar fitness levels. You can book one or two spots in a Kruger National Park walking safari, but you could end up with a group of people with different objectives.

The route for the day depends on the guides, but the distances for the day and the pace are determined by the group as a whole. If the group prefers long distances with little rest or a fast pace, the guides will make sure it happens on your Kruger Park walking safari. The whole group needs to agree though and the pace will be adapted to the slowest in the group. When going on a walking safari in the Kruger, the group needs to stay together. You can’t stop to look at something without alerting the group.

When hiking the Lonely Bull Trail in the Kruger National Park, you pack and carry everything that you might need to survive for the duration of the adventure. This includes food, gas for cooking, bedding, and a tent. You are not allowed to sleep out in the open on Kruger Park walking safaris due to predators. No matter how hot it gets, a flysheet needs to cover the tent. There will be no cooking on open fires on this adventure trail. We had a fire last night for safety reasons as we camped among the thick mopane veld near the mighty Letaba River.

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Adventures on the Lonely Bull Trail

The Lonely Bull Trail started from the Mopani Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park. The nearest entrance gate is Phalaborwa. We departed for our Kruger National Park walking safari from the camp at 13:00 and drove for around an hour. They dropped us off in the middle of the bush for the start of our adventure. Leaving the comfort of a vehicle in the Kruger makes you feel incredibly vulnerable, but our guides Dennis Mokoena and Stanley Chuma only needed a few minutes to put us at ease.

When embarking on the Lonely Bull as one of your outdoor adventure activities, you will immediately notice the silence of the bush. A few birds chirped in the distance as we offloaded our hiking bags. The grass was incredibly long and thick, prompting some group members to change into long pants immediately. While waiting for the safety briefing by guides, we hid in the shade of a mopane tree. We would soon become used to sweating and damp clothing. After the briefing, our guides asked about our interests, and we got to ask questions. From here we walked in single file to our overnight location. We had to get there before sunset, of course.

Walking on foot in the Kruger National Park, the ideal Kruger walking safari.
Walking on foot in the Kruger National Park is the ideal Kruger walking safari.

We arrived at our overnight location at the end of the first day of our Kruger Park walking safari – a dry riverbed. The idea was to camp at the top of the riverbed, but because of the rain, the grass was at knee-length. After much discussion among themselves, Dennis and Stanley decided that we could set up camp in the dry riverbed. From my knowledge and watching many survival programs on TV, I had a bad feeling about camping in a riverbed. This would become relevant later… We would spend two nights in this location. The next day would be a hike with day packs only.

We dug in the dry riverbed for water. What makes these guided hikes so special is that the guides are knowledgeable and know so much about the surroundings. Our guides knew how to get us clean drinking water. We used chlorine tablets in the beginning, but because these small streams start inside the park, the water is safe to drink. Everyone set up camp, cooked, and turned in for the night. Day two of the Lonely Bull would prove to be a gruelling day, but we did not know this yet.

A challenging day on the Lonely Bull

Everyone started the second day of our Kruger National Park walking safari in great spirits. We only carried our day packs with food and water. It was a scorching day, and before 11:00, a few group members had already run out of water. Wet spots in the sand usually indicate water, though this is not always the case. Our guides dug for water in a dry riverbed on several occasions but found no water.

We pushed further and just after 11:00, stopped for a siesta under a massive tree in a dry riverbed. Our guides searched for water and ended up walking almost 5km to find water. It took digging almost a meter down, in the scorching midday heat, to strike gold. They returned exhausted, and we spent another hour or two in the shade before continuing our walk.

Later the scorching heat made way for darker clouds. It was such a relief walking in cloudy conditions as opposed to the crazy heat. To me, these dark clouds meant rain, and we were camping in a dry riverbed. Would this become an issue later on? Our guides assured us that it would be fine.

But would this decision come back to haunt us? Fast forward to late that night, howling wind and thunder woke us. Unpredictable weather is part of outdoor adventure activities. Not long after, the rain started beating down on our tents. Moments later, the once-dry riverbed transformed, and our tents were like lilos on a swimming pool.

Our guides leading our walking safari in the Kruger knew that the origin of the little stream was a few meters from where we set up camp. There was no way we would be flushed away. Not knowing this, the adrenalin rush at the time was truly spectacular. We had to move camp in the early morning hours, sliding up the muddy riverbank, with lightning striking around us.

Hiking through long grass on the Lonely Bull.
Hiking through long grass on the Lonely Bull.

Many of the hikers in our Kruger Park walking safari group had very little sleep that night. Not only did everything become wet, but many of the cheaper tents were not waterproof at all.

Just before dawn, a herd of zebra ran past our new camp, galloping like horses. Luckily the rain stopped shortly after this and we could leave our tents. The third day of our hike would have a delayed start. We had to wait for everything to dry in the breeze before continuing our journey. Hiking with wet gear and the extra weight was not an option.

Wildlife on the Lonely Bull Trail

I expected us to run into herds of elephants all the time, but this did not happen. The bush and outdoor adventure activities are unpredictable. Due to good rains, the major rivers like the Letaba were all filled to the brim with flowing (muddy) water. There were plenty of pools in the veld during our adventure on this hike. The vegetation was dense. As a result, we did not see much wildlife along the way. We spotted the odd impala, zebra and giraffe.

We ran into a lone hippo which raised a bit of adrenaline for some. Our guides immediately gave us the signal to stop. We waited, and it walked away. Upon arriving at the spot where we saw it, leopard tracks and drag marks indicated a recent kill. The marks went in the same direction as the hippo, in the direction of two large trees. Unfortunately, we could not investigate. Following the hippo could have made it defensive and potentially put our lives in danger. Later, we also found fresh lion tracks but never the lions.

Best times to see wildlife on a Kruger Park walking safari

How much wildlife you see on your adventure depends on a variety of factors. According to Tshepo Mathebula, regional activity coordinator in the Kruger National Park, years with plenty of rainfall means less visibility. There will be more grass, and trees and bushes will have leaves for much longer. “Guests will see less wildlife during the rainy season. During dry periods, predators linger close to waterholes,” Mathebula said. August to October is best for wildlife sightings on a Kruger National Park walking safari.

About the smaller things

The great thing about an adventure on foot is that you get to see the small things you miss when in a vehicle. Our guides asked us to interpret the bush when we arrived at an anthill surrounded by flattened plants and grasses. None of us got the story right. Older elephants use things like the anthill to lean on when sleeping. While young elephants can sleep anywhere, older elephants often look for a gradient. It is much easier for them to get up.

A mopane worm spotted in a mopane tree during our Kruger park walking safari.
A mopane worm, a resident in the mopane tree.

We frequently passed rows of Matabele ants on our Kruger Park walking safari. When disturbed, these ants will make a hissing sound to scare away the intruders. These ants also look out for one another, and the last ant will always walk back to check that no soldiers are left behind.

We spotted more golden orb-web spiders than we could count. These giant arachnids with their massive golden webs can be quite eerie, but luckily they pose no danger to humans. Minute silver dewdrop spiders also live in these webs. The rays of the sun reflect from these little guys, attracting curious prey into the trap. They form the perfect mutual relationship.

We also spotted some mopane worms in our camp on the last morning of our hike, only as a tree had many empty branches stripped from leaves. These worms feast on mopane trees, but if they run out of food, they could also move to certain other trees. Many different cultures also eat mopane worms as a delicacy.

Surroundings of the Lonely Bull Trail

The various walking trails in the Kruger all take place in different areas with completely different vegetation. The Lonely Bull takes place in the Mopaniveld area of the park. The majority of the vegetation is dominated by mopane trees. It is quite dense, just the same as when driving through the region. It is difficult terrain for game viewing (even by car).

The area where the Lonely Bull takes place is relatively flat. You will not climb any mountains on this Kruger Park walking safari. The challenges will come from Mother Nature. The thick grass and lack of pathways made it a challenge as you can’t see rocks and other obstacles that easily. I kept to the back of the group which meant that the walkers in front of me cleared the way a little. Just like with most outdoor adventure activities, the front walkers walked into all the spider webs too.

The vegetation traversed on the Lonely Bull was mopaniveld. However, we crossed through some beautiful riverine forest sections on day three. Unfortunately, we were pushing for time after having to wait for everything to dry after the night before, so we could not linger too long. We took a short break in one of these forest areas, and the birdlife was just something else. Apart from the beautiful surroundings, my other memory here is my sweating eyelids. Yes, it was really that warm! Having sweaty eyelids is not the most pleasant experience.

A hot day on our Kruger park walking safari, walking through riverine forest areas.
Walking through a forest section on the Lonely Bull.

On the last night of our walking safari in the Kruger, we camped in a small open area amongst the thick mopane near the Letaba River. The stars were amazingly bright. Our small fire created the perfect atmosphere while an African scops owl hooted in the distance. We even heard lions roar and the call of a hyena. This was the best way to fall asleep. Small things like these are what make these outdoor adventure activities so spectacular.

The next morning we had to break down the camp and prepare for our journey back to civilisation. I was really sad that our Kruger Park walking safari walking adventure had to come to an end. We took a detour to the mighty Letaba River to marvel at the scenery. The good rainfall of the season meant brown water was rushing past. On the opposite bank, a pair of African fish eagles sang a duet. Hippo grunted in the distance. with hippo grunting. In my head, I started planning my return to the bush…

Handy tips for hiking the Lonely Bull

Quality tent

Get a quality tent for a walking safari like the Lonely Bull. I did not own a lightweight hiking tent, so I rented one from CAMP Tent Hire. They have a wide variety to choose from and recommended a two-man First Ascent Lunar tent. This is a three-season tent for most weather conditions. It was easy to put up and had enough space for me and my hiking bag. You are not allowed to leave anything outside the tent at night. Some of the other hikers brought cheap lightweight tents for this Kruger Park walking safari. The stormy conditions destroyed one tent in our group.

Sleeping in the heat

Improvised gaiters on the Lonely Bull Trail
Improvised gaiters with tape on the Lonely Bull Trail.

When we hiked the Lonely Bull Trail in March, temperatures were still hot and reached 38 degrees during the day. It made it quite uncomfortable at night with a closed tent. I slept in my bikini and barely used my sleeping bag. A fleece blanket or sheet might also be a good option for a Kruger Park walking safari, especially in summer. In winter, it is a different story altogether as temperatures do plummet at night.

Gaiters or cool long pants

Do you need gaiters for a wilderness trail like the Lonely Bull? Gaitors can make any of your outdoor adventure activities more comfortable. The Kruger National Park had plenty of rain earlier in the season. As a result, the grass was incredibly thick. You walk on wildlife tracks at times, but much of the trail is through the dense grass, so imagine all those grass seeds in your shoes and socks. Others in our group improvised by using tape on their shoes or creating makeshift gaiters out of Ziploc bags to wear underneath long socks.

When nature calls…

It is probably a question on many minds. There are no bathroom facilities on the trail. Take a walk to the nearest bush offering enough privacy. Burn the toilet paper, and cover the hole (dug with a spade). It is uncomfortable at first, but not that bad. Nighttime bathroom breaks are another story, though. Opening your tent, checking the surroundings, and spotting orange eyes just out of range of your headlamp might make you think twice about visiting the loo on a Kruger Park walking safari.

Checklist: what you need to pack

  • Hiking backpack and day pack
  • Clothes to wear and to sleep in
  • Gaiters or lightweight long pants
  • Hiking shoes
  • Tent
  • Mat or inflatable to sleep on
  • Pillow for comfort. I use an air pillow
  • Gas for cooking.
  • Pots/pans
  • Headlamp
  • Crockery and cutlery
  • Water filter/purification tablets
  • Biodegradable soap for washing and dishwashing liquid
  • Hat and sunblock
  • Mosquito repellant
  • Water bladder and something to carry extra water in
  • Toilet paper and lighter/matches
  • Food, drinks and snacks for the duration of the hike
  • Personal first aid kit
  • Extras for emergencies such as tape, thread, etc.
  • Optional: Binoculars.

How to book the Lonely Bull trail

Keen to pick the Lonely Bull as one of your outdoor adventure activities this year? Book your Kruger National Park walking safari through Bridget Bagley via bridgetb@sanparks.org or call +27 12 426 5117. It will cost you R3 600 per person for bookings from 1 March to 31 October 2023. Anyone between 12 and 65, with relative fitness levels, can walk the Lonely Bull. Hikers over the age of 65 must submit a doctor’s letter.
*Prices are subject to change, so always double-check.

Have you hiked any of the wilderness trails in the Kruger National Park? We would love to hear about your experience on a walking safari in the Kruger! Tell us in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Taming the bull not just a walk in the park”

  1. You’ve captured the magic of the trail so beautifully in your article! The uniqueness of a trail in Kruger, the isolation you experience, and the overall mysticism of the Park are best felt on foot, and I urge anyone who has the chance to do one to grab it with both hands!
    My first trail was the Olifants Backpack Trail, and followed that up with a double-booking, or ‘back-to-back’ trail on the Mphongolo in the north of the Park – 6 nights/7 days of you, your group and your guides living in the most isolated part of Kruger is something to behold!
    I’ve since done two other trails in the Greater Kruger with the guys from Lowveld Trails, when we hiked in the Makuya reserve (near Pafuri) and Timbavati, and am finalising dates for next year to do another in the Balule Private Game Reserve.
    On all the trails we’ve done the game viewing has been mixed – it’s not about the big things on a trail, but rather the amazing and insightful small things. That said, though, we’ve seen a lot of the big game including the big 5 and even wild dog (not all in a single trail, but looking across each!)
    The knowledge of your guides is always astounding – these guys quite simply are super-human! I’ve walked with the same team (guides from Lowveld Trails) each time, and on each subsequent trail I’m further blown away by their knowledge of the bush, their tracking experience, and their general approach to the craft… this is what makes the trail for me – not whether we saw lion or not!
    The options of available trails are growing yearly, and I encourage people almost weekly to take the plunge and try it – it’s so far out of your comfort zone and beyond anything that most people could ever imagine. And I must confess, it changes you from the person you were when you left – and that’s not a bad thing either!

    1. Thank you so much Steve! I enjoyed writing this post and reliving those memories. I think it is something every nature lover should do at least once. Your comment just made me want to book another trial right now! I believe the Olifants one is the toughest of the lot, and the Mphongolo is very scenic.

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