Article published in British Airways In-flight magazine: High Life, March 2017THE INTREPID WALKER: Alex Matthews, mild-mannered writer and editor of online literary journal Aerodrome DISTANCE: 9km WHERE: The Kruger National Park. Return Africa runs three-night trails out of two tented camps in Makuleke. returnafrica.com FEAR FACTOR: 7/10
‘The impressions of my two walks up Lanner Gorge have swirled into one. What remains strongest is the slow, sloshing progress through silky water – feet sinking into wet sand. Accompanying this: ripples of fear. Because this isn’t just any river – this isn’t just any walk. This is the croc-infested Luvuvhu, the boundary between the northern Kruger National Park, and the community- owned Makuleke region bordering Zimbabwe.
‘My walk begins at the nyala tree at Mangala – where once Makuleke shepherds would gather to gossip, to set the world to rights (they had to move when their land was absorbed into the Kruger in the 1960s, but it has since been restored to them. They now allow concessionaries to share this patch of paradise with the public). Our Return Africa guide, Sarah Nurse, warns us to stay away from deep, murky rifts where crocodiles might be hiding. I swallow nervously. If we remain vigilant and stick to the transparent shallows, we’ll be safe, she assures us. But if I allow myself to be seduced into complacency, I could lose a leg – or my life.
‘At first we walk along the bank; the water next to us is too deep and dark, too dangerous. After ten minutes, we take off our shoes and step gingerly onto a sandbank. The flat oodplain, edged with rumpled hills, narrows until rock towers over us on either side of the river. Fish eagles drift overhead, their wails reverberating between the craggy cliffs. Although they sometimes wander down almost vertiginous paths to drink and play in the river, today Makuleke’s elephants don’t put in an appearance – a relief, as they can be notoriously bellicose.
‘We do see two hippos plop into the water, though. And there are crocodiles – everywhere. Some are sunbathing in the distance – as still as boulders. Others jauntily saunter in and out of the water. We spot an adolescent lazily drifting downstream. I shiver as I watch it pass, grateful for the certainty of the sandbank – and for the size of the rifle resting on Nurse’s shoulder.
‘Deep in the gorge, we reach a series of rapids. We shake off our rucksacks, settle on a attish spot and devour lunch. The river gurgles, rushes, roars. And then, when it’s too hot, I clamber over smooth rocks and carefully climb into the water. I sit down – in a shallow bowl-shaped groove, the bracing torrent sliding over and around me. I’m grinning stupidly; I want to laugh – because I’m busy swimming in the Kruger Park!’
Feature image: Simon Stobbs