On Safari with Marius Swart - Clearly Africa Privately Guided Safaris
“Sit VERY still and keep absolutely quiet”!
This was my instruction to Jens and Kati from Germany when, on our first afternoon drive along the
Luvhuvhu River in Makuleke, we ended up being surrounded by a herd of about
Jens and Kati shared the Wolhuter Wilderness Trail with us last year when the Winter family was on
a 2 week walking safari with me. We had so much fun and shared so many commonalities, that they
decided to return this year!
After settling into our tents at Pafuri Camp (as the Trails Camp only opens in April) we opted for
a familiarisation drive to allow for synchronisation. This drive took us upstream from camp along
the Luvhuvhu River through some Combretum thickets towards Hutwini Ridge. Rounding one turn we were
suddenly confronted by a massive 5ton road-block in the form of a large ele bull. Stopping
immediately and switching off the engine, the ele relaxed again and continued feeding. With the
drone of the engine now silent, we could hear more feeding sounds from all around us...we were
As time went by more and more eles filtered through the bush and made their appearance till
eventually some were so close to the vehicle that we all fell quiet. One cow in particular,
pictured above, started browsing off a Croton tree right next us and provided some interesting
angles for photography. As the browse line shifted so she had to readjust her position and with us
being in her way, she gently nudged the rear of our Cruiser as a
subtle indication. We obliged by slowly edging forward and then stopping again, upon
which she walked into the vacant spot we left and continued breaking branches off the tree and
stuffing her cheeks.
A rather small calf made its way through the ranks and crossed the track behind us and vanished
into the bushes again. The cow finished up at the Croton and headed our way, again she gently
nudged us and we realised that we had parked exactly where she wanted to graze...she remained in
the same spot as we moved again and then was joined by 4 other eles to graze on the verdant grasses
which were hidden under our chassis...a truly amazing encounter which displayed their gentile nature
After spending at least an hour with the eles we continued further west only to find a large herd
of buffalo along Hutwini...as the setting sun beckoned, we stopped for sundowners right there and
enjoyed an adult beverage whilst watching the buff silhouetted against a golden sky. What a start!
The next morning we were up way before dawn and headed out by vehicle to reach our walking area.
Setting out as soon as it was light enough to see, allowed us to enjoy the crisp air, as we knew it
wouldnʼt last very long this time of year. By midmorning the humid heat was taking its toll and
finding regular stops to discuss things we saw and pondered, became common place.
The bush is still green from the fairly good rains we had earlier in the season but it has been
rather dry the past two months and if it doesnʼt rain another good few inches before end of April,
winter is going to be very dry and tough...
So many buffalo that we stopped counting not only the individual members in the herd, but also the
amount of herds we encountered. Scattered throughout the concession, wherever you go, there are
buffalo! With the dry season approaching and the water-rich concession providing the only respite,
we expect the numbers to increase even more.
Not only did the buffalo provide us with exhilarating encounters in the form of curious herds
trotting closer to inspect us, but we also had a few meetings with daggaboys or old males hiding in
the tall grasses around the multitude of wallows, now filled with thick viscous mud! Fortunately we
never had any up-close and personal incidents as prevention dictated that we gave these areas with
potential wallows a wider berth than usual...
The landscapes of Makuleke are stupendous and allows for complete emancipation. Time becomes
inconsequential, attention is constantly drawn by vistas which prompts deep contemplation and the
presence of incredible wildlife makes for a destination like no other. The deep red sands of the
Lanner Gorge area was starkly contrasted by the luminosity of the green grasses and was reminiscent
of the Kalahari. Baobabs reputed to be 4500 years old and with a girth of over 25m, standing
sentinel on the banks of the 180 million year old Limpopo River are features which commands such
respect and awe that very few other big game locations are comparable...below we are standing ankle
deep in the still flowing waters of the Limpopo after tracking a herd of buffalo only to find their
spoor crossing into Zimbabwe.
Three sightings in particular remain vivid in my mind.
Early one morning we had plans of walking to a fountain further up along the
Hutwini ridge when suddenly, we found fresh rhino spoor!
Now for all the years I have spent in Makuleke, I have only seen the rhino once before and it was
in this same area...the challenge was set!
I was anxious about my ability to find the rhino as when doing trails it is more about
interpretations than finding animals, but with the commitment made...we headed west along the game
path weaving through some thickets of shrubby mopane trees and further up along the shallow
From the spoor we deduced that there were at least a mom with a calf and possibly another adult and
pretty soon we were rewarded with scrape marks in the soil and droplets of urine sprayed onto a
little bush, indicating the presence of a bull marking his territory! With hushed excitement we
continued in renewed hope as the urine was still wet...
Walking in silence and keeping an ear out for any indication of their whereabouts, we meandered
along the path which snaked along. From dense mopane suddenly opening up to reveal a muddy wallow
to larger leadwood trees providing a bit of shade to sandy gullies we followed their tracks. The
one moment the bullʼs spoor is there, the next, not. He was clearly trailing the cow and calf and
making routine stops at his various middens to deposit a new reminder of his continued dominion. At
one point we found a midden where the dung was still warm to the touch and
that was great news indeed. By now we were sweating not only from the increasing heat and humidity,
but the concentration of anticipating their trail and not wanting to disturb them by bullishly
stumbling into them started wearing us down.
From time to time I would loose the trail and then a quick arc of investigation would reveal their
trajectory and off we go again. Then after crossing a few drainage-lines and arriving at a very
grassy patch, it was evident that they started grasing as their spoor zig-zagged all over the
place. We slowed right down and with the sun now fairly warm we surmised that they wonʼt be too far
off. At that point we heard a few oxpeckers shrieking as they took off a hundred meters away to our
With a quick questioning glance at Jens and Kati for confirmation that they are ready to make an
approach, we slowly edged forward towards the gully and where we saw the birds alight.
Then with an unmistakable “Pfffffoo”, a rhino exhaled loudly not 50m from us! “WE FOUND THEM!” I
almost shouted in elation, but stopped short.
Maneuvering to get a clearer view of them was not easy as the wind and topography was against us.
Eventually we did see the cow and calf quite close to us and the bull further behind them grazing
away in peace.
Seeing them like this was such a joy and in stark contrast to most news about rhino these days.
Poaching or illegal shooting of rhino has reeled out of control the past 2 or so years and we were
indeed privileged to witness them this way. We spent a good 10min watching them from our side of
the gully and then decided to move on and leave them in peace before they become aware of our
presence. As we turned however, so did the wind and the rhino trotted off about 30m when they smelt
us on the breeze. They settle again and we continued retreating only to have a near
head-on collision with a large elephant bull! Fortunately we managed to scurry in behind some more
mopane trees and he walked on by none the wiser...
During one of the evening drives we managed to find a leopardess which had just killed and impala
and was busy dragging the carcass across the open and in under an Acacia tree. Due to the
sensitivity of the circumstances, we decided to stay well back and use binoculars to view her as
she would be most nervous now as the commotion of the kill and the alarming impala could alert lion
and hyaena in the area which could result in her loosing her meal or even worse, injury or death...
We watched for a few minutes and then departed leaving her still in situ feeding to hearts content.
Another nocturnal sighting which was both exhilarating and disturbing was when
two young male lions sniffed out, chased out and caught an adult warthog right next to our Cruiser!
For those who have witnessed a warthog kill before, especially the piercing sound of the squealing
is something eerie and unnerving to say the least.
Fortunately the hog died fairly quickly and we departed with not a lot of enthusiasm for dinner...
All too soon our time at Makuleke came to an end and we headed south to spend another two nights en
route to our last destination in the Sabie-Sand Private Game Reserve on the western border of
Kruger. These two days provided us with sightings including more buffalo and elephant, ubiquitous
in this part of Kruger, as well as a mating pair of lion in the Shingwedzi River one early morn.
A very funny encounter was that of about 50 elephants in the Letaba River late one afternoon, where
a bull was chasing after an estrous cow, the image says it all...
Having worked in the Sabie-Sand more than a decade and a half ago, I knew that the sightings would
not disappoint, I was right.
The 2 days we spent was filled with lions, hippo, elephants, a few daggaboys, a very large rhino
bull, a young leopardess hunting and killing a francolin as well as two wilddogs!!!
Having said that, I have to mention that what detracted from the whole experience and rendered it
unpalatable in the end, was the safari philosophy. Excessive off- road driving and a lack of
sensitivity towards nature and animals, is something which I strongly condemn. Ignorance is a huge
factor in this regard and I am ashamed to admit that I used to behave in a similar manner when I
started out as that is the “norm”! It took 4 years of absolute ignorance for me to wake up and
realise the folly of my ways...
With some adjustments to my philosophy and two decades of experience later, I would like to think
that I have a much more respectful approach to conducting my drives and trails. It is also my duty
to educate those around me about the negative impact of indiscriminate off-road driving and
harassment of wildlife.
We should be mere observers in the grand display of natural processes and behaviour out in the
wilderness and not active participants altering it to suit our whimsical desire for immediate
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jens and Kati once again for their passion for
wilderness and their high degree of respect for its inhabitants!
You are always welcome on safari with Clearly Africa!