The lion’s roar is bone-shaking. One moment, our line of six backpackers and two rangers is winding through bushy, red-leafed mopane trees in Kruger National Park, a 4.8 million-acre wildlife haven in South Africa’s northeast corner. The next, we’re frozen in place, hardly breathing.
With 147 mammal species (including Africa’s Big Five: leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, and buffalo), Kruger makes Yellowstone look like a petting zoo. Nearly all sightseeing here happens by car—park rules require a guide for all foot travel outside of the park’s protected camps.
Most tourists don’t bother, but I’ve been trekking for four days on one of the park’s two designated “backpack trails.” I carry gear and food from home and camp each night on the banks of seemingly dry rivers (like elephants, we dig for water). But “trail” is a misnomer: There’s no set path. Instead, our armed guides use a GPS to route us through a gently rolling swath of bush, with only our trip endpoint preset. We cover a few miles a day, leaving us ample time to watch wildlife and examine scat and tracks.
We walk in silence, which is unsettling for a hiker used to calling out in bear country, but it’s working: Over the past three days, we’ve sent a half-dozen giraffes galumphing off; watched a family of elephants roll in mud; and even seen an elusive leopard streak into the forest.
Now, the lion roars again. “Move back!” one guide whispers; the other has his gun pointed ahead. As I move behind a tree, I hear a snarl, then the ranger’s warning shout. He lowers his rifle; the lion has retreated. My relief is deeper than after any bear encounter back home. There, I know the rules of coexisting with wildlife; I can convince myself all’s well so long as I follow them. Here, a creature bigger and fiercer than any I pretend to understand could burst from the endless bush at any moment. That, I realize, is true wilderness.
Do it Lonely Bull and Mphongolo Back-Pack tours leave every Wed. and Sun. from Shingwedzi and Shimuwini camps, respectively; rent a car in Phalaborwa or Johannesburg. Bring all gear; buy food and fuel in town (capeunionmart.co.za).
Season Feb. 1 to Nov. 30
Reservations Up to 11 months ahead; R2050 pp (about $250), plus park admission.