The Lebombo 4X4 Trail

Finally the end of our two months at Mjejane and our departure day arrives. Its 30th October – just like any other day except we know that this is the last time we sleep in a house for a while, the last time we have the security and comforts of friends and family and modern living. Everything is the same and yet, yet it feels different. A breeding herd of elephants arrive at the crocodile river in front of us, the matriarch shepherding a very young calf. They wade across, the matriarch protecting her young from the current by walking upstream from the flow of the river. They look like they know something we know too. But we say nothing. We drive out of Mjejane reserve, we hear the call of the Natal spurfowl, like countless times before. But again this time it feels different. Like there is a message in the call, like they are bidding us farewell. It feels good. And right.

We drive down the 40k stretch to Komatipoort to refuel. Heading into town we pass over 100 container trucks parked on the side of the road, queuing up for kilometres, presumably waiting to get through the SA-Mozambique border at Lebombo. At the gas station I get talking to a uniformed, very senior looking, traffic officer and ask him about the trucks. He tells me this story: the trucks are all transporting chrome concentrate for export from Maputo harbour to China; the biggest owner of the trucks is a farmer from the Free State, he owns over 800 of them; they each truck cost over R1.6m; each truck pays a road tax of R60k per truck per year. The owner takes on “ANC politicians”, as partners for “cover”, says the traffic officer with a mixture of acceptance and disdain. The partners work the space of the chrome mine owners to secure BBE compliant contracts and the SARS regulator to reduce the costs of road tax and maximise profits. The owner doesn’t employ S Africans. They are too expensive and come with “labour union rights” attitudes. So he only employs “foreigners” – some Swazis, but mostly Zimbabweans. The Zimbabwe truck drivers deliver low cost labour and they usually carry their own, often unlicensed, brothers or cousins from home inside the vehicle, which affords them the capacity to drive 24/7 non-stop to maximise their earnings. The officer rolls his eyes skyward, sighs helplessly, and says “That’s the way things work here. It’s corrupt. The owner uses non-unionised, cheap labour and ANC politicians to undermine organised labour and government and maximise profits for himself and his BEE partners”. It’s a good conversation. The kind of everyday conversation amongst Safricans. I start thinking about insiders and outsiders, about the state and the citizenry, about the owners of everything and the ANC elites they care for and about poverty and the foreign truck drivers. It leaves me cold. Empty.

I face north and head for the Crocodile Bridge crossing and think about trails fires and the wilds I will soon experience in all its diversity and abundance. We cross an almost dry riverbed and are met by Sanparks ranger N at Crocodile camp. N does the safety briefing and issues each vehicle with a two-way radio for comms on the trip. We drop our tyre pressure and engage four-wheel drive and head out on the trail. My cruiser starts to purr. Like it knows we are going places. It feels good. The track in front of me and the continent above that. It pulls at me. Wants me. And I feel like I am ready to bow before it and accept the fate of wherever it affords me. My thought process is interrupted by the crackle of N’s voice on the radio. He is doing a doing a sound check and he tells us the radios are there for everyday chat on the trail. That feels odd. But let’s see.

The Lebombo 4×4 trail carves its way up the eastern fence boundary of Kruger, giving life and meaning to the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The trail involves daily driving for about 6 to 8hrs and sleeping in bush camps that are without water, but do have dry toilet facilities. It’s simply sublime. Not as a game viewing experience necessarily, although we did see breeding herds of elephant, journeys of giraffe, several crashes of buffalo and a range of savanna antelope. The beauty in the trail lies elsewhere: in the diverse sub-biomes and the ancient geology, trees and shrubs that make up each of the portions. All along the way N opens up his vast reservoir of experience and knowledge to us. The trip became a deep look into the evolution of planet earth through N’s explanations of the geological foundations of all that we see growing about us. We travelled back in time over billions of years to look at the geological footprints of the seascapes and landscapes of Gondwanaland, the break- up of the continent and the adaptions and diversifications of plant and animal species from Madagascar to Australia. Through it all we take notes and Lou draws watercolor pictures of the new plants and trees and rock formations we are discovering.  It’s a deep learning experience, enriched to convincingly by N’s endless knowledge and fascination with everything and the how’s and why’s it evolved to what we see before us. We dig deep and embrace the long view of history and the evolution of all living things. We deepen our knowledge of the era of the Anthropocene through stories about the countless poached carcasses of rhino and elephant, the devastating impact of the floods and droughts, the extreme temperatures being experienced across the park, the human migrations from poverty to hope.

We say farewell to our fellow Lebombo trail travellers on the road outside Pafuri as we head back to Louis Trichart to have some power struts fitted to our roof top tent. Job done and we drive back on our tracks back to camp for a night at Pafuri River Lodge just outside the park. The next morning we drive back into the Park and cross the border at the Pafuri gate into Mozambique. From there we head off on off road tracks to Dumela Wilderness camp. We are now navigating on a combination of our Garmin and the directions kindly given by the people on the ground. The poverty and drought devastation of the Mozambique people is evident everywhere. The Limpopo river itself is a dry sand stretch. From village to village we the people tell stories of animals dying and of the people starving. Some say that the river has never dried up in its history. We trust their wisdom and knowledge. People are digging holes in the sand riverbed to find moisture deep in the darkness of the ground. Then the people come pushing wheelbarrows on foot or on top of donkey hauled carts to collect water from the temporary wells that others have dug by hand. Everywhere we drive all the activity of the rural communities seems to be centred around a daily struggle to collect water. It’s the apex activity for staying alive.

We are navigating intermittent tracks from village to village. Looking for signs of tyre tracks to find new directions. And asking ordinary people the road to the power lines that carry power from Cahora Bassa to the people of Mozambique. We know that the tracks beneath the power lines will lead us to the road to the town of Chiqualaquala, and with it the border crossing in Zimbabwe. After a magnificent off-road drive, and thanks to a combination of on the ground navigation and Garmin work, we follow the power lines and arrive in Chiqualaquala and find some DosM beer and water to carry us through what we expect to be a starved and expensive Zimbabwe economic wasteland. At the border we speak with groups of women from Zimbabwe who have travelled over 100kms on dirt roads from their Zimbabwean town of Chiredzi to Mozambique to buy basic foodstuffs. They tell a horror story of drought and escalating prices that make living in Zimbabwe simply untenable for anyone: if you not suffocating slowly from a lack of water, you are definitely starving for lack of affordability to access even the most basic products for human survival.

The horrific stories of suffering from the women at the border could not prepare us for what we drove through on our way to Gonarezouh National Park in Zimbabwe’s south eastern corner. As we drive across a landscape that reminds me of images of Mars for its desolate barrenness where there is not a blade of grass or a leaf on a tree, my mind is awash with a jumble of angry thoughts about climate change and about Gretha Thumberg her brave mobilisation of the school strikes against climate change. I keep thinking she needs to see this drought, this grinding poverty, this destruction of the environment. The whole world needs to see this. Surely a sense of common purpose, forged on common identity, will arise from these ashes. Surely.







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