Slackpacking the new way to get up close and personal in the bush

Helen Crooks

WE ARE lucky in the Eastern Cape to have an abundance of game reserves where the big five can be spotted from the relative comfort of a game vehicle, a bush adventure which usually comes with the stern admonishment ‘No getting out of the vehicle’.

But all that changed at the eco-friendly Bucklands private game reserve near Grahamstown, which recently introduced a whole new concept in game viewing in the form of a diverse range of slackpacking trails.

And while the concept of game walks may not be something new, what sets Bucklands apart is the fact that the reserve offers three types of accommodation, which means you can walk for days – quite literally – without ever leaving the 5500 hectare reserve.

The slackpacking concept is simple but good. You walk carrying just the bare essentials – camera, binoculars and sunblock – while your luggage is transported to wherever you are staying that night. If you do the full three-day trail, you will start with a hike of around six kilometres, which begins at the reception area and ends at the luxury tented camp where you will overnight.

Day two starts with breakfast, followed by a walk of about 8km, where you will get up close and personal to the diverse wildlife and vegetation on the reserve. You will then be treated to a picnic lunch at a view site overlooking the Great Fish River, where you can rest for a short while before continuing on a further 8km hike winding down to the rustic tented camp on the edges of the Great Fish River, where you will spend the night.

Day three starts with breakfast, followed by about 6km of hiking, never venturing far from the banks of the Great Fish River. On the way you will stop to look at the San Art and simply drink in the magnificence of the area, until once again you can enjoy a delicious picnic lunch, which has magically been set up in the bush, followed by the last 7km of your hike, which ends at the historical lodge where you will spend the last night of your stay.

On day four you can either lie in or go for a game drive before being treated to a large brunch at about 10.30am prior to departure. Time being a consideration, we narrowed our hike down to two days and, with flexibility being the name of the game at Bucklands, the trail was adapted to suit our needs.

Setting off on the first hike shortly after arrival, we quickly realised that you learn so much more on foot than you do in a game vehicle. For instance we have all heard of the big five, but how many people know that there is a small five? There’s the elephant shrew, lion ant, buffalo weaver, rhino beetle and leopard tortoise, with only the buffalo weaver missing from the Bucklands package.

We also learnt that the common or garden anthill is far more than what it seems, it’s a whole system on its own. Maintaining a constant temperature of 32 degrees, it makes a perfect incubator for liguaan eggs deposited into the hill by an excavating mommy. The termites rebuild the damaged shell in around 24 hours and are rewarded for their hard work by becoming the baby lizards’ first meal.

Lost in the bush? Check out the gentle slope on the ant hill– it points north. Still lost? There’s a bush that can provide you with sustenance in the form of large purple berries, which are both edible and thirst- quenching. And if you feel the need to brush your teeth after the berry meal, its branches make the perfect toothbrush, toothpaste included.

But the slackpacking experience is not just an outdoor lesson in how resourceful nature can be, it’s also about getting up close (well relatively) and personal with the inhabitants of the bush, which in the case of Bucklands does not include the big five but does include a wide variety of buck which watched with curiosity as we ambled slowly back to the lodge after a not too strenuous seven or eight kilometre hike.

We were also lucky enough to get pretty close to a pair of giraffe, but the ultimate prize came on day two of our stay when we got close to three rhinos – mommy, daddy and baby who carried on munching, seemingly oblivious to the presence of three human invaders.

There simply is no way to describe the feeling of being able to get so close to these magnificent animals on foot – and at no time did we feel threatened, thanks in the main to the pre-walk guidelines laid down by our guide for the weekend Iain Stewart, son of Bucklands founders Terry and Michele.

Passionate about the bush and its inhabitants, Iain is the perfect guide when it comes to slackpacking. He knows the routes off-by-heart, offers warnings when the going may get a bit tough and somehow intuitively knows when to stop imparting information and simply allow guests to drink in the splendour and silence of the bush.

The length of the slack-packing trails may seem a bit daunting but they are not only for the super fit. Children of 12 have done the trail, so too have people in their seventies. And if the going gets a bit rough – it is advisable to wear comfortable, worn in shoes, as new hiking boots or tekkies can lead to painful blisters – help is just a phone call away.

After a long walk the appetite is good and so is the food – in fact its better than good. It’s home- cooked, delicious and worthy of a trip to Bucklands just for the pure culinary pleasure that mealtimes are.

Examples of dishes served are a spicy prawn starter, accompanied by warm, home-cooked rolls, succulent chicken wrapped in bacon and served with potato bake, followed by homemade malva pudding.

There’s also full English breakfasts with the unusual addition of cheesy warthog sausages to set you up for the day ahead – and even the bush picnics take on an up-market flavour at Bucklands, featuring fresh fruit skewers, delicious chicken sandwiches with a honey mustard dressing and home-made quiches, washed down with a perfectly chilled beer or cider. Combining delicious meals with luxury accommodation, while offering guests the chance to be at one with nature and alone with their thoughts is an opportunity which is absolutely priceless.

Equally priceless is the fact that after just two days at Bucklands you will feel as though you have been away from the rat race for something more like two weeks.

And even if the opportunity to slackpack around this remarkable reserve is not your thing, remember flexibility is the name of the game at Bucklands.

You can book for a game drive stay, a walking stay, a combination of the two – or simply for a quiet retreat from life. Whatever you decide you can be assured it’s a winning formula which you will savour for years to come.

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