Travel: Safari on a frayed shoestring

Who needs air-conditioned luxury when you can see the best of South Africa from a battered truck?

It's not usually this bad," said jolly, orange-bearded Gert cheerfully, as the engine of the safari truck coughed, stuttered and fell ominously silent. "But it's always a bit temperamental. In a few minutes we'll be fine."

Forty-five minutes later, it was still not fine. The truck, with me slowly being sauted inside it, sat silently in the same spot - a dirt trail miles from anyone and anywhere, in the shadeless 30-degree heat of the South African low veld. "Blast!" said Gert, from under the bonnet. "What is wrong with this thing? Are you guys keeping an eye out for lions? For God's sake tell me if you see any movement in the bush."

If you book a safari on a shoestring, you get what you pay for. In this case, I got an old truck that was, frankly, knackered, and a guide-cum- driver who had no idea how to fix it, and who, furthermore, had lent his mobile telephone - his only contact with the outside world - to his mother for the day. At this point in my two-day trip through the Kruger National Park, I almost began to think longingly of the huge, air-conditioned luxury tour-buses that had whisked past our rattling hulk at intervals, packed to bursting with middle-aged tourists, their pale legs and video- cameras glinting in unison. But not for long.

Gert, an enormous Afrikaner, runs the Kruger Park Backpackers, a small hostel and campsite that specialises in low-budget safaris with the personal touch - "saving you from mass tourism" as their publicity puts it. Visit Kruger, and it's easy to appreciate why people might want saving from such a fate. So much so that, even stuck in a broken truck in the middle of a dangerous nowhere for five hours, I had no regrets. It beat the bigger, slicker, more commercial tours hands down. Who wants air-conditioning when you can have unpredictability?

The Kruger National Park is said to harbour the biggest concentration of species of any national park in the world. It is the largest of South Africa's 17 parks, covering an area the size of Wales. It is also the most visited. Most tourists will stay in one of the air-conditioned "Zulu huts" in the park's fenced-off rest areas, eat in the well-appointed restaurants, and frequent the swimming-pools and gift shops. For a small (and possibly foolish) number of us, however, this is not what a safari is supposed to be about. And so we turn to people like Gert for salvation.

A three-day tour with Kruger Park Backpackers begins at 4am, when you rise from your mixed dormitory and prepare your own breakfast of coffee and rusks. You then load up the safari truck, which Gert constructed himself by welding steel panels, assorted windows and old airline seats on to the back of a pickup. Before 5am, with the pink dawn just breaking over the thorn trees, you are driving through the huge main gates of the park. At the end of each day, you pitch your tent and cook dinner. Next morning you are up and off again before dawn, sustained until lunch on dry biscuits, bananas and as much tepid water as you can drink.

If some aspects of the operation sound spiritedly amateur, the safari itself - the important part - is anything but. Gert has been working in Kruger for 15 years, and conducting these tours for the last five.

He knows the place and its wildlife like the back of his broad hand, and has an apparently bottomless reservoir of stories, anecdotes and factual nuggets about whatever you see, and a lot of what you don't. He'll tell you about the time an enraged elephant charged his truck, and about the day he had to face down a lioness, on foot, with only an unloaded rifle.

He'll tell you why impala have striped backsides, how hyena hunt, how often lions kill, and how many kilos of food a hippo gets through every day. He'll tell you about the rarest animal in the park (the sable antelope) and the most dangerous (the Cape buffalo), and he'll tell you the names of the trees, birds and plants you pass, and what part they play in the park's ecology.

Gert's equipment may be cheap and cheerful, but his knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, Kruger and its wildlife must be second to none. He refuses to take groups of more than seven on tour, because he thinks that large numbers dilute the experience, and he is scornful of some of the "so-called tour guides" working for the larger, slicker firms, many of whom, he says, simply don't know the park well enough.

The list of fauna and flora I saw in just two days, with Gert's expert guidance, filled four pages of my notebook. If you can laugh off an inconvenience or two, there can't be a much better, or cheaper, way to see the Kruger National Park than a tour with Kruger Park Backpackers. And even if the old truck fails you, as it did me, can there be, as Gert put it, "any better place in the country to break down"?

Fact File

THE KRUGER National Park is in the far north east of the country, five or six hours' drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria. Paul Kingsnorth paid pounds 476.50 to fly to Johannesburg on Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747).

The cost of a two-day, three-night tour with Kruger Park Backpackers, including meals and accommodation, is 480 rand (approximately pounds 60).

A three-day (four-night) tour costs 580 rand (about pounds 72). Kruger Park Backpackers (00 27 13 737 7224) will arrange return transport to their hostel from either Johannesburg or Pretoria, if required, for an extra 240 Rand (pounds 30).

E-mail: krugback@mweb.co.za; website address: http://www.argo-navis. com/krugerpark

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