Polokwane - Dust swirls around as Alweet Hlungwani brings the Land Cruiser to a stop. Below us, we see the riverine forest of the Limpopo River and the flood plain, which is inundated with water in the good years.
The sky is a beautiful display of graduated colours: it ranges from the orange stain the sun left behind when it sank; to hues of dark, darker and darkest blue, to indigo and purple as night blankets the lowveld.
“This is where,” says Alweet, breaking the silence briefly, “you come to reconnect… to remember what is important in your life.”
That may sound like a corny line from a self-help seminar in a Sandton hotel but here, in the ancient bush where three countries’ extremes touch fingers, it is entirely appropriate.
In the silence that follows his remark, I feel as if we are in an vast, holy, place. A Bushveld cathedral…
And, whatever your views of the existence or otherwise of a Greater Power, here in the simple, open dry heart of Africa, you cannot to be impressed. This place – the Pafuri area at the very northern end of the Kruger National Park – is a place to remember.
And someone like Alweet, who is a guide at the Wilderness Safaris Pafuri Camp, helps make a memorable place even more memorable. He is, like many rangers in the bush these days, very knowledgeable about the flora, fauna and even the constellations of the night sky, but he has the gift of being able to connect with people, foreign or local, and share what he knows.
He is aware that he is part-entertainer, part-host, because the Wilderness Safaris model is about service excellence and providing the sort of experience you simply don’t get in a national park (but more about that later).
Alweet also has a stake, directly and indirectly, in the operation because he is a member of the Makuleke community, which owns this northern part of Kruger National Park. Alweet recalls that his people were forcibly removed from the area in 1969, as the stretch of South Africa bordering Mozambique and what is now Zimbabwe was incorporated into the protected game area of Kruger.
The older people still remember that pain… pain that was partly eased some years ago when the Makulekes were given back their land after an historic and successful land claim action. But, to turn this piece of tough land – where the impoverished environment can support only wild animals – over for resettlement by people would have meant ruin – for the land and for the people who, after a few seasons at most, would have found themselves back in poverty.
The 25 000 hectares of Makuleke land is now a “contract park” – part of Kruger, but managed by Wilderness Safaris as one of its adventure camps. Pafuri is also specifically aimed at South Africans, with prices that are more affordable than some of the organisation’s classic safari operations.
Wilderness Safaris also runs a number of community projects at its operations around Africa – and before you leave for your visit, you are given advice and suggestions about how to support some of the communities in and around the place you’ll be staying.
It’s how conservation should be: paying a fair rate for what is an out-of-the-ordinary experience, knowing that the local communities will benefit from your presence.
The only way conservation and the wild places will be preserved in Africa is through operations like this.
Pafuri is not cheap – about R2 100 a person a night, excluding drinks, tips and some extras. For that, though, you get exceptional accommodation and a full board menu: a pre-game drive mini-breakfast in the early morning, followed by a sumptuous brunch on returning from the drive at about 10am. Then, there is a groaning plate of snacks with tea, coffee and juice before the evening game drive.
On returning in the evening, there is a full-on three- or four-course supper of top quality.
But if one considers that a normal hotel stay costs R1 200 to R1 400 a person a night (for the equivalent), often room only, with breakfast and dinner extra, then Pafuri’s prices don’t look too bad.
More than that, let’s consider the supposedly cheaper option in the SANParks camps in Kruger. Most self-catering accommodation starts at around R400 a person a day – and there is no guarantee you’ll have things like working kettles or power points or that the toilet won’t be overflowing.
That’s not to mention the close proximity of other visitors, who may not share your reverence for the bush and for peace and quiet.
That is also not to say that there aren’t any great experiences to be had in the Kruger National Park, but, judging from the number of complaints we get about the park, the service is hit and miss. That is undoubtedly why accommodation establishments on the borders of the park are doing so well.
When you consider all of those things, a visit to a place like Pafuri Camp becomes very appealing.
And, consider this: each accommodation unit at the camp is a high-roofed tent on a platform, well away from its neighbours, overlooking the Luvuvhu River, which flows in all but the most severe times of drought.
That means that, as we did, you could have a fish eagle releasing its haunting cry from the branches of a tree immediately above your head. (I only have my wife’s word for that: I was deep in snore-ridden dreamland by then after a fulldelicious lunch dragged me down.)
The tents are connected by a wooden walkway about a metre or so above the surrounding bush – and it was right here, in the camp, that we had some of the best experiences: large and lesser bush babies in the trees (highlighted by the beams of our torches); bushbuck females sheltering from predators under the walkway; a large spotted genet peering out curiously from under a clump of bushes; various owls hooting and screeching.
And added to everything else, a leopard male and female (he marking his territory in his testosterone-driven way, she following expectantly), elephant, a small genet, a wealth of different bird species, and some beautiful riverine bush along the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers, including the ghostly fever trees (made famous in Rudyard Kipling poem about the “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River”)…
Best (and most selfish) of all, is that, on the Makuleke contract park section, you will be able to enjoy what, for me, is the singular biggest attraction of wild Africa – the sense of being away from people.
And someone like Alweet will take you to those places where you can savour the space and isolation.