Polokwane, Limpopo - As a wisp of light crept under the thatch roof and down the circular walls of our little hut, I snuggled deeper into my comfortable bed, happily content that the dawn cacophony would stay all intention to fall back to sleep. A hippo let out a series of loud grunts followed by a high pitched squawk as a lion’s roar retreated from camp.
The satisfying swish of Petunia’s grass broom brought the promise of clean dishes and a leisurely breakfast in the bush.
The tinny peck-pecking of a starling’s beak on last night’s braai grid and the scuffle of hornbills was soon punctuated by a “Despicable Me fart gun”. My five-year-old nephew was up.
Sleeping in was not an option as the sounds of the bush ushered in a crisp, August morning that would become a blazing-hot afternoon. I stumbled out of our little bedroom and headed to the shared ablution block. Having booked all six huts for my wider family, we had the kitchen and bathroom facilities to ourselves.
Balule is situated in the middle of the Kruger Park, the little encampment flanked by the Olifants River and an imposing Baobab. It is a remote bush camp markedly different from the larger rest camps and ideal for guests seeking an isolated bush experience.
Balule (the Tsonga word for the Olifants river) is a satellite camp of Olifants, 11km away. Olifants is set high up on a ridge that overlooks the valley in which Balule is situated. Sanparks call the grove a “unique wilderness experience” for people who want to get back to basics.
I have been going to Balule since I was a small girl (a long time ago) when we used to camp in the adjoining grove. This was the second time I had managed to reserve all huts simultaneously. The cost is affordable being as they are “rustic” thanks to shared services. I was always told that the windowless huts were once staff accommodation for Olifants employees, but can’t seem to confirm this.
The cheerful caretaker, Titus Nkuna, has looked after the assembly of huts and the adjacent camp site for 23 years. When guests leave and return from game drives, the 57-year-old personally opens the gate and he is always around, which makes you feel safe.
While the game viewing in that part of the Kruger is good, with quiet roads stretching South along the N’wanetsi River, being in camp at Balule has a particular appeal.
A characteristic is the array of trees encircled by the horseshoe of huts. Natal mahogany and sausage trees provide shade for the central, grassed area and the well-developed branches are ideal for climbing or to hang hammocks. Many a Frisbee and ball has required dislodging from the canopy above.
It was under the trees that we spent our afternoons, reading, chatting and preparing dinner. The quiet activity disturbed only by mischievous monkeys. After a few self-devised remedies (leaving a chilli for consumption did not deter the Vervet), Titus arrived with his catty. The monkeys fled to the baobab where they sat checking us out from the fat branches.
When the sun dropped low enough to create a dappled, muted warmth, we secured our food out of the sight and reach of the nimble thieves and packed a cooler with evening drinks. The bridge over the Olifants River, a mere 7km away, offers the perfect sundowner spot.
As with many of the large bridges, the park now allows guests to alight from their vehicles between determined areas. We identified birds and watched crocs glide past below us with a gin to hand. A frenzied mob of flapping wings signalled time to return to the camp. The bats had left their dark lair under the bridge as night fell.
On the second night, we packed up slightly earlier to allow us to spend time with a pack of hyenas and their brand new pups on the drive home.
When we got home, Petunia was decorating the huts with paraffin lanterns. Balule must be the perfect camp to come home to. - Saturday Star