Pull out a map and you’ll see that the Pafuri region in northern Kruger National Park is further from Cape Town than Windhoek, Gaborone or Maputo. More than 2 000km away, this triangle of land between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers certainly feels like another country.
There is nothing else like it in SA. It’s easily the most scenic and diverse part of Kruger. More species of animals – particularly birds – can be found in Pafuri than elsewhere in the famous reserve. You’ll have to continue another 1 000km north to the famous Mana Pools on the Zambezi River to find something similar.
The largest elephant herds in the land wander through fever tree forests, an achingly beautiful scene epitomising this continent’s wild spirit. Baobabs millennia old stand atop deep sandstone gorges cut through by the Luvuvhu’s clear waters.
Large herds of buffalo, impala and zebra graze the extensive floodplains, while nyala and kudu browse from mahogany or acacia trees. It’s the leopard, however, which seems to represents Pafuri best; the most beautiful African animal ruling over a quintessential African wilderness. Fittingly, these cats are regularly spotted, lounging on the branches of enormous sycamore figs.
For a thousand years up until 1300AD, ancestors of the modern Shona and Venda people moved through the area. They established the first formal settlements in southern Africa. At places like Thulamela archaeologists have found gold, ivory, glass beads from India and pottery from China, evidence of the extensive trade routes which once existed. (Be sure to visit the ruins while in Pafuri – the guided tour is fascinating.)
Then in the 1800s, colonial hunters, missionaries and slave-traders moved in, causing their usual havoc. Finally the wide-eyed naturalists arrived, stumbling from the monotonous mopane woodland into a wilderness of unexpected splendour, marvelling at the diversity of life created by the confluence of two major rivers.
Today, the slave traders and missionaries are gone, but hunters still operate across the Limpopo in Zimbabwe. Fortunately, the conservationists run the show now.
Visitors to Kruger can drive the tar road from Pafuri gate and stay at Kruger’s Punda Maria camp, an hour’s drive south. But if you want to stay overnight and explore properly, then Wilderness Safaris’ exclusive Pafuri Camp is your ticket to a wild heaven. This unfenced luxury camp is on the northern banks of the Luvuvhu. Twenty safari tents lie underneath the deep shade of jackalberry trees.
Simply being at Pafuri Camp is a wildlife experience of note. During the day elephants, nyala, impala and kudu pass underneath the raised boardwalks. At night, lions and leopards wander through camp. Each tent has an open view of the river, where animals come to drink. In the riverine trees, you’ll have a decent chance of spotting the enigmatic Pel’s fishing owl. Pafuri is home to the country’s highest density of these great orange phantoms, which swoop low over the river at night, plucking barbel and bream from the water.
You also have a chance to go walking with an armed guide; the floodplains and forests make for excellent sauntering. Our guide was Brian Kelly, a trained archaeologist who fell in love with Pafuri and never went back to digging up old bones.
As you walk, Brian points out birds left, right and centre, identifying them as they whizz past, or even just from their calls. On one of our walks we saw a leopard staring down at us from a nearby tree, only to bump into a pride of lions a few minutes later.
But things weren’t always so wild and wondrous. The region has a complex and anguished recent history. Today, the 24 000-hectare area – about 35km from west to east – is managed by the Kruger National Park, but the land itself is owned by the Makuleke tribe, a Shangaan-speaking people who settled in the region in the 1820s. In 1969 the apartheid government kicked out the Makuleke. In 1996 they were given the land back.
As Wilderness Safaris’ head guide Giyani “Enos” Mngomezulu explained, the community had a variety of options when their land was returned to them: they could either sell the mining rights to the sizeable coal deposits, farm the land… or conserve the area, building a future based on nature tourism.
The Makuleke decided on the last option; SA National Parks would continue managing the land for conservation as part of Kruger, while Wilderness Safaris was granted a 45-year lease to operate a private camp.
Ten percent of the annual revenue of the camp is paid to the community of about 15 000 Makuleke people who live in three villages on the western border of the park, while the camp provides about 50 jobs directly and indirectly.
The share of revenue is used to build clinics and schools. Some children are awarded education bursaries, while others from the villages are hosted every year at the luxury camp.
“This is home for me,” Enos said. “Sure, mining would bring in a lot of money overnight but it would destroy this fragile place. We need to think long-term – just like in the early 1900s when Kruger National Park was kept away from hunters, miners and farmers. And look how valuable it is today.
“Already so much of our country has been taken over by man.”
Pafuri is proof that profit isn’t the only measure of success, and the Makuleke deserve credit and support for their conservation of this wild jewel. - Cape Times
l Ramsay is a photojournalist travelling for a year to SA’s most special nature reserves, including all the national parks. For more, see www.yearinthewild.com For Pafuri, see www.pafuri.com