The last light of the day feathers through the fine leaves of the fever trees all around us. A few hundred metres away, a solitary elephant bull is pretending to ignore us. Our field guide, Sarah Nurse, points at an inky blotch – a bat hawk swooping between branches. I sip on my gin and tonic and sigh contentedly. I feel like I’ve come home.
This is Pafuri – my absolute favourite part of the Kruger National Park. Wedged between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers, the roughly 240 square kilometre triangle is a mere 1% of the park – yet features a whopping 75% of its biodiversity.
Most people will never get to see it in all its glory. While there’s a public tar road connecting Pafuri Gate, Kruger’s northernmost entrance, with the bridge crossing the Luvuvhu, the region’s network of gravel roads is only accessible to its three concessionaires. Wend along these tracks and you’ll discover magic: spectral fever tree forests, antelope-studded plains, and pans bristling with birdlife.
Don’t bother coming here if you’re only interested in the Big Five: although elephants and buffalo are prolific, there are no guarantees of seeing lions or leopards. Pafuri amply rewards those with a bit of patience, however: those with the desire to experience the bush as a living, vibrant ecosystem – not as a checklist. It’s paradise for twitchers: there are around 350 bird species, including the elusive Pel’s fishing owl. The trees here are spectacular too: towering nyalaberries, gracefully arcing ana trees, shaggy mangosteens and ancient baobabs – including one that’s between 1200 and 1400 years old and has a 27m circumference.
One of Pafuri’s three concessionaires is Return Africa which opened Pafuri Camp overlooking the Luvuvhu in 2015. 19 luxury en-suite tents (which include seven family ones that sleep four) are connected by a boardwalk under vast jackalberry trees from which you can watch nyalas grazing nonchalantly.
Pafuri Camp offers the classic safari experience. A day typically involves waking up at the crack of dawn, enjoying coffee and a rusk before heading out on a game drive. Back at the lodge after a cooked breakfast (the choose-your-own-filling omlettes are a must), it’s up to you as to whether you lounge on your tent’s own private deck with a book, or head to the lodge’s roomy pool to cool off. After lunch, as the mercury dips, it’s time for a sunset drive – perhaps to those fever trees, or to one of the pans for a drink before dinner.
The best way of experiencing Pafuri is on foot. While in a vehicle, you’re cordoned off, kept at a distance. On foot, the sights, sounds, smells are closer; the leisurely pace enables you to explore, inquire, investigate – using your senses more powerfully. A knowledgeable guide like Nurse is a veritable bush encyclopaedia on legs: she’ll show you all sorts of treasures one would otherwise easily miss – such as the delicate purple Ceratotheca saxicola, a tiny wild foxglove that is so rare that it’s earned a place on SANBI’s Red List of South African Plants. This is a scent safari as much as anything else – you’ll sniff lavender fever berry leaves, inhale the clean scent of wild basil, and the herby freshness of dwarf sage.
Like all of Return Africa’s other guides, Nurse’s role is as much to protect you as it is to teach you about the bush. On one walk, the yellow-billed oxpecker’s call put her on high alert: sure enough, concealed by the long grass, was a herd of buffalo – the birds’ ride. I was grateful that she was carrying a rifle.
If you know where to look, you’ll also find evidence of the region’s rich human history. From the crest of the hill, looking over the Luvuvhu, Nurse showed us the distant stone ruins of Thulamela, site of an ancient Iron Age kingdom. Nearby, in a dusty clearing known as Deku, was something much more recent: the iron lid of a pot, abandoned when the Makuleke people were forcibly removed from here in the 1960s to allow for the expansion of the National Park.
Following a successful land claim in the late 1990s, ownership of the land between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo was returned to the community, which has allowed SANParks to keep on managing it as a conservation area. As a concessionaire, Return Africa contributes to the Makulekes’ wellbeing through levies and employment.
While guided walks can be arranged for those staying at Pafuri Camp, it’s best to go the whole hog and stay for at least three nights at one of Return Africa’s two trails camps, which run during autumn, winter and spring (summer is simply too hot). Although trails camp is a more rustic affair than the homely luxury of the lodge, you still feel incredibly pampered. There are hot, wet towels to refresh you every time you return from walking; hearty home-style fare is cooked over the coals and served in the mess tent; and each tent has an en-suite loo (showers are communal).
With leopards sometimes prowling through camp at night, it’s hard to imagine getting any closer to the wilderness than this – but on Return Africa’s seven-night trail you do! After three nights in tents, you’ll spend three sleeping under the stars, while watch is kept by a blazing fire. A single night on the trail is also spent at Baobab Hill Bush House. This, which was once the Pafuri section ranger’s house, has been beautifully transformed into a private villa. With four bedrooms, a plunge pool and expansive outdoor relaxation areas, the house is ideal for families wanting an exclusive bush getaway with all the safari lodge perks such as walks and game drives. A housekeeper and cook at your disposal means you’re truly able to relax into the slow languorous rhythm of your surroundings.
Although most guests understandably come to Pafuri to experience the rich diversity of its wildlife, its epic landscapes are a major drawcard too. The most special walk I’ve done in the area was along the Luvuvhu river. We started at the enormous nyalaberry at Mangala – where Makuleke shepherds once used to congregate to exchange news – and slowly walked upstream. We were barefoot: although this is crocodile and hippo territory (and we spotted both as we progressed), sticking to the shallows and sandbanks ensured we didn’t risk being gobbled. The distant hillsides narrowed. Rock figs clung tenaciously to the great crumbling cliffs now towering on either side of us; baboons watched our progress as a fish eagle drifted lazily overhead. We had reached Lanner Gorge. After lunch next to a series of rapids, I climbed over smooth rocks and carefully climb into the water, sitting down in a shallow bowl-shaped groove, water gushing around me. It was hard to believe I was getting soaked in the Kruger Park – and well worth the cool-down before our steep ascent to the top of the gorge.
Pafuri is a roughly seven-hour drive from Johannesburg (if you’re feeling flush, charter flights to its landing strip can also be arranged – starting at R13,340 return, per person). Whichever way you get there, it’s well worth the trip. It might be the Kruger National Park – but it’s Kruger as you’ve never seen it before. This one’s definitely for the bucket list.
For more info: www.returnafrica.com