Alexander Matthews experiences the Kruger as only a lucky few get to doSunday Times28 Feb 2016
PAFURI is my favourite part of Kruger. A roughly 240km² triangle wedged up against Zimbabwe and Mozambique, it forms a mere 1% of the park and yet features a whopping 75% of its biodiversity. It bristles with birdlife. Fever-tree forests fan out across tsessebe- and eland-studded floodplains; cliffs crumble majestically from the sides of Lanner Gorge. Sure, this is Kruger, but it’s Kruger as you’ve never seen it before.
And indeed many never will. Although day-trippers crossing the Luvuvhu River from the south are permitted to drive the semi-circular tar road to Pafuri Gate, all they’ll glimpse is a distant ridge or two, the odd baobab and thickets of white seringa. But to unlock the secrets of this hallowed place, you have to stay here.
One option is The Outpost, a string of modernist rooms strung out along a hilltop, with floor-to-ceiling views.
Last year, Return Africa opened Pafuri Camp, a set of luxury tents on the edge of the Luvuvhu. It also transformed the nearby former ranger’s house into a self-catering villa,: Baobab Hill House.
The mercury was flirting with 40 the afternoon we arrived. As soon as we’d downed our welcome drinks, we headed for the plunge pool. Then, refreshed, we explored the house, which is spacious enough to pack in a large family or (as we did) a bunch of friends. Some of the old Parks Board-issue, mid-century fittings remain, artfully combined with laidback safari touches.
When the sun had started to slink downwards, we trooped through the gate in the fence and clambered up the koppie. We drank beers under the towering baobab that gives the house its name. Behind us, the Luvuvhu wended languorously past, while in the west, rays tinged the smoky sky orange before falling to ashen veld. It was time to start the braai.
The next morning, I sat with a cup of coffee on the verandah. With no cellphone signal or wifi, Baobab Hill is truly an escape from the urban grind — it’s hard to think of a more perfect place to do absolutely nothing. I was tempted to spend the rest of the day reading to a soundtrack of buzzing cicadas and the chortling of emerald-spotted wood doves playing from the trees. But our guides Sarah Nurse and Elizabeth Bruce had arrived (with their rifles) to take us on a walk. I knew it would be a waste not to go exploring.
We trailed between soaring ana trees, keeping parallel to the river. We sat on a clutch of rocks to observe a distant elephant. Our progress up through Hutwini Gorge was slow but the shade of shaggy jackalberries provided a little respite from the heat. Back in the blazing sun, Sarah pointed out a delicate purple flower, a kind of wild foxglove — Ceratotheca saxicola to be exact. It’s so rare it’s on SANBI’s Red List.
Finally we reached the crest of the hill. With binoculars, we could just make out the stone ruins of Thulamela, an Iron Age kingdom.
On our way back to the house, in a dusty clearing known as Deku, we saw evidence of more recent human habitation. Sarah pointed at it: a heavy potjie lid, left when the Makuleke were forcibly removed from here in 1969 to allow for the expansion of the Kruger. After a successful land claim in the late 1990s, the land between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo was returned to the community, who decided to keep it as a conservation area managed by Sanparks. As a concessionaire, Return Africa contributes to the Makulekes’ wellbeing through levies and employment.
That evening, we went to the fever-tree forest for sundowners. Soft light feathered through the fine leaves as we sipped G&Ts, watching Vervets bounce across branches. Another elephant (we seemed to attract them) lumbered towards us between the green-yellow trunks, then lost interest.
We ate supper at the long dining table in the roomy lounge, forced inside by the wind raging against the shutters. As thunder crackled over us, scattered drops became a hammering downpour.
Next morning, a chainsaw’s whine cut the silence. I climbed the koppie with a mug of coffee. Down below, a massive fever tree had crashed over, blocking the road; workers were slicing it up as rain sifted down from the bruised sky.
For a moment I wondered if the fallen tree might force us into staying longer. Sadly, it didn’t. — Matthews was a guest of Return Africa