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“IT’S THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PART OF THE PARK – YOU WON’T WANT TO LEAVE.”

Limpopo locals kept uttering variations on this bold statement as we gradually made our way through the province en route to the Makuleke Contractual Park at the northernmost tip of the Kruger National Park.  Excitement was mounting as we wove our way through rural villages and the occasional sprawling town complete with outsized mall. Keen to get started on the wildlife watching, we opted to enter the Kruger at Punda Maria and finish off our northward trek within the park’s boundaries. I must admit that I was baffled. I mean sure, the north of the Kruger has a certain unconventional beauty about it, but I wouldn’t have classed it as the prettiest part of the park. Then we crossed the Luvuvhu River and suddenly it all made sense.

EXCEPTIONAL VIEWING

The monochrome landscape of straggly trees instantly gave way to a burst of life, with birds twittering in emerald trees, crocs inching lazily towards the water and buck finding a safe spot to sip from the river banks. We turned off towards Pafuri Camp and soon realized that we would happily be getting very well acquainted with the river.

I would say that I’m a seasoned safari-goer. I’ve camped in the Serengeti, sipped sundowners alongside an Etosha waterhole and stayed in basic cabins and – less frequently – luxury lodges in various South African parks. But I don’t think I’ve ever had such abundant wildlife watching from my accommodation as we experienced at Pafuri Camp.

RETURN AFRICA Game-viewing

The upmarket tents – 19 of them in total – all face onto the river, where a 24-7 wildlife documentary plays out as you sleep, shower, sip tea on the terrace or simply watch, camera in hand. Within minutes of checking in we’d witnessed baboons fighting in the undergrowth; buffalo lazing in the shallow water; nyalas, impalas and kudus venturing out for a midday drink; and, best of all, a couple of bull elephants approaching the river in that slow-motion manner that I always find so mesmerizing.

It was almost enough to make us pass on the afternoon game drive, but we ripped ourselves away and we’re glad we did. Cyril Baloyi perhaps doesn’t quite look the part of a seasoned guide, a pair of locally made sandals gracing his feet in place of the sturdy boots other safari guides are wearing. But footwear does not maketh the man and we quickly found that Cyril was one of the most knowledgeable – and personable – guides we’ve been lucky enough to ride with to date.

RETURN AFRICA Arriving-at-Pafuri

A HISTORY LESSON

As we stopped for the customary G&Ts, Cyril shared the story of the Makuleke Contract Park with us. For hundreds of years the Makuleke people had lived in the Pafuri Triangle – a section of land wedged between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers at the point where modern day Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa meet. In the early 20th century, the land was earmarked as conversation territory to be incorporated into the Greater Kruger Park. In 1969, after a couple of failed attempts, some 1 500 Makuleke were forcibly removed by the apartheid government to resettle 90km southwest.

But this sad story later took a turn for the better and in 1996 the Makuleke people submitted a land claim. Two years and much wrangling later, they successfully recovered their territory. Debates and discussion among the Makuleke took years, but eventually it was decided that, rather than resettling, they would allow the land to continue to be used for conservation. The community has granted concessions to select lodges, with the proviso that jobs should be filled by Makuleke people wherever possible. Proceeds from the lodges have paid for members of the community to attend university, catering school and in the case of Cyril, field guide training.

The training has paid off and we try to soak up some of his knowledge as we watch a bush baby leaping through the trees and witness the largest flying bird on the continent – the Kori Bustard – break into awkward flight. But perhaps the best part of having Cyril as our guide is how marvelous he was with the fourth person in our vehicle – our five-year-old son, Kai.

RETURN AFRICA Cyril-wishes-Kai-a-happy-5th-birthday-683x1024-1

TRAVEL WITH KIDS

Taking a pre-schooler on safari is not as easy as you might think. The first time we ever took him to a national park we thought he would be enraptured. We had not allowed for the blink-and-you-miss-it attention span or the fact that a small child can’t comprehend that seeing a black rhino in its natural habitat is a life-changing experience. We had thought that the added excitement of being in an open vehicle would hold his focus for a while, but the whole “keep your eyes peeled for animals” thing isn’t quite so exciting for kids as it is for adults and half an hour after leaving our lodge we were having the “are we going home now” conversation at all-too-regular intervals.

So Cyril’s focus on Kai was hugely welcome. He might well have regretted encouraging Kai to ask questions – he is a very inquisitive and talkative child – but Cyril fielded the good, the weird and the downright bizarre with a cheery grin and only momentary looks of pure bafflement.

 

Our second day at Pafuri actually fell on our son’s birthday and Cyril greeted us with his signature smile and a birthday greeting duct taped to his shirt. Kai was thrilled and such was his admiration for Cyril that he managed to maintain some focus even as we stopped to photograph the fever tree forest and countless otherworldly baobabs. The changes in landscape and vegetation in the Pafuri region are captivating for adults, but without a leopard swinging between branches, not quite so fascinating for little people.

POO SCHOOL IS IN

But there is one thing that is always fascinating to a pre-school child, and Cyril knew just what it was. We had stopped for morning coffee in the dry bed of the Limpopo River at Crooks Corner, the point where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet. We’d dunked our rusks until they were in danger of dropping soggy chunks into the coffee and were ready for a geography lesson when Kai started to get fidgety and bored. It was then that Cyril brought out the highlight of our son’s entire trip. It was time for poo school.

RETURN AFRICA Hanging-out-at-Crooks-Corner

The sandy river bed was littered with dung large and small and over the next ten minutes we learnt to tell the difference between black and white rhino poo, dissected a buffalo pat and literally delved into a pile of elephant dung. Kai was engrossed. And that was before Cyril finished with an act that cannot be beaten when entertaining a five-year-old boy, or at least my five-year-old boy. He popped an impala pellet into his mouth to prove to Kai – actually I’m not sure what he was trying to demonstrate now, but what I do know is that, several months on, if you ask Kai what he remembers about that trip, it is not the magnificent views over the river, not the lavish buffet set out for breakfast, not the huge herd of elephants that passed before our terrace one afternoon nor the lone bull that brushed up alongside our tent on the morning of Kai’s birthday. No, what he remembers is that Cyril ate a piece of poo. And we remember how this young guide from the northernmost corner of our country made a small kid’s day, and made his parents’ stay just that bit more relaxing.

Author – Lucy Corne
Images – Lucy Corne

PLAYING IN THE LIMPOPO RIVER