As one moves west along the Luvuvhu River, the wilderness appears untouched by human hands. And yet, this region was once a thriving outpost of the Great Zimbabwe Culture. The Royal Citadel of Thulamela rose on a rugged hilltop overlooking the Luvuvhu River in the thirteenth century. This highly sophisticated community stood and traded for around five centuries. The inhabitants of Thulamela, or “the place of birth” in VhaVenda, exchanged their finely wrought gold jewellery and iron tools for luxuries from the far East. The discovery of this ancient kingdom is considered one of the most important events in South African archaeology, and the very wildness of its contemporary surroundings is partially to thank for that. Thulamela, unlike so many other African archaeological sites, was spared the grasping hands of grave robbers. Excavation of this pristine site yielded West African gongs, Ming dynasty porcelain from China, beads from India, and glass from Venice. Walk in the shadow of the Hutwini mountain, gazing out over the Luvuvhu River – but tread lightly, for deep history lies beneath your feet.
Straddling the tropical and subtropical bird ranges, the Makuleke Contract Park in the north of the Kruger is a world-renowned birding destination. More than 450 bird species call this region home. The elusive Pels Fishing Owl can be found looking out over the Luvuvhu River from the boughs of giant Nyala Berries, always keeping an eye open for their great rivals, the Verreaux’s Eagle Owls. When the sun sets and the Pytilias and Bushshrikes have returned to their nests, Three-banded Coursers emerge from under the scattered bushes of the arid eastern thornveld. Moving higher up onto the rocky region above Lanner Gorge, Racket-tailed Rollers twirl through the air. The seasonal pans of the western region are breeding grounds for African Openbill Storks. These gorgeous pans also provide sustenance for species like Great White Pelicans, African Pygmy-Geese and kingfishers of every description. The one-of-a-kind birding opportunities have attracted bird-loving expert game rangers who will share their knowledge and enthusiasm while guiding you through this bountiful land.
On days where the weather is fine, you might notice that your guide is not returning to the camp immediately after the drive. There is a truly special surprise waiting for you. Our incredible team lay tables out in the bush, under the shade of giant Nyala Berries, serving a full breakfast in the wilderness. This is an experience you won’t forget.
The wedge of land overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers is known as Crook’s Corner. With its scenic views and abundant wild- and bird life, this is a spot to explore on foot or on an open safari vehicle with one of our knowledgeable guides. But Crook’s Corner is also steeped in geographic and historical significance. At Crook’s Corner, three countries – South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – meet. In the early 20th century, Crook’s Corner became a refuge for outlaws and fugitives who, at a moment’s notice, were able to flee across an international border to escape the law. These “crooks” included ivory poachers, blackbirders (illegal labour recruiters), gun runners and various other shady characters, who chose the free life of buccaneers. Today, Crook’s Corner is fugitive-free, but in other ways, it remains as wild as it was 100 years ago. Hippos still shelter in the pool at the confluence. There are thankfully no longer blackbirders in the area, but there are Pels Fishing Owls. There are no crooks, but there are still plenty of crocs. Crook’s Corner is the perfect place for an evening sundowner or morning coffee.
Pafuri is an unrivalled walking destination. RETURNAfrica offers a unique immersive experience, perfect for the adventurous guest who wants to explore pristine territory on foot. Our experienced guides will provide expertise and safety as you explore the diverse habitats and landscapes of the Pafuri region in the north of the Kruger National Park. This is an opportunity to connect intimately with the land and environment, and to experience exhilarating encounters with the game of the area, including the Big Five.
Watching herds of eland and zebras moving silently through the dappled green light of the fever tree forest, it’s easy to believe in magic. The bird-call-filled tranquillity, cathedral-like ambience and serene colour palette have made the forest the perfect backdrop for many wedding ceremonies and glowing sundowners. With their powdery pale yellow-green trunks and limbs, fever trees are hauntingly beautiful. Why not get adventurous and enjoy an out of this world yoga session beneath the canopy. The Makuleke believe that the fever trees bring good fortune – and the RETURN Africa Concession is home to the largest stand of fever trees in South Africa. Come and top up your reserves of luck in this spiritual space.
A scene of extraordinary natural splendour awaits those who visit Lanner Gorge. In the distance, clusters of mighty baobabs grow, perhaps marking long-forgotten elephant paths. 150 meters below, the Luvuvhu River flows over ancient mud- and sandstones, imperceptibly carving its way ever deeper into the earth. Cape clawless otters perch on half-submerged boulders, while hippos laze in the larger pools. Above, lanner falcons and Verreaux’s eagles perform airborne dances with their life partners. What may be less obvious than the grandeur of the view is that the deeper into the gorge you look, the further you gaze back in time. The cliffs tell the story of the past 250 million years. This romantic place connects serenity to wilderness, beauty to ruggedness, and the present to the past.
The pristine wilderness of the Makuleke Contract Park in the north of the Kruger belies its rich human history. This is the Makuleke community’s ancestral homeland, which they successfully reclaimed after their forced removal in the 1960s under the apartheid regime. Today, one can still visit the remains of various important sites of the Makuleke’s past. A large baobab marks the Makuleke Royal Village, named “Deku” after a legendarily beautiful woman. Here important decisions and traditional court proceedings took place under the boughs of the great baobab. Crumbling foundations dating back to the 1800s remind us of where the Swiss Mission Church once stood. Beneath the dense, dark foliage of a Natal Mahogany overlooking the Luvuvhu river lies the grave of the first chief and founder of the Makuleke land, Mphele. Places like Crook’s Corner and the Bvekenya Memorial recall the time of ivory poachers, blackbirders (illegal labour recruiters), gun runners and various other shady characters, who chose the free life of buccaneers. The human history of this area stretches back even further: the ancient ruins of Thulamela and Hutwini, dating to the eleventh century, remind us that this area was once a thriving part of the Great Zimbabwe Civilisation. Ancient stone tools, dating back to the prehistoric period, have also been found on the concession.
Each evening, beautifully prepared three-course meals are served under the stars on our expansive wooden decks, looking out over the Luvuvhu river. Our boma dinners, with a traditional South African braai are also spectacular. On these evenings, our wonderful team will share a bit of the history of the land and its people by the fire and – if you’re very lucky – they might decide to regale you with song and dance. But be careful – they might rope you in too!
An experience with RETURNAfrica is about connecting deeply to the environment. The meditative tranquility offered by spending a day in camp is a perfect way to do this. Pafuri Camp’s stunning location – stretching along the ever-flowing Luvuvhu river – means that you will see all manner of wildlife and birds just by lounging on your large, private deck. The camp is raised on wooden walkways, under which nyalas and bushbuck shelter from the midday heat. In the afternoons of the dry months, breeding herds of elephant emerge from the riverine forests to drink and play in the Luvuvhu. Each of our stunning tents offer a unique view along the river. If you’d like to cool down, the bush bar, large swimming pool and ample shaded relaxation space mean that you are guaranteed to find a comfortable spot to kick back, rest, and connect.
No two drives will be the same as you are guided through the breath-taking scenery in our open safari vehicles. The diverse habitat ranges and dramatic seasonal changes mean that even repeat visitors will not have the same experience twice. After the heavy summer rains, the seasonal pans of the lush Limpopo flood plain fill, and team with bird and animal life. Baobab trees pepper the landscape, and giant Nyala Berry trees cast their deep shade over the banks of the perennial Luvuvhu river. Beyond the dappled stillness of the Fever Tree Forest, herds of buffalo and elephant bathe in the cool waters of Reedbuck Vlei. To the West, one travels up onto the sandy and rocky terrain above the magnificent Lanner Gorge, where the Luvuvhu carves a dramatic path through awe-inspiring buttresses of basalt and sandstone. Mangala, where Lanner Gorge opens into the floodplain and herds of eland roam, is another highlight. On morning drives, you’ll wrap your hands around a warm cup of coffee in the early light. If you join us for an afternoon and night drive, you’ll be there to watch the sun set on one of our magnificent destinations, sipping on sundowners.
At Pafuri Tented Camp, we specialise in authentic, warm and intimate weddings. Hosting up to 78 guests at the luxurious eco-friendly camp, the ever-changing scenery and abundance of activities on offer make for an outstanding experience. The natural surroundings shine through in everything we do, from the ceremony to the wedding photographs, indigenous bouquet, catering (by skilled chefs using the finest local produce), and a heart-warming reception party with those you hold dearest.
Typically, the ceremony takes place nestled under the staggering and tranquil Fever Tree Forest, followed by reception festivities at the camp’s idyllic riverfront deck, surrounded by the calls of Woodland Kingfishers. In harmony with Pafuri’s splendour, the focus is always on stylish simplicity, serenity, and sustainability. Take advantage of the endless views and the sensational natural sunlight for your wedding photographs which can be taken in various locations around the reserve. As the sun sets, it’s time to dine and dance under the Southern Hemisphere stars, perhaps sneaking away for one last drink by the fire before the wedding winds down.