Melissa Baumann Siebert, a freelance journalist, travel writer and author, recently visited all of RETURNAfrica’s products in the Makuleke Concession: Pafuri Camp, Pafuri Walking Trails and Baobab Hill Bush House.
After having visited and the area several years earlier to interview the section Ranger at the time, Melissa was eager to return to what she found to be the most beautiful section of the Kruger National Park, to see the changes after the devastating flood of 2013 and experience Pafuri from a different perspective.
Pafuri, Kruger’s northernmost and arguably most beautiful section, has kept a hold on me since I first travelled there five years ago to interview Section Ranger Sandra Basson, one of Kruger’s few woman rangers, for Wild, the Sanparks magazine. Images from that indelible journey remain: lots of elephants, a gorgeous jade-eyed leopard, primal riverine forests, rugged sandstone cliffs, the lazy, snaking Luvuvhu River and lots of bouncing around in the open air in the back of the Sanparks’ bakkie, with Sandra and her team of Shangaan rangers. So when I recently had the chance to revisit Pafuri, courtesy of Return Africa – this time from a different perspective – I seized it with both hands.
As with any bush experience, walking will get you closer to nature than any other mode of transport. Once you walk through the bush, you may never want to ride again. The three-night/four-day Pafuri Trail Hike has been something I’ve wanted to do for ages, and gratefully got a taste of it last August.
We stayed just one night in Trails Camp, a seasonal unfenced camp (closed October-April), sleeping eight guests max, in a grove of giant mahogany and other trees near the Luvuvhu. We arrived just in time to join the other guests for a sundowner drive to Lanner Gorge, one of Pafuri’s essential sights. Trails guide Andrew Danckwerts, a cross between Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee, sauntered up to our car, delivered two cold mango juices and helped us transfer to the game vehicle. We were off.
We drove as close as we could through thick, fragrant bush (potato plant, honeysuckle, wild jasmine), till we reached the path to the top of the gorge. At the peak as the sun began to set, the rocks changing from rust to purple, we drank our icy g and t’s in wonder, as Andrew described the different countries, different borders, on the far horizon. From east to west: Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana. Luckily the other guests – two couples, friends, from Joburg – shared a reverence for our surroundings – ‘like-minded people’, as Andrew later described the camp’s clientele.
That night we sat around the fire and dined together at a long, wooden table under the stars, with the shrieks of baboon and hyena in the distance, and closer, the hoots of wood owls. Healthy, hearty food was cooked in the kitchen tent not far off, and served by a small staff. The feeling was intimate, as though we were dining with friends and family, and supremely relaxed. Basically, except for sleeping in our tents, living outdoors.
The next morning we were up at dawn; the paraffin lamps outside our two-person tents under the trees were still burning. Andrew drove us to the river for the start of our walk. On the way we passed a strange sight: a lone female ostrich walking alongside us, as though looking for company. No one in the park knew how she got there. We visited with her for a few minutes, then left her looking forlorn in the dust behind us.
At the river’s edge, before disembarking, Andrew scanned the banks for predators. Only a couple of crocs far off, down in the river. We set out through the dry grass and shrub, stopping periodically to listen, look, ingest another bit of Andrew’s extensive knowledge.
‘The bush is always full of surprises,’ he said, leaning on his rifle. ‘Elephant is the most dangerous of the Big Five for the trails guide – we manage the elephants, we don’t go into the breeding herds…
‘…You can hear a lion’s roar seven kilometres away…lion and leopard have suspended voice boxes, which shoots their sound really far…
‘…Baobabs are actually succulents and can regenerate their bark…’
Though the other guests had already seen, on foot, their fair share of elephant and other game, animals were scarce that morning, but there was always something to look at, to learn. For awhile over coffee and rusks, perched on an enormous dead tree felled by the 2013 floods, we watched the commotion a group of guinea fowl made in a Nyalaberry tree across the river, half expecting a predator to emerge; none did.
On the way back to the vehicle, Andrew gave us another lesson, this time over a large ball of elephant dung, unusually full of leaves.
‘It could have been an old elephant,” he said, ‘who has lost his last set of teeth – they get six sets, which work sort of like a conveyor belt. Or it could have been a snared elephant who’s lost part of his trunk…’
In the spirit of Pafuri and those who come there – more those who love just being in nature rather than toting around their species checklists – we stopped on the way back to camp for the smallest of creatures, about as far from the Big Five as you can get. Andrew hopped out of the vehicle and squatted near the ground, peering downwards.
‘Matabele ants,’ he said, watching the tiny black insects scurry in single file across the road in front of us. We waited for at least five minutes until they all had crossed, even the lone straggler at the end. ‘If you can’t respect an ant, you can’t respect an elephant.’
That afternoon, congenial staff transferred us to Baobab Hill Bush House, for another Pafuri experience. We were only two; the house, a former ranger’s home that has been tastefully renovated, with a comfortable colonial vibe, seemed palatial for only us. The lovely, friendly Mama Flora was on hand to cook for us if we needed her – but we decided to braai. We were spoiled watching night fall and thousands of stars emerge above, and as the chops sizzled on the fire, with all the comfy sofas in the boma we wished our friends were with us. And that it was a bit warmer to make use of the sizeable pool. Several baobabs – hence the house’s name – stood sentry around us, dark silhouettes. With the fence around the property we didn’t expect any large nocturnal visitors, but we could hear some elephant rumbles in the distance.
The next morning Andrew came in the game vehicle to fetch us again, swinging by the gorgeous Pafuri Camp (at time of writing–January 2016–now reopened) to fetch some other guests for a game drive/walk. Renovations of the camp – damaged in the 2013 floods – were still underway, so we couldn’t stay there, though the people joining us, on the renovation team, were lucky enough to be doing so.
We drove to the Fever Tree Forest, one of Pafuri’s most magical places — a seemingly endless grove of tall, graceful greeny-gold trees dating from the 1930s when a cyclone apparently came through and cleared the area for this species to inhabit. On the far side of the forest we could see the hulking shadows of a large elephant herd – a breeding herd, Andrew immediately recognised. We drove a bit further to give us more space to safely backtrack towards them – on foot.
Rifle slung over his shoulder, Andrew led us stealthily in the elephants’ wake. We never caught up with them that time, they were moving too fast. But as so often happens in life, the journey was the destination. A contemplative, largely silent trek in an incandescent forest, where one starts believing many wonders might appear from behind the trees. As Andrew reminded us before relinquishing pursuit: ‘I approach elephant the way I would a chief – slowly, and with great respect.’
By: Melissa Baumann Siebert
Images: Antone Crone & Jenny Fazekas