The expansive wilderness of the Kruger Park holds an elevated place in the hearts of all who have been there. Being able to fly in to the reserve provides a spectacular perspective of an unspoilt land before man. Text: Graeme Wuth
Pafuri Camp lies in the northern most corner of the Kruger Park, in the lush floodplain between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers. Beyond the Limpopo to the north, the wilderness stretches into Zimbabwe as the Sengwe corridor and to the east is the Mozambican section of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
Being in the northern-most section of the park, where there are far fewer people, and no fences between South Africa and the neighbouring countries, makes Pafuri one of South Africa’s last true wilderness areas. Adding to specialness of the place, the rich floodplain is the most bio-diverse part of the park – three quarters of Kruger’s biodiversity occurs within the Pafuri region. The flora ranges from Lebombo ironwoods stoically rooted to the rocky koppies and gorges, to ethereal golden fever tree forests, to grass plains with lala palms reaching skyward. Magnificent, ancient baobabs watch over the land, their gnarled, globular bark testament to their enduring lives – some older than 1,000 years.
The perennial Luvuvhu, broad Limpopo and the pans scattered across the floodplain are a haven for animals. Over 450 bird species have been identified in Pafuri, and birders come from around the world to see the teddy-bear like Pel’s fishing owl, the brilliantly coloured yet elusive Racket-tailed Roller, and the tiny, nimble Bohm’s spinetail.
In the dry season, herds of elephant come to find food and water. Huge buffalo herds crash about in the mopani woodland while the grumpy ‘dagga boys’ wallow in the pans.
Until 2013, the Pafuri Camp was run by Wilderness Safaris and Wilderness Air used to provide charter flights. In 2013, floods washed away part of the camp and covered much of the Luvuvhu floodplain, including the runway, in sediment. Wilderness decided to pull out of Pafuri, and the camp was closed until 2015, when it was taken over by ReturnAfrica. They cleared the runway and re-opened it at the beginning of this year. Private pilots are now allowed to fly in if they are staying at the camp.
The seven hour drive to Pafuri from Gauteng is one of the reasons the area has remained largely untouched, but the 300 nm by air means you can get there in about two hours. Practicality alone makes flying the best way to get to the camp. But how many pilots fly for practical reasons? And we all know the maxim: ‘If there is time to spare, go by air.’
My wife, Romy, regularly works in the Pafuri area as an environmental consultant, and I jump at any opportunity to join her in the field – Pafuri is where I find peace and is probably my favourite place on the planet. We managed to coordinate our work schedules and so flew there from Hoedspruit in SA Flyer’s Saratoga, OFH.
FLYING INLowveld Info cleared us for 3,500 ft. We flew north, skirting the western boundary of the Kruger Park. You can still spot plenty of game at just under 2,000 ft AGL, so with the autopilot looking after altitude and heading, we peered down outside to see what we could find, occasionally glancing in the cockpit to confirm everything was behaving as it should as.
It was early March and the drought was disturbingly evident from above. The end of the rainy season was nearing and the rivers should have been swollen as they meandered north-east towards the Indian Ocean; instead almost all were sandy river beds. The trees were green, but the grass was thin. Vultures drifted by, completing the scene.
We passed the 3 km, tarred Punda Maria runway about 5 nm to our east, and the eastern tail of the Soutpansberg appeared on the nose. The Mutale and Luvuvhu rivers, which flow into Pafuri, originate in the Soutpansberg and have cut magnificent gorges, which we were now flying over. Thankfully, these northern rivers still had a fair amount of water in them.
As would be expected when flying in to the Kruger Park, you have to arrange prior approval. In Pafuri’s case your arrival is co-ordinated with Pafuri Camp as well as The Outpost, which keeps a record of all flights to and from the landing strip, and there is a specific routing. There are a number of waypoints to follow, but basically you route via the Pafuri gate at 3,500 ft and head east, keeping the ‘Pafuri Main’ tar road on your right. No circuits are allowed, and only after a specific waypoint are you allowed to descend. The approach is a descending right turn onto final for Runway 17. The departure and landing procedures are aimed at minimizing the disturbance to those on the ground. As a result the preferred landing is downhill and takeoff is uphill. Obviously allowances are made for strong tailwinds.
We passed overhead the Pafuri gate and followed the road. It’s just under 10 nm from the gate to the strip, and I knew there is little time once you can start the descent before you would be on final approach, so soon I started slowing OFH down, to avoid rapidly cooling the turbo and cylinder heads, and to get setup for the landing.
We called ready for descent, and started our right hand turn. The wide, 1,000 m dirt strip lined up with the nose as we nailed a 75 KIAS Vref over the slight ridge to the north of the strip. Waiting for us half way down the strip on the left hand side was a Land Cruiser to clear any wandering game off the strip prior to your arrival. There is a cleared area to the side of the threshold of Runway 35 where you can leave your plane – but there is no hangar, shelter or tie down loops. You might want to put a whole lot of thorn bushes around the tyres to deter curious hyenas, but I think if a hyena or honey badger wants to nibble your tyres, it’s going to. Our protecting the tyres with thorns brought on a chuckle from Isiah, our guide. Clearing away the thorns when you want to leave is also quite a mission, as thorns that have broken off from the branches become a real puncture hazard.
I have been to Pafuri a number of times, but every time I walk onto the central deck for the first time I have to pause to take in the scene. You have an uninterrupted view up and down the river. Nyala peacefully browse on the river banks, bee-eaters swoop and roll above the water, and with a little luck an elephant meanders down the river, sampling the trees along the way and splashing water on its back.
Down to your right is a welcoming pool with neatly laid out loungers under big umbrellas, and a little further on is a real African-style bar. Staff are on hand with warm smiles to offer you a drink and take your bags.
THE CAMPThe camp is built on raised wooden decks along the Luvuvhu River, under enormous leafy Jackalberry, Nyalaberry and Mahogany trees. There are 19 luxury safari tents, each with their own private view of the river. These are linked by boardwalks which extend for over a kilometre from one end of the camp to the other.Each tent sits under a thatched roof, so it stays relatively cool, even in the heat of the day. There is a small veranda with from which to watch the animals. The interior is typical of a luxury safari tent: subtle yet distinctly African decorations and furniture, with a king-sized bed covered in big puffy pillows and white linen, over which a mosquito net is draped. Towards the back of the tent behind a separation is the bathroom, with basins for two and an indoor and outdoor shower.
Two activities per day are included in your stay, these are either a walk or drive. Although it can be sweltering, I hugely encourage doing at least one or two walks. Pafuri, although it obviously has the big five, is about so much more than hunting for the cats, and it is difficult to appreciate all the area has to offer unless you walk.
After waking with the vibrant, almost deafening, morning chorus, led by the white-browed robin-chat, to hot coffee and a quick snack, you head out on the Land Cruiser. Guides pack more coffee and rusks for a stop out in the bush. A trip through the fever tree forests, full of birds flitting from tree to tree is magical, and you emerge to find yourself at ‘Crook’s Corner’, the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers. Here you can get out and walk in the vast Limpopo riverbed, look out into Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and have a cup of coffee while watching hippo eyeing you out and grunting.
When you return from your morning outing, there is a delicious and hearty brunch, after which you can put your feet up, have a snooze or watch the endless trail of game coming and going from the river. In the afternoons, you are treated to a high tea, after which you head out on another drive to beautiful sundowner spots for an idyllic close to the day. Particularly breath-taking for sunsets is Lanner Gorge. Here you sit high up over-looking the Luvuvhu River while the sun catches the same golden cliffs early settlers in the area gazed upon.
Hurricane lamps lining the paths and boardwalk welcome you back to camp, a drink or two from the bar, and a delicious dinner. We were lucky enough to have a Pel’s fishing owl return each night to what was clearly its lucky fishing post – a dead branch sticking out of a small island in the river, right in front of camp.
Three beautiful African sunrises and sunsets quickly go by and long before you are ready to say good bye, it’s time to leave. The remote, abundant wilderness that is Pafuri holds inexhaustible experiences and places of discovery. Even guides who have worked all over Africa hold it as one of, if not their favourite, places in the world.
GETTING THEREFlying in requires prior notice and special procedures. Contact reservations on firstname.lastname@example.org for detailed arrival and departure procedures and clearances. Flight procedures are also available on EasyPlan.