Crossing the Limpopo River into Zimbabwe on a transfrontier trail, wild meets some of Kruger’s neighbours at the Shangaan Cultural Festival. the annual event symbolises the hope for crossborder tourism in this remote park of the park. By Joel Roerig
It is early in the morning as we traverse the magical fever tree forest in the Makuleke Concession, leaving ReturnAfrica’s temporary tented camp on the Luvuvhu River in Kruger National Park behind us. We stop briefly for some feisty elephants and to admire a family of languid nyalas, before disembarking at a magnificent baobab for our rendezvous with Chief Makuleke and Eric Tivani, chairperson of the Makuleke Communal Property Association.
Robin-chats and scrub-robins are in full voice and from far across the river in Zimababwe a gorgeous Bush-Shrike chimes in on the dawn chorus. The walk we are about to embark on is a special one that will take us in the footsteps of the chief’s ancestors.
“Before we were forcibly removed from this area, the Makuleke people often met with the Sengwe people from the other side of the river,” Eric explains to us. “We all have family members who married there.”
We had met the chief and Eric the evening before at the burial site of their Makuleke ancestors, in a cathedral of spectacular trees. They spoke candidly about their fate during the apartheid years when they lost their land. in 1996, in a landmark deal, it was given back to the clan. They have since partnered with a handful of private operators, such as ReturnAfrica, to bring tourists into this beautiful part of northern Kruger.
“We are one people,” says the chief, confirming his delight about his excursion across the Limpopo into Zimbabwe. “One day I want to bring young Makuleke across the border as well, so they also appreciate the ties.” For now though, it’s up to the chief to represent them.
We start walking through dense stands of feverberry crotons and other assorted riverine shrub, our guide alerting us to fresh hippo dung. Along with the chief and Eric, our group consists of policymakers from the Peace Parks Foundation, the government, a few journalists and some other invitees of Piet Theron, the energetic international co-ordinator for the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area. He has made his way across the river many times and hopes it won’t be long before trails such as this one are common.
Chief Sengwe moved some of his own people to make a wildlife corridor for the transfrontier area a reality.
It is a special feeling traversing the wide expanses of soft sand that is the Limpopo riverbed in September. There is symbolism in every footstep. Not only are we walking across one of Africa’s most iconic rivers, we are crossing a boundary that is literal, political, and philosophical. Yet it doesn’t exist. Elephant dung, impala middens and a troop of noisy baboons confirm this. They don’t see lines on a map. Here, in this riverbed, we are reminded of the fact that everything is interconnected. The dream of the transfrontier area is to open up this interconnected world to tourists as well.
After some tricky navigating through the Zimbabwean side on the floodplain, we are entertained by a male Marico sunbird while we wait for our ride. A drive of about 40 minutes takes us to the village of Samu, where the Shangaan cultural festival begins while friendly Zimbabwean immigration officers process our passports. Chief Makuleke is welcomed by his counterpart, Chief Sengwe, who famously moved some of his own people to make a wildlife corridor for the transfrontier area a reality.
There is dancing and singing in the midday heat. The local youth have been practising for weeks, says Trevor Makondo, a teacher at the Samu High School, who is the master of ceremonies during the festival. “We are one people,” he confirms, adding he is happy with Chief Makuleke’s visit and appreciates the money raised by the Pafuri Cross Border Trail, which pays for the cultural festival. “We want to pass our cultural ties on to the next generation,” says Trevor.
Where does wildlife and nature fit into that culture? It’s all around the village, but sometimes its benefits can be hard to see.
“We believe in conservation and want to protect this area for future generations,” says Trevor. “People need to be educated. Tourists fly all the way from Europe to see a buffalo and take photos so we should protect them.” The Sengwe and Malapati areas, however, rely on meagre agriculture, with animals such as elephants regularly destroying crops and lions grabbing cattle, while roaming herds of the same buffalo that tourists want to see pose a danger for the locals.
Trevor says the community is in favour of the transfrontier area, which is meant to create a wildlife corridor from Kruger to Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. Village head Peter Ndlovu echoes Trevor’s thoughts, “We are trying to convince people to conserve, not to poach, but we have young guys without work snaring kudus and other animals. Even our own cattle end up in snares. This needs to stop.”
The festival celebrations continue for hours, each dance more elaborate than the next, with various members of our party joining in. With my head full of the sweat and the smiles and the spectacle, I talk to Piet about the prospect of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area as we make our way across the Limpopo back into South Africa.
“When Chief Sengwe got people to move out of the wildlife corridor, expectations were around tourism benefits,” he admits. “We did feasibility studies about building a low – water bridge for the tourists across the Limpopo. That got stuck in the planning phase, as there was no money for the project.”
When Piet realised it would take a while before real tourism could be directed towards Zimbabwe, he started the Pafuri Cross Border Trail in 2013 to show commitement to the endeavour. “It is essential to get tourists across. We need to show the value-add of a transfrontier park. The corridor in Zimbabwe has pans, hot springs, places along the Limpopo, so there is definite tourism potential.”
In November 2015, workshops were held to establish how communities living on the borders of the protected areas could benefit from conservation. “We have seen that when communities benefit from conservation projects, they support them, says Piet, adding that the increase in wildlife crime and poaching brings a greater urgency to the transfrontier plans. “The goal is now to develop projects that are of value to local communities. These may entail tourism and conservation, but also a range of other sectors such as agriculture, livestock and business development.”
This year he hopes to make things concrete and open transboundary self-drive 4X4 routes and wilderness walking trails to Zimbabwe, for starters. “In the Mozambican section, we are working on an adventure camp in the Madonse area. You will get picked up in Mopani camp in Kruger and spend four days walking, mountain biking and fishing to your heart’s content in a beautiful wild place.”