My time in Kruger National Park is coming to an end. I have now spent a month here, exploring the 2 million hectare reserve, and I’ve really only seen a small part of what it offers. It’s such a huge, diverse wilderness that it deserves to be explored slowly, again and again. It’s impossible to absorb and appreciate its plethora of wonders in one short trip. A month is way too short…perhaps a year is enough time?
I decided to end my trip with three days in Pafuri in the far north of Kruger. The most-northerly South African National Parks camp is Punda Maria, but if you look on a map, you’ll notice that the park continues to stretch northwards for another 65 kilometres, to meet Zimbabwe and Mozambique at the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers.
The Pafuri region and especially the land lying between these two rivers is the best kept secret in all of Kruger, for me at least. Both rivers have huge flood plains, which are covered in acacia albida and fever tree forests, under which plentiful wildlife wanders, including sizeable herds of buffalo, impala and zebra, while nyala and kudu browse in the thickets.
Lions, leopards and spotted hyenas are regularly seen, but it’s the bird life which makes Pafuri unique in the country. Because of the two rivers, the diverse topography and habitats, and Pafuri’s location at the northern-most point of South Africa, you will find birds which cannot be seen anywhere else in South Africa. The floodplains and the pans of Pafuri have international accreditation as RAMSAR sites, meaning their conservation is of critical importance in a global context.
Pafuri reminds me of Mana Pools World Heritage Site on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Both have a truly wild atmosphere to them, attracting the bushveld connoisseur, and both are located on floodplains that ooze a fairyland ambience. But I’d guess that the smaller Pafuri is perhaps even less well-known to the visitor than the famous Mana Pools. Day visitors to Kruger can drive through Pafuri, and enjoy the scenery, but the only way to stay overnight and explore it properly is to stay at Wilderness Safari’s Pafuri Camp.
This unfenced, 20-room luxury camp is spectacularly located on the northern banks of the Luvuvhu River, underneath the deep shade of nyala, jackalberry and mahogany trees, where elephants, impala, kudu, nyala and sometimes lion come to drink in front of the chalets. Simply being at Pafuri Camp is a wildlife experience of note. You don’t really need to move from the camp to see the animals and birds. You can sit on your couch at your chalet, or at the pool in the main area, and watch everything come to you. It’s intoxicating.
But it wasn’t always so. The Pafuri region has a complex – and at times – anguished history. Pafuri Camp’s head field guide Giyani “Enos” Mngomezulu told me a bit about it.
Today, the 24 000 hectare area – at its widest about 35km from west to east and about 18km from north to south – is part of the Kruger National Park, but the land itself is owned by the Makuleke, a Shangaan speaking people who settled in the region in the 1820s, but were moved out of the area in 1969 by the apartheid government who wanted the region to be incorporated into the national park. The Makuleke were resettled to the west of the park.
Up until that point, the Pafuri Game Reserve was managed separately to the adjacent Kruger. So although in 1969 its incredible natural assets were added to Kruger, the people lost their home. In 1994, the Makuleke submitted a land claim, and in 1996, they were given the land back, so that today Pafuri belongs not to South African National Parks, but to the Makuleke people.
As Enos told me, the community had a variety of options when their land was given back to them: they could either resettle in the area, or they could sell the mining rights to the coal deposits, or they could farm the land…or they could develop the region for nature tourism. The Makuleke decided on the last option; South African National Parks would continue managing the land for conservation as part of Kruger, while the private company Wilderness Safaris were granted a 45-year lease to operate a private camp.
Ten percent of the annual revenue of the camp is paid to the community of about 15 000 Makuleke people who live in three villages on the western border of the park, while the camp provides about 50 jobs directly and indirectly. The share of revenue is used to build clinics and schools, while the villages were electrified long before Eskom had planned to do so because of the availability of local funds. Some children are awarded education bursaries, while children from the local villages are hosted every year at the luxury camp, so that they can get to experience this superlatively beautiful wilderness.
This is one of the most remote and one of the poorest areas of the country, and the need for basic education and health-care is high. It’s a difficult balance – between conserving nature and our country’s valuable wildlife heritage, yet still ensuring that the local people are adequately supported – and it’s not an exact science. Conflict is inevitable, but all three parties – the Makuleke, South African National Parks and Wilderness Safaris – deserve plenty of credit for choosing to build a business model that is sustainable in the long term, and conserves what is one of the most special wildlife areas in southern Africa.
Sure, the mining rights would bring in a lot of money overnight, but it would destroy the future value of Pafuri, which is a fragile and delicate place, and probably impossible to rehabilitate. What is needed is long-term thinking – the same vision that ensured that Kruger National Park was kept away from hunters, miners and farmers in the early 1900s, and which ensured its incredible sustainable value as one of the country’s most visited tourism destinations.
The Pafuri region today is now one of the jewels of Kruger, and in a few years’ time, it will only be more impressive. Before Wilderness Safaris built their camp, there was little wildlife; poaching and snaring was rampant, and Zimbabweans and Mozambicans were often to blame, as they used the open borders to their own advantage; wildlife had learnt to avoid Pafuri.
For several years before Wilderness Safaris built the camp, the whole area was cleared of more than 3 000 snares, and every year more and more wildlife is moving back into Pafuri. In a few years, this already diverse and bountiful area will be bursting with even more wildlife. May it do so forever.
On my first few days at Pafuri Camp, we were treated to some spectacular sightings…more to come tomorrow!
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