My guide at Pafuri Camp was Brian Kelly, an American who came to South Africa originally to work as an archaeologist at the Cradle of Humankind near Sterkfontein, but ended up falling in love with the bush (who can blame him!). He now works as the lead trails guide at Pafuri. “I prefer studying live things to dead things!” Brian said. America’s loss is certainly Africa’s gain..
You really do get the feeling that Brian is a student of the bush, studying it in detail, watching carefully, and listening to the sounds. He is a master birder, and I’ve rarely met a guide who knows so much about so many birds. As we drove along in the open-topped Land Cruiser, Brian would identify birds as easily as you’d identify members of your own family. And not only from sight alone, but from the calls of the birds; Brian knew every call of every bird we heard. It’s a remarkable talent and skill, and something that has to be seen to be believed.
“The African bush is an audio experience, more than a visual one” Brian told us. “If you listen to your surroundings you can learn so much about what’s going on.”
How did you learn all this, I asked Brian? “I trained under Bruce Lawson, one of the best bird guides in the country, but I also am just determined to find out what bird is calling…I guess I’m just persistent!”
And for birders, Pafuri is one of the best places to come in Southern Africa. As Brian explained, here you will find birds like Pel’s Fishing Owl, Bohm’s spinetail, mottled spinetail, racket-tailed roller, grey-headed parrot, black-throated wattle eye, lemon-breasted canary and Dickinson’s kestrel. These birds are found only here, and nowhere else in the country, while usually difficult-to-spot birds that can be found elsewhere (like Gorgeous bush shrikes) are more easily seen in Pafuri. It’s a veritable paradise for birds and their binoculared admirers.
Every morning and every afternoon, guest at Pafuri are taken on a drive or a walk. What’s great is that Wilderness Safaris have exclusive rights to the concession, so you won’t encounter other tourists, except for the main thoroughfare from Punda Maria to Pafuri gate. Nevertheless, the north of Kruger is a remote place, and has few tourists to begin with, so you really do have the place to yourself. Plus the guides are allowed to get out of the vehicles and take guests on walks wherever they choose. There’s more freedom and makes a nice change from being stuck in your car in the rest of Kruger, and it pays big dividends, as we were about to find out.
On our first morning drive, Brian picked up some lion tracks in the sand, and we stopped to have a look. Then we heard some birds making a commotion in the distance, a sure sign that they were warning each other about potential danger. Then monkeys and baboons started chattering loudly; no doubt something predatory was lurking nearby!
“Let’s go for a walk,” Brian said, and as he loaded his rifle, he briefed us on what to do if we encountered dangerous animals. “Stay behind me, walk in single file, and don’t talk, do what I say…and if we see lion, do not run.”
Off we went, in the direction of the commotion, following the lion tracks. Then Brian picked up leopard tracks as well. “Both these are very fresh.” Then, after a few minutes, “Look there!” Brian whispered loudly. “Leopard! In that tree!” He pointed to a large acacia tree about forty metres away, in which a female leopard was lying on a branch about half way up.
We all had a chance to take some photos, and Brian was surprised at how relaxed she was. “I’m amazed, usually leopards will run away immediately from people on foot. Let’s see if we can get a bit closer.”
Brian led us around a thicket, and as we entered another clearing, the leopard ran down the tree and into the bush. Wow! Then Brian looked around the area, and found drag marks, and then discovered a dead bushbuck underneath a thicket.
“She’s obviously just killed it,” Brian said, then she was disturbed and ran up the tree. But did we disturb it… or was it the lions? Ah, the lions…in the excitement I’d forgotten about them!
We continued walking for a few minutes, and went down onto the banks of the Luvuvhu River to have a look. Then Brian spotted a lioness on the ridge above us, just twenty metres away. Hectic! She ran away as soon as she saw us, so Brian led us back up the river bank, and five lionesses popped their heads up and bolted as soon as they saw us. Wow!! (Double exclamation mark!!)
“That,” said Brian, “is something that doesn’t happen every day. I’ve logged about 2 300 hours of guiding walks in the bush, and only twice have I seen lion AND leopard on foot in such a short space of time.”
We all walked back to the vehicle on a high…and on our way back to camp, Brian spotted a Gorgeous bush shrike near the road. “They are usually very difficult to find, because they hide in low foliage, and hardly ever come out in the open.” The Gorgeous bush shrike was…gorgeous! And its delicate little body was such a contrast to the powerful leopard and lions which we had just seen. The diversity of Pafuri is unrivalled in Kruger, perhaps?
“We’ll come back later tonight to see if our leopard has come back for that bushbuck,” Brian suggested. “Hopefully we can get an even better sighting.”
Heading back to camp through the acacia forest, impala and nyala glowed in the early morning winter sun, warming themselves from the cold night. As he drove, Brian pointed out birds here, there and everywhere – including squawking brown-headed parrots, green wood hoepoes and squadrons of white-crested helmet shrikes. I felt very lucky indeed! What an introduction to Pafuri.
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