Alexander Matthews lets you in on the secret of Pafuri, a part of the Kruger National Park few ever get to see.
Pafuri is my favourite part of Kruger. A roughly 240 square kilometre triangle wedged up against Zimbabwe and Mozambique, it forms a mere 1% of the park and yet features a whopping 75% of its biodiversity. It bristles with birdlife – home to around 350 species including the elusive Pel’s fishing owl. Spectral fever tree forests fan out across tsessebe- and eland-studded floodplains; cliffs crumble majestically from the sides Lanner Gorge. Sure, this is Kruger, but it’s Kruger as you’ve never seen it before.
And indeed most never will. Although intrepid day-trippers crossing over the Luvuvhu river from the south are permitted to drive the semi-circular tar road to Pafuri Gate, all they’ll glimpse is a distant ridge or two, the odd baobab and thickets of white seringa – pretty, but not exactly magical. Occasionally a gravel track beckons, but each has a no-entry sign next to it. And that’s the thing: to unlock the secrets of this hallowed place, you have to stay here.
One option is The Outpost – a string of modernist rooms designed by Enrico Daffonchio strung out along a hilltop. I stayed there in 2014, utterly gobsmacked by the floor-to-ceiling views. And then, in 2015, Return Africa arrived, opening Pafuri Camp – a set of luxury tents on the edge of the Luvuvhu.
Return Africa has also transformed the nearby old ranger’s house into a self-catering villa: Baobab Hill Bush House. The mercury was flirting with forty the afternoon we arrived there in November. As soon as we’d downed our welcome drinks (provided by our guides Sarah Nurse and Elizabeth Bruce) we headed for the plunge pool for a cooling soak. Refreshed, we explored the house, which is spacious enough to pack in a large family, or (as we did) a bunch of friends. Some of the old Parks Board-issue mid-century fittings remain, artfully combined with laidback safari touches.
When the sun had started to slink downwards, we trooped through the gate in the fence and clambered up the koppie. We drank beers under the towering baobab that gives the house its name. Behind us, the Luvuvhu wended languorously past, while in the west, rays tinged the smoky sky orange before falling to ashen veld. It was time to start the braai.
The next morning, I sat with a cup of coffee and a book on one of the verandah’s marshmallow-soft couches. With no cellphone signal or WiFi, Baobab Hill is truly an escape from the urban grind and its frenetic connectivity – it’s hard to think of a more perfect place to do absolutely nothing. I was rather tempted to spend the rest of the day reading to a soundtrack of buzzing cicadas and the chortling of emerald spotted wood doves playing from the trees. But Sarah and Biff had arrived (with their rifles) to take us on a morning walk. I knew it would be a waste not to go exploring.
We trailed between soaring ana trees, keeping parallel to the river, sitting on a clutch of rocks to observe a distant elephant. Our progress up through Hutwini gorge was slow. Thankfully, the shade of shaggy jackalberries provided a little respite from the heat. Back in the blazing sun, Sarah points out a delicate purple flower. It’s a kind of wild foxglove – Ceratotheca saxicola to be exact – that is so rare that it’s earned a place on SANBI’s Red List of South African Plants.
Finally we reached the crest of the hill, looking beyond the river to where, with binoculars, we could just make out the distant stone ruins of Thulamela, site of an ancient Iron Age kingdom.
On our way back to the house, in a dusty clearing known as Deku, we saw evidence of far more recent human habitation. Sarah pointed at it: a heavy potjie lid, left behind when the Makuleke people were forcibly removed from here in 1969 to allow for the expansion of the Kruger National Park. After a successful land claim in the late 1990s, ownership of the land between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo was returned to the community, which decided to keep it as a conservation area managed by SANParks. As a concessionaire, Return Africa contributes to the Makuelekes’ wellbeing through levies and employment.
That evening, we went to the fever tree forest for sundowners. Soft light feathered through the fine leaves as we sipped on G&Ts, watching vervets bounce across branches. Another elephant (we seemed to attract them) lumbered towards us, between the green-yellow trunks, then lost interest.
We ate supper at the long dining table in the roomy lounge, forced inside by the wind raging against the shutters. As thunder crackled over us, scattered drops became a hammering downpour.
Next morning, a chainsaw’s whine cut the silence. I climbed the koppie with a mug of coffee. Down below, a massive fever tree had crashed over, blocking the road; workers were slicing it up as rain sifted down from the bruised sky. For a moment I wondered if the fallen tree might force us into staying longer. Sadly, it didn’t – our vehicle proved quite capable of driving round it. I felt a pang as we departed; it felt far, far too soon to be abandoning this glorious home in the bush. One day I will come back.