Pafuri Walking Trails. Into the Wild. Makuleke Concession.

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Pafuri Collection. – There’s something very humbling about being in an area that belongs to the wild. It’s more than just insight into how things were, even more than how they are meant to be. It’s actually, where nature happens.

I am just back from five days in the Pafuri, in the private 24,000 ha Makuleke Concession in the very remote and Northern part of the Kruger National Park where South Africa meets Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Here, by invitation of RETURNAfrica, I was invited to experience the Pafuri Walking Trails.

I’d heard about this walking trail before and had always wanted to do it, but after the serious floods to the area in 2013, the Pafuri Camp had been washed away and the walking trails, then operated by Wilderness Safaris, discontinued. Until now, as RETURNAfrica have come to the rescue, buying and restoring the luxury camp and restarting the guided walking trails.

Arriving from Cape Town and after a treat night at the Pafuri Camp, with game drives on either side, I was transferred to meet my trail guides and the rest of the group at the dedicated spot on the Luvuvhu River bridge. Joining three other couples, we transferred to the camp and after a briefing, settled in to our very comfortable walk-in tents.

That afternoon we had our first walk, driving out to the Hutwini Gorge where we scrambled to the top and perched quietly on a rocky outcrop, watching a lone bull elephant pass below. The light was softening when we arrived back at the vehicle for sundowners, already bonded together as a group under the guidance of our guide Sarah Nurse and her young Aussie backup Elizabeth Bruce, or Biff as she is known. I knew we’d found a piece of bush heaven.

Each morning and afternoon during the four day three night stay, we were taken to a new location, enjoying a game drive en route before setting out quietly and in single file through the thicket, jackalberry, acacia and ancient baobabs trees.

The other areas we drove to and walked in were the Reedbuck Vlei, along the Luvuvhu River, the Nhlangaluwe Pan, the Makwadzi Pan and to Crook’s Corner. On the last morning we settled at Mangala after a walk in the forest, taking a last look at the river, rather sad that it had passed so quickly. Mangala actually means ‘to report a crime’ and this is where the men of early day would gather and tell tails from their respective villages, catching up on the news.

Each day we walked for about 4 to 5 hours, a distance of about 10 kilometres, with water breaks and plenty of stops to look at tracks in the sand and find the birds calling out to us as we passed. Sarah was remarkable in her knowledge of trees and every stop brought lessons from this unique wilderness area. We were traversing one of the most remote regions in South Africa, one with an abundance of wild animals and birdlife and there is no better way to do it than by foot.

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The beautiful Luvuvhu River. Home to some very large crocs.

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Sarah pointing out the lay of the land from the car, on the way to one of our walking locations.

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Visiting Crook’s Corner conjured up many tales from the past.

This is where criminals, crooks and poachers would come to hide in the 19th century, using the convergence of the three countries at the join of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers to escape the police, fleeing out of their jurisdiction and hopping into Zim or Mozambique.

Today it’s a different world, tranquil with water lapping and trees lining the yellow sand. Yet it was still exciting to mark the borders and step across into another. Just for fun, before enjoying a sundowner picnic in the orange light at the end of the day.

Also, I’d think twice about crossing the river here when it’s in flow, no matter who was chasing me or how great the crime. It’s full of crocs and hippos. Although I guess in the moment, you weigh up your odds …

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In the Limpopo riverbed following tracks. About to be in three countries at once.

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The baobabs are one of the things the delighted me most of all. I had not appreciated that I would be in baobab country and was amazed at the shapes and size of them as we drove and walked, literally past hundreds. Using some for shade, others for lessons in nature and occasionally going in for a hug, something I simply couldn’t resist.

There is such a magic and mystery to a baobab tree. A wisdom. Standing strong for hundreds of years they gently demand respect. I couldn’t help but wonder about the things that they had witnessed over the years.

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The joy of it – me and my baobab.

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The soothing shades of green of the fever tree forest.

The Camp.

The mobile camp is set up under the shade of a giant Sycamore Fig tree and consists of comfortable walk-in tents with en-suite eco-toilets and separate bucket showers.

At night, light is provided by a lanterns and we all gathered around a fire to talk about the day before – and after dinner. By day between walks and incredibly delicious meals prepared with love by Flora and Mavis, you could lounge in the shade with birdsong for company.

First thing in the morning, at 5.30, we were woken to a warm ‘good morning’ by Biff and the sound of warm water being poured into our standing basins. Fresh and dressed with camera packed, after coffee and steamy hot porridge, we’d go off in the car for the destination of the day.

Once back, there was welcome song from Flora and Mavis, a scented wet cloth placed in our hand to wipe away the dust. For those who wished, a bucket shower was prepared and we could take to the canvassed off shower area to have hot water wash the dirt away.

I did this twice a day, after each walk, indulging in both the opportunity to be clean and fresh as well as the chance to enjoy an outdoor shower. More that, actually. At night looking up through the trees to the dark sky and bright stars above, is truly one of life’s real pleasures.

At night from bed I heard the resident bushbaby crying in the trees, the roar of the nearby lion and the call of the hyena, their tracks fresh on the road the next day. The hippos seemed in conversation and by day the cheeky baboons waited in the trees, occasionally making an opportunistic dash for the open kitchen.

The camp is everything you need and exceeds all expectations on the comfort front.

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The camp grounds under the trees.

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My tent with outside area, two comfy beds and a bathroom attached. 

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Wash basin, it’s amazing how this is absolutely all that we need.

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The camp tea and coffee station, dining and lounge areas under the trees.

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This elephant bull came through the camp on the one afternoon, had a nibble on the leaves of the trees around my tent before heading on.

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Sarah and Biff with the elephant bull.

The Wildlife.

Don’t believe it if you’re told that this area isn’t rich in game, it is.

Perhaps it doesn’t have the high populations of leopard and lion that are found in the South of Kruger, but the many sightings of elephants, buffalo, nyala, kudu, impala and zebra, among others, definitely make up for it.

There were also crocodile and hippo in the rivers beds and incredible birdlife. We had a Mozambique Spitting cobra in the camp, a resident bush baby that called out in the night and some resident scorpions in the trees. Reason to keep that head lamp near after dark.

We saw elephant rubbing posts, sifted through the droppings of numerous animals learning about their diet. Unraveled an owl’s poo to find the skull of a little mouse still perfectly intact. We followed the tracks of a porcupine, saw how a big croc had come to rest on the road and how hippos carve a path in the sand, given that they drag their feet while walking.

As is the case in all our game reserves, this is a high risk area for poaching and we encountered some SANParks rangers on patrol. Even though there are some rhino here they are heavily protected and we never saw them. Although the risk is there for all animals as ‘subsistence poachers’ come across from Zimbabwe and Mozambique and set traps in the fever tree forest, probably in the hope of catching something for dinner. Yet the traps don’t discriminate and many an elephant or lion have been lost in this cruel way.

There were numerous lessons and conversations on conservation and the good work being done by the landowners and parks board, which helps one focus on the positive. Although the challenges are endless and the big game are at risk, everything is being done to keep them well protected.

I tried to list what we saw, although may have missed a few, as everything was in beautiful abundance.

Animals – Elephant. Bush baby. Hippo. Buffalo. Warthog. Kudu. Zebra. Genet. Black backed jackal. Impala. Vervet Monkeys. Baboon. Scorpions. Elephant shrew. Scrub Hair. Eland. Crocodiles – we counted 36 on the banks of the river as we had our morning tea break. On previous trails leopard and lion have been spotted.

Birds – Pafuri is known for its excellent birding. There were too many for me to list, but special sightings include the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Saddle Billed Stork, Goliath Heron, Giant Kingfisher, Lilac Breasted Roller, White Backed Vulture, Firefinch, Scops Owl, a Pelican looking rather out of place in a tall tree, Spoon Billed Stalks, many Yellow Billed Hornbill, African Hoopoe and Fish Eagle, with its cry that is such an iconic sound of the African bushveld.

Among the trees – Lead wood. Fever tree forests along the limpopo. Lala palms. Jackalberry. Sausage tree. African mangosteen. Needle bush. Tall ana trees and thick riverine bush. Nyala berry trees. Mopane.

For me personally, being here and this close to the beautiful game, grounded me and returned my focus to what really matters. That is what this walking trail can do.

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Then there were the very industrial dung beetles which we stopped to watch regularly. As you walk on the game paths, you need to be careful where you put your foot.

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The Makuleke Story.

The private Makuleke Contract Park offers rich biodiversity, exquisite scenery and excellent game viewing with the animals and birds very relaxed in their natural habitat.

But more than that, this area boasts one of the most successful land claim stories in the country. I’m told that during 1969 the Makuleke community were forcefully removed from their ancestral land to an area just outside the park, as the government turned this geographically significant piece of land into a military buffer zone during the ‘border wars’.

It was only after 1994 that on behalf of the community, the Legal Resources Centre managed a land claim which was led by Moray Hathorn. After years of fighting, they won back their land with the understanding that it would be kept as protected game reserve. Today the Makuleke community thrives under this arrangement, leasing out land to the three camps found in the area and with many employed at the Pafuri Camp and by Pafuri Walking Trails.

There’s understandably a wonderful sense of pride among the people and a genuine welcome to ‘their land’.

‘Community is at the heart of what we do – and it is essential that benefits of tourism filter down to the local people, and create real benefits ’ says Peter John Massyn who has a long involvement with the Makuleke community and is now one of their tourism partners and Managing Director of RETURNAfrica.

A true example of a successful business model where land ownership, conservation and hospitality appear to have found a way to support each other.

The Details.

I am reminded that when one stops appreciating the little things, one stops appreciating nature. The richness of the bush is better understood on foot.

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The bark of a baobab tree, lying on the ground.

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The male dung beetle rolls a ball and the female lays her eggs in it before he buries it. The aardvark sometimes digs it up and eats the little before they emerge. Which is what happened here.

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Hyena print in the dried mud.

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A baboon print in the river bed.

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A rather old elephant print in the soft sand, with my feet for size comparison.

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Biff capturing detail to camera.

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The Vulnerability of Nature.

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My Highlights.

For me there were many, in particular being in such a remote and untouched part of the country for the first time. I love to walk. It’s me at my happiest when I can walk a land. Four days of that in ours, was the very best.

Then the baobab and fever tree forests. The animals we saw and heard and whose tracks we walked in. The birds and their song. The mighty little dung beetles. Taking warm showers under the stars. Sneaking across borders at Crook’s Corner, the perfect size of the group. The people I shared it with.

Very much the combination of game drives and walking, the expert knowledgeable of guides Sarah and Biff and an incredible mobile camp to call home, where we were so well looked after by Flora and Mavis.

Understanding why the name RETURNAfrica? ‘It’s all about giving back, to the land, to the people, to the wildlife – and it’s also about giving back to ourselves by spending time in nature and restoring dignity to the people who own the land.’

The integral way it all ties together.

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At Crook’s Corner. Where Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa converge. 

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James, one of the members in the group, with a limb in each country.

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At Crook’s Corner with Biff and Sarah on the last night of our trail. These women are amazing in every way. I truly am very lucky to have had them as guides to take my lessons from.

I’ve returned feeling strengthened and humbled by the beauty and richness of the area, the Makuleke people and their land. Reconnected with nature and what really matters most in this world.

I can’t recommend this trail enough. Book for soon, you want to do this.

Useful Information.

– Like all the best places, getting to Pafuri requires some effort. From Johannesburg the best is to self-drive to the Punda Maria gate (540km) and from there follow the Pafuri Camp signs (60km). Driving time is about 7 hours, with the last hour in the Park and much game along the way. From Cape Town it’s a little tricker. I flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then connected by flight to Polokwane where I was picked up by Leonard of Maphata Tours, who offers transfers in his car. From there the drive is about 4 hours.

– Within ten minutes of being in the park we’d seen a herd of elephants, no better welcome to the bush. You will need to pay entrance fees into the park so have some cash with you.

– The Pafuri Walking Trails are seasonal and only offered in the drier months of April to October. I found this the perfect time, not too hot, bush was low and the breeze which picked up in the afternoon cooled things down. Although I’m sure that each month holds it’s own magic. I’d love to go back in April.

– This is a trail for anybody with a moderate level of fitness. The distances are not great, approximately 5-6km per walk at a gentle pace. There are coffee breaks in the morning and sundowners in the afternoon. Tracks to investigate, animals to watch and trees to learn about.

– The cost at the moment for the three-night, four-day experience ranges from about R4500.00 per person fully inclusive. Which is excellent value.

– After the trail, and possibly even before, you’ll want to spend a night at the recently re-opened Pafuri Camp, a lovely grounding and that pool will look very inviting after a hot morning’s walk in the park.

– You’ll be completely off the grid and that’s okay. For me I’d had concerns, not having taken a digital detox in years. Yet after the first day of mild panic about emails and social media and who might be trying to get in touch, I completely relaxed into the area, allowing myself to be in the moment, wholeheartedly consumed by all that was on offer and the privilege of being there. It was the best! Retrospectively, being on my phone throughout would have detracted in many ways.

– You’ll need a light backpack for camera, fruit, extras that you might want to carry with you on the walk. Also a water bottle to be filled up at camp, a headlamp or torch for once it’s dark, neutral coloured clothing, good walking shoes and at least 8 pairs of socks. Binoculars, insect repellent, sunblock, a hat and environmentally friendly toiletries. Also cash to settle your bar bill and for gratuity for your guide and camp staff.

– This is a malaria area, although the trails operate in low season, malaria prophylactics are recommended.

To learn more about RETURNAfrica and the Pafuri Walking Trails visit their website and connect on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date. Also see the other destinations in RETURNAfrica’s portfolio here.

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Note: I was invited as a guest of Return Africa to experience the Pafuri Walking Trails, they covered all expenses including getting me there and back. The invitation could not have been more welcome. 

Thank you for all Sam, Sarah, Biff and team. What an incredible time.

A book that has been recommended to offer a history of the area is The Ivory Trails by TV Bulpin. I’ve just ordered it here, if you’d like to do the same.

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Dawn Jorgensen is The Incidental Tourist

The Incidental Tourist is a Personal Travel Blog of a conscious traveller with a deep love for Africa, its people and the environment.

Here I bring you narratives, stories, video and photographs from my travels around the globe, including accounts of gorilla trekking in Uganda, tree planting in Zambia and turtle rescue in Kenya, accommodation and restaurant reviews, as well as details of the conservation efforts that I support.

A self proclaimed earth advocate and beauty seeker, I invite you to join me here and share in my love of sustainable travel.

Dawn Jorgensen
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