The northern parts of the Kruger National Park harbours populations of antelope rarely seen in the wild elsewhere in South Africa, and of course the Wild de Wets just love going in search of these special creatures. Our recent visit during the winter school holidays, basing ourselves for nine nights at Shingwedzi Rest Camp, yielded wonderful encounters with Eland, Nyala, Sharpe’s Grysbok and Tsessebe (and we’ll just have to get back there soon to find the roan antelope, sable antelope, lichtenstein’s hartebeest and reedbuck that eluded us!)
The northern parts of the Kruger National Park suffers from an inaccurate perception that predators there are fewer and harder to find, and consequently that part of the Park sees far fewer visitors than the area south of the Olifants River. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – fewer people looking for predators means fewer people finding predators – that suited us just fine when we visited the area around Shingwedzi Rest Camp during the winter holidays. We returned home bragging about several splendid encounters with lions, leopards, spotted hyenas and both side-striped and black-backed jackals and hardly ever having to share the experience with other visitors. Please don’t let the secret out though – we’re only telling you! 😉
Last week, we were so excited to tell you about our time at Kruger National Park’s newest accommodation offering, the Pafuri Border Camp, that we skipped over the part of our visit leading up to our time in the extreme Far North of the Park.
We’ll take this opportunity to rectify that now.
We arrived at Phalaborwa Gate on the Friday, early enough to allow a slow drive along the H14-road up to Mopani Rest Camp, where we were booked for a one-night stopover on the way to Pafuri Border Camp.
A quick afternoon sojourn past Mooiplaas, the Nshawu Vlei and Tinhongonyeni delivered no less than 6 tsessebe sightings, lots of energetic zebras, good numbers of other animals and birds, and a very dramatic storm brewing over the plains…
That evening we enjoyed a lovely meal at Mopani’s restaurant, the howling wind putting an end to any ideas we might have had of braaiing (the traditional South African barbeque) at our bungalow. Afterwards we searched for nocturnal animals among Mopani’s natural vegetation, and were not disappointed.
Leaving Mopani as soon as the gate opened Saturday morning, under heavy skies accompanied by a constant soft drizzle, we anticipated at least one good predator sighting. Sure enough, near Olifantsbadpan, we had a terrific encounter with two big female spotted hyenas and three of the cutest, most playful cubs you could imagine. Only afterwards did I realise that they were so close to our vehicle that I didn’t manage even one full body photo of them!
We expected to have good sightings of elephants around Shingwedzi, and our favourite rest camp delivered the goods just as we had hoped. It was still raining softly as we set of from Shingwedzi after breakfast, heading northward past Babalala Picnic Spot. The north of the Kruger Park is also well known for its exceptional birdlife and all these special sightings made the long road seem much shorter.
The midday heat of a Lowveld summer can get exceedingly oppressive. If you can muster the courage to keep yourself out of the swimming pool and head to a waterhole, you may just be lucky enough to enjoy the antics of a herd of elephant playing around in the refreshing water. These shots were taken at the Klopperfontein Dam, near Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park.
“Summer Lovin‘” is the theme for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge
It’s a long drive down from Pafuri to Letaba and, at game viewing speeds with regular stops for photographs and leg stretches at the camps and picnic spots along the way, it took us the entire day to cover the distance of 250km, reaching Letaba just before the gates closed. Covering such a distance in a national park like Kruger, you’re bound to come across some great sightings and some thrilling experiences, but we didn’t count on getting growled at when we stopped at Mooiplaas picnic site for a bit of a break. We were back in the car in a flash, and still have no idea what it was that was so irritated by our presence…
When you’re hoping for great wildlife sightings in any wild place, you have to be out-and-about at the times that the animals are most active, being the early morning and late afternoon, to maximise your chances.
We set out early from Letaba the next morning, heading towards Olifants Rest Camp along the gravel roads that follow the courses of the Letaba and Olifants Rivers. We were soon rewarded with a great sighting of a spotted hyena, followed shortly afterwards by the highlight of our trip: an encounter with wild dogs! The dogs came running along the road in the opposite direction we were travelling in, and passed us in a flash. We had to make a u-turn and followed them a couple of hundred metres, before they decided to take a bit of a break right in the middle of the road. These animals are so rare and sightings so infrequent that we spent quite a bit of time with them before moving on.
Shortly before reaching Olifants we crossed a small stream and noticed lots of terrapins and a lone juvenile crocodile sharing a pool next to the road. It soon became apparent that these animals have become accustomed to being fed by passing tourists as they started moving towards our vehicle the moment we came to a halt. This aberrant behaviour is exactly the reason why the park authorities are so strict about visitors not being allowed to feed the animals, but some choose to ignore it nonetheless. We didn’t stay long, fearing that the terrapins would end up beneath our vehicle preventing us from driving away.
We spent the hot hours of the day walking around the Letaba campgrounds, enjoying the peace and quite and the company of Letaba’s resident bushbuck and birds.
Our afternoon excursion focused on the riverine drives to the north of the camp. Again we were not disappointed, seeing two waterbuck bulls sparring, herds of other game, including elephants, hippos, impalas, nyalas, bushbuck, giraffes, buffalo and baboons, various bird species, even some fish at a river crossing, and of course beautiful scenery.
A fascinating but gruesome sighting of a ground hornbill using its massive bill to kill and devour a tortoise in its carapace was a reminder that this is still wild Africa after all…
With the sunrise the next morning it was time to pack up and head to our next destination, the Forever Swadini Resort in the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. It wouldn’t be our last taste of the Kruger National Park however, and as we were heading towards the Orpen Gate we could console ourselves in the knowledge that we were planning one last day visit for later in the week.
We’ve previously dedicated a special post to Letaba – have a look here if you’d like to read more about this peaceful rest camp
Pick up any guidebook about the Kruger National Park, and it will probably tell you that you’ve not experienced the “real” Kruger if you haven’t seen Pafuri.
Pafuri is a diverse wilderness in the far north-eastern corner of South Africa, where the borders of SA, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet at the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers. Because all kinds of smugglers, bandits and poachers from the late 1800′s and early 1900′s could evade capture by the law-enforcement authorities of these countries by simply slipping across the borders, the area quickly became known as “Crook’s Corner”.
The wide variety of habitats – muddy rivers, glimmering pans, lush riverine vegetation with magnificent stands of yellow fever trees , mopane woodland interspersed with huge baobabs (some hundreds if not thousands of years old) and dramatic sandstone ridges and cliffs, are home to probably the greatest variety of birds in the country and supports large concentrations of mammals.
Along the roads that follow the course of the Luvuvhu River, five species of game are especially numerous. The antics of the vervet monkeys and chacma baboons are always entertaining to watch, and the warthogs go about their business as if without a care in the world. Impalas are a familiar sight; as they are in many other parts of the Kruger National Park. But it is to the regal Nyala that Pafuri belongs.
Pafuri however has even more to offer in terms of big game viewing with hippos, elephants, buffaloes, zebras, giraffe, wildebeest, kudu, bushbuck and crocodiles being encountered often, while lucky visitors enjoy sightings of the resident lion pride.
As already mentioned, Pafuri is a bird-watcher’s heaven. Several bird species are at the southernmost limit of their range here and can be seen nowhere else in South Africa. During summer, when the already astounding diversity of birdlife swells with the arrival of migrants from further north, Pafuri is the place to be!
The Pafuri Picnic Site on the bank of the Luvuvhu River is the ideal stopover for anyone and everyone that find themselves in the magical place. Among the picnic tables and benches that overlook the river the birdlife seems especially relaxed and a keen eye is sure to notice many of the small invertebrates that hide among the leaf litter and twigs. We spent lots of time enjoying the energetic vervet monekys that frequent the site, but our most memorable sighting of this visit to Pafuri was the stiff-legged show of dominance between two mature nyala bulls, strutting their stuff as if we were not even there.
And this is exactly why Pafuri has such a special place in our hearts. It still feels like a wild frontier, a place where humans are just passing through. We absolutely agree: You haven’t experienced the “real” Kruger if you haven’t spent some time at Pafuri.
While exploring magical Pafuri on our latest (February 2014) visit, we based ourselves at the Pafuri Rivercamp, which is located just 3km outside the Kruger’s Pafuri Gate, in mature riverine woodland along the Mutale River. Rustic though the camp may be (there’s no electricity or cellphone reception and everything is built from wood, reeds, canvas, gauze and chicken mess) but you could hardly imagine a more romantic place from which to explore the Pafuri’s wilderness. The camp staff are friendly and hospitable, and the camp has a central pool, bar, lounge, and lapa where meals (which must be pre-arranged) can be enjoyed. The tents are pitched on platforms among the branches of large jackalberry, leadwood and apple-leaf trees and in the clearing below is a fireplace, picnic table and comfortable canvas chairs with your private kitchen and ablutions located to the side. There’s nothing like being lulled to sleep on a hot February night by a cool breeze passing through the leaves around you and straight through your open tent windows, accompanied by the sounds of bushbabies and nightjars! We’ll definitely return to Pafuri Rivercamp at the first opportunity.
The Kruger National Park’s own Punda Maria Rest Camp is also a highly recommendable alternative accommodation option if you want to visit Pafuri. Have a look at our special Punda Maria post if you’d like to learn more about this historic rest camp.
Punda Maria, the Kruger National Park’s northern-most rest camp, is a unique place rich in character, history and natural beauty.
In 1919 Captain JJ Coetzer, after serving in the military in East Africa, was appointed to a new ranger post in the north of the then Shingwedzi Game Reserve. He named his base, at the Shikokololo fountain at the foot of Dimbo Hill, Punda Maria – a combination of punda milia, Swahili for zebra, after the first animals he encountered in the area, and his wife’s name, Maria, who reportedly loved wearing striped dresses.
The original lattice-and-mud, white-washed walls and thatched roofs of the accommodation units constructed in 1933 are still used to house guests today. The interiors of the units were modernised in the 1980’s without altering the exterior appearance, preserving Punda Maria’s wilderness outpost atmosphere. The camp also offers two comfortable family cottages and seven two-sleeper safari tents, as well as a large camping area at the foot of the hill. Facilities in the camp includes a small shop, restaurant, filling station, laundry, swimming pool and a hide overlooking a flood-lit waterhole next to the perimeter fence. Guided drives and walks are available and the self-guided Paradise Flycatcher Trail that meanders through a piece of natural vegetation on the hillside within the camp allows an opportunity to get close to the small animals and numerous birds that call Punda Maria home.
The area around Punda Maria is exceptionally rich in plant, animal and bird life and is renowned for its scenic splendour.
Mahonie Loop is one of the prettiest drives in the Kruger National Park. The loop goes around Dimbo Hill, passes three waterholes and crosses several small streams. Even though the entire route is less than 30 kilometres in distance, there’s so much to see and enjoy that it usually takes several hours to complete.
To the south-east of Punda Maria, in the direction of Shingwedzi, Dzundwini hill rises from the surrounding mopane plains. Dzundwini Loop passes between the hill and a series of fountains that attract good numbers of game, especially during the dry season, and a short cul-de-sac takes one high up onto the hill to a scenic vantage point.
Close to camp, on the S60 heading towards Pafuri, lies the long, flat hill of Gumbandebvu, regarded as sacred and haunted. The hill is named after a chief who’s daughter, Khama, was reputed to have had the gift of rain-making.
No visit to the North of the Kruger National Park would be complete without a pilgrimage to Pafuri. This is one of the Kruger’s most unspoilt areas and is regarded as one of the best birding locations in the entire country. The Pafuri Picnic Spot is a peaceful place to enjoy a leisurely meal or cool drink, watching the waters of the Luvuvhu River flow slowly past, with only the constant twittering of colourful birds, the call of a fish eagle, the bark of a baboon or the snort of a hippo to break the silence.
Thulamela, located on a hill overlooking the Luvuvhu River at the end of the short Nyala Loop, was a 16th century citadel from the same culture responsible for Great Zimbabwe. Artifacts found on the site is evidence of trade between this sophisticated hierarchical society and places as far afield as India, China and West Africa. Guided tours of the ruins can be undertaken from Punda Maria.
At the confluence of the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers three countries meet – South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Because all kinds of smugglers, bandits and poachers from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s could evade capture by the law-enforcement authorities of these countries by simply slipping across the borders, the area quickly became known as “Crook’s Corner”.
If you long to touch the wilderness, if you want to experience the Kruger National Park at its uncluttered wildest and if your pioneering spirit wants to drift back to more romantic times, then ensure that you include Punda Maria in your Kruger Park itinerary!