“Many people told us that we would only find cattle and the odd duiker,” says Leah Andresen, one of two conservation ecologists that have initiated a research project on cheetah...
Our host gently takes my hand and leads us through the expectant crowd towards our VIP seats, two front-row benches perched on the dusty festival ground. I suddenly wish I were slightly cleaner, less sweaty, more appropriately dressed and a tad closer to my comfort zone. I guess this is what happens if you enter Zimbabwe by wading through the Limpopo and waiting for your lift under a tree next to a dirt road. Oh well, although grimy, it’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun.
Perhaps it was the genuine happiness of our hosts at having us there, or the rhythmic traditional dances in swirling neon colours, but it was tough not to get swept along in the swing of things at the celebrations that took place on the outskirts of Gwaivi Village in September.
The cultural festival is part of attempts to integrate the Zimbabwean side of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) with the South African side, and to ensure that the community in this remote part of Zim has some stake in the benefits of conservation. It’s the second year that visitors from South Africa joined in, as part of the four-day, three-night Pafuri Walking Trail in the Makuleke Concession in the Pafuri area.
It’s a collaborative effort between Wilderness Safaris, the GLTP and the community (the package was recently taken over from Wilderness Safaris by Elsmore Lodges). This special version of the product is still in its developmental phase, and is being fine-tuned every year, says GLTP international coordinator, Piet Theron. So, while it’s probably not the best choice for those used to travelling in luxury, if you’re an adventurer at heart, pencil the date into your diary.
The festival was only one of the many highlights of the trip. The Makuleke Concession, renowned for its rich fauna and flora, is rightfully described as one off the most enchanting areas in Kruger. The only access point from southern part of the park is the Luvuvhu Bridge, which forms a type of border between the desolate road from Punda Maria, and Makuleke
The Mapimbi fly camp itself served to smoothe away the last nerves and memories of any city life that remained. Huddled in the shade of fever trees, the Limpopo River is only a couple of metres away, close enough to ensure that you are woken by the call of fish eagles. But, lounging in the shade being served G&Ts was not what we were there for.
We were there to walk, to explore, to get close to nature and possibly even spot a pangolin or Pel’s fishing owl. Renowned to be extremely rare sightings, the tongue-in-cheek request almost made our guides break out in an uncomfortable sweat.
The first walk was in the close vicinity of the camp, exploring the Limpopo River flood system to the north. The strong smell of potato bush permeated the air as we trudged carefully over the dense, damp earth. Powder-yellow fever trees dominate the area, creating a surreal atmosphere. I’m not really a big birder, but it’s clear that this is a haven for those who are.
The night was spent relaxing next to the campfire, and we were reduced to blissful laziness by a sumptuous three-course dinner cooked on the fire, and lulled to sleep by lavish glasses of red wine, before crawling into our comfy tents. We were woken by the domestic woes of a troop of baboon, the fish eagles crooning in the distance, and the soft wake-up calls of lead guide Steve Faulconbridge, and the second day was spent at the cultural festival.
The following day was again to be one of many highlights. We started with a stiff walk over basalt extrusions to sandstone koppies covered in hardy Lebombo ironwood trees. We made our way through a sandstone valley, winding through a magical forest of these trees, followed by a steady climb to Hutwini Hill. The view from there seemed to make time stand still. A pair of Verreux eagles soared below while lappet-faced vultures sailed the up-draughts in the distance. The Levhuvhu River lay like a fat, brown, lazy snake below. We were literally on the top of the world.
It would be tough to choose what the best part of the trip was. That afternoon, we walked around Rietbokvlei, dotted with hundreds off birds, and spent time in the largest fever tree forest in South Africa. Thousands of pale yellow-barked trees surrounded us, and allowed only hints of the zebra, waterbuck, a huge herd of eland and Southern ground hornbills in the distance. Due to our guides’ expert care, we were able to get close to two elephant, and watched in amazement as the bull grazed right in front of us.
Returning home to the city after the trip, it was tough to relay the true value and beauty of the experience to friends. In retrospect, a walk in Pafuri and over the Limpopo into neighbouring Zimbabwe allows you to cross many borders, for most of which a stamp in your passport is unnecessary.
What to pack
Binoculars, flashlight, flea spray, lots of socks, light tops against the sun, sunscreen, hat, flip-flops for relaxing afternoons in the campsite, camera, notebook and pen, warm top for the evenings and early morning drives, extra water bottle, snacks to throw into your backpack. Pack your swimming gear too – we managed to sneak in a dip in the Limpopo.
The fever tree forest
Morning coffee with the sun rising over the Limpopo
Book your tour
The Makuleke Concession wilderness walks were recently taken over from Wilderness Safaris by Elsmore Lodges. The trails are closed during the hot, rainy season and are open from April to October. It will set you back R4 548 per person sharing a tent, and R2 202 on top of that for your own tent. Ask for the Pafuri Walking Trail. To book, contact Sandra Mombelli on 011-646-1391 or e-mail her at Sandra@asl-foundation.org
Peter John Massyn, of Elsmore Lodges, says they also intend to explore a new Limpopo trail which could include two nights’ on the South African, and one night on the Zimbabwean side of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. In the dry months, guests will walk between camps and in the wet, they will canoe.