Been invited to stay at a private lodge in the beautiful private Makuleke Concession in the Northern Kruger National Park is an opportunity not to be missed. While it is a good distance by vehicle, six and a half hour drive heading north towards Zimbabwe, one turns right about 60 kilometres from the border heading to the Kruger and the quiet Pafuri gate. One can also get a domestic flight on Airlink which will take you up to Phalaborwa where you can rent a car to take you further, entering through the Punda Maria gate. Passing through the gate you have a short 30-minute drive and you get to the Punda Maria campsite which has a convenience store, bungalows as well as camping sites near a hide/lookout.
What makes this furthest point of the Kruger National Park unique is that it does tend to be quieter, however, what it lacks in the Big 5 it makes up with its magnificent trees and spectacular birdlife. Also what is not known to many visitors that have passed this area is that it has a significant history in particular to the Ivory Trade that played a massive part in the past history of this region.
The lodge is situated on the banks of the lovely Luvuhu River, under lovely Nyala trees with its branches easily having a diameter of 10 meters giving lovely shade, especially when the temperatures get up to 40 degrees Celcius. To help with the heat as well is a lovely swimming pool. Placed in such a way that you can relax in it while watching the elephants come past or you can look at the Waterbuck, Nyala or Baboons feeding on the river banks.
The Luvuvhu River flows for about 200 km through a diverse range of landscapes before it joins the Limpopo River in the Fever Tree Forest area, near Pafuri in the Kruger National Park. The river winds through the sandveld into the alluvial flood plains before joining the Limpopo at Crooks’ Corner. The forests on either side of the Luvuvhu – which include Nyalas, large-leaved Fever-berries, forest Fever trees, and Sycamore fig trees – support a rich array of animal and bird life. The sandbanks are often packed with Crocodiles, Nyala, Kudu, Impala and baboons browsing beneath the tall trees.
The Luvuvhu River Drive to Crooks’ Corner is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful drives in Kruger. The road follows the river through tropical woodlands and there are many shady viewpoints overlooking the watercourse. The vegetation along the drive is diverse, ranging from dry Thornveld and Baobabs to lush riverine forest dominated by Nyala trees, Jackal-berries, and Figs. The ghostly green Fever trees provide an eerie dimension to the riverine forest.
The lodge is tastefully decorated with an East African/ Morrocan feel and has a lovely big open lounge and dining area where one can sit and relax and enjoy a G & T while enjoying dinner after a game drive. Our brilliant ranger Callan, was not only the friendliest guide, but extremely informative getting us to see and enjoy a total of 150 birds ranging from the Bohm’s Spinetail, Mottled Spinetail, Racket-tailed Roller, Three Banded Courser, Lemon-breasted Canary, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Meve’s Starling, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Bat Hawk, Tropical Boubou and Brown-necked Parrot. These are only a few names mentioned so you can just imagine the thriving birding life in this majestic concession. Assisting Callen are the lovely camp staff and chefs making it a pleasurable experience and a very special place.
Off on our game drive and to the Notorious Crooks Corner. In the 1900’s this area was a safe-haven for gun runners, poachers, fugitives and anyone else dodging the law. It was an easy hop across the river whenever police from one particular country approached.
There is a large plaque here commemorating the legendary Ivory hunter Cecil Barnard (Bvekenya), the Shangaan name for Cecil Barnard (1886–1962), one of South Africa’s legendary adventurers, big-game hunters, ivory poachers, and blackbirders*.
Bvekenya means ‘The man who swaggers when he walks’. It is said he hid on an island in the middle of the Limpopo to avoid being tracked down by pursuing rangers and police in the 1920s. Ironically, Barnard later became a ranger/ conservationist. The local story goes that his son, Oom Isak Barnard, tells how his father’s sentiments finally turned when he stood face-to-face with Ndlulamithi. This was the majestic Tusker he had sought for many years. But watching the elephant through his gun’s sight, compassion turned events. Bvekenya lowered his gun and Ndlulamithi walked free. A police station was later built here. The road to Crook’s Corner passes under majestic Fig trees, Jackal-berries and a forest of Fever trees. This is the spot where the Limpopo and Luvuhu rivers and three countries, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mozambique meet.
The Lanner Gorge is a spectacular stop carved by the Luvuvhu River and is up to 150m deep and 11km long, forming the border to the Makuleke Contractual Park in the North. The Permian sandstone rocks at the bottom of the gorge were formed in a huge desert, the dry center. The upper part of the gorge is Triassic rocks, sandstones, and shales which are full of fossils.
The Luvuvhu River also transported gravel from the West to the area, which was the raw material for stone age tools. The results can be found in abundance, by-products of the manufacturing process but also stone tools, especially hand axes, can be found in abundance. This gorge is hard to reach, so there is very little tourism. There are trails and safaris to the gorge, but there is no easy way to get there by car. The Nyalaland Wilderness Trail is a guided walk, accompanied by an experienced and armed safari game ranger. The group size is only 8 people, the availability is very limited and they must be booked one year in advance. This trail includes the Lanner gorge and interesting fossil sites.
Our drives also included Nwambi Pan. The pan forming part of floodplains are intermittently filled by floods and rains and are of great importance to the ecosystem as they hold water right into the dry season. There are 31 flooded pans scattered along the floodplains of the Limpopo River within Makuleke. These wetlands play a vital role in purifying water, regulating water flow and acting as a sponge releasing water slowly and easing the impact of droughts and floods in the process. This pan is very much temporary and will likely dry up in the next few months. This, however, is an important drawcard because wildlife in all forms are reliant on these wet and dry cycles that occur within the floodplains. This allows for feeding, reproduction, and nourishment for the surrounding nature.
As mentioned the trees in the area are beautiful. Being a tree lover, I spent as much time as possible, looking at the large variety of trees that just seem so much bigger than anywhere else I have visited. The Fever tree forest, the biggest I have ever seen, holds an interesting tale of past travellers. The Fever tree gets its common name from pioneers who believed that the tree caused fevers. In fact, the fever was actually malaria, which they caught from mosquitoes that bred in the swampy Fever tree habitat. Fever tree trunks and main branches are used as fencing to keep hippos out of cultivated areas.
The Nyala or Mashatu tree, as it is known in Botswana, is an enormous evergreen with a dense spreading canopy and drooping branchlets. It is often found growing out of nutrient-rich termite mounds or on deep alluvial soils near rivers. Baboons can often be found roosting in these trees and many camps are built under them due to the shade which they offer. The trees do get to a good age of maximum of 600 years.
A giant that one cannot stop admiring is the Baobab, the common name of the genus of trees (Adansonia). In some parts of Africa, entire forests of moderate-sized Baobabs sprout from arid plains. In some cases these trees become giants. This is because their peers have long since perished through the flood (Baobabs cannot bear being waterlogged), drought, lightning strike or marauding elephants. All four, plus a disease called black fungus, ensure that only the hardiest survive to a ripe old age. As Hugh Glen, a government botanist, once said: “the problem with the Baobab is that it doesn’t get handsome until it’s about 800 years old”.
The Bushmen believed that the Baobab had offended God and, in revenge, God planted the tree upside down. Certainly, when winter comes, the Baobab resembles a mass of roots pointing towards the sky instead of being underground. The Baobab has been associated with many myths, mysteries and folklore. Even the flowers bloom at night. Bushmen believed that any person who plucks the flowers will be torn apart by lions because there are spirits in the flowers. When water is drunk, in which the Baobab’s pips have been soaked, this serves as protection from crocodiles and the drinker will be mighty.