Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika
(God Bless Africa)
Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo,
(Raise high Her glory)
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
(Hear our Prayers)
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo
(God bless us, we her children)
Enoch Sontonga’s hymn carries on the soft wind blowing over the Luvuvhu River Valley in the Makuleke Contractual Park. The words take on greater significance as sung by members of the Makuleke community to mark Heritage Day – a South African public holiday intended to build reconciliation amongst its people through the celebration of their diversity. The Makuleke have much to celebrate: their ancestral land, successfully reclaimed post-Apartheid, is a thriving ecotourism concession in the most northern part of the Kruger National Park. Bordered by neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the 24 000 hectares of conservation area (also known as the Pafuri), is blessed with breath taking scenery, game, ancient baobabs and extensive birdlife. It’s no surprise then that this is considered biodiversity heaven! Forests, floodplains, gorges, woodlands, grasslands and pans – there is an abundance of natural wonders. The area is also rich in history, including stone-age sites, burial grounds and the remains of once prosperous African kingdoms, like Thulamela - a wealthy walled city built by the ancestors of the Shona people. Their riches came from the fertile land around them and their fortuitous geographical location which allowed for trade beyond Southern Africa. Today, this land once again offers opportunity and a chance for the Makuleke to create their own prosperity by granting concessions to private hospitality companies.
Perched on a hill side, sitting in harmony amongst the natural splendour that characterises the Makuleke Park is The Outpost. A sleek and modern luxury lodge, offering panoramic views of the Luvuvhu River. There are 12 stand alone, spacious suites on offer, featuring the creature comforts one would expect from a high-end establishment. But don’t be fooled, this game lodge is like no other. Exterior room walls and windows have been replaced with retractable shade cloths that conveniently disappear into the roof at the touch of a button, allowing for a borderless flow between inside and the surrounding bushveld.
I loved the feeling of being outside, just floating above the trees, while still being inside the concrete and steel structure that passes for a suite. This is certainly my preferred way of experiencing ‘sleeping under the stars’ whilst in the bush. When describing the suites, pictures really trump words!
Meals were an absolute treat at the Outpost. The menu is modern and light – think crispy sweet corn fritters, beef sliders, cooling panna cotta and fresh salads. The quality, taste and presentation were top notch. What made it more special was knowing that the lodge is so remote – yet the standard of food was comparable to any top end restaurant in the city. As for service it was always with a smile. There was no mistaking the warm hospitality of the Makuleke people.
Location, they say is everything. The Makuleke Contractual Park falls within the Transfrontier Peace Park, which is made up of a collection of neighbouring conservation areas, including South Africa’s Kruger Park, Mozambique’s Gaza National Park and the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. This border area has long been the migratory route of animals. Here natural heritage abounds. The Makuleke region is said to make up at least 80% of Kruger National Park’s biodiversity. To get close to some of these natural treasures our request for bush walks was welcomed by the rangers and fellow guests. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more beautiful place to experience my very first proper walking safari, than at what’s dubbed Southern Africa’s largest Fever Tree forest. It sits on a floodplain, near Crooks Corner – where South Arica, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet. The lime green expanse of never ending tree trunks stretch towards the sky and is breath taking. Accompanied by two armed rangers we picked our way toward the centre of the forest. En route we observed a pod of hippos frolicking in the water, before detouring downwind as not to alarm a large heard of buffalo before spotting a group of grazing Eland (a large antelope) who seemed as curious about us as we did about them. One of the obvious perks (or risks depending on your bravery) of a walking safari is getting up close to animals. A black backed jackal almost walked straight into our group. We didn’t hold his interest for very long and as he made his escape, we focused on the water filled pan ahead and the ‘bird show’ that awaited us. With up to 350 bird species gathering here, I could have sat watching these feathered lovelies the whole day.
Considering the biodiversity around us, it’s no surprise that the park is also home to one of the continent’s oldest living species – the Baobab. The ancient succulent has long been mired in mystery and myth, largely due to its strange appearance. I couldn’t help but feel as small as an ant when we walked up to a giant Baobab tree, which was more than 2200 years old. This is the second oldest to be found in this region. Standing before this majestic upside down tree, my thoughts turned to an extract from one of my favourite books, the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. “I reminded the prince that baobabs are not small bushes but trees the size of churches; and that even if he took a whole herd of elephant’s home with him, they would not succeed in dispatching a single baobab.”
And somehow this baobab had done just that. It survived elephants who love eating its bark, drought and so much more. I felt privileged being in the presence of this aged wonder. I felt just as small when we encountered an inquisitive male bull elephant on foot who decided to come within metres to investigate what we were up to – quite a thrill! And a tad scary.
Game drives were relaxing. None of that chasing after animal sightings that are called in by other rangers. The drives were leisurely - there was time to take in the scenic beauty and many of the smaller often overlooked treats. It was fantastic that almost every drive included some walking such as a quick stroll up a little hill giving a great view of a never ending floodplain, bathed in orange light, filled with a large herd of buffalo at sunset. I felt a real connection with nature, as I felt more immersed in it. Our ranger, Dean, did an excellent job of staying with scenes that gave us joy, even if that meant returning to the lodge later than expected. With up to 8 people on a vehicle it was a delicate balancing act to accommodate all our game drive wishes, but Dean got it spot on. He was knowledgeable and professional – one of the best rangers I have met. We had hoped to spot a Pel’s Fishing Owl but it wasn’t meant to be on this trip but, as avid twitchers, we were thrilled with the variety of birdlife we got to experience.
Over millions of years the Luvuvuhu River has carved its way through the sandstone, the result is a postcard perfect gorge surrounded by massive, smooth vertical cliffs. Sitting on the ledge of a cliff one is able to almost track the river from the horizon, snaking its way into the valley below us, before continuing its journey past us. And if it’s stunning good looks don’t interest you, then maybe what’s hidden within its rocks will? According to Wikipedia, the rocks in this area date back to the Jurassic era. Dinosaur fossils have been found here. The geology also holds clues as to how our ancestors evolved. Leading paleoanthropologist, Professor Lee Berger found evidence of early Stone Age hunters nearby. Watching the last rays of the sun turn these unspoiled cliffs into chunks of gold, I felt humbled and privileged.
Redress, restitution, reconciliation are words we as South Africans have heard many times. At the Makuleke Contractual Park these words have been given life. By sharing their land, culture and heritage the Makuleke offer visitors to this rather remote wilderness unique bush experiences while in turn empowering their community. I take with me many amazing memories of my time in the park, but most important I leave with a renewed sense that there is more that binds us as a nation than what divides us.
All my travels are self funded.
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