The impressions of my two walks up Lanner Gorge have swirled into one. What remains strongest, a stubborn sediment of memory, is the slow, sloshing progress through silky water – our feet sinking into soft, wet sand. Accompanying this: the occasional ripple of fear, especially when skipping from one drift to another through knee-deep furrows. Because this isn’t just any river – this isn’t just any walk. This is the croc-infested Luvuvhu, which marks the boundary between the Kruger National Park and the community-owned Makuleke region bordering Zimbabwe.
The walk begins at the nyala tree at Mangala – where Makuleke shepherds would gather to gossip, to set the world to rights – until they, and the rest of their community, were forcibly removed by the apartheid government in the late ’60s, their territory absorbed into the Kruger. The Makuleke got their land bank in a landmark restitution case, but have allowed SANParks to continue to conserve it, and for three concessionaires to share this patch of paradise with the public.
Our Return Africa guide, Sarah Nurse, has warned us to stay away from deep, murky rifts where crocodiles might be hiding. I swallow nervously. If we remain vigilant and stick to the transparent shallows, we’ll be safe. But if I allow myself to be seduced into complacency by the water’s languorous progress, I could lose my life – or at least a leg.
At first we walk along the bank; the water next too us is too deep and dark – too dangerous. After 10 minutes, we take off our shoes, step gingerly onto a sandbank. The flat floodplain, edged with rumpled hills, narrows until rock towers over us on either side of the river. Fish eagles drift overhead, their wails reverberating between the craggy cliffs. I stop sometimes to breathe it in, to take photographs, to marvel at the way wind and water has hewn the sandstone into majestic, mysterious forms.
Although they sometimes wander down almost vertiginous paths to drink and play in the river, today Makuleke’s elephants haven’t put in an appearance – which is a relief, as they can be notoriously bellicose.
We do see two hippos plop into the water, though. And there are crocodiles – everywhere. Some are sunbathing in the distance – as still as boulders. Others jauntily saunter in and out of the water. We spot another – an adolescent – lazily drifting downstream. I shiver as I watch it pass us, grateful for the certainty of the sandbank – and for the size of the rifle resting on Nurse’s shoulder.
Deep in the gorge, we stop by another huge nyala tree, resting on bat shit-stained boulders. And then we’re off again, not stopping until we reach a series of rapids. We shake off our rucksacks, settle on a flattish spot overlooking the water and devour our lunch. Afterwards, I doze in the sun. The river gurgles, rushes, roars. And then, when it’s too hot, when it’s almost time to leave, I clamber over smooth rocks and carefully climb into the water. I sit down – in a shallow bowl-shaped groove, the bracing torrent sliding over and around me. I’m grinning stupidly; I want to laugh – because I’m busy swimming in the Kruger Park!
I visited Pafuri as a guest of Return Africa which runs three-night trails out of two tented camps in the Makuleke concession.
This piece appeared in British Airways’ High Life magazine as part of a featured called “Step Up, Step Up for the Great High Life SA Walking Challenge”. The beautiful illustration above which accompanied the piece was by Adrie le Roux.