We are holding beers, chewing on droëwors, staring at the Limpopo – fat and milky, it laps at our feet, stretching to Zimbabwe’s empty sandbanks.
Sarah Nurse, our guide, has driven us past vast and ancient baobabs; we’ve watched mosque swallows flit about shepherd’s trees, smelt the herby freshness of dwarf sage, before entering the dense bush that shoulders the river.
This is the northern edge of the Kruger National Park, an area called Pafuri. The Mozambican border post at Crook’s Corner is only a few kilometres away. Although this region only makes up about 1% of the park, Sarah explains it’s home to an astonishing 75% of its biodiversity. Perhaps this explains its very different feel to the rest of Kruger – the veld feels denser, richer, taller here.
A gorgeous shrike calls, marking our time to return to The Outpost Lodge, our home for three nights. The dark settles quickly. We make our way back, from meandering gravel onto tar. The headlamps pick out a dazed, fluffy nightjar sitting on the road. A buttered popcorn smell wafts up: leopard pee.
We are standing at Palm Springs – a muddy pool above which frogs have made their foamy nests. We start walking down towards a stream. Sarah is in front, carrying a rifle. Grey-headed parrots squawk above us, observing our slow progress ass we crunch and sniff the small lavender fever berry leaves, inhale the clean scent of wild basil. Sarah spots hyena and leopard footprints in the mud, picks up a terrapin that’s been lurking in the water. We walk through a narrow gorge. Mountain mahoganies with wooden banana-shaped pods cling to the cliffs, counterparts to tenacious rock figs.
After some juice overlooking the Luvuvhu river, we walk back towards the Land Rover. We hear the yellow-billed oxpecker’s call and, sure enough, the grunts of buffalo, muffled by long grass. A martial eagle floats over us.
Walking in the wild is very different to being on a game drive vehicle. You become a part of the environment. To stay safe the bush has to be decoded – the sounds and sights and smells of possible danger. You have to concentrate more. Walking is not about box-ticking the Big Five: it’s about experiencing the bush’s ecology. The quieter and slower pace enables you to explore, inquire, investigate – using your senses more powerfully. And, of course, you’re able to get to places that are impassable for a vehicle.
Back at the lodge: a yummy omlette and then a walk along the walkway which connects the 12 rooms. Each is strung out like a necklace along an outcrop overlooking the Luvuvhu. Designed by Enrico Daffonchio, they have blinds instead of walls on three sides.
I wash in the oval concrete tub. The view feels unchanged, timeless. This is an illusion, though: the wide sandbank down below didn’t exist before a major flood surged through here in early 2013. There are signs of its fury everywhere – ripped out trees, branches fanned out downstream.
We nap – it has been an early start. Birdcalls wake us, carried on the afternoon breeze rippling through the room. From the bed we watch the river’s lazy swirls, the dense green bush, hills disturbing the horizon. Countless puffy clouds map the sky, constant as wallpaper.
After a late lunch, a game drive. Butterflies greet us; remarkably, they’ve migrated all the way from the Kalahari. Soaring white syringas line the road. On gravel again we enter Mopani veld. Nyalas dash ahead of us. Buffalo, with horns like 18th Century wigs, stare and then lumber away crossly.
A birding couple has accompanied us. They insist on stopping every minute or so to get their fix. If birding is an addiction, then Pafuri is an all-you-can-inhale meth lab, home to hundreds of elusive species.
Birder husband angles a camera with a bazooka-long lens at the sky. Birder wife thumbs through their reference book. Their smiles gleam at the sight of a village indigobird in breeding plumage and, later, a plum coloured starling.
We are closer to the river now. Quirky apple-leaf trees ponder their way up to the sky. There are stately nyala-berry trees. Cicadas buzz in the grassy afternoon heat. We enter a fever tree forest; bark yellow-green, leaves meshing the sky. African hawk eagles swoop between branches; a vervet dances along a trunk. As we finish our drinks, nighttime arrives; the trees become black cutouts against the deepening sky. We do a detour on the way home; a massive owl screeches from a branch. Themoon rises: huge, proud, yellow. A firefly races through the open vehicle past me.
A new morning, a new walk. Sarah drives us past a “no entry” sign – the gravel tracks are The Outpost’s domain, closed to the public. Eland depart hurriedly as the Landy approaches. The birders ecstatically see a tiny pearl-spotted owl sitting on a branch of an acacia. In a yellow carpet of leafed devil thorn flowers is a kori bustard, one of the heaviest flying birds.
We scrape past umbrella thorn trees. Sarah shows us a baobab with a trunk like a melting cylinder of candle wax. Its hollow interior was once home to three leopard cubs. We get out of the vehicle, walking down towards the Limpopo floodplain pastGhila pan to the biggest baobab in the area. Between1200 and 1400 years old, it has a 27m circumference. We climb up. Far down below, the birders appear minute, harmless.
Back on the ground, we spot the rags of impala fur, vulture shit, feathers. We walk to a string of pans under fever trees – a Ramsar birding site. A hamerkop and a crocodile keep at a distance from each other.
The birders will not be joining us for our sunset drive. Instead, they will head out with another guide much later, in search of the elusive Pel’s fishing owl.
We go to Lanner gorge: a line of densely forested, crumbling cliffs. On top of a sandstone outcrop we crack open beers. Across the Luvuvhu, in the distance, are 20,000 baobabs, Sarah tells us. Zimbabwe’s hills are behind us; Mozambique is a smudge to our left.
On our way back to the lodge we spot two gents admiring the sunset. One is a local guide stationed at the nearby guiding training college; the other is a banker-turned tree obsessive who is busy writing a field guide to Kruger trees in his spare time.
For our last dinner, we sit in the courtyard again. Our servers, charming and friendly, are from the Makuleke community. Forcibly removed more than 40 years ago, the Makuleke people now own the land again. It is a story of land restitution gone right – SANParks manages and protects the area while The Outpost, currently the only accommodation in the area, pays levies to the community and provides employment.
I am sorry to be leaving this place. This is not because I haven’t seen a lion (or even an elephant) yet. Rather, it’s because I know I am going to miss this quiet eden – a place of astonishing ecological complexity which, over the past three days, has been adroitly revealed by Sarah.
I’ll be missing our room with a view too.
An edited version of this article appeared in the April 2014 edition of Wanted magazine under the heading “Quiet Eden”. I visited Pafuri as a guest of The Outpost.