Some places — perhaps most places — slide past you as soon as you leave them; the impressions they leave are slippery and fading. Others are more stubborn; they get stuck; they become part of you and insist you return, again and again. Pafuri is like that for me. An about 240km² triangle wedged up against Zimbabwe and Mozambique, it forms a mere 1% of Kruger National Park and yet features a whopping 75% of its biodiversity.
While lions are scarce and rhino non-existent, Pafuri is still a bush-lover’s paradise. It has an astonishingly diverse array of landscapes — from lala palm-studded plains to dense mopane-covered hillside — and is home to about 350 bird species, including the rare Pel’s fishing owl. This fluffy recluse has given its name to Pafuri’s newest and most exclusive lodge: Pel’s Post, which consists of four effortlessly stylish rooms perched discreetly on a ridge. When it comes to safaris, this is the very epitome of a room with a view: with the press of a button, floor-to-ceiling motorised blinds rise, putting the Luvuvhu River and rumpled bushveld beyond it on centre stage.
When we arrive, the late afternoon light is as thick and golden as syrup, flaring on distant baobabs’ yellowing leaves. We eschew a game drive, opting instead for a swim in the large, slightly bracing pool. That night, a fire in the grate keeps the autumn chill at bay. Dinner is spinach and feta ravioli followed by a rack of lamb, and like much of the food here, both dishes are delicious. With the exception of our attentive server and the kitchen staff, we have the place to ourselves. Although Pel’s Post was designed for single-use bookings — happily the rooms are spaced far enough apart so that your mother-in-law can’t bother you during siesta — it can also be booked on a per person sharing basis too.
When we’re woken the next morning, it’s still pitch-black. Minutes after leaving the lodge in a Land Rover, we spot a large male leopard padding silently between bushes. We hear a crash: the lumbering progress of a solitary elephant chomping on mopane leaves.
Half an hour later, we’re surrounded by riverine forest: the soaring ana tree, the quirky, twisting apple-leaf, the towering nyala berry. This gives way to a forest of fever trees. We stop under the ghostly, yellow-green branches. We see the inky blotch of a buffalo meandering between faraway trunks. A giant eagle owl swoops to a branch and settles, watching a baboon troop congregate on the ground. A vervet approaches, wondering if he should join us for morning coffee, but seems to think better of it.
After a sublime eggs benedict back at the lodge, we lounge by the pool, playing Scrabble, drinking chenin blanc, keeping an eye out for crocodiles or hippo traversing the water below. Time has slowed down; it feels narcotically tranquil, and that’s not just thanks to the white wine: Pafuri has a way of making sure the stress and din of city life are wondrously faraway.
The next morning we go walking, my favourite way to experience the bush. Not only does stretching your legs help to make amends for at least some of the calories from big brunches and tasty teatime canapés; one also becomes truly immersed in the bush, in a way that’s impossible from the bumpy cocoon of a game viewer vehicle. On foot, your senses become quickly attenuated — to alarm calls, smells, movement. And you spot the little things: a column of Matabele ants on the hunt, for example; a warthog’s burrow commandeered by cheeky jackals.
As we slowly walk across the floodplain, we spot a pair of southern ground hornbills, which given their endangered status, makes them all the more special. A brown snake eagle and a white-backed vulture sit together companionably on a dead tree branch. Close to a pan, there are tracks: a hyena’s claws, a croc’s tail swished in the sand. Our guide points out the dried mud on apple leaf tree trunks; this is from elephants trying to remove ticks and other parasites from their skin.
As we enter the jackalberry-shaded Hutwini Gorge, an excitable dassie is alarm calling. Given their paranoia, it’s probably nothing; but we proceed cautiously, anyway. We admire the tenacious roots of large-leafed rock figs worming their way through the soft sandstone, causing the rock to disintegrate. Our guide picks up what looks like a hairy piece of old twine but is actually the remnants of baobab fibres that were chewed by elephants: they eat this when water is scarce (baobabs are about 45% water). Finally we reach the crest of the hill, looking beyond the river to where we can just make out the distant stone ruins of Thulamela, site of an ancient Iron Age kingdom.
We pass evidence of far more recent human habitation: the circular indentations carved in smooth, flat stone that was used for morabaraba, a game the shepherds that once minded their livestock here played. These carvings are a reminder that the history of Pafuri is a fraught and complicated one and that this pristine wilderness was also, for some people, a home.
In 1969, the Makuleke people who lived here were forcibly removed to allow for the expansion of the Kruger National Park. This is a story that promises to have a happy ending, however. After a successful land claim in the late 1990s, ownership of the land between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers was returned to the community. Recognising the value of conservation, the Makuleke decided to keep this a protected area managed by SA National Parks. As of one three private concessionaires on the land, Rare Earth contributes to the community’s wellbeing through community levies and employment opportunities.
In fact, 95% of those employed by Pel’s Post and its sister lodge, The Outpost, come from this community. This includes our charming and knowledgable guide, Phanny Risimati, who was born near Crook’s Corner, a few months before the forced removals. For Risimati, guiding here is more than just a job: it’s a homecoming.
For our last afternoon drive, we go to Lanner Gorge, where cliffs crumble majestically down to swirling rapids. The veld unfolds interminably beyond us, with not a single building or person in sight. We perch on top of an outcrop, sipping gin and tonic as the shadows deepen and the sun sets the sky ablaze. On our drive back to Pel’s Post, Risimati’s torch flashes over a juvenile female leopard slinking through the undergrowth. We stop. There’s another manic dassie call, and this time the alarm is justified. We leave her to pursue her quarry. It’s the perfect ending to another day in paradise.