Across the North
I leave Botswana as smoothly as I arrived, fortified by coffee and a deep sense of contentment. Yes, I am dog-tired, and yes, this is a really stupid schedule to keep to, but still: elephants! A day-old giraffe!
I spend less than an hour in Mapungubwe National Park, when three days at least is needed (stay at Mopane Bush Lodge, in its own huge game reserve over the main road, or at one of the National Park camps - Leokwe is more accessible, in a lovely little valley, Limpopo Forest Camp and Vhembe Camp more remote and basic, but both are a cheaper way of accessing this landscape than a catered, hosted lodge. Book through sanparks.org). The landscape has the same inselbergs, or kopjes (I have no idea what the difference is) as Tuli and, if anything, it is more beautiful. I see two white rhino (there are many more of these, and it is a good place to see cheetah and elephants too) but don't make it as far as any of the highlights: ancient rock art, as well as the archaeological remains of Mapungubwe's sophisticated 13th century kingdom, which traded with China and India, and where excavations revealed the famous golden rhino, and other gold artefacts, now in the interpretation centre. You can drive yourself around or join a tour, with walkways to various sites and viewpoints accessible with a guide, although you can get to the viewpoint overlooking the Shashe and Limpopo confluence, which looks spectacular on Google (look, I had one week for a whole province, ok?) on your own. Other activities include tree top walks between riverside trees, night drives and bird hides. I move on, frustrated but knowing I will be back. This World Heritage Site, site of South Africa's first civilization, is blissfully uncrowded.
The road across the north of Limpopo has long straights across undulating Mopane landscapes, with big skies, baobabs and potholes to keep it interesting. Either side of the road are game farms, stressed bush - stunted trees and no grass. I can't help wondering what this would look like if all the fences came down - another Kruger perhaps. I drop my passenger, a lady travelling from Mapungubwe, at a turning on the outskirts of Musina, next to a sign which says 'High crime area, do not stop', but all is quiet, and she knows where she is going.
Beyond this busy, functional border town is a nature reserve full of giant baobabs. Needless to say, I don't have time to stop, and it's soon back to a rolling landscape, with hornbills and rollers dipping across the road in front of me. The pleasant monotony is broken after an hour by a lush citrus farm, then a cheek-by-jowl campsite, which makes no sense given the space available. Finally, I enter northern Venda, the final 80km stretch before the Kruger Park, and the landscape becomes more varied and farmed. Poor shacks and substantial houses alternate along the roadside, most immaculately kept, with the occasional shop and assorted animals. Strong brown cattle, well-fed goats and put-upon donkeys, some straying into the road, which I can't help thinking adds to their stress.
Finally, I pass Awelani Lodge - a good option for tighter budgets - and I am at Pafuri gate, Kruger's most northerly entrance. It has been a 3 hour drive from Mapungubwe, and I have 30 more minutes to my destination - the spectacular Return Africa Camp in the Makuleke concession. I haven't been to the park since 2002, and never came this far north. Few visitors do. This, it will become apparent over the next two days, is a serious mistake. The environment is no longer stressed, and nor am I. The trees are bigger, bright yellow butterflies flutter across the road, and the same birds - hornbills and rollers - are more abundant. I see kudus, a warthog, an abundance of impalas, and finally I am at the lodge.
It is the focal point of my trip: one of the most high-profile post-Apartheid land restitutions in South Africa, taken from the Makuleke people in 1969 to extend Kruger Park to the Zimbabwe border and restored 30 years later after a land claim. In protracted internal debate, it was the young people of the community's argument which won the day. This was that its land use - wilderness - should be maintained and exploited for the gain of all in the Makuleke community, now based 100 kilometres to the south, near Punda Maria gate. It is this collective vision I am here to experience: a community-driven beacon for the country's tourism industry, a lodge with a deep appreciation of the delicate balance between all stakeholders in a wilderness business: community, visitor, nature and, yes, shareholder. It exists to generate revenue, but not just that, and not just for itself. It also exists to connect people, both employees and visitors, with a truly special wild place, to preserve it, and also to make money for an operator who will use at least some of it to develop similar places. This is the entire point of my website, Many Africas - promoting places which get this balance right. To my mind, it is the best way forward for African wilderness.
A smiling Ezrah comes down from the camp office along a boardwalk - everything is elevated, to preserve animal movement to and from the river, and presumably to keep humans safer too. I am introduced to Enos, the manager - more on him later -, whose personal story, and that of so many people who work here, is woven into that of the camp and the Makuleke concession itself. I just have time to walk with him past the extensive decks overlooking the Luvuvhu river to my beautiful riverside 'tent'. I drop my bag and come straight back for the drive, grabbing a few savoury muffins as I go.
My guide is Bongani Nwaila, and a more engaging character would be hard to find, a twentysomething fount of knowledge and infectious enthusiasm for this environment, his environment. The sense of belonging and ownership is palpable. Later, over dinner, we talk. He is tired (not many days off in this job) but still keen to host me - a table for one is not acceptable here, (unless you want it!). He gets it from his grandmother he says, who grew up here, in one of the seven villages emptied in 1969, and raised him in Makuleke village. He came to the camp aged 17 to work as a general assistant, and accessed the community's education fund to train as a paramedic in Louis Trichardt, three hours southwest, before coming back to work here in that capacity, deciding it wasn't for him, and becoming a guide through sheer hard work - Bongani frames it as simple curiosity, but his bird and guiding books look extremely well-thumbed. He has been doing it for 3 years, and it is clearly something he loves - simply being here, sharing it with guests, although he has ambitions for further study. We talk about rewilding, about the legal restitution of Makuleke to its previous owners, about the 2013 flood and the changes it brought about - giraffes disappearing from the area, for instance, but also a new relationship between the camp and the Makuleke community.
But now, I join him and two families, one from the Western Cape and one from Belgium (visitors, Enos tells me later, are 50% local and 50% international). Bongani starts with a rash promise about leopards, which gets everyone in the mood, but after a quick conference with other guides, and with the two families, we decide to head to a sundowner spot overlooking Lanner Gorge, one of many spectacular landscapes here in the northernmost part of the wider Kruger Park. We will look for a specific female leopard on the way back, with spotlights, as this is where she was seen the day before. It is her territory, after all - there is a growing knowledge of the habits of local leopards and other species, shared across the guides, and it is this familiarity, love, excitement, contentment (for example: "I love these old guys - they've seen it all" - a throwaway remark the next day about an old bull elephant grazing peacefully alongside us, which communicates so much - enthusiasm, knowledge, pleasure), rather than merely cold, hard facts, which underpins the excellent guiding I experience over the next couple of days.
It is a measure of the size of this concession that it takes us an hour to get to the gorge, first on the tarred road towards Pafuri gate, then along sandy tracks through dense woodland. We see elephants and kudu on the main road, and elephant dung on the track. We also have it to ourselves, as individual guides work hard not to 'crowd' (read: 'encounter') one another. The view, when we get there, walking up a short track onto a lookout point, is astonishing: a deep, winding gorge, which we can see in the distance will flatten out eventually (the river runs past the camp after the gorge), and a view of wilderness stretching 50km or more to the east, into Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. As the sun sets behind us, a murmuring, grinning group (how many different ways can you say 'wow'?), a single, faint man-made light is visible in the east: the border post. Beneath our feet, a mouse darts in and out of a hiding place, grabbing peanuts we accidentally drop. We are clearly not the first people ever to come up here, but it feels like it. The view is of a sort of Eden, a stunning rebuke to those who suggest that Kruger "isn't really wild" (to be fair, this is usually people - I want to point the finger at Kenyans here, but I've heard it elsewhere too - who haven't been).
We don't see the leopard on the way back, but really don't mind. We know she is out there, and are chatting away, enthused by the sunset we shared, and now by the challenge of seeing eyes reflected back in the spotlight. It is a lovely start to my stay, this shared buzz, and also something which rarely fails to happen, in my experience - if you have come to the far end or Kruger, or any wild, tucked-away corner of the continent, you will find you have a curiosity in common with the strangers next to you. You all want to be there (hardcore birders are perhaps harder to please, more anxious to spot rarities, but they are also well - and separately! - catered-for here: Pel's Fishing Owl is the highlight). This is not a place to tick off the Big Five especially, though they are present, but we do spot genets, hyenas, a lesser-spotted eagle owl and various antelope species. The area does have unique landscapes - a fever tree forest, for instance, and riverine bush with broad vistas across the Limpopo, complete with stunning birdlife and butterflies, even in midwinter. And prides of lion do come north, roaring as they cross the Luvhuhu, when it gets really dry in August and September - Bongani's favourite time of the year. But for me, what clinches it over two days, is the sense of space and wilderness you get, compared to the undoubtedly wildlife-rich but compact concessions abutting the Kruger Park further south - the Timbavati and the Sabi reserves. This, allied with a growing intimate knowledge of the local wildlife's ranges and habits, is what will make this camp truly special, if it isn't already.
Having sat next to Bongani for two days, scribbling in a notebook and taking photos, I could keep writing for hours about Makuleke, but at some point on my second day there, I had the idea for a separate post entitled "what I learned on one game drive", based on my fourth and last drive with him (for now!), to give a 'real-time' flavour of how a drive out from Return Africa Camp might develop, which I will post shortly. It was a magical few hours of parallel and interwoven narratives, from the micro to the macro (the game drive, that is - my writing, I'm not so sure...). In the meantime, I will be briefer on the next 24 hours of my trip.
The next morning's drive began cloudy and cold, a fine misty near-rain coating us but not doing enough to soak us. We drive north to the Limpopo, through acacia and mopane veld. Bongani turns schoolteacher when we meet the old elephant-bull-who's-seen-it-all, addressing the two curious South African boys behind him (and the rest of us, obviously, but he is using the boys to create a classroom dynamic - adults on their own resist it more, Enos will tell me later.) "Is this guy left or right-handed?" he asks. We immediately look at his feet for clues, but the answer is in a broken left tusk, his dominant side. The group revise an elephant lesson from the morning before - ("How do they sleep?" - leaning against trees, apparently) and we move on to osteophagia - the consumption of bones - as Bongani stops and jumps out of the car next to some hyena scat - prized by leopard tortoises for its calcium content, from which we can deduce that hyena eat every bit of the carcasses they scavenge, bones and all.
More elephants - "an old bull and his apprentice" -, and a pair of enormous Kori bustards later, we are set a bird-spotting challenge. I am the last to see it, but nobody gets it quickly. A pair of spotted thick-knees, nocturnal birds at least 2ft high, are sitting immobile on a branch not 20 yards from us, virtually invisible. We move across the open floodplain towards the riverside, passing an indicator of modern conservation - a row of man-made water points, placed there to encourage elephants not to cross to Zimbabwe "to crop raid" in the dry season - studies of collared elephants suggest a change in behaviour as human populations grow in elephants' previous range - typically, collared elephants will turn back within 10km, sometimes undetected, sometimes with conflict. It is 70km to Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe. There could be a wildlife corridor preserved here, but it requires more research and investment.
Along the riverside, little bee-eaters fly above us, as do their quarry, clouds of butterflies. We find a troop of baboons, 'feeding' impala. They are sitting in a nyala berry tree, dropping titbits down to them. It is not entirely selfless of them - impala have excellent hearing and sense of smell. Coupled with the baboons' eyesight, this is better sensory coverage in terms of predator awareness. Finally, we have a wonderful coffee break overlooking the dry bed of the wide Limpopo, its languid flow continuing mostly under the sand in these dry months.
I talk to Enos after brunch. An ex-guide, he has been here for over 15 years, with stints at the highly-regarded Singita Lebombo and in the Waterberg, and was a clear voice for eco-tourism in the four years of debate in the land restitution process during the 1990s. With different proposal on the table - agriculture, mining - falling away for want of a concrete plan, and resistance from Kruger National Park to any but its current land use, the younger voices won through. Having worked at the camp's previous incarnation, under Wilderness Safaris management, before the 2013 flood which washed away the old camp, Enos was part of the rebuilding team, and so many of the young faces in camp began their careers reconstructing this special place. Over 90% of staff are from Makuleke village, with first preference for each job given to locals. In addition, there is substantial in-house training, and funds for training offsite. The guide-training venture which operates in the concession trains local guides too, and the result is that buzziest of words, 'uplift', but self-generated, self-organised and substantial. It is the antithesis of a superimposed first-world enterprise drawing only what it needs from the local environment and paying lip service to 'community': this is the real deal - development and conservation, hand in hand, is its raison d'être. Enos is proud of the camp's record so far, but wants occupancy to go up (which is where I come in, and you). It is a simple win-win: the more people come here to experience the environment, the more money flows into the community. And what an environment! 75% of the Kruger's biodiversity on 1% of the land, 6 vegetation types, vistas, so many rich processes and interactions to experience (which I will describe in the next post) but above all, a happy, friendly, welcoming camp in a beautiful setting. 24 hours after talking to Enos, I drive south to Punda Maria with a big grin on my face, replenished. I came for the wildlife and departed with an enhanced faith in humanity.