By Keri Harvey
Crooks’ Corner was an unlikely place for peaceful sundowners in the old days. Gun runners, ivory poachers and many a shifty character used to hide out here to dodge the law. Right in the top north-eastern corner of the Kruger National Park where South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe meet, it was the ideal spot for the unscrupulous to hop over the border before the law caught up with them. Today, it’s a place of perfect calm, idyllic and teeming with wildlife.
Hippos wallow in the river and crocodiles sun themselves on the sandy banks, where the Luvuvhu River flows into the mighty Limpopo. Our game drive party sips iced drinks and listens to elephants snap branches in the distance, as ranger Godfrey Baloyi regales us with stories of bandits and bush lore. Godfrey is from Wilderness Adventures’ Pafuri Camp, a place close to his heart and roots.
“I am Makuleke and this is my ancestral land, so I’m actually right at home here,” he smiles. In an historical land claim, the Makulekes won back their tribal territory within the park, the conservation side of which is managed by Kruger. And now luxury Pafuri Camp is owned and run hand-in-hand with the Makuleke people, in a win-win agreement. Tomorrow we will meet Chief Makuleke in his village of blue and green huts, and watch traditional dancers share their proud heritage. Then there are also the ruins of Thulamela to see, not far from Pafuri Camp. It’s believed that when the people of Mapungubwe fled their kingdom, some folk came to Thulamela, while others established majestic Great Zimbabwe over the border.
If you’re visiting NORTHERN KRUGER for its mopane landscape sprinkled with giant baobab trees, SANParks’s Punda Maria camp—one of 26 camps in the park—is also ideally situated. From here, game drives could yield sightings of rare antelope such as roan, sable and nyala, along with eland and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. There are abundant elephant and buffalo too—and lion, cheetah and leopard are often seen. The riverine woodland along the Luvuvhu River is where birders will be enchanted by the rare Pel’s fishing owl, Narina trogon, and an assortment of vibrantly coloured bee-eaters, robins and rollers—and there are plenty of raptors too. Birding in northern Kruger is simply spectacular.
It’s a full day’s drive from the far north to CENTRAL KRUGER, but there’s game viewing all the way. Heading south towards Hamilton’s lodge in the vicinity of Orpen Gate, we lose count of the different species we spot en route, and it’s clear to us why central Kruger is considered the most game-rich area of the park. Herds of elephant, white rhino and antelope in vast numbers are all out today, enjoying the African sunshine. In a mega reserve that’s around 20 000km² big—roughly the same size as Israel—there is an exceptionally rich mix of wildlife. Around 150 different mammal species and over 500 different types of birds live in the park. The landscape is extremely diverse, too, from open savannah for grazers to woodland and riverine forests, and the rugged Lebombo mountains in the east. Over 330 different tree species are found in the park, and over 50 different types of fish in its rivers. Prolific reptiles, amphibians and insects—they’re all there, completing the rich ecosystem for which Kruger is renowned.
Arriving at Hamilton’s Tented Camp, a private game lodge in one of the handful of private concession areas of the park, we are greeted by a pride of lions that have made a kill close to the lodge entrance. This area is literally roaring with lions, and their reverberating calls can be heard deep into the night. However, the SANParks camps of Satara—considered the best camp in the park by many—and Letaba, with its resident bushbuck, are also choice camps from which to see this middle section of Kruger. The Elephant Hall museum at Letaba has immortalised the legendary Magnificent Seven, Kruger’s ultra-big tusker elephants. Mafunyane, Tshokwane, João and Duke’s tusks are all there to marvel at.
Ironically, leaving Hamilton’s is just as rewarding as arriving there. A massive herd of rare roan antelope watch us approach along the dusty road. We stop to soak up the sight of these majestic antelope that are so seldom seen, yet here before us is a herd so big it’s difficult to count them. Right now, Skukuza can wait. For a full hour we watch their every move and save the memory securely.
Skukuza is named after the first warden of Kruger, Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton; Skukuza was his nickname. It means ‘to sweep clean’, because the colonel had no patience with poachers or anyone disrespecting wildlife. There’s a memorial library dedicated to him too in Skukuza, capital of Kruger.
Arriving in Skukuza is the polar opposite of the remote wilderness areas of the far north. Here there’s a bank, post office, ATM, laundry, and more—all the things that make a little town come together. You can get it, buy it, or do it in Skukuza. The camp may be busy, but it doesn’t detract from its popularity and excellent location for game viewing. It’s by far the largest camp in the park, but well designed to remain peaceful. Skukuza is also the gateway to SOUTHERN KRUGER, with its teeming game, and excellent sightings of wild dogs and rare black rhino among its offerings. If you want to see rhino, the south has more than anywhere else in the park.
If it’s remote wilderness, extraordinary birding, and more unusual wildlife you’re after, choose northern Kruger. For abundant wildlife across dozens of species, head for central Kruger. And for easy access to the park from Gauteng, enter the southern section of the park, where there’s also plenty of everything to see.
Kruger has something for everyone. It’s the ultimate mega wildlife reserve in South Africa and the flagship park of South African National Parks. If you’re African or love this wild continent, you’ll feel instantly at home here, just like Godfrey Baloyi does. While he’s Makuleke and has a special personal stake in the park, Kruger is every South African’s ‘ancestral land’.
Kruger National Park. Tel. 013-735-4000 or Web. www.sanparks.org. Wilderness Adventures’ Pafuri Camp. Tel. 011-257-5111 or Web. www.wilderness-adventures.com. Hamiltons Tented Camp. Web. www.hamiltonstentedcamp.co.za
What to Know When Visiting the Kruger
BEST TIMES TO VISIT
Each season in Kruger has its own highlights, with game viewing best during the dry winter months when malaria is also less prevalent. To see migrant birds, flowers and baby animals, the rainy season of October to March is best, though it can be hot and humid, too. Malaria precautions are also necessary during summer. If you want to see maximum game in just a couple of days, visit in July or August. Kruger National Park Malaria Hotline. Tel. 082-234-1800
WHERE TO STAY
Kruger has 26 camps offering a very wide selection of accommodation, from multi-roomed guest houses to comfortable furnished tents, or camping grounds where you can pitch your own tent or park your caravan. SANParks Reservations, Pretoria. Tel. 012-428-9111. Web. www.sanparks.org
1. GAME DRIVES are available from many SANParks camps and must be booked in advance.
2. ADVENTURE TRAILS include Madlabantu at Pretoriuskop in the south. Tel. 013-735-5128, and Mananga at Satara in central Kruger. Tel. 013-735-6306.
3. There are seven WILDERNESS TRAILS to choose from in Kruger: the Bushman’s and Wolhuter trails near Berg-en-Dal, and the Napi Trail near Pretoriuskop in the south; Metsi-Metsi Trail, the Sweni Trail near Satara, and the Olifants Trail between Letaba and Olifants in Central Kruger; and the Nyalaland Trail near Punda Maria in the north.
4. Lebombo Overland Eco Trail for 4X4 VEHICLES is five days and four nights following the Lebombo Mountains from south to north. Other 4x4 adventure trails include the one-day Madlabantu self-guided trail from Pretoriuskop south, and the Mananga adventure trail starting 11km from Satara and heading north. It’s also self-guided. In central Kruger, the Malopeni Overnight Eco Trail is a guided one-night, 4x4 adventure trial, travelling management roads north-east of Phalaborwa Gate and up the Letaba River. Vehicles must be equipped for camping. Tel. 012-426-5117. Web. www.sanparks.org
5. BACKPACKING TRAILS include the Olifants River and Mphongolo backpack trails. Tel. 012-426-5111. Email. email@example.com
6. SKUKUZA GOLF COURSE offers an interesting nine holes amid visitations from various wildlife. The course is unfenced.