Where Unicorns Roam
“What would you like to see on the game drive?” It’s the standard question before heading out for a morning or evening drive. And no matter where I am – Bushveld, fynbos country, or desert – I always reply: “A pangolin and an aardvark, please!” The rangers usually smile and say something along the lines of: “An aardvark, maybe, but I have been a guide for 20 years and I have never seen a pangolin.”
Calvin de la Rey, our guide at Pafuri Camp in the Makuleke Concession bordering the far northern corner of the Kruger National Park, reacted in much the same way. He gave me that sceptical smile, but said he’d try. Adding that if I liked trees, he could always guarantee me a few of those . . . An African Unicorn It was a pretty uneventful drive, and we were just trading “get-to-know-you” questions over sundowners, when another game ranger drove past and whispered something in Calvin’s ear.
“Pack up quickly!” he shouted. “Everyone on the vehicle and hold on tight”. “What is it?” we asked. “Someone saw a pangolin.” “Stop messing with me!” I laughed. “I’m not!” he shouted as he put his foot on the accelerator.
That evening I saw my very first pangolin – a unicorn animal if ever there was one. Being reclusive and nocturnal makes it already hard to find, but add to that the fact that it’s the most poached animal in the world, and you’ll understand that coming across one in the wild really is like finding that proverbial needle in a haystack.
He was beautiful. A perfect example of elegant symmetry and practicality – the likes of which only nature can create. It was dark and you would have needed some mighty impressive photographic equipment to fully capture him, but I don’t need a photo to remember this encounter – the time I finally met a unicorn of the African bush.
Understandably, Pafuri Camp will now always have a special place in my heart. But then, it is set in such a unique part of South Africa, that it’s easy for it to find a space in most people’s hearts, pangolin or no pangolin.
RETURNAFRICA specialises in walking safaris and they offer a number of options ranging in duration from a few hours to several days out in the bush. You have a choice of roughing it in a sleeping bag under the stars; coming back to the comfort of tents and bucket showers at their walking camp; or even just opting for short walks from the luxury of the main camp – for those who want to experience the bush on foot but don’t want to forgo the comforts of G&TS and three-course meals to do it. Tree Fever If you are one of the latter types, and only do one walk while you are here, opt for the Fever Tree Forest. With its elegant, straight trunk and its distinctive top-totoe dusting of bright yellow powder, the fever tree is easily one of Southern Africa’s most beautiful trees. So you can just imagine the effect of massing thousands of them in a swathe of forest that runs for kilometres – it is utterly breathtaking. It is a photographer’s paradise, especially as its moods change throughout the day, and because it is frequented by a host of game, from herds of eland and zebra to baboons and buffalo. Nearby Reedbuck Vlei forms part of the Makuleki Wetlands, an important Ramsar site for migrating water birds. On a good day, you could see hundreds of yellow-billed storks here, as well as spoonbills, various types of geese, herons, and even pelicans. The Baobabs Are Watching As well as its fever trees, this far northern corner of the country is also well-known for its baobabs. You’ll virtually trip over them as you explore the concession, with each one seeming to dwarf the one before it. None, however, even come close to the Big Baobab of Pafuri – a spectacular behemoth of a tree that has been watching over this landscape for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It would have watched over this land when few, if any, humans walked it; it would have witnessed great floods and droughts; and it would have cast a wary eye over the shenanigans of the poachers and outlaws who encamped up here in the early 20th century to evade the long arm of the law.
Most famous among these outlaws was Bvekenya (“the man who swaggers” in Shangaan), a notoriously successful elephant hunter who favoured this part of the country due to the confluence of the borders of three countries – South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe – where the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers meet. It made border-hopping all the easier, from whichever country’s lawmen were on their way, into either of the other two whose lawmen weren’t. Little wonder that this border intersection is known – even today – as Crook’s Corner.
These days, the giant baobab mainly watches over tourists and animals, including a whisper of moths who rise up in a wonderful flurry of orange wings when you wander past.
To feel a little bit like what it must be like to be a giant baobab, it’s worth having an evening sundowner stop at Lanner Gorge. The gorge is a spectacular monument to the power of nature, as the Luvuvhu River has carved out its steep sides (in some places as high as 150 m) over millennia. Dinosaur fossils have even been found here.
Standing atop a rocky outcrop, glass of wine in hand, looking down into the gorge, everything seems small and dwarf-like and for a brief moment, you feel a little like an ancient baobab. Of all the places you could root yourself to spend the next few hundred years, I doubt there are many more spectacular than Pafuri – for trees and humans alike.
For more info, visit www.mtbeds.co.za, or call +27 11 921 0280.