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Exploring the North

Exploring the North

Jul 2018

By George Brits

The far northern parts of the country are a long way from Cape Town. And with a whole country of attractions in between, it’s been years since the last time we had been up there. In fact, we have never been to the far north of the Kruger. So, when the invite to a friend’s daughter’s wedding in Hoedspruit arrived, we thought: ‘It’s about time…’

The Ups and Downs of Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe has always been on our ‘to do’ list, and that was where we headed after the wedding. In what came to characterise our trip, we only arrived at reception at 5:30pm (it gets dark in these parts at six o’clock) - just to be told that the camp site was another 30km away, most of it back along the way we came in.

The park is split into two sections – separated by farmland. The camp site is in the northern section. The southern section is the hilly Mapungubwe we know from photographs and brochures.

The staff at Mapungubwe were the surliest we have dealt with in 40 years of touring our National Parks. To add insult to injury, once at the camp, we found that site no. 10 is no more than a clearing in front of the ablution block. The other nine sites are neatly tucked into the bush. It is definitely a good idea to check if the camp is full. Arrive early if it is. Fortunately, we knew, from checking Sanparks’ online booking site, that there would be turnover in camp the next day. We moved our tent as soon as the first camper left. The new arrival at no. 10 that night moved in behind us as we departed the next day!

Because of our ambitious itinerary, we only had a day to explore both sections of the park. The northern section has one of the most scenic hides we have come across, with a steady trickle of impala, giraffe, warthog, baboons and waterbuck providing entertainment and a variety of bird life fluttering about. This northern section felt a little scruffy at times, and on occasion we were not sure whether we were in the park or on a farm. But one of the campers we spoke to that evening told us they have been coming here for years and said that one can see the progress from year to year. Let’s hope that in time Sanparks gets to join up the two sections into a contiguous piece of land.

At mid-morning we headed over to the southern section of the park. It was every bit as pretty as the brochures make it out to be. Giant riverine trees, impressive baobabs, riparian plains and the iconic red hills compete for attention. On one of the riverine dirt roads we bumped into a young elephant bull as we crested a small sharp rise in the road. It is hard to tell who was most surprised, but he was clearly a lot more irritated than we were. We made a quick retreat and allowed him his 15 minutes to calm down and wander off.

Finally, a visit to the museum is well worth the trouble. It isn’t particularly large, but well presented. One can only marvel at the complexity of some of the earlier societies that called this place home.

Tiger Fishing in Makuya Game Reserve

From Mapungubwe we headed to the Pafuri River Camp, which sits just off the Pafuri Gate to the Kruger National Park. We were keen to try our hands at a bit of tiger fishing. From our research, it looked like there were three possibilities. Sam, the manager at Pafuri River Camp, immediately dashed our hopes for two of them. Their own stretch of river (Mutale river) was silted up by the 2015 floods and is now too shallow for tigers. The second was a stretch on the Levubu river to the east. But the land that the river flows through has been subsumed into the Kruger, and fishing is no longer allowed.

That left us with the stretch of the Levubu river in Makuya (it forms the boundary between Makuya and the Kruger National Park).

Things started going wrong almost immediately. First, it rained the whole night and into the next morning. We only left for Makuya at noon. Then, on arrival, we were told that fishing is only allowed on weekends and public holidays. We were there on a Friday. No amount of good natured pleading would persuade the friendly, but firm receptionist. But it turned out to be pointless anyway as the Levubu was running a beautiful chocolate brown.

We headed off to the Mutale Falls at the northern edge of the park. Apparently, the best fishing is in a pool at the base of the falls. This was confirmed by the manager of the Ivory Route Mutale Falls camp, which is a short distance from the falls. He happily told us that he regularly takes out fish from the pool, and then placed his hands about 12 inches apart to indicate size – so not big fish at all. Still, we would not mind getting a chance to have a go at them some day. From here, one is allowed to fish a long stretch of river downstream, but it is a steep hike from the road to the river from almost every point. In our view Mutale Falls is the only viable bit of river to fish unless you are up for a proper expedition on foot.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the park. The roads are tough going in places, despite the fact that the steepest sections have been stabilised with cemented stone tracks. This is not due to poor maintenance, but simply a function of the rocky terrain in some sections of the park. Definitely not meant for soft SUV-style 4x4’s. You’d probably also not want to take your Range Rover in here, unless you don’t mind adding a few scratches to the paint work.

Still, Makuya is the one place that we would like to return to at a future date. The trees are spectacular, the vistas over the Levubu river breathtaking, and the sense of being alone in a pristine stretch of wilderness very special.

Punda Maria

From the Pafuri gate we made the detour to Crook’s Corner where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet. From here, the view over the river to the other bank was ‘just another’ riverscape, in the same way that Cape Agulhas in our neck of the woods is ‘just another’ seascape. But it was still cool to tick off this beacon.

The drive to Crooke’s Corner snakes in and out of stands of huge riverine trees. Had we known that the next three days would consist almost entirely of Mopani scrubland, we would have been more in awe. Vegetation in the park was generally very dense after good summer rains, but this was to be expected. Although the Mopani scrubland made it hard to spot anything that was not pressed right up to your window, the sightings of half obscured elephant in particular was very rewarding. Our game drive of the first evening was rewarded with a sighting of a group of about eight elephants playing in a water hole for no apparent reason other than the sheer joy of it.

We stayed at Punda for two nights. In hindsight one would have sufficed.

Tsendze Rustic Campsite

After Punda, Tsendze was brilliant. Unlike the camp sites at the larger camps, which are basically large fields full of tents, Tsendze consists of around three dozen individual clearings in the bush that lie scattered along a dirt track. It gives off much more of a bush vibe. There are no pools, shops or restaurants, and generators and other noise pollutants are not allowed, not even during daylight hours. This may not be to everybody’s liking, but for real bush peace and quiet, it is hard to match.

We proudly arrived at Tsendze at 5pm, allowing a full hour to pitch camp. About 500m from the turnoff we came across a pack of hunting wild dogs. They were criss-crossing the road with no mind to the two vehicles that were following them. Eager to get back to the sighting, we dashed off to the camp gate, only to see a small notice saying: ‘Please report to reception at Mopani camp’.

Frustratingly we had just come from Mopani camp where we had lunch and spent two hours doing a load of washing. We had no choice but to sacrifice our wild dog sighting to make the 60-minute round trip back to Mopani – arriving back at Tsendze just in time to pitch camp in a race against a rapidly setting sun. At least some things stayed the same throughout the trip. We will pay more attention to Sanparks’ emails in future!

The stand-out sighting at Tsendze was the tamest herd of buffalo we have ever come across. We spent a good half hour watching these beasts grazing metres from the car and got some lovely shots of yellow billed oxpeckers to boot. Kori bustards were also all over the place, providing a few opportunities for close-up shots.

About half an hour south of Tsendze the stands of Mopani start giving way to more open bushveld. From here on we traversed an interesting variety of biomes as we made our way to the southernmost exit of the park at Crocodile Bridge.

Talamati Bush Camp

We got rained on in Pafuri River Camp, Punda Maria and Tsendze. So, it was a pleasure to end the trip with two nights at Talamati Bush Camp. Particularly since the rain followed us all the way down to Talamati. Despite two days of intermittent to heavy rain, this was by far the most productive segment of our north-south Kruger traverse. Sightings included lion (twice), black rhino, hyena cubs and a mock fight between two huge elephant bulls.

Farewell at Crocodile Bridge Camp

We don’t really count this stop as part of our Kruger experience. We had the choice of exiting at Orpen gate and take two days to get to Bloemfontein, before our final leg home to the fairest Cape. Or we could spend one last day in the Kruger and take a day to get to Bloem. Another day in the park won the toss, but it was mostly spent just leisurely cruising the southern section of the park. We knew we were getting to the end of the journey when we got ensnared in a 50-car traffic jam consisting mostly of Discoveries and similar just outside the Crocodile Bride gate on a purported lion sighting.

Mapungubwe National Park
Vhembe Trail, Mapungubwe
Kruger National Park (North and Far North)

Nightjar Travel