Makuleke community drama song

Pafuri: A Beautiful Place With an Ugly History, Turned Beautiful Again

Once upon a time, the Makuleke people lived on a triangle-shaped piece of land, bordered by two rivers, at the intersection of three countries. The land was beautiful and fertile, with a huge diversity of animals and the mightiest trees in the world. This triangle was called Pafuri.

In 1969, at the height of South Africa’s apartheid, the Makuleke were “removed” from the Pafuri Triangle so the area could be incorporated into the Kruger National Park. Men with guns drove trucks into the Makuleke villages, rounded up the people, and drove them to a barren piece of land a couple of hours away. The people — mostly women, children, and elderly men, as the younger men were away working — were dumped and given tents to sleep in. The men with guns left, and the Makuleke had to start over.

This is a grossly oversimplified description of what happened. I’m a blogger, not a historian.

The Luvuvhu River in PafuriA typical scene in the Pafuri Triangle, on a bridge overlooking the Luvuvhu River. It probably looked much the same in 1969.

Traditional Makuleke homeA traditional home in the area where the Makuleke were forcibly removed, 90 minutes’ drive from the Pafuri Triangle.

When democracy came to South Africa in the 1990s, the Makuleke filed a claim to get their land back. They won. But after much consideration and negotiation, the Makuleke elected not to return to their land. They stayed where they were and entered into an agreement with the South African government to preserve the Pafuri Triangle for conservation and ecotourism.

Technically still part of the Kruger, the Pafuri Triangle is now called the “Makuleke Contractual Park”. There are two privately owned, luxury eco-lodges in the park, staffed almost exclusively by people from Makuleke. The Makuleke community owns this land and receives a portion of the income from the lodges, which goes toward public works projects in the Makuleke villages.

This brings me back to last weekend, when I spent a few days at ReturnAfrica‘s Pafuri Camp in the Makuleke Contractual Park.

Pafuri Makuleke-8650You’ve probably already seen this elephant in my pervious post. I couldn’t resist showing him off again.

I was really excited about this trip. I had visited Pafuri once before, on my first-ever media trip five years ago. Back then the camp was run by Wilderness Safaris and I participated in the four-day walking trail; we stayed in a rustic campground away from the main lodge and explored Pafuri on foot. It was my first walking safari and I was enthralled.

Two years after that visit, in 2013, Pafuri was ravaged by a flood that destroyed the Pafuri Camp lodge. Wilderness Safaris withdrew from Pafuri, leaving all of the local staff without jobs. I remember hearing about that flood and feeling very sad.

But now, the good news. ReturnAfrica took over the Pafuri Camp last year, in partnership with the Makuleke community and the African Safari Foundation. Many of the Makuleke people who worked here before the floods have returned, and the lodge has more of a community focus than before.

The Pafuri Camp

This post is already long and I haven’t written about my actual experience yet. So let me boil it down for you: My stay at the Pafuri Camp was amazing — definitely the nicest safari accommodation I have ever stayed in. My game drives were fantastic, as you saw in my previous post. And my visit to the Makuleke Community, where I learned most of the information shared above, was the best part of the trip.

First, the lodge:

Pafuri safari tentOne of the thatch-roofed safari tents at Pafuri Camp. There are about 20 of these luxurious tents, widely spaced from one another and connected by wooden decks. All of the tents overlook the river, which teems with wildlife.

Inside Pafuri tentThe inside of my tent, which also has a full bathroom, indoor and outdoor showers, and two more beds at the back. This room was so peaceful and comfortable, with nothing to listen to other than bird calls and the sound of buffalo and waterbuck wading through the shallow river. I wanted to stay forever.

The cost of a stay in one of these tents starts at about R2300 ($146) per person, per night, including meals. This might sound expensive, but it’s a good deal for luxury accommodation in or around the Kruger. I’ve stayed in far worse places that cost as much or more than Pafuri. I can’t recommend this lodge highly enough.

Pafuri Makuleke-8617A saddle-billed stork, one of the Birding Big 6, spotted outside my tent.

Pafuri afternoon teaAfternoon tea in the dining area.

Visiting the Makuleke

I’ve got more camp and safari pictures but I think you get the idea. Let me skip to our Makuleke visit.

I was wary of this visit, worried that it might feel like those fake cultural villages that are supposed to teach unwitting tourists about “authentic” African life. It was nothing of the sort. Mukuleke is a real place and we were taken there without pretence, as observers.

Ford Escort in MakulekeEnos, one of our guides in Makuleke who is also a manager at the Pafuri Camp, took us to visit his mother’s house. This perfectly preserved 1970s-era Ford Escort, which belongs to Enos’ brother, was parked in the back yard. Enos’ mother served us a delicious traditional vegetable dish made with cooked pumpkin leaves.


p style=”text-align: center;”>Maria Makondo, sangoma in Makuleke
Enos also took us to meet Maria Makondo, a local sangoma (traditional healer). Maria is showing us a portrait taken of her many years ago.

Maria with Instax pictureI took a photo of Maria with my Instax camera. She loved it. “I’m still beautiful,” she said.

Maria in MakulekeThe collection of shells, seeds, stones, and bones that Maria uses to look into people’s lives and tell fortunes. I found it interesting that she keeps her collection in a handbag.

Maria telling fortunes in MakulekeMaria dumps her stuff out on the mat, watches where it all falls, and uses the configuration to learn and predict things about her clients (in this case, me and my two colleagues, Mini and Bridget). Maria didn’t do the best job with her observations about me but I didn’t mind at all.

The highlight of our Makuleke visit was the community drama, in which a group of women acted out a play about the forced removals.

Makuleke Community Drama songMakuleke women in traditional attire, singing a song during the community drama. The women spoke and sang in Tsonga (Shangaan), but Enos translated for us.

Community drama is a common form of storytelling in traditional African communities. I’ve watched quite a bit of community drama in various countries over the years, as part of non-profit projects I’ve worked on. The Makuleke drama was the best I’ve seen.

Woman Makuleke actor playing a manThis woman is playing the role of a male Makuleke elder speaking out about the impending forced removals. 

 Makuleke actors on busThe most painful part of the play, depicting the actual removals. The actor on the left, holding the “wheel”, is playing the role of the truck driver carrying the people away from their homes.

Makuleke woman with whistle The whistle is an important instrument in traditional South African music.

At the end of the drama, everyone — including me — had to dance.

Bridget dancingBridget.

Mini dancingMini.

Ezaya dancingEzaya, our handsome guide, who comes from Makuleke himself.

Heather dancingYours truly. I can’t remember who shot this photo.

This was an incredible trip. The ReturnAfrica lodge is stunning and well run. And it seems like there’s been a happy ending to this story for the Makuleke.

But the fact remains that these forced removals, which happened less than half a century ago, were tragic and cruel and unconscionable. Also, this incident was only one in a long, long series of unconscionably cruel forced removals all over South Africa, which affected millions upon million of people and continue to affect them today.

It’s great that the Makuleke are now benefitting from the land they lost, but the truth is that their loss can never be completely restored. After our Makuleke visit, lying in my king-sized bed listening the buffalo and waterbuck, I still thought about that loss.

Enos and his familyEnos (left) with his mother and brother. Enos’ mother experienced the forced removals as a young woman. Enos worked for the Wilderness Safaris camp for many years, then left after the floods to work for Singita, one of Africa’s top luxury safari lodges. Father of two sets of twins (!), Enos was thrilled to be able to return to the area as a manager of the Pafuri Camp when it reopened under ReturnAfrica. 

The end.

My stay in Pafuri was courtesy of Return Africa. Opinions expressed are mine.

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  • Reply violetonlineisonline May 31, 2016 at 8:56 am

    This is a fantastic blog. I had no idea about the history of this region. I think it is so indicative also about SA – so many things from the past that haunt, so many things we need to do for reconciliation.

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2016 at 9:01 am

      Thanks, Violet. I was surprised to learn the history too, as I didn’t learn any of this during my first visit a few years ago. (Or maybe people talked about it but I just didn’t hear.)

      • Reply violetonlineisonline May 31, 2016 at 9:02 am

        You would’ve heard it. I think people are becoming more and more vocal and courageous in telling their stories.

  • Reply autumnashbough May 31, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Beautiful pictures but such, such, such a tragic and sad story. Usually your posts make me hungry. This one just made me cry.

    Such a beautiful lodge — I want to sleep in that bed, too, but how do you manage to sleep when the story is so haunting?

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2016 at 4:45 pm

      I guess I just really love sleeping 🙂

      All jokes aside, the story of South Africa’s forced removals is unbelievably horrible and painful. And there were so many of them. I think this one is particularly disturbing because it was so recent, but at that point it had been happening since the beginning of the 20th century (and probably before).

  • Reply Eugenia A Parrish May 31, 2016 at 9:30 pm

    Yet another “trail of tears”. I wonder when we will learn.

    • Reply 2summers June 1, 2016 at 10:43 am

      That’s a very good question.

  • Reply Stacey Smith May 31, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    Yes, South Africa definitely has a sordid past. Sometimes, growing up in the US, when people found out I was a white South African, they would say something along the lines of “Oh, so you’re one of those crazy racists.” (not that America doesn’t have a similar past but that never seemed to occur to them.) I always had to explain that, yes, I am half Afrikaans, one-hundred percent crazy, but not racist.

    On a lighter note, I’m definitely adding Pafuri to my list of places to drive to in the tiny Land Rover.

    As a child I was made to sit and watch a traditional Zulu dance, and they picked me to play the leopard, I had a leopard skin thrown over my back and was ordered to chase one of the dancers on all-fours. I was a very shy child, and to this day I blame this involuntary participation on my inability to comprehend the concept of ‘dancing’ as a positive experience.

    Now I really must go read and comment on the blogs of some people I don’t know already, like you told me to.

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2016 at 9:45 pm

      Ha! I love everything about this comment.

  • Reply Tenney Mason June 1, 2016 at 12:01 am

    Outstanding post with awesome photos. One of your best ever.

    • Reply 2summers June 1, 2016 at 10:43 am

      Thanks Dad! I’m glad you think so. I’m really happy with it too.

  • Reply Jaina June 1, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    It’s kind of crazy to realise that these events really didn’t happen all that long ago. In the grand scheme of things. And very uplifting to know that things change, and can change very quickly.

    Great photos too 🙂

    • Reply 2summers June 2, 2016 at 10:00 am

      That’s one of the most amazing things in South Africa’s history. Things change so freaking fast here.

  • Reply Stephanie June 2, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Such a remarkable tale. I loved our visit to that part of the world and had no idea about the land claims and kicked out part. Beautiful pics and description. Makes me want to go back and explore more – into the Mozambique and Zimbabwe parts of the area.

    • Reply 2summers June 2, 2016 at 10:01 am

      Thanks Stephanie. I think ReturnAfrica occasionally does walks across the border into Zimbabwe to visit other traditional communities. I would love to do that too.

  • Reply Lani June 2, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    What an honor to listen to their story. Despite the tragedy, I’m glad to hear that it has a hopeful and happier ending.

    • Reply 2summers June 2, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Yep, this story definitely has a much happier ending than the stories of most victims of forced removals. It’s pretty hard to win a land claim so in some ways the Makuleke have been lucky. But still…sigh.

  • Reply mvschulze June 3, 2016 at 4:36 am

    A facinating glimpse into a place and event of which myself, – and I would believe virtually all Americans) – have never known. Thanks. M 🙂

    • Reply 2summers June 3, 2016 at 6:11 am

      Most South Africans don’t know either 🙂

  • Reply Sine June 9, 2016 at 6:32 am

    Great post all around, I agree with your dad. Oh, and I’m so jealous about that bed:-)

    • Reply 2summers June 9, 2016 at 6:48 am

      Thanks Sine! I’m really proud of this post too. And I still miss the bed.

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun June 30, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    Thanks for this Heather, I had no idea of the history of Pafuri, so interesting.

  • Reply Fever Dreams | My very long weekend... July 2, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    […] Park. You can read more about the Makulele history in Heather Mason’s excellent blog here It was our third visit to Pafuri and we were thrilled to be back at one of our favourite places in […]

  • Reply Sam Dalais January 19, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    This is a very informative blog that is beautifully written. Have you experienced the Baobab Hill Bush House?

    • Reply 2summers January 19, 2017 at 1:15 pm

      Hi Sam, I stopped in quickly but didn’t stay. It’s beautiful though! Glad you enjoyed the blog.

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