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.
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.
You’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:
One 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.
The 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.
A saddle-billed stork, one of the Birding Big 6, spotted outside my tent.
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.
Enos, 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.
Maria 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.
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.
At the end of the drama, everyone — including me — had to dance.
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 (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.
My stay in Pafuri was courtesy of Return Africa. Opinions expressed are mine.