Last weekend I visited Kruger National Park, the largest park in South Africa. This wasn’t just any old Kruger safari, either. I went to the remotest and most beautiful section of the park — the Pafuri Triangle.
A view of the Limpopo River, just before my plane landed at Pafuri Camp. The Pafuri Triangle is in the far northern corner of the Kruger Park, wedged between the Limpopo and Luvuvu Rivers and the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
(Okay, this was actually my first time in Kruger so I can’t personally attest to the Pafuri Triangle being the most beautiful part of the park. But that’s what everyone tells me and I found no reason to disbelieve it.)
There’s a luxurious tented camp at Pafuri, but I didn’t stay there. Instead, I spent four days tramping through the bush on the Pafuri Walking Trails tour. The vast majority of Kruger’s visitors see the park from inside a vehicle, and can’t set foot on the ground until they’re within the confines of a rest camp or lodge. I was very fortunate to experience Kruger for the first time with my feet planted on the ground.
About an hour after landing at Pafuri, I gathered with the five other hikers and our two guides — Brian, the head wilderness trails guide, and Chris, his assistant. I had stripped off my winter clothes, donned a tank top and sun hat, and shouldered my camera bag. Brian briefed us on the rules of walking in the bush: walk in single file, stay quiet, don’t run. And most importantly: Follow orders now, ask questions later.
“I’m really excited about today,” said Brian. “This will be my first walk.”
Dead silence from the group. I considered grabbing my suitcase and running back to the airplane.
“Just kidding! I’ve been doing this for 11 years.”
At this point we knew we were in for a fun weekend. We followed Brian and Chris into the wilderness.
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I’ve divided my experiences on the Pafuri Walking Trail into three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Today, I will cover animal.
When I hear the word safari, I think first of the animal giants — elephants, lions, rhino, etc. But the great thing about a walking safari is that you see and learn about animals of every size and shape. You also get an up-close look at animals tracks, animal remains, and lots and lots of animal poop.
While walking on a high ridge, we came upon the remains of a lion cub. The mother must have stashed her cubs up there and one of them didn’t make it. I was strangely fascinated by the tiny bones. You can even see some baby lion fur underneath.
The Pafuri Triangle is a birder’s paradise; some of the rarest birds in Africa live there. We were lucky enough to see one of the rarest and most elusive birds of all.
You have to look hard, but in the center of this photo is a Pel’s Fishing Owl, or PFO, as Brian likes to call them. Hard-core birders will understand the significance of this sighting, and will perhaps hate me for spotting a pair of PFOs on my first trip to Kruger. Joe, a lifelong birder, has never seen a PFO.
The small animals are fun, but let’s face it: Every safari-goer wants to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo). Walking safaris are challenging in this regard, as these animals prefer to avoid humans and they move a lot faster on foot than we do. Still, we saw quite a few, including lions, buffalo, and LOTS of elephants.
Our most exciting elephant sighting was a bit too close for comfort.
A few of us were goofing off in the back of the line, when we rounded a bend and came upon a bull elephant in full musth. This basically means the elephant was in a very bad mood. He raised his trunk at us and flared his ears. Brian spoke to the elephant very calmly and it seemed to placate him a bit. We backed off slowly and moved to higher ground.
At this point I was panicking a little. “Can he get up here?” I asked, with a twinge of hysteria in my voice. More dead silence from the group.
A moment later, Mr. Elephant shut his mouth and stalked off. Brian told us later that in 11 years of guiding, he’s never fired a shot at an animal.
In closing, here is a photo of the strangest animals to be found in the Pafuri Triangle.
Brian (left), me, Chris, and Matthew, relaxing in the Luvuvu after a 12-kilometer hike and several near-death experiences. Brian assured us the water was too shallow for crocs. How often does one get to swim in an African River? (Photo courtesy of David Park)
Next up: Vegetable