Feature

Africa rising

G Magazine

Wake up to the low rumblings of territorial lions and get in touch with your inner wilderness. At the northernmost tip of Kruger National Park in South Africa, every inch of space is alive and remarkably untamed.

Africa-rising

Our first sunset and we're already believers: you haven't lived until you've experienced an African sunset.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

hippos

Two hippos keep a low profile in the Limpopo River.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

elephant-charge

A female elephant charges towards us, her ears raised to make herself look bigger and more aggressive.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

scorpion

The Three-lined Hottentotta scorpion is incredibly venomous.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

Yellow-billed hornbill

The Yellow-billed hornbill is just one of the extraordinary variety of bird species found in the Makuleke concession.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

Wildebeest

A family of wildebeest check out the tourists.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

impala

A herd of impala bucks grazing in the long grass.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

Anti-poaching

Members of the anti-poaching unit in Kruger National Park.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

dung-beetle

The dung beetles are surprisingly interesting to watch while they go about their important work of rolling dung into balls.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

rainbow-skink

A rainbow skink.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

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A golden sky bounces a soft yellow glow over a family of hippos as they peacefully graze and blow bubbles in the Limpopo River. The daylight trickles away while we watch vervet monkeys bounce through branches licking sap from the trees against a darkening amber backdrop. I’ve only been in Kruger National Park for a few hours and already I’m a believer: you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced an African sunset.

It’s pitch black by the time we first arrive at the EcoTraining Makuleke campsite. Dodging scorpions, millipedes and golden-orb spiders, we are led by torchlight to our tents, which are luxurious in comparison to our rugged surroundings: raised netted cabins with ensuites and hot showers.

Despite jetlag, I don’t find a good night’s sleep easily in the exposed cabin. There seems to be plenty of activity outside and, in a dream-like state I imagine what strange creatures are making these unfamiliar noises in the night. At breakfast, we’re told that one of the first sounds at dawn was the low, guttural call of a lion very close to our unfenced campsite.

Venturing out on foot into the surrounding wilderness at 6am, we see impalas, njala (the females look like Bambi with white stripes as well as spots), vultures, water buffalo, wildebeest and an abundance of birds. It’s summer, which isn’t the best time for big game viewing due to the density of the vegetation, but it’s the ideal time for sighting an extraordinary variety and number of birds of all shapes and sizes.

“Absolutely everything is special about the Makuleke concession [a piece of land owned by the indigenous community],” says Bruce Lawson of EcoTraining, the group coordinating conservation efforts in the area. “For mammal species, you’ll probably get bigger numbers of them further south, but up here it’s the fever forests, the rivers, the floodplains, the birdwatching, and so much more.”

The guides treat us to ‘sundowners’ – the typical African experience of watching sunset with your favourite beverage in hand – overlooking the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers that mark the borderline between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Looking across the vast expanse teeming with wildlife, I can see and feel why this place is unique.

“It’s a big concession, so at any one time you may have only six vehicles driving around on 24,000 hectares,” says Lawson. “When we go on walks it’s easy to go for five or six kilometres without crossing any roads. Whereas if you go down south or in any of the other Greater Kruger Reserves, that’s not going to happen. You’ve got a road every 500 metres.”

Collaborative conservation

The land rights to the Makuleke concession were finally returned to the indigenous people in 1998; the apartheid government had forcefully relocated locals in 1969 and added the land to Kruger National Park. To help decide the best way to use this land to benefit the community, the Makuleke Communal Property Association (CPA) was formed in 1999.

“We had a lot of NGOs working nearby and teaching us knowledge and skills… until finally everyone was convinced that we would use the land for conservation and tourism,” says CPA member Livingstone Maluleke, an animated storyteller who has given talks at UN meetings on the history of this concession. “We realised as a community that we don’t have the skills, knowledge and capacity to develop the area for conservation, so we looked into some opportunities for partnership.”

As a result, a partnership with EcoTraining has been formed. EcoTraining have several camps across South Africa, through which they offer nature training and workshops ranging in duration from one to 28 days, and up to a year. Unique learning opportunities are offered across a variety of subjects, including field guiding, birding and wildlife photography. While out in the field, EcoTraining staff monitor the wildlife in this remote region and report any problems to authorities. Their programs also ensure local people from the community are employed as field rangers, managers and anti-poaching officers.

EcoTraining’s Lawson says, “our being here is contributing back to the community who are caring for the upkeep of this land. As soon as there’s a monetary value to conservation, then it works. By putting a price on the wildlife and on the wilderness experience, we’re giving back to the community which is going to ensure that this land stays like this.”

Awe and adrenalin

Exhilarating encounters with wildlife are testimony to the success of conservation efforts in this area. For us, a rare daytime glimpse of a nocturnal lynx (caracal) was followed by a chance to observe an elephant herd including young calves. While we photographed a female grazing, she suddenly decided she’d had enough. Turning quickly, she charged at us, as we escaped thanks to the heavy foot of our driver. Further down the road a bull elephant caused a traffic jam – no mean feat in such a large park.

Though Lawson has had many close encounters in his 18 years working here, he sees the merit in as much
non-interruptive interaction as much as possible; “It’s a beautiful thing when you’ve got a view of a lovely sunset and elephants drinking from a pan, so why must you get to 20 metres when it’s awesome from where you are and you’ve got a peaceful, natural atmosphere?”

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