Take a trip to the truly wild side of South Africa: A scintillating safari in Kruger National Park
The black sky erupts in brilliant purple, white and electric blue. The air is thick with the stench of wet mud and pollen. Huge balls of hot rain scrape our skin and pound the open Land Rover as we struggle through sodden dirt roads.
“Welcome to Africa,” laughs our guide Bongani, one hand on the steering wheel and a torch in the other. “Big cats love the rain, it’s the perfect camouflage.”
An hour ago it was a bake 35c (95f). Now the herds of zebra, nyala, impala, buffalo, kudu, waterbuck – and more – dozing in the muggy night have all taken shelter.
As we reach the only paved section for miles, a pungent smell of oil rises from the road. Smooth tar steams in the headlights and overhead the night continues to shake awake.
Then we stop screaming.
Close Encounter: Henry Jones explores Pafuri, 65,000 hectares of private bushland and the uppermost part of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Above, an elephant roams the national park at sunset
Two baby elephants gallop into the street followed by quite angry looking parents waving at us with their trunks.
“We have to keep going, the rain is bothering them,” calls Bongani.
Back in my room—an elegant concrete structure perched on stilts on the edge of a rocky bluff overlooking the Luvuvhu River—the thunder dies down outside and the anthemic hum of the cicadas returns.
Yesterday I was in cool north London. Now I’m a two hour drive from any civilization of note and have no phone signal let alone Wi-Fi. I sleep like a log.
The Outpost is one of only two lodges in Pafuri, a 65,000 hectare area of private bushland and the uppermost part of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
We’re in the very north of the country, away from the tourist hustle and bustle of the main park further south. The “Big Five in One Drive” await you down there. But what you give up in terms of extensive game viewing in Pafuri, you get back in glorious solitude.
The weather is almost tropical; and with that comes some of the richest and most diverse wildlife in the country.
Pafuri accounts for less than two percent of the broader Kruger Bush but contains a staggering 80 percent of the region’s biodiversity, including some 350 species of rare birds.
Henry’s luxury base is The Outpost (pictured), one of only two lodges in Pafuri
Red hornbills (or Zazu from The Lion King), light blue Meves starlings, green Tarzan doves and purple rollers whirl by. “Did you see the shadow over you?” I ask.
“A black eagle,” says Bongani, barely looking up.
“And that alarm call?” A tropical boubou. “And the chirping in the distance?”
“It’s a zebra, Henry.” Life changes fast here; It’s candlelight dinner on the main lodge verandah just after sunset and – stripped of email, social media and box set binges – it’s an early bed before an even earlier start.
Suddenly I’m a “morning person”, hopping up at 5am to the balcony to marvel at the cinematic scene unfolding in 4D: orange-pink delights bursting over misty meadows and fat baobab trees.
“The weather is almost tropical; and with that comes some of the richest and most diverse wildlife in the country,” says Henry of the area. Above is a baby baboon in Pafuri
The Outpost offers two trips per day, one at sunrise and one at dusk, with time in between to swim in the lodge’s pool or indulge in a spa treatment.
The space achieves the desired indoor-outdoor-but-not-really-too-outdoor mix.
All that separates you from the elements is canvas and a mosquito net. But the freestanding bath and other hotel amenities are welcome luxuries.
Trucks loaded with freezers bring in weekly shipments of dragon fruit, venison steaks, rainbow trout and rabbit. And I find it surprisingly easy to slip into the routine of coffee and muffins, followed by breakfast, lunch, high tea, and a three-course meal.
Henry witnesses a romantic marriage proposal during a visit to Lanner Gorge (pictured)
Africa Specialist Rainbow Tours (rainbowtours.co.uk020 8131 3689) offers five all-inclusive nights at the Outpost from £5,189 per person, including return flights.
My traveling companions for the stay, British couple Simon and Sarah, visited us four years ago and have returned for their 30th birthday.
One day, as Simon is gathered at the top of Lanner Gorge for a gin and tonic at sunset, he gets on one knee and proposes to him.
Of course Sarah accepts (how could she not!) and we toast with champagne.
Before apartheid, Pafuri was home to the Makulekes. A government decree in 1969 stipulated that the land be taken by force and the people expelled. But when the area was legally repossessed in 1996, the community chose not to give it back, instead renting it out to lodges that employ almost exclusively Makuleke-heritage staff like Bongani.
Our rides are therefore punctuated with countless lessons: that wild sage is rubbed onto the skin as an insect repellent. This leopard urine smells like popcorn. That the call of blacksmith lapwings sounds like the clinking of a hammer on metal.
And that lala palms from Zimbabwe are so called because their sap can be brewed into a highly intoxicating drink (“lala” means “sleep”).
This is Bongani’s home; and ours only for a brief – but dazzling – time.