A Meander Through Makuleke

A few months ago we were privileged to welcome Thomas Vousden as an intern field guide here at The Outpost. Thomas was so taken by this area of pristine wilderness that he has shared a ‘virtual game drive’ with us, so that we can all, no matter where we are, experience some of the magic that is the Eden of Kruger. Thank you, Thomas, for sharing this beautiful piece with us.

Welcome to the wild, undulating lands of the Lowveld; the rocky out-crops and cliffs, the flat flood plains where the palm trees grow, and the canopies of the fever-tree forests that shade the ground with greens and yellows. Welcome to the Makuleke Contractual Park.

A main road splits through the concession, allowing travellers to pass from the Pafuri main gate through to the public Kruger National Park. Many off-shooting roads carry a bold ‘No Entry’ sign, dashing the hearts of explorers passing by. However, we at The Outpost are fortunate to be granted entry by the Makuleke people and do so with great pleasure at the prospects of what we might find…

As we come through the main gate to the West, we continue along the main road until we reach an old gate, and the decrepit remains of what used to mark the Western Boundary. Once you pass through here, you are truly in the Kruger National Park and, more intriguingly, the Makuleke concession.

To the South we have a road leading to a beautiful and secluded gorge overlooking the Luvuvhu River as it snakes by giving you a great view of the sandbanks below where the hippopotamus and elephants travel. Here we will be entering the territories of the African hawk eagles, often found in pairs as they circle and hunt together.

A little further along the main road we find the beginning of the access road to The Outpost. A short stretch taking us South to the location of a beautiful weir where the Luvuvhu continues; passing between cliff faces and circling around to where it greets the Mutale and provides a spectacular view for any guests who find themselves at Nature’s Window. A warm welcome at The Outpost is no mere metaphor, as my first experience of arriving here as a guide-to-be was on a cold winter’s night, followed by a short uphill where a surprising warmth met us, changing our need for jackets to our short-sleeved shirts.

To the North of the Pafuri main road is a track that hugs the old boundary line, traversing between rock faces where the large-leaf rock figs make their homes beside propeller trees, then taking us to the old military road where the once Apartheid-era base was situated. No longer holding soldiers, it is now an outpost for the local SANParks rangers to protect and manage the park from. At the end of this Northern path, we meet an intersection that, due East, will then take us to the Banyini and Makwedzi Pans.

Along here we will pass the tall grasses of the plains where African buffalo make their homes. A little further on we have the beginning of the Lala Palms, so named for their reputation of being used to produce a particularly strong brew that will make one “lala”. A road to the North of the plains will take you to the beginning of the Limpopo drive, where through trees and vines, we will be able to see the vast Limpopo River and its banks. A sandy stretch during the dry season, this apparent desert fills phenomenally full during the rains, giving refugee to a variety of life from crocodiles to hippos; fish to frogs; and wide array of bird life. Along this drive we will find a road heading South, towards the main road but not before meeting an intersection of deceiving significance. It is here where we most often encounter a rare migrant known as our Racket-Tailed Roller; so-named for the rounded tips of its tail. This shy bird is very sought after in the birding communities and even catching a glimpse is an accomplishment.

At this intersection we continue East, past the Mopani trees where the Rollers make their homes, and where the speckled-green Eastern Nicator can sometimes be seen diving into bushes to hide away from sight. Along this road we pass by the EcoTraining Camp, where both students such as I was; and birders come to gain a better in-sight on understanding and identifying these feathered wonders. And there can be no better place to learn than in Makuleke as specific species cannot be found anywhere else. As we continue, we pass through a thicker abundance of Lala Palms where a variety of smaller birds and ‘little brown jobs’ can be found, including the Lemon-Breasted Canary. Passing the palms will take us to a flood plain littered with tall grass, even more palms, and the occasional Fever-Tree. Baobabs carry the nests of eagles and vultures alike as we make our way to Mangeba, where the Limpopo drive takes us back and gives us a chance to return to the main road… but we will continue.

East along our current road will take us through the low thickets of smaller Mopani where the African Wild Cat likes to seclude itself. Eventually we break through into savannah grasslands and acacia thickets where the Umbrella Thorns and Shepard’s Trees provide shade in the scorching days. Baobabs now litter the surroundings as everywhere you look you will find the duller greys and rusted violets of these large succulents. Brown-headed and Grey-headed Parrots both loves to use these trees for shelter and nesting, along with Black-collared Barbets, Red-billed Buffalo Weavers and another Makuleke special, the Dickinson’s Kestrel.

As we push on, we pass by Reedbuck Vlei. We find Impala, Kudu, Wildebeest, and the Livingston’s Eland communing by the water when the pan has been filled. Along with antelope, storks and geese roam the waters alongside crocodiles. Surprisingly the large reptiles do not find the meal-sized birds as an appropriate snack and will tend to leave them be as they lurk in wait of something more fitting.

Continuing East we come to an intersection: should we turn left we will head to a secluded look-out over the Limpopo, passing our largest Baobab named Mapimbi, and under the canopies where the Trumpeter Hornbills cry. Should we turn right, we will make our way along from savannah lands into riverine forests, greeted by what once was the homes of the local people from many years back; including an old trader’s post where many would gather for supplies. Through the forest we find the Sombre Greenbul and Tropical Boubous calling through bushes and in the canopies are baboons enjoying the sun, wary of any Crowned Eagles that may be around. A short drive further and we get to the end of the road at Crook’s Corner. The Limpopo continues by as it greets the Luvuvhu and welcomes both Zimbabwe and Mozambique in a handshake of natural wonder. The sounds of hippos, African Fish Eagles, and the elusive Southern Ground Hornbills fills the air, along with the sights of African Harrier Hawks who make residence in the nearby Lala Palms, crocodiles that reside on the sand-banks, White Crowned Lapwings and Storks of various kinds. A truly special place to enjoy an evening sundowner or deliciously hot coffee in the morning.

A drive of this length requires us to return to the Outpost, but here I will be taking you further as we drive back the way we came, only to divert South before Reedbuck Vlei. The scenery changes as the open lands change to covered canopies, where the Fever-Tree Forest begins. Following the Luvuvhu we enjoy the cool, soothing air of the forest, taking us to a wonderful little look-out along the Luvuvhu. Hippos and crocodiles once again reside here, as they take great interest in following the Luvuvhu.

Along this Westward-way we find the perfect clearing within the Fever-Trees where wedding ceremonies have hosted the unions of many happy couples. Onwards we find ourselves passing Nyala Trees of impressive size where the baboons make a meal of the fruits; sharing the bounty with the Nyala antelope below; collecting what has been dropped. Eventually we find ourselves at the Pafuri Bridge where Böhm’s Spinetails flutter about the bridge. In the evenings past the twilight, this is one of the best places to find another rare resident: the Pel’s Fishing Owl. Found on the branches hanging low over the water, these birds watch for any signs of movement in the water and swoop in where they clutch their prey and take them to a nearby sandbank or branch to enjoy their catch.

The Luvuvhu continues West, and so does the road as we follow along where Waterbuck, Impala, Nyala and Warthog all share in the cool and refreshing breeze surrounding the riverine grasslands and trees. The White-Fronted Bee-Eaters make themselves known with their aerobatic displays as they glean insects from the air and claim their spot on a branch. A drive from here on is met with the fragrance and perfumes of the Woolly Caper Bush, lending a calming sense to the drive. It is here where we are often stopped by passing herds of elephants as we grant them the space to lumber on and feed on the surrounding bushes and trees.

Further through the thicket and forest we will found the First and Second Lookouts over the Luvuvhu, both providing spectacular views of the river, as well as the elephants and buffalos which cross it, and the kingfishers of all kinds who pass by to find a suitable meal from the bountiful river. We are taken further inland from the river as we pass by Hutwini, the place where rocks for sharpening knives are found, and make our way to the twin Baobabs which stand like guardians to Mangala; the place where Lions roam.

A steep and rocky drive takes us away from Mangala up to a sandy road where Silver Cluster Leaves, Pod Mahoganies and Bushwillows of all-sorts guide the road towards a secluded parking spot in-between Lebombo Ironwood. From here we shall step out on foot, and after a short walk, shall encounter a rocky outcrop at the tip of what feels like a mountain and there we will make our way to the platforms of Lanner Gorge. The highest point of Makuleke, one can truly appreciate the splendour of the land as we cast our eyes down into the Luvuvhu River once more; where elephants and crocodiles bathe in the cool waters, and the surrounding bush and cliffs cast the sun’s light in all directions. If there is ever a place which would make you yearn to fly so desperately, it would be here. Watching the skies in envy, we will see an abundance of birds and raptors, such as the African Hawk Eagle, the Verreaux’s Eagle, and the odd Osprey.

Once the snacks come out, we will also find visitors coming to join. We should keep a watchful eye as both mice and shrews come to investigate the various smells of temptation; one of which is the Western Four-Toed Sengi. Fast and agile as they are curious, they will try their luck when our backs are turned for the odd morsel… although they are not as bold as their smaller cousins, whom I have had scurry by over shoes to get to whatever prize that greets their little noses.

Unfortunately, it is time to leave, and we must prepare for the drive back. Once back at the car, we journey along Westwards, past the rocks which give home to Klip-springers, a spring which hosts an abundance of birdlife, and the fragrant smells of Purple Sandalwood (a member of the Wild Sage family,) as we make our way to the Outpost for a good meal, a cosy bed, and a relaxing stay in the heart of nature.

Makuleke, nestled between two rivers, holds an abundance of wildlife. Containing seventy percent of the Kruger Park’s wildlife diversity, it truly is a special place to visit. A birdlife like no other, never short of feathered creatures, circling the skies like the Bateleurs and Vultures, or combing the grounds for insects and beetles like the Hornbills. The Kruger National Park may have a lot to offer, but let me assure you, you will not find anywhere else in the park like Makuleke.

-Thomas Vousden