Chris Harvie finds a range of ‘fives’ at a lovely Kruger National Park Lodge
“Only the Makuleke people can show you this!” Sam Japane told us, proudly.
Sam is one of the Makuleke people himself and it was certainly a spectacular setting. I was, at long last, gazing into the famed Lanner Gorge, one of the Kruger National Park’s most hidden and sought-after sites stretching deep below, its orange cliffs towering above the winding, gurgling snake of brown and white rapids that was the Levuvhu River, as lovely as its name.
Sam, our garrulous guide, had already shown us some of the Ugly Five, most of the Small Five – we were missing only the elephant shrew – and a couple of enviable lifers on the birding front. My first broad-billed roller, for example, and Dickinson’s kestrel. Sam is an exceptional identifier of birds, able not only to imitate them, but also even to give their bird numbers.
“Woodland Kingfisher, breeding male, Roberts number 433 Halcyon Senegalensis.” No-one was arguing. “Mosque Swallow, 525.”
The spectacularly situated Outpost Lodge straddles a line of dassie-strewn and fig-wound rocks, high above the Levuvhu in the so-called Makuleke Concession, in the northerly Pafuri region, wedged between the Limpopo river and its tributary, the Levuvhu. The area offers some of the most outstanding scenery in the Kruger and while it may not be easy to find the sought-after Big Five here (although they are present), all the other Fives, the area’s superb birding and its splendid isolation more than make up for that.
The Makuleke people were removed from this, their land, in 1969 only to have it returned to them in a ground-breaking agreement with the new government in the 1990s, whereupon a 30-year concession was granted to The Outpost. The Lodge was built and is staffed by the Makuleke and they are shareholders in perpetuity, thus owning and managing some of Kruger’s most iconic places and simultaneously keeping alive their own history in the area through frequently-spun tales of the meeting places of the chiefs and the traditions of the Tsonga people to whom the Makuleke belong.
Our game drives took us the length and breadth of the 28 000 hectare concession. The first evening, we meandered along the Levuvhu River, counting the crocodiles. Nyala, warthogs and elephants were scattered along the riverbanks, bathed in the evening’s golden light.
Over 350 species of bird have been identified here and as we stopped for a sundowner, under a baobab estimated at 1200 years old, we startled a flock of crested guinea fowl sending them scurrying towards the river, their black fluffed heads bobbing up and down in the dry bush. The moon rose full, between the ancient tree’s mangled branches.
The following morning, a different spectrum of birds awaited – Brown-headed Parrot (363) and Senegal Coucal (390) and a range of Rollers – as Sam wove us in and out of the giant pan-stippled, yellow-green fever forest to Crook’s Corner where three countries meet and where our guide wove some lore of his own into a well-told African tale of the dawn-of-time agreement between The Creator, the hippos and the crocs, while the descendants of the latter two species watched us from a nearby pool. I don’t think The Creator could have been far away either. Certainly, looking down the spectacular Lanner Gorge that afternoon as the sun set behind the distant Soutpansberg, it was easy to imagine oneself in Eden.
Back at the Lodge and returning to our ‘space’, as they aptly call their rooms, to change for a dinner under the stars, we were startled, as we were each time we walked in, by the sheer audacity of the design. The structures are blandly unimpressive from the outside but open the door and then the electric blinds … and you walk straight into the view and become part of it. Mosquito-netted beds stand against the only permanent wall. On one side of the open deck, looking to the east, lies an open bathroom and shower while, off to the west stands a daybed and beyond it, only trees and shrubs. Way below, the Levuvhu River glows in the moonlight.
We slept every night with the blinds open and the wind rustled in the trees, between which our deck seemed suspended from the sky. There was nothing between our ‘space’ and space itself, until nearby birdsong drifted gently through our waking minds.
The Outpost is all about people – the Makuleke people and their guests whom they greet by name. Their welcoming smiles, their warm handshakes, their cheerful enthusiasm and their cooling facecloths after a dusty game drive amongst the Big, the Small and the Ugly Fives, will always be etched on my memory of this peaceful, lovely calming place.
Remember Sam’s words: Only the Makuleke people can show you this.
Where it is – In the Makuleke Concession, Northern Kruger National Park. It’s a long way from anywhere by car – six hours from Johannesburg – but don’t let that put you off. Make a road trip of it.
Why go there – For the (not guaranteed by any means) Big Five, the Small Five, the Ugly Five and not forgetting the- dare I say it? – High Five of a superb Makuleke welcome. And 350 species of birds.
What it has – Eleven Luxury Spaces (or rooms) and one Honeymoon Space. All en-suite (or en-space?) with showers and stone baths. Swimming pool. Library. Excellent coffee. A view into Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
What it is like – Floating above the bush in the tops of the trees, with the night calls of Africa to lull you to sleep, safe from all manner of birds and beasts lurking below.
Rates – SA Residents Only. R2575 per person sharing, R3350 single. Includes accommodation, three meals and two game drives a day, snacks, teas and coffees. Last minute booking rate also available.
Getting there – The Outpost is just over 10 kilometres from Kruger’s Pafuri Gate and 380 kilometres from Skukuza. Four kilometres from Pafuri, turn off to the south and travel 6.6km to the lodge.