The Luvuvhu River defines Pafuri, in the far north of Kruger. To truly experience it, join a walking trail and go barefoot on soft river sand in the green heart of the park. By Hlengiwe Magagula

We spent the whole morning hiking barefoot in the Kruger National Park. This is the truth. Our toes sank into soft sand as we entered the Luvuvhu River, and we waded calf deep into a shady gorge. It’s surely the park’s most beautiful river, clear and ever flowing, and for our guide, Calvin de la Rey, it is one of his favourite places to take guests.

The wildlife loves it too, and the area – the Makuleke Concession, which lies in the Pafuri section in the far north of the park – teems with animals and birdlife. A couple of times we moved to the banks to skirt deeper pools, stepping carefully through thorny hot sands. We didn’t need to be reminded of how big the crocodiles are in these parts. Let me tell.

The Hutwini Trails Camp, operated in the cooler months by RETURNAfrica’s Pafuri Walking Trails, is on the bank of the Luvuvhu in the shade of Natal mahogany and Ana trees. Nyalas were more or less permanent residents. The day before we arrived, one had expired in the camp. For obvious reasons, it had been removed to the riverbed, for nature to deal with the carcass. For the first day, nothing touched it. On the second day, we returned from a long walk to find around 40 vultures, lappet-faced and white-backed, getting down to business. And on the third day, there was no trace of the nyala. We examined the sands, and found the perfect indentations of a crocodile. Calvin paced it to measure four metres. The marks showed how it had shifted position with each powerful haul on the heavy carcass.

Guide Calvin de la Rey and Hlengiwe admire one of the many trees for which the Pafuri region is renowned. Pictures by Denis Costello

A camp in the forest

The unfenced camp is immersed in nature, feeling part of the forest, not a place apart. Gladys, our cook, cheerfully told us we’d missed seeing a leopard that had strolled by her kitchen. We also had a visit from an elephant, who stepped gently around the camp furniture, pruning trees.

Pafuri Walking Trails are located in the Makuleke Concession, managed in partnership with traditional owners. Apart from the beauty of the area, the best thing about walks in this area is the diversity of the terrain, and the flexibility to decide where to go each day. From the Lanner Gorge near the park’s western edge to Crooks Corner (where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet), no two walks are alike. The longest took us from a stunning fever tree forest back to camp via a series of shallow pans. The fever trees are a real favourite, a picture-perfect yellow-green forest that seeded in a flood about half a century ago. The tree’s name comes from the time of European explorers, who contracted malaria when camping in their shade, and blamed the trees. As we walked, the air filled with the scent of wild sage.

Moments like this spent appreciating the quiet of the bush are what make walking trails so memorable.

Silently watching as impala drink at the pan below.

We took a picnic overlooking a pan, keeping still as a series of drinkers arrived: a pair of black-backed jackals, a herd of impala, and zebra close behind. All of these find it hard to spot people unless they move. Unlike the baboons, whose eyes work like ours. They spotted us from 300m away and raised a fuss which startled the drinkers.

On our last day, we relaxed by walking to the nearby Hutwini Gorge, for which the trails camp is named. This break in the ridge is a natural highway for animals going to water, and a perfect ambush site for predators. Calvin told us how he watches elephants move nervously through it, as if their folk memory recalls the days of human traps. Ironically, after our barefoot venture, it was here that Calvin got a bite from an ant, who took advantage of a hole in his shoe.

Good to know

  • RETURNAfrica operates Pafuri Walking Trails in the Makuleke Concession of the Kruger National Park. Read the inspiring article of two guides from the Makuleke community in the summer 2018/2019 issue of Wild.
  • The trail runs between 1 April and 31 October each year. No under 16s.
  • For a similar walking trail run by SANParks, opt for the three-night Nyalaland Wilderness Trail, which departs from Punda Maria.

What to pack

  • A wide-brimmed hat that keeps the sun off your face.
  • Utility pants that convert to shorts for hot days
  • Waterproof boots made from durable leather
  • Hiking socks, with special anti-tick and mozzie treatment to keep bugs away
  • A water bottle – an insulated water bottle will keep drinks cool for twice as long
  • A daypack for camera, binoculars, sunscreen, etc.
  • Trekking poles can be particularly handy for dealing with hills

Hlengiwe Magagula is the author of the Guide to Walking in Kruger National Park (R80).