The Kruger National Park is scattered with many hidden gems. Many of these have only recently opened up to the public, but there are others that are often lost to the regular Kruger visitors. Anton Willemse Snr was fortunate enough to be invited to explore one such hidden gem, just north of the Luvuvhu River, and he did it in one of the jewels in Toyota’s crown… the Land Cruiser Prado VX-L.
As a kid I regularly travelled through the Kruger National Park with my folks and late grandparents. And it was there – in what is today one of South Africa’s biggest tourist attractions – that my love for the outdoors and wildlife was ingrained in my DNA. One of the most beautiful areas we ever visited was the region just north of the Luvuvhu River and for many years I tried to remember the exact location of some of the most amazing landscapes and scenery, paired with rare game sightings that I have ever experienced. Not to mention the absolute birders’ paradise this is, with visitors often spotting the elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl.
So, when an opportunity to visit the Pafuri region (the Makuleke Contractual Park), just north of the Luvuvhu River, came our way, we grabbed it with both hands. This area was forcibly taken from the Makuleke people in 1969 and the community of about 1 500 were relocated to an area further west so that their original tribal areas could be integrated into the greater Kruger National Park. In 1996 the community submitted a land claim for approximately 23 500ha in the northern part of the Kruger National Park and the land was returned to them. However, they chose not to resettle there but to rather engage with the private sector to invest in tourism, creating jobs and leading to the birth of several game lodges. One of these jewels is Pafuri Tented Camp, part of the RETURNAfrica Group, on the banks of the Luvuvhu River.
During a hot spell at the end of November 2022 we hopped into a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado and headed to the north of the Kruger National Park. As I mentioned previously, I vaguely remember visiting the area as a child and being completely mesmerised by the spectacular fever tree forest in the area. For years I had dreamt of revisiting it but could never track the exact location. Our trip took us from Johannesburg all the way up north to Louis Trichardt, now Makhado, from where we headed east on the R524 through Venda and Thohoyandou (translating to Head of the Elephant in Venda), which was named after of one of the VhaVenda Kings. The area has expanded and grown exponentially and where in the past the 150km trip from Louis Trichardt took about an hour-and-a-half, this time it took us over two hours. The road from Makhado to Thohoyandou runs along the Soutpansberg Mountain range. The area is subtropical and extremely green and because of its good weather conditions it’s the perfect place to grow a variety of fruits and nuts. The side of the road is dotted with informal traders, which provided us a great opportunity to buy delicious mangos, nuts and my favourite, avocados.
The Prado handled the road with ease, lapping up the twisties on the passes and winding comfortably through the lush vegetation. We arrived at the Punda Maria Gate at around 13:00 in the afternoon, the mercury close to 35°C. We quickly signed in at the gate and dashed back to the reprieve the air-conditioned Prado offered against the scorching African sun.
From the gate it was just under two hours’ drive to Pafuri Tented Camp. Game viewing around Punda Maria is great and within 30 minutes we had already checked two of the Big Five off our list, with great sightings of elephants and buffaloes. We arrived at the camp just before 15:00 and were greeted by the friendly staff. Our luggage was collected, and we headed to the reception area for a quick briefing and some cool refreshments.
Although we were in time for the afternoon game drive, we decided to rather relax at the camp after the long drive from Johannesburg. However, the next morning, after some coffee and rusks, we eagerly headed into the bush with our guide, Hlahla. He turned out to be a real hoot, entertaining us with anecdotes while at the same time impressing me with his knowledge of the local fauna and flora. Before departing on our drive he sat us down for a quick chat to establish our expectations during our visit. He explained what we could possibly see, and I realised that ticking off the Big Five would be very difficult. Poaching by the local communities and from across the Limpopo River has decimated some of the wildlife stock in the area to the point that we would have a very slim chance to see lions, leopards and rhinos in the area.
Not disheartened as being in the bush was the real treat, we simply shifted our focus, and we shared our new wishlist with Hlahla. At the top of our list was the fever tree forest (since I had finally found it again), followed by the Crested Guineafowl only common in the north of the Kruger, and lastly – with a bit of luck – the lifer, a Pel’s Fishing Owl. On our first game drive we headed west, driving a large loop through the park. The area is truly spectacular, with huge ana and jackalberry trees all over the flood plains as large koppies carved out by the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers frame the landscape. Finding a Pel’s Fishing Owl is not easy as this owl (the second largest in Africa) is extremely elusive. During all our travels, we have only seen it once – on vacation in Moremi and I was hoping to update my photo library what what would be a super special sighting. So, in all fairness, this was a big ask. We hugged the Luvuvhu on our drive back to the lodge, searching the river forest for the dark brown and rufous-orange owl, but the birding gods were not on our side… Not that we lost hope, the acceleration of the search was keeping us excited.
Upon arriving back at the camp, a full breakfast was served, and it would be doing this lodge a disservice not to mention the incredible meals prepared by a clearly creative and talented chef… everything was simply delicious! After breakfast we headed to the pool and relaxed in the cool water with a G&T, soaking up the sun and enjoying the amazing birdlife in the area, only interrupted by the occasional call of a Fish Eagle. Africa at its best! At around 15:00 afternoon tea was served before we headed back into the bush – we were finally on our way to the fever tree forest!
Our afternoon drive was brilliant, and we saw a large herd of buffaloes and elands. A few hyenas started emerging from their den and the pups were running all over, curiously sniffing at the Land Cruiser we were in. We arrived at the fever tree forest just before sundown and my childhood memory was not wrong – it was indeed spectacular, once again completely blowing me away. As the clouds rolled in, obscuring the setting sun, it transformed the forest into and somewhat eerie, but beautiful scene reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings movie… simply magnificent. A herd of zebras was slowly moving through the forest, and I clicked away on my camera as Hlahla prepared our sundowners. Our drive back to the lodge took us past the hyena den again.
By this time, it was dark and the whole clan was out and about. The excitement with the start of a new night was tangible. All around us hyenas were squealing and groaning, greeting each other. The unmistakable whoop-whoop filled the night air as they got ready for another night of hunting.
Back at camp dinner was served and once again we were not disappointed. Everything, from the starters to the main course and the yummy dessert, was an explosion of tastes and textures. Our luxury rooms were calling though, and we hit the hay early as the next day was to be quite busy. Our 05:00 wake-up call came too soon, and still a bit sleepy we headed to the main area for a quick coffee and some rusks before heading out to get the ‘work’ part of the trip out of the way. We were given special permission to take the Land Cruiser Prado VX-L into the bush to take photographs of the Prince of Africa in its natural habitat. We snapped a few shots of it parked on the bank of the Luvuvhu River, making sure we covered every angle, before heading to an ana tree forest for our morning coffee.
After breakfast we decided to self-drive to the southern side of the Luvuvhu River to see if we could spot some Crested Guinea Fowl. Again, luck was not on our side, but we were able to spot a Yellow-billed Oxpecker, which was a pretty cool sighting. Although the Red-billed Oxpecker is quite common in the Kruger, spotting its yellow-billed cousin is a rare occurrence. In 1897, it was extinct in South Africa, but 82 years later it miraculously returned to the Kruger National Park. Little is known about this tick-loving bird, but I was happy to be able to ’tick’ it off my list.
We arrived at camp just in time for afternoon tea and quickly got ready to set off in search of the Pel’s Fish Owl and Crested Guineafowl once again. Hlahla promised a surprise for us with sundowners as we headed north into the park. As we drove slowly to our sundowner spot, we passed the fever tree forest again and spotted a large herd of buffaloes settling in for the night on one of the plains behind the trees.
We finally arrived at our destination, a giant baobab tree that must have a circumference of more than 30m. This time of the year baobabs are filled with leaves and stunningly green and as we sipped our sundowners and reminisced about our last three days, Hlahla suddenly pointed up. As we gazed into the tree it was filled with large white flowers that opened up as the sun disappeared behind the horizon – another first for me! Only 40 minutes earlier, this tree was filled with green leaves and now it was dotted with spectacular white flowers! How amazing is nature!
Pafuri Tented Camp was truly an unforgettable experience, taking me back to my childhood memories of the area that I had visited so many years ago. I really hope that we will be.
Our steed: Toyota Land Cruiser Prado VX-L
Dubbed the Prince of Africa, the Toyota Prado comes from a lineage of superb off-road capability, 4×4 prowess and the legendary Land Cruiser DNA. And much like Disney’s princes, the updated 2021 Land Cruiser Prado will undoubtedly make many admirers go weak at the knees. It certainly gets my heart racing a little bit faster!
The current facelift of the Prado will most likely be the last in this generation (the fourth) and we are hoping to see a brand-new version in the next year or so. Although it is getting slightly long in the tooth, it is jam-packed with features. The Prado VX-L that we drove comes with everything but the kitchen sink, ticking all the boxes in terms of comfort and capability.
With adaptive cruise control, blindspot monitoring and lane keep assist, there is not much more one can ask for from a safety perspective. From a connectivity point of view, the new infotainment system with its 9-inch display audio touchscreen can be directly linked to any smart device by either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. It also includes audio-visual navigation in case you forgot your cable to connect your smart device. The biggest bone of contention and criticism amongst Toyota fans during recent years has been the barely adequate power output of the Prado. However, since 2021 it has been fitted with the 2.8 GD-6 diesel burner, with 150kW and 500Nm on tap. Toyota claims fuel consumption of 7.9 litres/100km. During our trip, which included some off-road driving, we managed an average of 9.2 litres/100km. Fuel capacity is 150 litres with an 87-litre main tank and 63-litre sub tank. Maximum braked towing capacity for this model is 3 000kg.
This was my second long trip with the 2.8 and since I have been testing quite a few newer models from other brands in recent months, I was curious to see if I would still find it fun to drive. I can happily report that it still offers a great drive – the pronounced difference brought about by the new engine, now mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic gearbox, made it a great vehicle to drive. Never missing a beat and offering ample power while confidently finding the correct gear, even on passes and when overtaking, I can see myself using this vehicle on a daily basis or taking it into the far reaches of Africa.
I particularly enjoyed the Multi-Terrain Select System which allows a myriad of options, including Rock, Rock and Dirt, Mogul, Loose Rock, Mud and Sand modes. While we could not try out each option, the rockclimbing ability was proven with success. It simply goes where you point it, without any objection. Sometimes viewed a lazy off-roader’s gimmick, I found the panoramic view monitor very useful as it gives you a full scope of your surroundings. Using all four cameras, it allows excellent vantage points when you need to see what is in front of the vehicle or to the side.
Finally, the crawl control function – although it sounds like gremlins are trying to break your drivetrain – and the ability to raise the suspension make this an incredibly capable off-road companion. There is a wide range of accessories available from both Toyota dealers and 4×4 fitment centre for the Prado. If you are planning to take the ‘Prince’ overland, I would suggest a decent set of all-terrain tyres as the factory fitted tyres are a bit soft. Having said this, you should then be prepared to lose on the fuel economy side.
Model line-up & pricing
- Prado 2.8GD TX: R1 058 500
- Prado 4.0 VX: R1 160 400
- Prado 2.8GD VX: R1 196 100
- Prado 4.0 VX-L: R1 209 600
- Prado 2.8GD VX-L: R1 247 000
*All Land Cruiser Prado models are covered by a 3-year/ 100 000km warranty and a 9-services/90 000km service plan. Service intervals are set at every 12 months or 10 000km, whichever comes first.
Pafuri Tented Camp
In the northern-most corner of the Kruger National Park lies the Pafuri Tented Camp. It is part of the RETURNAfrica Group and offers a luxurious stay and encounters with some of Africa’s most spectacular wildlife.
Awake to a choir of birdsong and watch elephants crossing the river from your very own veranda, before taking on some of the activities on offer. These include hiking or driven safaris (offered twice daily), bird watching, spa treatments or simply enjoying the beautiful, tranquil camp.
Sightings of buffaloes, elephants, antelope and hyenas near the camp are a common occurrence and since the property falls on a RAMSAR protected wetlands pan, it is home to over 400 species of birds. Iconic sites for exploration include Lanner Gorge, Crooks Corner and the fever tree forest. Experience the magic of the area on foot with expert local guides, or simply enjoy the setting of the camp site from your luxurious tented room. Pafuri Tented Camp offers an assortment of unique experiences, a fascinating environment of historical and geographical importance, abundant biodiversity, and a base of exceptional comfort. From spa treatments to poolside relaxation and alfresco dining, you will undoubtedly enjoy your time in this beautiful camp.
The tented camp has a light ecological footprint with wooden accents. The design takes its inspiration from the beautiful surroundings of ana, jackalberry and fever tree forests. The 19 elevated rooms – each complete with both an indoor and outdoor shower – are spacious, open and light. Rooms also have serene, private deck areas to lounge and unwind with uninterrupted views of the Levuvhu river – ideal to sit and meditate while listening to the sounds of the wildlife surrounding the camp.
Indulge in spa treatments or lounge poolside, where you are separated from wildlife crossing the Luvuvhu River by only a deck. The camp is powered by solar energy, and you’ll love the large, open-air deck restaurant and bush bar where sunset cocktails can be enjoyed. The African starry skies put on an unforgettable show around the fire pit each evening.
The camp offers alfresco lantern lit dining on the decks. The food is truly amazing and there is a wide choice of dishes with each meal. Private dining and picnics can happily be arranged for special occasions.
CONTACT: +27 (0)11 646 1391 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.returnafrica.com