Northern Kruger – following the Luvuvhu to Crooks Corner

We were fortunate enough to spend three nights at Pafuri Tented Camp which is positioned on the northern bank of the Luvuvhu river. Within the Pafuri area is the Makuleke Concession, the ancestral home of the Makuleke people and the most diverse and scenically attractive area in the Kruger National Park.

“Pursue something so important that even if you fail, the world is better off with you having tried.”
~ Tim O’Reilly

The Makuleke Concession is not accessible to the ordinary tourist visiting the park. This area belongs to the Makuleke community, who were removed in 1968. After a lengthy legal process, it was finally returned to the community in 1998. Wisely, the Maluleke community retained and developed its conservation and ecotourism objectives. This has turned into one of the most constructive outcomes from the land claim and land reform process in South Africa.

“The earth has music for those who listen” ~William Shakespeare

We had a dawn start from the Pafuri Tented Camp to drive to the location where the Pels Fishing owls had last been seen. It was a misty sunrise with lots of moisture after a heavy rain during the night.

After a half an hour’s drive we arrived at a fishing camp in a thick forested section on the north bank of the river. We found a juvenile Pels Fishing owl high up in the canopy. I never managed to get a decent image as this Pels never moved into a clearing. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see this elusive owl.

A Nyala bull is a spiral-horned antelope endemic to southern Africa. Only males have horns, which vary in length from 60 to 80 cm in length and are yellow-tipped. This species exhibits the highest sexual dimorphism among the spiral-horned antelopes. The adult male’s coat is a dark brown or slate grey, often tinged with blue.

Nyala females and juveniles are rufous brown with ten or more white stripes on their sides.  Nyala are mainly active in the early morning and the late afternoon and feed on foliage, fruits and grasses, and requires daily fresh water.

A juvenile Martial eagle showing its pure white belly and white head and chest. The adult is uniformly brown on the head, back, and chest, with a pale belly covered in dark brown blotches. The legs are white and this raptor has very large talons. The Martial eagle spends around 85% of its day perched and is predominantly an opportunistic perch and ambush hunter. It usually only takes to the wing in the late morning once thermals develop.

This old “dagga boy” was taking his frustrations out on the bushes behind him and a tuft of grass in front of him which is why he had so many leaves on his back and sides. A “dagga boy” is an old male buffalo which has been forced out of the herd by the younger bulls. These bulls tend to follow the herd and are either solitary or band together for protection. There are no lions in this part of Kruger so they have an easier time in that respect.

A Woolly-necked stork foraging in a shallow pan which had filled after the recent good rains. The species is predominantly carnivorous and its diet consists of fish, frogs, toads, small snakes, lizards, large insects and larvae, crabs and molluscs. It forages by slowly walking through water or vegetation, stabbing at prey. This stork is usually seen alone or as a pair foraging near water.

A White -browed scrub-robin. The creamy white superciliary stripe is distinct, but the crown can vary from a warm brown, to olive brown or greyish brown. This is a furtive and shy species which mostly sings from deep inside bushes. Like other scrub robin species, the tail is regularly flicked and fanned. 

Our guide from Pafuri Tented Camp, Wiseman, was excellent and had an incredible knowledge of birds and trees. Amongst so many things, he showed us this massive Baobab which was estimated to be around 1500 years old. The ring barking by elephants is clearly visible on all three sections of the trunk. Elephants change their eating habits during different seasons and in drier times will ring bark large Baobabs or often push over large trees to reach the nutrient rich leaves and roots. Elephants instinctively know that Baobabs store water and in the dry season when water is scarce they will look for Baobab trees to quench their thirst. The elephants rip large pieces from the trunk of the trees or tear off entire branches to get to nutrients and stored water. The bark of the Baobab is soft enough for an elephant to gouge a hole in it and rip the bark off.

A pair of Double-banded sandgrouse stopped foraging on the road when they saw us. This species is dimorphic. The male has a combination of black-and-white bands just above the beak and a strong yellow eye-ring. The female has a pale yellow eye-ring and is mottled with black, brown, and white. Both have cryptic colouring on their backs which provide good camouflage from raptors.

This was a typical scene on the gravel track leading to Crook’s Corner. The vegetation was thick with many Baobabs and Sausage trees on the stoney ridges. Once we got down onto the Limpopo floodplain the vegetation changed and got thicker.

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure some of them are dirt.” ~ John Muir

A juvenile Bateleur eagle with its characteristic brown plumage. Its facial skin is a blue-green colour as a juvenile but turns orange before becoming the scarlet colour of an adult. In the third year, this juvenile’s plumage starts to turn into adult colours of black, white, rufous and grey. It can take an immature Bateleur up to eight years to shed all its brown plumage and grow its full adult colouring. The Bateleur eagle is the most recognisable of the snake eagles. It spends most of its time soaring at low altitudes in a slow rocking motion. The rocking motion when flying with its long, bow-shaped wings turn up at the ends, and its noticeably short tail gives it the appearance of a tightrope walker. It is this rocking motion which gives it its French name.

Once we got down onto the floodplain we drove through the edges of the fever tree forests. Fever trees are usually found growing on river banks, swampy areas or in flood plains. The distinctive form and striking colours of the fever tree make it easily identifiable in the wild. The tree can be recognised by its trunk which is straight, smooth, an unusual lime green colour and is covered with a fine yellow dust. The bark of the trunk and branches is flaky and tends to peel off in paper thin layers.

Down in the thick vegetation of the floodplain, we found a family of Retz Helmeted shrikes. The orange eye and red eye wattles, red legs and red beak ( with a yellow tip) against a black body and head feathers are unmistakable diagnostic features. 

This is a gregarious species, much like its White helmeted cousin. It flocks in groups up to 15 birds. Its preferred habitat is mature broadleaf and mopani woodland and riverine and coastal forest, and it avoids arid habitats.

The pans adjacent to the fever tree forest had filled with the recent good rains. The pan attracted Grey and Goliath herons, Spur-winged geese, Spoonbills and Black-winged stilts.

We eventually arrived at Crooks Corner from the north bank of the Luvuvhu river. This was a window onto a huge sandbar looking onto the Limpopo river with Zimbabwe behind it.

Crooks Corner is where the Luvuvhu river meets the Limpopo river. At the mouth of the Luvuvhu there was a pod of hippos and a few Nile crocodiles basking on the southern bank. The public viewing point is on the south bank of the Luvuvhu river.

The muddy mouth of the Luvuvhu river as it feeds into the Limpopo river. When the Limpopo river’s water level is high the water flows back up the Luvuvhu as far as the fever tree forest. This back flow fills up small tributaries leaving large pools of water in the tributaries long after the rain has stopped.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Looking at the width of the Limpopo river, it is hard to believe that this turns into a river of sand during the winter months. In the 1900’s this confluence provided an escape route for gun runners, poachers, tribal labour recruiters and anyone else avoiding the law by hopping across the river into a neighbouring country. There is a large plaque here commemorating the legendary ivory hunter Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard. The actual location of Crooks Corner is on an island in the Limpopo, close to where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo. There used to be a beacon on the island that marked the spot, but recent floods washed it away. Across from Crooks Corner is Ypie’s Island, named after Barnard’s favourite mule, which was marooned on the island for several weeks. (

On our return journey to the camp, we drove through and stopped in the fever tree forest. The atmosphere in the forest was quiet and serene with the occasional solo from a songbird.. The dappled light in the forest was complemented by a light blue haze deeper in the forest.

Once inside the fever tree forest, there is a wonderful feeling of serenity helped by the playful dappled light.

“The sacred place of silent minds and deep souls is the depths of the forest!” ~ Mehmet Murat İldan

After having had coffee in the fever tree forest we continued our journey back to camp. As we climbed up off the flood plain back onto the stoney ridges we were greeted by many Baobabs, many of which were still fully leafed.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” ~ John James Audubon

On our way back to the Pafuri Tented Camp along the Luvuvhu river we found a small group of elephants cooling off and having fun in the river. Being so large they have little to fear from the crocodiles in the river.

The Luvuvhu river gives one a sense of quintessential Africa. The river was flowing strongly and there was plenty of wildlife along its banks. This family group of waterbuck stopped their grazing to watch us as we drove past.

Back at camp, looking down onto the Luvuvhu river from the elevated deck. The river is a magnet for wildlife. The view from the deck is superb and one could easily spend a morning just watching and listening to all the wildlife activity next to the river.

The biodiversity in the Maluleke Contractual Park is remarkable. The photography is challenging because of the thick vegetation but there is great diversity of geology, scenery, birds and botany. You may be rewarded by seeing a variety of unusual birds such as Retz Helmeted shrikes, Pels Fishing owl, Racket-tailed roller, Crested guineafowl, Black and Crowned eagles to name a few. The region is well known for its abundant, year-round birdlife.

The Makuleke region is home to an unusual geological and natural heritage that makes this region interesting to geographers, historians, anthropologists, wildlife and birding enthusiasts. The Makuleke community opted to retain the conservation status of the northern portion of the Kruger National Park (KNP) and after a successful land claim process they concluded a co-management agreement with South African National Parks (SANP). This has been one of the most successful and constructive post-land claim outcomes in the past two decades.

“The more civilized man becomes, the more he needs and craves a great background of forest wildness, to which he may return like a contrite prodigal from the husks of an artificial life”. ~ Ellen Burns Sherman

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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