Not all adventurers have the time to spend two weeks exploring, but even in a few days you can experience some of Africa’s beauty. A group of enthusiasts went to the Parque Nacional do Limpopo and beyond to experience a short trip for time-pressurised travellers
Text: Paul Hoogstad Photography: Dieter Mandelmeier und Lothar Fröhlich
Our group in three Volkswagen Microbus Syncros departed from the Pafuri border post at about midday one day in August, having spent the night at the Punda Maria camp in the Kruger National Park.
At the South African border post engine and chassis numbers were checked. On the Mozambican side things went smoothly – a far cry from our 2002 experience, when a few bribes were expected to move the process along.
We dallied a while at the Limpopo River near Pafuri, comparing the possibility of a crossing in the low water with our failure to do so in 2002. All three Syncros went through, with the wet sand proving much firmer than during our previous attempt.
The road to Mapai is still an easy drive, although even more small settlements have sprung up along its length. The natural beauty of the countryside strewn with baobabs and fever trees remains unsurpassed, however. I know of no other area where there are quite so many baobabs.
Across from Mapai, where we crossed the Limpopo, new signs announcing the entrance to the Trans-Frontier Park have been erected on the southern side of the river.
There is now a controlled entry gate to the park at this point. One needs to produce a permit for entry here and according to the park brochure, the document can only be procured in advance at Parque Nacional do Limpopo (PNL) headquarters at the Massingir Dam and in Maputo! It seems likely, though, that KNP authorities will be able to assist here.
The low water level at the crossing of the Limpopo didn’t challenge our Syncros, but we did manage to dunk one of the group’s very expensive Sony digital camera in the murky water!
The camera still functioned after drying out a bit, but has since given up the ghost.
One of the goals of the trip was to explore the seldom-frequented Banhine Nature Reserve north of the Limpopo. We entered the park at its western border hoping to spend two nights there, if we could locate the lake purported to exist in its north-eastern sector. However, the locals told us there was water only in summer, so we decided to spend only one night in this park. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 – to see it you have to go in the rainy season, but then the Limpopo flows strongly!
The park’s infrastructure is still primitive and there is not much game to be seen – only squirrels and a good deal of bird life. We did see a hunting party with a pack of seven dogs. They were carrying bows and arrows and probably used snares as well. There was no sign of officialdom to control this sort of poaching. The bush was thick and lush even in this late stage of the dry season.
Having left the park at its eastern border, our little convoy turned south with the dry reaches of the Changane River in sight on our left. We passed through many villages on the way; most of them nearly deserted with the inhabitants apparently away tending their crops and ever-present cattle.
One village, signposted as Caza Vasco, boasted a school. We asked the teacher, who had some difficulty in containing the excited kids on our arrival, for permission to step inside the classroom and take photographs and a video.
With this granted and the kids on their best behaviour, a view of the wide-eyed children with their books and learning material was duly placed on record. We left a small donation with the grateful teacher, and probably a deep impression in the memories of the 20-odd scholars.
We made an overnight stop at a beautiful spot we found just as the road petered out. The villagers had told us that this road did not exist but what they meant was that it had not been used for a long time. It was very obscure but still there, and we managed to locate it.
This overnight camp and the track leading south for the next 100km turned out to be the highlight of our adventure. At the chosen campsite and beyond, pools of water from the Changane River showed periodically as we followed its course southwards – winding through unspoiled grassland plains with the grass at window height and woodland thickets abounding. We even spotted some small antelope, too far away to identify.
As we progressed southwards, the greater proliferation of human habitation began to detract from the beauty of the countryside.
At our next overnight stop in the bush near Maqueze, we were spotted by local inhabitants as we turned off the main track. The result was a somewhat difficult situation, with three slightly inebriated individuals sitting down to supper with us. Luckily our inability to communicate in Portuguese led to their early departure.
During our drive the following morning, we passed large expanses of water, shown on the map as natural lakes. There were plenty of water birds along these stretches.
Our map showed a river crossing point or bridge at Guia (Canicado on some maps). However, the bridge was very much still under construction. No crossing was allowed and we had to proceed to Macarretane, where motor vehicles and trains share the bridge.
Despite having extra capacity, two of the three Syncros (respectively fitted with a Golf 2.0-litre power plant and the 5-cylinder 2.6 engine) were getting very low on fuel and we needed to get to Chokwe where petrol was available.
We took on fuel there but it turned out that we miscalculated and again took too little, each effectively getting 12 litres for R100. The final stage of our journey was a nail-biting affair. Luckily we had two jerrycans, which just got us back into Kruger. The third Syncro, with a standard 2,1-litre boxer motor, did the whole 600km-plus trip easily on its built-in 80- litre long-range tank.
At our approach from the south to the Massingir Dam, we passed through a fairly large settlement and were treated to a moving show by a large group of young children led by an adult who could have been their schoolteacher.
They danced around in a circle with great enthusiasm, singing at the top of their voices and with obvious enjoyment at their appreciative audience.
We spent the next night at the northern end of the great 4,5km-long dam wall. One of the entrances to the Trans-Frontier Park is located here, but our visit coincided with the grand opening ceremony of the park by President Thabo Mbeki and his counterparts from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, so no visitors were allowed into the park until the next day.
We were given permission by the official at the booking office to camp at the water’s edge, near the entry gate.
This was a super experience. The dam is filling up rapidly, drowning the vegetation on the swiftly shrinking islands in the dam. We spotted fish eagles at close quarters, no doubt feeding on the abundant tilapia fish with which the dam is stocked.
Our passage through the Trans-Frontier Park was via well sign-posted but somewhat stony roads mostly empty of game, until one gets closer to KNP when the ubiquitous impala begin to appear.
The border post and entry point into the Kruger Park at Giriyondo was bustling with contractors dismantling the paraphernalia that had been used during the grand opening ceremony.
The border formalities and Kruger booking facilities were operating smoothly, causing little delay. We have promised ourselves a return to the Trans-Frontier Park for proper and extended exploration. The park map shows plenty of tracks to follow.
We made two more stops in Kruger – at Letaba and Lower Sabie campsites – before returning to the Big Smoke.