Pafuri Camp – It’s not every day you get to witness a creature’s first steps. The baby zebra is just a few minutes old when we come across it. Still half-covered in its amniotic sac and bewildered as its mother nervously fends off over-inquisitive buffalo. Words & pics – Sharon Gilbert-Rivett

Eventually she settles enough to remove the remainder of the sac, allowing the foal to try and find its feet, located at the end of long, spindly and thoroughly uncooperative legs.

Within minutes it is standing, and then walking (albeit with a somewhat wobbly gait) and eventually manages to trot off alongside her into the protective covering of nearby brush.

“Amazing, eh?” says Ezaya Chauke, safari guide extraordinaire, as we make our way back to Pafuri Camp, on the banks of a somewhat swollen Luvuvhu river in the far north of the Kruger National Park.

The rains have arrived in spades and the bush is lush and green, packed with birdlife and bursting at the seams with newborns of every shape, size and description.

Ezaya has been guiding for six years, the last 18 months of which have been spent here in the Makuleke Contract Park – a visionary concession within Kruger which is helping to prove beyond doubt the incredible positive impact tourism can have when it comes to helping people and protecting wilderness areas.

On our way back to camp, Ezaya explains that before the rise of apartheid, the Makuleke community of around 500 families were living in the Pafuri region – a triangle of land wedged between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers on the border of what is now Zimbabwe and neighbouring Mozambique.

“In 1969 these people were forcibly removed to the Punda Maria area, but in 1998 won a landmark land restitution case which returned ownership of the area to the Makuleke,” he says.

Instead of resettling their land, the Makuleke took the pioneering decision to turn it into a contract park within the Kruger National Park system, managed jointly with South African National Parks (SANParks). Today, Pafuri Camp is one of four safari lodges operating within the Makuleke concession, all of which are owned by the community, using sustainable tourism as a means of making good the negative effects forced removal had on lives and livelihoods.

Run by RETURNAfrica, along with Baobab Hill Bush House and Pafuri Walking Trails (which runs from April to October each year), Pafuri Camp employs members of the Makuleke community, providing careers and opportunities in the hospitality industry.

Although still located in a village just outside Punda Maria, the Makuleke people are actively involved in the running of the contract park through their Community Property Association, consisting of representatives who are elected every five years by the community.

All of them directly benefit from tourism and all are committed to the concept of conservation and protection of their former home, which is one of the best-kept secrets in South Africa’s arsenal of outstanding safari destinations.

“It’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?” sighs Ezaya as we round a curve in the road back to camp, revealing a verdant plain dotted with wildlife bordered by a dense forest of fever trees.

Beautiful is something of an understatement as the topography is quite simply breathtaking. And diverse – from dense mopani woodland, riparian forests and broad floodplains to koppies topped with baobab groves, wetlands and rocky outcrops, there’s an abundance of incredible landscapes.

There’s also exclusive access to the impressive Lanner Gorge, where the Luvuvhu has carved its way through layers of bedrock, creating an exceptional canyon frequented by the falcons which have given it its name.

Pafuri Camp has been designed and outfitted to complement and echo the richness of its surroundings. Built to minimise impact on the sensitive environment, it is raised on stilts on the banks of the Luvuvhu, which today is the colour of ochre thanks to heavy rainfall in its catchment area.

Nineteen luxuriously appointed tents stretch out along the river on either side of lavish communal areas, all with private decks and views out over the water. The dining areas, open air and undercover lounges are all designed to make the most of the surroundings and the lush canopy of trees adds patches of natural shade (a blessing in summertime, when the temperatures can soar!).

Plush loungers and day beds fringe the camp’s pool and sun-worshippers are cooled by non-stop service from the adjacent bar.

The river is home to hippos, crocodiles and a rich variety of birdlife, including the rare Pel’s fishing owl. Elephants are frequently spotted in and around camp, which is also home to a resident family of nyala.

It’s also a second home to the team of 36 staff, 33 of whom are from the Makuleke community. “We work six weeks on and two weeks off,” explains Ellen Manganyi, who has been working at the camp since it originally opened in 2005, when it was run by Wilderness Safaris.

“I’ve spent a long time here,” smiles Ellen, who started out as a housekeeper and is now training in camp administration. “Over the years I have progressed, thanks to ongoing education and training in all aspects of running a safari camp,” she explains.

“I have experience in front-of-house, ran housekeeping, worked in the kitchen and bar and was a supervisor before moving to the office to help with guest liaison. I want to be a manager one day and know I will make this dream a reality,” she says confidently.

Before she joined Pafuri Camp Ellen had been unemployed since leaving school. The professional world is now her oyster thanks to the skills she has developed over the years. “I’ve learned to be strong and independent,” says the mother of two. “And I have a lot of pride in this place and what has been achieved here,” she adds.

Her sentiments are echoed by manager Enos Mngomezulu, who like Ellen joined Pafuri Camp way back in 2005. “I learned to be a safari guide in the Waterberg,” he explains. “I continued with my guiding when I moved here, and I have been a manager for the last year. It’s challenging moving away from guiding, but I am enjoying it tremendously,” he adds.

Enos also highlights another important aspect of his work at Pafuri Camp – that of community role model. “As a community, the Makuleke are a shining example of what can be achieved through sustainable tourism,” he explains.

“We have worked with other communities who are keen to use our business model to create prosperous partnerships in tourism and to develop skills and job opportunities, and in our own community we are looked up to and emulated by our children, who have a future in this industry thanks to us,” he says.

It’s an amazing story of positivity, change for the better and how a simple vision for a sustainable future can change the lives of countless people while helping to protect a critically valuable wilderness area.

I leave the last word to Ezaya, as we park on the edge of the fever forest watching a small group of elephants grazing peacefully… “Every day is a blessing here,” he says. “Imagine if every safari lodge in Africa worked this way, and how communities would thrive and work hard to protect what we have. Imagine what we could all achieve.” Imagine, indeed.

Words – Sharon Gilbert-Rivett / Pics Return Africa & Sharon Gilbert-Rivett