I am a guest at The Outpost Lodge in the most remote part of the Kruger National Park close to ‘’Crooks Corner’’ where Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique meet. Pafuri Gate is the northern most entry to Kruger and offers direct access to the Makuleke Wilderness area which in the words of South African Bird Finder author Callan Cohen ‘provides arguably the most exciting birding in Kruger’.
The Outpost Lodge is situated on a hill overlooking the Luvuvhu River with spectacular views from all the guest suites called ‘’spaces’’ which are connected by a wooden walk-way on either side of the central dining, lounge, pool and bar area. The spaces are elegantly and simply decorated and flow from a ‘sun-bed’ through living area to bedroom and bathroom beyond, with a pull out shelving system on wheels providing a unique cupboard solution and privacy if needed between bedroom and bathroom. There are no windows, and one has the option of being drawn directly into the bush surroundings with the clever use of motorised blinds; a touch of a button will lift any or all of the blinds on the sides and the front of the space, allowing you to feel as if your room is simply a platform with a roof perched on a mountain overlooking the breath-taking scenery that is the Makuleke Wilderness.
After a delicious brunch platter beautifully presented and paired with a glass of ice cold ‘Champu’ – a gorgeous sparkling wine grown and bottled in the Plettenburg Bay region by the owner of the Outpost, I enjoy a siesta and escape the intense heat of the day before meeting my guide and driver Samuel Japane for what promises to be an exciting afternoon game drive.
Not long into our drive and Samuel stops the game vehicle to point out a huge nest perched in one of the Baobab’s that stand tall and proud between the many butterfly-leafed Mopani Trees. ‘’The Red-billed Buffalo Weaver” he announces with gusto ‘’bird number 798 which builds huge communal nests and makes the sound lookatit-lookatit-lookatit”. Before I can ask the question, my German colleague beats me to it with what do you mean by bird number 798? Samuel confidently replies that the bird in question is bird number 798 in the Roberts bird book and hands the book over the seat for us to take a look. Thinking that this is clearly part of Samuels repertoire although not doubting his knowledge I say nothing more until another bird is spotted and he once again names it, makes the sound of it’s call and cites the identity number in the bible of birds. The game drive group decides that Samuel’s knowledge does indeed need to be tested and so we randomly pick a bird or two from the book and ask him to name the number and make the sound, which he does without hesitation. He switches off the vehicle and points upward, “Hear that? Work harder, work harder. It’s the call of the Cape Turtle Dove, bird number 354”. I am duly impressed and rather intrigued.
We round a corner on a very rocky sand road and in front of us the bush opens up into an expansive green flood plain and my heart swells at the site of elephants and a huge herd of buffalo. Samuel drives us a bit further and parks where we are able to leave the vehicle and take in the pure magnificence of the scene before us – a herd of elephant walking single file and silently across the plain, not 500 meters from our vehicle. When they are out of sight and as the sun sets over the plain with buffalo’s cavorting in the mud in the distance, Samuel hands me a glass of chilled white wine from the elegantly presented drinks table he has set up on the front of the Landrover.
On arrival back at the lodge long after the African sun has made way for a night sky adorned with more stars than you can imagine, and being amazed at Sam’s ability to spot a tiny bush-baby in a tree and hear why we should never shake hands with one (you’ll have to figure that one out on your own), we are welcomed by the friendly and attentive staff and escorted to the boma area where a long softly lit table has been set up for our dinner expertly prepared and presented by the head chef and kitchen staff. Over my plate of fresh vegetables and succulent salmon, I ask Lauren Ritchie our host if she is aware of Samuel’s incredible bird knowledge. She tells me he has a very interesting story and gives me a brief overview of how he came to be a ranger at the Outpost and it becomes my mission to know more.
An early morning game walk with an armed ranger on the second day takes us through a Fever Tree forest via a waterhole. It is quite a phenomenal experience to walk in the Kruger, exhilarating in the knowledge that one can bump into a herd of elephants or a pride of lions around any corner. We witness a violent scuffle between zebra stallions and reach the pan unscathed to enjoy a short rest and take in the silence as we watch the Marabou Stalk, one of the ‘ugly five’ a status shared with the Vulture, Hyena, Wildebeest and Warthog, collaborate with the other more attractive birds in and around this lonely patch of water. A troop of Baboons watches us from a distance as their youngsters cavort and play and yellow butterflies flutter all around us in the soft morning light.
Later, sundowners on the newly constructed deck of the Outpost’s exclusive-use addition to the lodge opening in August 2016 and named after the elusive and shy Pels Fishing Owl which calls this area home, provides breath-taking views of the Luvuvhu River from private rooms and a communal entertainment area, and promises to be a bucket-list destination for families, friend groups and wedding parties.
On my final day at the Outpost, I am woken at 4am to catch the sunrise at Lanner Gorge, voted the most beautiful spot in the Kruger by Getaway Magazine. It forms the boundary between the Kruger Park to the south and the Makuleke Concession to the north, carved by the Luvuvhu and at some points more than 150m deep. Sitting at the edge of the cliff face with the great expanse of the Kruger before me, I am deeply moved and humbled by the beauty of it all.
On my return to the lodge I ask Samuel if we can have a chat over the incredible coffee they serve at the central bar area and he graciously obliges. He tells me that he was born in Venda ‘’loving nature’’ and later went to live with the Makuleke people. In 2009 he was working as a security guard at the local school and felt that there had to be more to life. He had a dream one night and the answer came to him that if he learnt about birds it would change his life. He had no books and had no idea where he would gain this knowledge. One day two ladies from outside the area were visiting the school and after opening the security gate for them, he approached them and told them that he wanted to become a bird specialist and would they be able to help him. They immediately took an interest and arranged for him to receive a copy of Roberts Bird book which he studied in every waking moment. After a considerable period of intense self-study, he applied for a bursary and was selected over many other applicants to receive his training and certification through Eco Training. He believes his ability to identify, name, number and repeat the calls of over 200 birds in the area is what sealed the deal and at the age of 46 in 2015 Samuel Japane became a certified Bird Specialist.
After a hearty egg and bacon breakfast and short drive to the airstrip I am headed home to Johannesburg although rather sadly, as I could easily spend more time here. As our light aircraft banks and flies low following the twists and turns of the Limpopo River I have only one thought: GO! This is all I can really tell you. The Outpost Lodge is not to be missed by the discerning traveller, and when your ‘work-harder-work-harder doves’ have cried a few too many times, pack a bag and make your way to the Northern Kruger, and be sure to meet Samuel, Birding Prince of Pafuri.