From a koppie rising above the Mopani trees, look out over Kruger’s incomparable triangle known as Pafuri…
Words and Pictures: Anita de Villiers www.anitadevilliers.co.za
There, where Mozambique and Zimbabwe touch South Africa, it is as if the spirits of earlier pioneers and adventurers ride with the traveller in this remote area of the Kruger National Park, where the Pafuri is verged by the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers.
On the road for several days, crossing the south-to-north extent of Kruger, we arrived at Pafuri Border Camp as the sun was making a fiery exit. “We were waiting for you the whole day,” was the enthusiastic salutation from Carel and Faith Mkuna, the managing couple at Kruger’s newest rest camp. Their pleasure at introducing us to Mockford House, our abode for the next few days, was infectious.
Mockford House is one of three historic houses encircling a central pool and succulent garden. The other two are Mockford Cottage and Doctor’s Guest House. The history of these houses stretches back to when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand and enormous numbers of workers had to be recruited for underground mining operations. Recruiting labour through trickery, especially from neighbouring countries, became a lucrative freelance venture that was called ‘blackbirding’.
Because of the extremely hot climate of what was then Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), workers from these countries were acclimatised and especially suited to the underground conditions in the mines.
The spot where these countries meet with what was then the Union of South Africa is known as Crook’s Corner. Remote, wild, no man’s land. This was where adventurers, ivory poachers, gunrunners and other outlaws operated, some also adding blackbirding to their activities. But by the end of World War I, the authorities stepped in to take control and consolidate all recruitment under one body – the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA), later renamed the Employment Bureau of Africa.
The action eventually moved from Crook’s Corner, three kilometres north-east to the Pafuri Border Post and the two recruitment posts – one on the Mozambique side and the other on the koppie. These two camps processed most of the recruited Mozambicans. In 1938, the WNLA replaced the old ironwood and clay structures on the koppie with brick houses that had wrap-around verandas, ideal for the hot climate.
Erstwhile big-game hunter, Harold Mockford was employed by WNLA between 1938 and 1985, and succeeded Paul Neergard as regional manager of the Pafuri recruitment operations. The Mockford family, plus the resident doctor responsible for the medical examination of recruits and other WNLA staff, lived on the koppie. The local people nicknamed Harold ‘Shitsakie’, paying tribute to him as ‘the one who makes other people happy’. Over the years he became an expert on the area’s fauna and flora and, in 1997, became the first honorary lifelong ranger of the Kruger Park.
Towards the end of the Mozambique Civil War, the WNLA’s activities came to an end when Frelimo closed the border, thus terminating cross-border communications and recruitment in 1976. The impact of the Bush War between Rhodesia and Mozambique was felt at this meeting place of the three countries, and people left the area.
Fast-forward to more recent times and the normalisation of relations between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, as well as the reopening of the Pafuri Border Post, and the incremental growth of tourism and conservation as major economical forces. Plans to revive this historic outpost in the Pafuri as a rest camp for tourists came to fruition in 2012, when the sensitive task of restoring and preserving this part of South Africa’s history started.
Instrumental in driving and completing this project was Joep Stevens, SANParks general manager of strategic tourism services. Garth Holt, hospitality service manager at Punda Maria Rest Camp, and his wife Christa, have a passion for the history of Kruger, and were tasked with the research and restoration of Pafuri Border Camp.
Because the buildings are more than 60 years old, all restorations had to adhere to the specifications of the South African National Heritage Resources Act.
According to Joep, the buildings and infrastructure were in good shape, taking into consideration their age. “It was important to create a place that, as far as possible, included some of the history of the area and the purpose of the facility. Garth and Christa meticulously researched and designed the camp by keeping old features yet incorporating new elements to make it comfortable for guests. A museum is being developed that will tell the story of labour recruitment and the people that lived and worked in possibly the most remote corner of South Africa.”
Three generations of Mockfords gathered at their beloved old home on the koppie for the opening of Pafuri Border Camp, where two of the houses are named in honour of their parents and grandparents, Harold and Tiny.
In the guestbook, Buddy, Jenny and Caroline Mockford wrote on 12 October 2015, ‘Back to our roots! Wonderful to be back in the old house, now Mockford House, and sleeping on the veranda again after 50 years’ absence. The modifications don’t spoil the feeling of the place and I’m sure Tiny and Harold would have approved. The pool is still a Godsend in the midday heat for all of us’.
If you have lived in a farmhouse with a wide, wrap-around stoep, with just mesh to keep the mosquitoes out and let the night sounds in, the highly polished red or green concrete floors cool to the touch, a generator chugging away in the distance and a water system that asks you to do a rain dance under the shower, Mockford House will embrace you. I paced the measurements of the Mockford Cottage, so perfect is its architecture that it presented itself as the dream house I will yet build. And Doctor’s Guest House brought memories of a visit to Karen Blixen’s house in Nairobi, the self-same house that was used for the movie Out of Africa. Pure nostalgia.
On our tour through the house, Carel and Faith explained the logistics of this far-away camp. Solar power and a generator on the Mozambique side provide electricity, there is no Wi-Fi and no cellphone reception except via the Mozambique network. The water also has to be pumped up the hill, a situation that sometimes plays havoc with the supply and heating, but you quickly get the hang and the rhythm of it.
On the first morning we were at Crook’s Corner very early, the only people to witness the sun rising over the confluence of the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers. A hippo with a wicked eye plunged into the water right in front of us. And the light, the light. Nowhere in Kruger is it as beautiful as on the River Road along the Luvuvhu. Golden rays slant through the forest of tall nyala berries, fever trees, leadwoods, fig trees and ana trees. We saw a lone male lion, a herd of buffalo, elephants, nyalas, impalas, Southern Ground Hornbills, kudus, baboons, vervet monkeys, hippos, crocodiles and more.
We had packed food for a brunch-braai at the beautiful Pafuri Picnic Spot where attendant Frank Mabasa and his understudy Mandla Ngomane had us in stitches with their stories about the area. They made big eyes when told that we were staying in Mockford House (“Such a smart place”). But it is now one of Kruger’s three Bush Lodges. As an accredited guide for BirdLife South Africa, Frank is said to be the Pafuri birding expert. He has recorded 363 bird species and people come from across the world to be shown lifers such as the Narina Trogon and Pel’s Fishing-Owl.
On the last morning, Carel took us on a game drive in the camp’s new vehicle, and we crossed the bridge over the Luvuvhu into Kruger’s Makuleke concession area. Back at the camp, the staff gathered on the stoep of the office and museum, the thatched building that also did duty during the WNLA era. It was such a happy photo shoot, each one clearly proud to work at such a special camp.
The Pafuri is, in the opinion of many bush lovers, the Eden of Kruger. Indeed, it is so. And Pafuri Border Camp is right at its heart.
Pack for Pafuri
- Pafuri Border Camp has three self-catering, fully equipped, luxury houses with en-suite bedrooms: Mockford House (four bedrooms, sleeps eight), Mockford Cottage (one bedroom plus beds on the veranda, sleeps four) and Doctor’s Guest House (three bedrooms, sleeps six). There is a large swimming pool.
- The Pafuri is a medium-risk malaria area and visitors are advised to take the necessary precautions.
- Frank Mabasa is the picnic spot attendant at Pafuri. He is an accredited guide for BirdLife SA, and can be contacted at www.birdlife.org.za
- For bookings and information about Pafuri Border Camp, visit www.sanparks.org or contact Central Reservations at 082 233 9111, 012 428 9111, [email protected]