July 2023

Kruger has been calling since our last visit in 2019 before the nightmare of the pandemic lockdowns. Along with long-time friends, Debbie and Paul Watson, we were happy to decide on a route through the northern sector of the park over about ten days, staying at Mopani, Bateleur Bushcamp (a very atmospheric place and the first bushcamp built in Kruger), Pafuri Border Camp (more about this further down), and grand old Punda Maria. Experience has taught us to stay in one place for at least two nights, preferably three, to get a sense of the place.

Northern Kruger has a very different feel to the busy and congested central and southern sectors. Much of it is dominated by mopani trees, but the course of the Luvuvhu River to its confluence with the Limpopo is known for its beautiful fever tree forests and the spectacular Lanner Gorge, as well as the infamous Crooks’ Corner. However, I want to dwell a bit on the fascinating cultural heritage aspects of the area, starting with the story behind Pafuri Border Camp.The Doctor's House verandah
Pafuri Border Camp

Pafuri Border Camp appears to hark back to an earlier colonial time. Three sprawling houses, built in 1938, with wide verandahs are perched on a flat-topped hill overlooking the border post. We enjoyed our time up there on the verandah of the “Doctor’s House”, especially in the evenings and mornings, taking copious amounts of tea while enjoying the sights and sounds (besides the 24-by-7 drone of the police post’s diesel generator, that is) of the woodland to the north. A framed picture on the verandah tells the story of Harold and Tiny Mockford who lived in “Mockford House” across the little plateau, and appeared to lead an idyllic existence. Mockford was a big game hunter-turned-conservationist and naturalist, but his day job reveals a slightly darker role in the history of extractive capitalism in South Africa, and indeed, southern Africa.

To interpret Mockford’s role, it is useful to understand the “economic problem” that 19th century diamond and gold mining magnates and investors faced in South Africa. In his book The Randlords, Geoffrey Wheatcroft succinctly expounds the logic of South Africa’s extractive capitalism. In the Kimberley diamond mining industry, price was variable and fluctuated wildly until a monopoly seller, De Beers, was formed to dictate price – and thus maximise profit. By contrast, on the Rand, the gold price was fixed by Kruger’s Boer republic, and so the magnates’ solution was to drive down labour costs by creating a single buyer of labour, a “monopsony”, and so the Chamber of Mines came into being. It created The Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA) to recruit African labour from outside South Africa and secured a monopoly on labour in southern Portuguese East Africa, later Mozambique. The WNLA constructed various recruitment stations, one of which is the camp at Pafuri (with its mirror-image camp across the border), where Harold Mockford became the recruiting agent and administrative officer  from 1938 to 1985. Suppressing labour wages became intrinsic to the goldmining business model despite the disappearance of Kruger’s gold-price-determining republic at the end of the Anglo-Boer War. The migrant labour model and the tender mercies of extractive industry continue to influence South African politics to this day.
Luvuvhu River

Pafuri forest

I only had a vague idea of this history while sipping tea on the verandah and wondering about the Mockfords’ lives here. Whenever one indulges in some vicarious “Out-of-Africa” nostalgia, which national parks, game lodges and reserves often evoke, it is important to remember that there is usually another, often tragic, narrative.

Most Westerners and white South Africans think of the Kruger National Park as a return to a romanticised, people-less wilderness, teeming with wildlife. However, the existence of the walled kingdom of Thulamela, and its archaeological survey and restoration, have put paid to that notion. Thulamela’s stone citadel perches on a flat-topped hill near the Luvuvhu River, about midway between the Mozambique border and Punda Maria. In fact, there are almost 300 such sites in the park, dating from the Stone and Iron Ages. Thulamela is a Late Iron Age walled kingdom that was surveyed during the 1990s and proved the existence of a sophisticated civilisation of traders, goldsmiths and farmers. Some 2000 people inhabited the site between 1250 and 1700 C.E., having migrated south from Great Zimbabwe, whose antecedents in turn came from Mapungubwe. Its restored stone walls are a visual testament to the relationship with the Zimbabwe culture. We fondly recall walking with Prof Lee Berger, the famous paleo-anthropologist, in this area in 2005, so we opted for the cultural excursion on foot to Thulamela. It was an uncharacteristically overcast, cold morning and we were the only people up there, gazing down on the river and the difficult approaches for any ancient marauders. Giant baobabs, some 1500 years old, dominate the hilltop. One wonders what these trees have seen: Arab traders, raiders, subjects paying homage to the king, executions, weddings and celebrations, … ?
Bateleur gate
Bateleur area
Bateleur cottage

Jane Carruthers, in her seminal book, The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History (now available as a free pdf download), also dispenses with the notion that European settlers saved the wildlife from extinction by proclaiming the park and forcing the locals out. It was in fact the European hunters, farmers and settlers who virtually annihilated the fauna, with which the local people had lived in ecological balance for centuries. The park saved the fauna from Europeans, for Europeans. But to return to the socio-cultural history …

Heidi Hansen’s MSc thesis1 argues that the “colonial past has been privileged” by SANParks, that insufficient “cultural heritage guidance and sensitivity” have been applied to the redevelopment of the TEBA site (the WNLA later became TEBA – The Employment Bureau of Africa) and that consequently, historical value and meaning of the Pafuri site for neighbouring and local communities have not been honoured. The TEBA administrative building was supposed to house a cultural museum, but at the time of our visit this was still not the case. She makes a similar argument about Thulamela, the “flagship cultural heritage site in the park”, where an onsite museum was supposed to be established. Later the museum was to be incorporated into the Punda Maria gate development. Whether this has occurred, I do not know, as we did not pass through the gate. There is, however, a very informative display site at the Pafuri picnic site, which I noticed very few visitors use, unfortunately. I would also highly recommend taking the Thulamela excursion to breathe in the other spirits of the park and contemplate its long human history.
Red Rocks areaAs to Pafuri Border Camp, we enjoyed its ambience and its location. If the park administration and the Honorary Rangers can sort out the new solar water heating system, it would make for a perfect, remote getaway. We particularly enjoyed Bateleur for similar reasons. Having visited Kruger for more than 40 years, we do, however, notice the incremental decline in standards of maintenance. As a former engineer I know that this trend needs to be reversed or recovery becomes impossibly expensive. Staff service, with a single exception, remains uniformly efficient and friendly.


References and more reading

  1. Heidi Suzanne Hansen. 2008. Community Perceptions of a mine recruitment centre in Pafuri and the development of a cultural heritage site in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. MSc Thesis. University of the Witwatersrand.
  2. Pafuri: an Edenic landscape at the border of 3 countries
  3. A new treasure unveiled in Kruger: the Pafuri Border Camp
  4. Rest camp to open at remote border zone
  5. Thulamela: Africa’s ancient history of civilisation written in the stone walls
  6. Thulamela: ancient Kruger walled kingdom.