Most names have a story behind them and half the fun of travel is winkling out what those stories are. If you visit Crooks Corner, Kruger National Park, you won’t be surprised to discover it has a suspiciously shifty background. Find out more about its history and other things to do in this northern part of the park.
Picture it. You’re a shady character on the run from the law. What better place to hide out than in a small triangle of land where three countries meet, so you can pull a fast one by hopping across the border?
Of course, I’m talking about Crooks Corner in the far north-eastern part of the Kruger National Park. Here the Luvhuvhu and Limpopo rivers come together where South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe meet. Today it’s a world of fat baobabs, yellow-barked fever trees and rivers bursting with hippos and crocs as big as dinosaurs. It makes a shady drive along the river from the Pafuri picnic site north-east of Punda Maria camp.
A hundred years or so ago it was even more remote, an area reached only by a long and tough wagon trail twisting through thick bush and oppressive heat where men would be beset by malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Small wonder, then, that it was a No Man’s Land, a haven for skelms or – as the plaque marking the spot today puts it – ‘people who had no great wish to look into the eyes of the law’ and might at any moment need to escape across an international border. Think ivory poachers, gun runners, smugglers and other outlaws who chose a free life where they made their own rules and thumbed their noses at the law.
One of the most notorious men in this area back in the day was ivory poacher Stephanus Barnard. The locals called him Bvekenya, which means ‘one who swaggers when he walks’ – giving you an idea of the kind of person he was. The story goes that his ambition was to kill the biggest elephant in these parts, Dhlulamithi (which means ‘taller than the trees’). No doubt much of his time was spent skipping international boundaries to avoid the lawmen. But when he finally tracked the giant elephant down and came face to face with it, he apparently had some sort of conversion and decided to let it live. He left the area in the late 1920s and turned to farming instead of poaching as a way of life.
Despite its past, today the only skelms you’ll run into in the Crooks Corner area are crocs basking on sand banks in the river, waiting for an unsuspecting antelope to present itself as a prize item on the dinner menu.
1. Look for wildlife along the gravel road to Crooks Corner. For me, it’s more about the atmosphere, the baobabs and the fever trees, but you can find game here too. You might spot elephants, wildebeest, kudu, nyala, impala, warthog, vervet monkeys and baboons. You will almost certainly see hippos and crocodiles along the river.
2. Other good roads for game drives in this northern part of Kruger include the H1-8 tar road between Punda Maria and Pafuri, the beautiful mountainous S99 loop around Punda Maria camp, the S60 and the Klopperfontein Loop. The H1-7 south towards the picnic site of Babalala can also be rewarding.
5. Pre-book to join a guided walk from Punda Maria or Pafuri to the stone-walled Thulamela Heritage Site guarded by two giant baobab trees. Dating back 450-500 years, the late Iron Age site forms part of the Zimbabwe culture which is believed to have started at Mapungubwe. Learn about the people who lived here, their culture, social hierarchy, trade networks along the Mozambican coast and in the African interior, and farming of sorghum and millet. The site was rediscovered in 1991 and much of it has been restored.
6. Spend time in the hide overlooking the waterhole at Punda Maria camp. It’s a peaceful place where you can sit and wait for the wildlife to come to you, from birds like marabou storks and herons to mammals like nyala, impala kudu, buffalo and elephant.
7. If you’re tired of braaing every night or just want an evening off, have dinner at Punda Maria’s restaurant. The food is good but the biggest drawcard is that you can sit outside under trees lit up with romantic fairy lights. There’s a small indoor seating area too.
8. Go bird-watching along the Paradise Flycatcher Trail around Punda Maria camp.
Kruger accommodation near Crooks Corner
If you want to explore Crooks Corner in the far north-east of Kruger, it’s best to stay either at Punda Maria or at Pafuri Border Camp.
Pafuri Border Camp further north-east and therefore closer to Crooks Corner offers three self-catering houses. From 1926 until 1976, it was a recruitment camp for potential mine workers from Mozambique. What is the tourist accommodation today used to be the recruitment officer’s house, a man called Mockford (now the eight-sleeper Mockford House), the doctor’s house (now the six-sleeper English House) and a guest cottage (now the four-sleeper Mockford Cottage). The swimming pool in the camp is very deep because it was originally created for otters, part of Mockford’s wife’s menagerie of sick, wounded and orphaned animals.
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