Situated in the extreme of both South Africa as well as the Kruger National Park lies an area called Pafuri, named after the Venda chief Maphaphuli. This area belongs to the Makuleke tribe and represents the first successful land claim to be accepted after South Africa became a democracy in 1994. The concession is 24 000 hectares in extent, which includes all the land between the ancient Limpopo (which originated in the Angolan highlands just over 64 million years ago!) and the powerful Luvuvhu which is only two million years old and is still actively carving its way through the sandstone in the area. The concession is cradled by Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the east.
There is more to Pafuri than its incredible diversity, scenery and wildlife however. The rocks and landscape tell a story that begins millions of years ago, through to the arrival of the first hominids 1.7 million years ago and until its most recent inhabitants. It is important not to overlook the cultural history of the area and how it has had an influence in producing such an amazing area.
The landscape itself is ancient. The rocks at the bottom of Lanner Gorge, for example, reach back over 250 million years recording at their base the greatest extinction event the planet has ever seen, an event heralding the end of the Palaeozoic and the beginning of the Mesozoic – the age of the Dinosaurs. This extinction is known as the Permian Extinction and well over 80 % of all species on the planet vanished. This was a tragedy for some but a great opportunity for others. At the bottom of Lanner Gorge there are rocks of apparently Permian age and were originally part of a world whose landmasses were fused into a giant super – continent known as Pangaea and the rocks of this period indicate that the climate of the interior of this super – continent was harsh and arid.
Most of the sandstone in the Pafuri region hails from the great age of dinosaurs – the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. During the early Jurassic Period (Approximately 210 – 144 million years ago), the area was extremely arid as is evident by the sandstones of the area as – there are many ‘dune and desert’ structures, such as desert roses that have been preserved within the rocks of the region. This was also a period of intense volcanic activity, with igneous rocks representing the ejected and intrusive molten matter from the interior of the earth scattered around the region. The Jurassic period was the age of the vicious carnivorous dinosaurs. It was also the age of the origin of vertebrate flight, with the first avian species appearing which was known as Archaeopteryx, meaning ancient wing. Archaeopteryx showed evolutionary moves from a reptile to a bird, as it had a keeled breast bone and many redundant bones were lost whilst other large bones took on a honeycomb structure that we are familiar with today’s modern avians. This was also a time of global upheaval as the world continent of Pangaea began to break up.
The Jurassic gives way to the Cretaceous Period (144 – 65 million years ago) in the upper rocks of the Makuleke area; this period ended when a meteor struck the earth, causing major climate change and effectively seeing the end of the dinosaurs. It was also at the end of this period that the great Limpopo River originated in the Angolian highlands. The landscape now changed from a desert biome into a more liveable environment.
The Cretaceous is followed by the Palaeogene Epoch, which is not well represented well in the area, so we will move down the scale almost 63 million years in time to just under 2 million years ago – which is when the Luvuvhu River was formed. It originates from underground water in the Soutpansberg Mountains, flowing for approximately 200km until it reaches the Limpopo River at Crooks Corner through Mozambique ending off in the Indian Ocean.
About 1.5 million years ago, the hominid Homo erectus arrived on the scene. These were near-humans with our stature but a brain only three-quarters the size of modern Homo sapiens’. The area was a good source for raw materials they needed to make Stone Age tools; the materials are still visible today in the form of rocks and non-native materials brought from the west, found in abundance in channel lag deposits left along the ancient Limpopo. Homo erectus used these abundant gravel deposits as quarry sites. Beautifully crafted hand axes, common in the area, were part of the early stone tool culture known as the Achuelean industry, before it gave way to a slightly more advanced stone tool culture known as the Middle Stone Age. The vast numbers of Archuelean tools in the region are not only testament to the large numbers of humans that occupied the area, but to more than 1.4 million years of continuous occupation. A large percentage of the hand axes found in Pafuri date back some 500000 years.
From around 1200 the great cultural civilisation and trade network of Mapungubwe began to emerge to the north and west. Through interactions and trade with Arab traders plying the Indian Ocean as far south as present-day Mozambique – the region emerged as a trade centre producing gold, ivory and trading for glass beads and porcelain from as far away as China.
It was then around 1450 that groups from other civilisations to the north – such as Great Zimbabwe – crossed the Limpopo and founded numerous settlements in the Pafuri region including that of Thulamela on the southern bank of the Luvuvhu. Thulamela was one of many walled cities that existed in the Pafuri triangle.
Almost every hill and overlook in the area has evidence of significant occupation during this period. Thulamela and other walled cities of the region were occupied at about the same time that Portuguese trade began on the eastern coast of South Africa. The Thulamela culture ended around 1650.
Finally, the Makuleke people moved into the area around 1820 in an attempt to escape the tyranny of Shaka Zulu. They lived in the area up until 1969 when they were forcibly removed by the apartheid government, and on 30 May 1994, the land was awarded back to the community in a land claim. Pafuri was declared a contractual park, remaining part of the Kruger National Park, but also being owned by those who had lived there many years before.