Makuleke is probably the 'rolls royce' of EcoTraining camps. First of all the accommodation is the nicest - the 'tents' are huge and all have en-suites attached (shower, basin and toilet) with proper gas hot water. The tents are not even really tents - they are wooden structures with floor boards but have canvas/mesh walls and a proper front door. The roofs are extremely high so that not even the tallest person could touch them. Oh and each tent has a lovely little deck with deck chairs. It must be difficult for students who start their course in Makuleke to adjust when they head to other camps, but for people like me who came from other camps it is a very welcome change!
Then there's the area itself - Makuleke concession is right in the north of Kruger National Park (my favourite place in the world). It is part of the park, but is only accessible by EcoTraining and a couple of other lodges in the area (except the tar road which runs to Pafuri gate, which is accessible to the public). The Makuleke area is considered to be the most bio-diverse wilderness area in Kruger and one of the most diverse in the country. It is in the top five places in the country for birding and the heart of the Transfrontier park, linking Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. For the birding enthusiast there are some special species to be seen at Makuleke including Pel’s Fishing Owl, Lemon Breasted Canarys, Grey Headed Parrots, Arnott’s Chat, Racket Tailed Rollers, Bohm’s and Mottled Spinetail. It is undoubtedly the most 'wild' and I think most beautiful part of the Kruger park, so you feel extremely lucky to be one of the few who get to see it! There's no cell phone reception anywhere near the camp, adding to the remote feel.
I probably didn't choose the best time to visit Makuleke - right in the heart of summer (late January), where temperatures are typically high 30's or even in the 40's, the humidity is relentless and many of the elephants head south so there are fewer big game encounters. Oh and of course the only respite you get from the heat and humidity is when it rains, and it did rain quite a bit. In fact in January this year there has been more rain at Makuleke than their average for an entire year! The good news is that it is absolutely stunningly green and all the rivers and waterholes are full of water. I am sure the animals are extremely pleased. The downside of course is that the grass is extremely high, which makes walking a tad more difficult (particularly for people like me who are allergic to grass!) and it is harder to spot the smaller animals.
Bruce and Dee run the Makuleke camp. Bruce is an EcoTraining head instructor and has been with EcoTraining for over 10 years. He is a bushman through and through. He definitely has a serious side but also a very distinctive laugh that comes out relatively frequently. Dee is Australian (go Aussies!) and is very organised - making sure the camp runs like a well-oiled machine. She not only runs Makuleke but also much of the operations and instructor scheduling for all EcoTraining camps.
Like any EcoTraining camp, Makuleke has a daily routine that rarely changes. Wake up is EARLY, you do two activities (usually walks) and have three meals. The difference at Makuleke is that every day there is also Bruce's 'bush fit', which is a work-out held in the dining/lecture area every day prior between breakfast and lunch. Now I thought it was crazy walking in the summer heat at Makuleke, but these guys choose to work out in the middle of the day - in temperatures at times higher than 40! And these are not easy work outs. I was pleased to see Van take part in bush fit for most (maybe even all) of the days we were there, but I decided not to die and only did it the one time that week, which was the day it was windy and rainy (nice and cool). It was tough but not quite as hard as I thought it would be - perhaps I still have some of my fitness from my gym days back in Australia before I came over here. That being said, I'm still sore as I type this three days later!
Makuleke is a beautiful little camp that truly feels like the African wild. That extends to within your tent, where you often see or hear the indigenous acacia rats (very cute and almost like possums) and little bats. Once you get used to them doing their thing (which initially kept me up a little at night) they become a cute distraction. There are also so many birds around camp, with collared sunbirds, white browed robin chats and dark-capped bul buls (look at me go with my birding now) regularly visiting the dining area. There are woodpeckers in the camp trees, and you hear African mourning doves, tropical bru brus, white-browed scrub robins, grey-backed camaropteras and more constantly throughout the day. Snakes can also be regular visitors to camp, but I only spotted one very briefly in my week at Makuleke - some sort of harmless grass or sand snake that slithered off at a rate of great knots when it saw (or felt) me coming. Bush babies are also a common visitor in the evening, jumping around in the trees around the fire place.
While it wasn't the best time of the year to visit Makuleke, I could definitely see why it was Van's favourite place. I hope we get to go back again, perhaps when it's not quite as hot!