An elephant is watching me, and it’s most unnerving. All that separates us is the perimeter fence around the Kruger National Park’s Punda Maria Rest Camp. When we first set up camp here, the fence looked sturdy, but now I’m not so sure.
My heart pounds. I’m sure the elephant can hear it. I have seldom felt so vulnerable, a pink squishy thing in a camping chair that she could flatten with a single half-hearted swipe of her trunk.
What should I do?
Stay in my chair or find somewhere to hide?
While I’m debating what to do, she curls her trunk around a tuft of grass and yanks it out of the ground. Before she pops it into her mouth, she gives it a good shake to remove any dirt. With a snack in her mouth, she continues to gaze at me.
And it occurs to me that she’s probably been there for a while. I was so engrossed in my book that I didn’t notice her quiet arrival. She means me no harm, although she might be judging how I camp.
I take a deep calming breath and embrace the beauty of these fleeting moments of stillness. Just a woman in a chair, an elephant and a fence.
And that was when I first began to fall in love with the Punda Maria rest camp.
So Where is Punda Maria Rest Camp?
You’ll find this remote yet charming rest camp perched at the bottom of a hillside in the far north of the Kruger National Park. It is a seven-to-ten-hour road trip, depending on traffic getting out of the Johannesburg area.
It’s worth the long drive because here you will find Africa’s baobab trees, herds of elephant and buffalo, antelope, maybe a pack of wild dogs or an occasional lion and a variety of birds found nowhere else in the park.
Entering the camp gates is like stepping back in time. A small ’60s style fuel station guards the gate, and a little further on, you will encounter a row of original thatched, lattice and mud bungalows dating back to when the camp was built as a game ranger outpost in 1919.
For me, this carefully maintained architectural legacy is a large part of Punda Maria’s charm.
But the campsite steals my heart—especially the twenty-odd campsites under tall mopani trees along the perimeter fence. I feel as if I’m wild camping without the fear of bumping into something with large teeth in the dark of the African night.
Elephant Sundowners at the Punda Maria Waterhole.
After a while, my elephant friend decides I’m not worthy of any further contemplation. She strolls along the outside of the fence, stopping here and there to pick juicy butterfly leaves off the mopani trees.
I follow her at a respectful distance until we reach the Punda Maria waterhole, where the rest of her herd are having a sundowner drink of water.
A large elephant, she must be the matriarch, moves closer and closer to the fence. Her beautiful brown eyes sparkle in the last rays of the setting sun as she ambles past the gathering crowd of humans to her favourite drinking spot.
Goosebumps trickle down my spine. Despite my fear, I’m in awe. I am rooted to the spot, a small and insignificant part of this wondrous wild African scene.
With her thirst quenched, the matriarch turns towards us humans lining the fence. She shakes her head vigorously. Her ears slap against her body, and for a moment, she is lost in a cloud of dust.
And then, she extends her ears, bellows a single trumpet call, and charges us.
We, humans, shriek and run for cover.
But the elephant matriarch stops after a meter or two. It was a mock charge.
A rumbling sound emanates from her body. I’m sure it’s the equivalent of an elephant giggle. An ‘I scared you, didn’t I,’ elephant chuckle.
Satisfied that she’s established who the boss is here, the queen of Punda Maria’s waterhole struts off into the sunset. Meanwhile, more and more elephants continue to arrive. Whether this is one super-herd or a couple of herds, I’m not sure.
But the light is fading rapidly, and I return to my campsite.
The Sounds of the African Night.
Somewhere in the darkness, far beyond the fence, a black-backed jackal sings its haunting role call howl. Shiver courses down my spine as, one by one, all the jackals in the area add their voices to this hauntingly beautiful melody.
It’s a signal for the night chorus of croaking frogs and chirping crickets to begin.
Elephants continue to come and go from the waterhole, their bellies brushing against the low shrubbery in the gloom beyond the fence betrays their presence. And when they reach the waterhole, they rumble a beautiful resonant greeting, almost like a cat purring but much deeper and fuller.
Disturbed by the passing elephants, fireflies rise to dance above their heads where puffs of air waft them this way and that into a glittering star-filled sky.
I take another sip of wine and snuggle into my camping chair. My life couldn’t get any better.
But then it does. A waking lion announces his presence in the valleys around the Punda Maria rest camp.
You Don’t Hear a Lion’s Roar. You Feel It.
The deep guttural roar of a lion resounds across the valleys and plains as a vibration that pulses through your body and pierces your very core. It’s the primal voice of Africa that carries an overwhelming mix of visceral emotions. Of joy, fear, excitement and strangely, a weird sense of calmness and belonging.
Perhaps that’s because I’m safely tucked away behind a sturdy fence next to a large fire. And I find myself falling deeper in love with Punda Maria.
Morning Coffee with a Side Order of Wild Dog.
I’m deep in that delicious and lazy weekend pre-wake-up dream state. But the incessant yapping of the neighbours’ dogs pulls me out of my slumber. Reluctantly, I open my eyes.
Outside, golden early morning light bathes the landscape caressing each bush with its gentle touch. Hang on a second. Those aren’t domestic dogs; they’re wild dogs!
I bolt out of bed, but I’m too late. Their calls have become softer and softer, fading as the distance between us increases. Oh well, at least I got to hear them, even if I didn’t see these beautiful, critically endangered creatures.
I sip my morning coffee, staring idly into a small clearing in the bush, contemplating the day ahead. Should I go out for a self-drive or spend the day alternating between the waterhole’s hide and the swimming pool?
A movement catches my eye, and a wild dog dashes through the clearing towards the waterhole. Another follows it. And another. I jump up and race along the fence, hoping they’ll stop for a drink.
But they are on the hunt and sprint past the waterhole. Satisfied that I have seen the wild dogs, even if they were only fleeting glimpses, I return to my abandoned coffee.
I’m on my last sip of coffee when an impala thunders along the fence line with a wild dog in hot pursuit. Fortunately, they disappear into the bushes where I can’t see them. I’m not keen on witnessing a kill – I know, I’m an absolute wimp when it comes to this kind of stuff.
A couple of seconds pass in absolute silence, and then I hear the crowing call of a successful wild dog calling the rest of the pack to breakfast. And again, I see fleeting glimpses through the bush as the rest of the pack joins the triumphant hunter.
How Could I not Fall in Love with Punda Maria Rest Camp?
Of course, not every day along Punda Maria’s perimeter is jam-packed with adventurous sightings like rare wild dogs. Nevertheless, if I’m patient, sooner or later, some creature is bound to saunter past on the way to the waterhole.
In this unique Kruger National Park rest camp, a rich tapestry of Mother Nature’s plants and creatures embraces me. And when I allow myself the luxury of time to slow down and smell the daisies. Well, in this case, the mopani trees and the surprisingly not-unpleasant smell of elephant dung, the magic of Punda Maria Rest Camp creeps up on me, captivating my heart and soul so much so that I return to this place that stole my heart at least once a year.
Punda Maria Rest Camp Good to Know
In case you were wondering, the fence around Punda Maria is electrified, so in hindsight, I was never at any risk from the elephant.
If you aren’t a camper, you can stay in the original ranger bungalows. They are air-conditioned, sleep two people and have an ensuite bathroom. The bungalows don’t have cooking facilities, so you can experience the rest camp as our forefathers did by gathering around the communal cooking and braai (barbecue) areas.
Don’t let the communal cooking area or the narrow verandas put you off. We stayed in the bungalows on our first trip to Punda Maria for two nights and had a blast. We met travellers from all over the world and ate our dinners together under the African stars. I’ll always treasure those two evenings with strangers whom I’ll probably never see again.
Don’t forget to take along your crockery and cutlery if you’re staying in the bungalows with communal cooking areas.
If you don’t intend to cook, there is also a restaurant on-site. Although I must confess that I have never eaten here, so I can’t give you a review.
For other accommodation options in Punda Maria Rest Camp, check out the SANParks website.
Did you forget something? No worries, a small but well-stocked shop sells everything from good South African wines to baked beans and sunscreen.
Did I Tell You About the Punda Maria Rest Camp’s Hide?
I believe that this is the best hide in the whole of the Kruger National Park because you can access it from the campsite at any time of day or night, and the best part?
At night the waterhole is floodlit.
SANParks have installed a webcam at the Punda Maria waterhole. If you click on the link, you’ll be able to see what’s going on around the waterhole at any time of day or night.
And the Swimming Pool?
Punda Maria is hot! Very hot! In the heat of the African summer, the temperature often reaches 40°C. A stay here would be unbearable without this gorgeous swimming pool.
The swimming pool is for residents only. And on hot days during the South African school holidays, it does get a little crowded in an amusing way. Nobody swims. Instead, we all wallow like hippos submerged up to our chins, lurking in the welcome shade of the trees.
And if you are like me and a swimming pool is a must-have for any rest camp you choose to stay in, why not read my blog post on the Kruger National Park: from swimming pool to swimming pool?
When is the Best Time to Visit Punda Maria?
I don’t believe there is a best time. Winters are dry, and the bush is less dense than in summer, so you’ll probably have better game-viewing opportunities during winter.
But for me, despite the incredible heat, summer is my favourite time to visit. I love the summer tapestry of shades of green, the baobabs in full leaf and all the baby animals. And when the heat gets to be too much, I can always escape to the pool. Or take one of the many self-drive safari routes around Punda Maria in the air-conditioned splendour of my car.
I’m not much of a birder, but according to the birding experts, this is one of the best birding areas in Kruger, with a variety of species you won’t see anywhere else. Apparently, the best time of year for birding here is from January to early March, and, yes, you guessed right, during the height of the hot African summer.
Are you on Pinterest? Would you mind saving one of these pins?
And as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Punda Maria Rest Camp in the comments below.
DISCLOSURE: I have no commercial relationship with SANParks or any of their affiliates. All photographs, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.