Manyeleti Magic at Pungwe bush camp in Greater Kruger

Posted by Lauren Dold on 3 June 2021

I stepped out of my tent and nearly lost my shoe in a pile of grassy, golden domes that hadn’t been there when I’d gone to bed. They were deposited virtually on our doorstep by an enormous elephant bull during the night. He’d been hanging round the camp since supper time, walking quietly and munching noisily while we sat chatting round the fire. He stopped briefly to pull up the main water pipes, then made his way over to our tent and proceeded to strip all the leaves off a nearby combretum.

This is the beauty of Pungwe safari camp in the Manyeleti. There is a wildness, a cold-sweat heart-in-your-throat-feeling that you get when nothing but a piece of canvas separates you from a six ton animal.

Days begin and end around the fire at Pungwe

I dodged the elephant dung and continued on my path to my destination, the ever-burning fireplace that is the beating heart of Pungwe. A blackened kettle balanced on a steel triangle sits boiling on the fire 24 hours a day, and the comforting smell of wood smoke wafts through the camp. I perched on one of the hardwood stumps arranged around the fire and filled my coffee cup, as a nearby hyena whooped in the darkness. Coffee tastes better when it’s made this way, round the fire in the bush. (It is the same with G&T’s, something I knew to be true but confirmed later in the day anyway.)

A few plug points in the lapa are solar-powered for charging of cameras and phones

Hands warmed and coffee consumed, we set off on our morning drive as the moon slipped out of sight and the sky started to lighten. My boyfriend Jason and I were the only guests for the morning, and requested frequent stops to admire trees. Our second cup of coffee was enjoyed in a drainage line where a leopard had been spotted not long before. Evidently he was not in the mood to be seen. We didn’t encounter a single other game drive vehicle, and it felt like we had the place all to ourselves. The Manyeleti covers 23 000ha, but has relatively few commercial operations on the property. Sandwiched between the Timbavati, and the Sabi Sands, the Manyeleti provides a far quieter safari experience while enjoying the same game that moves freely through these Greater Kruger reserves.

This gentlest of giants was totally unbothered by the vehicle

Sundowners with a view

As a lowveld local, having grown up less than 90km away in Hoedspruit I’m ashamed to admit the Manyeleti had remained totally unexplored by me. I want to kick myself now, for the Manyeleti is open to any day visitor with R55 and a desire to explore the reserve on a self-drive safari. However, as a first time visitor it was much better to be guided around the property.

Back at camp, breakfast was waiting and we enjoyed our bacon and eggs under the thatched lapa. It was late May, but it was warming up to be a hot winter’s day. I’d already zeroed in on the spot I planned on whiling away the afternoon, the shady hammock suspended between a magic guarrie and a knobthorn.

The best way to while away an afternoon, and a good vantage point for birding if you hold still enough

I grabbed a book on tracks and signs, and swung happily while I learned the difference between the spoor of a banded and slender mongoose. Totally off-grid and with not much cellphone reception, a stay at Pungwe forced me to disconnect from the rest of the world and tune into my bushveld surroundings. And it is important to be tuned in, because Pungwe is unfenced. In darkness one of the staff members escorts guests to bed, but in the daytime it’s up to your own eyes and ears to spot any wildlife in camp. While I lay in the hammock, a small herd of impala tiptoed past, and a gang of dwarf mongoose zoomed by, freezing every time we locked eyes.

Unlike most places in the bush, Pungwe does not have much of a primate problem. Or rather, there are no problem humans who feed any monkeys or baboons. This ethos extends to the rest of the camp. With four tents under thatch structures, a lapa and a small kitchen, the footprint of Pungwe is small, and with no electricity, it is quiet. Undisturbed by humans and undeterred by fences, wildlife roams quite happily through the camp. During his time alone at Pungwe during lockdown, camp Manger Tim Cowell had a pride of lion, a few stray buffalo and plenty elephant and hyena moving through the camp in the absence of guests. 

Fireside suppers are set out under the stars in winter, while in summer guests eat under the thatch lapa

Supper at Pungwe is served fireside, at a family style table set up under the stars. On our second night we were joined by a family from Joburg, in need of a bush break and Tim’s dad Matt, who was the founder of this camp in the late eighties. He’s travelled and guided extensively throughout Africa since those days, but still makes time to come and visit Pungwe whenever he can. All throughout supper and later when we huddled round the fire, we hung on his every word. He told me a Getaway journalist had visited all those years ago when it was still a wilderness camp with no infrastructure, and about the puzzled look she’d given him when she’d asked for directions to the loo and he’d handed her a spade. (These days each tent has an ensuite bathroom, with a shower and a bath, each heated by a private donkey boiler.)

The tents are spacious, with tiled floors, a full ensuite bathroom and luxurious crisp white linen. The mozzie nets are drawn and gas lamps are lit each night by staff.


The tents are erected under a thatch structure, which provides much needed shade in the summer months

We left our spacious meru-style tent hesitantly on our last day, and I briefly thought about leaving something behind just so I’d have an excuse to come back. Tim and Matt sent us on our way as we piled into my Jimny, promising to return. Not done yet, we decided to explore the reserve a bit more ourselves, and were rewarded with great sightings of lion, elephant and rhino (all to ourselves!) and we left the Manyeleti feeling as though we’d been let in on a great secret.

From R1 990 pp pn sharing, or R12 000 for sole use of the camp (sleeps 8) including two safari activities per day (game drive or walk) and all meals.

082 853 9533

[email protected]


In the apartheid years, the Manyeleti was the only game reserve where black South Africans were welcome.
Manyeleti means “place of the stars” in Shangaan.

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