History of the African Ivory Route

As the name suggests, elephants initially forged the African Ivory Route (AIR), with hunters, poachers and traders on their trail. The AIR camps mark the tuskers’ migratory routes around the ‘Golden Horseshoe’ – roughly from Masebe Reserve in the Waterberg, east across the Soutpansberg, over to Makuya Reserve adjoining Pafuri/northern Kruger, then down the park’s western side, south towards the Drakensberg.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ‘great white hunters’ such as Cecil Barnard – dubbed ‘Bvekenya’ or ‘he who swaggers when he walks’ by local Shangaan – became famous and infamous along with other outlaws passing through Pafuri’s renowned Crook’s Corner. There, at the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers, where South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe meet, borders were easily crossed to avoid arrest. And ivory was pilfered by the ton, often smuggled east to the coast.

But the area’s history goes back thousands of years. Paleontologically speaking, even millions, as recorded in the fossils and remains at Makapan’s Caves. In Masebe Reserve, home to the AIR’s Nthubu Camp, local rock art attests to the presence of San/Bushmen as far back as the Stone Age. Khoikhoi and Northern Sotho paintings are  found in other caves and outcrops of the Waterberg, as well as Soutpansberg, mountains; the wealth of rock art in the Makgabeng Plateau near the AIR’s Blouberg Camp spans centuries, newer paintings overlaying older.

Traveling further through history, ‘the lost kingdoms’ of Mapungubwe (900-1300 AD) and Thulamela (1240-1640 AD) are both highly significant Iron Age settlements, connected to Great Zimbabwe culture.

Their ruins – Mapungubwe, near where the South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan borders intersect, and Thulamela inside Pafuri — rate high on the bucket list of sites to visit in the region.  Between Makhado and Thohoyandou, the 18th-century ruins of Dzata — the first capital of a united Venda — and on-site museum continue a portrait of former power.

AIR camps Fundudzi, Baleni and Modjadji are steeped in history – and legend. While certain rituals remain secret, local communities around Fundudzi keenly share innumerable stories and beliefs related to centuries-old sacred practices. At Baleni, where debris mounds left behind from traditional salt harvesting have yielded Iron Age artifacts, a local spring is said to hold a sacred snake. Modjadji is renowned for its ancient cycad forest, and even more so for its line of Rain Queens ruling since 1800 AD.

The contemporary African Ivory Route was conceived in 1998 by the then-Northern Province Tourism Directorate in order to empower and benefit disadvantaged communities by engaging them in eco- and adventure tourism enterprises. Today AIR comprises eight camps across Limpopo. All camps are based on communal land governed by tribal authorities, or under conservation authority management, offering a mix of game viewing and enriching cultural experiences, in spectacular wilderness settings.

Traverse all or some of the route’s 1200 km, and you will leave with unforgettable memories of the people, wildlife and landscapes that you have encountered – as so many others have, throughout time.

TV Bulpin’s 1954 book, The Ivory Trail, tells the story of legendary hunter, poacher, blackbirder, adventurer and, ironically, perhaps would-be conservationist Cecil ‘Bvekenya’ Barnard. Barnard was born in Knysna in 1886 and grew up with tales of elephant roaming the forests there. After his family relocated to the Transvaal, his mother died in a concentration camp and he served a brief stint in the police service, Barnard headed north to hunt.

He became an outlaw, in fact, based for some time at the notorious Crook’s Corner in Makuleke, in the Pafuri section of Kruger National Park. There, the story goes, on an island in the middle of the rivers, where the Luvuvhu and Limpopo meet, Barnard eluded the law by moving a beacon across the borders of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, depending upon whose police were after him.

Get your hands on a copy of The Ivory Trail; otherwise, have a look at this interview (http://www.africanxmag.com /the_ivory_trail.htm) with Isak Barnard, Bvekenya’s son and himself a renowned adventurer and former guide. I travelled with Oom Isak 23 years ago into the Kalahari, and he very much kept his father’s legend alive.