Kosher in Kruger

Exploring Africa's wilderness doesn't need to be off-limits for Orthodox Jews.

parfuri 521 (photo credit: courtesy Joanne Spitz)
parfuri 521
(photo credit: courtesy Joanne Spitz)
It is the silence that grabs you in Kruger National Park. Sitting on a ridge overlooking the Luvuvhu River, at the northern tip of South Africa’s famous nature reserve, one cannot help but be impressed by the richness of the local ecosystem: In less than 24 hours here, we have seen large herds of elephant and hippo, hundreds of impala and baboons, and more species of birds and plant life than we could possibly count.
But the soundtrack of nature is the most powerful aspect about the area near Pafuri Gate, a remote section of the park alongside South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It is hard to describe the simultaneous experience of total silence and the deafening buzz of cicadas, known locally as “Christmas bees” because they appear seasonally when the weather warms up at the start of the southern summer.
At 2 p.m., the birds appear to have taken an afternoon siesta. There is the odd call from one bird to another, but the racket that serves as a local wake-up call – there is no such thing as “sleeping in” here, with chirping so loud at 5 a.m. that it is impossible to sleep – has largely subsided. Later, around twilight, the birds will rebound for a final song before retiring for the night when darkness sets in.
To be sure, travel in rural South Africa can be a challenge for the kosher consumer, but it is by no means impossible. For budget travelers, kosher meat and cheese are widely available in Johannesburg, and staples like bread, crackers, snacks and soft drinks can be obtained at groceries around the country. Most roads into Kruger are dotted with farm stands offering fresh fruits and vegetables (at half the supermarket prices).
For higher-end travelers, a host of eco-tourism operators offer kosher options to top-rate resorts in the bush. Pafuri Camp, run by Johannesburg- based Wilderness Safaris, is virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding veld, something company spokespeople say was part of the camp’s plan.
“One of our guiding principles is that we are an asset to the natural surroundings, not an artificial eyesore,” says Ilana Stein, our guide from Wilderness and an Orthodox Jew. “At the same time, we aim to offer luxury accommodation at an affordable price. We believe the power of Africa – the animals, the rich plant life and the unparalleled scenery – together with the finest cuisine and accommodation, is a terrific recipe to stress the importance of preserving all aspects of this natural treasure.”
To accomplish that goal, there is little that Wilderness does not provide. In nearly a decade with Wilderness, Eva Baloyi, the head of the kitchen staff, has learned the ins and outs of kosher catering. The camp maintains separate milk and meat tableware, locked in a separate cabinet, and Baloyi no longer considers it odd to double-wrap fish, potatoes and fresh vegetables to provide kosher-keeping guests with a gourmet experience.
While the camp does not maintain a full-time mashgiah (kosher supervisor), Baloyi maintains an open-door policy and is not offended when we seek to oversee the food preparation. Prior to hosting kosher travelers, camp managers Lundy and Rob Burns say they take care to ensure a strong supply of kosher products, including potato chips, pretzels, dried and fresh fruit and soft drinks.
Away from the dining area, it is hard to imagine a luxury the camp does not provide. The library, bar and multiple sitting areas all look out over the Luvuvhu River, as do the two picturesque swimming pools. Technically the guest rooms are tents, but they are the classiest tents imaginable, complete with wooden porch and comfortable outdoor furniture.
The double bed in the family room is the biggest bed in which we’ve ever slept, as well as the most comfortable. Not to be missed is the outdoor shower, which combines with the eco-friendly body soaps and oils at the vanity for a real treat.
The outdoor shower is completely secluded from human eyes, but don’t get a shock if you find a baboon or nyala spying on your communion with nature.
Of course, the highlight of any safari is the wildlife, and setting out on a game drive here is a strangely unsettling experience.
As six of us pile into a specially fitted Toyota Land Cruiser to search for the “big five” – lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo, all of which roam free throughout Kruger – it is notable that our guide, Edward Maluleke, is not armed beyond a side knife and a machete that would be fine for cutting through wild brush but wouldn’t do much against a charging lion.
Unlike the southern reaches of Kruger, which are awash with tourists, the Pafuri area is largely untouched by human hands. Maluleke says that as long as we remain in the jeep, the animals do not identify humans as a threat or as prey, and the thin traffic in the area allows the animals to be unconcerned and unthreatened by human gawkers.
That is apparent just 10 minutes into our first game drive, when we come across a large herd of 30 to 40 elephants. Our guide cuts the engine, and a massive bull elephant comes within a few meters of the jeep, close enough for us to see the hairs under his chin, feel the rustle of the bush on which he munches and hear him chew the leaves.
Elephants are known for their social structures and family groups, and these are immediately apparent: When a mother walks away from the group with two smaller elephants, a baby elephant that appears to be three to four months old runs to catch up, and when the herd decides it has had enough of this area after 15 minutes or so, the entire group leaves together.
Most Safaro participants say that the lions are the highlight of any game drive.
I disagree, without reservation. Although we do spot one female lion through the bush, she is a solitary creature who settles comfortably under a bush for an earlyevening rest. Of course, sitting unprotected just a few meters from a wild lion can be a surreal experience, but she seems uninterested in us.
The same cannot be said for the leopard we encounter a few minutes later. Driving through the bush, Maluleke spots her lying in a break in the thicket and cuts the engine. A moment later, two more appear, and the small family progresses to the right of our jeep to prowl. Mrs. Leopard stands guard for her babies along the far side, eyeing the jeep with suspicion and even making a threatening growl at this writer. Let’s just say that I recite the prayer of thanksgiving upon our return to Johannesburg.
Continuing on, we encounter several vultures. Like elephants, they are social creatures, with each bird able to alert others when food is available and their sharp vision allowing them to spot food at a distance of up to 40 kilometers.
One does not speak about the topography of Kruger, but the topographies. Of course, acacia trees dot the horizon, but even a short drive around the park lends itself to a wide variety of landscapes. The typical game drive or bush walk (guides do carry rifles for the bush walks, as humans are considered fair game for the wildlife once they leave the safety of their vehicles) progresses from tall trees along the banks of the Luvuvhu to grassy lowveld just outside Pafuri Camp, to thick forest, to the dry riverbed of the Limpopo River that forms the trinational border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
One area of note is a forest of yellow fever trees, so named because early explorers in the area believed the bark caused malaria. That was later discovered to be false, but it is true that the trees do not allow other plants to thrive.
“I haven’t proven this, but I think the trees store their salts in one branch. When those branches die, they fall to the ground and decompose, infusing the ground with the salt,” explains Maluleke. “That makes the soil too salty for other plants, and leaves room for more fever trees.”
Other sites of note include a massive baobab tree, which locals believe is over 1,000 years old, and the spectacular Lanner Gorge, which can only be described as breathtaking.
As the moon rises over the veld, Maluleke stops the jeep and kills the lights. Once again, the silence is deafening in the absolute blackness, and the shine of the stars defies description. We sit for 10 minutes, but it feels like we could stay there all night.
“I know how you feel,” the guide says with a smile as the engine roars for the drive back to camp. “It’s impossible not to get infected with the beauty of this place.”
Like much of South Africa, the modern history of the Pafuri region is swathed in controversy. Historically the area is home to the Makuleke people, but the tribe was forcibly removed by the Apartheid government in 1969 to expand the borders of Kruger National Park. After the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, the government passed the Restitution of Land Rights Act.
The Makuleke filed suit in the Land Claims Court in 1995 and were granted jurisdiction over the Pafuri region in 1998.
That victory, however, planted the seeds of a fierce battle within the tribe. Some village elders who had experienced the trauma of displacement wanted to return to the area, but a majority of young people disagreed.
At the same time, conservationists wanted to ensure that the ongoing administration of the area would continue to protect the natural beauty and wildlife in the region, and all sides saw it as an opportunity to generate employment and economic gain for the Makuleke community.
At the same time, Wilderness Safaris proposed creating a safari lodge, to be based on principles of economic cooperation, nature conservation and fair distribution of local resources.
“In many situations here in South Africa, there is a three-way conflict between historic justice, economic justice and conservation requirements,” says Russel Friedman, one of the founders of Wilderness Safaris.
“We believe that responsible tourism can change the lives of local communities, and that local communities are potentially excellent resources to protect wild and plant life.
We work together with local communities to make sure they see clear economic benefit from our joint efforts. Once that happens, they become the best conservationists around, so everyone benefits.”
Wilderness and the Makuleke signed a 45-year lease in 2003. Staff training for 10 nature guides began a year later (all guides have university degrees in varying nature sciences), and the camp opened in July 2005.
Godfrey Baloyi, a guide who has worked at the camp since it opened, says the partnership with Wilderness has been a success, but adds that unrealistic expectations on the part of his neighbors can make things difficult.
“I am so proud that my tribal land is such an amazing place,” says the 38-year-old Baloyi. “My parents were kicked out of here, and I grew up on stories about the Pafuri region. When I was a kid, we would travel to Pafuri Gate, but it was during Apartheid and we weren’t allowed in the park. I am thankful we have the opportunity now to enjoy the land once again, and to share it with others.”
That said, he continues, “I wouldn’t say that all is roses. Many people in our village thought the deal would make us all rich, that the resort would provide jobs for everyone. It’s hard for people to realize that that would be impossible, but it is clear that the camp is bringing money into the community. Most important, we have open lines of communication and are working together to ensure the future of the area for future generations. To me, that’s what it is all about.”
El Al operates two weekly flights between Johannesburg and Tel Aviv. Israeli citizens do not need a visa to enter South Africa, but visitors must have at least two blank pages in a passport to enter the country.
Pafuri Gate is located at the northern tip of Kruger National Park, 630 kilometers from Johannesburg. Most of the driving is along the national NI highway, and all roads leading into the nature reserve are good. Be aware that the last gas station before Pafuri is located at Tshipise, an hour’s drive from Pafuri Gate and 90 minutes from the campsite.
Be advised that Kruger is a malaria danger zone, especially in summer. It is advisable to wear light-fitting long sleeves, pants and socks, and strong mosquito repellent on the neck, face and hands. Seek medical advice about malaria prevention and treatment before traveling.