You have to live somewhere to know somewhere

Sometimes when you travel, you literally stumble into rare stories that write themselves, chapter by chapter. Steeped in densely woven experiences that curiously and serendipitously unfold over time, the characters don’t even realise how engaging their narrative might be.
This story focuses on a Limpopo property, Walkers River Camp, approximately 20 minutes east of Hoedspruit, nestled just beyond the Timbavati gate of Kruger National Park. The owners, Howard and Ingrid Walker, and their sons, Steve and James, have been planting their seeds in the area for over 25 years, and, over the six nights we stay there, the pages turn.

It’s apparent that the Walkers have established a successful hospitality track record in Dullstroom, as the original owners of Critchley Hackle Lodge and Walkersons Hotel and Spa, but it’s their love for the bush where the beating heart of their tale starts, purchasing and renovating farm after farm in the area. Falling in love with Walkers River Camp in 2005, they embark on a project that transforms a rundown camp into a home, and more recently a private retreat. In the bar area, a wall shares framed photos of the many contributors of real blood, sweat and tears to transform the camp…only to see several years of hard graft washed away in a matter of days during the freak floods of 2012. 

Once again, as a family, and with a loyal team, they start over, restore the camp and improve it. Many of those photos in the bar still have mud on the back as the water rose to head height and sent furniture and their prized guest journals downriver. Some sofas and tables were later retrieved a few kilometres away.

The Walker twins have the bush in their DNA, schooling in White River, and gaining diverse experience in many camps and lodges in the area. The years of working the farm, building, renovating, and starting over are evident as they show us their new property, a birth child of the pandemic. As international travel ground to a near halt, the twins set to work to realise the dream of Walkers Safari Lodge with a team of four, building most of it by hand themselves, from floor to ceiling.

A sense of deep ownership and connection – perhaps it could be gratitude – radiates from them, glad to have been able to invest themselves into realising a new dream. Its flank of eight bedroomed modern country cottages hosts wooden decks with plunge pools and a majestic savannah panoramic of the Small Drakensberg. The main lodge on the centre is as wide as it is high with an open plan lounge, kitchen and dining area that spills onto a landscape deck. This is the quintessential view of grand African plains, scorched yellow grass, and the misty silhouette of mountain peaks in the distance. 

With this project nearing completion, we stay at the original Walkers River Camp, the boy’s former home, a horseshoe of five guest cottages overlooking a boma, swimming pool and, at the end of the lawn, a riverine. The game almost never stops moving. Giraffe and elephant investigate at close quarters, especially when they come right to the electrified perimeter fence. Nyala and impala vault the many wires from a standing start.

One of the co-rangers, Megan, a highly experienced trail guide of 16 years, who spends many days driving us feels like an extended branch from the family tree. Frequently, Megan comes and sits with us at the edge of the riverine, sharing stories as the wildlife roam freely and unperturbed. It’s as though they know and trust her and the team of warm and attentive staff there. On several occasions, elephants are just a few metres away. On another, we race out of the camp after one of the staff sees a leopard kill and we track the leopard to Megan’s glee. “I love my job,” she says on more than one occasion. 

On one evening drive, we see James walking casually across the savannah with his fox terrier puppy, ‘Djinn’. It’s impossible to tell the two apart, both sharing a passion for the environment in which they have grown up and remain. They share a lifetime of stories from all-night searches in the wild bush for their childhood dog, Pepper, to the day a pack of hyenas kill a leopard that approaches their den, or touch rugby with school friends in a muddy pan. They navigate the labyrinth of jeep tracks and long grass, like their backyard in order to pinpoint the big five, rare birds or recent kills – albeit a sprawling neighbourhood at 1100 hectares. 

They talk of bush mentors and family friends like author Mario Cesare and Mush Nicholls of Forest Creek Lodge planting the seeds of love for the bush in their parents, Howard and Ingrid, who harvested the crop, and replanted those seedlings of passion in their sons. A natural ring in a circle of life. Each generation paying it forward from the experiencing, learnings and teachings of those before them.

Walkers River Camp doesn’t want to compete with other properties – it has something that many cannot buy – a deep knowledge of the wildlife and the geography of the land itself.

All too often locations are selected and properties developed with investment in mind. Travel superbrands seek out the best beaches, or views, or city centrality. This leaves just a handful that organically emerges from an individual or family that opens their doors to share the deep beauty that they have sculpted over time, something that goes beyond financial returns and into a lifetime relationship. Whether it be the rich earthiness of Walkers River Camp, with its perpetually moving riverine of wildlife, or the up-and-coming modernity and luxury of Walkers Safari Lodge, with its vast savannah rolling like a red carpet in front of you, the reality of this story is that you have to read each chapter yourself, turn the pages and experience an immersion into something quite unique in Kruger.

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