We are on our way again and headed to the famed Etosha. Etosha means “the great white place” - and you can see why. Everything is covered in a fine layer of white dust. Even the animals. The zebras are more like albino zebras. The trees look like they’re covered in snow - except for one thing. It’s over 40c!
It doesn't take long before we see what this vast open white barren landscape offers. Huge herds of animals clustered around the meager water supplies or huddled under the pitiful shade offered by the tiny trees. We pull up at a dam and hundreds or springbok, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest are standing languidly around the pan. Impressive. We never see such vast numbers of animals in South Africa.
Within an hour our list includes springbok, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, oryx (aka pie bucks), jackal…and then…lion! They are right on the side of the road and we pull up next to them. They fix us with their beady golden eyes and I recall the recent incident where lions ate a tourist. There's a thrill being just a meter away from this amazing animal. We snap millions of photos as we soak in the sight.
A little later we come upon Etosha - literally. A herd of elephant who are white with the dust of Etosha. Spectacular. The sightings are amazing but we must get to our campsite. So we head towards Halali campsite. Here's hoping for green grass and shady trees.
“Eish!” we exclaim as we arrive. White dust swirls in the wind while the oppressive heat strangles everything in a constricting tourniquet. We look at this and wonder how we will put up our tents in this harsh environment. Should we wait till its cooler? Finally we decide to bite the bullet…or dust, and just do it. We crack open a beer and within 45 mins we have setup camp and are headed to the pool.
As the sun sets we head to a waterhole at the campsite. It's like a movie theater. Loads of quiet people are seated staring out at the waterhole. We find a secluded rock and are soon sipping wine and watching God's imax as the fiery African sun sinks in red and orange splendor into the dusty horizon. The small waterhole turns gold as birds twitter excitedly welcoming the cool. It's like the end of a battle. A battle between light and dark - heat and cold. The earth relaxes. It breathes a sigh of relief as the sounds of the evening fills the air like a celebration of the end of this war. Tranquility. Peace. Bliss.
Our first night in Etosha was great and we awake feeling refreshed. The night chilled considerably ensuring that we had a great sleep. While the nights are cool the day quickly warms and we decide to go and check out the pan attached to our campsite. We are treated to black faced Impala, that only occur in this area. After soaking up the sights and ambiance of the waterhole we head out on a game drive in search of game.
Alas it's not as successful as our experience yesterday. We bounce along the corrugated roads for about two hours but don't see much. “I think we should head back,” someone wise suggests and we all agree. We are hungry and the animals are on vacation. Back at the camp we satiate our never ending thirst and hunger pangs and leap repeatedly into the pool to cool down. It's a great way to spend an afternoon. Laptop + pool = Productive Work. The only issue is the internet here is like sucking triple thick milkshake though a hollowed out piece of dental floss…Painfully slow.
We return to the waterhole at the campsite. This evening we are treated to a rare sighting - three black rhino. I haven't seen black rhino in ages and it's a treat to watch them, of course made even better with a crispy white wine.A cloak of clouds is spread over the sky which is acting like a duvet cover for the land and not allowing the heat to escape. “Hey look at that rhino,” I whisper in a muted voice to the kids, “is that something coming out its butt? Is it having a baby?” We all look carefully trying to see as the orange light of the spotlight casts an eerie, dusty color on everything. The one rhino does seem to be separate from the other two and acting strange but it's hard to see for sure. So we decide to wait…and wait…and wait. Eventually the rhino moves off into the bush and although we can hear it we can't see it.
Wait…wait…silence. The only sound is the occasional crashing of rhinos moving in the darkness.
A small rabbit tentatively drinks water from the hole. A black backed jackal scurries past. A female kudu, obviously startled by something bounds into the light only to go bouncing off again into the darkness.
Wait…silence. Stars. That's great, at least the duvet cover has lifted.
Eventually at 11:30pm we call it quits. Was that a baby rhino? Did she have it? Maybe we will find out tomorrow? Africa's story is always being written. For now we will sleep and await her next chapter tomorrow.
As the camp stirs in preparation for the day the sounds easily penetrate our tent rousing us from our night's sleep. “Let's go to the waterhole,” Nicky suggests. So we get dressed - which here in the wild is simple - switch pajamas for shorts worn yesterday, shirt is already on, and you're done. However there is no sign of the rhino.
We're expecting great things today after the nearly-maybe rhino birth. Yesterday Nicky was gifted by the blue bird of happiness. Joshie had pointed out the blue birds all around us - starlings - and a few minutes later one deposited it's load on Nicky, shaking it's butt to make sure everything was out. With this direct gift from the blue bird of happiness surely some great thing must be coming, and we are in for a treat we will soon find out.
We head out and are soon questioning the wisdom of our decision. The roads are trying on vehicle and driver as we bounce over ruts and corrugations. The sky takes on its dark hue as the rising heat mingles with the white dust.Etosha is all about the massive 120km pan that for most of the year is dry. We've skirted the pan but we are now on a road that takes us out into the pan. The road ends and we get out of the car.
White. Endless white stretches out merging in a blurry line with the white-dark sky. It's eerie, amazing, stark, endless. If you walked out there you would soon be lost in a void of featureless white. Chatting to a ranger we find out that a baby rhino was spotted.Could that be the end of our story?
The heat drives us back into the car and we decide to head back via one last waterhole. As we come upon the waterhole we are treated to an amazing sight, or as Nicky says, “This was the one thing I really wanted to see in Etosha.” It's two elephant bathing in the pan. We sit watching them wallow in the cooling water at stages almost completely submerged before they reappear again. These huge beasts know a good thing when they find it - and now that we've had Nicky's bluebird it's time for us to take the hint from them and retreat to the cool of our waterhole - the swimming pool at the campsite.
As the sun begins to set we head to our spot - the waterhole.
A fiery ball muted by earth's dusty mantle.
The water turns to polished gold.
A lone rhino.
She rubs her leathery hide on a worn log.
From white to black
She emerges from the golden liquid.
A heavy foot falls.
Dust rises in warning.
Suddenly galloping hooves.
A lone rhino.
Doves flutter in unison with their mirrored twin.
The earth waits.
Her breathe held.
He emerges alone.
Seemingly birthed by the violet darkness.
A deep rumble of excitement.
He races towards the water’s silent offer.
His mother following rumbles her displeasure.
The glass is shattered by dipping trunks.
Thirst is satiated.
Africa's dusty mantle washed off once more.
As silent, as swift, they are gone.
A lone rhino.
Finally even color departs.
A silent vigil.
The earth sighs.
Swakopmond has been luxury. Great accommodation and the best coffee we have found since our favourite coffee spots more than 2000km away in Franschhoek, South Africa. But now it's time for the wilds again, and now we are headed to Spitzkoppe, a relatively short two-hour journey, although as always it includes 40km of gravel road.
It's 3:30pm when we arrive at the Spitzkoppe campsite, and the mercury is a whisker below 40c. This place must be torture in summer. Huge boulders rise above us…the Spitzkoppe I assume. Nicky leaps out to find out about where we are camping. We're in for a surprise. The campsites have no water, no electricity, and open-air long drop toilets. Eish! In Richtersveld we were expecting it…but this has taken us by sirprise…plus we’ve just come from the flat-white, air-conditioned luxury of our last place. Nothing like brusselsporuts after icecream - Hmm, not sure that analogy works as I prefer brusselsprouts to icecream, but I’m sure you get the idea.
We drive to check out the sites.
They're right. There's nothing. There’s only one thing we can do…go to their outdoor pub!
Beer, soaking in the outback environment and all feels good. We're also welcomed by two very friendly and very tame meerkats. It looks like these little fellas could add lots of fun to our experience here, but now we need to figure out our sleeping plan before it gets dark.
There's a covered shadecloth area next to a huge towering boulder. We decide to forget tents and just sleep outdoors under the shade cloth. If we are going to be in the wild, let’s embrace it with two hands…and a mouthful of dust - and hopefully not too many scorpions.
The evening is sealed with the perfect trio - watching a beautiful sunset from atop a giant boulder, sitting around a camp fire braai, lying on top of a giant boulder marvelling at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars. But now we must retire to our rudimentary campsite. Here’s hoping the wind doesn’t blow!
We survive! The night started warm but slowly as the desert cooled the temperature dropped. However, the wind remained away and our little gypsy shelter kept us all warm. The two resident meerkats are around. They are extremely cute and more than happy to be held when they're in the mood.
Nicky has discovered we can hire an electric bike for R200 for the day. So we grab the two they have and set out to explore. We soon discover what camping here is meant to be. There are some stunning remote campsites - as long as you are self equipped - own water, cooking equipment etc. - which we are. They're framed by huge smooth boulders that make excellent shelters and stunning backdrops. We scale one and sit and soak up the quietness. “You know what?” I say to Nicky as we sit enjoying the majesty of this place, “next time, now that we know what this place is about, we must camp out here in the wilds.” She nods her agreement… “next time” being tactitly assumed. If we were traveller-explorers before, we’re now addicted traveller-explorers! Nothing can be done to cure this problem, but feed the need!
Riding the gravel roads on the electric bikes is blissful ease. No effort required as they power effortlessly along under their battery power. To make us feel like we are doing something we occasionally spin the pedals. It’s like riding a magic carpet, through a fantasy world, as we silently fly along the roads in amongst massive boulders cast like a giant’s discarded die.
We’ve discovered the perfect lunch spot and so returning back to the campsite we pack our vittles and head out to The Arch. It’s a giant rock arch suspended miraculously in the air above another large boulder. We all clamber up and seat ourselves in the welcome shade of the arch and soon the sizzle of jaffles on the gas burner mingles with the clink of ice in our Sauvignon Blanc. Not bad for “roughing it”. Yet another truly epic picnic spot.
A group of tourists, from one of the many large overlanders we’ve seen, appear. These overlanders typically arrive in the late afternoon, setup camp, eat, and leave early the next morning. The trips are all about how many places can you see in how few days. Been there…done that! We watch as they snap a few photos of the arch and vanish as quickly as they appeared. “That’s not how I want to travel,” I say as I sip my wine. Everyone agrees. In fact that’s the difference between a tourist and a traveller. The tourist wants to see the sites, the traveller wants to experience the sites.
Back at the base we decide to grab an early shower. The open showers are warm and rejuvenate us leaving only one thing required. Something for the never-ending thirst of Africa. We settle at the pub sipping huge Rock Shandies, lying on the hammocks and playing with the meerkats. Another day in Africa!
Wait…the day is not over. There's still time for sundowners…of course! While Nicky drives the car Josh and I whizz along on the electric bikes as we head out to find the perfect spot to end another perfect day in Africa. We find a huge rock and we all clamber up it and enjoy the sunset as it paints the large rocks of Spitzkoppe the early evening hues of Africa’s special red. It’s rustic here. It’s dusty here. It’s remote here. It’s desolate here...It’s stunning here.
Farewell luxury. After bidding farewell to our comfy Ludertiz accommodation we are back on the road again headed to the sand dunes of Sossusvlei. Contrasts here we come again - sea to sand, cold to hot, luxury to the wilds. Passing through Aus - not sure why its called “Aus”…maybe Aussies built it or maybe its the fact that it lots of sand like Ausland...we see the wild desert horses that are famous in this area. Apparently they are from an abandoned castle that was built in the desert in the sands of time. A flock of them are standing idly around an old abandoned building. This makes a great photo shot. So many photos. What will we do. Whenever we look there are so many photos to take.
The 120km from Ludertiz to Aus is great. Tarred and easy, but Namibian roads are stingy in their favours. We turn off and are presented with 350km of gravel road. Eish. We purchased a tyre pressure monitor in Ludertiz to avoid us shredding a tyr, and its here that the monitor is a treat. It really takes the pressure off ;-) as I bump and slide all over sand I can see what the tyres are doing. It fascinating because the tyre that has punctured twice gets the hottest and its pressure rises the most. They were all deflated down to 190kpa and this tyre would reach 240kpa at stages. This shows why it is so important to reduce tyre pressure for gravel roads. (More Namibian tyre advice for would-be travellers in a future post)
Finally, many dusty hours later we arrive at 5pm at our campsite. - Sossus Oasis. Yep, this is going to be dusty, but the good news is that each site has its own covered area with a toilet, shower and cooking area. Soon we are all setup and after the requisite braai, are all huddled in one tent getting ready for the night of blissful sleep ahead.
It’s quite warm in the desert as we settle down in our tent as a soft breeze stirs outside. Inside we are setup with our fan blowing to cool us and bring the best of modern comforts to our rustic abode. However nature has an irony in store for us. As we sleep, lulled by the gentle breeze of our fan, the wind outside starts to blow like a crazy. I wake crunching dust in my teeth. Our tent is flapping like a possessed vulture and I have to venture outside braving the elements and dust - twice during the night - to try and secure our tent with rocks. Welcome to the wilds. Exciting and fun.
Crunch, crunch. Aah, I'm awake. I now know what the sandman means. He's been a little too enthusiastic as not only are my eyes and mouth full of fine sand but so is my sleeping bag. The joy of the desert…now we need to find out if all this sand is worth it. Soon we are in our cars and enter the Sossusvlei Park. Impressive! When you've bounced along a dirt road for 400km to get here the last thing you expect in a national park is a tar road. But that is what we get. The park has a 50km tar road running along the valley floor - what a pleasure.
Soon we are flying along the road coming to multiple screeching stops whenever the cry, “Stop!” is yelled by an eager photographer. “It's my turn for the camera”, “pass the camera this side”, “you're taking too long with the camera,” becomes the frequent “conversation” of the car as we are amazed by the beauty of the dunes and the valley floor.
We finally arrive at dune 45, named so because it is 45km along the road.These Namibians are creative with their names. It reminds me of the Aussies who likewise are creative with names, calling the long road along the ocean, “The Great Ocean Road” or the blue-coloured mountain…yeah you guessed it, “Blue Mountains”…although you’ll never guess what they call their mountain with snow on it…yep, you got it again - “Snowy Mountain”. But I digress…back to Namibia...
Before us towers an impressive red pile of sand marked by tiny specks - which are people walking along the narrow spine of the dune. Soon we are parked and trudging our way up the thick sand. It's hard work and I'm grateful for the people who have forded this route before us creating a slightly flat path we can follow. From the top of the dune we look down to the flat sandless valley below. It's a strange juxtapositioning that makes for amazing vistas. After all the hard work of the climb we now can draw on all the potential energy we have created - gotta love the laws of physics. And so with leaps and yelps and full-on fun we careen down the face of the approximately 200m high, five million year old sand dune. Epic!
Continuing along the road we stop at another spot where a sign says “Dead Pan - 1.1km”. Sounds good to us and so we are off to discover what “Dead Pan” is. After a fairly easy walk - although no walk in the desert sand is easy, we arrive at a most eerie, surreal landscape. In fact I read somewhere that this area has been used in various movies especially apocalyptic, Western or futureverse movies. Protruding from a stark white, dry, flat pan are the carcass remains of dead trees stabbing upwards at the sky, while surrounding them are huge red dunes. The contrasts - sand - clay, peaks - tabletop, red - white creates an artist’s dream.
Yet there is more to be explored. The tar road eventually gives up, as tar roads do in Namibiam and several two wheel drive vehicles are parked in the parking area. From here it's 4x4s only, and we discover why. In Mozambique style the tracks diverge and converge like a convoluted weave of strings. We slide and bounce our way along the thick sand and eventually arrive at Sossusvlei - the pan that marks the end of the river that flows every few years.
Sossusvlei means The Dead End Pan and is also surrounded by huge dunes. Once more we are drawn to the challenge of climbing a beckoning sand monster for the reward of racing down its side. It's a lot of work, but the reward of the view and the exhilarating “ride” down make it worth it. Well, that was fun…it’s time to head on out of here. We leap into Pajey, pick one of the many tracks and go for it…well that is until we come to a grinding halt as Pajey gets mired in the sand. “Hmm…this is feeling very Mozi-like.” The only difference is we are now wiser and more experienced. Firstly I don't spin my wheels and get Pajey dug in. We leap out the car remove some sand from behind Pajey's wheels and in a couple of minutes have reversed our way out.
“I'm closing my eyes,” says Nicky as we face the sandy hill before us for take two. Giving Pajey full throttle we fly, bounce, and slide our way with relative ease up the dune and soon we are out of the sandy area once again. Fun!
We've booked to have lunch at the Sossusvlei Lodge across the road from where we are camping, and so leaving the park we head straight there. We have a hungry crew with everyone having skipped breakfast in anticipation of a good lunch. As we pull up the doors explode open and the family erupts from the car even before the dust settles. Normally I have to wait for the kids to get out of the car at view sites, but not here. Maybe we should visit more restaurants and less view sites!
After eating our full, and feeling like a pod of potbellied pigs we decide to visit one more place that this area is famous for- Sesreim. It's the perfect set for a Western movie. A massive canyon has been carved by the river into the flat wasteland. From above it is almost invisible, yet as we walk down we are suddenly walking along a hidden valley that has been gouged deep into the valley floor. Huge cliffs rise on either side of us while we walk on a sandy track that occasionally boasts a river. We find a small pond at the one end of the canyon where some hardy catfish are eeking out an existence in their ever-diminishing habitat.
As the sun paints the sky a dusty red we sit and enjoy our sundowners. It's hard to photograph or describe the beauty and variety of this area. It is a land of contrasts and a land of the unexpected. As I sip my red wine seated on my chair on the dusty desert floor I marvel at God's incredible artistry, and He's far from finished, as He completes today's presentation with a spectacular moon rise and a sparkling display of stars tossed across the dark canopy above. Wow! Naimbia truly is stunning!
Desert time. Today we are heading out to explore the desert with Batis Birding Tours. At 8am a cool looking 4x4 vehicle rocks up outside our accommodation. Now that's service! “Hi, I'm Dayne,” the friendly driver says. “Welcome to our Living Desert Tour.”
We are heading out to explore a portion of the world's oldest desert - the Namib desert that surrounds Swakopmond like a threatening tsunami. “Hmm?” I wonder to myself as we whisk along the streets en route to pick up another group . “What in the world can we see in a dry desert?” We've driven through and walked in this desert already on our adventures in Sossusvlei. Besides a few Oryx it's seems pretty devoid of life. Well that is besides the 202 tyre carcasses we counted from Sossusvlei to Swakopmond.
To experience the desert like never before join a tour here.
We've just spent three incredible nights in the Richtersveld. Wow. Off the grid - no electricity, no water, no signal, no fuel. Just endless epic wasteland. Now we're headed to The Growcery for some canoeing adventure on the Orange River. We bounce and negotiate our way out of the wilds of the Richtersveld finally arriving at Sendlingsdrift - which has nothing besides fuel.
I stop Pajey at the petrol station so we can refuel and Nicky heads out to find out about the border crossing. When I try and start Pajey he's asleep. I pop the hood and see that not only has the battery terminal come lose with the shaking, the entire mounting for the battery has broken. On closer inspection, I see it was attached by a cable tie and that's broken. After lots of effort, I manage to get another cable tie in. And then we discover we can't open the back boot. It's been giving us hassles, but now it's impossible. With lots of energy, I eventually manage to open it. By now I'm hot and greasy and time is slipping away.
We decide to take the “shortcut” via Namibia and then back into South Africa to our next destination - The Growcery. Yeah sure. Shortcut! Hours of border cursings - I meant to type “crossings” but autocorrect knew better and changed it. We finally get across enjoying the 30 second pont trip. Now open road...gravel...
“I can hear a strange noise,” I say after about 30 minutes of driving. I stop the car to check it out. Joy…the back wheel is flat. So much for tough and expensive Cooper tires. Oh well we will just have to change it and move on. It's a good spot to change a tire - if there's such a thing - because the road is flat and straight. However, there's a problem. The jack won't fit under the car with the tire flat. Well, that's very clever! We try and maneuver the car but it does not work. Finally, we have the idea of trying to inflate the tire and then put the jack under. It works and while sipping warm beer for sustenance we have the tire changed and are back on our way again.
Finally, eight hours later, four border posts, one battery problem, one tire problem, just before sunset we arrive at The Growcery. It's like an oasis. Green - welcoming, and it has a pub! “Where's the beer?” are my opening words.
“Hi, I'm Jason,” says a smiling young guy. “Welcome to The Growcery.” I seat myself at the beautiful outdoor pub with a cold beer in hand and complete the book-in form. Jason gives us the lie of the land - “We are a green, organic establishment,” he says. “We grow our own vegetables,” he says pointing at several vegetable patches, "we recycle everything,” and he explains the process to us. The Growcery seems like an oasis in the area. Admittedly we've just come from the harshness of the Richtersveld and our Namibian adventure but it is a green oasis. Lovely grass and trees in what otherwise is a dry area.
“Wow, hot showers and electricity,” I exclaim in joy. It's hard to explain this place. It's eclectic, hip, trendy, comfortable, tasteful, fun, vibey…something like that. For example the showers I was mesmerized with, they're not dark dank holes as is often the case at a camping spot. They're cleverly and trendily built with rocks and tin and are open to the sky above and even partially on the one side affording you an amazing view while luxuriating in a fantastic warm and full throttled shower.
The bar area is vibey and flows onto the green grass where lights dot the lawn and bar area at night pulling in thirsty campers like moths to the flame. We've just come from camping in the sand of the Richtersveld and so when we arrive at our campsite we are again hugely impressed. Grass…electricity…water. Wow. But it's more than this.
It's the layout, the details that show me the people who run this place are concerned with more than just camping but the experience of camping. An example is the welcome board at our site “Welcome to a the Growcery, Blewett Family” - It's a small touch but it's this detail that is everywhere. Another example are the amazing photo collages that decorate the walls of the toilet area, again details that make even the places where you wouldn't expect much, feel like you're at home.
Our grassy campsite is partitioned off by a tasteful pole fence and has a covered kitchen area on the one side and a large fire pit in the middle, while before us we have a stunning view of the river. A fish eagle cries. The sound of Africa and a fitting welcome to our new home for the next few nights.
Darkness descends and we sit sipping the requisite snifter. “Hi everyone,” a voice says behind us, “I'm Deván and I will be your guide tomorrow.” Aah, joy. The river rafting. One of the main reasons we have come here. Deván then learns all our names. Now that's impressive. Jason, who welcomed us did the same. It reminds me of the old TV program, Cheers - which had the song chorus, “where everyone knows your name.” We feel like part of the local family.
We're doing the half day river rafting on the Orange River. It covers a distance of about 15km which should be nice and leisurely. We meet at 10:30, a civilized time to begin an excursion, dump some vital fluids (aka beer) in a cooler box and board the vehicle that will take us to the start. “If you get hot open the window, it's Africa airconditiong,” says Jaym the other guide on our excursion. There's already an occupant seated in the vehicle, Kayla the dog. She knows where the actions happening and she's not missing out. Soon we are bouncing our way along the dirt road towards our start.
“OK everyone, these are the signals,” Jaym says as he explains the basics of river rafting to us. It's just our family and another family also with three kids but their youngest looks only about two years of age. Wow. Pretty adventurous family.
Soon we are in our Ark rubber ducks and paddling sedately down the river. The river is wide and smooth and our six boats are effortlessly gliding down the river. We notice another group also on the river however they have fiberglass canoes. “I'm glad we're in an Ark inflatible, they're much safer and easier to control,” I think as I watch the other group wobble down the river.
After about 30 minutes of sedate drifting Jaym stops his ark. We all bob nearby like obedient ducklings. “OK everyone. There's a rapid coming up. Follow my line. I will firstly go right...” and he explains the plan. Sounds good to me, let's get the action on.
Around the corner we can feel the pull of the river as it gains speed and up ahead we can see the rapids. “Yeehi,” I shout as we bump and bounce across the rapids. They're not big rapids but they are fun. We all emerge unscathed on the other side and are soon drifting in tranquility once again. Soon we see the lead raft heading to the side and we all follow and disembark.
“This is a really interesting geological area,” Jaym says. We've landed on the Namibian side of the river. The best border crossing I've done. No forms. No wait. And so beautiful. “It's a lava extrusion,” Jaym explains pointing at a huge black rock that looks like it's oozed its final hours into the river. He also points out fascinating petrified mud stones.
We're back in the river and the dotted farms and cabins give way to amazing cliff formations. A herd/pack/flock...whatever of cormorants perch on the rocks observing us while high above a fish eagle soars on the thermals. “We're having a floating lunch,” Deván says as we tie our canoes together bobbing beneath a massive rock cliff. Soon the guides are laying out a smorgasbord feast on one of the canoes complete with tablecloth, cutlery and the best setting for a lunch ever - literally floating on the river.
“Wow, this is good,” I exclaim as I tuck into my pasta salad, filled with fresh tomato, parma ham, basil, rocket, and more. I'm not sure if it's the organic goodness of Growcery's home grown food or the setting or both, but this is delicious and spectacular.
After a leisurely lunch, we set off again getting to experience sections of tranquil rowing where we marvel at the bird life and scenery plus a few small but fun rapids. As we near the end the canoe party stretches out a bit as everyone rows at their own pace soaking in the ambiance and tranquility. That's what this place is all about. Relaxing, experiencing, enjoying, living.
There's a sign hanging up in the pub area that says “Some people die at 25...but are only buried at 75” - The Growcery, the canoe adventure, is for those who are intent on living every moment of their life to the full. As Jaym said, when discussing the name Growcery, “It's not just because we grow all our own vegetables, it's about people growing through what they've experienced.” I certainly feel at least an inch taller...inside where it counts! We will be back...next time for the six-day river adventure. “Aah, now I know why this place is called the Growcery...it's the one reason they didn't mention. It's because being here grows on you. You just can't help it.”
To find out more about the Growcery or Orange River Rafting check out their website!
One, two, three...heaven. Or at least as close to it as possible.
Backing up... “Hi Craig, welcome,” Manu says shaking my hand warmly. “The winds a bit northerly at the moment,” he says nodding towards the vaguely flapping windsock. We're at Signal Hill and below us the beautiful city of Cape Town stretches out towards the sea and the infamous Robben Island in the distance. “We need it to be more head on,” Manu the owner Cape Town Tandem Paragliding says. He then goes on to explain how we must take off into the wind. “It's not like a helicopter that creates its own wind, we need the wind to be provided.” I look at the windsock still flapping forlornly and wonder if we will fly. I'm hoping we will, but I'm all for there being enough wind to keep us up.
“It looks like the wind is fine now,” we're told about 20 minutes later. Soon I'm being strapped into my gear. It sort of feels like I'm wearing a giant diaper. “Maybe it's for those who get a little afraid on the flight,” I muse sagely as I stare down at our destination far below. “Just make sure you keep running,” Manu says, “just don’t stop or sit otherwise I’ll end up on top of you.” And so it is that after just three steps I’m suddenly like one of those cartoon characters and running in the air. The ground drops away and it’s almost miraculous as we are suddenly flying.
“We need to turn into the wind,” Manu says as we bank to the right along the side of Signal Hill. It's stunning, because rather than immediately heading off over the city, we fly along the side of the hill with the hillside brush flying past just a few meters below our feet. “It really does feel like I’m flying,” I say as the fresh Cape Town wind whips at my jacket. It’s an amazing feeling literally skimming above the plants below you, yet somehow you’re flying.
After a minute or so…time in this heavenly place takes on a different meaning, so it could have been an hour, we bank left and the hill drops away. Moments later we’re flying above the busy Sea Point suburb below us. The packed streets, crane-active buildings, and daily life seem like a distant planet as we float softly on the gentle breeze. It’s quiet. It’s tranquil. It’s amazing.
“Do you want to experience some tricks?” Manu asks as we near the Sea Point promenade. “Yeah sure!” I exclaim enthusiastically, “bring it on.” I’m loving this and the more the tranquility mingles with the thrill the better. “You don’t get motion sickness do you?” Manu enquires. Well, even if I do, I want to taste the action. “No,” I reply, “let’s do it. Even if I get sick I want to experience the fun.” And so as we glide out like a seagull with wide-spread wings over the sea, the action begins.
All of a sudden Manu banks to the left and we are thrown into a spiral. Then moments later we are tossed around and spinning in the reverse direction. Or at least I think that’s what happened. All I really know is that I’m yelping with excitement as the adrenalin pumps and the stomach gets that awesome tingling feeling. Wow!
Finally as the sparkling ocean screams past us just meters below, we bank once more to the left and are suddenly calmly floating down towards the grass field on the promenade. And then like a butterfly landing on your skin, we gently float and touch down on the grass. One, two, three…earth. Wow. What an incredible experience.
“That was incredible,” I say as Manu packs up the gear. “Absolutely incredible. How many flights do you do?” I ask.
“About one thousand a year. But then there are between three and six in the team depending on the time of year,” he continues. I can see why they’re so busy. From start to finish the experience is not only incredible, but it's professional and you feel totally safe. Minutes after we land their shuttle is there to pick us up and take us back to the top.
“Ninety!” I exclaim. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” Manu replies, “The oldest person I’ve taken on a flight is 90 and the youngest is 3.”
That is incredible. It truly is a sport that anyone can do. An opportunity for anyone to experience flight in a way that a few years ago we would never have dreamed possible. An opportunity to step, at least for a moment, into heaven…or at least heavenwards, where the wonder is better experienced than ever explained...because most won’t believe until they’ve been.
Eish, it's cold. I must get these goats under cover. I know they are strong, but they will not survive outdoors in this snow. I pick up my stick to try and stop one of the stupid ones running into the road, luckily it jumps back because just at the moment a car comes around the corner. Everything is white, even the dirty goats.
One of our favourite places in South Africa is Franschhoek. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the best coffee - and we're fussy on this front, to some of the best restaurants, to the fun European vibe, to the little town, to lots of places to enjoy a great glass of wine in a beautiful setting.
“Hey, but are you doing going on about Franschhoek…isn’t this blog about Clarens?”
It is indeed…and to me Clarens is the Franschhoek of the Free State, and possibly even Franschhoek on steroids!
After completing the crazy 90km Comrades marathon body alignment exercise, we are on the move again...black toenails and all, and our destination is Clarens. We're staying at Kiara Lodge, a timeshare resort about 10 minutes outside of Clarens. Our first shock is the weather. Brr! The sun is shining down boldly from above, casting a rich orange and red hue on everything, yet somehow it's more form than function. It's just not warm.
“This is the Free State in winter…sunny, fresh, but stunning,” I think to myself as Nicky and I float on the little dam at Kiara Lodge atop a paddle boat sipping our sundowners, soaking every sunray we can get like beleaguered lizards.
Yet what is amazing about this area is the Golden Gate Park. It's truly a stunning destination to visit. We set off on the Holkrans walk. It wends along the valley floor as it heads between towering rock structures on either side. At its end it curves around a large rock to reveal a massive cave. We scramble up into the cave and look out at the spectacular vista, framed by the cave, that our vantage point affords. Thick moss that must be centuries old grows on parts of the cave walls and is soft like some natural mattress.
A long set of wooden stairs leads up next to the cave. We clamber up them and the circular walk continues back along the ridge towards the hotel. It's surprises are not finished as the walk stops at more beautiful caves and amazing views of the valley below, framed by the endless blue sky above. It’s another world, and we are enjoying it all to ourselves.
A couple of days later we move to stay in a little cottage just 200m from Clarens town. Staying this close to Clarens means no need to drive anywhere because within walking distance are the best coffee places, incredible restaurants, walks, shops…everything. However there is one reason to drive - SKIING! Yes, you read right, skiing in Africa, it sounds like an oxymoron, but Clarens is the gateway to reaching Lesotho’s AfriSki resort.
It's early, in fact it's dark and we are up and today we are heading to AfriSki. After putting on our ski gear, which feels strange considering the brown hills around us, we clamber into Pajey and are on our way. It takes three hours to get to AfriSki, through border posts, along winding roads, over long winding narrow passes and past frozen waterfalls.
When we finally arrive at Afriski all the hills are brown and barren but AfriSki sports a single white strip like a line of Tippex fixing a mistake on the hills. The resort is empty - so we have chosen our day well and some clouds hang in the air with the promise of snow. The costs ramp up quickly for a day like today. There's the fuel…six hours worth, then entrance of R50 p.p. then ski hire and ski pass. We discover that half day prices start at 12 noon so we go for that. The end cost is about R500 p.p. which when I think about it is way cheaper than Europe!
We've brought the bum boards so spend some time sliding down a slope having find careening into the barrier at the bottom. We have about an hour before half day starts so we go to the pub. A warm log fire is crackling and we add a round of cappuccinos to complete the alpine experience. It feels surreal sitting in this snowy world with people clumping around in ski boots just hours from Clarens.
It's time to go get out gear and soon we are kitted and ready to hit the slopes. As we emerge out of the ski hire shop the snow begins to fall. It's the first snow they've seen in months. Huge soft flakes float gently down and soon everything begins to turn into a magical winter wonderland. We can't believe God's gift to us. It's stunning. It’s time to hit the slope….OK “slopette”. Only one slope is open, the bottom one, which provides a 10-second ride. Hey it’s Africa and we’re skiing…even 10 seconds is epic. We fly down it, we meander it, we try parallel skiing it, we try backwards, we even try doing circles. We just do fun.
By 3:30 we do our final run, savouring every moment. We have to head back now. I don't relish driving in snow on these mountain passes. As we descend the pass the snow starts to come down heavily blanketing the road in complete white and making driving much more challenging. “Watch out!” Nicky calls as I veer to the right to avoid a stray goat being chased by a blanket wrapped Basotho herder. His muddy goats are quickly turning white as the snow begins to blanket everything white.
Slowly the snow is left behind as we descend heading towards the border and Clarens beyond that. The sun dips in the horizon exploding the dramatic clouds into a pyrotechnic display. It’s as though the beauty cannot end, but then this the wonder of this beautiful part of Southern Africa…sip, shop, ski…sensational!
It should not be long now. Thankfully it’s winter and the sun is not too hot, but still while standing on the side of the road waiting droplets of sweat begin to bead on my head. A few vehicles pass, fishtailing as they drag themselves through the thick sand. Not long now. A car passes, and then I see it. This is the one. It bounces over the bumps in the sandy track, each bump causing it to leap higher. Surely now. And then the vehicle slows and stops. Yes…we've got one. Moments later it tries to pull off, but its wheels spin in the thick sand. In seconds it sinks deeper and deeper. Yes, we've got one!
First there is the sound of breaking glass and then moments later the air is filled with the smell of wine. “I smell wine,” Sarah says. And soon we are all in agreement. There is no doubt that there is a wine smell in the air, but there's nothing we can do about it at the moment. “I can't stop here,” I say as the back seat drivers suggest I pull over. “The sand is too thick and the dense forest leaves no room to pull over.”
We are on our first adventure as part of our year long travels, out of South Africa. We are headed to a remote town not far from Ponta d'Ora in Mozambique. Crossing the border is always a fun experience. Leaving South Africa is relatively simple. It's now getting through the Mozambique side that is the challenge. We've driven from St Lucia, the secret gem of KZNs north coast and are headed up to Ponta Molangane. After beaming friendly smiles at the Mozambiquen border officials, paying our R220 for some third party insurance and answering, “about 3 bottles of wine” to the inquisitive border guard, we are on our way.
“Insane” is probably the best word to describe the change in road condition from leaving South Africa to entering Mozambique on its eastern edge. A single smooth, freshly tarred road delivered us up to the SA border post. Thick, sandy roads splitting into an inexplicable number of branching tracks explode in every direction before us. Our instructions from the accommodation we're staying say “the route...is a sandy track with little signage.” This is code for “thick beach sand tracks with no signposts”. Who would expect signs on “national roads”? The instructions encouragingly continue...“the road splits in three directions...choose the middle one” - OK, got that, we take the middle fork. However the instructions then become vague... “the road has multiple forks” code for hundreds of forks, “...don't get too anxious...they will all eventually meet up.” Are you serious? As we drive, every few minutes we're suddenly presented with a random split - left or right? Braking or slowing down in the thick sand is not a good idea so I just pick at random and go, and sometimes despite the instructions' reassurance, the tracks don't meet up as we arrive at some lone hut. Obviously this fork is a “driveway” which is inconsiderately unsignposted.
We've arrived in real Africa. This is the Africa of the movies where one expects to see herds of elephant at any moment as open grasslands and cosps of trees frame our sandy 4x4 track. It's as we're bouncing over some mini sand dunes through a thick indigenous coastal forest that we hear the wine bottles clink once again in the back of the car as they are airborne for a moment. And this time the clink is followed by the unmistakable bouquet of an unwooded Chardonnay...or is it the grassy scent of Savingnon...or is it a blend of all our wine we're smelling?
We have to wait until we exit the forest before I can pull over. These sandy national roads are of course two way roads, despite the fact that there is just enough room for a single car. We've already met an oncoming 4x4 sand ploughing a spray of dust in front of him as he slammed on brakes to stop in time.
Leaping out, it is with mounting trepidation that we carefully open the back of Pajey. Will we be in forced sobriety and sipping water for our sundowners for the next three nights or has some of our wine survived? Wine is dripping down the back of the car and reaching an ignoble end in the thick sand. “They're all broken,” Nicky declares as she gently lowers the now sodden box onto the sandy road. I swoon slightly. It must be the 30c heat not the recent news. However on further inspection its discovered the news is not as dire as first proclaimed. In fact what has happened is that our customs declaration has been implemented. “About 3 bottles of wine” is now correct. It seems there were four but now there are three. At least everything is above board.
With the fruity smell of a dearly departed Chardonnay, unwooded I think, filling the car, we continue bouncing, sliding, and guessing our way to our destination. Amazingly all roads do finally lead to Ponta Molangane and we arrive. Paradise unfurls before us.
The glass doors that welcome us into the accommodation at Baleia Azul that we're sharing with the two other families ushers us into the most spectacular view. A deck stretches out before us to a suspended pool and the unobstructed view of the endless sea beyond. It's stunning. The ride here, the adventure makes this worth it. What adventures await us here, in real Africa.
“Come on everyone, we're leaving.” There's a mad early morning scurry as everyone heads to the 4x4s. It's only about a 45 minute trip along the non-existent Mozambique roads to Ponta d'Ora. We've booked a dolphin adventure. The plan...leap onto boats, find dolphins, swim with them, be amazed. The ride to Ponta is fun as usual, as we bounce along thick sandy tracks, but we arrive unscathed. We find the Dlophin place and are soon seated wathcing a video on what we can expect. The excitement is mounting...but just before the video ends, our hopes are dashed. Someone appears and tells us that the trips are cancelled as the conditions are not good. I'm not sure if its a collective sigh of relief or disappointment, as the sea was looking a little turbulent. Either way, the action's off, and so we settle for a stroll around the town. This is Africa of the movies. Shops line a the dirt roads where vendors sell their wares. One vendor has taken up residence in a burnt down building while across the road a modern looking shop competes for attention. It's such an eccelctic mix you can't help but be drawn into the beauty and charm of the place.
“Let's head back and grab a snack at Sunset Shack,” someone suggests, as the shopping spirit dwindles. We all leap into our cars - three 4x4s in covoy and head out of Ponta. And that's when the fun starts. The car behind me suddenly seems to vanish, and so I back up to see what's happened. “Can anyone see John,” I say referring to the ML that is number two in the convoy. “There he is,” Hannah says. And there he is indeed. Belly deep in the thick sand. “Don't worry John, I'm here to rescue you.” My moment of pride is finally here. Soon I've attached a tow rope to John's beleagured ML and Pajey is ready to show his grit. Alas it does not work out as planned. Pajey, with the added weight attached to him, struggles to move. In moments the glory-to-be evaporates and Pajey...well, Pajey is belly deep in the thick sand too. Two vehicles stuck. So much for the gallant steed to the rescue.
Thankfully some locals are standing on the side of the road, amazingly with spades in hand, ready to dig us out. It's amazing their foresight, that they would be at this spot, ready and waiting with spades in hand. An hour later...lots of digging, burning clutch and money changing hands and we are all on our way again. Well, the lesson is, "this is Africa"stunn. She eats cars without a second thought. “But, the adventure is amazing,” I think to myself, as we stop at a roadside pub...OK, not a pub but a shack on the side of the road that sells R&Rs - Mozambique's iconic Rum and Rasberry drink - horribly sweet, but amazing as you sit with your feet in the sand watching the sun dip into the horizon. This is Africa, is so unique...there's nothing quite like it!
The cool of the water makes me want to stay underneath for longer, but I must come up to get some air. I rise slowly. As my head breaks the water I exhale sending a fine spray of water into the air. Not far from where I am I can see a lot of activity. Its humans. At first I am not sure what they're doing, and then I see. They're running. Something must be chasing them...but I'm not really interested. I sink below the cool water once again, savouring it's cool embrace.
A gentle breeze wraps languidly around me as drops of condensation distill on the glass of Sauvignon Blanc I'm holding. It's 30c but the light breeze and the deep shade of the huge African Fig tree under which we're seated makes this a perfect spot for our picnic. Before us stretches wide open grasslands dotted with clumps of trees. A herd of giraffe look quizzically at us as we settle down for our picnic. “This has to be one of the world's best picnic spots,” I think to myself as I sit soaking in the surreal vista before me.
We're in the iSimangiliso St Lucia Park. We've found an amazing spot to have a picnic and soak in all that is amazing about Africa. We have it all to ourselves. A lone warthog scuttles with its aerial-like tail held high towards the dwindling water in the pan.
The salty biltong and blue cheese stuffed olives are a perfect complement to our wine. The weave of the animals grazing, the soft caress of the wind, the symphony of the birds, the taste of fresh rolls layered with ham, basil and tomato makes this an almost indescribable experience. How do you describe this feeling? How do you put into words the exhilaration, the joy, the peace of an experience like this? It can't be described. It must be lived. They say TIA - “This Is Africa” - and they're right. In the distance the fish eagle cries out her agreement as she rises gracefully on the late afternoon thermals. This is Africa and it's beautiful. It's life-changing. It's real. It's unequalled. Hannah and Josh climb an ancient tree framing out view and sit on its long, stretching, thick branch. Their vantage point gives them an unobstructed view of the open planes before them and the slowly moving herd of giraffe as they head off.
As we drive out of the park the sun begins to descend towards the tree fringed horizon. We can't miss it. It's too beautiful to let it go uncelebrated. Leaving the park we head straight to Sunset Jetty, which adjoins the estuary. The sun is just melting over the horizon, painting the estuary a fiery glow of orange.
“It's so early,” one of the kids complains, as we wake up at 7am on Sunday morning. They are sure out of the early morning school routine if this feels early. But we're all getting up. “Come on guys,” I say, “we are not going to be late.” Thirty minutes later we are headed out and down to the St Lucia Skiboat club where the action begins. Today we're running. Hannah and Josh are doing the 5km fun run. Sarah is doing the 10km run. Nicky and I are doing the 21km - a final fun trainer before Comrades. And what a run it turns out to be. It goes through thick coastal forest, along the main road of St Lucia, next to the game park and finally along the beach front and the boardwalk. What an epic run. We finally all meet up back at the club, and with the music pumping, the announcer welcoming back runners, we enjoy a beer and toasted sandwich. In the river a large hippo breaks the surface of the water, and exhales loudly sending a fine spray of water into the air. It floats for a moment, seemingly looking at us and thinking, “Crazy dudes...you don't get a figure like mine by running like that!” It sinks below the water.
“This place is infested with hippos,” I say loving the fact that there are just so many. I don’t realise just how many there are. As evening settles upon the tiny town of St Lucia we are given the Eskom treat…darkness. We decide to take a walk down the main street and look at some of the shops that are still open, and have power. “Hey,” Nicky suggests, “why don’t we walk back on the back streets as it will be darker and we can see the stars.” We all agree. It is dark, and the only tourch I have is my cellphone which I point at the road, not so much for the potential of tripping over something, but because hippos roam freely in St Lucia at night. However the small torch does little to pierce the thick darkness.
Just up ahead the road passes a park and opposite that is the entrance to our timeshare. We stop for a moment to appreciate the stars, and are about to move on when Eskom decides to return the light like some benevolent utility provider. But on this occasion their benevolence is appreciated. Just across the road in the park, three large hippo are grazing, just meters away from where we would have been if we had continued to walk. Hannah yelps and runs for safety into a nearby driveway, while we all back away. Wow. This really is a hippo infested place. You just have to love it.
The next night, as we are enjoying an evening coffee and cake at one of the restaurants, we see a hippo come trotting up the main road. This is a crazy place. “Dad,” Josh says, “let’s go hipp spotting.” Yeah, why not…and so we pile into Pajey and drive the streets of St Lucia. It’s pitch dark as we enter a car park that borders the estuary. Joshua is shining the torch out the window. In moments a huge dark form is illuminated…and then another, and another. A pod of hippos is grazing contentedly next to the car park. Carefully we all slip out of the car in the ink-black night, and clamber onto the roof. Above us a million stars have been sprayed across the sky. The night is still. The only sound is the rustle of something large, and the sound of grass being eaten as the hippos graze contentedly. Wow. What a place. Where else in the world could you feel so alone yet so close to such amazing animals. Wow.
The hunt has been good which means we can settle down for a while. The smell of cooking meat hangs in the air as we sit in a circle watching the smoke slowly rise from the fire to the gods above. The gods smile down upon us as they light a million sparkling fires into the dark sky stretched above. As the firelight flickers off the towering rock behind where we are camped, I begin to paint a scene from our hunt. The dancing shadows from the fire make my painted animals appear to move, as I tell our story, as I leave a message for our children, and their children, and for those yet far off. Stories and songs fill the air.
Connecting with the outside world in this spectacularly remote place of the Cederberg means a several kilometre drive to reception along the thick sandy roads. Nicky and I head there to get connected and buy some supplies. Last night on our game drive we embarrassingly ended up driving into a secluded camp that had been setup in the bush for a couple - they looked stunned but it looked stunning.Thankfully they were fully clothed. An idea is born. Could we maybe stay there as an anniversary celebration? Would it be affordable? Would it be available? Nicky enquires.
It's R750 for a couple and it’s available. This is why we tour in South Africa. That’s a crazy price! We return to our chalet to inform the children that they will be abandoned to their own care, while we head off for a night in the wild. Leaving them with fond reassurances of our love, and intention to return, we head off. The separation is made smoother by the good snacks we’ve arranged for their sundowners…in fact we get a sense that we are being shooed out the door.
We climb onto quad bikes and follow a game ranger to the special location called “The Outcrop”. The drive there is thrilling as we bounce and slide along the sandy tracks. The scene that awaits us is truly stunning, taken from postcards or fairytales. A king-sized white linen bed is set on a platform. A table and two chairs is on one side next to a fire that is ready set. On the other side of our bush bedroom is an open shower. Behind the bed a huge rock towers, creating the largest headboard in existence, and framing the most spectacular bedroom ever. This is the ultimate open air bedroom with unhindered views of the open bushland before us and the mountains in the distance.
As we have the quads to ourselves we decide to go for a short quad drive. We bounce and slide along the dirt tracks thrilling in the speed and marvelling at having this whole world just for ourselves. The sun begins to melt behind the distant mountains casting a rusty hue over the stunning vista. We head back to our piece of paradise and settle into our comfortable chairs, cracking open the wine and snacks, and breathing deeply of this indescribable experience.
This is yet another ultimate sundowner experience - sitting in absolute tranquility watching the sun sink behind the mountains in front of us from our open air bedroom. But God's splendor is just beginning. While the sun paint’s a riot of fiery colours across the skies before us, behind us a full moon is rising. This is iMax for real. We climb our headboard - the giant rock that shelters our bedroom, and sit atop it looking at the orange moon rising in the distance. Stunning. Words fail.
I start our log fire and soon the smell of smoke and braaing meat, crackling warmth and dancing orange flames complete the setting. This area is filled with bushmen paintings, and as we listen to the night sounds its as though I can hear their laughter dancing on the evening breeze, as they once sat around their fire in this this their bedroom and shared stories. The sensual feast is overwhelming.
Satiated with good wine and food, and refreshed by the most spectacular open-air shower, we fall into our huge bed, pulling the soft white duvet up high as we gaze up at the starry canopy above us. It's perfectly still. Silence. I slip into a peaceful sleep. The ancient laughter dancing in the air.
We wake early to drink in the awesome wonder of this divine bedroom and watch the silvery moon melting behind the distant mountains. On the other side of our bedroom the sun is rising and casting is warming orange rays across the plane. I fire up the gas burner and soon we are sipping filter coffees and soaking in the last moments of this incredible place. It certainly is a place of stories. A place of legends. The story continues, and we’re blessed to have added a page to its telling.