One of the biggest surprises during our year of exploring South Africa was discovering the stark beauty of the Cederberg. And now we have been invited back to this incredible landscape - a place that ranks amongst the best places we have traveled.
It’s an easy, scenic drive from Cape Town up the west coast to Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve in the Cederberg mountains. The tar road gives up and we find ourselves winding slowly along a gravel road past jagged rocky outcrops and wide open vistas, before finally arriving to a royal welcome.
“Hello, I'm James the lodge manager, and this is Cecile the front office manager and Christiaan, your guide.”
Scented facecloths, welcome drinks and an orientation tour of the magnificent lodge complete our introduction to the resort.
There is something I’ve noticed at all the Red Carnation hotels we’ve visited so far - incredible service. You get beautiful hotels all over the world, but few deliver incredible service - a level beyond what you expect. Where the staff exude passion for what they’re doing and pleasure from making your stay exceptional. It’s not just incredible service…its incredible hospitality.
“There are four pools!” I exclaim.
“Yes,” Cecile replies, “and one is heated.”
And that's just the start. Luxurious lounge areas, secret gardens, a cozy pub, an inviting outdoor dining area, walking trails, archery, hiking, cycling…We are already excited by the time we reach our room where we are welcomed by a melding of home comfort with tasteful style. We take a few minutes to relax and enjoy a glass of wine and let the tranquility and beauty of Bushman's Kloof wash over us.
After a swim we get ready for the afternoon activities. These commence with high tea at 4pm, with the emphasis on high. From quiches to tarts to cakes and coffee, all enjoyed under the large outdoor thatched area overlooking soft green grass, alive with birds, stretching out towards an infinity pool that drops off into the stark, rugged terrain of the rocky outcrops beyond.
With tummies content we jump into our Landcruiser.
“Are there many animals around here?” I ask as Christiaan deftly navigates his way along the winding roads. Before long the answer is abundantly clear, as we see eland, springbok, bontebok, ostrich, zebra, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, and oryx. This harsh, rugged terrain is teeming with wildlife.
“Eland are the biggest antelope,” Christiaan says as we stop and watch a herd grazing alongside some springbok. “And springbok are the fastest.”
“Look at that one,” he says pointing at a lone bontebok. “ It's a unicorn!”
With only one horn it looks amazingly like a unicorn from some fantasy place. I’m beginning the believe we may be in a fantasy place.
After toasting the sunset in regal style overlooking the beautiful Biedouw valley below, and watching the sun paint the sky and rocks with splashes of red and orange, we head back to the lodge. If we thought the nature drive was amazing, what’s planned for tonight is going to be incredible.
As a dark veil is silently drawn across the sky revealing a sparkling treasure trove of stars, we head out into the inky darkness to a secret dinner location. Rounding a corner we are suddenly welcomed by twinkling lights and a roaring log fire causing shadows to dance on the lone stone cottage atop the hill, as if in celebration of our arrival.
Sitting around a crackling log fire on a cold autumn evening, sipping smooth red wine, and chatting while sparks dance towards the diamond studded sky is what fantasies are made of. Maybe the unicorn was real. As we move inside the fantasy continues, as we are seated at a table illuminated by the flickering light of 88 candles set atop candlesticks with long wax rivers frozen below them, as though reminders of a place where laughter, food and celebration have existed for aeons. “You can't capture this,” someone says. And they’re right. How do you describe magical.
And so begins the next adventure. A culinary journey. The chef describes each course before we our tongues are allowed to follow the tastes our minds have already conjured.
“Wow,” we gush, “after having just enjoyed the unique flavour of a deboned Karoo lamb shank pie. "That was delicious!”
“The lamb was slow roasted for 6 hours,” the chef says revealing some of his culinary secrets.
“Would you like to see the stars before dessert?” Christiaan asks as we recline in our chairs letting the wonder of the moment carry us away. We follow him outside into the inky darkness. The wind has magically stopped completely, and a sparkling necklace of diamonds has been tossed haphazardly across the sky. It's truly incredible. Stars like I have seldom seen before. Christiaan points out Mars, Venus, Orion, and Scorpio.
“And look there," he says, as we stare through binoculars at the regal display, “It's the moons of Jupiter.”
As I finally lie back in the soft warm comfort of my bed back at the lodge, slowly succumbing to sleeps embrace, I am left wondering whether it was a dream, a fantasy...
“We are going to explore some rock art,” Christiaan says as we clamber into the Landcruiser the next morning. The Cederberg is famous for its rock art - two kinds of rock art. One are the thousands of works of art left by the nomadic bushmen who once inhabited this area, and the other are the incredible sculpted spires and jagged peaks forged by the ravages of wind and rain upon the arid canvas of this desert land.
“It's a short walk,” Christiaan says as we follow him around large boulders up to an overhanging cave-like shelter. We’ve stepped through a portal and back in time. The walls are alive with art - eland, elephant and the bushmen. A world from a another time comes alive as Christiaan explains the stories depicted in these ancient and beautiful works of art. Once more it seems magical. Almost a fantasy, as we are transported to other worlds, other times, hidden behind towering rock behemoths standing like silent, frozen sentinels.
“That's what’s unique about this place,” I muse as we enjoy a late breakfast back at the lodge “It's a fantasy world, where old and new, rugged and sublime, earth and heaven meet in a surreal dance. It's a world that not only calms the soul but energizes the spirit. A world not explained - a world that must be experienced. Quite simply it’s magic...unicorn and all!
Bushman's Kloof was recently voted by Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, the No. 1 resort in South Africa and the No 3 in the category Best Hotels and Resorts in the world!
To find out more about Bushman's Kloof Wilderness Reserve visit their website.
“One, two, three, four….all the limbs are still there.” I peer over to the inert form of Nicky next to me in the tent, I think she's all there although she is still wrapped in her sheet. That's good news no lions…and no lie ins. The birds have woken me before sunrise to a new day, our final day at Tuli Camp in Botswana.
It's been an unbelievable experience through Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana, and now two months later we are leaving and going back to South Africa. With efficiency honed from so many pack-ups, we have our site miraculously spirited away into and onto Pajey within an hour and a half - that seems to be the new standard. It's our last tent pack up, and although we loved it, looking around I'm not seeing tears in the family's eyes. I think the girls are tented out and keen on some sophistication - although they'll have to wait a bit for that.
We leave Tuli camp and head along the dirt 4x4 track towards the Pont Drift border post which is the northern most border in South Africa. It's also the most fun border as there's no one there. We sail through a friendly Botswana border and then drive through a dry river bed to get to South Africa where we are welcomed with friendly smiles into SA.
“Aah, it feels good to be home.” Even though we are just on the tip of SA, there is something about home - even with all its problems. This is my country. Here I'm not a foreigner. These are my people - black, white, striped…whatever.
We’re headed to Mopane camp in northern Kruger Park. It's a short drive and we arrive at the Punda Maria gate - one of the most northern gates of Kruger. One of the things we have had to do countless times on our trips through other countries is have our car searched. This normally involves opening the back and in most cases opening the fridge or having them scratch through our drawers.
We thought this was behind us. But Kruger has decided to get in on the act too and so once again they want to see the back of the car…“Eish!” he says when we open it and he sees how packed it is. He gives up but pokes his head inside the car, there discovering kids. Not sure if he was expecting to discover hunting rifles, tanks, severed animal heads sitting packed on our seats…but we are waved through.
We spot elephant, buffalo, and various buck as we make our way towards Mopani Camp. We stop a few times en route and also once again cross the Tropic of Capricorn. The last time was driving in Namibia from Sossusvlei to Ludertitz. It's fun passing these landmarks and we all leap out again to take the requisite photos.
“What's with all the people?” I ask as we pull up at Mopani camp. “Oh yea. It's holidays!” We don't like it when it's holiday time as people appear. They should stay at school and not clutter up our holiday spots….but there is one benefit of lots of people…rugby atmosphere.
Rugby is one interesting theme of our travels. It's not that we have seen a lot but we have been able to “watch” games in some unusual places. We watched the boks get hammered by New Zealand while sitting freezing outdoors at a pub at night in Franschhoek - thanks to load shedding. We watched Twitter and Whatsapp updates as Japan beat the boks in their opening World Cup game while seated outdoors on the banks of the Chobe river in Namibia with elephants just across from us. We watched the boks beat Samoa in a hotel room in Botswana just after an incredible sunset boat cruise. Today we're packed into a pub at Mopani camp in Kruger preparing to watch the boks play Scotland while outside the sun sets over a dam packed with elephants, crocs and various buck. This is how rugby should be enjoyed…even when it goes bad. Now for a beer!
What a game! What an atmosphere. The boks manage to pull off a great win. The highly vocal Afrikaans crowd created a great atmosphere as about one hundred people sweated, literally, as we packed in together to enjoy the action.
The stars are sprinkled liberally across the ebony night sky as we walk back to our unit. It's a stunning evening and as we enjoy our meal outside soaking up the remnants of the day, the hippos grunt in agreement. I love South Africa.
We’ve left the excitement of Zambia’s Devil’s Pool and the majesty of Victoria Falls behind and headed back into Botswana in search of adventure. We’ve lived in some quite rustic spots lately, and so we are doing a civilization reset with a couple of days staying at the Mowani hotel in Kasane…Eish! Hotel! That’s a first for us on our trip. Electricity, own bathroom…with running water…aircon…paradise.
“I think we should go to Chobe,” Nicky wakes me up dissolving my vision of a sedate day at the lodge. She's right. We are all the way here, let's do it. The girls opt for aircon and pools and Nicky, Josh and I head out to explore Chobe. After parting with about R400 - that's costly for just three people - we enter the park in search of the big game. However, it's not the big game we're expecting that we will find. We see lots of kudu, elephant and some amazing bird sightings. However the “big game” is avoiding getting stuck. The roads are Mozambique-style roads - thick and crazy sandy. We spend more time plotting routes and approaches than looking for animals.
After engaging everything including low range and diff lock we decide to take a direct road back. This turns out to not be a good idea. We had thought because the road was not along the river, like that previous road we had been driving, it would be better. We are wrong. It's worse. Very thick sand and hilly.
Nicky closes her eyes as we approach a particularly daunting hill ahead. I put foot giving Pajey full torque. We slide and slither up the thick sand. “Oh no!” I say, which causes Nicky to open her eyes. A vehicle is coming down the track in the opposite way. “You don't move,” Nicky yells. So I hold my course refusing to budge off the road in the hope that he will try and drive off to the side into the even thicker sand. He's going nowhere either. He knows he will be stuck. Eventually as we are nearly on top of him and he's fishtailing towards me I pull to the right…and immediately come to a grinding halt.
To say that Nicky is not particularly enamoured with me is an understatement. However all is not lost. I am able to slowly reverse backwards down the track while Nicky gesticulates furiously at the other vehicle making it clear they must move aside. Eventually, he decides to move aside rather than face the glaring Nicky, and with a lot of scary sliding he manages to get slightly off the track. Giving Pajey full throttle again we slither and slug past him finally making it up the hill.
It's a long drive…or at least it feels that way with us not relishing the thought of getting stuck and having to dig ourselves out in 40c heat with wild beasts everywhere. Thankfully we make it and are soon cruising back homeward bound on a tar road again. Josh has loved the whole experience and wants to do it again…but I fear his mom is not that much into 4x4 adventures.
We have decided to do a cruise on the Chobe because it is famous for its amazing elephant sightings. Grabbing our snacks we are soon seated on the boat by 3:30, grateful that it has a roof to protect us from the sun. The river is glass smooth and we enjoy some magnificent sightings of elephant - close up. As they beach the boat, so we can watch an elephant close by on an island, it decides to walk right up to the boat and then into the water. It's magnificent being so close to them. Later we see more elephant crossing the river with a small baby in tow. The baby literally vanishes under the water, with its trunk popping out of the surface every now and then for air. Somehow it makes it, cooled down and faithfully following mom.
After witnessing another unforgettable sunset over the river, we finally return home. The boks are playing again, and this is one of the few occasions we have a TV - in our own room. They had better not let us down. Thankfully they don't as they hammer Samoa. Now that was fun. Lying in the cold aircon room we let the sweet call of sleep claim us. It's our final night of luxury. Aah, enjoy, tomorrow we're on the move again as we begin to head south, towards home.
Pizza, vino, cappuccino, deez are da things that make life worth living. As I cross the road I see someone looking at the menu. “Ciao,” I say. “We have the best pizzas in the world.” The girl, she looks at me and smiles. I think she will be back. I watch as she walks away. Yes, pizza, vino and cappuccino, they are the things that we live for.
After leaving the network of dirt tracks in Mozambique we return to South Africa. It's like chalk and cheese, sand and tar, wild and calm. It's been fun but it's good to cruise on a paved road with signs and lines and modern things. Yet it's short lived as we turn off on our way towards Sodwana. The route hugs Lake Sibaya, and just like in Mozi, it is mainly thick sand and undulations, winding through dense coastal forests. It's beautiful seeing glimpses of this magnificent Lake Sibaya, but I'm giving the driving full concentration as once or twice Pajey fights furiously to get through the thick sand. Getting stuck out here would be a problem - there is no cell signal, no humans that we've seen. Years later, all that would be discovered would be our remains picked clean by hippos. However, finally after about two hours we arrive at Sodwana Bay Lodge.
We awake and are ready for action. Today we are headed to Mkuze Game Park. Our first stop on route to Mkuze is the Spar at Mbazwane. We've had to adapt to a new style of shopping as we move off the grid, and shop where Africa shops. The shop cuisine sports everything from bulk packs of chicken claws to 50kg bags of mealie meal - enough to feed a small nation for a week. No suhsi in sight....Aah, for a taste of sushi. Actually just chicken that no longer looks like a recently departed chicken would be good.
We make our way along a bumpy dirt road that occasionally gives way to what appears to be the distant memory of a tar road before giving up completely and returning to gravel again. Added to this are the bonus points for dodging cows, goats, and equally non-intelligent pedestrians.
Eventually, we arrive at the Mkuze gate, flash our Rhino card, fill in endless, pointless forms, as though this is a border crossing, and are finally admitted. By this stage we are feeling peckish - it must be the lingering memory of chicken claws. We head to a lake-side picnic spot arriving just after noon having not seen another car or human on route here. It's wonderful having this game park all to ourselves. Soon we've set up our table, poured our chilled wine, and are smelling the wors braaing as we listen to the hiss of our promised meal mingling with the nearby sound of snorting hippos and the distant cry of a fish eagle. It truly is incredible to be just 20 meters away from these magnificent animals while enjoying fine food.
Sodwana Run & Snorkel
'Tis always a joy for the children to be awoken with the news “We're heading out for a run in 10 minutes”. But such is the lot that does on occasion fall upon them, as it is on this fine morn. With Hannah's mumbles muted due to a restraining order already imposed, we head out, and what a rave run it is…for us at least. We run the gently undulating road towards Sodwana beach but are forced to turn at 2.5km as some of the less running inclined kids deem this far enough.
The deep blue sea is calling us and today we will venture into it. We've booked a snorkeling adventure. “It's women and children first,” says the guy who is going to lead our dive as we get ready to launch. “And then when you are waist deep the rest can get in the boat.” So much for equality. Clinging white-knuckled to the side of the boat as the waves roll in I await the call to “abandon sea” hoping it will come before the waves swamp me or the boat propeller slices me into biltong pieces.
Getting out to sea in the rubber duck is like driving on a badly potholed road, which resonates with our driving experience in this area. We bump along the coast for about 20 minutes finding nothing more than a shoal of hyperactive tuna leaping through the waves. Aah, sushi...so close yet so far.
“This is the reef,” the dive master says once we give up on the elusive dolphins, “follow me,” he says leaping overboard into the big wide ocean. Reef? This looks like the great wide open sea. An ideal place for sharks to suck on turtle-looking snorkellers.
In moments we are all bobbing in the ocean like a flock of colorful jellyfish. Putting my face down a hidden world of visual splendor erupts into view. Floating high above the reef far below, I see schools of colorful fish dance and dart to the crackling sound of the coral. The scene is stunning as we “fly” over this hidden world and get a glimpse into the unseen.
Returning to the boat after about 30 minutes I find Hannah and Josh already there having succumbed to the ocean's kiss - nausea. Clinging onto the boat we bounce our way back and before long are showered and warming, like contented lizards, in the sun.
In the evening we attend the local church, Solid Ground, that takes place in a home. We are warmly welcomed and enjoy the worship and the powerful message ahout hearing God - something I really need as the fear of the upcoming Comrades marathon settles upon me! Should I run it this year? It's number 10...but this was going to be the year off. Decisions...
Across the road from the church is an Italian pizza restaurant claiming to be the best in the world. We met the proprietor yesterday and he is Italian both in accent and enthusiastic spirit. The restaurant is just a caravan nestled on the side of the road with a few tables planted in the sand. Candles on the table and stars above create a truly remarkable ambiance as jovial music pumps out of a pair of small speakers coming out of the caravan kitchen.
The thin based pizzas are delicious and we wash them down with the wine served in paper coca cola cups. “It's an epic way to end an amazing stay at Sodwana,” I think to myself as we walk the kilometer or so back to our chalet. Africa just keeps on serving up the best in tastes, sights, experiences and people. Nkosi Sikilele Africa.
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 heat is intense, more intense than normal. The fiery sun burns down relentlessly from the vaulted blue sky above. Everything is still. Even the birds and the insects are sheltering under whatever shade they can find. In the distance a warthog followed by three young, all with their antenna-like tails in the air, dart towards some mud. I reach lazily for some new green leaves growing on the edge of a branch from the tree under which I am cooling, while I flap my ears in an attempt to cool myself. I hear the rumble of a shiny beast as it draws near. I flap my ears, unperturbed. The heat is intense.
While lions are exciting to spot in a game reserve, or an illusive leopard, there is really nothing that truly gets the heart racing like an elephant. The elephant is the only animal that possesses the power and size so that your vehicle offers little protection from it. Many times I’ve read of tourists stupidly getting too close to an elephant and finding their vehicle rolled and crushed in a seemingly nonchalant effort by the elephant. And so it is that Addo Elephant National Park, and surrounding areas, are famous for many things, but one specifically are their elephants.
“Just step back and I will tell you when you can come forward,” the guide at the Kwantu Elephant Sanctuary informs us. We've never been to an elephant encounter, but we have read about Kwantu and their work with the elephants, and the price is affordable for a family of five, so we are keen to experience it. Before us four huge animals loom as the guides sitting atop them steer them towards us. They look at us from below their long lashes as they probe inquisitively with their dexterous trunks. All that stands between us and these mountains of grey muscle is a small wooden pole fence. “Ok,” the guide says, “you can go forward and feed them.” He hands us a small bucket filled with corn. “This is like chocolate for them,” he says smiling at us, “they love it.” He then demonstrates how we should feed these majestic animals.
I step forward, holding a small handful of elephant “chocolate” and raise my hand which is a signal for the elephant to raise his trunk and open his mouth. A huge muscular trunk towers above me and before me the huge maw of it’s mouth opens revealing a soft searching tongue. I can smell the rich, musty smell of this huge beast as it waits expectantly. All I have to do is stick my hand into it’s mouth…that’s what he said didn’t he? For a moment I’m not too sure about this. After all, who puts their hand into a huge beast's mouth, unless you are keen on casting off your mortal coil. Yet now it is too late, as the huge elephant leans closer towards me. I push my hand into its mouth as it gently closes its mouth around my hand, covering me with it’s warm slobber. What a scary, strange, amazing feeling. I step away, in awe of this incredible beast. In moments we are all feeding them. Their long, worm like, trunks probe the air and slurp up the treats from our hands before returning again in search of more. There is truly something amazing about being so close to such a magnificent beast. All of a sudden you get perspective. We seem so small, so puny, so weak compared to the incredible power of the elephant. Pride evaporates to be replaced by wonder and awe at such a powerful animal, that can also be so amazingly gentle.
We’re staying at the Avoca River cabins and the running joke during our trip has been whether we are staying in “the east” or “the west”, referring to the old east-west divide in Berlin, where spartan conditions existed on one side and luxury on the other. We have experienced both east and west, and it’s the blend that truly makes this adventure a wonderful experience. We are expecting “the east” as we know from the booking that our hut does not even have it’s own kitchen.
“Will it have it’s own toilet? Will it have electricity?” the kids ask, hoping for more “west” and a chance to charge all the electronic devices that are more important to keep energised than our bodies. Much to the the children’s relief this is firmly “the west”. Our small hut which consists of just one room and a small shower/toilet (wow that’s great, it’s inside) is beautifully decorated and has beds for all five of us. The hut opens up on to a lovely deck that overlooks the river below. Sure, there is a communal kitchen, which is open on one side to a lovely braai area and another deck overlooking the Sundays river below, but this is only shared with one other hut.
“Hi I’m Anna and this is Rosanne,” the elderly English lady says. “Sorry about the fridge,” she says referring to the shared fridge, “we will move our things so there is more room for you.” Soon we are chatting to these friendly ladies from the UK and sharing our stories with them, as we hear about their travels around South Africa. Once more this is what travelling is about - it is not about strangers you meet, but about friends you have not yet met.
The main reason we are staying here is to visit Addo Elephant National Park which is nearby. Addo was established in 1931 and had only 11 elephants. Today this successful park, which is now the third largest park in South Africa, has over 600 elephants as well as lion, black rhino and many other animals.
“Imagine driving the whole of Addo and not seeing a single elephant,” Hannah commented the day before as we watched a huge herd of elephant lazily drinking and playing at a muddy waterhole. It sure seemed hard to imagine, but not at the moment. We have been driving for nearly two hours and have not seen a single elephant! How can those massive giants of the bush disappear so completely? In fact we have not seen a single animal besides a few scuttling warthogs. It’s as though the animals did not get the memo today that this is a tourist park and they are meant to appear, or at least take turns to appear. Are they on strike for better wages? Or maybe they are just tired of tourists? The answer is far more simple…it’s the heat. I have never in my life experienced a day like this.
The plan was simple and very appealing. Unlike yesterday when we were at Addo earlier in the morning, today we would relax at our accommodation…swim, canoe, chill. Then at about 2pm we would head to Addo, cruise around spotting the wildlife before heading to the lovely braai spots they have at their fenced off picnic area. Yet we had not taken into account the weather. The sun was delivering a day like none other. Early in the morning it rose with lava-hot intensity and it simply burned hotter and hotter as the day went on.
“Stop, it’s 41C,” someone shouted pointing at the temperature gauge in the car as we searched in vain for the animals. Out come the cameras to record this epic temperature. Ensconced in the bubble of aircon inside the car, the heat seems unreal. “Let’s open the window to feel it,” Sarah suggests. In seconds a dragon breathing fiery breath arises next to our car, engulfing us in unbearable heat, as the outside air rushes into the car.
“Shut the windows! Shut them!” I scream, “we’re wasting the aircon.” With singed eyebrows and blow-waved hair from the brief encounter with the outdoors, we realise why there is not a single animal in sight. The temperature is unbearable. Just like the animals, there is no chance of us being outdoors and having a braai in this heat. “We could just put the meat on the car bonnet,” Joshua suggests, which is not a bad idea, but only if you want charred steak!
“Stop, it’s 42….it’s 43….it’s 44….” Again and again we stop, pull out the cameras and capture the never-seen-before temperatures. It seems like we have been transported to a post apocalyptic world where all that exists is a fiery sun burning everything up. How long can this continue. Yet the sun, now heading to late afternoon, is not yet finished. Up and up the temperature soars, 45…46…47…It just seems impossible that it could get any hotter. 48…49. By this stage we are crazed with excitement…the animals forgotten, especially as they have all vanished. We keep stopping, not for animals but to photograph the temperature. Will it hit 50? We watch as we drive on, but finally the temperature begins to recede to a more respectable low 40s.
As the temperature reaches, by comparison, Icelandic conditions of 37C, we spot our first elephant. The huge animal is sheltering under a small tree. As we stop and watch her she reaches her trunk up and grabs some leaves while flapping her giant ears. She looks at us, unperturbed as she continues to strip the thorny tree of its leaves. Later we see a lone bull cooling himself at a small water hole. At least some of the animals got the memo!
In the evening, as we help our English friends make a log fire to cook their dinner…thanks Eskom for helping to bring us together by taking our electricity away…we go online to do some research about heat records in South Africa. We learn that the highest ever recorded temperature in South Africa was 50C recorded in Kirkwood, next to Addo, in 1928. We were 1 degree off of that…in fact, in all likelihood it was 50C or more somewhere nearby. It’s no wonder the animals were on strike. I don’t even think that elephant “chocolates” would have coaxed the elephants out today. This is Africa…it has it all, from cool rivers to warm elephant tongues to steaming hot days! Simply loving it!
I lift my head and lick the salty blood off my face. The smell of blood fills my nostrils. Flies buzz excitedly around as I rip another piece of meat off our kill. I've eaten enough and my belly is full but I can't resist eating more of this warm, succulent feast.
A rumbling noise attracts my attention and I lazily lift my head to see what it is. I know that nothing with any sense would threaten me while I'm eating. It's nothing to worry about - it's one of those things that is often around but never bothers me or tries to take my kill. Strange. I snap at a fat fly that is buzzing near my snout but it flies lazily away. I look once more at the thing as bright flashes and sounds come from it. It does not interest me. I'm tired. I'm content. The sun is warm. I close my eyes.
Africa has many aspects that make it the most amazing continent - and certainly one of them is its unrivaled wildlife. It's good to start on a high, so we start our Africa Tour with a couple of days in the Phinda game reserve in northern KwaZulu Natal. This private game reserve is home to the big 5 and we are blessed to be staying in Mziki lodge - where words can't describe the stunning beauty of its setting. The lodge is set above a huge dam which means that nearly all the time you can watch hippos and crocodiles lurking in the water and a constant stream of animals making their way down to drink.
The encounters with the wildlife are up close and personal, and we see them all - lion, elephant, leopard, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, nyala, impala, duiker, warthog, serval, and on and on. Yet one of the most thrilling sightings is seeing a lion at a kill. The radio crackles and a lion kill is reported. It's a bit of a drive from where we are but we radio in to book our spot - only 3 vehicles are allowed at a sighting at a time. "Mziki 9 you are standby one," the reply comes. "Confirm Mziki 9 as standby one," Matthew-brother-ranger answers. He's become a natural at negotiating the tricky roads as has Adam his young son who has mastered navigating the unmarked trails winding through the African bush.
After some hasty driving on rutted roads and some free "airtime" - as the kids refer to the momentary weightlessness caused by being airborne when hitting a bump - we arrive at the sighting. It's a zebra kill and the pride are still enjoying their feast. They seem unperturbed by us as they lazily rip chunks of meat from the carcass. The power of these huge animals hits me as I see the ease with which they tear the zebra apart. A chill runs through me when the lion looks up, just meters away from our open Landrover and fixes it's yellow eyes on us. What's stopping it from leaping into the vehicle and grabbing dessert? Three bounds and it would be on us. All that raw power. That killing machine. Just meters away. She flicks her head, snapping at a bothersome fly and then closes her eyes. The danger seems to vanish...for a moment.
This is Africa and this is why it is the most amazing place to visit. As for us we head off. We are going to find a place to have a bush breakfast. Situated on the top of a hill with sweeping views of the planes below we watch a pair of zebra graze peacefully. Full of life, yet not far away one of their family is satiating a lion pride. His death is their life. The circle of life.
The smell of bacon fills the air as we sip the iconic morning game drive drink - hot chocolate and Amarula liqueur - This is Africa - death, life, renewal, perspective...unbeatable.