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.
I'm sitting under the cool shade of a huge oak tree while before me the beautiful berg river rushes over a weir before racing on its long journey towards the sea a couple of hundred kilometers away. A cool breeze rising from the river brings relief from the summer sun carrying with it the scent of the nearby pine forest and the shrill song of a million Christmas beetles. A flock of sheep leisurely eat the leaves from the plants on the water's edge while we await the children to return - it will be our turn soon.The river is calling. It beckons us with is cool arms to enter and experience it's adventurous, free spirit, as we ride its rapids on a tube and live the adventure. It has begun!
Just two hours west of our base camp in the leafy suburb of Cowies Hill rise the mighty uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountains. The Zulu name means "barrier of spears" as their majestic peaks stab proudly into the vast blue skies of Africa. Their Afrikaans name, Drakensberg, captures their ancient living presence - Dragon mountains.
From where we are staying at Eagles Lodge, in the aptly named Champagne Valley of the central berg, we look out at the giant peaks of Cathkin, Champagne Castle, and Sterkhorn dropping off towards the jagged crags of the Dragon's back. This beautiful barrier of spears is framed by an azure blue sky above and rolling green hills below. It's here that we will begin out AfricaTour warmup.
For 10 days we will explore the wonders and adventure of this majestic area. It's sort of a test of our Africa Tour as we see if we've packed the right things, how cleaning and cooking duties pan out (pun ;), how routine in the random works, and so on. We need to trial things before our first leg in mid Jan. And what a great place to begin.
The weather in this area of KwaZulu-Natal in summer can vary from intense heat to endless humid wet days to even a surprising hail storm or snowfall. We are blessed with the former as the berg delivers endless long blue sky summer days. The abundant rains from prior weeks have turned everything into a beautiful vista of velvet green punctuated by splashes of colour from the wild flowers that are springing up everywhere.
The mountain seems to weep as temporary runoffs drip down cliff faces. The cool shady forests that huddle around the rivers in the valleys are alive with the shrill cacophony of thousands of Christmas beetles singing their welcome of sun, summer, and fun.
It's late afternoon and the sun lances down with a lava like intensity from the sky effectively keeping everyone indoors or under shade. However while most holiday makers hide in their cool sanctuaries, we decide to head to our river swimming spot higher up in the mountains. While the sun's intensity is undiminished we bravely set out hoping the fact that it is now late afternoon will provide some respite.
Arriving at Monks Cowl we are surprised to find the parking lot nearly empty - testimony to the effectiveness of the sun's purging. However what the sheltering average person does not realise is that closer to the mountain a cooling shadow is cast by some gathering clouds. Are they the portent of a coming storm? With excitement we descend towards the river, luxuriating in the silence of a mountain all to ourselves.
Arriving at our swimming spot we are rewarded with some unexpected cooling shade as the early afternoon sun dips behind a copse of tall trees straddling the river's edge. We quickly discard our gear and leap off the high rock on the river's edge into the refreshing embrace of the crystal Berg water. In seconds all memory of the day's heat are washed away as we emerge laughing and energized. This is bliss!
After our swim in the cool river we sit drying on the large rocks on the river's edge. Here we soak in the palette of brilliant colours that compete for attention - the velvet green hills dotted with a few horses giving way to the majestic grey mountains rising to touch the deep blue sky. All the while the smell of the grass and fynbos mingle with the sweet smell of the river to rejuvenate our soul.
We head back to our car and the children decide that the weather outside is better than inside - and so perched on top of the car's roof carrier they get to ride high enjoying the view from on top as we slowly negotiate the road back home.
Back at Eagles Lodge we move our chairs outside under some shade so we can drink deeply of the stunning beauty of the early evening, and of course of the fruit of the vine too. No evening is quite complete without the soothing effects of fine wine tasting even finer in these champagne surrounds.
However the mountains many seasons are not yet complete. Out of what looks like a blue sky comes a sudden downpour, causing us to hurriedly scuttle under cover. Yet the inconvenience is far outweighed by the reward.
Minutes later as the downpour moves on further down the valley, God's hand paints a majestic double rainbow of striking beauty across the grey sky behind the house, its colours seemingly dripped from heaven itself. The rich smells of early evening intensify as the fresh aroma of the rain on the grass fills the air. It reminds us of God's blessing - for witnessing God's beauty in places like this is a blessing that words can never capture -
“Let my teaching fall like rain
and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
like abundant rain on tender plants.” (Deuteronomy 32:2)
This is our Africa Tour...let it begin in earnest!
Braai, Beer, Berg...Bliss is the the awesome foursome especially on a perfect day like this. And today we grabbed the awesomeness to the full as our last full day. I'm sure this is the ideal spot to study the space-time continuum and the warping of time, because I have undeniable proof of time compression. Yesterday was a week ago!
Being our last full day we grabbed the opportunity to cycle to our newly found swimming spot right at the end of the road...a 3km uphill cycle and walk that leave you warmed up and ready for a dip. However afterwards there is the flying home - which is what the 5 mins of downhill feels like all the way back.
The parents were heading home so we had an early braai before bidding them adieu. The warm sun enticed us to go and try out the new hotel swimming pool with slide and caves. Nicky and kids also decided to finish the experience in the Cove - a nice heated pool, but I did not fancy the idea of sharing a "bath" with others who were wallowing in it. This premonition proved valid as they shortly returned with smirks of a near miss on their faces. Their hasty retreat had been initiated by some young kid saying to another "now you make me weewee"...Eish!
We topped off our day with a final hike up to Mushroom Rock for sundowners and a moment to be mesmerized by the beauty of God's divine tapestry. Wow!
It's the warm up before the big trip, 5 days away to the Berg. Sort of a "practice this travel thing".
The guiding tenets and purpose of our trip are threefold:
"Through our travels around Southern Africa (and beyond) we want to:
- experience beautiful places,
- touch and be touched by people's lives
- grow in knowledge and love."
So part 1 of this is to "experience" and that means not driving like a possessed chihuahua intent simply on the destination, but rather to enjoy the journey
And so in good beginner form we stopped off at Puckety Farm in Underberg en route to our first destination, Fairways (Drakensberg Gardens).
Puckety Farm is the origin of some of our guinea pigs, back in the day. And true to form the farm has a pod of pigs with cute tiny ones too. Of course this resulted in a chorus of demands for adoption which so far have been resisted, but a further battle looms on the horizon as we return later in the week past this very spot.
We strolled up to their farm store that sells all sorts of tasty things including a fresh batch of definitely non-Banting, hot farm bread. Who can resist! After browsing the delicacies for a while we were hit with our first African surprise - An Honesty Payment system.
There is no one in attendance in the shop, just a container to put money in, a credit card machine, and a book to record purchases in. Imagine a world that could operate like this. Honestly, fantastic! Here's to Puckety, their guineas, bread and belief in people!