his will be the longest we are staying in a single place since we began traveling a year ago,” Nicky says. Wow, that’s amazing. We have on average only stayed at a spot for 3 to 5 days. The fact that we are staying 12 days at Fairways Resort at the Drakensberg Gardens Hotel in the Southern Berg is itself testimony to what we think of this place. It is one of our favourite places in the Berg…South Africa…the world?
It’s not just the majestic mountains that jab awe-inspiringly upward at the sky above, led by Rhino Peak, but it’s the walks, river swims, heated pools, cycles, bowls…and much more and you don’t get into your car once.
Today we decide to do the Beacon walk. The walk lazily meanders along the river before turning past an abandoned house and then making itself known with a short, steep climb. Thankfully with a name like “Beacon walk” this is expected. Soon however we are strolling along the top of the hill enjoying the lovely views of the hotel and timeshare below us.
As we are walking back we notice someone headed towards the animal enclosure with bottles of milk. We join her, knowing it must be time to feed the new lambs that were recently brought here. Over the years the animal enclosure has brought great fun to our family as the kids have held and fed goats, rabbits, guinea pigs etc.
“Here hold this bottle and you can feed Milkshake,” Thobi says. Soon the little lamb is enthusiastically sucking on the warm milk. However the friendly goats in the enclosure are not to be ignored. “Are you coming for some milk too?” Thobi asks the small two-week old goat that has come to investigate what is going on. “His name is Peaches, her mother is Pooey, and that is SpongeBob,” Thobi says pointing at the rather portly dad. We can see Thobi’s obvious affection and bond for all the animals as she talks to them like her children.
With hands wet with milk and shoelaces slightly chewed from friendly goats we head back to our cottage. It's time for one of my best life experiences - a braai outside our cottage enjoying the majestic view. The smell of braaing beef patties and wors mingles with the grassy taste of a Sauvignon Blanc, overlaid with the spectacular vista of the Southern Berg. I might think it a dream if it weren't for the taste of the requisite piece of sample wors in my hand. Delicious!
A thick mist has descended into the valley covering everything in a soft white blanket. “Let's go to the spa,” Hannah suggests. I look outside and think about the inviting warm pools and Jacuzzis at the Wellness Center. Moments later we are off. After a short stroll in a surreal, mist-shrouded world, we find ourselves floating in yet another world. We start off with a swim in the indoor heated hydro pool, luxuriating under the waterfall and powerful jets. “How about we sit in the jacuzzi?” Nicky suggests. So we make a quick dash to the jacuzzi outside from where we can enjoy the misty views of the mountains across the lake.
After several hours of hydrotherapy we finish off our experience with the triple S - Sauna - Steam Room - Shower. I feel squeaky clean and thoroughly relaxed as we stroll sedately back home.
“There really is no other word for this place - Bliss,” I think to myself as I snuggle into my bed after a hearty dinner finished off with a mint cream that was delivered magically by someone who also turned down our beds. This is the best of the berg!
We wake to a bright sun painting the valley in rich shades of green, and decide a run is on the cards. Our route takes us along the bike track that meanders past the mirror-like dam, before we turn and come down the road next to the river. There are few places that offer such incredible places to cycle and run.
Later, as thoughts of lunch hit our radar we decide to go with a picnic option, even though the weather has turned slightly ominous. That’s the Berg – always changing. It’s what makes it so exciting. We stroll to Hippo Pools, one of our favourite river swim spots. There may be no hippos here, but there are full on views and a guaranteed refreshing experience in crystal water.
We enjoy our rolls but are furtively watching the dark clouds being driven across the steely grey sky by the wind. The kids decide that caution is the better part of valor and leap on their bikes and head home. Nicky and I saunter back sucking the marrow out of life. Indeed the promised weather does arrive - and soon tiny balls of ice are being hurled at us from above as be protect ourselves with the chairs we are carrying. This is living! We make it back before the storm really unleashes a volley of rain and hail, temporarily transforming the green valley into a white wonderland.
However, white soon gives way to green once more as the sun reappears and the dramatic colours of a setting sun paint the sky a riot of majestic reds and oranges and pinks. The hotel offers a buffet dinner, and tonight we are going to go and try it. It’s a short stroll on a beautiful evening to the hotel. Inside there is already a buzz of activity as the sounds of diners chatting mingles with tantalizing smells and the visual feast of the buffet.
Hmm, where to start? Soup…muscles…salads…?
Simple, I'll just do them all. And so with carefully honed skills, from years of experience, I navigate my way through a hearty soup, a delicious fish starter and a refreshing salad ensemble. I hope I've calculated right because the roasts and other hot foods look and smell delicious. But with practiced aplomb I am able to sample the succulent chicken, the mint flavored lamb, golden crispy potatoes, and an array of delicious vegetables…and of course being a Durbs boy, I can't resist some beef curry on the side.
The food is delicious and I'm impressed by how friendly the chef and serving staff are. In fact that is something that has really stood out on our stay. We are always greeted by the staff with friendly smiles wherever we encounter them - at a restaurant, walking on the road or in the animal enclosure. After enjoying the “Drakensberg Choir” of local staff singing I have one more pleasant challenge ahead of me - the desert. So many delicious choices, It's not easy, but we manage.
As we stroll back, the road is lit by the dappled light of the moon as it scuttles in and out behind the clouds. It’s the perfect end to a delicious meal. A perfect end to a wonderful day. I'm convinced, Fairways - it is the fairest of them all!
Finally it's a sunny day - I would never have thought I would start with those words. There was a time when we would say, "wow, look a cloud." We are currently at one of our favourite spots in the Berg - Southern Berg, Drakensberg Gardens. The last few days have been fresh, but today the majestic golden orb shines majestically into this special valley.
We are headed to Underberg to replenish supplies and check out the area a little. "I want us to pop into this coffee shop," Nicky says as we arrive at a sign on the road from Drakensberg Gardens that says "The Olde Duck".
On our travels we love exploring and discovering new places. We've been staying at Drakensberg Gardens resort for many years but we have never been to this coffee shop. I suppose it's due to a combo of two things. Firstly, our "coffee snob" issue - we can't handle bad coffee. Secondly, our suspicion about coffee shops tucked into the back rooms of farms. Hey, but we enjoy adventure.
So it is that to our tyres crunch along the gravel road as we drive towards the coffee shop. I'm surprised to see a couple of other cars parked here. It's a Monday. It's a little coffee shop on a farm road. They have customers...why? I'm about to discover.
"Let's pop into this shop first," Nicky says as her voice trails after her vanishing form. The Vanilla Rose is a gift shop next door to the coffee shop. It's not your typical farm store shop, with a few preserves and pickled onions on wooden shelves. Whoever put this shop together certainly has style. It's full of gifts, tasteful decor items, clothes and other accessories.
However...I'm bored in 2 minutes. It's not my kind of shop - where's that coffee shop. I'm feeling a lot more optimistic. As we enter the Olde Duck my anticipation begins to rise. The same tasteful decor welcomes us into the warm interior where the sound of a crackling fire mingles with the chatter of patrons and the tantalizing smell of coffee in the air.
We are ushered in with a friendly welcome to our table by Di. We sit at a table near the huge glass windows that afford us views of the green fields, awash in the golden glow of the morning sun, stretching towards the magnificent mountains in the distance.
"So how's your coffee?" I ask Di. It's our standard question, although I'm not sure why we ask it. Everyone always answers, "great!" - yet few are. Normally I look to see what their coffee machine looks like, and then I ask to meet the barrister so I can ask them a few questions. Our motto is simple - "If in doubt have tea." However my trepidation is about to vanish.
"We just won second place in the Top 100 coffee shops for Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands," Di says proudly pointing at the new award hanging on the wall. Now I'm getting excited. However we have been to places that have won awards and not been impressed. After all, every coffee is a single work - and if the barrister is off his or her game or it's another barrister, it's just not the same.
It's then that we get to meet Siya, the barrister. He beaming with pride about their win and I can already sense that he loves what he does. That's a good sign. And I'm about to discover why he looks so proud. "I learned most of what I know from watching YouTube videos and then practicing," he says. Wow, that is impressive. It's time to taste what he can do.
Soon the welcome hiss of Flat Whites being crafted fills the air as we wait in eager anticipation. Moments later our carrot cakes are delivered followed by four works of art. Wow! Without taking a sip I can normally predict if the flat white will be good. This is looking fantastic. The foam looks dense, the cup size is perfect and the temperature feels just right. What's really amazing are the four animals perfectly painted atop our coffees in the foam - an elephant, beer, pig and rabbit.
Flavor, smooth, rich, explosion. That's what the first sip is. I've found one of the best flat whites I've ever had. Accompanied by a delicious, moist carrot cake, stunning views, and warm atmosphere we've stumbled upon the secret of the Berg, and I can't wait to come back again. It just shows, you never know what might lie at the end of a little farm road.
Sometimes the planets align and blessings truly do abound. Nicky and I have been invited to visit the Oyster Box, which recently was awarded second place in the Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards of the top Hotels in Africa. To say that we’re excited is an understatement. We’re like kids headed to a chocolate factory.
The weather has turned cold and a wind is gusting like a crazed banshee as we make our way towards Umhlanga. "Check in, there's a check in," the guard who has warmly welcomed us calls ahead on his radio. After entering through the boom we are directed to stop in front of the hotel lobby where a porter takes our bags, a driver takes our car, and a doorman welcomes us with a beaming smile.
“Meow.” Even the famed Oyster Box cat Skabenga is there giving us his regal, if not somewhat dismissive, welcome.
I look around to see if Zuma's cavalcade has arrived. But it turns out this welcome is for us. Now I know how those politicians and famous people feel. Maybe I should get into politics or dig up a long lost royal lineage. I’m enjoying this.
Entering through the doors is like stepping into another world. Outside the wind is gusting and dark, foreboding clouds are rolling across the sky. Inside there is quietness, warmth...and the royal welcome continues.
“Good afternoon,” Zanele says at the reception, “and welcome to The Oyster Box,” she says while beaming a huge smile at us. We have traveled extensively, we’ve stayed in everything from a sleeping bag on the dusty desert sand to a king-sized bed laid out beneath a canopy of stars. And in all these experiences there is one thing that is more important than anything else, and that is the people who make these special places happen. Sure the setting, facilities, and views are important, but all of these are nothing if the hospitality is not there. We’re getting bucket-loads of hospitality…not just service, hospitality…that authentic, meaningful service...and we’re still only at the checkin counter sipping a glass of sparkling wine. “The best is yet to come,” as they say in the classics!
“Could I show you around the hotel,” Zanele asks.
“Sure,” we reply. Why not have the royal tour too. And so we find ourselves soaking up the amazing, regal spaces of The Oyster Box. It feels like Back to the Future.
We’ve stepped back in time…Pith-helmeted footman open doors and usher us into glass elevators. Slowly turning fans from a long-past colonial era lazily stir the air, while live piano music mingles with the clink of glasses and the smell of fresh coffee and baked treats. We’ve stepped forward in time...Plastic cards grant us access to our room. Inside are luxurious, high-backed chairs, flat-screen TVs and vast ceiling to floor sliding glass doors. The sea is in our room.
“Let’s go and get some pre-dinner drinks,” Nicky suggests after we’ve settled into our room. We head up to the famous Lighthouse Bar where Basil brings us two draft beers and a delicious selection of snacks. We're seated on luxury leather chairs and the bright red shiny leather seats interspersed with old style brown leather chairs mingle to create a vibrant yet relaxing atmosphere. Outside the wind howls while the lighthouse's light stabs out into the ocean to warn the ships of the rocks…or is it possibly to invite them to this pearl on the rocks. The Lighthouse Bar must be one of the best places in KZN to enjoy sundowner drinks. And judging from how full it is on a Monday night, it seems like the word is out.
After mentally preparing ourselves for what we have heard is a gastronomical feast, we head down to the Ocean Terrace room to taste the famous Oyster Box curry buffet. The world-class hospitality continues as we are welcomed by the hostess, and then treated royally by the waitrons. We are seated beneath slowly turning fans on white cane furniture made luxurious by the addition of comfy aqua blue cushions. The white lattice roof and pillars, and tiled floor, create a fresh and inviting ambiance…but who has time for ambiance when a buffet of KZNs finest curries await.
I need to make a confession now…Being born and bred in KZN, curry is my thing. It’s my food of choice. My dying-wish meal. I can’t last more than a week without curry. In fact when we travel to other countries we often bring our own Durbs spices with us. And so I am in keen anticipation of this feast. The spread of curries is distressing! Simply because there are so many and I’m cursing I ate those snacks in the Lighthouse Bar. I should of fasted for at least a day in preparation.
Chicken and Prawn Curry, Butternut, Chickpea and Feta Curry, Butter Chicken Curry, Lamb Curry, Dhal & Brinjal Curry, Beef Vindaloo…and on and on the list goes. I can hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing. Heaven! A spicy heaven! As I tuck into my groaning plate I am not disappointed. The flavours are spectacular. My favourite is the Beef Vindaloo, with its rich spicy flavour, and soft succulent beef chunks. It’s an explosion of vibrant tastes that warms the body and soul.
“The secret is in where you get your spices,” Robert the chef tells me as I try and learn some tips. “We only buy ours from places that produce quality spices.” I’m distracted as he goes into detail…you can’t have a conversation between two people when there is a pot of delicious curry between you. I’m stuffed…but there’s always room in the reserve stomach for one more portion.
Satiated, and with a curry-induced glow of contentment around me, we head upstairs to check out the Oyster Box’s private cinema. An approximately 20-seater movie theatre set beneath a star-lit ceiling welcomes us. We are the only guests, and snuggled beneath warm, soft blankets and sipping a decadent hot chocolate we enjoy our private cinema experience.
“That feeling of being someone famous, a movie star, a king…I’m starting to believe it!” I think to myself as I slip into the silky soft embrace of our king size bed. Tonight I will no doubt have royal dreams.
Waking to the sound of the ocean is a treat. Waking to the sound of the ocean in the Oyster Box is treatment. I've purposefully left the shutters open causing the soft early morning light to paint the room golden. “They have a coffee machine,” I say while dancing a morning jig. What more could we ask for as we sip a fresh espresso appreciating the full, rich, spectacular experience - not of the coffee, well that too - but of the view from our room.
"Welcome I'm Jonathan," the waiter introduces himself as we arrive at the Ocean Terrace for breakfast. "I have a special table for you in my section." Aah, the special treatment continues! "Can I explain the breakfast to you?" he asks. And with our acquiesce he enthusiastically describes our gastronomical options.
"This is the cold section," he says pointing to a colorful array of fruits, cereals, pastries, cheeses, oysters…yes oysters!...and more. It looks like it should be in an art exhibition as the carvings, colors and creative displays tantalizingly draw one in. "And this is where you can choose a main meal," Jonathan continues. Once more we are regaled with a list of choices. I didn't realize eggs could be done in so many ways.
Seated at our table sipping a cappuccino, we do our best to be worthy of the tantalising options before us. The quiet chatter of a few other diners who are here mingles with the music and the sounds of the sea outside. The Oyster Box… “Well,” I think to myself, “Now I know how a pearl feels…it feels great!”
Some of the Oyster Box's well-deserved 2015 Awards...
Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards - Voted No. 2 in the Top 25 Hotels in Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor: Hall of Fame - Certificate of Excellence (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 3 Best Hotel in South Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 6 Best Hotel in Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 13 Luxury Hotel in South Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 14 Best Service in South Africa (2015)
World Luxury Spa Awards: Voted Best Luxury Hotel Spa in South Africa (2015)
To find out more about The Oyster Box, and experience the ultimate in hospitality
Our travels are not only about the places we visit but the adventures that can be experienced. And so we've been up-close and personal with elephants, kissed a hippo, battled giant spiders, slept under the stars, paraglided off mountains, rafted rapids, skied snow-clad Africa slopes, canoed with hippos, swum with crocs...so of course we need to party with the monkeys next! And what better place to do it than with Drakensberg Canopy Tours situated next to the Drakensberg Sun hotel in the central berg.
“Hi, I'm Shonta. Welcome to our canopy tour.” We're seated outside under a huge tree around which the center has been built. We're watching a video of the adventure that lies ahead. The adventures depart every 30 minutes which must be a logistical feat in itself.
The Drakensberg Canopy Tour has 12 rides that fly high above the trees of the ancient Nkwanke Forest, part of a world heritage site. “The forest has many old Yellowwood trees," Shonta says, "and you will get to stand on top of some of them.” I can feel the excitement rising as we see and hear more about what we can expect. I feel like a kid staring at cookie jar. Let's do this!
“You can go through to meet your guides,” Shonta says, and we move to another room. Here we’re introduced to Moses our lead guide and the “Safety Officer” Sindi. Being led by Moses on an adventure like this seems fitting - who better to lead us through the parting of trees.
Safety is high on the agenda here, which considering we're going to be connected by a few wires high in the air sounds like a great idea to me. Soon we are decked out in our high-tech diapers, and ready to go and find adventure. “Sanitize your hands,” Moses says as he gives us our “braking gloves”. Now that's attention to detail - important details - why share bugs just because you’re sharing fun?
We climb onto the back of a bakkie and are bouncing our way up the mountain. Spectacular views of the central Berg open before us as we climb higher and higher along the gravel track up the mountain. “That's Barry's grave,” Moses says pointing to a grave as we disembark.
“Eish! Is Barry someone who didn't make it through the adventure?”
It turns out he was a dude from long ago - not a canopy tour casualty. This all adds to the anticipation of what lies ahead.
As we descend into the thick forest that rises from the valley below I imagine I can almost hear Indiana Jones music playing. Well, that's at least how I feel. Like some intrepid explorer about to walk across swaying bridges and slide along vines through trees. OK, hopefully, cable vines!
“Canopy tours started in Costa Rica to study forest animals,“ Moses says as we walk into the forest. In fact, I noticed a board as we were getting kitted out, listing all the animals people had seen on their adventures. I can already hear a symphony of bird life in the trees all about us.
We arrive at the first platform. It’s just a short ride to get us used to the idea of flying through trees. “It’s called the Rabbit Hole,” Moses says referring to Alice’s experience. This is where our world will change as we enter another world. Sindi clips us on and on and on…OK, this does feel safe.
“You’re always clipped on twice,” she explains, plus there are various backup ropes and cables. I think you have more chance of dying being attacked by a swarm of angry butterflies…maybe that’s what happened to Barry?
“Look mom, I’m flying,” I shout as I glide effortlessly along the first ride. Maybe I didn’t say that out loud, but I still feel like I’m flying. I’m ready for the real deal now…Bring on the long rides! As you complete the ride you are immediately clipped to a safety cable as you move along the platforms high in the trees. “Now this is what I’m talking about,” I say as I look at a long cable stretching out into the distance over the trees far below. The views are amazing. It’s a totally different perspective being so high up in the canopy of the trees.
“We call this one the Black Ferrari,” Sindi says, “because it's the fastest ride.”
Now I’m sure I can hear that Indiana Jones theme song. The adventure is here. I watch as my family one by one leap off the edge of a platform suspended high above the forest floor, and whiz at high speed, with hoots of glee, along the line. After a signal from Moses it’s my turn. I lift my feet and I’m off. Boom! It’s an adrenalin hit. An epic feeling as you literally feel like you are flying and a blur of green races past beneath you.
“Hey, but what about stopping? Eish, I should of asked about that earlier…too late now…” Actually, this is the best part of these rides. Stopping is easy. You have a glove that you press down lightly on the cable and you come to an easy stop. However, to make this even safer many of the rides have, as Sindi calls it, “ABS…You don’t have to do anything. Just hold on and enjoy the ride. I will stop you at the end.”
As I come hurtling along at what feels like the speed of sound, the platform on the other side approaches quickly. Here’s to testing the ABS system. Amazingly in seconds I come to a sudden halt as I land featherlike on the next platform, a look of exhilaration plastered across my face.
“This is the Morris Minor, short and fast….this is the Red Ferrari, the second fastest…this is a 360 year old Yellowwood…” And so it is not only that we are having an exhilarating experience, but our guides are making sure we learn new things, and have lots of laughs too.
“OK,” Sindi says as we stand at the edge of another ride. Lift your feet and don’t sway,” she says as we look out at the cable vanishing between a rock face on the left and trees on the right. “Otherwise you will do bushmen paintings on the rock and then on the tree and arrive looking like braai meat!” Well, who wouldn’t look forward to a ride after that. With pumping heart, I fly across the canyon and through the gap - not doing any painting with my body en route, nor arriving like braai meat.
From the longest ride at 170m in length to the second highest ride in Africa at 65m high, the experience is a green blur of excitement, interspersed with incredible tranquility and stunning views as we move along walkways attached to cliff faces and around ancient trees. It’s all over too quickly, well that’s how it feels. Actually we’ve been out here nearly 3 hours, but as the old saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun” which means that time really flies when you’re having flying fun!
It’s a short hike out of the canyon and like clockwork we’re picked up by the bakkie and whisked back down to the mountain. Hey, but it’s not over! As we watch a video of our adventure that a dexterous camera man took during our adventure, we are served a most delicious subway-style lunch. What an amazing way to end an amazing adventure. Actually, this is better than Indiana Jones…at the end of his adventures he’s the one getting eaten.
Pack pack…quick quick - that's the joy of timeshare - too easy. We are headed to a place we have never been before, the Magoebaskloof area…wherever that is? Leaving Hazyview we head back through Hoedspruit and then on towards Tzaneen and then to Magoebaskloof.
As we ascend the Magoebaskloof pass the weather begins to change rapidly. “Wow. Look at that. It's 19 degrees,” we say looking at the temperature gauge. Then it's 18…17…16…15…14. A thick mist hangs over everything as we drive through a transformed world. What a contrast to what we are used to.
There is an air of excitement. It feels like we are arriving in Europe. We’re staying at my cousin Susan and Don’s home, and we’ve been told to wait for them at pre-determined spot so they can lead us to their home, because “there are no signposts or road names”. Sounds interesting. We follow them in their Jeep along a gravel road, past a dam, through forests…
“My hat,” I say as we wind along, “how did they find this house?”
The mist is thick as we pass sheep roaming in the road before finally arriving at a beautiful home set above a stunning dam. We have stepped out of Africa and arrived in Scotland, made even more authentic as we sip whiskey next to a roaring log fire, while outside the mist wraps in cold wisps around the house.
Arising in the morn, in this wee bit ‘o the Scottish highlands, we ease into the day chatting over a cuppa tea while a log fire crackles warmly away in the hearth. “Let's go and look at the village,” Susan suggests, and so we leap into our cars and are soon winding our way along the misty gravel roads. Haenertsberg is a tiny little village set at the top of the Magoebaskloof pass.
The quaint little shops and pub are like a small version of Franschhoek. We wander along the street in the light mist, which creates a surreal feel, looking at the shops. “This is the cannon the Boers blew up when they were retreating from the British,” Don says as we stare at the remains of a large Long Tom cannon. There's even a small museum with more about the fascinating local history.
After our stroll we stop at the pub for some lunch before following Don on a different route back, through a lovely forest where the mist hangs like a bridal veil in between massive pine trees that reach heavenwards like silent sentinels in silky garments.
“Ask Don about the bikes.” Susan whispers to us conspiratorially. “If you don't get him moving it will be too late.” And so we raise the topic of the quad bikes - much to the glee of he children. Soon Don has taken the four bikes out of the garage and kids, Don and dog are off on a quad adventure.
After a while, the kids arrive back with coat hanger grins stuck to their faces. “This is so amazing,” they gush, “there are so many cool roads to ride on.” It's the parents turn and so Nicky and I head out. We wind our way along gravel roads, dirt tracks, through dark forests, past ponds and grazing sheep.
It's a stunning ride in beautiful surroundings. I can see why the kids enjoyed it so much.
Returning home we're in time to catch sunset over the lake and the somewhat disappointing exit of the Scottish rugby team. However, as the log fire crackles away again, I raise my glass in toast to a grand display of rugby and a beautiful country - Scotland….in South Africa!
We are leaving the wilds…"farewell wild beasts, its been amazing." But as Arnold always says, “I’ll be back.” However, we are not leaving the adventures. Leaving Kruger we head to Hazyview where we are staying at a timeshare called Waterberry Hill just outside the town.
After settling in, toasting the sun that dips into the valley below us where a pair of rogue elephants, as we find out later, have escaped for a drink too, I retire for the night. I’m in the shower…and it’s attached to our accommodation, that’s a treat, and I look down at my feet. They tell a story.
The soles are dirty brown and the heels are cracked and dry. I've tried occasionally to put Ingram's lotion on them - I've tried to scrub them, yet they remain irresolutely the same - dirty, cracked, and dry. They are testimony to our months of adventure - wild outdoors - no shoes - no calendars - no worries! The modern conveniences are great, but I still love the great outdoors more.
🍻 Here's to dirty feet! 🍻
Today we have an adventure of a different kind planned - not wildlife, but wild times!
“Hi I'm Dirk, and this is Richard.” We have arrived at a farm near Hazyview in excited anticipation of our first off-road Segway experience. We've seen these self-balancing scooters in shopping centers - in movies - on the beachfront - and always wanted to try them. But what really appeals to us is doing it off-road.
Six alien looking contraptions are lined up awaiting their pilots and soon Richard is explaining how they operate. “They balance themselves,” he says standing atop one of the two-wheeled contraptions. He demonstrates how to operate the Segway. “Who's up first?” he asks. I quickly volunteer, keen to get as much time possible in this experience.
“Whoa…that's so weird,” I say as I navigate my Segway tentatively for the first time. It just has two wheels - it shouldn't stay upright - but it does. Lean forward and it goes faster. Lean back and it slows down. Tilt the handle and you turn on the spot. Soon we are all turning and twisting and scooting around like some alien dance scene.
“OK, follow me,” Richard says, as we wave farewell to Dirk and head down the farm road. It's the most amazing feeling. There's no roar of an engine, there's no effort required, yet you're flying along the road. In fact these machines can get up to 30km/h, but at the moment we're just gliding along slowly.
“These are Macadamia trees,” Richard says as we stop next to some small trees. He then goes on to explain the workings of this farm and the fascinating story behind the macadamia plantations. But the strange part is that we're just gliding along as though we're perched on some invisible conveyer belt. We pass through plantations, past lakes, beehives - “Those are for pollinating the nuts,” Richard says a safe distance from the busy hive. I never realized you needed bees to pollinate these trees.
We've done a lot of amazing experiences on our travels - paragliding, swimming on the edge of waterfalls, mokoro trips with hippos - and there's one thing I've learned and that is it's always more than the activity itself, it's the experience. The same applies today. It's not just the strange, effortless, flying feeling of being on the Segway, it's the experience - the beauty of this lovely area and learning about the plantation and farming.
“Ok everyone, on this straight portion you can all go as fast as you want,” Richard says. Aah..finally we are set free. Josh and I lead the pack as we fly along the road. It truly feels like skiing. You're standing upright and you can sway your legs from side to side to create a weaving motion. The trees rush past me. “Yeehii,” I shout as I soak up the thrill of my “African bush ski experience”. Epic.
We stop next to a dam for a short break and while sipping bottles of water Richard explains how he's been swimming in this dam for ages and now discovers there's a crocodile living here. Gotta love Africa.
“There's two options here,” Richard says, “the easy route or this more technical but interesting route. Which one do you want to do?” Come on…what a question. We want to do the trickier, technical route. Bring it on!
It is amazing what these segways can do as we maneuver them over ruts and rocks and beneath low hanging trees. Soon we are back on the normal track and skiing along around the final block and down towards Dirk and the end. “Wow!”'I say as we arrive, “this is truly amazing Dirk. Skiing in the African bushveld. That's what this is. Epic!”
Dirk's Segway Africa Tours just recently started and I'm convinced it's going to be a huge success, especially as he goes on to explain his future plans - Segway safaris in a game reserve, moonlight tours, sundowner tours. It's amazing as it is - imagine doing this in a game reserve watching wild animals and finishing it off with snacks by a waterhole.
“We definitely will be back!” we all chorus together as we bid Dirk and Richard farewell. “Definitely!” I mean, who wouldn’t want to ski effortlessly along the stunning, wild roads of Africa?
Leaving Kruger we are headed for a farm outside of Hoedspruit, “Little Cathage” in the Ndlovumzi Nature Reserve. Turning off the easy-driving tar road we hit a rugged gravel road that apparently will lead us to where we are staying. As we are bounced around and the road continues our anxiousness increases and we prepare ourselves for another rustic experience.
Heather, our hostess meets us and leads us up a short path to where we are staying. All our qualms and reservations instantly vanish. Two cottages connect to an outside dining area and kitchen before flowing on to a huge deck with sunken pool giving way finally to a river below, made even more majestic by the setting sun. It's a stunning setting and we are now excited to be spending several days here. Time to work, read, write, learn, reflect…experience. Africa…always surprisingly amazing.
While our accommodation is tucked away deep in the bush, at the end of a fun 30 minutes of bouncy gravel road, there is lots to see around here. So we find ourselves bouncing along the road towards Hoedspruit in search of places to explore. “There's the sign,” I say pointing at a small sign on the side of the road saying “Jessica Hippo” which Heather had recommended. It's another 10km gravel road to reach Jessica Hippo and I recall that once before we abandoned the idea of traveling so far just to see a hippo. However this time, as hardened travelers, we persist, and its going to turn out to be a good decision.
We are greeted by a small hippo just behind a low wooden pole fence. “Wow, cool. Jessica the hippo,” we say in excitement at seeing a small hippo up so close. It turns out we're wrong. This ain't Jess…Heading down towards the river a video presentation has just begun. It's a video made about the world famous Jessica the hippo by an Australian TV channel. We learn how Jessica was discovered by the farmer/game-ranger and his wife. She was premature and washed up in a flood. They then cared for her and an amazing, unique bond developed. They swim with Jessica, ride on her, play with her. She comes into the house, wanders around the garden…but in all this she is still free and wild. She goes out and visits other hippo pods in the river but always returns to her home with them. It truly is remarkable.
Soon we have a chance for an up-close encounter with her. Jessica is massive. She is now 15 years old. We are standing on a floating pont and Jessica rises out of the water and places her huge head on the side of the pont causing it to tilt. “All you do,” explains Tonie, Jessicas dad, “is grab some sweet potatoes, stroke Jessica's snout and then drop the food inside.” It sounds simple until you see how huge “inside” is.
Kneeling down I grab a handful of tasty hippo treats and then stroke Jessica's massive hairy snout. It feels like a broom. She opens her mouth as her eyes languidly consider me. It's a massive cavern. As the TV presenter said, “it's like feeding a dinosaur.” Large tusks protrude menacingly from the massive open maw before me. I toss the snacks into the depths and Jessica closes her mouth, as I quickly withdraw my hand.
It truly is amazing to be up close to such an incredible animal. It's referred to as “Africa's biggest killer” yet amazingly she is so content and peaceful with humans. Later the girls get a chance to kiss the hippo on her hairy snout…I suppose to make them appreciate the smooth kisses of boyfriends and husbands. The other hippo we saw earlier turns out to be a recent rescue. This one, called “seun” was also rescued and is to be released into the wild soon.
After a visit to one of the world's oldest baobabs followed by delicious craft beer, a mega burger and spectacular rugby at The Gap pub - with a good Springbok victory thrown in too - we head homeward bouncing once more along the dirt track - but somehow in the dark and with the glow of victory the road flies by and soon we're back ensconced in our aircon room ready to dream of hippos and springboks.
“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’re slowly heading south, having left the incredible adventure of Elephant Sands behind, passed through Nata and are now headed to Tuli game reserve, not far from the SA border and about 400km from Nata.
Finally at 5pm we arrive at Molema Bush Camp in Tuli after the road slowly gets smaller and smaller before turning to gravel and then into a 4x4 track. The sun is rapidly heading toward the horizon as we setup our tents under a bug tree - a keep trying to type “big tree” but for some reason this phone changes it…must be a warning? Hopefully, the tree will give us some shade because at the moment we are sweltering.
As hardened campers we have become quite efficient and soon our campsite is set up and Josh is busy preparing homemade burgers for us. As we sip a cold beer I say, “This will be fun guys. Wild beasts everywhere, and just us alone in the bush.”
There’s only one other group at a nearby campsite. “We can handle the wild family!” I say. But little do I know there’s one beast we’re not that good at handling!
“There!” Nicky shouts pointing at something fast and dark scuttling across the floor as darkness settles over our camp and we prepare our evening meal.
“A scorpion or spider. Kill it!”
It's a call to arms and I respond with valor, grabbing a shoe and chasing the beast in the darkness. The last thing we want is a spider running into our tent. It's fast and dexterous but ultimately no match for me and soon it has been dispatched. Peace reigns.
Me:1 - Spider:0
The heat is oppressive. It's now 7pm and it's still in the high 30s and doesn't seem to be abating. “How on earth will we sleep in…”
“Spider!” shouts someone. And sure enough there is another large spider running across our eating area. Like synchronized swimmers we all raise our feet in unison as the beast scuttles past. Didn't I just kill that spider?
“Another one!” screeches a kid, pointing at yet another large arachnid making its way across our eating area.
“OK, spiders. If it's war you want it's war you'll get. We are prepared for this!” I dig out the bug spray. I knew there was a reason we had carried this around for so long. Soon I have sprayed a protective barrier around our eating spot and all around our tents. That will put and end to any more forays by scuttling beasties.
Me:2 - Spiders:0
Bliss reigns…The food is sizzling away, and we’re relaxing (with our feet off the floor).
“Spider!” sounds the shrill cry again. These beasts are immune to the poison and there seems to be no end to them. Are we camped on their house. They're scuttling all over the place and have us on the run.
It's one too many! The family retreats. For a while I try valiantly to hold the fort, much like Don Quixote, I'm armed with a broom attempting to joust with my furry foes. It's a nimble dance as I have to balance keeping my feet briefly on the ground while attempting to wield my ungainly and inappropriate weapon. The family looks on from the safety of the car, faces pressed to the windows.
After a near encounter with one of the beasties…which scuttles through my legs and into our toiletry bag…I realize I'm losing this battle. Discarding my weapon I run for the car feeling the hot breath of my pursuers behind me…or it could just be the hot wind…but either way the battle is over.
Me:2 - Spiders:2many!
It’s 8pm and we're all seated inside the car - the aircon on, our phones plugged in for charge, and the doors shut to protect us from the attack. We laugh as we think of where we are. This is adventure…who knows what else the night will bring. Giant spiders gnawing through our tents, elephants...Oh, forgot about those…
Dawn...There were no spider or elephants in the night…however there were lions. Thankfully after my exhaustion after my gallant display of chivalry while jousting the furry beasties - which are apparently called Solifugids or Red Romans - I snoozed through the roaring. With dawn comes our awaking as the cacophony of bush sounds rudely brings you back from sleep. The bark of baboons, the serenade of doves, the shrill cry of some nameless bird. The bush, it's awake…and so I crawl out and soon have coffee and mealie meal brewing away.
We're camped under a huge Nyalaberry tree which provides beautiful and much-needed shade in this hot part of Africa. We've quickly learned what's important for camping - shade, grass, electricity, water…and the bonus, our own ablutions. Our campsite here has the first and last of this list, and the bonus ablutions.
We can't walk away from the campsite as we're in a game park - hence the roaring - so we spend the day under our shady tree reading, working, relaxing…soaking up Africa.
“Hi, I'm Sakeo,” our guide says. Sakeo is key to the operations at the camp and has been very attentive to ensure our stay here has been comfortable. This afternoon we are going on a game drive wth him.
We wend our way through the bush on the landrover while Sakeo shares his fascinating bush knowledge with us. It's amazing that I've been on many bush drives yet there are still so many things I don't know.
“It's easy to tell which is the male zebra,” Sakeo says as we watch a herd nearby. “It's normally the one at the back as he protects the herd.” Now surely I should have known that by now. However as it turns out there is still plenty I need to learn as Sakeo tells us about the different animals we see.
After stopping to enjoy some sundowners near a dry river bed we head back sweeping the search light in search of animals. The leopard - as usual - are elusive although we do come across a herd of elephants, some bush babies perched in trees and a lone Wildebeest sentinel. Here too I learn how the males remain alone in their territory while the females move around.
“I’m glad I’m not a wildebeest,” I think to myself as sleep slowly draws me away while the night sounds reverberate all around our small tent. I’d far rather be in my tent with my female…Note to self: Don’t become a wildebeest.
We have spent most of the past 11 months travelling around South Africa, and we couldn't agree more with Buzfeed, who awarded South Africa the "Most Beautiful Country in the World" award, ahead of stunning places like the USA, New Zealand, Switzerland, and others. This award was given for a host of reasons, because there is not doubt that many countries have stunning mountains, or incredible wildlife, or amazing deserts. However, as they conclude in their article:
Unsurpassed wildlife and mountains, whales and waterfalls, architecture and antiquity, the world’s most beautiful city, and the world’s most stunning Spring, plus a host of natural treasures make South Africa “The Most Beautiful Country In The World”, and a must-see traveller’s dream.
South Africa truly has it all - from wildlife, to mountains, from waterfalls, to flowers, from beautiful cities to ancient fossils. It's a country of divesity, beauty, colour, and splendour that is unparalled anwyhere in the world.
Still unsure? Well here are a few facts that earned South Africa this prestigious honour: