Monday 7th March
We had a leisurely, luxurious breakfast at the hotel then made our way to the airport, enjoying a lively discussion with the taxi driver on the way, who was not only very well versed in Zimbabwean politics, but also had a pretty good handle on what was going on in the UK. Both countries currently have coalition governments, but the similarities seemed to end there!
We touched down in Johannesburg at 3pm-ish, picked up our hire car for the next month and successfully negotiated the rush hour traffic and some major roadworks on the road from the airport - all much like being on the M25! We stopped over for the night at Witbank, recently renamed (like a lot of towns in SA!) as eMalahleni, en route to the Drakensberg Escarpment.
We spent the night in a little town called Dullstroom, renowned as a major centre for trout fishing with people heading out there in hordes every weekend. Is was very quiet but we managed to entertain ourselves with fudge from the homemade sweet shop, and delicious baked trout with capers in a little bistro for dinner.
We drove along the scenic 'Highlands Meander' and the 'Panorama Route' to Pilgrim's Rest in the Drakensberg Escarpment, which was a gold rush town. Gold was discovered there in 1873 and mined there for nearly 100 years. It's now a heritage town and the corrugated iron buildings are preserved as they would have been in the town's heyday. It's a popular tourist attraction but, fortunately for us, wasn't too busy (travelling in low season has it's advantages!) Later we made our way to Graskop for a two night stay as a base to explore the area. Our accommodation was a very pleasant rondavel (a round house / hut with a thatched roof) at a backpacker's hostel.
We headed north towards the Blyde River Canyon, stopping en route to take in the Pinnacle, a 'skyscraper' rock formation and God's Window, an amazing viewpoint from where you can see for miles. We climbed 300 steps up into the rainforest and were rewarded with another breathtaking vista.
Next stop was Bourke's Luck Potholes, cylindrical holes carved into the rock by whirlpools where 2 rivers meet, then onto the 3 Rondavels - enormous rounds of rock with pointed grassy tops that look like giant huts carved into the canyon.
We thought we wouldn't be impressed by waterfalls so soon after Vic Falls, but we stopped at Berlin Falls and Lisbon Falls on the way back to Graskop, and both were very beautiful.
It was a day of wonderful views, and just enjoying nature (is this middle age approaching, I wonder?!)
The overwhelming sense was of how much space there is. It feels as if the horizon is much further away in SA!
Friday to Wednesday 16th March
We had an incredible few days in the Kruger National Park, and will probably be talking about it for months to come, so we will try to summarise our highlights, and save the detail for when we get home!
We spent the first two nights in the Satara rest camp. It's about a third of the way up the park, and known as being a good place to see cats.
We really enjoyed heading out in the car, bimbling along at 30kph, and just seeing what we could see, but the absolute highlight was the Sunset Game Drive on Saturday evening:
We spotted 80% of the big five (leopards eluded us throughout our stay) and pretty much every other animal you can think of. We saw a herd of buffalo for the first time, then spotted a male lion in the distance who seemed to be stalking the herd. We watched his progress as he picked his way towards them until he disappeared into the long grass. We were all hoping we might see him attack!
We had an encounter with curious lion cubs who came towards the truck to investigate. One of our fellow 'tourists' had a camera with a very loud shutter, and one cub was fascinated by the noise.
We also saw white rhino, hippopotamus in and out of the water, two types of jackal, hyena, giraffe, elephant, porcupine, warthog, as well as the obligatory impalas, zebras and wildebeest. We all descended from the truck after 3 hours with huge smiles on our faces, and Claire viewed this animal bonanza as her birthday present!
From Satara, we headed north to Letaba on Sunday to sign in for the Olifants Wilderness Trail, spotting birthday giraffes, elephants and lions on the way (we can't really claim we spotted the lions - our attention was attracted by a huge traffic jam, so we pulled over and somebody pointed them out to us!)
From there, we were driven 30km south to the bush camp where we would stay for 3 nights along tracks that are only accessible to rangers. We were in the middle of nowhere about 5km from the Mozambique border, on the banks of the Olifants River. We had no electricity, but stayed in comfortable huts (lit by kerosene lamps) and made the most of the showers and flushing toilets (a definite step up from our last bush camp!)
On Monday and Tuesday morning, we went for a bush walk for about 5 hours, covering 10km or so each day. We were accompanied by two rangers (and their rifles) who had clocked up more than 60 years of experience between them, and we learned about identifying tracks and dung (we consider it a life skill that we can now tell the difference between white and black rhino dung!) We got back to camp around 11, had lunch and a long siesta (it was too hot to do anything else) then headed out again for another couple of hours at 4.30 until it got dark.
- Finding four white rhino - a massive bull and 3 cows - because the rangers heard them, and then led us round to approach them from downwind so that we wouldn't scare them away.
- Coming upon a herd of buffalo who got scared and ran away. We couldn't exactly say it was a stampede, but the noise of their hooves on the ground was fairly exciting!
- Walking by the river and seeing a huge pod of hippos in the water (we counted at least 25) all of whom turned and looked at us. When we walked away after watching for a few minutes, they made a huge racket which was apparently their victory call - we had given up so they had won!
We left the camp on Wednesday morning feeling very tired but content with the unique experience we had had. We were bowling along in the truck and nobody was paying much attention when suddenly a lioness walked into the road just in front of us, and then 2 more. They seemed completely unperturbed by our presence and took their time, posing for photos by the side of the road. It was an amazing end to our time in the Kruger.
We had a long drive south through the park to reach our next destination, so didn't stop to look at animals much, but literally 5 minutes before leaving the park, we saw 2 rhinos asleep under a tree - technically, that was the end of our time in the Kruger!!
We now only have 3 weeks left until we come home so we're trying to pack in as much as we can before the end of our trip!