Our latest holiday – Borneo

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog about our amazing holiday to Southern Africa in 2010. If you did, you might like to read all about our latest adventure, this time to the magical island of Borneo – https://borneoholidayblog.wordpress.com

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Southern Africa Holiday – Epilogue

This is a sort of look back on the trip thinking about what went well and anything we’d change if (hopefully) we do this again.

I think the key thing is that we would all have liked to have spent longer in most places we stayed; the practical problem is that this extends a two and a half week holiday even further, giving issues with getting the time off work and with cost. We’d also probably break down some of the longer driving days into two with an extra stop, but again this lengthens the holiday.

The stay in Cape Town was just about right; in an ideal world, one more day would have allowed us to spend time exploring some of the city a bit more. After all our agonising about where to stay, the Cape Paradise Lodge was absolutely brilliant. Although it was more out of town, the cost of taxis was so low that these were completely covered by the lower rates – and the views are just stunning! Our decision not to bother with a car for the first couple of days was spot on, again using taxis was cheaper and more convenient than driving around and parking (and removed the problem of who is designated driver!). Hiring the car at the end allowed us to explore further, and solved the problem of getting back to the airport at an unearthly hour. It was well worth going for the larger car, it gave us more space and a better view. Of the “extras”, all of them were brilliant, with the Whale Watching at Gansbaai an absolute “must”, the helicopter tour a close second and the Robben Island tour another compulsory trip.

For the rest of the journey, we wanted to head from Cape Town to Lesotho but were limited on where we go by what destinations are available from Cape Town. Even if we hadn’t had the issues with the car hire, Bloemfontein wasn’t a brilliant start point as this left us with a long drive across fairly dull scenery to get to Lesotho. The ideal would be to fly into Maseru and pick up the car there, but I’m not sure how the flight timings would have worked.

Lesotho is awesome. The mountains here are spectacular and Maliba has to be one of my favourite places ever. This is definitely one place we’d want to stay at for a couple of nights, to allow us to go exploring in the mountains around the lodge. Also, knowing what the place is like, we’d be better prepared to either self-cater or book an evening meal in advance. It’s a pity that this was part overshadowed by the car hire fiasco.

The drive from Maliba to Sani Top in one day is do-able – just. Admittedly, we left a bit later than planned (car hire again!) but arrived at Sani as night was falling and that’s not a drive I’d fancy after dark. The only issue with breaking the journey in two would be where to stay; accommodation in Lesotho isn’t plentiful, so in retrospect doing the drive in one day is probably the best – just get going earlier! This journey is one of the best I’ve ever made, running across the mountains in northern Lesotho is phenomenal, huge climbs, sharp descents, spectacular views. Getting a car with an altimeter made it even more fun 🙂

Although all the guide books and articles on the Internet go on about how hard Sani Pass is, we actually found the climb on the Lesotho side more challenging. Whether this is because going up is harder than going down or because of not knowing how far we had left, I’m not sure. I’m certainly glad we had a proper 4×4 though; I really wouldn’t try it in anything less. The one mistake we made was not setting the trip meter when we saw the signpost to Sani as this left us wondering how far we had left, with the light fading.

Sani Top Chalets are great, a bit rudimentary, very cold but friendly. I wouldn’t go for the cottages unless you have young kids with you, as the cottages have two single beds (normal size) and bunk beds. Not really suitable for grown up kids! Make sure you take plenty of thermals though, it was bitterly cold and be prepared to rough it a bit. Oh, and try not to overshoot the turning and carry on through the border, like we did…

Although the journey from Sani to Umdloti was long, this worked really well, even allowing time for stopping at Howick (for the falls and the Mandela monument). It doesn’t leave much time for visiting anywhere en route (we just drove through Pietermaritzburg and Durban without stopping) but it’s a nice drive and comfortable for time. Driving down Sani Pass was (for me) one of the highlights of the trip, being able to look back at this tiny speck at the top of the mountains and think we’d left there just half an hour earlier was really gratifying.

Given more time, I’d stay a couple of nights at Umdloti; this would have allowed us to take a day out in Durban which looked pretty nice as we drove though it with some very interesting buildings and sights. Also, SeaVilla is right up there with the best of the Guest Houses we stayed at – after all, there’s not many places you can watch dolphins and whales while eating breakfast!

The route from Umdloti to St Lucia was probably the easiest drive of the trip; boring but easy. Even allowing time to detour back into Durban to visit the stadium, we still had time to get to St Lucia for a boat trip. This was unplanned but one I would thoroughly recommend; we saw so much wildlife and had a lovely, relaxing time. Highlight for me was seeing the Fish Eagle ripping a snake apart! As with so many places, we’d love to stay here again and a bit longer; the beach is wonderful, although it was blowing a gale while we were there, so we couldn’t have lazed there anyhow.

From St Lucia, it was a long haul up to Malkerns in Swaziland; this is the one bit of the route we’d definitely change, partly because it pushes the driving but also because we wouldn’t bother with Nyanza again. A better bet would be to find somewhere in southern Swaziland or just south of the Swazi border for one night, spend the day driving through Swazi (stopping at Swazi Candles, Baobab Batik and Ngwenya Glass for certain) and stop just south of the Kruger (or possibly even in the park at Mbabane Camp). Lots of options for this couple of days, but definitely worth running up through Swaziland, if only to tick off another country!

The Kruger. What more can I say about this, possibly my favourite place on Earth. You never know quite what’s round the next corner, what you’ll see from one day to the next. Again, we were lucky enough to see the Big Five plus so much else; it’s not just about the big animals though, my favourite memory is probably the Genet that visited us for our braai at Tamboti. What we’d probably do another time though is pick one camp and stay there for a few nights rather than moving around; this would allow more time for game spotting as we’d not need to pack up each morning and moving around different areas of the park probably doesn’t mean you’ll see more than if you stayed in one area. We’d probably go for a tented camp again if we could, the ambience at Tamboti was so nice, but would probably avoid Skukuza (too big and corporate). Three days in the Park was probably about right, the Game Drives were a mixed bag (one a bit of a dud, the other totally brilliant) and the Game Walk was fantastic – even allowing for the all too close encounter with the Black Rhino!

Leaving a day for driving around they Blyde River Canyon was a good call as well, some of the scenery is stunning. The best (not to be missed) bits are the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Berlin Falls and the view from the Three Rondavels park. The other falls, God’s Window and the Pinnacle are all superb too – although not being cloaked in cloud would have helped! The last stop was right up at the top of the list, Panzi Bush Camp. Definitely the friendliest place we stopped, great accommodation and wonderful food.

Very glad that we skipped the long drive back to Jo’burg and got the flight from Hoedspruit instead. If we’d have driven, that would have necessitated either a very early start (which would have meant us missing HESC) or another night (although Misty Mountain would have been nice to visit again).

So, overall, this was just one spectacular holiday from start to finish. It’s very hard to pull out the top highlights but my favourites (in no particular order!) were:

  • Whale watching in Walker Bay
  • Driving down Sani Pass
  • The Kruger (especially the Bush Walk)
  • The helicopter flight around Table Mountain
  • The boat trip in St Lucia
  • Breakfast at Maliba

I guess it is now just a case of saving the pennies and planing our next trip there; even though this was our second trip to Southern Africa, it was just as enjoyable (if not more so) as our first visit 10 years ago.

To coin a phrase, “we’ll be back”

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Day 17 – Last Day

We’re up early this morning as we need to get loaded, breakfasted and on our way to be at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre for 9:00. From our journey in last night, we know that it is quite a drive to the Orpen Road, although HESC is not far from there.

Open air shower at Panzi

Showering is quite a novel experience as the bathroom is open to the elements with just a palisade fence around it! It’s also quite chilly but definitely different – Paula has a fright when she sees a movement out the corner of her eye but fortunately, instead of a wild animal, it’s her reflection in a mirror! While we’re getting dressed, there’s a tremendous screeching not far away, obviously a Baboon. When we’re ready, we take all the bags out to the car, loading up for the final time, trekking down the wooden walkways and across the rickety bridge out to the car park.

Breakfast is served in the main lodge and is really good, plenty of food, well cooked. We’re joined at the breakfast table by Anice who, to our surprise, has her baby daughter with her. We’d not heard a peep out of her last night! She tells us that she and Erwin will be visiting the Kruger today – and this will be her first ever visit to the Park despite being South African and living not that far away. Jokingly, we tell her to make sure Erwin leaves his guns behind…

Panzi, view back from the bridge

Having finished breakfast, while Jo picks up where she left off last night and carries on playing with Sally (Rick joins in at one point and promptly kicks her ball into the pond…), I go to settle up with Glynn. This turns into a min-drama as he doesn’t take American Express and Capital One decline my card (I find out later it’s because it was being used it in South Africa – despite telling them I was going there!). Luckily, my third card works although each attempt involves Glynn wandering off into the bush and up a hill as this is the only place he can get a signal for the card reader (apparently, some guests insist on following him, presumably to make sure he doesn’t run off with their card). Glynn then stamps our visitor pass to prove we were there and, regretfully it is time to leave. Yet again we find ourselves regretting that we’ve only had one night in a place and we have fallen in love with Panzi; the location is superb, the accommodation wonderful and we’ve had by far the friendliest welcome of any of our stops in the whole holiday. We will miss Panzi.

We head out of the camp and find our way to the main gate for the private reserve where our permit is checked and then we turn out onto the gravel road back down to Orpen Road. Not following anyone allows us to travel a bit quicker and before we know it we are on the main road, heading towards HESC. We’d seen this place when we visited 10 years ago but all the tours were full when we’d got there; this time, I’d booked a tour months back and this is another of the things we’ve been looking forward to.

It’s actually further than we though from Panzi and the centre itself is quite far back for the main road, so we’re glad we left plenty of time. We get there just before 9, but as we pull up are the only car in the car park. We walk over to the gate and are greeted by a friendly lady, who asks if we’re the Heywoods! Good guess, but probably we’re the only group of four due that day…

Once inside, we are shown to a little theatre where we wait as a few more people arrive. At just gone 9:00, the tour starts with the playing of a DVD about HESC. Although interesting at first, setting out the history of the place, this soon becomes a bit tedious and we’re all glad when it comes to an end and it is time for the tour.

King Cheetah stretching at HESC

Our guide for the drive introduces herself as Erica and leads us out to the garage where there are a number of safari trucks parked. We all board one and start off for our drive around the centre. The first stop is at a cage where there are two Cheetahs; one of these is an amazingly beautiful King Cheetah and Erica explains their distinctive colouring is caused by a regressive gene and that the other, normally marked, Cheetah in the cage is the King Cheetah’s brother.

We then carry on driving around the centre, stopping at various places as Erica points out key points. These include a Lion that the centre had bought to save it from being a victim of a “canned hunt” where the Lion is held in a cage while a “hunter” shoots it from the safety of the outside. Obviously, there are many, many Cheetahs as this is their main species. However, having seen animals wandering freely in the wild, it is a bit sad seeing them cooped up in cages, although without the intervention of places like HESC there would be none left at all.

Up close with a Cheetah at HESC

Erica then pulls up to a larger compound which has a double gate on it. We go through these and she drives the truck into the compound and stops by a large earth mound. Just as we’re wondering what for, we notice movement on the mound and superbly camouflaged on it is a whole group of Cheetahs, not more than 20 feet away with nothing between them and us. We all watch, amazed, as one by one these gorgeous animals stand up, stretch and lope off across the compound.

Our next stop is at another of the HESC specialities, the African Wild Dogs. Unlike the Cheetahs, there’s nothing subtle about these. A big pack of them mills around by the entrance to their compound and they mob around the truck when we drive in. The first thing we notice is the appalling stench; apparently, to identify themselves as belonging to a particular pack, these animals urinate and defecate on each other! They also do this in water holes they use and this makes them (and other animals that use that water hole)

African Wild Dog at HESC

prone to passing infections, which can wipe out the pack. This is a major part of why game reserve owners don’t like having these animals on their land; the other is the perceived cruelty of the Wild Dog as it hunts by chasing an animal and biting chunks out of it on the run until it collapses through blood loss and exhaustion. They are very hierarchical with only the alpha female breeding – Erica points out this pack’s alpha female, easily identifiable as she has virtually no tail. This was bitten off in the fight she had with the previous alpha in which she killed the other dog.

Erica decides it is time to drive on when some of the dogs start trying to eat the truck’s tyres, as she doesn’t fancy changing a wheel in their compound…
We drive on through the centre, with Erica explaining their breeding programmes and how they work with other institutions globally to try and diversify the Cheetah gene pool. The also try to introduce captive bred Cheetah to the wild and have had some success (such as the pair that patrol Hoedspruit Air Force Base to keep animals off the airfield!) but have had one less successful release – one animal was so used to human contact that it used to approach people out on game walks! She also tells us just how fussy Cheetahs are, in that their meat has to be kept clean, so they all have feeding mats in their pens (how they manage in the wild is anyone’s guess!).

Another of our stops is at the “bone yard”; this smells almost as bad as the Wild Dog compound and it is where all of the left over bones from the animal feeding are dumped. Here, the local vultures come down and pick them completely clean, before the remains are sent to a renderer to have the marrow extracted (providing an income to the centre). Next to this is a cage containing a couple of Ground Hornbills; these are amazingly dumb birds, as they exchange their food with other, wild, Ground Hornbills that visit them in return for bits of plastic!

This is pretty much our final stop and we return to the centre where we have a quick browse through their shop before returning to the car one last time. Turning out of the centre, we head back up the R40 towards Hoedspruit. A few miles up the road, we then turn off towards Eastgate Airport, located on Hoedspruit Air Force Base, where our flight to Johannesburg will leave from. The airport terminal is small but obviously quite new and well away from the Air Force part of the base. We park and unload the bags, depositing them in the terminal building with Rick and Jo as we need to get the car back to Europcar, whose offices, conveniently, are in Hoedspruit itself. Leaving the two of them, we head back the way we’d come and continue into Hoedspruit where we fill up and get directions to the Europcar offices (by now, all trust in Google Maps has long gone).

After taking the scenic route, we find their office and go in. We explain that we’re dropping the car off and ask if there’s a taxi we can get back out to the airport; at this point the Europcar manager tells us that she has a driver waiting at the airport to take over the car and could we drive it back there? This actually suits us, although it’s another stunning display of incompetence by Europcar, who’d not felt in necessary to tell us this.

So, back in the car again, we retrace our steps and are soon driving back into Eastgate airport. There we meet the Europcar driver and hand over the keys to him; it’s a bit sad, saying goodbye to the faithful Mitsubishi 4×4, which has certainly proved its worth over the past days, traversing temperatures from 0 degrees to 35 degrees, sea level to 3,000 meters and over some really rough terrain in Lesotho and the Sani Pass.

We wander in to the terminal where Jo and Rick are still waiting – they point out on the wall a set of boxes, one for each of the major car hire companies, including Europcar. These are for dropping the keys rather than going into Hoedspruit; Jo saw these just as we’d driven off earlier but too late to stop us.

Reunited, it’s time to check in and start our journey home. The first leg is a fairly short “hop” from Hoedspruit to Johannesburg; although when I booked this it was scheduled for a high wing turbo prop Dash-8, it’s been switch (disappointingly) to a Canadair RJ, the same type we flew on from Cape Town to Bloemfontein. We can only book our bags in as far as Jo’burg, which is a bit of a pain but Hoedspruit really isn’t geared to anything more than local flights.
The airport lounges are amazing though; there’s a big garden courtyard, with trees and

Yes, this is an airport terminal - Hoedspruit Airport

bushes where we sit initially. Here we finish up some of our provisions, including (finally) the big “never ending” bag of biscuits that we’d bought days ago in Lesotho. Also demolished here is the last bar of Milka, that’s made it all the way from Heathrow and the last of our staple, rusks. Once finished, we go inside the departure lounge – this is more like the lobby of an up-market hotel, very plush and well decorated, not like an airport at all. We’re on the second (of two) flights today and watch as the earlier flight lands, loads and departs. The only other activity is a brightly coloured helicopter – this lands in the wrong place and there’s the aviation equivalent of “oi, you can’t park here” and they have to start it up and move it.

A while later and our ‘plane arrives. It’s time to get moving and we pick up our bags and head for security. There are two people checking hand baggage; one does a cursory check, the other insists on emptying out your bag; guess which one I get? It’s then a stroll across the tarmac and up the steps onto the ‘plane. Surprisingly, it is almost full although Paula and I seem to be the only people with spaces next to them (we’re all sitting separately – when South African changed the type of ‘plane, they moved us into random seats instead of the group I’d selected originally!). We’re all sitting there when the pilot tells us we are waiting for one more passenger; however, they don’t wait long and after five minutes or so, close up the door and start the engines. We then embark on the longest taxi I have ever experienced; at one point we turn and I can see a huge expanse of concrete stretching for miles and think this is the runway. No, it’s the world’s longest taxi-way.

The base seems absolutely deserted as, although we pass loads of hangars, there’s not a soul to be seen; there are, however, a couple of Warthog trotting along the edge of one of the taxiways. Finally, we reach the runway and turn and accelerate; just as we lift off, another pair of Warthog come into view, our final wildlife sighting!

The trip to Jo’burg is quick and uneventful, just time for a snack and a beer before we start descending. A nice, gentle landing and we taxi into the domestic arrivals area where we board a bus to the main terminal. Our bags appear pretty quickly and (learning from experience) load these onto trolleys for the walk to the international departure area. Johannesburg Airport is way better than we remember it; very modern and clean and with some very neat features. One of these is the “trolley friendly” escalators that allow you to wheel your trolley onto and then locks in place. The other is the mass baggage check in, where all the bags for a group are placed on a big set of scales and weighed together before going to the check-in. This removes the ridiculous need to move things between bags, a really good idea. The check-ins are almost empty and we get through very quickly before heading to immigration for our final exit stamps.

We have quite some time to kill before our flight leaves for London, so we find a coffee lounges and settle down there. The time we have does give us ample opportunity for shopping and we set out to try and spend all of our remaining South African currency. We’re spectacularly successful in this and finish up with just a few Rand left over (plus being owners of a variety of gifts and bits!). Amongst other things we see on sale are items from Swazi Candles and Ngewenya Glass – at pretty much double the prices we’d paid back I Swaziland.

Finally, it’s time to board; we’d managed to get two sets of window/aisle seats although these were on opposite sides of the cabin. To our great joy, this aircraft is far more modern than the one we’d flown on to Cape Town and it has individual entertainment systems instead of the communal screens we’d had on the flight out. We get settled into our seats and sit patiently waiting to depart. Unfortunately, there is a “no show” passenger and so departure is delayed while the ground crew find and unload the missing person’s baggage; a pain but I’m much happier not flying with unaccompanied baggage.

At long last, the offending bags are off-loaded, the ‘plane all closed up and we’re on our way. A very sad feeling, pushing back from the terminal at Jo’burg, we’ve had such a brilliant time. A fairly short (certainly compared to Hoedspruit!) taxi and we’re lined up, then rolling and up and departing South Africa.

It’s a pretty uneventful flight (certainly no repeat of the tropical storm we had last time) and we actually make up the delay and more, arriving early. We start our descent into Heathrow and enter thick grey cloud – and stay there, finally breaking clear as we pass over the Heathrow threshold. I turn to Paula and tell her I’m not getting off! Unfortunately, this isn’t really an option and we trudge off the aircraft into the grim, miserable hole that is Heathrow Terminal 1. Derek is there to meet us and somehow we all bundle into his car, complete with bags. We stop at his for a coffee and a chat but are keen to get back home. A reasonable journey back and we’re home around midday.

It’s been a brilliant holiday, such amazing sights and contrasts. Just can’t wait to go back again!

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Day 16 – Kruger National Park and Blyde River Canyon

Our “tent” at Tamboti

We were awoken during the night by the contents of our bin blowing around outside. Whether this was caused by the wind, which had picked up a lot overnight, or by our friendly Genet, we’re not sure. Having cleared it all up, we decided to get up early anyway to see if there would be any animal activity on the dried up river bed just the other side of the fence.

Hornbills pose for the camera

For some time, the only thing we saw was bird life; initially some quail running around below us but then a couple of Yellow-Billed Hornbills and then a Burchill’s Starling (picking the braai clean).  The Hornbills were very brave, flying within feet of where we sat and posing for photos.

Where the bin had emptied, a potato had fallen out and dropped onto the floor and this attracted a Squirrel, which proceeding to gnaw at it. We then saw a graphic illustration of the “pecking order” as first a Hornbill chased off the squirrel and then a Quail chased away the Hornbill. Ironically, neither bird was actually interested in eating the potato.

A little while later there was movement on the sandy bed of the dried up river, as a troop of Baboons came ambling along. Making sure we had a clear run to our door, we watched them, obviously out for a morning scavenge. Clearly, the fence is no barrier to them as we saw a couple climb overhanging trees and scramble inside the camp but fortunately they kept their distance. Out of the bushes on the far side of the river bed we then saw a Bushbuck appear. This strolled across towards some bushes in the centre of the sandy area; two Baboons saw this and started a blatant flanking move, obviously viewing the deer as breakfast. Fortunately, the Bushbuck saw what was happening and beat a hasty retreat. After this, the Baboons melted away and that was the end of the activity.

We set about packing up while we waited for Rick and Jo to emerge; they’d had a good night as well but had been woken early by some very raucous birds. We find out later these are very aptly named Grey Go-Away birds; certainly Jo wished they had done so!

The wind over night had brought with it low cloud and it was grey, overcast and quite chilly. This was a complete contrast to the previous couple of days, which had been blue skies and absolutely scorching. This, we thought, wasn’t too much of a problem as we were back on the road today. It was to be our last full day in South Africa and we planned on driving out of the Kruger, around the Blyde River Canyon and finishing up very near where we started, just outside Orpen Gate.

Having packed everything into the car, we went and picked up Rick and Jo’s stuff from their tent before heading back out to Orpen. This was a very sad drive as it was our last view of the Kruger, which is so much one of our favourite places on the planet. To see us out were the usual Impala but, sadly, nothing much else. With a heavy heart, we drove through the camp and took our leave of the Kruger.

We’d had a really wonderful few days here and seen so much variety of wildlife; Jo has logged all of these and our final tally comes to over 60, including of course the wonderful Big Five. It’s fortunate that we’d seen our Leopard the previous day, as I think if we hadn’t, we have been very tempted to spend another day in the Park! Of the three camps we’d stayed out, we are unanimous that Tamboti is our favourite. Even though Rick and Jo had the basic tent, the location and ambiance were terrific and we agreed that next time (yes, already talking about that!) we’d like to stay in tented camps again, maybe settling in one site and driving around from there, rather than trekking from one camp to another.

Anyway, leaving the Park, we headed out on the Orpen road towards the R40 that would take us south towards Hazyview. It’s quite odd at first, traveling on a major road, with no speed limit, having been limited to 40 kph tops for the past three days. Somewhat ominously, we can look across to the Highveld, where we are heading, and this appears to be shrouded in low cloud. We hope this will clear, otherwise the spectacular views we had last time around will be somewhat limited!

We follow the R40, intending to turn off in Bushbuckridge; although there is a fairly large turn here, it is un-signposted and so we carry on. A few miles further on we realise we should have turned there and have been caught out by South African signposting again! Never mind, we carried on a few miles more and were then able to turn and head west. Pretty soon, the road started climbing, as we started our ascent up into the Highveld. The weather was pretty dull and we started to get the odd rain shower as we climbed higher. Again, this was an odd experience, as the Kruger had been pretty well flat throughout.

Our first stop was in the town of Graskop; we remembered this as a quaint little town with raised boardwalks and lots of small, old style shops. Whether this was somewhere else in the town, we’re not sure, but modern Graskop certainly didn’t have the charm we recalled. We had to stop here to try and find some Duck Tape or similar, as Jo’s hold-all had started splitting and we needed to fix it for the flight home. This we found in a hardware store and we got a bit of a surprise when we went to pay as the staff spoke to us in Afrikaans; this was the first time on the trip this had happened and showed we were in a different part of the country. Interestingly, they spoke to all the coloured customers in English but assumed we must be Afrikaaners as we were white.

God’s Window – all cloaked in grey

Moving on from Graskop, we turned back north, up the Blyde River Canyon road; our first stop was at the Pinnacle. This is an amazing finger of rock standing nearly a hundred feet high, completely free-standing. We all puzzle as to what geological forces could possibly have created this. Unfortunately, we get a flavour here of what the views will be like further up the Highveld – non-existent! The cloud is getting lower and the temperature is falling as we bundle back into the car and head to the next stop. This is God’s Window, which we know from our last trip offers the most spectacular views across the Lowveld, over the Kruger National Park and clean into Mozambique. It’s a good thin we know this as today’s view is limited to around fifty feet! With the slightly higher altitude, the cloud has closed in completely and all we can see is grey.

We walk up the hill from God’s Window, through where there’s a small patch of rain-forest. When we’d visited before, we’d read the signs about how this miniature eco-system is maintained by damp cloud coming up from the Lowveld and condensing as it hit the higher rocks; this time we didn’t need signs as we were witnessing this first-hand. It was grey, damp and cold! Again, from the top the visibility was minimal, although the cloud did give the rain-forest and eerie quality as we wandered through.

Our next planned stop was to be the Lisbon Falls. Fortunately, we remembered that these needed us to double back on ourselves when we rejoined the main road, otherwise we’d probably have missed these. Although these are the highest falls in the area (92 meters high) visiting in a relatively dry period meant that the flow wasn’t massive, so they weren’t that spectacular. After browsing around the craft market, we jumped back into the car and headed for the next stops, at Berlin Falls.

Berlin Falls and the blue lagoon

These may be lower but we all rate these as the best falls in the area. This is largely because of the beautiful setting, much higher water flow and the amazingly blue lagoon that the waters plunge into. They are more visible as well, with plenty of vantage points and we spend quite a while wandering around, taking photos and then looking at the craft stalls here; these are again probably the best in the area and we pick up quite a few bits and pieces here.

Heading on from here, we climb a little further and visibility drops to almost zero in dense cloud, needing front and rear fog lamps on and the wipers. The cloud lifts a little but we then run through some heavy rain – not a nice day! Still, as we start descending, the cloud does start breaking up and by the time we reach our next stop, at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, there’s the odd patch of blue sky peeping through and it’s getting quite a bit warmer.

Spectacular rock formations at Bourke’s Luck Potholes

Bourke’s Luck Potholes are amazing. We’d stopped here ten years ago but we in a bit of a hurry so didn’t really have time to explore then. We made up for this omission this time, and spent ages picking our way across the rocks and over the bridges. The rock formations are really spectacular, with holes and vertical shafts carved into the rock over eons simply by the scouring of the water where the Blyde and Treur rivers meet. It’s really pleasant strolling around between the water flows, admiring the views and listening to the roar of the water as it plunges over small rapids and falls. There’s a reminder that we’re still in Wild Africa though, as up on the ridge on the far side of the falls is a huge Baboon, making his presence heard clearly.

By now it’s lunchtime and we decide to grab a toastie at the café here; this is also a little bit of nostalgia as this was where Jo had her first ever toastie all those years ago! While we’re waiting for these to be made, we watch the local Vervet Monkeys; they are clearly aware of the bounty available and we watch them as they keep manoeuvring around other group of people eating their lunch, waiting for them to drop their guard or leave. On group does depart, leaving rick pickings – one Vervet leaps up and grabs a half pancake and scampers off with it in one hand, running on the other three paws with practised ease. Another pair of monkeys clambers onto the table and demolish the remaining scraps – this includes one that stuff it’s head into the sugar bowl and then emerges with a wide rim of white sugar all around it’s mouth. Another monkey grabs the ketchup sachets and sprints up into the tree where it calmly rips them open, sucks out the ketchup and then drops the empty packets. The ultimate one through is the Vervet that stands over a can of drink and actually sucks on the drinking straw that’s still in the can; there’s no drink left but this is a truly amazing piece of adaptation!

Our toasties finally arrive and we munch through these, keeping a very careful eye on the gathering monkeys, making sure we don’t give them an opportunity to raid our lunch. We can see though that, although amusing for us, their antics are actually quite a nuisance and so we make sure that we clear up fully when we’ve done.

Following lunch, we carry on driving up around the Blyde River Canyon. The next stop is at the Three Rondavels, three outcrops on the other side of the canyon that bear an uncanny resemblance to the local rondavel huts. There’s a little park here, off the road and we drive up to this. We hadn’t done so on our last trip here as we were in a hurry but we realise that we missed out!

Wisps of cloud over the Three Rondavels

There are spectacular views across the gorge from this park as well as a great panorama across the Blyderivierspoort Dam, which we’d not seen last time.  The weather has started improving by now and there’s the odd bit of blue sky peeping through the grey murk. Where the cloud is breaking up, it’s wreathing the tops of the hill son the far side of the canyon in wisps of white, making them even more stunning. The temperature is also recovering and we’re able to shed a couple of layers despite being higher up.

Back in the car, we carry on along the R532. The Three Rondavels seems to mark a turning point though, as the road now veers away from the gorge running across empty moorland like terrain, before we start descending once again. The landscape changes again as the road drops, more agricultural here, with huge farms and sprinkler systems replacing the empty grasslands. We stop at one of the roadside craft stalls, by the Strydom Tunnel but this is a bit of a washout as the stall holders are all way too pushy (unlike those at the tourist attractions) and actually put us off buying anything. By now, the spectacular scenery has pretty much given way to the bland flatness of the Lowveld and we head towards Hoedspruit. We’re able to cut off the corner before we reach the town and head down towards Orpen, where we’d started earlier that morning.

Not far up the Orpen road, we come to the turning for the Guernsey game reserve, which is where our last stop is located. There’s a gate not far from the main road (this is a private reserve) and we pull up and tell the guard where we’re going. Perturbingly, he doesn’t recognise the name Panzi Bush Camp but we show him the booking reference and map and he calls over a colleague who (fortunately) has heard of it and we are waved through. Once again, we’re grateful for the ruggedness of the Mitsubishi, as the gravel road is very bumpy and rutted – there’s a normal saloon car in front of us and we rapidly catch this as it is clearly struggling with the road surface! The road runs between fences on either side and before long we see why as we pass some giraffe browsing in the trees on one side.

After 8 kilometres, we come to another turning, this time signposted to “Guernsey Private Nature Reserve” and we turn in here. A little further on, we come to yet another gate where we have to present our booking confirmation, in return for a visitor permit. Through the gate, we see a signpost for Panzi Bush Camp and follow this; obviously we are now in an open game reserve and keep our eyes peeled for any signs of any animals. Just a little further on, we come to a clearing with signs for Panzi and a couple of cars parked up. We’ve finally arrived! We make a mental note to leave plenty of time in the morning as the drive from the Orpen road has taken probably half an hour and we need to by at the Hoedspruit Endangered Animal Centre at 9 in the morning.

We all get out of the car and walk round to the boot to start unloading. Bearing in mind we are in a wild animal reserve, when something rushes out of nowhere and jumps up at me, you may understand the mild heart attack I suffer! This actually turns out to be Sally, the camp dog who is incredibly friendly and full of energy. She’s accompanied by Glen, the owner, and they’ve come out to greet us.

Panzi turns out to be yet another stunning choice. We’d liked the look of it when we booked but again, the website doesn’t really do it justice. As we walk through the palisade that surrounds the camp, we come to a rickety looking bridge, with a stern notice that no more than four people at a time can use it. This leads across a shallow river bed to the main building, a huge open sided lodge with thatched roof, with a small pool out the front, complete with sun loungers. From here, wooden walkways lead up to the individuals cabins, which are secluded away in the forest. These are wonderful twin bedded rooms with a bathroom attached at the back.

Typically, as this is our last night and we need to completely unload and repack, it takes quite a while to get from the car to our cabins, and we have to make several trips. On one journey back to the car, as I walk out into the car park, a pair of Warthog scamper away – proving this really is in the middle of a game reserve! Glen has told us that dinner is normally served at seven, but he’s waiting on another group of guests to arrive, so it will probably be a bit later. This suits us as we have time to unpack our bags and reload them, stowing away many of our souvenirs and chucking out anything that we don’t need to take back with us.

Having completed packing, we all wander down to the lodge to grab a well deserved beer.

Main lodge at Panzi by night

It is a really friendly atmosphere and we’re soon chatting to Glen and his parents when I’m aware of something heavy on my foot. It’s Sally again, this time dropping a none too subtle hint that she wants to play. This involves kicking her little blue ball across the compound for her to chase, collect and return, to start again. Fortunately, before long I’m rescued as Jo appears and takes over Sally entertaining duties. They’ve got a big map of the world behind the bar with pins in for all the places the guests have come from; not surprisingly, the UK is pretty well populated but Rick manages to squeeze in one extra pin to mark Cambridge. Glen shows us some of the local wildlife, a couple of little tree frogs that have taken up residence – one in a tankard hanging above the bar and others behind the light fittings!

We’re joined at this point by the other guests who have now arrived; this turns out to be a South African couple and a Spanish couple. On chatting to them, we find out that the South African couple (Erwin and Anice Kruger) run a hunting business while the Spaniards are their clients on this trip. Dinner is served and this is excellent, a kind of Impala stew, with pumpkin and vegetables followed by milk pudding. All eaten on the large communal table, which allows us all to chat easily, we get on really well with Erwin and Anice, finishing up swapping Facebook names!

After dinner, the four of us adjourn to our cabins as we have one final thing to do. We’d carried all they way from Simonsig wine estate in Stellenbosch a bottle of Cap Classique that we’d bought there and we sit down and share a toast in this to our most amazing, wonderful holiday.

It’s then time for bed, settling down in South Africa for one last night, listening to the sounds of the bush outside. We’re going to miss this….

Our photos from today’s adventures can be found here and the map of our route here

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Day 15 – Kruger National Park

Vervet Monkeys demolishing our bread

We have a rude awakening this morning, as there is a terrific commotion just outside our rondavel. Looking outside, a group of Vervet Monkeys have managed to open our fridge and are fighting over the contents, mainly a loaf of bread that they are working their way through! After chasing them off, we inspect the damage but, fortunately, it appears that the bread was the only loss. We notice that there are scuff marks on the fridge door, obviously from where other visitors have jammed a chair against the fridge to stop this happening. It would have been useful if Skukuza told guests this could happen (or better still provide monkey proof fridges, as they did at Pretoriuskop).

Still, this does get us up early, which is a good thing as we want to have plenty of time to drive over to our next stop, at Tamboti. We’ve got another evening game drive booked here and, learning from our previous one, need to plan on getting to Tamboti fairly early. After a quick breakfast (no toast – the monkeys had had all the bread!) we load up and head out of the camp.

We’re heading towards Satara, intending to stop there for lunch; this allows plenty of time for travelling and stopping to watch anything en route. Our first detour is down the loop where the Lion was last night – no Lion this morning but a rare Grey-Headed Kingfisher sitting in a tree. There are the inevitable Impala and Kudu alongside the road and when we turn off to visit a waterhole, there is a huge herd of Zebra and lots of Waterbuck and Wildebeest too, all really close to the road providing great photo opportunities. Another waterhole provides a large Hippo family – interestingly there’s a warning sign about Blue-Green Algae here, caused by the Hippos defecting. We wonder is this could be the cause of Blue-Green Algae back home on Caldecotte Lake…

Carrying on towards Satara, we take one of the sand roads. This takes us past yet another herd of Buffalo plus a few Elephant and Giraffe. We then see a couple of Vervet Monkeys evidently having a fight in the middle of the road; one of them runs off and jumps up into a tree, clutching something. As we get closer, we can see it is a Chameleon, which the Vervet Monkey proceeds to devour, ripping chunks out of it.

Lioness drinking from the Waterhole

Further on, we come to one of the large water holes by the side of the main road. We stop here, as we do at all the water holes, to see if there are any animals. Sure enough, there is a family of Hippo our in the waterhole; we’re about to move on when we notice something at the edge of the waterhole. To our amazement, this turns out to be a large Lioness, crouched down and drinking from the water! As we watch, it stands up, and turns back towards the bush. Following her path back, we then realise that there is in fact a whole pride of Lions lying down in the undergrowth, both males and females. Our first Lioness returns and then another walks down to the water hole – this is the first time we’ve seen a group of Lions and also the first time we’ve seen them active. It’s a really wonderful sight.

Having chalked up another of the Big Five, we carry on towards Satara, absolutely full of this latest sighting. We can’t believe we’ve been so lucky, seeing four of the top animals already, but we appreciate the chances of seeing that elusive Leopard are very slim. Paula evens voices this, saying it is very unlikely.

Lean on me - Zebra taking arest

Along the road, we see yet more Impala and a couple of Giraffe right next to the road, as well as some Warthogs, Kudu, Nyala and Zebra. One group of Zebra is really cute, with two of them standing nose to tail and resting their heads on the others back.


Not far from Satara, there’s another waterhole, this again with lots of cars stopped there. As we draw up we can see why; in the waterhole there is a huge Elephant and at the edge a big, male Buffalo. Although they’re pretty good, we’re still buzzing from the Lions and have seen plenty of these two over the past couple of days, so we’re just about to move on when Jo notices something lying under a tree. Its beige in colour and she thinks it’s another Lion – she grabs the binoculars to check and then comes out with the immortal phrase “Oh crap – it’s a Leopard!!!!”.

Gorgeous Leopard resting in the sun

Sure enough, lying there in full open view (once you’ve adjusted to it) is a really wonderful full grown Leopard. We watch, utterly transfixed, as this magnificent animal calmly washes itself and then rolls over in the dust, before doing a totally feline flop over onto its side. We laugh at its antics, as they are so cat like, and at the herd of Impala on the other side of the waterhole. These seem to be playing chicken; who is willing to get closest to the Leopard. Meanwhile, as if in a fit of pique at not being centre of attention, the Elephant has stomped off across the road and into the bush. The Buffalo has waded out into the centre of the waterhole, almost as if it too is vying for attention. But all our, and everyone else’s, eyes are only on the Leopard. We now know why all the cars were stopped here!

We watch for some time, but then reluctantly have to move onwards, partly as we need to get going but also to give others a chance to watch and photograph this beautiful animal. We thought we’d been on a high after seeing the Lions earlier but this was another level all together. It’s almost impossible to describe the elation we all felt, getting such a clear view for so long of what we all agree is our favourite animal. Chalk off number Five of the Big Five as well!

Next stop is Satara, where we break for lunch. Although the Leopard has been posted on the spotting board, the Lions have not, so Jo and Rick enjoy adding our spotting to the board. We all have a toastie for lunch, in the very pleasant restaurant. As with Lower Sabie, there are lots of birds here and we enjoy watching them as we eat, flitting around in bursts of colour. While we eat, we also notice that there is only a chain link fence at the edge of the camp and we watch as a small group of Zebra plod past just the other side.

Heading back towards Orpen, where we have to check in for our stay at Tamboti, we head down another of the sand roads. As we drive along, there’s a flash of bright pink in the air front of us and we stop to see what this was. On a tree just to the side of the road, a Lilac

Down the hatch - Lilac-Breasted Roller eating a lizard

Breasted Roller has just landed; this was the brilliant flash of colour we’d seen. We then notice it has something in its beak – this turns out (to Paula’s horror) to be a little lizard that the Roller has caught. Obviously, the lizard is still alive, as the bird proceeds to batter it against the branch, swinging its head to smash the lizard time and again until obviously its prey is stunned or dead; the bird swallows the lizard whole, head first with the tail sticking out of its beak. This really is life in the raw, although Paula now seriously hates Lilac-Breasted Rollers!

We continue onwards, seeing more of the usual wildlife and then get another unexpected bonus as we see, for the first time today, a White Rhino standing just off of the road. This means we have now seen all of the Big Five in just one day, an awesome feeling!  Another, more unusual, “spot” is one of the Kruger National Park helicopters, parked just off the road – we’re just in time to watch this whir into life and take-off, leaving us to marvel at the skill of the pilot, as he seemed to lift straight up through a small gap between the trees. Apparently, he’d just landed to refuel as we pass a pick-up with fuel drums in the back; we ask the driver if he knows whether the helicopter was called out to a Rhino shooting yesterday, but he doesn’t know.

Arriving at Orpen around 4, we’re told that our evening game drive will be picking us up from Tamboti camp at 4:30. This doesn’t leave us much time, so we head back down the road and turn off towards Tamboti camp. Again, this is a nice feeling as we turn into a road marked as No Entry, except for guests at Tamboti and Maroela camps. The road is very bumpy and dusty, which is no problem for the Mitsubishi, but we all wonder how someone towing a caravan would fare – Maroela is a camping site!

We have two tents at Tamboti, typically at either end of the site, so Paula and I drop Rick and Jo off at their tent and head off to find ours. This camp is really wonderful, with very few permanent tents set deep in the bush. Each tent is well separated from its neighbours and ours has a view out over the dried up river bed. We unload quickly and are really impressed with the accommodation; unlike Jo and Rick, we’ve got a luxury tent and this has a kitchen and en-suite bathroom. It is really lovely, both the accommodation and the location.

Having unloaded and changed (putting on warm stuff again against the expected chill of the evening drive) we drive down to the pick up area. This is near Rick and Jo’s tent, by the communal wash block that they will be using (we weren’t being mean giving them the cheaper tent – that’s all that was available when we booked!). Our truck will be coming down to Tamboti from Orpen, so we are a little worried that we’ll be pushed to get seats together as the best seats will have been taken already. We needn’t have worried though, as it turns out that we four are the only people on this evening’s drive! Our driver introduces himself as “Crazy Carl” and tells us to make ourselves comfortable and sit wherever we want as we effectively have a private drive tonight.

It’s still daylight when we set off, and we quickly see the usual wildlife, such as Impala and Guinea Fowl, plus a few Quail and a lovely little Steenbok, plus a few Zebra, Wildebeest and a couple of Elephant in the distance. However, there doesn’t seem to be much else in evidence and it begins to look like a repeat of the other night’s drive where we saw very little. We do get treated to another amazing sunset though, those beautiful oranges and reds and that odd light settling over the bush. There’s really nothing quite like a Kruger sunset.

As darkness falls, we get out the flashlights and as there’s only four of us, share these one between two. Again, there’s not a lot to be seen, other than fleeting glimpses of Bushbabies jumping through the trees and a Nightjar settled on the road. It’s getting cooler now, although still nowhere near as cold as at Pretoriuskop. We’re becoming resigned to not seeing much else when Carl starts picking up speed – he’s seen something in the road that

Hyena caught in the spotlight on our Game Drive

he thinks may be a Porcupine. He’s wrong, but it turns out to be a group of four Hyenas instead! Carl explains that they often lay on the road after sunset, as the black surface retains the heat and the Hyena use it as a sort of hot-water bottle to keep warm. When we pull up and shine the flashlights on them, they grudgingly get up, scowl at us and wander off.


Further on, one of the flashlights picks up the reflection of some eyes; we stop and Carl shouts that he thinks it is a Wild Cat. As I watch it slink off into the grass I say that it has spots and Carl says this makes it a young Serval. This is a very rare sight as these cats are very elusive!

Just as we are about to turn into the road back to Tamboti, there’s a blur of movement to the side. This was a Black Backed Jackal and we just caught a glimpse of it – we were cursing our luck when its partner trotted across as well, right alongside our truck in full view, allowing us a really good look and able to photograph it in the full glare of both flashlights. Having had a very quiet start to this evening drive, the last twenty minutes or so turned into a quite remarkable session, seeing many new species including a very rare Serval!

On arriving back at Tamboti, we all head to our tent for our evening meal. There are no restaurant facilities here, so we are on for another braai. This one is a bit easier to get going than at Pretoriuskop, largely due to a brisk breeze that is blowing (which is also rattling the tent considerably). In fact, my attempts are so good that when I’m turned round talking to the others at the top of the decking, they point out that the steaks on the braai are burning nicely as well! These are doused quickly and the meal (though I say it myself) is really nice.

We all finish and are sitting back relaxing (OK, with a beer or two) up on the decking in front of the tent when we become aware of something moving down at the braai, which is down a flight of steps. To our utter amazement, this turns out to be a Large Spotted Genet, another species of cat. We get the distinct impression it is waiting for the braai to cool down, so it can scavenge the scraps. It seems completely at ease with our presence, not moving at all, apart from its ears, which are in perpetual motion, twitching around listening to all the background noise. Something then seems to spook it as it runs under the stairs and we lose sight of it; joking we say if it was our cat at home, it would reappear on the top step, waiting for scraps. Hardly have we said this than it does appear on the top step!

Our evening visitor, Large Spotted Genet

Sitting no more than six feet from us, it calmly sits there, ears still working overtime and completely at home in our company. It then moves in a blur and springs up into a nearby tree and crouches looking towards us – this gives us a first rate view of its incredibly long tail, which must be twice the length of its body. After a few minutes, it shoots down the tree, back to the braai and then melts into the bush. This was probably the closest encounter with any wildlife we’ve had and was a truly memorable experience.

After this, we turn in for the night (Rick and Jo having to pick their way back across the camp in the dark), reflecting on yet another amazing day in the Kruger.

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Day 14 – Kruger National Park

When we awoke this morning it was still completely dark outside – we were up at five as we were booked on a morning bush walk that left at 6:00. The sky was completely clear and the usual amazing canopy of stars was shining beautifully. It was pretty cold, so we togged up in cold weather stuff, but plenty of layers as we knew it was likely to get warm as the sun rose. We’re all pretty excited, as this is one of the activities we’d planned that we are most looking forward to.

Pat and Jacob, our guides and guardians

Having had a quick breakfast of cereals, we headed up to the petrol station, where the trip would leave from. Before long, other people arrived and then the truck drove up – there were two rangers in it, one being Jacob (our driver from last night) and the other introduced himself as Patrick. Obviously, Patrick was in charge and he checked our permission forms while Jacob went off – to pick up a rifle! Apparently, Patrick has his own but Jacob uses one from a pool.

Patrick explained the format of the excursion, that we would drive out of the camp for around an hour, park the truck and then go for a circular walk for about another hour before returning to the camp. With this all explained, we all boarded the truck; there were nine of us (Paula, Rick and Jo plus four Spanish people and one lone Brit) plus the two rangers. As we headed out of the camp, still in pitch dark, it was noticeable that the temperature was slightly warmer than on the drive last night, hopefully a sign that we’ll soon warm up.

It’s really nice driving through the bush with the dawn gradually exploding, starting with just a few crimson streaks and then bursting into deep oranges and reds before the sun finally rose, turning the sky from dark to that peculiarly rich African blue. The drive is almost worth it just to experience the glory of the sunrise over the Kruger! As we drive along, we see the occasional game, mainly Impala but the odd Zebra and Kudu thrown in. After 45 minutes, we turn off the main road – to our delight, it is down a road marked as “No Entry” so we’re heading for an area not normally seen by visitors.

After bumping down a rough road for a further 15 minutes, Pat brings the truck to a halt – this is it! He tells us all to get out of the truck and this is an eerie feeling as we climb out and stand there, in the middle of the Kruger, with no protective vehicle around us. It’s at once very scary but very exciting.

Pat then proceeds to give us a safety briefing, telling us we must keep together, that we must keep behind himself and Jacob and, most importantly, never try and run if we are charged by an animal. This is to prevent us becoming individual “targets” which Jacob and he would be unable to protect. He then produces his rifle and explains how he checks it and demonstrates loading a round, working the bolt and then ejecting the bullet, finally wiggling his finger into the chamber to ensure he has unloaded the round. He explains that, in the unlikely event of an incident, he will first fire a warning shot and then, only if absolutely necessary to protect us, would he shoot to kill. We take this all in but, to be honest, treated it a bit like the airline safety briefings, it will never happen to us.

It’s already warming up nicely and we shed the first of our layers and stuff these into our backpacks. Pat asks for a volunteer to carry another pack and, as he’s biggest, Rick is the “volunteer”. It is absolutely quiet out here, not even the usual vehicle noise, as we set off into the bush. We are walking in a single file, with Pat and Jacob leading, Paula and I at the rear. We’ve not gone very far when we hear a spine tingling sound –Lions roaring! Pat stops us and tells us that this is a pair of males patrolling their territory and calling to each other to let the other know they are OK. He also tells us that we are in their territory and they are not far off… We all close up a bit as we start off again and we notice that the Spanish woman is visibly shaken.

The bush is a mixture of exposed rocks, fine dusty sand and rough ground – we’re very glad we’ve brought our hiking boots as it would be very easy to turn an ankle here and getting back would be a real problem. In one of the sandy areas, Pat stops us again and points out in the sand a very clear paw print – this is from one of the Lions that we’d heard (they’ve moved away by now) and he says it is pretty fresh. He is actually trying to track the Lions to see if we can get a glimpse of them!

Further on we come to some broken down trees. These are really shiny and he explains that these are used by a variety of animals as scratching posts. Over the years, the continued rubbing by different animals has polished these to a fine, glossy finish. We touch them and they are very smooth – it’s a bit eerie, knowing that wild beasts use this and we’re touching the same place. While we are looking at this, we suddenly hear a tremendous cracking sound, some way off. This is caused by a family of Elephant, working their way across the veld, breaking down anything that gets in their way. Not far from the trees is a fairly large rocky outcrop (or kopje) that Pat tells us is used as a rest place each night for Baboons. They’ve all gone hunting by now and we are going to climb this and stop for breakfast – this is what Rick has been carrying in his backpack!

We all scramble our way up the kopje, following what is obviously a well used path, until we emerge at the top. Here there is a cave and Pat points out some ancient rock paintings (which are almost completely faded) together with footprints from the Baboon family. From the top of the kopje, we have a stunning view. As far as we can we is complete wilderness, not a sign of humanity and it is quite sobering to think just how helpless we would be without the two rangers. We would be unlikely to be able to find our way back to the truck and would be utterly defenceless against the huge variety of dangerous animals out here.

Jacob breaks out the breakfast things from Rick’s backpack; it’s simple stuff, just cereal bars, biscuits, chocolate and cartons of juice but it is up there with Maliba and SeaVilla for the best breakfast of the trip. While we are eating, the two rangers are scanning the area for any signs of life and they call us over to point out a wide plain in the distance. There, clearly visible, is a wonderful sight. As well as a huge herd of Wildebeest are two White Rhino engaged in battle. Whether this is a play fight or for real, we’re not sure but it is an awesome sight, watching these two huge beasts running at each other and battering themselves, kicking up huge clouds of dust. To the other side of the kopje, a little distance away, we can now see the Elephant family that had been making all the noise earlier. From our lofty vantage point, we can see something like half a dozen of them, all battering their way through the bush and stripping trees for breakfast. Up on a hill in front of the kopje is yet another White Rhino – these are becoming one of our most common “spots”.

Looking down on a Giraffe

Breakfast over, we gather up all the rubbish and load it back into Rick’s backpack (which is now much lighter) and start climbing down the rock. This is actually much harder than the ascent and requires a bit of scrambling and calculated jumps between rocks. As we descend, a Giraffe emerges from the bush just in front of us and lopes across the clear ground at the foot of the kopje, no more than 50 feet away, before disappearing back into the trees.

We set off again in our single file and soon Pat stops us again. He’s come across a Rhino “midden” – this is where the male Rhino defecate and it marks their territory. This is a White Rhino midden as it is mainly grass whereas the much rarer Black Rhino eat mainly twigs and leaves. While we are there, he also explains how small animals get the calcium they need (large carnivores get their essential mineral from eating other animals) – when Hyenas finish off a kill, they eat everything that is left, including the bones. When they defecate, their dung is almost completely white as it is largely calcium and other animals then eat this to get their minerals. Yummy!

A little further on, Pat brings us to a stop and indicates for us to bunch into a group. Very quietly, he tells us that, in the bushes immediately in front of us, there are Elephant. He moves forward a bit to get a better view and then comes back to whisper that, in fact, it is not Elephant but the incredibly rare Black Rhino! We can just about see them through a gap in the bushes, a vague shape moving around. Paula whispers the fateful words “I can’t see them”. What happens next is over in less time that it will take to read this.

There’s a sudden commotion in front of us and before we can react this huge Black Rhino bursts through the trees. Heading straight towards us, this massive beast just blasts its way through the scrub; Pat and Jacob are shouting and yelling, throwing branches and then “crack, crack” two load retorts as they fire into the air, followed by another pair of shots, this time at the Rhino. We watch, absolutely transfixed, as, at the last second, the animal swerves away and charges off into the bush, a big, dull red stain on it’s flank where one of the shots hit home. In the background, more commotion as three more White Rhino break cover and charge away into deeper cover. We’re all pretty much in shock at this point, fixed to the spot. The Spanish woman is almost in hysterics and Paula and Jo (and me and Rick) are all breathing very deeply. We notice we’ve all huddled together, almost without realising it. Jacob and Patrick have run after the wounded Rhino and, for a few moments, we’re all alone in the bush and feel incredibly vulnerable.

Very quickly, the two of them return and check that we are all OK. We can then start making sense of what happened – Patrick and Jacob had been uneasy and were discussing which way to move, sideways or backwards. They had, without us noticing, moved forward of the group by 10 yards and grabbed large branches and rocks, anticipating something might happen. Something then spooked the Rhino, possibly the other British guy moving to the side of the group, wearing a brilliant white top that may have caught the Rhino’s eye. Whatever, it had taken a serious dislike to us being there and just hurtled towards us. Patrick showed us a snapped off bush where it had finally turned; this can only have been 25 feet from where we were stood. This was an incredibly close shave and we owe our safety, possibly our lives to the coolness and professionalism of the two rangers. Had the Rhino hit us, it would have seriously injured and perhaps killed one or more of us.

He then asked us to have a quick search for the spent cartridge cases, but asked us not to move forward at all, as they needed the scene kept clear for an official investigation. This is required whenever the rangers fire their rifles as they need to prove that this was absolutely necessary for the protection of themselves and the guests. We find one case but cannot find the others.

We’re all starting to recover a bit by now, and thoughts turn to the injured Rhino. Neither Patrick nor Jacob is entirely sure where (or if) they hit it, although we definitely saw blood on the animal. Even this is unclear amongst us, some thinking it was in the chest, others (including me) being certain it was on the front left shoulder area. We move off finally, somewhat subdued. The return to the truck is uneventful, with Jacob trying to get a signal on his mobile ‘phone in order to report the shooting. He does finally get through and requests a helicopter come out to try and track the Rhino. He also tells us that we’ll be met back at Pretoriuskop by a senior ranger, who will ask us for our version of events.

On the walk back, Pat tells us that this is the first time in eleven years that he has had to shoot an animal; he’d had to fire a warning shot a couple of years previously when a Leopard approached his group but this had proved sufficient to scare the animal away.

Up close with an Elephant

The drive back to Pretoriuskop is uneventful, although we do get a close up of another family of Elephant, munching on trees just by the side of the road. We’re met, as Jacob had told us, by a senior ranger, who’s main concern is that all of us are fine. Once he’s happy that this is the case, he asks us to write up our version of events and hand it in at Reception sometime during the day. At this, we say farewell to our two guides, saying such a big thank-you to them for their professionalism and coolness that prevented what could have been a major tragedy.

Back at the rondavels, we all showered and changed (into shorts again as it is getting very hot by now) and then grabbed a bite to eat before loading up the Mitsubishi again. We’d enjoyed Pretoriuskop; it has a nice ambience and seems nice and laid back. Before we depart the camp, we visit the shop and find a better “thingummy” guide that has more of the animals and birds we’ve either seen or hope to see. We drop off our report on the morning’s events on the way out and say good-bye to Pretoriuskop.

We’ve decided to head down to Lower Sabie camp, aiming to get there for lunch, before turning back north to get to our evening stop at Skukuza. Already, the “excitement” of the morning is wearing off and we’re soon back into the swing of game spotting. We see more of the usual, such as Impala, Zebra and Kudu as well as more of the seeming inevitable White Rhino, before we spot of the crest of a hill a couple of Buffalo. This knocks off another of the “Big 5”, leaving just the Lion and rare Leopard to go. Heading down towards Lower Sabie, the temperature just keeps rising, clearing 30 degrees and peaking at 33! We see loads of animals on the way, including a pair of Vervet Monkeys, who are begging for (and getting) fruit from a stopped car.

As well as the large mammals, we’re also seeing a lot more birds and get a close view of an African Hawk Eagle that is perched on a tree just off of the road and a “real” Snake Eagle, this time a Brown Snake Eagle. We are seeing so many different animals, both in quantity and variety that we start losing track – Jo actually starts a tally of these, so we can recall just what we’ve seen.

A cute little Steenbok

In addition to the “normal” mammals we’ve seen, we add some other slightly rarer types, such as a tiny little Steenbok (which has huge ears), another one that Jo wants to add to her menagerie.

Just before we get to Lower Sabie, there are a lot of cars parked by the side of the road; from previous experience we know this normally indicates something a bit special. We pull over and there is something – a male Lion sprawled out in the reeds on the far side of the Sabie River!

Lion taking a nap on the banks of the Sabie River

Clearly settled in for a serious nap, it hardly moves while we watch, flopped out in a supremely typical cat-like pose. Yet another of the Big Five down! Moving on, we stop by the dam next to Lower Sabie and in the water we see our first Hippo in the Park as well as Elephant, Waterbuck and Warthog around the edges.

We pull into Lower Sabie and wander down to the restaurant to grab some lunch. The restaurant is in what looks to be a new development, with shops and an internet café there as well. The food here is good and, despite it being in a major tourist area, quite reasonably priced. The views from the restaurant are amazing, looking out over the Sabie River, where we can see a couple of Crocodiles, a group of Hippo and yet more Elephants. There’s also abundant bird life here, with brilliantly coloured Weaver birds, Bulbuls, Hornbills and Cape Glossy Starlings. These all know there’s food to be had and woe betide anyone who leaves edibles unattended – the birds will be there in a flash of colour and be away with their pickings.

Eruption of water from the fountain as birds take a bath

As we finish, Rick goes into the internet café (suffering Philippa withdrawal symptoms) and while we are waiting a tiny little Skink runs past us – unfortunately, given her love of little lizards, Paula misses this as it scurries away and hides inside a metal tube. We’re also amused by a great cacophony where birds are splashing in a water fountain, spraying water everywhere.

Back on the road again, we turn north to head towards our next stop, at Skukuza rest camp. We’ve nothing planned here so aren’t in a great hurry (although we have to keep an eye on the time as we have to be there by 18:00 or we’ll be fined for late arrival!) and take a leisurely drive up the Old Tshokwane Road. Again, we use the 4×4 ability to dive off across various sand roads and one of these takes us right past an absolutely huge herd of Buffalo.

Buffalo staring us down

There’s a real mix here from the obviously dominant male, lots of other younger males and females and a couple of little calves. They are pretty relaxed but definitely keeping an eye on us as we drive past.

Just outside Skukuza, as we are crossing one of the bridges, a Monitor lizard comes waddling along the road. We stop and watch as it casually climbs over the parapet and wanders off into the reeds, just feet from where we are watching. On the other bank of the river, there’s another reptile, this time a medium size Crocodile; strangely no other animals around…

We’ve just enough time to run round one of the loops alongside the river; here we see quite a few parked cars and we pull over to see what they are watching. Jo manages to catch a glimpse of a male Lion lying in the reeds but the rest of us can’t see it. Annoyingly, the cars with the best views clearly are not interested in moving to let others have a view, selfishly sitting there obstructing everyone else, so we move on. It turns out well that we do, as just a little further on, two lovely little bushbuck emerge from the bush and cross the road right in front of us. Turning back towards Skukuza, we narrowly miss a mobile road-block as a family of Elephant decide to cross just after we go past. Anyone following us would probably have been late to get in to the camp!

Parking up, we go in to register and pick up our keys; it’s really odd but here is the first time we meet with a miserable reception. In contrast to every other stop, the receptionist clearly can’t be bothered and is quite grumpy as she deals with our conservation fees and hands over our keys.

Map in hand, we drive off through the gathering dusk to find our rondavels. These turn out to be quite close to the centre of the camp and we take a stroll down to the shops once we’ve unloaded. We’ve decided to eat at the restaurant here, which is based in the old Railway Station. Again, this is a fond memory from our last visit.

By the time we set out, it is completely dark and we try to find our way through the camp navigating off the map we’ve been given and a little torch. This proves harder than anticipated and we take a few wrong turns (compounded by a couple of the roads being closed for repair) before we finally see the bright lights of the station. Meanwhile, Jo’s nose has started bleeding profusely and shows no inclination to stop. We arrive at the restaurant and sit in the lobby for a while, waiting for Jo’s nose-bleed to dry up – it slows gradually but still keeps dripping despite everything we do to help.

The Restaurant at Skukuza

Eventually, we go in to the restaurant and sit down, right next to the old railway train. The atmosphere in this restaurant is really lovely, with the old steam engine, carriages and platform signs with distances and journey times to other places all over South Africa. The meal is excellent as well, all of us opting for steaks, with a really nice red wine to wash it down. Jo’s nose keeps dribbling all through the meal, unfortunately, and we grab a huge handful of serviettes for the walk back.

Knowing where we’re going is a big advantage and we’re back at the rondavels in a fraction of the time we’d taken to get there. It’s still lovely and warm and Paula and I sit out for a little while, just watching the stars, when we’re suddenly aware of something in the tree next to us.

Our late night guest, a Long Tailed Bushbaby

Looking up, there’s a cute little animal with big eyes and a long, bushy tail sitting watching us! This, we figure out later, is a Long Tailed Bush Baby – a nice end to a memorable day.

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Day 13 – Swaziland to the Kruger National Park

Unlike yesterday, we awoke this morning to clear blue skies and virtually dead calm. We’re all looking forward to today as, even though it’s the start of the last phase of our holiday, it’s the part we’ve all been looking forward to. Today will see us drive north through Swaziland and cross into the Kruger National Park.

We have a quick breakfast (with bacon today, which we bought at the supermarket!) and repack our bags then load them into the car. While we are packing, the farm’s flock of peafowl came visiting, including a very pretty peacock that delights in showing off its massive tail. Once everything was loaded, we headed off up the track, past the farm and departed Nyanza. This had, unfortunately, been a bit of a let down; it was nice enough but nowhere near as special as it had been 10 years ago and somewhere we wouldn’t return to again.

We picked up the MR3 again and retraced our steps from yesterday. Where Malkerns is in the Ezulwini valley, it means we have to climb several hundred meters up to Mbabane and the road is windy and steep; unlike last time though, the Mitsubishi coped easily (our VW Combi really struggled on our last visit). Pretty soon we were passing around Mbabane (and, unsurprisingly, the attendant speed trap) and heading back towards the border. When we reached Ngwenya we turned north to head back up the MR1 towards Piggs Peak.

The weather was much nicer today and, as a result, we were able to see much more of the scenery. It is a pretty country, with rolling hills and valleys, and plenty of greenery in contrast to Lesotho, which was very dry. Just past Piggs Peak we planned to stop and visit the Phophonyane falls, which are in the Phophonyane Nature Reserve. We found the turn with no problem and headed off down a real dirt road, again grateful for the 4×4 capability. Very annoying, after around 5km of rough road, we find a sign informing us that there is an entrance fee (which is pretty steep) for the Park. As these didn’t look all that spectacular, we do a three point turn and head back; they really need to signpost this at the turn on the main road.

A little further on, the road started descending sharply and we rapidly lost height, heading down to the Lowveld and our destination, the Kruger. As we got lower, the vegetation changed appreciably, and there was far more evidence of commercial agriculture, again largely sugar cane. Just a couple of miles more and we arrived at our last road border crossing, leaving Swaziland at Matsamo and entering South Africa at Jeppe’s Reef. This involves the familiar charade of exiting one country, driving 50 meters and then getting our passports stamped again.

Back in South Africa for the final time on this holiday, we head north up the R570. Almost immediately, the differences between South Africa and Swaziland become apparent as we pass the town of Jeppe’s Reef. This is way bigger than anywhere we’ve seen in Swaziland, and the petrol station we stop at is large, busy and very modern. The shops here are bigger and brighter than in Swaziland and it doesn’t seem quite so frenetic although probably busier. We stop just long enough to pick up a few bits as we’re intending stopping to stock up before we get to the Kruger (and there’s no bottle store!).

Driving further up the road, we pass more commercial agriculture, now seeing fruit trees (pineapples, oranges and what we think are lychees) as well as the inevitable sugar cane. We also pass a number of nature reserves and start getting into animal spotting mode – Jo sees a large antelope to one side but we’re past it in a flash and no-one else sees it. Before long, we come to the main N4 high-way that runs east to west from Pretoria to Maputo, across the bottom of the Kruger, so we know we are close. However, we need to stock up on supplies so turn left towards Malalane. On the map this is shown as a small town – the reality is somewhat different! It’s a huge place, with loads of shops and a couple of massive supermarkets (and a large bottle store). We replenish our supplies as we’re unsure what we’ll be able to buy once we’re in the Kruger, so we get more stuff for the braai, lunch bits and plenty of Castles.

Duly stocked up, it is time to head back down the N4 to the Malalane Gate. Our excitement levels are really rising now and this is heightened as we cross the bridge towards the gate – we’re reminiscing about how, last time, there was a huge crocodile in the river here as we left the Kruger and, to our great joy, there’s one just as big in virtually the same place this time. First animal sighting in the Kruger chalked off!

We park up outside the entry office and Paula and I go in to get our entry permits. Surprisingly, the queue at the desk is really long – this seems to be a combination of slow staff and idiots that wait until they get to the counter before filling in their entry forms. While we’re waiting, we look for a spotting book, expecting they would have the ones we bought last time as these were so good. Unfortunately, they don’t have this one so we settle for another guide book which looks OK. Finally, it is our turn and we get logged into their system and then gain our entry permit – we’re in and on our way!

It isn’t long before we come across our first animals inside the park; not surprisingly, this is a herd of Impala. Although we know we are going to be fed up with the sight of these before long, they are our first “spot” and we actually stop and take photos. All of us are into spotting mode and all watching out intently for any signs of animals.

Our first stop in the park is at Pretoriuskop, where we are booked onto an evening game drive. Helpfully, neither the booking form nor the people at Malalane Gate gave us a clue as to what time we needed to be there for this activity. Consequently, we agreed to head straight for Pretoriuskop and aim to get there early afternoon. The beauty of having the Mitsubishi 4×4 again became apparent as we were able to leave the main, tarred, road and cut off towards our destination on a sand road. Although you can travel these in a “normal” car, we’d found last time that it can be very uncomfortable. Even with the 4×4, these roads can be wearing though, as they often have ridges running across the road which make for a bumpy ride.

Giraffe grazing

Giraffe, complete with oxpeckers

Although game was fairly sparse near the gate, as we got further into the park we started seeing more and varied animals. One thing we notice a lot of, which we don’t remember from last time is the number of yellow hornbills. It seems there’s one of these either flitting across the road or standing by the road side almost every 50 meters. We drive along, stopping frequently as we (usually think we) see something and gradually the species count starts rising; we add Kudu and Nyala to the list as well as vast numbers of Impala. We then start seeing more variety as we come across Zebra, Giraffe and Wildebeest before seeing the best so far, a small family group of Elephant, grazing just by the side of the road.

By now it is around lunch-time so we pull off at one of the waterholes along the route to grab a bite to eat; it’s really peaceful and pleasant here as we switch off the engine and can just listen to the odd bush sounds, while we watch. At the waterhole, there are warthog and more Nyala on the far bank, on a log in the middle are a whole load of terrapins playing “king of the castle” and we are entertained by a bright yellow bee-eater who flits to and fro, usually landing on a branch just above us. We could stay there all day but have to head on towards Pretoriuskop, so we finish lunch and get going again.

White Rhino

Four White Rhino dozing in the sun

As we near Pretoriuskop, we slow as there are some grey mounds off to our left. Thinking these may be more elephant, we stop and, to our amazement and joy, they turn out to be four huge White Rhino, dozing in the afternoon sun. We can see them ever so clearly, each of them with a massive horn. They also have their attendant ox-peckers, flitting around between them. They look really peaceful and dozy and we sit and watch for ages. Considering that 10 years ago, we’d managed a fleeting glimpse of a mother and baby Rhino in the distance, this was almost too amazing for words.

After a while we move on, reluctantly, and continue towards Pretoriuskop. A while later, in an oasis of green, we see some building at the top of the hill and realise we are almost there. We drive in through the main gate, park up and go to register. We do this with no problem (although it is irritating that we have to pay the daily conservation fee at each stop, rather than in one lump) and ask about the game drive. This leaves at 4:30 – it is now 4:00 so we’d actually cut it fine!

Very quickly, we drive down to find our rondavels. As we drive through the camp, we notice that there are lots of Impala inside! They are obviously allowed to roam free here, and do make for a very natural and peaceful setting.

Impala grazing

Impala grazing inside Pretoriuskop

Arriving at our rondavels, we very quickly unload the bags as we need to find our cold weather clothes and change. We’re all very aware of just how cold it can get on a game drive and want to make sure we are wrapped up warm. This does make us look at bit odd as we wander back up to the petrol station (where the game drive departs from) as it is still very warm yet we are all wearing warm clothes! There are already a few people waiting and we join them, watching the Impala and the lovely Cape Glossy Starlings that positively gleam in the evening sunshine.

Following a short wait, a safari truck pulls up and our guide for the evening jumps out and introduces himself as Jacob. We all bundle onto the truck, fortunately able to sit near each other as it is completely full. Jacob goes to fold up the drop down step but finds that, with the weight of us all on board, the truck has dropped and the step is now wedged firmly against the kerb. A bit of brute force and assistance from another ranger and he gets it folded away and we set off. Although the sun is still bright in the sky, the temperature is starting to fall and the blast of the cold air as we drive along makes us very glad we’ve wrapped up warm.

Before long, we come across our first game of the drive, a herd of impala plus a few waterbuck; Jacob regales us with the tale of how they got the white circles, very similar to the one we’d heard in St. Lucia. He also asks us what the alternative name is for Impala; one person calls out “rooibok” which is correct but Jacob gives two other definitions. The first is the “Kruger Cockroach” as they are everywhere. The second is from the black and white stripes on their tail – upside down, this looks like a “W” and thus gives them the nickname of “Wimpy” as they are fast food for Leopards, who hang them upside down in trees.

Jacob turns out to be a very entertaining and knowledgeable driver, explaining things like how to make Marula beer and the effects this has, how Elephant can get drunk on fermenting Marula fruit, and other stories. A bit further on and we come across a family of Baboons, running across a large rock, then more Impala, Zebra and Kudu. We add to this a couple of small Duiker before we see just off to the side, yet another White Rhino! Obviously, the White Rhino must like this area of the park.

The sun is now setting fast, and the sky is lit brilliantly with blues and reds and oranges. We stop and watch as the sun plummets below the horizon, marvelling at just how fast is sets in South Africa compared to home.

Sunset over the Kruger

Brilliant colours of the sunset over the Kruger National Park

A couple of the luckier passengers now get the spotlights to try and pick out animals in the gathering dark. Unfortunately, the guy nearest Jo and I has an obsession in looking for Leopard and flits his light from tree to tree and, consequently, we see nothing on this side. The other side is more patient and manages somehow to catch a glimpse of something sat on a termite mound; Jacob backs up the truck and in the aim of the spot light, we can clearly see a Spotted Genet, a fairly rare type of cat.

This turns out to be the highlight of the drive and we don’t see very much from then until we return to Pretoriuskop, some two hours after we’d left. By now, despite the cold weather clothes and blankets provided, we’re all pretty cold and stiff, but have enjoyed the drive (although a little disappointed that we’d not seen a huge amount of game, but that’s the luck of the draw). We head back down to the rondavels and set about getting the braai going. This proves surprisingly hard, despite the amazing firelighters we’d bought – these combine a firelighter with a match head, and so you strike them to light and then push them into the charcoal. After a while and with assist from a plastic plate to fan the embers, it’s finally hot enough to cook and we have a really nice piece of steak together with boerworst sausage. It’s really nice, eating out in the open, watching the grazing impala and admiring the countless stars in a now cloudless sky. It’s just so good to be back in the Kruger!

We turn in pretty early as we have a very early start in the morning – we’re booked on the morning bush walk and this leaves the camp at 6:00!

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