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Our travels across South Africa
After tucking several years of travel experience under our belts, Bob and I made plans for a self-guided tour of South Africa where we would complete a circular route taking us from Johannesburg, through Swaziland, along the Indian Ocean, across the Kalahari Desert and back to our starting point. It was an awesome trip that we will never forget!!
Even as a child, I eagerly anticipated family camping trips to the far reaches of my own country, Canada, because I was keen to see the Prairies, the Rockies and the Atlantic Provinces for myself, regions I had only ever read about. The many faces of our vast nation excited me and spawned in me an adventurous nature that has carried forward into my adult years, and with each subsequent trip has had Bob and me looking further afield for adventure.
Our vacation began the night of October 31st from Toronto International Airport. As we flew over England in the early morning hours, we could see lights springing to life in a few houses in Norwich. As the sun rose, The Netherlands came into view revealing endless patchwork fields, all abundantly green and striated with narrow canals. Flashes of pink and gold caught our eyes where the morning sun reflected off the calm surface of the man-made channels.
The next 12-hour leg of our flight was aboard a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jet that was soon flying high above the Sahara Desert. The sight of that sprawling, endless sea of sand defied any previous notion I had of the iconic desert. By times, there was white sand for as far as the eye could see, and yet at other times, the desert took on a soft beige hue. From our elevation, the surface looked velvety soft even though a subtle wave pattern delicately ruffled the sand.
Our flight over the desert lasted for hours! Periodically, the pristine sandy surface gave way to rough black hills where the bedrock has been swept bare. The desert winds have alternately left behind endless arrow-straight rifts of sand that run parallel to one another and stretch forever until they fade from view on the horizon. Midway down the continent, we began to see rivers crisscrossing the landscape and the odd structure, but still the land appeared parched and burned.
Good planning had us landing at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa at 11:00 p.m. local time and spending the night in an airport hotel. First order of business the next morning was to “phone home”. We thought Canada was 6 hours ahead of us, but Bob found just the opposite when he reached our son at 1:30 a.m. Whoops! At least the international phone chip worked.
Our adventure began north of Johannesburg near Sabie where we spent the first couple of days exploring that area’s section of the Drakensberg escarpment. It was a must to visit Blyde River Canyon with its incredible rock formations bearing whimsical names: The Pinnacle, God’s Window and Bourke’s Luck Potholes. Most impressive was the view from Three Rondavel’s Lookout. This is the only canyon in the world that is abundant with old-growth native trees, and setting it off is a span of turquoise water snaking along the bottom.
Bob and I made frequent stops on our travels to replenish the gas tank, and at one such stop, we met this small family at a local store. Whereas a lot of the children in South Africa sport uniforms in their school colours, this friendly lady with her trio of children were out and about on errands, and like most people we saw in South Africa, their choice of clothing was in vibrant colours.
Kruger National Park certainly was on our list of places to explore, and it was everything that we expected it to be and more. One of our daily excursions took us to the small lake next to Sunset Dam, near Little Sabie. It was a mecca for waterbirds. While Bob and I marveled at the varieties of species, we took note of large grey rocks nudging their way to the surface of the lake. When the water was reduced to a sudden seething turbulence, we realized that the grey mounds were hippopotamuses.
The routine when staying in one of the compounds in Kruger National Park is to rise very early and head out as soon as the gates are opened for the day. The tall steel barriers are in place to keep out the wild animals. As we drove the many back roads that bisect the game reserve, the hunt was on for any animals that we might espy. On one of many occasions, a massive elephant sauntered out of the forest and brought our car and the one approaching to a standstill. It was so moving to see each of these behemoths in their natural habitat.
Kruger National Park covers 19,485 square kilometres or 2 million hectares of South African Lowveld in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in the northeastern part of the country. This SANParks preserve is home to an unmatched diversity of life forms, but it would require far more than one trip to adequately tour every region of the park. There are only so many hours in a day between gate opening and gate closure.
Our self-guided safaris throughout the Lowveld of Kruger National Park turned up, for our viewing pleasure, a great many of the 147 species of mammals, a fair representation of the 507 species of birds, and a couple of the 114 species of reptiles that make the Park home. At no time, when outside of the camp compounds, is a visitor allowed to exit their automobile unless they have entered into another rest camp. One never knows what is lurking in the long grasses or behind dense thickets at roadside.
Having said that, there are organized wildlife excursions that people may sign up for at their base camp, and Bob and I joined Rouleni and Opa, two experienced naturalists that operate out of Skukuza Rest Camp where we were staying. By 5:00 a.m. one morning, we and four other guests set off on a long hike through the bush with the two armed men keeping watch over us. The anticipation and excitement was palpable; strict rules were outlined to govern our behaviour.
Our guides were very intuitive and vigilant so it was no surprise when they signaled the presence of a monstrous white bull rhinoceros upwind of us at one point, and we came across lots of scat…hyena, porcupine and rhino. Near a dry riverbed where some rhinos had spent the night, we found a trio of black rhinoceroses browsing about 300 feet distant from us. Caution was exercised to keep ourselves downwind, and the animals made no effort to move in our direction.
The same could not be said for a pair of hyenas that mounted the far edge of the grass knoll where the rhinos were resting. They badgered the rhinos then made straight for we eight well-fed humans. Being expert interpreters of the animals’ behaviour, our guides reassured us that the hyenas were only curious this time ’round. As they approached to within 10 feet of our group, we nervously shot off hundreds of photos, confident in the guides’ protection.
Over the course of our stay in Kruger National Park, we had occasion to see and observe several lions, but it was on the morning of our departure that we spotted a beautiful male taking its leisure in the long grass at roadside after traveling all night. Lions use the gravel roads as conduits and often will lay on the heated sand for warmth during the chill of the night.
In order to cut hundreds of miles off our journey to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in the province of KwaZulu Natal, it was necessary to drive across the country of Swaziland after leaving Kruger. That was an experience in and of itself. This put us within striking distance of this, the oldest game reserve in South Africa, within one day, albeit a very long one. We lay our heads to rest in a split-level, 2-bedroom housekeeping cabin with a panoramic view from the Hilltop Compound.
Our hilltop cabin overlooked the undulating mountaintops that typify this nature preserve, and on our first morning, we woke up to brilliant sunshine washing over the canopy of trees while a refreshing breeze tantalized our senses. Bob and I took more time in this tranquil location to relax and relish the sights and sounds from our own retreat, but one day, we set off to explore and soon came face to face with a pair of white rhinoceroses that stood their ground and had us retreating along the dirt road in order to avert impact with our automobile by an angry, charging rhino.
The next leg of our trip saw us driving from Mtubatuba at breakneck speed on the N2 highway in the direction of our next pitstop at Ramsgate. Still, errant cattle wandered onto the roadway, hitchhikers were frequently encountered, locals routinely crossed the 4-lane freeway, and fruit vendors had stalls on the shoulders of the road. We actually stopped to buy some local pineapple before arriving at Beachcomber Bay Hotel where we were settled into a grandiose room with a capacious sunroom overlooking the Indian Ocean. Nearby Oribi Gorge on the Umzimkulwna River rewarded us with spectacular views from overlooks at the Overhanging Rock and Baboon’s Castle on a subsequent day trip.
I was really excited at the prospect of driving The Garden Route, that stretch of coastal highway that is sandwiched between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains and the Indian Ocean. I am an avid gardener so was keen to discover the diverse wildflowers and native shrubs that comprise the fynbos, natural heathland vegetation unique to that habitat. What we found was a tantalizing tapestry of colour that went on for mile after mile. The plants so complimented one another with their variety of textures and colours, sizes and shapes, that you’d think the shoulders had been landscaped. One such plant was this King Protea, the national flower of South Africa. Blooms on this plant can be up to 300 millimetres (11.8 in) across.
One cannot visit Cape Town without a trip to the top of Table Mountain. The view was spectacular, and we lucked out with sufficiently clear weather that endured for most of our time on the mountain, but Bob and I did not linger at the lookout. Instead, we spent hours investigating a number of the designated hiking trails that provide different perspectives, are integrated amongst the wide variety of flora endemic to that unique location, and led us to certain historical markers on the plateau.
A few days later, we stopped at Cape of Good Hope. I have never been much on history, but certainly, I remember well learning in grade school about famous explorers rounding the dangerous Cape as they made their way to and from the Far East. I had contrived an image of the legendary Cape in my imagination, and the actual location lived up to my preconceived impressions. Bob and I hiked to the top of the headland and had our own firsthand look at both the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean where they meet.
Thought of the Kalahari Desert brings to mind some tale of adventure where survival is the center of the plot. Let me tell you, when crossing that austere, parched, severe landscape, we were concerned for our own survival. Road signs were very infrequent, some road surfaces were so studded with sharp rocks we feared a punctured oil pan, and the lack of other travelers had us relying on only ourselves to navigate that barren land. It was quite the challenge.
Thankfully, there were pockets of habitation and occasional areas of farming, but they were few and far between. It actually reassured us just to see a woman hanging laundry within sight of the gravel road and lifted our spirits when we came across a small lemon orchard because we knew we were not alone.
Bob and I marveled at the country of South Africa, and when circumventing the country, every step of the way had been an adventure filled with memorable sights and unforgettable moments. As we drew near Johannesburg for our flight home, we congratulated ourselves on a well-thought out trip that played out perfectly with no glitches…other than one flat tire. We would go back again in a heart beat to South Africa. Both of us just loved it!