Marakele National Park

Our first camp in our new setup

Our first camp in our new setup

After our first two weeks in Africa we’re exhausted but happy. Several months ago we paid a deposit on an ex-rental Toyota Landcruiser fitted out with a roof top tent, awning, kitchen, 40 litre fridge, table and chairs, water tank, long range fuel tank, second spare and the basics in recovery gear. When we arrive at the company premises on Monday morning we are delighted to find the people at Bushlore to be friendly and extremely helpful and the vehicle is just as specified. The potentially difficult red tape of dealing with the purchase is handled very efficiently including an introduction to the African way of doing business when the TRN, the ‘Traffic Register Number’ which is necessary for all foreigners to obtain before purchasing a vehicle, is obtained in just 24 hours. The procedures can take weeks with no guarantee of success but Bushlore knows the right guy who knows the right guy so after accompanying him to the carpark of the vehicle registration office we hand over a bundle of cash, a couple of passport photos and hey presto the job is done. By Thursday all the paper work is finished, the vehicle is prepared, the rest of the money has been transferred and the vehicle is ours.

The more time consuming task is to find and purchase the seemingly millions of extra items we need before we are ready to hit the road for a long trip. Every day we head out to shopping centres and specialty stores to learn what the local market has and buy things ranging from wineglasses to bedding, a tyre pressure gauge to tea towels, all the basics for the kitchen and things to store them in, extra utensils and laundry products, a much thicker and more comfortable mattress for the roof top tent, and on and on and on. By mid way through the second week we have still not finalised some of the important purchases like solar panels, additional batteries and regulators or extra lighting for the car but we are shopped out and in need of a bush break.

Time is limited but we figure we can swing a trip away for two nights and after considering the options we decide to head north into the Limpopo Province to the Marakele National Park. Google tells us we’ll be there in less than three hours but that is far too optimistic and its closer to five hours by the time we arrive at the Bontle camp site in the National Park.

I’m really impressed by the camp ground. The camping area is divided into three loops with large campsites spread around loop each plus a few permanent safari tents. Boundary posts indicate the limit of where we are allowed to camp and walk but there is no barrier between the posts so the animals grazing just nearby are free to roam into the camp. There are no large predators in this section of the park so it is quite safe, unless you trip over a wart hog in the middle of the night. There is a dam nearby and a large open grassed area between it and the camp so while we eat a delayed lunch we are treated to the sight of Impala, Zebras, Gemsbok, Wart Hogs, Ostriches and Kudu happily eating their lunch as well. Its very warm and the birds are quiet but a few Yellow Billed Hornbills forage around our camp site and cute Ground Squirrels scamper up the trees. Ostriches and Wart Hogs happily wander through the camping area but the Zebras and various antelope come close to the boundary posts but remain beyond it.

In addition to the great viewing the camp site impresses me with its facilities. Spotless showers and toilet blocks are located in each loop with a couple of washing up sinks as well. Each site has a tap, rubbish bin and power point as well as a braai where we can light a wood fire for a barbecue.

We are not allowed to drive in the park before 6.00 am and we have to be back by 6.00 pm but this looks a great place for photos anyway so that won’t be a hardship here. After lunch we decide we have time for a drive around part of the park before we need to return to camp for our first attempt at setting up the roof top tent. We head for the bird hide and I get my first giraffe sighting along the way, amazing animals. We also spot a cute Ververt monkey and more Kudu.

We manage to miss the turn to the bird hide and reach the tunnel and gate which separate the two sections of the park. The larger animals are confined to the other side so we head in hoping to see some of them. There are lots of trees and thickets of bushes along the road so there are lots of places for animals to be out of sight and we don’t even spot any Impala which were numerous in the other section but the scenery is very impressive. Usually you can drive to the top of a rocky mountain near where a large flock of Cape Vultures nest but the Parks Board are resurfacing the road at present so unfortunately it is not open. Instead we drive around and between other hills enjoying the scenery and getting a feel for the place.

Back at camp we manage the set up of our roof top tent, it probably took longer than it needed to but we’ll certainly get faster with more practice and familiarity. We watch the sun set and the sky change colours with a glass of wine and cheese and biscuits, then cook our meal and clean up and still have time to enjoy the balmy evening before bed.

On the next day we go for a longer drive in the morning and aim to spend the afternoon back at our camp watching the animals from there. Once again there are very few animals in the other section of the park, apart from a pair of Klipspringers, that is until we are approaching the exit gate and are confronted by a large elephant walking along the bitumen road towards us. We immediately stop and it continues its steady pace toward us. This can be potentially dangerous so Paul has the car in reverse and he is ready to take off if the elephant appears to be aggressive. It comes close but remains calm. Right next to us it takes a good sniff, obviously decides we are harmless and wanders off into the bush. What a great experience!

Very close!

Very close!

The afternoon and night are very windy with lots of dust blowing around and the animals nearby are not as abundant. We agree however that its still a great place to be and we have had a great start to our time in the African bush.

Joburg, First Impressions

Big       Dusty     Bustling     Growing      Sprawling

Johannesburg, or Joburg or Jozi or JHB, is a sprawling busy place, the largest city in South Africa. The population of the city itself is estimated to be 4.4 million while the greater metro area has a population estimated at 8.8 million or 10.5 million depending on the definition of the areas included. Suburbs stretch out in all directions separated by dusty fields. Its always dry at this time of the year following the dry winter season but this year there has been a severe drought and its even drier than usual. Wood and coal fires are often used for cooking and heating and the the smoke combines with the millions of car exhausts to leave a pall of smog over the rolling hills.

The roads are far better than I expected with a network of freeways and highways supplementing the quieter suburban roads which include the occasional dirt road. Private cars are plentiful and there are also lots of mini-buses which gather on the edges of large intersections and serve as public transport around the city and out into the country. At times wars can erupt between different mini-bus owners and operators as competition for business is strong. Adherence to road laws is patchy with speed limits and red lights not always observed so care needs to be taken when driving. Theft from vehicles is a concern so even when driving our bags, phones and other valuables need to be stored out of sight. Some areas are best avoided so we take local advice, avoid the city centre and also use our common sense to avoid the highly congested spots.

Significant parts of the population live in townships with overcrowding and poor facilities but acres of new housing developments are filling in the gaps between suburbs and attesting to the growing affluence of the population. There are hundreds of shopping centres and lots more in the process of being built. Most we visit are very quiet and it feels like there is already an oversupply. Many are very similar in feel to Australian shopping centres although of course chain names differ. Costs are cheaper than in Australia but not as cheap as usual as the drought has driven costs up because more goods need to be imported.

We are staying in one of the areas between the denser suburbs so there are large blocks of land, many of which are used to keep horses or plant nurseries. Looking out the window there are very few buildings to be seen, just the dry fields and fences. Electric fences surround most properties and elaborate security systems are used. Driving along side roads we pass long high fences and walls topped with barbed wire and many suburbs are totally enclosed with guards on the entrance gates. Certainly a huge difference to the relaxed air in Australia. On the other hand the new suburbs are depressingly similar, huge brick houses are perched on small blocks almost touching each other and the shopping centres compete to be bigger and more sterile than the ones up the road.

I’m sure more time will add to and possibly alter my first impressions but so far its been a pretty easy introduction to this huge continent. Now I’m eagerly waiting to sample some of the country side.