Coastal paradise

Ningaloo Reef in Cape Range National Park, Western Australia

Ningaloo Reef should be on the must visit list for everybody travelling in Australia. It stretches for more than 200 kilometres down the west coast of the continent from the North West Cape above Exmouth to Red Bluff not far north of Carnarvon. Much of it is a marine park and there are plentiful and beautiful fish and corals which can be seen by snorkelling straight off the beach. 

We’ve visited the reef, staying in the Cape Range National Park, on every previous visit to the west and this year was no exception. Bookings in the park can be hard to get, especially in the prime season from mid May when the Whale Sharks arrive until late September when the temperatures and the winds are both rising. Apart from odd days here and there the campsites are usually filled as soon as bookings open 6 months in advance. This year all bookings were cancelled when national parks closed when the covid restrictions were enforced and then reopened when the restrictions were eased. We were lucky, and quick, enough to get a two week booking in a small camp ground near two of the prime snorkelling spots. 

On the afternoon before our booking commences we reach the eastern side of the national park and took the road up to the top of the range next to Charles Knife Canyon. There’s no camping allowed but we find a spot to stop where we can set up late and pack up early and Paul can take some sunset and sunrise photos. 

After the photos were taken we stopped in Exmouth to make sure we had enough supplies for two weeks and our gas and water were full then drove around to the coast on the western side of the range. We set up camp on our site in North Mandu Camp, taking the camper of the back of the Ute and putting out our big awning and all our mats and got ready to enjoy two weeks of paradise. The weather was warm to hot, winds variable but only ranging from calm to moderate, and only a couple of days with clouds.

Days were spent snorkelling, swimming, walking in Yardie Gorge and relaxing in camp. The Yardie Gorge walk is not terribly long or difficult with only a couple of slightly tricky descents into gullies and there are some lovely views along the way and at the end. Paul also visited Pilgramunna Gorge at sunset one evening.

The beach in front of our camp was rocky and there was a southerly drift so our favourite swimming spots were Sandy Bay about 10 km south or Turquoise Bay a few km north. Turquoise Bay is also one of the prime snorkelling spots with either a relaxing swim and snorkel in the quiet bay or a snorkel on the other side of the point where the current allows you to drift over wonderful corals and colourful fish.

The best snorkelling however was at Oyster Stacks. These are only about a kilometre north of our camp and there is a significant southerly drift so we could walk up the beach over the rocks and enter the water and just drift back to camp. We had some days of great visibility and the coral is truly remarkable. It’s a fish sanctuary zone and they are prolific with amazing colours and shapes. We also spotted several rays and a turtle.

After our wonderful days we would usually sit at the top of the beach to watch the sun set into the ocean and chat with the other campers. Truly paradise.

Sunset from the top of North Mandu Beach, Cape Range National Park

The Red, Red Dirt of Home

Kennedy Range NP

If you travel in outback Australia the red dirt, which blankets much of the interior of this country, invades your vehicle and, no matter how well you clean your car, you will still be finding pockets of red tucked into crevices and hinges for years to come. The red dirt settles into the blood and soul of some people and I’m happy to be one of them. 

For many years I relished city and urban life then grew to love living surrounded by bush or near the ocean. I still love the bush and the beach and the occasional visit to the big smoke but if I’m away from the red dirt for too long I get a yearning to return.

Winter is the easiest time to travel in the outback when temperatures are more comfortable. Our last few winters have been spent either overseas or on the east coast so as covid restrictions eased and we were allowed to travel within Western Australia my first request was to head inland, camp in the bush and enjoy a good campfire, and see some of that red, red dirt.

Kennedy Range National Park is a couple of hundred kilometres inland of Carnarvon on the west coast of Australia. Rather than follow the highway up from Geraldton where we had spent the covid lockdown period we drove inland and travelled for two days along mainly dirt roads through the tiny settlements of Murchison and Gascoyne Junction. Traffic was scarce and it was great to be out of town and away from civilisation.

We found a pleasant overnight spot to camp at Bilung Pool. It’s a permanent water hole which was used by the early settlers and before that by generations of Aboriginals. Paul enjoyed catching the late afternoon and early morning light on the magnificent white gums at the edge of the pool.

We reached Kennedy Range by the middle of the next day and found several other groups in the Temple Gorge camp ground. The range is an eroded plateau and the camp and most walks are at the base of spectacular cliffs that rise 100m above the plains. The best way to appreciate the range is from the air and Paul flew the drone early in the morning, well away from camp, and captured some of the beauty.

Some walks enter the gorges and you pick your way through the rocks and admire the formations and patterns in the gorge walls. Others take you along the face of the escarpment and past huge rocks which have fallen in years past. A Wedge Tail Eagle rode the thermal currents above us.

There are no individual fire pits at the campsites but a large communal fire was a great place to cook dinner and to sit and chat with other campers each evening. After months of travel restrictions everyone was happy to be back in the bush and the conversations, as always, turned to previous adventures and experiences and future plans. 

From the Highlands of Kenya to Lake Victoria

Kenya

Mt Kenya

After our travels in Northern Kenya we are going to spend a week or so in the Central Highlands of Kenya and then travel west across the Rift Valley and onward to the Ugandan border. First though we need to pass through the highlands and continue on to Nairobi for some repairs that have come about from all the jolting around on the roads in the north. On the way we make an overnight stop at a trout farm not far from Mt Kenya. It has a restaurant, various types of accommodation and a small area grassy area for camping. From the main road it is about 8km along a dirt road with a ford across a small creek at the end. Perhaps because of the distance from the main road and Nairobi, or insufficient marketing, there is just one couple finishing a late lunch when we arrive and no other guests for the rest of the time we are there. It is a shame as it is a beautiful spot and the food and the service are excellent. The staff are extremely friendly and dressed very formally. They certainly make sure we enjoy our stay.

One of the highlights is seeing the Black & White Colobus Monkeys in the trees next to our camp. They have long black and white fur with long white tails and white ringed faces. They travel through the high tree tops and leap from branch to branch. There is also one Blue Monkey (Sykes Monkey) which lives in the area and he approaches also, apparently it is unusual for the two types to be in the same area and they have a bit of a territorial dispute.

This close to Mt Kenya we are more than 2,200 metres in altitude so it is no surprise that it is a very chilly night. We can expect more cold weather when we are staying in this area after our repairs so the four of us have booked a week in two houses through Air BnB. The bookings commence in just under a week so we hope that will give us plenty of time to finish our work in Nairobi.

Back in Nairobi our repairs consist of reattaching the awning and replacing some latches on the canopy. The tasks get organised in the next few days but not completed. We can’t find new latches anywhere in Nairobi and have to ship some from South Africa and they will arrive the next week. We sit around waiting for several days while we wait to arrange the work on the awning and eventually make a booking to have the work completed the next week. It will mean an extra trip back to Nairobi for Paul but it is the best arrangement we can make. While we are waiting we take a trip into town to get a new Temporary Import Permit (TIP) for our car and to visit Basharia Street, the area previously filled with Indian Traders and still lined with fascinating stores to explore and a great place to pick up some new Kikois. For lunch we call into the Thorn Tree cafe at the New Stanley Hotel, a place Paul used to call into for coffee when he lived in Nairobi. Since the early 1900s, the New Stanley Hotel has been known as a traditional meeting place for those going on safari  in Kenya and messages would be left attached to the original tree. There is a more formal message board next to the tree now.

Meanwhile Jared and Jen are busy completing their own repairs on their trailer. They manage to get most of the parts and work their way through their list. Their new brake assembly also needs to be shipped from South Africa but should arrive before Paul has to return so he can collect it at the same time. Paul and I end up being ready to leave Nairobi one day early and Jared and Jen eventually leave two days later than planned. Guess that is what we can expect from making plans.

Its difficult to find a nice camping spot north of Nairobi that will suit Paul and I for a night so we check other accommodation and find a great deal on a room in the Misty Mountain Resort near Mt Kenya and not far from where we will be staying for the following few nights. Its such a good deal in fact that the staff have never heard of a room being so cheap. It appears a mistake has been made but as we have a confirmed booking we end up with a wonderful room and some brief views of Mt Kenya in the morning when the clouds clear as a bonus.

The tip of Mt Kenya peeks above the clouds

Our first home stay is for three nights in a place called Cammplot just out of Naro Moru and less than 10km from Misty Mountain Resort. We arrive early while the place is still being cleaned but that is no problem and we are made welcome by Karanja who manages the house. As we are shown around the house we begin to wish we had this place booked for longer. It is perfect! Downstairs is a big open space living and dining area with an open fire in the centre. Behind is well equipped kitchen at one end and a double bedroom and a bathroom at the other end. In front is a huge deck with a dining table and chairs as well as two couches around another open fire place plus more seating. In front is grass leading down to a small ldam and then a rise covered in bush beyond and eventually the cloud covered slopes of Mt Kenya. Upstairs are two more large bedrooms with ensuites, the main is huge with two walk in robes and a seating area and best of all a huge window which will give us views of the mountain from our bed … when the clouds clear.

Karanja lives nearby and arranges for firewood when we request it and sets the fire but otherwise we are left on our own to enjoy the space and the peace. Paul commandeers the downstairs bedroom to work on his photos and as it is the first place we have had access to a washing machine for ages I wash several loads the easy way. Hand wringing sheets and towels sure is a pain. I also get some writing done and get to sort through my photos. We hardly use the inside living area because the deck space is so good that even on chilly evenings the fire and a light rug keep us toasty.

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Cammplot

We are here for three days but unfortunately Jen and Jared miss the first two days as their repairs take longer than they hoped and they can only join us for the last evening. Shortly after they arrive in the early afternoon the clouds completely clear off Mt Kenya and we have absolutely fabulous views. We had been seeing bits of the mountain but these views are magnificent. Overnight and in the morning the clouds are still dispersed so we enjoy mountain views from our bedroom.

Kenya

Mt Kenya

After a relaxed morning and early lunch we set off for our next home stay. It is at the top of the Aberdare National Park in a home called Mokima House. We have high hopes for the house as it is on the border of the National Park and the reviews are very positive but it can’t live up to our expectations … we have been spoilt by Cammplot. The house is far more enclosed so we have no views from inside and to reach the boundary fence from the house we need to walk down a muddy track lined with stinging nettles. A family and a chef live on the property and it appears most guests have meals provided but we want to do our own catering and have to pay an additional charge for the use of the kitchen. In addition when we first arrive there seems to be people hovering around all the time and we start to feel a little claustrophobic. Luckily things improve after the initial period. We are pretty much left to do our own thing and the kitchen fee includes washing up so we have no dishes to do for the four days of our stay, that’s a bonus. Everyone is very friendly and we leave feeling far more positive than when we arrived.

On our second day we take a trip into the nearby town of Nyeri. On the way we stop at Nyeri Hill coffee farm and purchase some delicious coffee for our onward travels. In town we head for the Nyeri Club. Paul used to visit here when he lived in Kenya as his father played cricket against their team. At that time the club house looked out over a golf course then a race track and the cricket ground was in the bowl below surrounded by a ring of hills. Now the race track and the cricket ground have been taken over by the expanding town and the golf course is reduced in size but there is still a very pleasant view from the club house and we enjoy lunch under the umbrellas in the sunshine.

After lunch we brave the hectic streets to find a supermarket and butcher for some supplies then visit the Outspan Hotel on the edge of town. This is an old colonial hotel and still retains an aged splendour.

As well as looking around the hotel we have afternoon refreshments on the lawn and then visit Paxtu cottage, the final home of Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Association. It is now a museum for the scouting movement and contains photos and memorabilia of Lord and Lady Baden-Powell and scarves donated by scouts or ex-scouts who have visited from all around the world.

Paul has to return to Nairobi the following day to have the awning reattached and leaves at 4.00am in an effort to get through town before the morning traffic jam. Unfortunately it is the day Barak Obama is visiting town so the traffic is even more snarled than usual and it takes an extra couple of hours to get through. As the job had all been measured he hoped it would be completed in the day and he would get back to us the same day. Unfortunately it didn’t go as smoothly as planned and he has to stay overnight and a good part of the next day before finally getting away in the afternoon and reaching us in the early evening. In the meantime Jen, Jared and I have a relaxed couple of days, there is a bit of writing and they have to go out to collect their coffee from the farm but as it is overcast most if the time it is a great opportunity for some reading.

After leaving Mokima House our next drive takes us through the high country north of the Aberdare Range then down into the Rift Valley. The high country is green and very pretty to drive through and trucks are minimal so it is a pleasant drive. As soon as we drop down into the Rift Valley the temperature rises and it is decidedly hot as we pass through the crowded town of Nakuru and then cools again as we begin climbing up to the Njoro area. Here we are staying on Kembu Farm, a working farm with a camping area and several other accommodation choices including the house Beryl Markham lived in which was on a nearby farm and which was transported to this location.

We have a grassy area to camp with some shade but also open areas for solar power, hot showers (most of the time) and although there are two overland buses in the camp the travellers are quiet. A semi tame duiker wanders in a bushy section of the property and our camp site overlooks fields filled with dairy cows. The nights turn very cool and the open fire in the bar is welcome.

After two nights we move on toward the border. We travel through the high country surrounding Kericho where the hills are covered in tea plantations then down to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. A short drive south of the town is Dunga Hill Camp. Here we find a small area for camping right on the edge of the lake and on the hill behind is a bar and restaurant filled with locals enjoying a balmy Sunday afternoon. We join the crowd for a drink while we watch the sunset and later have our dinner delivered to camp, pretty good service. Paul is fighting off a cold and we stay three nights before we leave. From Kisimu it is an easy drive to Busia and the border post into Uganda. We’ll spend around a month or a little more in Uganda then Jared and Jen will travel south into Ruanda and we will return to Kenya so than we can head north to Ethiopia.

Revisiting Kruger National Park

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Zebra, and Giraffe Crossing, Kruger NP

We visited Kruger National Park twice previously and both times the park was very dry after enduring drought for several years. It made the animals easier to see but we wanted to see the park after the last two good rainy seasons so we decided to travel through the park on our way toward East Africa.

We entered the park at the Punda Maria Gate and spent a leisurely four hours driving to the Shingwedzi Rest Camp. We spent three nights at the camp which gave us a good chance to explore the area around it on drives each morning and afternoon before we moved south to Tsendse Bush Camp which is just south of the Mopani Rest Camp. After another three nights with more days exploring around there we headed out of the park crossing the border into Mozambique at the Giryondo Gate.

Even though there was plenty of good cover for the animals we saw plenty of wildlife and really enjoyed the different aspect the green growth and plentiful water provided.

There are boards at the rest camps where people mark the locations they have seen different animals and each day there were sightings of lions and leopard reported and we visited and revisited the areas they had been seen in. We had no luck with seeing lions but a leopard strolled across the road in front of the car on one of our drives. She headed for a bush just by the side of the road but before Paul could get his camera ready she had second thoughts about settling down there and moved through thick bush and out of sight. I managed to catch a quick shot through the windscreen.

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Leopard, Kruger NP

The only other predators we saw were a couple of hyena lying beside the road early on morning.

I was particularly pleased with the numbers of giraffe we saw. they are amazing animals and can seem gangly with their long, long legs and their swaying walk but they somehow manage to always appear graceful. Sometimes they are busy feeding and ignore us but often they are curious and stop to stare at us just as we stare at them. I loved getting detail of their heads and lush long eyelashes and kind eyes as well as detail of their intricate patterns.

We saw plenty of buck on our travels. The waterbuck were plentiful near the rivers and pretty  nyala could be seen among the bushes.

We saw individual or small groups of buffalo frequently, particularly wallowing in mud in the riverbeds. We also saw two large herds numbering in the hundreds, always great to experience.

Zebra are another frequent sighting and warthogs were seen fairly often but they usually head away as soon as they feel threatened.

Amongst the birds we saw were the pretty Little Bee-eater and the stately Egyptian Geese.

Last but by no means least are the elephants. We saw plenty of them while we were at Shingwedzi and they are great to sit and watch as you can see the family interactions and their characters really show. Then as we approached the Mopani camp we saw more and more of them. There were hundreds in the area feeding on the lush growth.

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Elephant at the Water tank, Kruger NP

Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park

 

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A Field of Springbok

When we visited Botswana last year it was towards the end of the dry season and the weather was getting very hot. Too hot, we decided, to visit the desert areas of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park. We promised ourselves we would return to travel in those areas when there had been some rain and the temperatures would be more comfortable.

After we flew back into South Africa in early March it took us two busy weeks in Johannesburg to finalise all the changes we wanted to the fitout on our vehicle and to spend time with Paul’s mother, sister and other family members.

Because we had sold the trailer we needed to make numerous changes to the fitout of the Toyota so we had more fridge, fuel and water capacity and space to fit in all the things we would need to carry to make our lives comfortable and safe for the next two plus years, including of course all Paul’s camera and computer gear. We also wanted a new roof top tent which was more comfortable, easier to set up, and had more air and light as well as a new awning to provide better shelter. While we were out of the country Gary had completed lots of work re-fitting out the interior of the land cruiser. He had installed our new fridge where the back seat had been and made a great shelving system next to and in front of it so Paul could securely stow all his camera and computer gear and still be able to easily access it all. A new water tank and gas bottle carrier had been ordered and our new roof top tent and awning was due to be installed a couple of days after we arrived. The roof rack had been modified to allow them to fit and Jerry cans and our storage box for awnings and mats were in place. Other handy features Gary had designed and built were tables which could be clipped on to both sides of the rear of the truck or on top of the drawers at the back and a wash basin support which fitted on to a rear spare wheel.

We were very happy with all the high quality work he had completed and after living with it on the road for a month we are even happier with it all. Thank you Gary.

Paul would still need somewhere to set up his iMac to process his photos so we bought a ground tent we could set up when we were staying put for a little longer.

By the time we had had the roof top tent, awning, water tank and gas bottle carrier fitted, had the car serviced, found and bought a list of items we needed, stocked up our provisions, caught up with some people we had met on our last visit and installed the solar panels we were just about out of time and Paul struggled to find time to reorganize his photographic files and process a few to share while I juggled everything to make it all fit in the car.

It was time to get back into the bush and we headed west out of Johannesburg in the pouring rain two weeks after we landed in South Africa. By mid afternoon the next day the weather was hot and sunny and we were checking into our campsite at Twee Rivieren at the South African entrance to the Kgalagadi Park.

All together we spent six nights in the park, two at Twee Rivieren and two at Nossob in the South African section and one each at Polentswa and Swartpan in the Botswana section. We also had one night just north of the Kaa gate in Botswana. We took drives each morning and afternoon so we had a good chance to explore quite a lot of the area.

Beautiful Gemsbok, also called Oryx, were abundant showing why the South African section used to be called the Gemsbok National Park. Springbok were the other very abundant type of antelope and we also saw wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, and bush duikers.

Other animals we saw included zebra, black backed jackals, a bat eared fox and lots of ostriches. I finally saw some meerkats and loved watching them standing upright and peering all around before scurrying back to their holes. We also saw lots of social weaver nests, they are quite a feature of the park. We had a distant sighting of a cheetah but hardly enough to pick out its markings as it rested in the shade of a tree several hundred metres from the track.

Even though we didn’t see any of the lions which are one of the main draw cards of the Botswana section of the park we enjoyed the rugged bush scenery and and the general feeling of isolation.

When we left the park we drove just a short distance from the gate to the Kaa pan where herds of springbok, Oryx, Eland and Wildebeest grazed on the short grass covering most of the area. We decided it would be a good place to make a bush camp and have a good view of the full moon a well as a good chance of seeing more wild life in the morning. We selected a spot well clear of any trees or bushes so we had a good field of vision and settled down to enjoy the views.

About 2.00 am we woke to the cough of a lion. Instantly wide awake we peered out of the windows and, under the light of the full moon, we could make out a distant movement. As we watched we saw more movements and eventually we had a pride of at least seven lions, including two large males, circling our vehicle. The nearest was a curious female who approached within 50 metres. We felt quite safe in our hard topped roof top tent, well pretty safe anyway, but we certainly weren’t venturing out of it to get a camera to record the amazing experience.

The show continued for an hour or so but finally they lost interest in us and faded away into the night. In the morning there was no trace they had been there, with just a few springbok grazing as the mist lifted. The drive out to the main road continued for the next couple of hours through this buffer zone surrounding the park but eventually our sightings of springbok and other wild game gave way to sightings of cattle and goats, and, as we began passing people and villages the road turned to bitumen and this part of our Botswana adventure ended. Onward to the next!

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Springbok grazing as the mist rises at Kaa Pan

Malawi

Beachfront at Kachere Kastle, Lake Malawi

Malawi is a relatively small country, roughly 900km long and between 80km and 150km wide, in comparison with the others we have visited so far. Almost one fifth of the country is covered by the inland sea, Lake Malawi is the focal point for most visitors and there are also highlands in the north and the south which we want to visit. As well as Zambia, the country also has borders with Tanzania and Mozambique. Its a friendly, inexpensive and easy country to travel in so we plan to stay about five or six weeks.

We cross into Malawi from Zambia in the far north west at the tiny border post of Chitipa. The road from Zambia was very rough and slow for the last part of our trip and it is dark by the time we have cleared the border so we’re happy to find a guest house and take a room for the night. It’s basic but clean and has an ensuite and secure parking, pretty good for 5,000 Malawi Kwacha which is about $9.00 Aussie dollars.

In the morning we have an easy drive down from the high country to the town of Karonga on the shores of Lake Malawi. It’s quite a big town and has a bustling and colourful market where we can stock up on wonderful fresh produce.

Alfred and his wife Elizabeth and their three sons and three daughters have built and run Thunduzi Camp on the shores of Lake Malawi in the tiny settlement of Chilumba. The camp is very quiet but the attached bar and restaurant do a good trade and Alfred has plans to make more improvements to the camping and to add additional accommodation. It’s a very pleasant spot and we need a break from travelling so we are soon set up and settled in for the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately I have a bit of a virus and need to spend a fair bit of the first week sleeping and then slowly recuperating but Paul easily fills in his time with his photos and also taking a walk with one of Alfred’s sons through the village to visit the local ‘brewery’ and to meet some of the local people and sample some street food.

During the second week, when I am mostly recovered, we take a drive back up into the high country to the old mission station and colonial town of Livingstonia. To reach it we have a short drive down the main road next to the lake then a steep climb up an unmaintained dirt track. The last ten kilometres takes an hour and we are very glad we didn’t bring the trailer. The town was built on the edge of the plateau west of the lake by Scottish missionaries in the 1890’s because too many people were dying of malaria at the original mission settlements at the lower altitudes beside Lake Malawi. Livingstonia is picturesque with solid stone buildings spread along tree-lined streets and wonderful mountain views in all directions. It is also much cooler up here and it is pleasant to spend a couple of nights tucked under a cosy doona at the Lukwe Permaculture Camp. Paul walks through the permaculture gardens to the nearby Manchewe Falls but I’m content to sit and enjoy the views and complete my recuperation. Or maybe I was just feeling lazy.

After another couple of nights back at Thunduzi its time to move on and we head toward the Nyika Plateau National Park. We stop overnight in Rumphi on our way and find a place to leave our trailer as we are in for another steep drive. While Livingstonia, at 1200m above sea level, is more than 900 metres above the lake, Nyika Plateau is over 2,500m above sea level. Nights are much cooler, with a light dusting of frost on the grass in the mornings, so we need to dig out our cold weather clothing and add a down sleeping bag on top of the doona. Its worth it though with wonderful views and plenty of chances to spot wildlife. At this altitude there are not a lot of native trees, just the remains of a failed pine plantation in one section, and the hills are covered in rolling grassland punctuated by rocky outcrops. There are zebras, reedbucks, eland and other antelope scattered around the hills and pretty bushbucks hang around the camp ground and the lake by the lodge. Leopard have been sighted recently not too far from the lodge but although we try hard we aren’t lucky enough to see them. There are also elephant and buffalo in the park but at this time of the year they head to lower altitudes in a corner of the park which isn’t accessible by car.

After two and a half days spent driving through the glorious country and two nights huddling around the fire while we gaze at the stars we head back to Rumphi for another night and then on to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. We are still well above the level of Lake Malawi and the temperatures are mild but the Wildlife Reserve is covered by woodland along with a large lake and river along one edge and a marsh and wetlands forming at the end of the river. The campground is set on the edge of the lake and although the water level is low there is still plenty left for hundreds, or probably thousands, of hippos. We had planned on camping but by some curious vagary in the pricing it is cheaper to stay in one of the pleasant huts which are managed by the local community than it is to camp, the pricing of which is set by the national parks body. We go for a short drive around the edge of the lake and along one of the bush tracks on our first day and plan to go for longer drives later but sitting on the verandah of our hut we gaze out at a passing parade of impala, kudu, puku and elephant as well as the hundreds of hippos at this end of the lake so we pass the next couple of days lazily. A couple of herds of elephant with lots of tiny babies come down to drink not far from the camp and one group walk right through the middle of it, wonderful to experience. As well as being almost submerged in water the hippos spend quite a lot of time out of the water during the day, probably because the temperatures are mild and they need to warm up a little. It gives us a great chance to see the numerous baby hippos and the adults lazing around the shores of the lake. They lie around for hours at a time and then suddenly, for no reason we can see, the whole herd ups and charges into the water. Soon afterwards they start straggling back out of the water. Very funny to watch.

Our next destination is Mzuzu, the largest town in northern Malawi. We found a great range of fresh fruit and vegetables in Karonga but we haven’t seen a supermarket since we left Lusaka in Zambia so supplies are getting low and we are looking forward to stocking up. We also need to extend our entry permit and we find the government offices right across the road from another colourful market, much more fun visiting the market than lining up in the immigration office. The last service of the car was in Cape Town so that is due as well and we find a very pleasant camp just out of town to spend a couple of nights while we do our chores. The owners of the Maconda Camp, Luca and Cecilia, are Italian and, as well as the small campground and some other accommodation, they run a well frequented restaurant. The food is delicious, especially the pasta and pizza, so we skip cooking and dine in style for the two nights we are here.

Luca recommends another camp further south along the lake and so we stop in at Kachere Kastle in Chincheche. Its an amazing place built over the past seven years by Russell and Kate, originally from England but now enjoying living in Malawi. They have paid enormous attention to detail and did all the plumbing and electrical work themselves to ensure quality control, an amazing effort. Paul starts taking photos and drone footage of the place and Russell and Kate are very impressed by the results so we end up trading a video and still photographs for our accommodation which included a very comfortable room plus dinner on the last of our 8 night stay.

We’ve been in Malawi for nearly a month by now and we’re still in the northern section so we need to hurry ourselves up as there are some spots in the south we don’t want to miss. On a recommendation from Luca in Mzuzu, Mua Mission in central Malawi is our next destination. This mission was built at the beginning of the 20th century and has some wonderful old buildings and a large church but our interest is in museum and cultural centre which houses a huge collection of Gule Wamkulu masks, drums and other accoutrements and a series of murals providing huge amounts of information about the daily life and the traditions of the three main cultural groups in the area. These masks are used in “the Great Dance of Malawi” which is now on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage register. The dance is mainly performed at funerals and memorial services but also at initiations and other celebrations. The masks worn by the dancers on such performances are believed to capture the soul or spirit of the deceased that brings renewed life. The purpose of the dance is said to be a way of communicating messages of the ancestors to the villagers and making possible continued harvests and continued life. Father Claude Boucher, originally from Montreal, has been in Malawi for more than 50 years and has collected hundreds of masks and documented the characters and their stories. Its late afternoon when we arrive so we spend the night in a chalet and plan to spend the morning visiting the cultural centre and gallery and be on our way before lunchtime. Father Boucher invites us to watch a performance which has been arranged for a group and it should commence mid-morning. The group are late arriving, we’ve already had our lunch and the elaborately costumed performers have also had to wait but we are extremely pleased to have this opportunity as we are enchanted by the performance. The costumes, the dancing, the singing, the drumming and particularly the masked characters combine to tell a story and to pass on a message to the audience.

Liwonde National Park on the Shire River is our next destination. It is in southern Malawi so we’ve left the lake behind us now. It’s late when we arrive at our campground, getting dark before we are even set up so we have a slow start in the morning then drive to the entrance of the national park. The fees are double the amount we were expecting and we are not sure that we will see much wildlife in the half a day we would be in the park so we decide to give it a miss and return to camp. The camp ground is hot, dry and dusty but the baobabs at sunset make our two nights here almost worthwhile.

Bushmans Baobabs, Liwonde NP, Malawi

We need to get out of the dust and the heat for a couple of days so we take a detour from our southerly course and drive up to the Zomba Plateau. The trout farm at the top of the small plateau has a grassy area for camping and it’s a lovely spot to sit for a couple of days. Large trees provide shade for the trailer and car but there are plenty of open patches so our solar panels can keep the batteries topped up. Water from the adjacent creek is channelled to the hatchery nearby and we scoop it out by the bucketful to drink and to fill our water tank. Its the clearest and best tasting water we have had for ages. Most has been bore water which is ok for drinking but contains minerals which coat the kettle and thermos, and the ‘treated’ water available in the towns contains chlorine and other chemicals to make it safe to drink. The climate on the plateau is perfect for berry and avocado growing and we feast on strawberries, raspberries and avocados which we buy from the side of the road on our way up. We aim to buy more on our way down. The only thing we are lacking on this trout farm is the trout to eat as they only have the very small fingerlings, maybe they will be bigger in a year.

We could easily linger longer at the trout farm as there are lots of walks and waterfalls in the area but we need to keep moving so we head to Blantyre, the largest city in the south of Malawi and the commercial and industrial capital of the country. We have a couple of places to visit out of Blantyre but it is the hub of the south so we find a secure camp to drop off the trailer and head straight on to Majete National Park. This is further down the Shire River and we stop in a private lodge and campground very near the entrance. Our site is fabulous, right next to a lovely swimming pool which is surrounded by a deck overlooking the river. We had planned to stay two nights but we arrived late so to allow ourselves a full day in the park and a day enjoying the camp we stay a third night. On the day we spend in the park we have a very early start and leave camp before breakfast so we can be at the gate when it opens at 6.00am. There are a network of tracks in the park and we easily fill in the whole day and stay until the late afternoon. The tracks take us along the picturesque Shire River and to two very popular waterholes. This park has probably the highest concentration of animals in Malawi and we see plenty; lots of elephants and hippos, a good variety of buck including a beautiful sable antelope, buffalo, wildebeest and zebra, but unfortunately no lions or leopards.

From Majete we return to Blantyre, replenish the small fridge in the car from the large fridge in the trailer, and drive out to Mt Mulanje. The mountain is a huge mass of granite rising 3,000m above the surrounding plain and it is a very popular destination for hikers. We’re not going to tackle any of the multi day hikes but plan to walk to one of the waterfalls. The first place inside the park we visit to find a place to stay has a group of fifty coming in later that day and all the chalets and rooms are booked so although we could camp we decide to continue looking and the next place is ideal. It is in the lower section of the park but still quite elevated and the temperature has dropped accordingly. We could camp but the lodge has delightful rooms at a very reasonable price so we stay warm and comfortable and enjoy a bit of luxury. Numerous locals offer to guide us to the falls so we agree on a price and set out in the morning. We are able to take the car a fair distance up the track so our walk is halved. Its not a difficult or overly steep walk but we have not done any walking for ages so it is good to stretch our legs and get a bit of exercise as we walk through the bush. It is the dry season so the falls are not roaring but they are still impressive and Paul clambers around the rocks to get different vantage points for his photos. We finish off our visit to Mulanje with a pizza in the town and head back to Blantyre.

As we are approaching Blantyre and the camp where we have left our trailer Paul starts feeling cold although I think it is still quite a mild day. By the time we are in the camping area he is feeling worse and starts shivering uncontrollably. Its an easy self diagnosis of malaria and we hurriedly consider the options. When we were in Mozambique we bought some malaria curative tablets which, if taken promptly, will greatly lessen the severity and length of an attack so Paul takes the first dose while I am checking out the internet for more information on malaria and for the location of doctors or hospitals nearby. As we are in a large city there are several options and I map out a route to a private hospital where I hope we can get quick attention. The curative tablets sure work fast as we are still on our way when Paul stops shaking and doesn’t feel as terrible. Now that we know the tablets are working and a doctor could do little else to help we change our plans and look for a guest house, Paul may be feeling a little better but camping is certainly not an option. I pick one from the guide book which looks easy to get to and drive there to check it out. The room looks ok so I help Paul inside and pile blankets on top of him and he basically sleeps for the next two days. His fever drops as he continues to take the tablets, we are certainly grateful to Barbara and James in Mozambique for their advice about carrying the malaria curative with us.

When I checked out the room I didn’t check the bed and unfortunately it is very hard so as soon as Paul is up and eating again we decide he is well enough for us to move on provided I do the driving and we stay in rooms for the next couple of nights. We finally collect the trailer, very appreciative of being able to leave it there safely and to have had the use of power to keep the fridge running and they don’t even want to charge us anything … Malawi is certainly a friendly and hospitable place. We leave a donation and make our way north to a little place called Dedza. Its on the tourist route because they have a very good pottery and a range of accommodation. We enjoy a very comfortable bed in a delightful room with dinner in the restaurant and a visit to the pottery in the morning. A bit of pampering is certainly a good idea right now.

It is time to leave Malawi so in the morning we take the shortest and easiest route to the border. It bypasses the capital of Lilongwe and we arrive at the border with Zambia by mid afternoon. Its been a delightful country to visit, (its a pity malaria is so prevalent,) the people are friendly and welcoming, accommodation and national park fees are cheaper the surrounding countries, and it has been far quieter and less crowded. The lake is very impressive and the highland areas provided a welcome change in both the geography and the climate, it is certainly a country we would recommend to other travellers.

Zambia, Part 1

We haven’t written anything about our time in Zambia yet and we have come to the end of our second stint in the country having spent a month in Malawi in the middle. We are in Zimbabwe now for about three weeks and we don’t expect to have much time with access to the Internet so it’s high time we caught up on our blog posts.

After leaving Namibia through the busy border post at Katima Malilo, which took us about two hours and where we had someone scrape past the side of our trailer with their car and bending a bolt in the process which means we can’t use one of the support legs any more, we tracked north alongside the Zambezi River. The nature of the villages and roadside stalls in Zambia was noticeably different to Nambia.

We stopped for five nights at Ngonye River Camp. It’s a lovely quiet spot with a grassy camp site under shady trees on a slight slope above the Zambezi River. Jack and his wife who own the property do a lot of work with church missionaries and they have built a couple of chalets and a camp site to generate some income to fund their work. I flew the drone out over the river from our camp and captured these images.

While we were there we visited the little nature park up the road and paid a guide (good idea!) and walked out to the Ngonye Falls. Impressive! The series of falls are over a kilometre wide and you have to walk to a few spots to get a view of them. I was able to fly the drone and get some video as well as some still shots. The aerial perspective really showed off the extent of the falls. Our guide pointed out one of the falls and told us that it was called Jo’burg Falls because a local fisherman caught fish there to feed his family instead of traveling to Johannesburg in South Africa for work. Good plan!

We asked Jack about the beautiful and large tree trunks we were seeing stockpiled in various places along the road. He told us that the Chinese are paying the villagers $3 for each Rosewood Tree and that they are quickly disappearing from the countryside.

When we left there we drove north, still alongside the Zambezi River floodplain. We eventually turned east towards Kafue National Park, although we tried to go north from Mongu towards the source of the Zambezi River in the far north west corner of Zambia but ran out of useful road not far north of Mongu.

We settled for staying two nights at Ikithe Resort on Lake Makakaela about thirty kilometres north of Mongu. It’s a very pretty place at sunset and sunrise when there is very little wind and the glassy lake reflects the gorgeous colours while fishermen glide across the water, with barely a ripple, in their dugout canoes. While we were there we met a couple from Columbia in a Landcruiser doing a loop from Nairobi down through Zambia to Namibia then back up through Malawi and Tanzania to Nairobi again. They are avid bird watchers and we exchanged notes on where we planned to go in Zambia.

The Zambezi river does a bit of a loop from the source out west into Angola before heading east and south back into Zambia. We will try to get to the source of the Zambezi next year when we travel across Zambia through to Angola. There are huge teak forests up there which we are keen to see. Roger and Jenni, a couple of South Africans we met in Namibia, did manage to get up to the source of the Zambezi by driving through the Liuwa Plains National Park but it was still early in the dry season and we didn’t like our chances with the trailer as it gets very boggy out there and we didn’t have any information on the crossings over the Zambezi River in that area.

We came across this cart on our way back to Mongu where we headed east on the main road to Lusaka via Kafue National Park.

We didn’t go into the park itself but drove through it on the transit road from the west. The Columbian couple stayed in Kafue and they said it was great but they didn’t see a lot of animals. After staying one night beside the river on the eastern boundary of Kafue National Park, we drove down to a small town called Ithezi Thezi on the eastern side of the big lake, also called Ithezi Thezi, that borders the Kafue National Park. We stayed five nights at Chibila, one of David Shepherd’s old camps where he used to go and paint, and we absolutely loved it!!! It was so reasonable we stayed in one of the chalets which are set amongst the boulders high above the lake. Tree hyrax run around all over the place. So peaceful! We can’t recommend it highly enough.

We had an interesting journey east across the Kafue River plains from there. The road was slow going but reasonable through numerous villages until we got to the pontoon across the Kafue River. Since the pontoon, which is only one car wide, couldn’t turn around we had to reverse the car and trailer onto it. We managed it fine but it could have been pretty tricky! Once we were on the pontoon we had to wait while a cow with a broken leg was dragged off the back of a cart onto the pontoon. After driving off the other side we had ten kilometres of very rough, but mostly dry black cotton soil which would have been impossible after any sort of rain. We reached Choma late-ish that night, found a rough and ready place for one night which I thought was probably a brothel, and then the next day we drove up the main road to Eureka camp just south of Lusaka. We were on tar but there were lots of nasty potholes, especially north of Mazabuka. It would be easy to break the car if we traveled too fast on these kinds of roads.

Lusaka is useful for shopping, otherwise I would avoid it completely. The traffic is terrible and it’s difficult to get around. We stayed at Eureka on the southern outskirts of the city (nice) and, after shopping in town, We camped at Fringilla Farm 50km north of Lusaka. Very friendly people and a good butcher there who makes biltong and boerewors as well as some home-made chilli relish! We ended up having a few beers with some of the locals at their sports club and picked up lots of tips on various destinations in Zambia.

It was a fair distance to our next destination so we broke our trip with an overnight stop at a place called Kalwa. We headed north until we reached a turnoff which took us to an old homestead which has been taken over by the local village and is now used as accommodation for the odd visitor. We camped on the front lawn and had a regular flow of the villagers walking past and kids stopping to check us out all afternoon. The evening and the night were very cool as we were still on the plateau at about 1,500 metres above sea level. As we went to sleep we could hear the villagers singing. Then incredibly, at four thirty in the morning we heard a large group chanting and singing in unison. The very loud noise got closer and closer, singing as they marched past our camp. We found out later that it was a group of youngsters getting their ‘early’ morning exercise as they learn how to be ‘Good Christian Youths’. The stamping of feet and the rhythmic bass voices and shrill ululations at that time of the night were totally unexpected and quite thrilling!

We elected not to visit many of the national parks in Zambia as they are quite expensive. Going north from Lusaka we did visit Kasanka NP though to see the Sitatunga buck which are adapted to living in marshes. They have really long feet! We stopped at Pontoon Camp for coffee and got a really good sighting of several Sitatunga around the waterhole. That was a really nice place under some huge, very shady indigenous trees. We elected to camp at the Kasanka Conservation Centre just outside the park to save a bit of money. Worked very well for us as they let you drive into the park before sunrise and come out after sunset. We did a fair bit of driving and in the north west corner we were driving on an overgrown track where the grass was quite a bit taller than the car. We navigated by looking for the most likely gap between the trees and trying to spot the shadow of the track underneath the grass. Eventually we had to backtrack when we reached a very boggy river crossing. When you get stuck in that black cotton soil you stay stuck!!

At another spot we climbed a ladder up to a viewpoint about twenty metres up a tree which looked out over the flood plains. Nearby was a spot where millions of bats can be seen at a certain time of the year … not when we were there though!

The chap looking after the Kasanka Conservation Centre turned out to be the head school teacher (three teachers in total) at the school which operates from there and caters for about one hundred children. Although it was the weekend he gave us a tour of the place which is funded by a private trust. We saw the tree seedlings which they were preparing to hand out to the nearby villages as part of a deal whereby they planted three trees for every one they cut down. In another part we saw the centre’s vegetable garden which is surrounded by an ‘elephant fence’ consisting of a series of very tall chilli bushes over a metre wide and a metre high. Apparently it works pretty well to keep elephants away from the crops around the villages. Pretty nifty we thought!

When we left Kasanka NP we were planning to camp at Lake Waka Waka and spend a day in Bangweulu national park north of there to see the Shoebill Storks. We had our doubts about driving those roads with the trailer and when we heard that Lake Waka Waka was not very inviting we decided to give both a miss.

Our next destination was Mutinondo, a private lodge which is further north and east of the main road. It’s a bit expensive but a very nice spot set high amongst the rocky inselbergs above a river which has many small waterfalls along its course as it winds its way between the hills. The camp sites don’t get much sun though so they stay quite cool. We stayed three nights and I took some shots of one waterfall and flew the drone out across the river to a group of inselbergs to the east.

The last place we stayed in Zambia was Kupishya hot springs, which is about thirty kilometres west of the main road. The camping is next to a fast flowing river and the hot springs are fantastic! Well worth it, especially in the morning when the air is cool and the steam rises off the water. We met Bob and Cheryl there, a couple of Aussies from South Australia, who have made around twenty trips to Africa and are funding the education and some medical bills for a couple of families in East Africa.

After leaving Kupishya we knew we had a big days drive to get to the Malawi border at Chitipa. We phoned a contact at the Zambian Immigration Services who confirmed that the border post would be attended that day and it would close at 5pm. The drive up the main road to Isoka went fine apart from some bad potholes, but we knew the next part would be more interesting on a gravel road running through lots of villages as it wound its way across country to Malawi. This turned out to be somewhat of an understatement as, for much of the way, the track didn’t follow any of our maps and where it got too eroded it took side trips through the middle of the nearby villages. We resorted to asking for directions at each intersection. It was slow going and as it got later we knew we weren’t going to get to the border by 5pm. We pushed on and eventually reached a few buildings on the outskirts of a village which looked vaguely official. A well-dressed chap sitting outside the first one told us that he was the resident Zambian Immigration Officer and that the border closed at 6pm. It was five thirty, so we had made it after all! The Zambian formalities were straightforward and then we drove a little further to a large old house where we found several Malawi at adjacent desks in a few of the rooms. One room was the immigration department and the other was the customs and revenue office. We got everything done except the third party insurance which we would have to get in Karonga, the next town down the road.

We got directions to a local motel which was not too far away but in the dark it was quite tricky too find. There wasn’t much open in town so we had a meal of snacks and a couple of beers. Welcome to Malawi. We were looking forward to seeing Lake Malawi the next day when we reached Karonga.

Kwazulu Natal, The Land God Gave to the Zulus

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We leave Johannesburg a few days after Christmas to start our meandering circuit around South Africa. Our first destination is the province of Kwa Zulu Natal in the north east section of the country, Kwa Zulu meaning land of the Zulus and Natal the traditional British name for the area. KZN has some stunning boundaries; the Indian Ocean on its east side, Mozambique and Swaziland to the north, and the Drakensberg mountains rising up to Lesotho in the west. There are an abundance of national parks and reserves with attractions ranging from soaring peaks and plunging waterfalls to wetlands and coastal rain forests, and animals including giraffe, elephants, antelope, hippos and the big five in game reserves.

We’re headed for Durban to stay with Paul’s sister Sarah for a few days but we’re breaking the trip with an overnight stay at the base of the northern section of the Drakensberg mountains in the Royal Natal National Park. The drive out of Johannesburg is predictably busy and after passing through the centre of the city we find the freeways the easiest way to pass through the flat and fairly monotonous highveld to Harrismith. We leave the freeway here and the scenery becomes far more interesting.

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The Drakensberg Mountains dominate the skyline to the right. They rise high above the surrounding plains and the closer we approach the more dominant they become. Along the way we pass Sterkfontein Dam, even this is high enough for vultures to be fed at a spot beside the dam but feeding isn’t in progress and we don’t see any vultures today. We turn toward the mountains and after driving along winding roads past villages and smiling people we enter the Royal Natal National Park. We have booked a campsite at the Rugged Glen camping area. It’s the smaller of the two camps in this section of the park and while it is slightly further from the mountains and has a less commanding view it is far quieter, especially at this time of the year, and it is surrounded by lots of tall trees so we are very happy with our choice. During our lunch the clouds over the mountains thicken and a short rain shower is accompanied by thunder and lightning. By the time we’ve finished eating the rain has almost stopped so we take a drive into the heart of the park. The grey clouds start to break up and the sun shines on wet rocks making them glisten and accentuating their colours. When we reach the end of the road the clouds are still around but they have lifted a little so we see the full expanse of the 5 kilometre long curved cliff face that is The Amphitheatre. The top of The Amphitheatre is around 2,000 feet above us.

A number of walks start from the car park at the end of the road and although we have no intention of completing any of them today we take a short walk up the track to see if we can get a clearer view of the mountains. The bushes around the track keep us cool but obscure the view and a fallen tree we would have to climb over or crawl under discourages our onward journey but it was nice to get out and stretch the legs for a change. We stop along the road and also at the dam on our way back and Paul is happy with the views he captures in his photos.

As we are only staying one night we use the roof top tent instead of setting up the camper trailer tent and we spend a cosy night listening to the wind in the trees. In the morning we make an early visit to the dam for more photos. It’s a glorious sunny morning so we are treated to a full view of The Amphitheatre with just a few wispy white clouds in an otherwise clear blue sky. It’s far more common for the cliffs to be obscured by clouds so we have been very lucky.

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By the time we have returned to camp for breakfast and showers it’s mid morning and we have quite a lot of driving to do. We start by following dirt roads through the low hills past villages to the town of Bergville. We’re in the Midlands section of KZN now and while we could rejoin the freeway and have a quick drive into Durban we meander along secondary roads through pretty villages with names like Nottingham Road and Lions River, and past the Capture Site where Nelson Mandela was arrested. Gently rolling hills surround us now but as we are still fairly high above sea level the temperature is mild, a great place of retreat from the heat and humidity on the coast during summer or the cold winters in the Highveld. The ample guest houses, restaurants and craft shops, many with very kitsch names like Piggly Wiggly, Toad Hall Cottages and The Patchwood Elephant show the popularity of the area as a holiday destination.

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We make a stop for coffee in one town and lunch in another and then stop in Howick where we admire the view of the waterfall right near the town centre. It’s hot and busy with tourists so we don’t stop long and soon we’re entering the Valley of a Thousand Hills, the heart of Zululand. More magnificent scenery is on offer although there is a lot of heat haze. Dirt roads wind up and down the ranges in the distance, it would be great to have the time to explore deeper into the valley but for now we must follow the main road which skirts the edge. Soon the road descends and we rejoin the freeway for the final run into Durban.

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We spend the next few days with Sarah and Ian at their home in the northern beach side suburb of La Lucia. We take a drive into the city centre and through some of the picturesque suburbs one day and return to the CBD the next day with Sarah’s son Dylan to visit the markets. A guide certainly helps here as there are multiple sections spread out over a few blocks with high walkways and stairways between the old market and the newer tourist market, the fish market and the meat market. Fruit and vegetables are in yet another section and the last one we visit  is given over to traditional medicines with many strange barks and powders on offer. It’s the day after New Years Day and technically a public holiday so not all sections of the market are open, it sure would be chaotic in normal times. We leave with some spices to sample and hope to return if time permits.

We are conscious of time restraints but there is a large section of KZN north of Durban we would like to see while we are in the area so we leave the trailer at Sarah’s and head off with the roof top tent. Its raining today but the forecast for tomorrow is clear so we are hopeful of some good sight seeing. Our first destination is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. I have finally got my tongue around some of the place names here. Many have multiple consonants like the capital of Swaziland, Mbabane which is not too difficult being pronounced ‘m-ba-barn’, but Hl is tricky and is pronounced as a guttural ‘shl’, so Hluhluwe becomes ‘shlu-shlu-wee’, or at least something like that. There is a lodge and chalets in the national park but they are quite expensive and there is no camping nearby so we have decided to stay at a backpackers near the northern entrance to the park. It has very good reviews but we decide that while it is acceptable for a night’s stay the reviews are over-rated. Never mind, we take a drive in the park in the afternoon, return for dinner and to sleep and we leave before breakfast in the morning to enter the park soon after it opens at 5.00am.

The northern section of the park, Hluhluwe, has many grassy hills and we follow dirt tracks up and around the hills and down to a pleasant picnic area by the river. The rain has made the tracks very slippery, no problems for us but we watch one small car spinning its wheels as the driver tries to back out of a muddy section. Luckily he made it as we were not looking forward to getting out in the mud to help him. We enjoy the scenery and spot lion, rhinos, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, wart hogs and various antelope but it isn’t until we head to the southern section of the park, Imfolozi, that we see giraffe and elephants. There are also reportedly lion, leopard, cheetah and wild dog in this section along with a wider range of antelope but we don’t see any of these in the time we have available.

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We had thought of having two nights here but as we weren’t impressed with the accomodation we decide to drive to another game park not too far away where they have both camping and very reasonably priced rest huts available. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park stretches along the north coast of KZN from the border of Mozambique 200 km south to St Lucia and inland to the uMkhuze Park. The park was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999 and the name means miracle or wonder so it is not surprising that we we plan to visit as many of the sections of the park as we can. uMkhuze is our first destination in this system. As well as bushland sections of the park there are large pans spreading from the uMkhuze River so we are hopeful of seeing a good range of birds as well as other wildlife.

The drive to the park is interesting. All of the roads into the park are dirt roads and the recent rain has made some of them tricky. The well travelled roads aren’t a problem as the mud has been compacted and it is no longer slippery but when we try to take a less travelled track it quickly becomes trickier so we take the easy option and turn around to find a better road. As we pass through villages further away from the main roads the character of the places change and we see similarities to the small villages in Mozambique and Swaziland. Buildings are more basic and cars are fewer but the people are smiling and many wave as we pass.

We drive through a pass and as we approach the park the farmed land gives way to thick bush. The camp ground is near the entrance gate but we have to drive into the centre of the park to the reception office. Just after our entry we see a large group of giraffe, we spot at least 15 but there could have been more. This is a good start. At the reception we consider our options for accommodation. The weather has changed and become quite hot and we want to make an early start in the morning so a rest hut sounds a good plan. One is available for the night so we are soon settled in and we spend the early evening sitting out the front watching nyala and impala grazing on the grass in front of us.

Paul is out before sunrise driving to the pan to take photographs in the early morning light and we are both keen to visit the pan later in the day.

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On our way we stop at a hide where a long walkway between high fences leads from the carpark to the game hide. It is a very well constructed hide and there is a waterhole directly in front of us. Unfortunately there is not a lot of activity right then and we spend a while watching turtles sun themselves on logs or the bank and occasionally one plops into the water to cool down.

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Gradually I pick out the shapes of several large buck resting in the shade and a large Nyala wanders down to the water to drink. It seems not much is likely to happen for a while so we return to the car and continue down the road to the pan. Here we can see hippos and waterbirds in the distance but the main attraction is the lovely scenery which makes a great spot for a cuppa. Our next night is spent in a safari tent where we are right in the middle of bushes with game wandering right past our tent, what a special experience.

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The weather has changed once again and it rained much of the night so we have a cool day for our drive to Kosi Bay near the border with Mozambique and at the top of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Kosi Bay comprises four lakes linked by a network of channels. There are traditional fish traps, snorkelling opportunities, and its a very popular area for fishing. The national park camping area is on the largest of the lakes. The camp is very popular and school holidays are just finishing but some campers have already left to return home and others have been driven out by the wet weather so there are plenty of empty sites. After we set up our camp we take a walk around the camping area and view the lake but decide, like those who left earlier than planned, that the weather is not ideal for this spot so we only spend one night here before moving on.

A sandy 4WD track leads around the bottom of the lakes to the ocean and there are a number of community-run camps at Bhanga Neck where the large lake is separated from the sea by just one sand dune. We enjoy the drive and follow the signs to the Bhanga Neck Community Camp.

Some young boys point us in the right direction and soon we are met by Smiley who is looking after the place. All the sites are booked but he assures us we can camp on the adjacent property belonging to his uncle and he comes with us to show us the way and introduce us. We drive in the entrance and enter their community. A number of thatch and stone homes are on the crest of the hill, a communal ablution block is nearby and there is a large open area where we can set up our camp. Looks perfect. He also asks if we are interested in turtle watching and when we reply we are if we can go tonight he offers to speak to the guide to see if we can join a tour.

We’re ready for lunch by now but we just have to see the beach first. Its just around the corner and down the road through coastal forest to a shady parking and picnic area.

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At the top of a small dune we see a long white beach curving in each direction and the bright blue ocean in front of us. We take a walk further along the track and along the shore past some beach cottages then return along the sand paddling as we go. This is definitely the spot for a picnic lunch. After lunch Paul ventures in for a swim but the surf looks a little strong for me and then we settle back in our chairs to enjoy the afternoon. Smiley finds us there and tells us he has arranged for us to join a turtle watching tour this evening and we should meet the guide at 6.00 pm so we decide to stay where we are and have a snack before the tour and return to the camp to set up and eat dinner afterward.

We arrive at the meeting spot on time and are soon joined by a couple of other small groups. Eventually there are about ten in our group and the guide explains what we would be doing and what we should expect. We walk up the beach spotting a couple of tracks where turtles had climbed up to the dunes but then returned to the ocean without laying their eggs.

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The rain yesterday compacted the sand so it is too hard for the turtle to dig a sufficiently deep pit at that spot, she will try again tomorrow night. Further along sharp eyes spot a turtle emerging from the sea ahead of us. We are waved back and settle down on the sand to wait as we are not allowed to interfere or approach the turtle while she is on her way up the beach. If she begins laying we can then approach and watch. Its about a twenty to thirty minute wait but it certainly is no hardship as the evening is balmy and we have a full moon above us to watch the waves breaking on to the shore below us and a few stars twinkling in the sky. Scudding clouds throw shadows and shift the scene from dark to bright.

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Our wait is largely in vain as the sand is too firm and she is returning to the ocean. We are allowed to approach her now to watch her crawl back to the sea and as the waves reach her she effortlessly glides off into the ocean. A short way along the beach another turtle is returning to the ocean after another unsuccessful attempt, her efforts thwarted this time by driftwood blocking her access into the dune. A more successful effort is in progress further along the beach and the egg laying is being monitored by four university students. Our guide speaks to them and if we are unsuccessful in finding a turtle laying soon we will be able to return here.

Another turtle is spotted but yet again the damp sand has interfered with the egg laying. We’ve walked quite a long distance through soft sand by now so we are happy to return to the previous location. Its great to watch the turtle laying and an added bonus to observe the students. They are all studying different aspects of turtle life and one explains the various observations being made including measurement of a sample of the eggs, scraping of parasites and treatment of the wound, scraping cells from the shell to determine where the turtle has been and setting of camera traps to identify predators which interfere with nests and hatchlings. By the time we return to our starting point it is after 10.00 pm and we are very leg weary from trudging through the soft sand. Back at camp we quickly set up our roof top tent and have a quick snack before collapsing into bed.

This is a wonderful place and we would be happy to stay longer, particularly if we could camp at the back of the beach or stay in one of the beach cottages but we have plenty more places to see in limited time. We had thought to drive down a sandy 4WD track through coastal forest to Sodwana with an overnight stay at a camp along the way but we’ve been checking the map and realise we have missed two game parks in the vicinity. Tembe Elephant Park has a wide range of wildlife including the big 5 but there is no camping there and the accommodation is in an expensive private lodge. Ndumo Game Reserve is just a short distance further and as well as having camping and reasonably priced huts it is renowned for its wetlands and bird life.

We reach Ndumo by the middle of the day and the weather has turned hot again. There is one other couple in the campground and lots of shady trees so it is easy to find a good spot. Lunch and a dip in the pool fills in the early afternoon and mid afternoon we set out to explore planning to finish our drive with sunset at a hide overlooking one of the pans. The bush is thick which is good cover for the animals but we spot nyala, kudu, impala and bushbuck. Birds are plentiful but once again difficult to spot but we manage to identify a few different species. We visit a viewing tower set on a rise and from the platform we can see across the park. By now it is time to drive to the hide. It is a reasonable walk from the carpark but it is good to stretch the legs after yesterdays exertions, the soft sand has left a few muscles aching. The hide is well made and well situated. That is it would be well situated if there were water in the pan in front of us but the drought of the past years has left the hide several hundred metres from the nearest water. The levels here won’t rise until the dam near Jozini fills and they allow the water to run through again and that could be a long time coming. We can see bird life through our binoculars but they are too far away to observe properly or to photograph.

Ndumo is a very friendly and pleasant little park and would be well worth a visit when the pans are at their normal levels but although we had planned to spend at least part of the next day here we make an early start so we have time to visit Tembe on our way back to the coast. Access at this park is limited to 4WD vehicles as the tracks are quite sandy. We get a map and a suggested itinerary we should be able to complete in the time we have available. Our first stop is at Mahlasela Hide which is where we are most likely to see elephant. Once again the bush is thick and we spot various types of buck as we go. The view from the hide doesn’t disappoint, a pool of water is directly in front of the hide and it is a focus for animals in this area. Two elephants, a large group of waterbuck, several impala and a variety of large water birds are scattered around the waterhole and at the entrance to the hide a flock of weaver birds are building their nests. It is certainly worth stopping here for a while so I fill the coffee plunger and return to the hide so we can combine the stop with our morning cuppa. Two waterbuck fight to determine dominance but it seems obvious they are not ready to settle the matter just yet.

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We finally decide that if we want to see any more of the park we need to leave here and continue through the park to the next hide. The scenery along the way changes several times. We drive through bush, then alongside sand dunes and later skirt a large swamp before arriving at the hide. This has less to offer but the drive here was certainly worthwhile. We continue to a picnic spot for lunch and by now we have to start to think about heading back to the park entrance as we have a long drive still today so we skip the rest of the suggested itinerary and leave very content with our visit.

We retrace our route along the highways to the turnoff for Sodwana which is in central area of the iSismangaliso Wetland Park. Its an easy drive but it is still after 5.00pm when we arrive at the national park camping area. The office is closed but the security guard directs us to one of the camping areas and as the holiday season has finished we have no difficulties finding a pleasant site. There are hundreds of camp sites spread between eight camping areas here and in the peak period the whole lot are full. That is way too many people for us which is why we waited to come here until after the school holidays had finished. One of the reasons we are here is because it is one of the major spots for scuba diving in South Africa with several reefs and numerous dive sites in easy reach. Coral Divers are one of the larger dive companies here and they have been recommended to us and are situated inside the national park so after breakfast we call there to see about a dive or two for me tomorrow. They recommend getting a campsite near their dive operations and lodge which we easily arrange. Our new campsite is surrounded by bush and there are no other campers nearby. Two small red duikers bound away when they see us but we often see them and others nearby while we are here. Its drizzling rain by now so we delay setting up camp again and drive to the small collection of lodges and shops just outside the park entrance. There isn’t a lot open in this quiet period and on such a grey day but we manage to find a place with nice coffee and I sample their ‘chilli poppers’, small pastries filled with cheese and jalapeños, very tasty and warming.

I’m booked into two dives next day so I’m up early and I’m in my wetsuit and ready to go soon after 6.00am. We climb into the shuttle along with the rest of our gear for the ten minute trip to the beach where the boats launch.  It is my first dive for two and a half years so I’m a little anxious and concerned I would forget some of the basic steps of getting the gear organised. I should have realised I needn’t worry about that as there are always people willing to help out and my gear is assembled and checked and carried to the boat for me. A tractor helps push the boat out into the waves and we clamber on board, certainly not an elegant move when I do it but the young ones are much more agile. There are three other divers and the dive master in my group and there are a couple of other small groups with students completing their certification so we have a full boat load. Life jackets are distributed and have to be securely fastened, we sit on the sides with our feet under straps on the floor and we have to hold on to ropes before we take off. I wonder a little at the precautions but soon understand. The ride out through the breaking waves is fast and fun with a lot of bouncing as we crest the waves. The boat driver is well practised and after travelling along the side of a wave he finds a break and we are through the rough section.

Its an easy ride from there to the reef and at the signal we all tumble into the water, find our buddies and descend to the reef below. I take a little while to clear my ears and to descend but once down it is all pure enjoyment. Its a nice slow dive with time to take in all the corals, fish and other creatures. A large ray shelters under a rock overhang and a turtle swims lazily past before stopping to snack. We aren’t particularly deep so colours are good and the current is very mild so photographers have plenty of time to get their shots. As usual the time passes very quickly and soon our 50 minutes is up and we return to the boat for another inelegant boarding.

After another fast trip through the surf to the beach we have an hour to wait before the next dive. Time passes very easily chatting to other divers then we repeat the operation. I’m glad I booked a second dive as although I thoroughly enjoyed my first dive I realise I am much more relaxed for my second dive. The descent is much easier and I am able to control my buoyancy with ease. We are diving on the same reef but on a different site and there seems to be more fish around this dive and they entertain and delight. The strangest fish we see is a stone fish walking along the bottom and I also love spotting the tiny nudibranchs and the brightly coloured christmas tree anemones. Its has been a great morning, I’m not sure when my next dive will be as although there is diving on the south and west coasts of South Africa the water is much colder.

In my absence Paul has packed up camp and is waiting for me at the Coral Divers Resort. There is time for lunch and a shower after I return then we resume our journey south. Once again it is an easy trip back to the highway then on the freeway until we reach the turn to St Lucia. St Lucia is a pretty village surrounded by the southern section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Once again we arrive after the office has closed and the camping area we had planned to stay in appears to be closed for the season but the other camp ground is open and has plenty of space so we set up for the night.

The beaches here are not quite what we are after so in the morning we drive north through the national park to Cape Vidal. Its only a 35 km drive but as it is in the national park there is a 40kph speed limit and there are several loop roads to explore along the way. We have no sooner passed through the gates and over the grid into the park when we see a warthog family and zebra and while we are watching them Paul spots a jackal, a good start. The country is mainly open grassland but we also pass through sections of thick bush and see some large dunes and the bottom of the  huge Lake St Lucia. We spot other game as we travel including a male kudu with an enormous and beautiful pair of horns who strolls along the side of the road right past us. We’re looking forward to the views at Mission Rocks but the road in is closed for maintenance so we settle for a walk to the nearby lookout which gives us a good view over the ocean and the lake as well as the forests and grassland in between.

Cape Vidal is delightful with a pretty beach and some interesting rocks and a small campground set behind a dune which provides good shelter. There are more sites occupied here than at some of the larger camping areas we have been at and there are still some large groups occupying several sites each but there are enough vacant spots for us to find one we are very happy with and we are all set up before lunch. The afternoon is easily spent with a swim and a walk along the beach and Paul picks his spots for his sunrise photos next morning before we return to the camp for the evening.

The next day it is time for us to return to Durban and we take the easy route straight down the freeway arriving back at Sarah’s mid afternoon. Paul has some work to do on photos and we have a few other chores to attend to so we spend the next three days enjoying the company and comforts there before we are ready to continue our journey.

We have time to see a little more of KZN before we leave the province and we set off with trailer in tow. We visited the northern section of the Drakensberg mountains on our way to Durban and this time we are headed toward the central section. There are several interesting spots to choose between and we settle on the Monks Cowl camping area in the Champagne Valley. Much of the way we are either travelling along freeways or retracing the route we followed on our way into Durban but it is still pleasant and easy. Once we leave our previous path we are heading directly toward the mountains and the closer we get the more dramatic is the scenery. The final section is steep and winding and we crawl up some of the hills in first gear which gives us plenty of time to admire the view as we go.

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The national park campground is not large but while there are a few other campers we have plenty of spots to choose between. Many of the sites are not level and recent rain has made some of them boggy but the backdrop of the mountains and hills all around us more than compensates and we are soon setting up the trailer for the first time since we left Johannesburg. We weren’t happy with the way we organised the food and cooking items in the land cruiser on the trip we have just completed so we want to reorganise as we will soon be heading off again without the trailer. We have also just bought a huge new silver tarp to help keep the trailer tent cool so we want to try that out and work out the best way to use it so much of the next day is spent on those chores plus on Paul finishing some photography work and of course taking more photographs. We take a drive in the afternoon to enjoy the scenery in the valley and call into a few places on our way. The best of these is the Valley Bakery where we buy some croissants (and a jam doughnut) and plan to return in the morning for fresh bread.

After we leave KZN we will be visiting Lesotho for a week or so and we will leave the trailer in the Underberg area so we use Google maps to find the best way to travel between Champagne Valley and Underberg. It offers us three options, the shortest is the longest and the longest is the shortest and naturally we choose the longest, shortest route. That’s the one which will take the most time but is the least distance as it cuts across the foothills at the base of the mountains rather than heading out to the freeway, travelling south then back along the main road to Underberg.

The road surface varies from bitumen to good gravel roads to rocky and rutted roads but the views remain brilliant all along the way. We’ve left behind the towns and we travel through villages with thatch roofed round houses and waving children and all the time the Drakensberg mountains rise high on our right hand side. The road travels up and down the hills quite often so our pace is slow. They are only the foothills but for much of the day we are at altitudes higher than Australian mountains. The morning started out sunny but clouds have been building and in the early afternoon the rain starts and continues for the most of the rest of the day. The roads become muddy and by the time we are making our final descent out of the foothills and toward Underberg they are becoming slippery. Our 4WD handles the conditions well but there are plenty of mini buses and small cars sliding around and their drivers are obviously used to confronting these conditions.

With the rain and drizzle continuing we are rethinking our plan to sleep in the roof top tent overnight and looking for reasonably priced alternatives where we can leave the trailer for the next week. This is a popular tourist destination so there are lots of B&B’s in the area and after making enquiries we are directed to one in the nearby village of Himeville. This is a very pretty village which has a decided atmosphere of old England. We like the room offered at the B&B and we can leave our trailer parked securely and connected to power so its an easy decision. There are facilities for cooking available but its been a long day and a counter meal at the local pub sounds very appealing, another easy decision. The meal is all we hoped for, basic but tasty, and the atmosphere is great, a real village watering hole with lots of locals and a (not very good) band playing in the next room. Time for a good nights rest before our next adventure and the next country.

Kruger National Park – Central Section

Olifants River

Olifants River

The distance from Skukuza to Satara is 93km. This doesn’t sound very far but with a maximum speed of 50 km/h in the park and a desirable speed of much less, particularly when there is game around, it will take us several hours at least. Its going to be a scorcher of a day, over 40 degrees Celsius, with a hot north wind so we make an early start. We see a few animals along the way including two lions, a male and a female, and a few large elephants very close to the road. One male elephant crosses the dirt road just in front of us, I think it is heading our way and get a bit nervous as the trailer behind makes backing up much more difficult but Paul is confident he is just on his way down to a nearby river. He does pause for several moments to take a look at us, and seems to be wondering why we haven’t given him more space, but then he turns back onto the game track which leads down to a nearby river bed. Maybe he figured it was just too hot to chase us off!

Elephant paying a bit too much attention to us.

Elephant paying a bit too much attention to us.

There’s hardly any shade in the camp ground at Satara so we take a spot by the boundary in the full sun. The ground is extremely rocky so it is very hard to put the tent pegs in and while the tent only requires 4 the awning needs another 10. Even though Paul is doing most of the hard work I’m feeling the heat as well so as soon as we have finished we have cold showers then hide from the heat in the restaurant and the air-conditioned camp shop until later in the afternoon. From our seats in the shade we look out through the shimmering heat to the pale thorn bushes where a few zebra are trudging past on their way to find some water. While there we make a couple of resolutions; not to pick sites on top of ridges as they are more likely to be rocky and hard, and when it’s this hot to leave the setting up until later in the afternoon.

It’s still very hot when we head out for an afternoon drive so for a change we have the windows up and air con blasting, except when we see something interesting and here we have been given a couple of leads. Some lions and a leopard have both been recently seen nearby including some lions just a couple of kilometres east of camp so we head directly there. The line of cars makes it easy to find the spot and we inch into the group straining for a view. Two lazy lions are sleeping under some bushes so our view is very limited. Further up the road another two are in a clearer spot, but again we don’t see any action other than one sitting up for a look around before sleeping again. Bones nearby suggest a kill a couple of days ago and they are probably still sleeping off the effects of a full belly. In this heat, and having recently fed, these lion aren’t going to be up and about until the day gets much cooler and they need some water. After a short while we move on.

Magnificent Lion

Magnificent Lion

We have a little time left before we need to be back in camp before the gates close at 6.00pm so we head west toward the leopard sighting. We’re just about ready to turn around when we again see a line of cars and we join the end. Our timing is impeccable, we see some twitching in the grass, possibly a small head, and a flash of white tail and then a leopardess stands and starts walking parallel to the road in our direction. We reverse keeping just in front of her so we have fabulous views while all those who had been patiently waiting struggle to keep sight of her as they follow behind. She reaches a fallen log some hundred meters along and stretches herself on it before settling down. Behind her the sun is setting and lighting the lower part of the sky in reds and oranges, what a magic moment! As we drive back to camp to meet the curfew we wonder whether we actually glimpsed some leopard cubs and their mother deliberately led us all away from them by displaying herself clearly to the small crowd of onlookers.

After dark hyenas prowl the fence line back at camp. The smells from the many braai fires have almost certainly drawn them in and a few silly campers may have tossed them scraps in the past. Without the fence to protect us we would certainly be a lot more nervous having them so close to our camp. There are a few flashes of lightning before we head to bed but it’s still very hot. A few hours later the change arrives and the strong hot north west wind changes to an even stronger but quite cool south east wind. The awning we had laboured to put up during the heat of the day starts flapping wildly and we race around taking it down. Its a very noisy night so not good for light sleepers and all the wind and lightning doesn’t even deliver enough rain to dampen the dust.

The next day is much cooler, thank goodness, and it is very windy and overcast. We take an early drive to the spot where we saw the leopard the evening before in hope of seeing her with her cubs but have no luck. Driving east we see two sleeping male lions and wonder if they stirred much through the night or are still sleeping off their feast. Further up the road a family of elephants including a tiny baby are digging for water in several spots in the dry, sandy river bed. There is a very muddy pool of water nearby which they throw with their trunks over their heads onto their backs and under their stomachs. The water they filter through the sand must be much cleaner to drink and they spend ages carefully shoving the sand aside with their feet and slowly sucking up the water through their trunks as it seeps into the holes they have dug. Looking through the binoculars it is possible to see the suction action at the top of their trunks as they draw the water up. Just as they are leaving an enormous grey male comes along for his drink. While he is there another family group arrives. Young ones are pushing in to get a drink and being pushed back, there is a lot of trumpeting and calling and sorting out manners. One particular baby elephant is very persistent and even though his older brothers and sisters keep pushing him away with their heads he just keeps coming back, sometimes getting down on his knees to sneak his trunk into the water besides the others. One of the older brothers tries to body-block him and when the baby goes to move around him he sticks a leg out but the baby is too persistent. The big grey male is very tolerant of the baby’s attempts but either he drinks too fast or his massive size is intimidating and the baby goes back to annoying his siblings. Its very amusing to watch and we remain in the one spot for well over half an hour.

We finally continue our drive and reach N’wanetsi Lookout. We’re very close to the Mozambique border here and the hills leading up to the Lebombo Range are around us. The view is great but the air is hazy and the sky overcast. The river below is dry and the land has its familiar parched appearance, with grey thorn bush, strips of red dirt, sand-coloured rocks and black tree trunks. It would be great to be here when the river is flowing, the air clear and the land green. As we drive back west to our camp a lioness, who looks a bit tattered around the edges, walks directly in front of us across the road and disappears into the scrub on the other side, a most unexpected sight. Later we see a couple of hyenas with suckling babies right on edge of the road.

Our next stop is at Balule and we leave Satara with high expectations as this will be our first bush camp on this visit. One of the highlights of the drive is seeing a honey badger or ratel, a rare sighting as they are normally only seen very early morning or in the evening. We also see lots of giraffe, two males sparring keep us transfixed for quite a while. They keep stopping to watch us as if to say ‘move along … this is private’, but when we remain they resume their jostling for position. Hips are nudged, necks intertwined and a couple of times one manages to get its head underneath and lift a leg of the other. If they manage to tip their opponent over they may break a leg or some ribs, a most dangerous event but not one we see thank goodness.

Balule is a small camp facing the wide Olifants River with just 6 huts plus a small camp site with about a dozen sites. There is no mains electricity here, kerosene lamps light the camp kitchen and toilet block of a night, and gas is used for the hot water. Presumably power for the electric fence comes from batteries charged by some solar panels on one of the buildings. We camp right by the fence overlooking the Olifants River and enjoy the quiet and the slower pace away from the bustle of the larger rest camps. The river isn’t running but there are a few pools of water some distance away from us and we see a few buck by the water. Closer to camp are plenty of monkeys and lots of different types of birds. African fish eagles make their distinctive call as they fly overhead. A buffalo wanders by quite close to the fence and a few buck are also close at times, including impala, kudu and bush buck. We have another visit from a hyena but he doesn’t stick around.

We’re close to the Olifants rest camp which sits atop a big bluff overlooking a wide bend in the Olifants river east of Balule and we take a drive there enjoying the elevated views of the river from the camp itself and along the road leading up to it as well as a lookout a little further west. Lots of hippos are either mostly submerged in the river or sleeping or feeding on the grassy banks and plenty of crocodiles share the water and bask on the banks. We take another drive the next day, once again calling into the Olifants rest camp but then follow a loop road north east across to the Letaba River then back south to another fabulous lookout over the Olifants River near the junction of those two great rivers. It is a spot where we are allowed to leave the car so Paul can use his tripod and take a number of photos to create a panorama of this expansive view. While he is preparing his gear a cheeky ground squirrel jumps into the car and is quite unperturbed when Paul tries to shoo it out. Luckily when he can’t find any food he loses interest and jumps down from the car and Paul goes to work with his camera taking advantage of the high vantage point. To the east the river gradually curves south under some big cliffs towards its junction with the Letaba River. Far below are pools of water with more hippo, crocodiles, water birds, waterbuck, kudu and impala. To the west the river valley broadens and the remaining water separates into a myriad of channels between sand banks and green bushes and reeds.

Our final camp in the central section of the park is at Letaba. It is one of the bigger and more popular camps and has the best mobile phone signal we have had for a long time! We manage to find some shade for our trailer in a quiet spot about thirty metres from the boundary fence. Our neighbours are friendly and interested in our adventures and they show us a hole in a tree in which a fairly large lizard (leguan) is living. We all help chase the vervet monkeys away when they raid the camp sites. Visits from semi-tame bush buck are more welcome but they wander away fairly quickly when no food is forthcoming. Cheeky ground squirrel also scamper around the camp in search of food and when I take a photo with my iPhone they take a close look at it in case it is edible.

On the first evening we walk a short distance from our camp site to a path running along the outer side of a bend of the Letaba river and there are wonderful vantage spots for viewing the game right from the camp. Unfortunately the river is no longer flowing, and Paul is surprised by how little water there is compared to his previous visits. There are still some sizeable pools of water though set under some of the huge shady trees which line the top of the river banks. The game fence is set down the bank so our views are unimpeded. Turning left we slowly stroll along the river past the newer cottages and then the older style rondavels which Paul has stayed in a few times on his visits many years ago. The rondavels are laid out in a rough semi-circle around a grassy area with big shady indigenous trees, some with massive root systems. Bush buck and guinea fowl wander around in the cool shade between the rondavels. The river path splits into a lower and upper level and we take the lower path which leads us much closer to the bush down in the river bed. We see a couple of beautiful male kudu with very large and muddy horns. They have been digging in the wet river banks. We walk past some chairs and tables overlooking the river and at the end of the path we find the restaurant. The next evening we return with some wine and nibbles and sit a while at one of the tables. Another great spot!

While we are at the camp and in the area we see a lot more hippos, crocodiles and elephants along with various buck, giraffe and zebra and, as we leave and drive further north we see more lions and hyenas. On our last morning we make a point of calling in to the elephant museum which has a fascinating record of past and present ‘large tuskers’ and paintings of the ‘Magnificent Seven’. The Magnificent Seven are all dead now but they were all very big animals with massive tusks. They were all given names most of which reflect some particular characteristic of the game rangers of their time. The largest, called Mafunyani, had tusks which weighed over 140kg each. Many of the skulls and tusks of these seven elephants are on display as well as a full size elephant skeleton. They certainly show what huge animals elephants are! Maybe we will see some of the new crop of large tuskers as we continue our journey into the northern section of the park.

You can see more of our South Africa photos in the Photo Gallery South Africa

Kruger National Park – Southern Section

Lion

Young Male Lion

Our five night stay in Kruger, which was only a few weeks ago but seems much longer, has whetted our appetite for a rather more extended visit and we have planned a twenty night trip to take us from the southern section of the park right up to the far northern tip and the border with Mozambique at Pafuri. We’re not usually big on detailed planning and pre-booking our campsites but it is a very popular national park, particularly in the southern parts, and even though we booked in advance we were still unable to get into a couple of the rest camps that we first picked. We’ll be staying at nine different camps for two or three nights in each and minimising our travel distances between them but even so there will be a few big (for us) drives, especially with a speed limit of 40km/hr on dirt and 50km/hr on the tar roads. Of course time must also be allowed for stops to look at any wildlife we come across. Most of the camping will be in rest camps which have a variety of accommodation types, shops, service stations, restaurants and even swimming pools. A couple of the places are smaller satellite or bush camps which are more basic but still above the level of services we are used to in Australian National Parks. All camp sites have well maintained toilets and showers, basic camp kitchens and plenty of good drinking water. In the restcamps the sites even have power on each site and instant boiling water in the camp kitchens. All the large rest camps have swimming pools which will be very welcome in the hotter weather we expect to experience, especially as we travel northwards. We know that the park is in the depths of a fierce drought, the worst for over 100 years, and the last decent rains were over two years ago.

Our first rest camp is Pretoriuskop, the oldest one in the the park, which is situated 10 km from Numbi Gate in the southern section of the park. We arrive by lunchtime which allows us our pick of the camp sites and we set up right by the boundary fence. When we aren’t out driving and looking for game we can keep an eye out right at our camp site. Several type of antelope, including impala and bush buck, wander by grazing on the few remaining bits of grass and one evening an elephant family noisily munch on their meal a few metres from us as we munch on our own dinner.

We quickly settle into the rhythm we will follow for our time in the park. On days we are moving between camps we aim to arrive by or soon after lunch so we have more choice of camp sites. After we set up we rest for a while then take a late afternoon drive, making sure we get back to camp before the gates are locked at 6.00 pm. Mornings are either a very early drive to catch the morning light and look for the animals before the heat of the day then return for breakfast, or a later start and a longer time out before returning. We are only allowed out of the car at a handful of specified spots and so we have the esky in the back seat with plenty of cold water and a thermos and coffee makings fits into a box on the floor behind the passenger seat. Cameras (one for me and two for Paul including one with the big 400mm lens) are on the back seat and easy to reach and our binoculars are also ready for quick use. Here and there are picnic spots where we can leave the car for our coffee or picnic lunch and these often overlook water courses and have good shade. Some time in the afternoon we take a second drive, often timing it for as late as possible hoping for better light for photography around water holes as evening approaches.

We’re very happy with the variety of game we see while at Pretoriuskop, virtually as soon as we come through the gate we started spotting wildlife. While we are in this area we see two immature male lions, plenty of elephants, buffalo and giraffe, various antelope including impala, springbok, duikers, waterbuck, kudu, wildebeest, bushbuck and klipspringer, as well as zebras, hippopotamus, crocodiles, tortoises, rhinos, dwarf mongoose, ground squirrels, warthogs, vervet monkeys, baboons, and lots of birds. All of the park is dry but some areas in particular have been devastated by the drought; broken trees and shrubs sit in bare earth and some of the buck, impala in particular, show their ribs. Only the areas along the watercourses are green and naturally the greatest concentration of animals are in these areas although we also see some in the driest, most inhospitable looking terrain.

From Pretoriuskop we drive to our next camp at Berg-en-Dal which is close to the southern border of the park. It is set amongst a marvellous jumble of rugged rocky hills and the scenery is reminiscent of much we saw and loved in the Pilbara and western Northern Territory. Just before we reach the rest camp we take a scenic drive along a slightly rougher dusty track which winds its way between the hills in a big loop around to the far side of the camp.

It’s a lot more crowded here so we don’t get a boundary site but we have plenty of shade and some lovely neighbours, Colin and Jeannie, and we enjoy chatting with them and joining them for drinks one evening. We see a few elephants near the camp but the rocky hills don’t provide much grazing so we need to venture back to the main road to see more. A large dam at the edge of the camp is completely dry, normally we would be able to watch game there with the bonus of being able to see them before the gate opens at 5.30 am and after it closes at 6.00 pm.

Rhinos are typically found in the southern section of the park and, while we saw a couple while we were in the Pretoriuskop area, we see quite a few more around Berg-en-Dal. On our drive between camps we take a short detour to a water pan in the hope of seeing some wildlife there. The pan is dry and there is no activity nearby but returning to the main road we approach a mother and baby rhino grazing on the edge of the road. We sit for ages with our very ‘up close’ view. Another car heading in the opposite direction also stops but the young rhino evidently decides that they have stopped where he wants to graze so he gently head butts their car and they take the hint and move out of his way. Poaching of Rhinos is a problem everywhere, particularly near borders, but there are big efforts to control it in the park and they seem to be working as populations around here seem quite healthy. (Later in our trip we hear that two rhino were killed by poachers near Orpen Gate while we are in the park.)

The ‘Big 5’ in the game world are the lion, elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. We’ve seen four out of five in the park, it is just the leopard which has eluded us thus far. On one of our drives we see a string of cars a short distance off the main road so we turn down to see if we can spot what has everybody’s attention. After scanning the area with our binoculars we finally see it, a leopard resting in a fork of a large shady tree on the edge of the creek bed about 100 metres from the road. Along with everyone else we shuffle our vehicle around in an effort to get a less obstructed view and hope that the leopard stirs so we can get a good look at it. Often they will hunt at night then find a shady spot to rest for the day. After a relatively short time we are treated to a brief period when the leopard stands and stretches then, apparently tired of all the attention from the gaggle of sightseers, it slinks down the tree and disappears into the bush by the creek. Very satisfied with the start to our drive, and with a big smile on our faces we continue our drive and manage to spot the other members of the ‘Big 5’ in the same 5 hour drive … plus lots of other game. It becomes clear to us that there is more food for the animals around Berg-en-Dal and this undoubtably has caused the wildlife to concentrate in the area.

We’ve had a little rain over night, very welcome but hardly enough to wet the dust, and there is a light misting rain as we are having our breakfast before packing to leave for our next camp. We had taken the awning down while we were at Graskop as we didn’t think we’d need it so we are eating breakfast in the trailer tent and Paul notices several wheel nuts and studs missing on the right wheel of the trailer. Only two remain! We’d probably (hopefully) have noticed their absence before we set out but we definitely want them fixed before we set off. We have a go at jacking up the trailer but with only the high-lift jack and the trailer sitting on a slope we get worried about the trailer moving down the slope and coming off the jack. The camp maintenance crew come in response to our request for help but they can’t assist us and suggest we drive the few kilometres to the mechanic in the nearby town of Malelane. We decide to give it a go and finish our pack-up, hitch the trailer to the car and very slowly start to drive out of the camp … then the wheel literally falls off.

Oh ... bother

Oh … bother

Luckily we hear the two remaining studs snap and stop in time to prevent the trailer falling all the way to the ground. We walk to reception and they help us phone the mechanic in Malelane who arrives just before midday. He and his apprentice expertly jack the trailer up and replace all six wheel studs and nuts in just over an hour, very good work. We had all the spares required or it would have been a much longer job which would have included waiting a day for studs, wheel nuts and axle caps to be sent from Nelspruit.

The drive to our next camp, Skukuza, is uneventful mechanically, thank goodness, but our late start means we’re late arriving at what is the busiest and biggest camp in the park and it’s Saturday afternoon as well. There is no chance of a boundary edge site or any shade but we get a good sized spot and are soon set up. Its hot already and even hotter weather is predicted so we put the awning up, it’s not as difficult as we thought so we will feel more comfortable putting it up or taking it down in the future. Our time at Skakuza follows the same pattern, morning and afternoon drives with a rest between but we add in swimming as well. Luckily the pool is close by as the camp is almost the size of a small town. Another addition is late afternoon drinks and light snacks on the expansive wooden deck at the restaurant overlooking a long stretch of the Sabie River. As the sun sets and then the moon rises over the old railway bridge we watch the colours in the sky change and the game drinking at the river below. As the shadows deepen, and we can no longer see the river below us, we are left in an island of light with the sounds of the hippos grunting and blowing in the deeper pools floating up to us. It is a magical scene and an enchanting evening.

Moonrise over the Railway Bridge at Skukuza

Moonrise over the Railway Bridge at Skukuza

When we leave Skakuza we are heading north into the central section of the park. Our next stop will be Satara and our story continues in the next blog post.

You can see more of our South Africa photos in the Photo Gallery South Africa