Sun 11th Nov – Blyde Canyon Forever Resort
We flew out of Heathrow on the 10th and landed in Johannesburg at 0750, we were collected by Bushlore after a worrying wait in arrivals looking for a man with our name on a board amongst hundreds of others, and taken to the depot and orientated with the camper. First stop was to do a food shop, we were aiming for Woolworths but found ourselves in a Pick N Pay (first lesson; creating jobs for the sake of jobs is common, car parking assistants and trolley returners expect tips!), after warnings regarding personal security it was a tense shop with danger around every corner! After stocking up with supplies we undertook our pre-expedition ritual which is to visit the golden arches for some lunch and used the free wifi to check in with home. We were running behind schedule by a few hours and at 12pm we set our sights on reaching the first campsite at Blyde Canyon, a lengthy journey of 450 km’s which we had estimated on taking 5 hours (our second lesson was to be that travelling in SA can take a lot longer than expected!).
The original plan was to drive the ‘Panoramic Route’ up through Sabie and Graskop to stop at God’s Window, Mac Mac Falls and Bourke’s Luck Potholes, but because we were behind schedule we decided to take a quicker route through Lydenburg and Ohrigstad on the R36, this took longer than expected because a 10km stretch of the road was being reconstructed and we had to drive the unmade road along side it in a procession of lorries that kicked up so much dust that you couldn’t see 10 metres in front of the bonnet, the tarmacked sections of the road were so badly potholed that you ended up driving twice the distance as you weaved side to side around them, the only well-constructed parts of the road were the speed bumps which were placed randomly here and there and designed to work in tandem with the potholes to ruin your suspension.
We eventually arrived at the Blyde Canyon Forever Resort around 5.45pm, which is a fairly small but well set up campsite with 30 pitches, the main focus of the camp is on the lodges but the camping area has good facilities with braai stands, working showers, washing up area and the camp also has a shop, restaurant, swimming pool, liquor store and fuel (just outside the gates) , two viewpoints provide a stunning overview of the canyon. The only problem we had with the campsite was the stream that runs alongside camp which provides the ideal habitat for a band of vocal toads, the streams banks only serve to amplify the all-night cacophony of back and forth croaking, it was quite the welcome to SA! This camp was also our first introduction to the infamous Vervet monkey, we quickly learned that you can’t let your guard down when there are monkeys about and we will never know for sure what happened to the washing up liquid and bottle of shower gel!
We cooked some dinner and got to bed early for some overdue rest.
Mon 12th Nov – Umlani Bushcamp,Timbavati Reserve
We made an early start, partially due to the 4.30am sunrise, but also because we had to make the hour and a half drive to the Moholoholo rehabilitation centre for a 9.30am tour.
After a bit of breakfast we headed up to the upper canyon viewpoint which was definitely worth it as the morning sun rising over the stone pinnacles in the canyon was truly breath-taking, we also got our first look at the abundant South African wildlife as we stumbled across a pair of deer perching on a rock.
The drive to Moholoholo took us through the high mountain range bordering the canyon with some tight switchback roads and rock tunnels, we also passed through some smaller villages where locals set up roadside stalls to sell handmade items such as statues and bowls to passing travellers.
Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre is based within a private game reserve and runs 2 tours a day for visitors, after singing in with the ranger at the main gate you drive on a dirt track to the centre itself where there is a reception with toilets and curio shop. After paying for the tour (a rather undervalued fee of R155 pp, or £9!) you go through the inner gate into the centre itself. The tour starts with a talk on the conservation and wildlife rescue work they undertake, as well as the educational programs they conduct with local farmers and school children, the talk was incredibly informative and was impressive mostly because it didn’t sugar coat the realities of the problems that SA faces when it comes to interactions between wildlife and local people. The tour then continues by meeting the permanent residents at the centre who cannot ever be released, those animals that can be released are kept separate from the public so they do not become accustomed to people. We met everything from lions, leopards, hyena, honey badger (the famous Stoffel from a BBC documentary resides at the centre) and cheetah to vultures, eagles, chervils and a wild dog. You get a chance to get incredibly close to all of these animals as they are fed as you go around and you can get particularly close to the vultures as they perch on your arm and the resident cheetah which you can get hands on with. Overall a visit to the centre is highly recommended if you are in the area, and although it is shame to see such stunning animals in captivity the issues affecting each individual means it is the only way their safety and the safety of others can be guaranteed. I think the outreach work of the centre with be crucial to the future survival of many vulnerable species in that area and we couldn’t fault the tireless work they undertake, we made sure to leave a further donation to their ongoing work.
After leaving the rehab centre we had another hour and a half drive to Umlani Bushcamp in the Timbavati reserve that borders Kruger NP where we had booked to spend a night in their treehouse, 2.5 kms outside of the main camp. The Timbavati Reserve is a 1000km² private reserve that lies alongside the western edge of the Kruger National Park (the boundary fence was removed in 1993 to encourage animal migration), there are 15 different catered and self-catered camps within the reserve, but unfortunately no camping facilities so a visit to this reserve is for a little slice of luxury.
After you leave the R40 South of Hoedspruit you pass through the main gate into the reserve and pay the conservation levy for the number of nights you are staying. Once you enter the reserve you are warned not to leave your car until you reach your destination, and it soon becomes apparent why as zebra and giraffe wander across the main road and you strain your eyes looking into the bush for lion, elephant and other exciting creatures.
The drive from the main gate to Umlani is only about 16kms but it took a long time as we leisurely drifted from one animal sighting to the next, spotting impala for the first time was wildly exciting, little did we know that 3 weeks later we would be sick of the sight of them! As we turned off the main tarmac access road onto the final few km’s of dirt track we felt we were entering the bush properly for the first time and after crossing a few river beds we arrived at the entrance to Umlani Bushcamp at 1pm where we received a warm welcome, buffet lunch and a cold free bar which was a welcome relief after 2 days of travelling in 36 degree heat.
One benefit of staying in a catered camp for the night was that we had game drives included so after an afternoon dip in the pool watching giraffe walk by we hopped in one of the land rovers and heading out to explore the reserve. We saw our first lions, which consisted of a full pride on a kill that they had made on the previous day, we also came across 4 young hyena which had been stowed away in an abandoned termite mount that was the same size as the vehicle, and towards sunset we spotted a group of 3 rare white rhino feeding in the bush, which was a lucky find (although we did find another two 10 minutes later!). As the sun started to set we stopped on the edge of a pool where hippo were bathing to keep cool, and as we enjoyed drinks and nibbles two hyena emerged from the gloom to drink from the pool only 10 metres away, our initial instinct to scramble back into the vehicle was not necessary as the guide seemed pretty chilled about it all!
After a candlelit dinner back at the lodge our guide drove us the 2.5 kms to our accommodation for the night which was a rustic open sided treehouse beside a watering hole, the facilities only consisted of a bed, mosquito net, portable toilet, torch and emergency radio, but after a slightly unnerving night listening out for leopards climbing the tree to the treehouse, we awoke to the sound of lions and hyena calling in the distance and witnessing a sunrise over the bush from an elevated position was a truly unforgettable experience that was breathtakingly beautiful, we spent the early hours just watching the world go by and soaking it all up.
Tue 13th Nov – Maroela Satellite Camp (Outside Orpen), Kruger NP
We were picked up from our treehouse at about 5.30am for the morning game drive, the highlight of which was coming across a breeding herd of elephant, the smallest calf was so busy watching us it walked into the back of its mothers’ leg in a funny fashion. We returned to camp for breakfast and showered and changed before checking out at 11am to hit the road again to make the journey to our next campsite.
The journey to our intended campsite in Kruger was supposed to take about an hour and a quarter, but ended up being about double that, we took a different access road to get back onto the R531 which turned out to be gravel, and the process of getting into Kruger took longer than expected due to bureaucracy! As we left Timbavati we had a slightly awkward situation as the guard on the gate made it very clear he wouldn’t let us leave the reserve without tipping him for his cone moving service, an uncomfortable situation that was solved with a begrudged R10 note.
The journey to Kruger was uneventful apart from the normal road cows and speed bumps, when we got to the entrance to Kruger we experienced for the first time the slightly backwards system of paperwork that South Africans enjoy, seemingly to create jobs for people! We had to book all of the campsites for our time in Kruger at the same time, although we could change this once in the park at the main camp offices, not all of the camps in Kruger offer camping or caravan spots so you need to do your research in advance. Our first choice for our second night of Lower Sabie was already fully booked so we had Satara or Skakuza to choose from (we went for Satara as it is a smaller camp), luckily there was availability for Maroela satellite camp that night. Once you have pre-paid for the camping and conservation levy, filled out all the forms, had your passport checked and got all your paperwork you can drive to the gate and get your paperwork checked by a ranger and sign into the park (we fuelled up the car at this point which was more expensive than other filling stations but better than running out of fuel!).
We then had to drive through the park to the Orpen camp to check into Maroela campsite a few kms outside of the main camp, whilst we were there we made use of the lovely on-site shop to stock up on water, snacks, biltong, some local meat and charcoal for the braai, we were tempted by some well-priced springbok hides, once checked in at the Orpen reception we drove the final few kms to the Maroela campsite.
Maroela is called a satellite camp for a reason as it a couple of kms off the main road and feels very remote, when we arrived and were let through the electric fence we were surprised to find that the camp was almost empty, which was nice. The camp manager showed us to our spot on the fence overlooking a dried up riverbed, having to stop along the way to throw stones at a raiding party of baboon that were taking advantage of a tent that had been left unzipped. Our pitch for the night was well shaded under a tree with braai stand for cooking our dinner and electricity hook-up and after warning us about the scorpions we were left to make some lunch. The camp was incredibly clean and tidy and the facilities mirrored this with an excellent toilet block and outdoor cooking hobs and sinks for washing up, overall we were very happy and could have spent a couple of nights here.
During our lunch preparations we were suddenly shocked to realise that a couple of metres away on the other side of the fence a hungry hyena was watching us and our tin of tuna, suddenly the fence made sense. After lunch we heading out to explore the Kruger National Park and spot some wildlife, the basic setup of Kruger is that there are main tarmac roads that connect the rest camps, and off these main roads there are gravel tracks which criss-cross here and there taking in watering holes and other scenic game areas, a good map is essential to avoid getting lost and also to help you estimate travel times as you must be back in camp before dark as the gates get locked after last light. On our loop we saw sleeping lion cubs, ostrich, loads of elephant, giraffe, wildebeest and as we returned to camp in failing light our path was blocked by a herd of buffalo in the road which stubbornly refused to move, there is no arguing with them so it is a waiting game!
We eventually snuck through and made it back to camp where we set about cooking some well seasoned steak on the braai, our (seemingly) friendly pet hyena returned looking for scraps, something you have to make sure you avoid doing as it makes the problem of begging and dependance worse. After a hearty dinner of with some local cider we washed up and showered before getting another early night to read and listen to the sounds of SA.
Wed 14th Nov – Satara Camp, Kruger NP
One of our major goals in SA was to try and see wild dogs, one of the continents rarest and most elusive animals, there had been sightings in the area on previous days so we got an early start and started trawling gravel roads in hope of catching a glimpse. Despite seeing all kinds of wonderful wildlife the dogs were giving us the slip and the gravel roads shaking our fillings loose so at lunchtime we pitched into Satara rest camp to reserve our spot for the night and have some food. The day was so hot we had a long lunch in the shade of the awning and read for a while. When the day started to cool we hit the road again searching waterways and wooded areas for leopards this time, another elusive predator, despite seeing black back jackal, bull elephants and steenbok, a leopard was not bagged so at sunset we returned to Satara. Spending all day searching with binoculars in the heat whilst driving around on bumpy roads is both physically and mentally exhausting so after some lamb chops (again rubbed in the African spice blend) we had a wash and tried to sneak into a traditional dance demonstration that we could hear on the other side of the camp, it ended as we made our final push ‘under the wire’.
Satara is once again a very well-equipped camp with excellent ablutions, the campsite is part of the main fenced camp so you can walk to the shop and restaurant, power is available on some pitches along with water and braai’s, wifi was not available when we were there and the swimming pool was still under construction.
Thur 15th Nov – Mbuluzi Game Reserve, Swaziland
As this was our last day to try and find wild dogs and with a long way to get to our camp in Swaziland we were up and ready to leave camp when the gate opened at 4.30am, it was a beautiful slightly hazy morning as the sun rose over the savannah, to save time we travelled South on the main road keeping our eyes peeled. We came across a German couple who had just had a pair of cheetahs cross the road in front of them so we stopped and observed the pair for a while as they moved off at a distance, a little further down the road a group of hyena dozed in the middle of the road. Further south as we climbed into the hills overlooking the plains we came upon trees strewn across the road where a bull elephant in musk had left his mark and round the corner we stopped to watch a leopard tortoise cross the warming tarmac.
As we stood on a viewing road glassing the plains below an American couple stopped to say that they had observed mating lion just North of Lower Sabie so we pushed on. En-route we stopped at a damn to see hippo and crocodile basking in the early morning sun and out of nowhere a group of 3 white rhino appeared. The mating lions had departed by the time we arrived but we were rewarding by spotting a cheetah with 3 cubs standing on-top on a termite mound looking for prey, although they were a way off it was a fantastic sight to see. We crossed the bridge over the river North of Lower Sabie and we stopped in at the camp to use the toilet and check the sightings board, wild dogs had been seen that morning but on a different road to the one we had taken so we pushed South for Crocodile Bridge where we would exit Kruger. We continued to search in vain and as the temperature increased our chances of a sighting decreased so we admitted defeat and made our way to the Crocodile Bridge gate where we stopped to make some lunch and stock up with supplies in the shop.
The funny thing about leaving Kruger is that within 100 metres of the gate you are in a polar-opposite landscape with numerous settlements and all the trappings of the modern world. As we travelled south on the R571 towards the Mananga border crossing into Swaziland the fields around us became a mono-culture of sugar cane for as far as the eye could see with the occasional sugar cane refinery releasing a sickly sweet aroma into the air, the roads were a flurry of arctic lorries hauling raw cane to the factories and the road surface and verges were littered with over-spill. The workers tending and cutting the cane by hand in its different stages of growth was a world away from mechanised agricultural practices in the UK, so it was interesting to see.
We reached the Swaziland border and started the paperwork process of leaving SA and entering Swaziland, get a piece of paper from this person, drive to someone else to get a stamp, go through passport control and get a stamp and go to customs and get a stamp to leave SA, you then do the whole thing again in reverse to get into Swaziland, luckily it was quiet when we crossed the border as I would hate to go through it all if it was busy!
Once in Swaziland it was another 30kms to our campsite for the night in the Mbuluzi game reserve, this reserve borders the Royal Hlane and Mlawula game reserves, both of which you can camp at, but due to reading about Mbuluzi’s remoteness and rustic appeal we decided to give it a go. Mbuluzi is quite a small reserve and apart from crocodiles there is no large predators so it is safe to walk out of camp unaccompanied and go for a wander, the entrance to the reserve is small and unassuming and because there is no electricity at the campsite with limited facilities it is very cheap. After paying our fees we entered the reserve and started the lengthy drive to camp, we were soon stopped by some giraffe who were feeding on the track, we eventually reached camp and soon realised we were the only ones there, which was a little disconcerting! In camp there are separate partially screened camping pitches and although there is water it is not for drinking, there are a number of toilets and outdoor showers where the water is heated by wood fired ‘donkey boilers’ which you have to light and manage yourself (it was so hot that cold showers were adequate!), these were the first of our outdoor showers and it is very liberating showering in the open air watching nature! The toilets and showers seemed to be brand new for that season, so luckily for us it seemed that word hadn’t gotten out yet, there are also a number of brand new marked walking trails so after setting camp we followed a trail down to the river where water flowed between massive slabs of smooth red stone before switching back and filling a series of pools and flowing off through the valley bottom. We followed the trial which traversed up the side of the valley to a viewing point at the top, providing spectacular views of the tree covered slopes as the sun started to set, what was even more magical was the fact that we knew we were the only ones in the whole reserve. We headed back to camp and lit a fire in the fire pit with the pre-cut supplied wood, dinner was more steak and veg with boiled ears of sweetcorn seared on the fire grill, accompanied by a cold cider, just what was needed after a very long day on the road.
Fri 16th Nov – Mlilwane Rest Camp, Swaziland
We were greeted in the morning by another crisp sunny day, unzipping the side panels on the roof tent allowed for an overdue lie in listening to the sounds of the game reserve and snoozing in the warm breeze. We made the two hour hop to Milwane starting on the 32 South and passing through the centre of Hlane Game Sanctuary, which to be honest seemed a little run down and dilapidated with abandoned guard houses and checkpoints. We passed through Manzini, the busy and bustling second largest city in Swaziland (which changed to Eswatini whilst we were driving through it!) but didn’t feel the need to stop and wander around. It became clear that Eswatini was investing very heavily in road infrastructure and the journey took longer than expected due to diversions and temporary roads.
The arrival at Mlilwane was unusual in the sense that the normal entrance road was being widened and re-laid and the poorly signposted diversion took an un-nerving route through what seemed to be locals’ driveways and back gardens! The reception lodge for the reserve is a very understated affair considering the hidden gem it provides you access to. As with all the reserves you see the staff at reception, pay up front for the nights you wish to stay, pay the conservation levy and sign a disclaimer for personal injury. One incident to note was that after paying for our stay we used the public toilets in a separate building on our way back to the car park, whilst getting some light relief I became conscious of more people entering the toilet block and a quick glance confirmed that two local youths had joined me and were sheepishly hanging around the hand dryers. A hasty zip up and about turn saw me confronted with the broken English demand that I needed to pay these two youths to get access to the park and for them to act as guides, luckily for me the duo were of an age that they posed no real threat and a stern decline to their demands saw them leave the toilet ahead of me. This however was another lesson as on my person I had the passports, petty cash and all our other paperwork for checking in, and if they were older, aggressive or armed it may have been disaster. Hindsight would have seen me secure our valuables in the car first, or better still, avoid the vulnerable choke point and wait to use a toilet inside the reserve. We reported the incident to the reserve staff who apologised but were not surprised that it had taken place.
As we drove into Mlilwane it became clear that this was a different kind of reserve to those we had visited previously, for a start it is a relatively small area but the terrain is more mountainous with forested slopes encompassing it on three sides. Another difference is that there are no large predators held in the area so there is more freedom to roam with driving trails and walking routes zig zagging here and there. The drive to the rest camp takes you through rolling hills and across a long bridge over the lake, when you get to camp you are greeted with a mixture of traditional buildings and lodges as well as a very picturesque camping area in the tall pine trees. The campsite facilities were seemingly brand new and very clean and functional with brilliant showers, washing up areas and laundry, and WIFI available at the main lodge building. Because there is lodge accommodation there is also a small shop and restaurant at the camp as well as a swimming pool and a range of activities to get involved in such as mountain biking and guided tours.
After some lunch, a lazy read in the shade and some attempted thefts by the camp monkeys we opted to sign the trail register and follow one of the numerous walking routes leading out from camp. We followed the trail past the bird pool which leads into the hippo pool, despite glassing for hippo we could only spot crocodiles in the waters, the trail lead into a very narrow and steep sided gully leading uphill from the waters edge, concerns over meeting something dangerous around the next corner were forgotten upon spotting thousands of small birds going back and forth from small nesting holes dug out of the sheer sandy sides of the gully. The gully swung around and brought us up onto the central plains where numerous gazelle and deer species grazed leisurely. We crossed the plains at a fair pace as the sun was setting and, although there are no large predators, the park authority requires you to be back in camp or out of the sanctuary before dark.
We signed back in on the trail register and got underway with dinner while taking in the last of the breath-taking sunset over the mountains. After dinner we utilised the camp WIFI to touch base with the real world and then found ourselves in the camp bar sitting next to the fire with a cold cider in hand and a tame warthog asleep at our feet with her piglets nestled by her belly. Unbeknownst to us the camp staff included some talented singers and dancers and with the beating of a skin drum the staff filed into the sandy clearing next to the fire wearing traditional attire. What followed was a wonderful display of local songs, storytelling and traditional dances where the men competed in endurance foot stamping and the women competed in endurance high kicking dances that gradually increased in speed. It was a wonderfully unexpected display that resonated deeply and echoed from bygone days when people lived permanently by fire and candlelight, we returned to the camper in high spirits and made plans to be out into the park at first light to ascent a mountain and try and spot a leopard.
Sat 17th Nov – Utshwayelo Campsite, Kosi Mouth Bay,
We were up before sunrise to leave rest camp as soon as the gate opened at dawn, after signing out we drove North on the 4x4 trails up the mountain route into the hills, parking up at Poacher’s View Point we had a bit of breakfast whilst looking back down across the expansive valley with the sunlight creeping across it from the East. After brushing our teeth with a herd of zebra we continued winding our way up the valley on some technical driving trails before parking up at Nature’s Corner, the plan was to follow the Machobane Trail and summit Nyonyane Peak whilst using the early morning advantage to try and spot the elusive leopard that come and go from the Sanctuary as they please. Despite the early start the temperature rose quickly and it was a relief to traverse the hillside in thick undergrowth, even if the ideal leopard country left you slightly on edge. Breaking free of the treeline we intersected the summit trail and picked our way up the ridge line. Nyonyane Peak is a spike of rock that juts vertically out of the surrounding grasslands, due to the heat Alice decided to wait at the base in the shade so I pushed on up the final hundred metres of ascent to emerge on a flat stone plateau that overlooks the whole sanctuary falling away to the South. From this elevated position it was clear to see the defined boundaries where the sanctuary ends and the farmland beyond starts. Within the span of a couple of metres the entire ecosystem changes and the stark reality of why these sanctuaries and reserves are so important to conserving native wildlife hits home.
After dropping back down to Alice we traversed along the Ridge Trail through herds of gazelle to take in the Nyagato and Birds Eye View Point where we could see commercial tree plantations stretching off into the distance and a team of workers planting new saplings on the other side of the valley. We dropped back downhill on the 4x4 trail skirting around Siketsha Peak and through the Eucalyptus plantations until we looped back around to the car at Nature’s Corner. We quickly loaded up and drove back to the rest camp to sign back in as we intended on making a long hop to the East coast below Mozambique before nightfall, the leopard had given us the slip but we had experienced some of the best scenery Eswatini had to offer.
Leaving Mlilwane we passed back through Manzini before heading South-East on the 44 through unending miles and miles of sugar cane plantation, we looped around big bend and headed South towards the border at Lavumisa. After going through the rigors of the over-complicated border procedure again we left Eswatini and passed back into South Africa. A short run on the N2 saw us turning East around the Southern tip of the Jozini lake and climbing steeply uphill along the Eastern shore and dropping down into Jozini and crossing the Jozini Dam. We had planned on stopping and looking at the dam but the abundance of local street hawkers in an otherwise empty car park saw us deciding to push on North East towards Mozambique and the coast. The only events worth note on the 342km (5 hour) drive were some very close high speed encounters with cattle in the road, invisible speed bumps in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason and a visit to a fuel station in the middle of a small town (that I imagine doesn’t see a lot of tourist traffic) and putting the equivalent diesel value of an annual local wage into our near empty long range fuel tanks, in a vehicle that sparked a lot of curiosity from the locals we certainly didn’t feel threatened, just slightly overwhelmed!
Our target destination was Utshwayelo Campsite which sits nestled in Kosi Bay, a stone’s throw from the Mozambique border and part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site. As you approach the Mozambique border on the R22 you swing a right and travel 4.5km on a gravel track, arriving on a hilltop overlooking the bay. The track forks and the right leads into the campsite and the left leads through a gated entrance into the wetland park with a 4x4 only sign.
We booked a pitch at the campsite for the night and were told there was a stunning beach at the end of the wetland park trail so we decided that we would drive into the park for a quick look around as we had an hour and a half before sunset. After paying the conservation fee to the ranger at the gate we started along the trail which was a simple sand track cut into the dunes, the landcruiser immediately started to bog down and squirm around so we need to keep the revs up and maintain momentum. The track started to drop downhill and after swinging around a sharp left-hander it started to drop away steeper still. Regret started to creep in as the back end started to step out of line under braking and we remembered how much our vehicle weighed fully loaded. Due to the narrowness of the track and its sandy composition it would be impossible to turn around on the slope so we would have to ride it out to the bottom, luckily the track levelled out a bit as we met a 4x4 coming back up the hill, we pushed ourselves over as far as possible and the truck squeezed by keeping its momentum. We swung around a tight right hander and were faced with the final downhill slope which was heavily rutted with offset potholes that promised to cross the axles and shift the top-heavy weight unexpectedly. Some careful driving and lots of swearing saw us reach the bottom where the track met the waterline of the bay and having come this far we decided to push on a bit, the track followed the coast, crossing wooden bridges over streams and dipping onto the beach here and there where you could see the shallow waters crisscrossed with traditional fish traps. Rounding a bend we came across a black pick-up truck with 5 or 6 unhappy looking locals in the back and all four wheel spinning furiously and kicking up sand, they were well and truly stuck. They quickly cheered up when they saw us and a means of escaping the sandbox they were trapped in, seeing as they were in our way we had no choice but to help! We chose to use the winch over the tow rope so we could reverse onto more stable ground and reduce the risk of us digging in too, after reeling out the steel cable and hooking it up to the chassis I asked the chaps to reduce their tyre pressures and lighten the vehicle, crate after crate of beer emerged from the bed of the pickup, which combined with the weight of 10 men was the most likely reason for them sinking! We used the spade to dig their wheels out a bit but the sand tracks stayed in the bag, our vehicle held firm under winching and it wasn't long before the pickup was under its own steam again. A longer run up got them across the sand trap and after loading up again they headed off towards the trail end, in the meantime a couple of other trucks had dropped in behind us so we decided to leave the locals to their Saturday night and reversed into the undergrowth to let them pass, we turned around and parked up on the shoreline of one of the small beaches for a quick sunset walk and to dip our toes in the Indian Ocean for the first time.
As dusk was setting in fast and knowing what we had to drive back up we lowered our tyre pressures and apprehensively followed the shoreline back towards the sand dunes and the hill back up to camp. Momentum was going to be key and a prayer that we didn’t meet anything coming down the other way, we built up speed and stuck in 2nd all the way up making sure to keep the torque and power up by keeping the revs high, the landcruisers straight six engine did us proud hauling our estimated 3.5 ton mass through soft deep sand and with some luck we hit firmer ground again as we reached the gate.
After choosing our pitch in the campsite (it was pretty much empty) we settled in for the evening with a shower in the brilliant ablutions and dinner cooked on wood in the braai stand. The campsite was very well setup with each of the 12 camping pitch being in its own enclosure so you got real privacy, the main communal area had a swimming pool, bar (with honesty fridge), wifi and a couple of flat screen tv’s, by chance the rugby was on (Scotland vs South Africa) so we had a very pleasant evening checking in with home and chatting with the locals (who were happy that South Africa won).
Sun 18th Nov – Mabibi Beach Camp
We got up fairy early and after building up the courage decided to make an attempt at reaching the beach again, we entered through the gate, dropped down the hill and followed the shoreline once again, confident that we were early enough to not meet anyone coming the other way! A way along the track we passed a local who was walking in the direction of the beach, we slowed to pass him on a narrow section of track and carried on our way, roughly 600m further on the track ended at a small clearing that served as a car park for the beach. It was deserted so we parked up, jumped out and standing in the entrance to the clearing was the local we had passed on the track, either he had sprinted the whole way behind us, or more likely he had hopped on the rear bumper as we slowed to pass him!
It became apparent that he was the enterprising type of chap, who you find anywhere in South Africa that tourists visit, who has set up his own business offering private security to visitors. Basically he offered to look after our vehicle whilst we explored the beach, considering we were 3.5km’s from the nearest gravel road and 8 km’s from the nearest tarmac road I’m not entirely sure who he was protecting the vehicle from, but at the risk we were protecting it from him it seemed that 20 Rand (approx. £1.25) was a small donation in the right direction.
We changed into swimmers, left him sitting near the truck and headed out into the most beautiful bay you could ever hope to find at the end of a difficult track, the tide was heading out and water from the bay was sweeping in a channel from right to left before bending back on itself in a long arc and twisting back again into the main mouth of the bay. We waded across the waist high water in the channel and then crossed it again to reach the windswept beach on the fringe of the Elephant Coast. The beach arched away to the North as far as the eye could see with steep slopes rising from the strip of sand making it unapproachable from the rear, the whole place could only be described as feeling rugged and raw, turbulent waves battered the coast with a stiff breeze behind them, and save for the chap with the car it felt truly empty and deserted. The unspoilt beauty was breath-taking and we walked the coast for a while contemplating a swim, an idea which was dashed by the unknown currents, man-eating sharks and lack of outside help!
After sitting on the sand for a while taking it all in we waded back across the channels to the still empty car park and the local chilling beneath a tree who got paid for everything being as we left it. The drive back out was uneventful save for meeting a few cars coming the other way, but it was a relief to get back to the gravel road. We needed to do a food shop so decided to stop at Manguzi, the only town we had passed on the road to Kosi Bay, and the only town we would pass through on the way South to Mabibi Camp. We drove the gravel back to the tarmac and turned South again on the R22, after a couple of kilometres we noticed a police car ahead on the side of the road with its lights on and as we got closer we could see an officer standing in the road signalling us to pull over. His English was no better than my South African but it became clear that we wanted to know if I had been drinking that morning (apparently Sunday morning drinking is a problem in SA!) he produced a plastic box and gestured for me to blow into it, I looked for some kind of mouthpiece, of which there was none, so I just blew at the box, he caught my breath by sweeping the box through it, glanced at it and then signalled for us to go on our way. I feel slightly disappointed to have not ticked ‘being bribed by a police officer’ off my bucket list but we were relieved that his magic box didn’t feel the need to make us go through the awkwardness of negotiating an appropriate amount.
We entered Manguzi and found a very different place to the day before, the town was buzzing with people and music was blaring from unseen speakers, Sunday morning is obviously church and market day and people were pouring in from the surrounding areas. The street market seemed like an exotic option for our food shop but we opted for the relative safety and sanity of the town’s supermarket, the entrance of which was guarded by four security guards in military uniform. Our shop was a fairly surreal experience as we were very much stared at by the locals who seemed unaccustomed to seeing two westerners in a small town fairly well off the beaten tourist trail, we were the only people leaving the store not to have our receipts checked against our bags by security, which is a bit sad. To stock up on alcohol we had to visit the liquor store on the opposite side of the car park and the owner had set up a sound system in the doorway that was loud enough to be heard 2 hours later, luckily he had a plentiful supply of Savannah Lite so we were in and out quick enough to not be left with permanent damage. It was quite a relief to leave the claustrophobia of the town and return to inconspicuousness, we continued South with the aim of reaching a dive centre at Rocktail Bay, just North of our campsite at Mabibi, that offered an Ocean Safari where you could cross into Mozambique and dive with Dolphins. Our Satnav offered us an alternative route to our planned route and we took the gravel track heading in the right direction, the track split and split again and soon gave way to a sand track which became hard going, the sand track eventually ended alongside someone’s house despite the navigation being adamant that it continued, so we spun around and retraced our steps back to the gravel track which eventually linked up with our original route. The satnav continued to try taking us up sand tracks that seemed to lead nowhere and the daylight was getting short so we abandoned the hunt for Rocktail Bay and reprogrammed the useless computer to get us to Mabibi Beach Camp. Following the directions on their website and using the map we eventually rolled into the driveway of the beach camp, although it is worth noting that the last 30 km’s is poor condition sand tracks so it’s a 4x4 only campsite and they recommend not travelling the route after 4pm and not stopping for strangers as a security measure (you also lose all phone reception 7 km’s from the tar road!).
Mabibi Beach Camp is made up of 8 private camping pitches with no electricity and a communal toilet/shower block, due to high iron levels the water is not suitable to drink or cook with, as it turns out we found the water was not suitable to wash with either and after a shower in the muddy brown water we both felt it necessary to use the built in shower on the truck! The ladies in the office hut seemed surprised to see us and after paying our £9 per person we discovered that it was probably because the rest of the campsite was empty! We took our pick of the spots which was the one closest to the steps down to the beach and after setting up camp we left camp through the gate (closed at night to stop hippos entering camp) and walked down the long flight of wooden steps to the beach, we walked the beach and found a spot to set out towels and catch some sun, there were a few other people wandering the beach that had come from the Thonga Beach Lodge Resort next door but with endless miles of beach to share it wasn’t exactly crowded.
We headed back to camp and ate early as we had taken a punt and booked a turtle tour at the camp office with a guide from the local village, as we finished the washing up in the gathering dusk a figure emerged from the darkness and introduced himself as our guide. What followed was one of those unexpected and magical experiences in life that you cant really pre-plan or predict, for starters our guide was one of the most happy and enthusiastic people you could hope to meet and he excitedly led us down the stairs to the beach whilst explaining the training and tests he has to undertake to be a guide. He explained we could only use red lights when searching to not disturb the turtles whilst egg laying but could take photos with a flash after laying had finished. He detailed the different types of turtles we would be looking for and their habits and also the measures that were being undertaken to monitor and protect the turtles.
As we started to walk the beach looking for the tell-tale marks in the sand of a turtle heading from the shore in-land to lay the wind started to pick up and the rain started to blow in sideways, it felt like a real adventure in the pitch black of night. Our guide started to tell us about his life circumstances and how his divorce had left him with nothing as it is required for a husband to pay damages to his ex-wife’s family for essentially ‘ruining’ her, and we shared stories of cultural differences and learnt about life in rural Africa and how he had learnt English to share his enthusiasm for the nature of the area. The most interesting of his stories related to snakes and specifically the Black Mamba, which despite its danger is believed to be the spirit of the local’s ancestors, if one is found in the village or a home it is not killed but instead ash from the fire is placed on it. We never got to the bottom of why ash was placed on it as at that moment or guide seemed to jump six foot in the air and started running up the beach in excitement, we hurried behind and as we got closer could see what he saw, a fresh track leading away from the shore. He told us that the turtle was still on land as there was not a return set of tracks, and if we were lucky she would still be laying. As we followed the track further and further from the sea it seemed impossibly far and the track crossed exposed stone outcrops which seemed impassable, but halfway up the sand dune behind the beach we found her. He had a look at the clutch of eggs and said she was about halfway through laying so we sat in the sand in awe of the size and majesty of the female loggerhead turtle before us, the smaller of the two turtles we could have found, the bigger species being the leatherback.
Eventually she finished laying and started using her large flippers to start filling in the massive hole she had excavated for her eggs, it was at this point we could get closer and get a proper look at her. Our guide spoke like an excited child telling us all about the laying cycles and lifespans, incubation periods and success rates of the hatchlings, his passion for sharing his knowledge of these creatures was evident and it was truly an honour to witness it first-hand. After spending some time with her filling in the hole and making sure the eggs were well covered we elected to leave her to make her way back to the ocean in her own time and we moved off along to coast to see what else we could find. As we wandered up the beach we passed two other people who were scanning the beach with a red light and our guide explained to us that they were locals from the villages who are involved in a project to monitor the turtles and are out on a nightly basis between sundown and the early hours to record species seen and the frequency of laying. It was encouraging to see that the local community are taking an active interest in the conservation and protection of these unique laying sites. After another kilometre or so we reached a marker on the beach which denoted the end of our observation zone and the beginning of the next, so we turned back to see if anything had come ashore behind us on our way back, the weather continued to deteriorate as the rain and wind picked up and out of the gloom we saw a set of headlights approaching. Our guide explained that guests at the posh lodge next door don’t often choose to walk the beach and instead elect to get driven by a ranger in a safari land rover, an option that completely destroys the experience in my mind! The ranger pulled up for a chat and said that they had found the tracks from our turtle but she had already made it back to the ocean, I felt kind of sorry for the Dutch couple that were huddled in the back of the truck under a mountain of blankets that they had missed it, but not that sorry as it was 'our' turtle. As the weather was continuing to worsen we were grateful for the offer of a lift back and in no time at all we were climbing the long flight of wooden steps back to the campsite and the shelter of the camper. Our guides fee for taking us out for about 3 hours was R200 or about £12.50, which seemed to be vastly undervalued for his time and knowledge, so after giving him a tip that mirrored our experience we bid him a fond farewell and dried ourselves off before getting a solid night’s sleep.
Mon/Tue 19/20th Nov – Cape Vidal Campsite
We had a late start after a busy night and the weather was still very poor so we decided to pick our way South to St Lucia where we had booked a horseback safari in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. We had a couple of options for the route as during the route pre-planning google had shown a shortcut through the Wetlands bordering Lake Sibaya between Mabibi and Mbazwana and cutting 60km’s off the journey, this road wasn’t shown on our big map but Satnav seemed to show a route so we decided to give it a go. Satnav initially struggled to get us out of the village of Mabibi as there is a maze of unofficial sand tracks and after some dead-ends and driving through a few back gardens we dropped into a steep sand gully with a very steep sand track back up the other side, luckily running the engine hard and maintaining speed saw us find enough grip to escape the gully without having to deploy the winch! We eventually found the track that we were looking for which consisted of a deeply rutted single width sand track that snaked along a strip of land between the Ocean and Lake Sibya, I am sure on a clear sunny day it would be a beautiful, remote and little used 4x4 route but on this day with the blowing wind and rain it was starting to flood and was causing a bit of worry. We were ticking along at a steady 15km/h to maintain momentum and traction and all of a sudden there was a massive bang and a gut-wrenching shudder went through the vehicle, we rolled to a stop and our initial thoughts were that we had hit something on the road, although we had seen nothing beforehand. I jumped out of the vehicle and went around to look at the front end which all seemed to be in order, I then looked behind the vehicle and saw a tree lying across the track which lead me to look at the roof of the Landcruiser which is where I discovered a massive dent on the passenger side roof which had rolled the roof over the edge of the passenger door and rendered it inoperable. The tree appeared to have blown over just as we passed and had bounced off the truck roof and landed again behind the truck, luckily it had done minimal damage to the alu-cab roof or the fox wing awning and it had by some miracle not caused the passenger window or windscreen to smash so we carried on to escape the wetlands before having a proper assessment. After about 20 km’s we rose back up off the wetlands and came to a gated fence with a ranger in a gatehouse, we were asked to sign out of reserve, which was confusing for a moment as we had somehow managed to avoid the gated entrance where you would be required to sign in! From there we followed access tracks for the plantations of eucalyptus and pine trees until we reached the town of Mbazwana and from there we followed the R22 South through the Sodwana State Forest and past the Phinda Resource Reserve until we reached the N2, which was the first major tarmacked road we had been on since day one. We slowly got the landcruiser up to warp speed, despite its sluggishness due to a lack of a turbo, while on the motorway we witnessed the spirit of South Africa as we passed a pick up truck that was stacked 3 metres high with straw bales, to secure the load in the absence of straps there was one bloke either side standing on the edge of the bed to hold it together and one bloke sitting on top to weigh it down!
We came off on the R618 and headed East again to St Lucia and the coast, we explored St Lucia for a little bit, looking at the multiple options for water and ocean safaris and snorkelling trips but discovered that the tides and weather were against us so we headed to the beach near the entrance to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park for a walk on the wide stretches of golden sand. After a little walk we stopped in at the stables for Bhangazi Horse Safaris to confirm the ride we had booked for the next day and from there it was a couple of hundred metres to the main gate of the park. You have to book your camping/camper pitch at the reception by the main gate, where they have to phone through to the campsite to check availability, unlike the other campsites we had stayed at the Cape Vidal Resort run by KZN Wildlife was almost fully booked but they found us a space, we payed the conservation levy and got our access passes to the Park.
Next to the entrance to the park is the Crocodile Centre so we had some lunch in the car park and paid entry to have a look around, the Centre itself isn’t particularly big and is a bit ‘budget’ in places (I think specifically of the deadly green mamba enclosure that had been repaired with expanding foam!), but despite this it was incredibly interesting and well stocked with all different species of crocodile, snake and tortoises, they seem to specialise in providing a home for ‘problem’ crocodiles or those injured by boats, etc. They have some interesting characters that are well experienced in escaping their enclosures, but having seen some of the pin latches used to secure the gates I’m not very surprised! The entrance fee was very reasonable, they have daily feeding times, and it was a good way to kill an hour or two.
We passed into the park which is inhabited by a variety of grazing game but no large predators, the Cape Vidal campsite is approximately 20 km’s into the park so it is a lovely drive through rolling grasslands on a tarmac road before you reach the entrance to the camp where there is a small shop and main reception. After checking in and waiting for a mob of mongoose to cross the road we drove into the campsite to find our pitch and it became apparent why the site was so popular, the pitches are set behind the sand dunes of the beach and protected from the worst of any bad weather, there is also a slipway for fishing enthusiasts to launch vessels and the rich waters that form a marine reserve are loaded with large game fish species. The campsite was mainly filled with SA nationals who had travelled to the area with their own boats to fish the waters of the Elephant Coast. After setting up camp we spent the afternoon on the beach trying to make the most of the improving weather, but the high winds made it a bit like existing in a sand blasting cabinet!
After an uncomfortable call to the 4x4 rental company to log the accident (they were very understanding and would have sent us a replacement vehicle if we had requested it) we had a quiet evening in camp.
We got a bit of a lie in the next morning as our horse safari wasn’t due to start until 0815, we left our camping tables and chairs in our pitch to reserve it and drove back to the entrance of the park, we had booked a 2.5 hr beach and bush safari so drove down to the beach car park to await our horses. When they turned up we found that it was only Alice and myself on that days ride so our group consisted of us, the two guides and a new student guide at the stables, we helmeted up and got the stirrups adjusted before heading over the dunes to the beach. We had a lovely wander up the beach trotting a bit and walking the horses into the surf, we had the option of a canter but my horsemanship and nerve wasn’t up to the challenge so trotting was to be the fastest I went. We rode South till we reached one of the inland lakes and had a look to see if we could spot any wildlife before turning back the way we had come, as we neared the beach car park we noticed a gathering of people on the shoreline and in the surf, the commotion caused Alice’s horse to freak out a bit, after crossing back over the dunes our guide explained to us that the people were conducting a good luck ceremony for someone who had been suffering a run of bad luck, and they do this by sacrificing a chicken, covering the person in its blood, and then dunking the person in the ocean to wash it off, he told us this like it was the most normal thing in the world!
From the beach car park we rode a little way up the road looking at different flora before veering off so that we crossed back into the Wetland Park, we rode through the same grasslands that we had driven through but we were able to ride our horses right into the different herds of zebra, wildebeest, etc. After 2.5 hrs on horseback in high temperatures I was not unset to dismount, and my legs reminded me of the experience for the next couple of days! We headed back to the campsite and spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out on the beach, a little after lunch project was to use the lid of a pringles tube and red nail polish to make a red-light filter for the torch so we could go out on the beach that night and look for turtles, the weather had other ideas and an electrical storm rolled in from the ocean, so we spent the evening watching a massive lightening show instead.
Wed 21st Nov – Albert Falls Dam Game Reserve
Having recharged in Cape Vidal for a few days we decided to make a 300km hop South, moving quickly on the N2 before bypassing Durban and cutting inland on the R614 towards Pietermaritzburg. We stopped off at an American style shopping mall to restock our food and fuel supplies for the final time before the legs over the Drakensberg Mountains and the high mountain plains of Lesotho. We then spent an unreasonable amount of time in a McDonalds, using their free wifi to do some planning and moving some money, having only purchased an ice tea for the privilege.
Albert Falls Dam and Game Reserve is due North of Pietermaritzburg and is a man-made reservoir with a non-dangerous species game reserve that borders its Southern shores, it is incredibly popular with Bass fisher’s who hold regular competitions. We arrived at the main gate and paid for our pitch at reception where the receptionist asked us to look at a map of the camping pitches and pick the one we wanted, after some deliberation we picked what we thought would be the ideal pitch and the lady told us it was free which was great, so we passed through security and drove the shore of the lake to the campsite where we discovered it was completely empty save for some giraffes, so the whole process of picking a pitch seemed a fruitless exercise!
The campsite itself was more like a conventional campsite with pitches side by side in a row and the shower/toilet blocks were a bit dated and tired and the whole campsite could do with an overhaul, it is obviously very popular with families, etc in the high season as a place where you can see game but also swim, boat and fish in the lake, but being the low season the place felt a bit dilapidated. We had hoped to hire canoes and go for a paddle on the lake but the boathouse was all locked up so canoe hire must only happen in the high season.
We were not disappointed to have the place to ourselves though and the view over the lake was stunning, game was not restricted from entering the camping area so gazelle, impala and all manner of bok’s and beest’s wandered at will, as well as the majestic giraffe that were grazing the trees in the campsite at the far end. We had a late lunch and went for a walk in the reserve which is a mixture of grassland and scrubby wooded areas where zebra were grazing and warthogs rolled around in the dustbathes. We returned to camp to find a Dutch couple had arrived in a 4x4 with a roof tent so after a quick chat we drove to a small shop opposite the entrance to the reserve to buy some firewood and then drove further along the road to have a look at the dam that had been built to create the reservoir. We returned to the campsite in the falling dusk and spent the rest of the evening sitting around a campfire enjoying the sights and sounds of the lake and planning our next moves for the coming days.
Thur 22nd Nov – Sani Lodge Backpackers, Border of Lesotho
We awoke to crisp sunny morning and unzipping the sides of the pop-top roof of the alu-cab revealed a tower of giraffes that had moved in very close to the truck to graze on the trees, we lay for a while and observed them gently going about the business of acquiring breakfast. After some breakfast ourselves we struck camp to head West to the Drakensburg Mountains, we had planned on an overnight stay at the Hermits Wood Campsite that we had come across in the planning stage and looked very picturesque but it would put a 60km dog-leg into the route and we would have to retrace our steps the next day, so we decided to cut it out and head straight for the campsite below the Sani Pass so we were well set to cross the pass the day after. We dropped back into Pietermaritzburg to pick up the N3 West and immediately started to climb steeply on good roads winding out of the valley bottom and it wasn’t long before we turned off onto the R617 before Howick. The R617 winds its way through the lush farmland of the higher plains on its way to the town of Underberg which had a very colonial/American suburb feel to it with quaint, well-kept houses and a local polo and rugby club. From Underberg you head North-West on a smaller less used road that snakes into the Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site with the only route out being the mountain pass into Lesotho.
Where the tarmac ends and the gravel road begins there is a hotel lodge on one side of the road and Sani Lodge Backpackers on the other, we opted for the more colourful accommodation and booked in at reception before finding a spot in the meadow that is used by tent and vehicle campers alike. The lodge is very compact but very friendly and the washing facilities were clean and well kept, the main focus of the lodge is to provide bunk style accommodation for backpackers so there are not masses of camping pitches, booking ahead in the busy season would be advisable. We took an out of the way pitch opposite some South African nationals who had travelled down from Johannesburg in a massive 4 wheel drive camper based on a Mercedes military transporter chassis, it was towing a trailer with a touring motorbike on it, although they told us they often tow a small car for getting about once they get to a destination, it very much put our humble Landcruiser to shame! In the office you can get maps for walking routes in the Mkhomazi wilderness area surrounding camp so after some lunch we decided to ascend Ndlovini, the 2200m peak that towers over the rear of the lodge. The view from the peak was stunning and stretched all the way up the valley towards the Sani Pass, across the valley we could see Hodgson’s Peak at 3256m with clouds rolling down its face, we spend some time wandering the top plateau before picking our way back down the ridge on the opposite side, we ended up dropping back onto the road on the valley bottom and followed it back up to camp where we spent the evening drinking with our new neighbors and learning all about what it was like to live and work in South Africa, which was certainly an eye opener.
We headed to bed merry and would have preferred for the evening to have ended there, I was, however, woken up in the middle of the night by Alice who was convinced that she was woken up by someone rummaging around the vehicle, I strained to hear anything from the darkness and did indeed then hear footsteps, a car door closing and a vehicle reversing off the driveway and going up the road. Whether this was perfectly innocent or otherwise we will never know but it was the very early hours of the morning and the only downside to the campsite is that it is right by the road and there is no fence or gate to stop anyone wandering into the site, sleep for the rest of the night was intermittent.
Hermits Wood Campsite (Garden Castle)
A quick note on Hermits Wood Campsite as it was a beautiful looking campsite that we found and would have loved to have stayed at if we had the time, it is made up of 10 secluded pitches that are classed as 4x4 accessible with a toilet block but no showers, there are numerous hiking trails and the Mlambonja River runs through camp where there are pools to swim in, a shame to have missed it.
Fri 23rd Nov – Katse Dam Campsite
Despite a slightly fuzzy head we were up at first light as the route we had planned to get to Katse dam was estimated to take 5 hours owing to crossing the Sani Pass and the state of the roads in the Kingdom of Lesotho. Our planned camping spot of Katse Dam is not an official campsite in the traditional sense but I had found reports that you could pay the dam security and camp on the wall above the dam, which seemed like an adventurous option, the other bonus was that you could also pay to get a guided tour of the dam which looked a substantial structure from the photos.
To gain access to Lesotho we had to cross the infamous Sani Pass, which is an unpaved mountain road that follows the valley bottom until it reaches the back face where you quickly ascend on tight gravel switchbacks until you top out at the Lesotho border and find South Africa’s highest pub. We had learnt from our new friends that the pass is pretty treacherous even in good conditions as it is subject to rockfall, land slips and axle crunching size boulders, they had once driven it when the whole track was running with water like a river but luckily for us the weather was fair so we left Sani lodge and headed North up the valley. The tarmac soon gave way to an unpaved natural track with a sign stating the road was for 4x4’s only, although a lot of infrastructure work was taking place on the road and we were told they plan to tarmac the whole lot (which would spoil it entirely in my opinion). After bouncing around on the rocks for a while we came across a small Toyota hatchback rental car that was picking its way gingerly through the rocks, we promptly overtook it and made note that if he were to reach the summit without breaking the suspension or puncturing the oil sump it would be a miracle (it would also be a miracle if his rental company let him put the damage through the insurance!). As we slowly rumbled on higher up the valley we came across the South African border where we passed through immigration and customs, had our passports stamped and officially left South Africa for the second time. The track beyond the border got progressively worse, if that was possible, but the breath-taking scenery went a long way to taking your mind off the constant rocking and spine jarring jolts, we stopped every now and then to take in the views and get some photos. The going was very slow and most of the track had been cut into the side of the valley, we occasionally crossed small streams and in places the trail weaved between boulders the size of a house that had fallen from high above, a safety barrier would have been a luxury that was substituted for with a line of rocks to mark where stable ground ended and loose pebble began, we prayed not to meet a vehicle coming the other way on the single track but the only other vehicles we came across were a group of 3 motorbike tourers dropping back down the pass. As we got closer to the top of the valley we could begin to see the final ascent, a thin slither of levelled ground going back and forth multiple times up what seemed an impossibly steep face. We slowly pressed on until we reached the bottom of the face which was made up mostly of rocky scree worn round by millennia of water erosion, we dropped the gearbox into low range and checked 4 wheel drive was still engaged before gunning the engine and rumbling on up towards the first switchback which was loose and gravely. The switchbacks got progressively tighter and we made sure to keep the engine revs up so we didn’t stall and roll back uncontrollably, the low morning cloud base meant we were actually climbing up higher than the clouds below and after a nerve racking 15 minutes or so we reached the summit of the pass where we rolled over a final gravel rise and were greeted with a tarmac road and the Lesotho side of the border.
After completing Lesotho immigration and customs we passed through the border barrier and doubled back a little bit to the Sani Mountain Lodge which boasts South Africa’s highest bar at an elevation of 2,874 metres, it also sits directly on the border so you are technically drinking in both South Africa and Lesotho at the same time. It would have been rude not to have taken a moment to enjoy this unique opportunity, but seeing as it was still before 8am we opted for a hot chocolate with marshmallows each rather than anything harder! Sitting on the terrace perched on the edge of the roof of the Drakensberg mountains looking down at the clouds on a bright sunny day was a wonderful, if not surreal experience and before long it was time for us to push on to our final destination.
The A14 road to Mokhotlong is actually a brand-new tarmac road that is of outstanding quality (probably due to the fact that very few people use it!), this could either be attributed to the Lesotho government trying to encourage tourists to visit, or more likely the roads were built by the companies who are profiting from mining the natural resources of Lesotho (there are some vast diamond mines in the heart of the country). Despite the roads being good the driving is made challenging by the fact that the majority of the country is over 2,500m in elevation, and although the distances look short on the map you are constantly either climbing switchback roads to cross mountain ridges topping out at 3,600m or dropping back down the other side before doing it again. We immediately noticed a change in the car as it was down on power, trying to suck as much oxygen as possible from the thin mountain air and the high altitude also meant the engine coolant and oil was heating up quicker and running hotter, the lack of turbo really made a difference here as we had to crawl the uphill’s in a very low gear.
The 80km leg to Mokhotlong took 3 long hours but the scenery was spectacular, in all that time we saw no other cars on the road and the only other humans we saw were the native Basotho shepard’s that graze small herds of livestock on the sparse vegetation and use the road as a less rocky route to travel. They are an incredibly hardy people who spend most of their time living on the exposed faces, following the herd as it moves, their traditional clothing is unusual the first time you see it as it consists of a thick woven layered poncho and headdress that leaves only a slit for the eyes. It seemed a weird choice as it was a roasting hot day, but on reflection we were seeing the weather at its best and I’m sure it can get really bad really quick and the night time temperatures are freezing, the head-dress protects the head and particularly the eyes from exposure to the fierce alpine sun.
From Mokhotlong we joined the A1 which is again a very good tarmac road, we were looking for a small tributary road to the West and were relying entirely on maps as the Satnav was struggling to pick up a connection and the roads in Lesotho seem to be very poorly mapped. We had a planned route from google that showed a link road between Mapholaneng and Thaba-Tseke that also linked to the A25 at Katse, but our paper map didn’t show the 2 roads linking which we thought was feasible as it didn’t show other roads that we had driven, the problem we were having was that small roads are not numbered and are rarely signposted, and our directions consisted of slight left after ‘X’ km’s, etc, so we continued following the A1 looking for the right route.
After passing into a small unnamed town we came across a side road that was marked with a brown tourist style signpost that said Katse and had pictures of canoeing, hiking and mountain biking, we took this as a good sign so swung off the tarmac onto the gravel road. The road got pretty bad pretty quickly and it was heavily worn in areas that stay wet for long periods, the going was slow and as we got further from the tarmac the villages we passed through became smaller and smaller and the houses went from being brick built to being made of wood and mud, local children would run alongside the vehicle asking for sweets and women washed clothes in the streams we crossed, everyone waved and was very friendly. We would stop occasionally and ask for directions or to confirm our route, but we didn’t find anyone who spoke English and when we said ‘Katse?’ and pointed I suspect people just nodded to not disappoint us! We had been driving on the gravel road in the right compass direction for roughly 3 hours and the road had got progressively worse, we got to a point where the road forked and the left track was a horrendously muddy track with deep puddles, cut into the side of a steep valley, the right track was only marginally better, but it was better, so we took it. The track was so muddy that we drove off to the side of it, skirting around embedded boulders, the trail rose over the crest of a rise and as we reached its peak we could see a village below, we trundled down to a livestock shelter at the edge of the village and the track dispersed into nothingness apart from 3 very confused looking shepard’s, we rolled on slowly looking for any sign of the trail continuing. As if by magic a swarm of children appeared from the handful of huts and started the chant of ‘sweets! sweets!’ we obviously looked lost so they started waving us forward on a path that weaved between the huts, on the other side of the village an obvious track started once again and it dropped down the side of a steep ravine and crossed a river at the bottom before rising up the other side. As the children started working in teams to roll large rocks off the trail so we could proceed it became harder to ignore the nagging feeling that this was all wrong, we had been travelling for too long without really getting anywhere, the road was too poor, we were wasting daylight and fuel and more than anything we were stuck in the mentality of ‘having come too far to turn back’. My internal musings were interrupted by a sharp drop and a metallic grating crunch as one of our wheels dropped off an underwater boulder in the river at the bottom of the ravine, we came to a dead stop and the mind very quickly starts running scenarios, are we grounded? What can we winch off? Have we damaged the oil sump? Have we bent the steering rods? Are we completely f&%@ed!? Luckily engaging low range and some gentle rocking got us free from the dip and out of the water, the car looked and felt normal and everything worked for the time being so we trundled on up the track. It was only a couple of hundred metres before we entered another village where the trail once again disappeared, there was no children here and it was very quiet so we parked up the truck and I decided to get some air, clear my head and walk on a way to try and find a route. I picked up what was a very underused looking trail and happened upon a man coming out of his mud hut, his English was better than most and I explained where we were trying to get too and I took his shaking head as a bad sign! He made me understand that there used to be a route that was washed out in a storm, we may be able to get through but most probably wouldn’t, it was only used now by motorbikes and bicycles, this was the worst news I could of hoped for and I headed back to truck, defeated, for some emergency planning with Alice.
Alice was understandable upset about our predicament, as was I, the road sign we originally saw was either put up before the road was completed or we missed some turning along the way, the time was 2pm and our only real option was to head back the way we had come to a known point, to where we left the tarmac, which would mean having to cross the river again and would put us at the tarmac at approx. 5pm and getting dangerously close to sunset with no safe-haven in close proximity. We carefully crossed the river trying to avoid the sinkhole and retraced our steps through the village and back over the ridge into the next valley, as the roads improved we picked up the pace and made better time on the long winding drive back to civilisation, hitting the tarmac at 4.30pm. The idea of trying to reach Katse now with an hour of daylight seemed ridiculous as it would require once again finding and driving a different gravel road cross-country, so we decided to follow the main road north with the hope of finding a guesthouse or campsite to stay at overnight along the way. We hit the road hard trying to make fast progress whilst keeping an eye out for accommodation, but there was literally nothing, we hit one very long uphill stretch just as the sun was starting to set and the gearbox began to smell like it was melting so we decided to stop for the first time since the Sani Pass and cook some food and let the car cool down, we pulled into a layby and watched the most glorious sunset while cooking pasta. Despite not having eaten properly all day we both weren’t very hungry due to the uncertain nervousness, we contemplated staying the night in the lay-by but Alice was sure she could hear voices nearby getting closer in the gloom so we decided it was safer to keep moving North. The roads continued a never ending cycle of ascent and descent and the car got hotter and hotter, any potential campsites we passed were based many kilometers off the main road and the potential guesthouses we passed were behind locked gates since the sun had gone down, the only people we saw were dark figures that suddenly emerged in the headlights at the side of the road shouting an unknown message at us. The first real sign of life we passed was the diamond mine near Mothae, a cavernous floodlit hole in the earth where work continues 24 hours a day, beyond there we started to pass through smaller towns and villages where the inhabitants were spilling into the streets drinking and partying, which is when we realised it was Saturday night! We then passed the gravel road signposted to Kao which we knew continued on the Katse, but with it now being 7pm it wasn’t a safe option to be on an unmade road in the middle of nowhere, so we pushed on for the Moteng Pass, we were having to let the engine and gearbox cool after the ascents by coasting the descents but the constant braking was starting to make the brakes fade so it was a fine balancing act. Just before the Moteng Pass we drove past the highland ski centre which would have been a good option to camp at, but once again the gates were locked with no way of getting attention. Our new plan was to make a run for the South African border at Caledonspoort to get some sleep next to the security booth before the border opened in the morning, and if we found something on the way then so be in. The descent down the Moteng Pass was a hair raising experience, lorries constantly travel back and forth 24 hours a day hauling material from the mines and we had only completed a couple of turns of the 1,500 metre descent that you complete in a kilometre of straight line distance when the brake pedal dropped completely to the floor and we lost brakes, slamming the gearbox into a low gear got our speed back under control but by the time we reached that bottom the gearbox was hot enough to fry an egg on and the engine temperature was off the dial, despite our desperation to push on we had to stop and let the engine cool.
The freezing night time temperature soon cooled things down and the lower altitude put some much needed extra oxygen into the mix, every potential rest site seemed shut up or empty so we continued and it was shortly after we passed through Qhobela I noticed a set of headlights in the side mirror that caught my attention, because of our over-stressed engine we were running slow and everything including the lorries was overtaking us easily, but these headlights just sat there, I slowed down a bit more to force them to overtake if they wished and they slowed down too, so I slowed down some more and the vehicle, which turned out to be a people carrier, pulled out and came up alongside. I looked across and through the open window I could see at least two men in the vehicle up front who then started shouting for us to pull over because they wanted to talk, this was never going to happen and in a moment of clarity I realised that every South African National we had met on the road had carried a handgun, tourists on the other hand did not, therefore presenting little threat, based on this I mustered my best South African accent and told them to “f%$k off” before gunning the engine, hoping they would consider us armed and dangerous. They pulled back in behind and followed for a little further before slowing down and turning around in the road, we will never know whether their intentions were good or bad but it is not a risk worth taking in a country with a high level of roadside muggings and car jackings, and I am pleased that I will never know the answer. We drove straight through Joel’s Drift before arriving in Butha-Buthe at around 11pm which is a large town that was alive with music and partying, we missed the turning for Fouriesburg and the border and as we were spinning around I noticed two security guards at the gatehouse to what appeared to be a gated community, we thought it was worth a shot and drove across the road to the entrance. The man and woman were at first suspicious but we explained our situation and offered them R200 to let us just sleep inside the fence till sunrise, they were worried about getting in trouble so let us through and asked us to go speak to the manager of the social club and B&B in the centre of the compound, even better! We drove up to the club and staggered into the lobby where Saturday night was in full swing in the bar. I have to admit we drew some strange looks as the clientele was purely black South African’s but the manager very kindly agreed to let us pay to sleep in the car park round the back for the B&B and we were grateful for the kindness.
We popped the roof, climbed into bed and immediately fell into an unsettled sleep that was interrupted by loud music till the early hours and then the early rising of B&B guests who stood in the car park shouting at their taxi driving and having a good look around our vehicle.
Sat/Sun 24/25th Nov – Glen Reenen Rest Camp, Golden Gate Highlands National Park
We were awake at 5pm for first light and decided to make the relatively short hop to our next planned campsite in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park and spend a few days there recuperating. We got ourselves together and left the community as discreetly as possible, saying a big thank you and giving a tip to the security still on gate duty, we quickly located the road to the border and before long we were going through the border crossing process once again, joining a queue of morning commuters that obviously make the crossing daily. Immigration completed we forged on to Fouriesburg before turning East on the R711 to Clarens, we hoped to find a café in Clarens for some breakfast but couldn’t find anything suitable so we continued East on the R712, the road passes directly through the centre of the National Park and mainly follows the bottom of a deep canyon with sheer sandstone rock faces flanking both sides, the stone shines a golden colour in the sun and gives the park its name.
Glen Reenan Rest Camp is a very clean and well serviced camp with the office, shop, rondawels and petrol station on one side of the road and the camping area, ablution blocks and laundry facilities are on the other, the toilets and showers were some of the best we had found, perfect for washing away the sticky feeling of being on the road for a few days. We payed for two nights stay at reception, pitched up across the road, popped the roof, and went straight back to sleep, the time was 8am.
After a couple of hours we got up, showered, and had some food, Alice decided to read a little and snooze some more so I wandered up the valley behind the main camp to look for a naturally fed swimming pool that had been created by building a small dam across the river, the water was very low due to the lack of recent rain and although the frogs seemed to be enjoying it the appeal was lost on me so I set myself up in the shade back at the car to read a bit and start writing this diary. We had a late lunch, over which we discovered a new species of bird that we quickly named the ‘f&%k off bird’. These birds, which were actually a species of weaver, were epidemic in numbers in the camping ground, using grasses to intricately weave the hanging nests for raising their young in the branches of the camps trees, the nickname came about because of their aggressive nature when it came to stealing food when your back was turned, we had less trouble from the baboons, gibbons and samango monkeys! After lunch and a pleasant nap under a tree we walked down the road to the Golden Gate Hotel to ‘borrow’ some WIFI by hanging around outside the lobby pretending to be guests, we had an early dinner, some cold cider and crawled into bed for a full nights sleep.
We woke to another glorious day with the sun slowly creeping across the sandstone bluff that hung above the camp, many of the other residents left in the early morning so we moved the truck to a more picturesque pitch, out of laziness I did this with the roof and awning still up and in the process the Ipad, which had been charging in a side locker, fell out and smashed on a concrete pad, lesson learnt! We spent the day walking some of the numerous trails that criss-cross the national park, one trail led us up to the base of a steep stone overhang and continued into the rock face, following the path of a waterway that had been eroded from the rock over hundreds of thousands of years of floodwater running off the top of the plateau above. The roof of the chute arched high above to form a tunnel that gradually narrowed to a point where it ended with a pile of rocks and a hole in the roof where water obviously cascaded in during heavy rain. It appeared that everyone who found this special place added their own rock to the pile, so we left our own offering before heading back down while playing with the acoustics of this unique natural feature. When we emerged again the sound of thunder was rolling across the highlands so not wanting to be caught out we headed back to camp where we found a swarm of matching campervans had arrived with more pouring in, all in all about 20 campers arrived and it turned out it was a group of French nationals who were all on a guided tour together hopping from one campsite to another, they quickly set up their own communal area and much vin, pain and boursin was consumed. We also found that we had new neighbours, an older German couple that seemed to be having trouble with their land rover defender conversion, I went to offer my services as a bit of an older land rover specialist and we diagnosed that the brake servo vacuum pump had split and was leaking oil everywhere, it was a replacement part job that would have to be carried out at the nearest garage. We got chatting and found that they had been in South Africa on and off for 5 years and had originally driven the vehicle down from Germany, they were on an extended retirement visa and had no intention of going home any time soon, a very interesting couple to chat to for a while. We lit ourselves a fire in the fire pit and feasted on the last of our monster steaks cooked on the embers, we had decided that due to our very early flight to Port Elizabeth the day after next we would bypass our final campsite and get a hotel in Johannesburg close to the airport, so this was to be our final proper night on the self-drive leg of our expedition. We were determined to savour every moment of it and the embers were burning very low in the fire by the time we finished the last of the cider and turned in for the night under the crystal clear night sky and millions of burning bright stars.
Kasteelkop Guest Farm
The campsite we decided to bypass was Kasteelkop Guest Farm which is almost exactly halfway between Golden Gate and Johannesburg, it has 5 camping pitches and ablution facilities and although we didn’t stay there it looks very pleasant and would have been a useful stopover if our flight had been later on the 27th.
Mon 26th Nov – City Lodge Hotel, Johannesburg
It is only about a 4.5 hour hop from the Golden Gate Highlands to Johannesburg on the well maintained N3 Highveld Toll Route so we were in no great rush to leave in the morning. Having had a leisurely breakfast we started to pack and clean the Landcruiser out of all the detritus you accumulate from living in a vehicle for a period of time, it is a sad but essential part of wrapping up any expedition. We struck out on the R712 on the final short stretch of really scenic road that we would drive ourselves, and as we wound our way through the final pass of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park we took in as much of its beauty as possible before arriving at Harrismith with the bittersweet feeling of leaving rural South Africa but looking forward to the next part of our adventure.
We only stopped once on the journey at a petrol station on the outskirts of Johannesburg for a toilet break and to refill the tanks to the required level, as we got deeper into the heart of Johannesburg it got busier, noisier, dirtier and more claustrophobic and we had definitely left rural South Africa behind. We drove to the airport to familiarise ourselves with the route for the morning and then stopped off at a close by McDonalds (our favourite) to get some food and find and book a hotel for the night. City Lodge Hotel ticked the boxes of not being the cheapest or most expensive, it had secure on-site parking, in-house restaurant and was a stones throw from the airport, during our lunch we noticed that a local man had set himself up sitting behind our vehicle as an unofficial security guard, he would no doubt want a tip for his hard work! From there we headed to the hotel, getting a little bit lost along the way in the maze of streets and backstreets, what was surprising was that after all we had been through this was the most unsafe I had felt all trip, partially because of Johannesburg’s reputation for car jackings and robbery, but also because we were in a vehicle that was very inconspicuous, waiting at junctions trying to escape the backstreets was particularly unnerving as there were people everywhere and all eyes seemed to be on us.
We found the hotel and checked in before doing the final clear out of the truck, I decided that I wanted to get the truck cleaned as it was pretty filthy and I hoped it would partially make up for the massive dent in the roof! I went to ask the security guards on the gate where the closest car wash was and they said not to worry, give it an hour and it would be done in-house for R200, I came back an hour later to find the 3 security guards muddied and wet in their full suits and ties towelling off the last of the water and the truck 10 times cleaner than it was when we picked it up, I tipped them well to appease my guilt for the state of their suits!
We had a fantastic dinner (cooked by someone else for a change!) in the hotel restaurant before getting a very sound night’s sleep in a proper bed for the first time in 2 weeks.
Tue 27th Nov – Sun 2nd Dec – Pumba Private Game Reserve, Port Elizabeth
We were up and out early to make our rendezvous with the Bushlore agent at the departures drop off zone for the domestic terminal, the driver was running late so there was plenty of time for us to cause a stir with the local taxi drivers who were very interested in the vehicle and told us we were crazy when we told them what we had been doing for the last 2 weeks. Eventually they arrived and inspected the vehicle, the roof damage was noted but didn’t surprise them and ultimately we only had to pay a £120 excess as we had opted for the highest level of insurance cover.
It was a 2-hour internal flight to Port Elizabeth where we were greeted by a driver and whisked off on an hour-long drive to Pumba Private Game Reserve, the reserve itself is based on an old farmstead that has been fenced, re-naturalised and re-stocked with native game over many years. There are 2 lodges within the reserve and we spent 2 nights at the water lodge, which borders a lake, and 3 nights at the bush lodge that overlooks a natural plain and watering hole, the lodges offer 5 star service and accommodation in private chalets that are ostentatiously luxurious and a million miles removed from the first part of our trip! This final stage of our trip was very much about satisfying the ‘honeymoon’ objective of our expedition, and although it was not necessarily ‘adventurous’ in the sense of what I would choose to do, I was not going to complain at being fed 3 times a day, an open bar and a sunrise and sunset game drive, Alice was also very happy, which makes me happy.
Some highlights of our time at Pumba included our guide, Josh, who was an enthusiastic younger guide who was originally from Namibia where his parents bred game animals, he enjoyed pushing the limits of the rules and was a good laugh, we fished for bass on the lake during the middle of the day and he had a domesticated baby meerkat back at his lodgings on the reserve that he was going to try and sneak over for us to see, but unfortunately he didn’t get a chance.
We had some wonderful close up encounters with white lions (fairly unique to the reserve) rhino, cheetah on a fresh impala kill and elephant, and at times we got a little too close, we opted to do a game walk one of the days where we went out on foot with 2 armed guides and 4 other guests, we were tracking along a trail and rounded the corner at the same time as a younger bull elephant coming the other way with the matriarch and young calf’s close behind, unfortunately we were downwind and the elephants hadn’t scented us which caused a shock for all of us, the young bull elephant went on the defensive and mock charged to within about 10 metres, one guide rushed us into a thorny bush whilst the other guide stood his ground and slapped the stock of the rifle above his head to make himself seen and to not show fear, after an amount of trumpeting and some more mock charges the bull elephant turned off the trail and followed the females back into the bush. We exited our thorny bush and carried on the trail only to meet another solitary mature bull elephant coming round the same bend, so back into the bush we went, this much larger patriarchal breeding bull, called Chris, knew better than to see any threat from us, and aside was some sniffing over our heads with his trunk left us in peace, if he had been is musk however it would have been a different matter. The only thing that eluded us throughout our whole time has the leopard which we hunted high and low for, there has been some wonderful encounters with these seclusive animals at the reserve, with them coming into camp for a look around at times, and also once coming to the vehicle during the sunset game drive drink stop to steal the biltong from the snack table.
Unfortunately during our game walk in the midday sun I got a bad case of heat stroke, despite wearing a wide brimmed hat and drinking plenty of water, this put me out of action for the rest of the day and most of the next morning, it probably didn’t help that I had a bite wound on my shin that was refusing to heal and looked a little septic, it was an incredibly unpleasant experience and a good lesson as to why people avoid the ferocious heat of the day.
Another highlight was that I spent some time learning Xhosa, the local dialect, from Josh, the other guides and the lodge staff, it was nice to be able to understand what had been spotted by other guides over the radio as well as conversing a little with the staff in their mother tongue, I like to think the staff appreciate it when you make an effort to integrate with their culture, at the very least it provides them with some amusement when you say things wrong!
Our time at Pumba, and South Africa in general, came to an end far too quickly, and before we knew it we were on our way back to Port Elizabeth airport to fly back to rainy England. It is truly a varied and beautiful country in the parts that are protected but also very emaciated and spoilt in the parts that aren’t, we would love to return to this magnificent continent and would love to visit the largely unspoilt and more remote regions of Namibia and Botswana on our next adventure.
To be continued.....