Epic Road Trip?

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December 5th 2014
Published: December 25th 2017
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Blog 4

23 November - 5 December

Our transfer from Lusaka to Jo'burg all went according to plan. From Jo'burg we are due to travel overland back to Cape Town with Ark Safaris run by a couple, Ruth and Albert. Our friends Paul and Sheila had travelled with them previously so we hoped that this trip might give us more time to go at our pace rather than travel with a group. Ruth called round to meet us the day before we were due to set off on our final trip. Unfortunately Albert has been caught up with a Sunway tour and will catch up with us later in Cradock. In the meantime Chris is going to be our guide.

The first day was a long drive through the coal fields of Gauteng. I was amazed at how long it took to cross the area, it is vast. I remember at school marking the South African coalfields on the map of Africa and it was a dot. Crossing it took 2 1/2 hours fast driving. The countryside around the mines was pleasant but some of the mining villages are still very poor. The miners have been on strike for more pay but still do not earn much.

After lunch we crossed Mpumalanga, a more scenic area, and spent the night in a lodge in Magodi. We left early the next morning unfortunately leaving a number of Ruth's possessions behind including the drinking glasses and trip paperwork. Ruth called them and they will keep everything until the next time they visit, perhaps in 3 months.

The next day we reached Kruger National Park. This is the best known park in South Africa and we did four good game drives but the number of vehicles is much higher than in the other parks we have visited. I went on the night game drive alone and it was great. We had hippos in front of the jeep and then 2 male lions were sleeping on the road right in front of us. They like the road as it retains heat from the day. We watched them wake up and then they strolled past, within 4 feet of me. I suddenly realised that despite wanting to see them, this felt a touch too close! After that we saw a porcupine, and a family of Brown Spotted Hyenas.

Early the next morning the four of us set off for another game drive. We saw an elephant come out of the bush and close in on us. Suddenly he started to build up speed for a charge. He was so close that I felt sure his tusk was going to come through my window so I fell forward between the front seats. Luckily Chris accelerated away quickly. Then later we turned a bend in the road to find a vehicle in front reversing back towards us being "chased" by a large female elephant. Because it was almost reversing into us we were nearly trapped. Chris reacted very quickly and pulled around the other vehicle, passing within a couple of inches of the elephant and sped forward. It moved us out of danger and also distracted the elephant from the other vehicle. Our second close shave of the day but we could not understand why they were both so aggressive. Chris thought that the female had a calf and perhaps the other car had been threatening it in some way.

When we were driving out of Kruger the next morning we saw a large pride of about 12 lions.

From Kruger we travelled on into Swaziland which was not at all what I expected. It is a mountain Kingdom ( but with lower mountains than Lesotho) and most of it, especially the capital Manzini, appears very western and reasonably affluent, much like the area around Lake Geneva. The King is a traditional ruler who is very rich and personally owns much of the land in and around the capital, together with businesses. He has reigned for 16 years and has 16 wives at present. Each year there is the Reed Dance held in a large stadium where young women from all over the country come to perform this traditional dance (with reeds as you might guess). They are selected by the elders of the different villages. Then the King chooses one of them to be his new (additional) wife.

This year the young woman chosen was a university student with a serious boyfriend. I am not clear on the details but I gather after being taken to the Royal Residence somehow she managed to escape and she and her boyfriend have disappeared. Families support this system because if their daughter is chosen it changes their life completely as they all become 'royalty.'

Given the wealth and regime of the King I was surprised to see a number of infrastructure projects being financed by the EU! Why? Is it for genuine geopolitical reasons or to siphon off money. At a time of financial crises in so many EU countries it does seem strange.

The south east of Swaziland was much poorer and again there was evidence here of more overseas assistance.

We spent a night up in a park area called Malalotja where we had a lovely walk.

It was day 6 before it occurred to me that squeezing into a 3 door Pajero (with small trailer) to start a 21 day road trip with 2 strangers was a little bit of a risk. But Ruth and Chris are good fun and we have plenty of laughs. For example when stopping for a comfort break I could not open the door to leave the toilet. I called out to ask if someone could push as it was jammed. Ruth heard me and started giggling. Then all went quiet and I realised everyone had left including Ruth! She thought someone had let me out and it was only when she saw Jim standing alone by the car that it dawned on her I must still be locked in. They did not rush to my aid but both fell about laughing. Thankfully someone else had freed me by that time.

After Swaziland we spent a couple of nights in Mkuze Reserve for more game drives. Mkuze has lots of rhinos, more white than the black which is an endangered species. I did another night drive which had a strange ending. No-one (apart from the Ranger taking the night drive) is allowed to drive in the reserve between 6pm and 6am. Three quarters of the way through the drive a car came from the opposite direction and the Ranger said quietly, now who are they? Both vehicles had to slow to squeeze past each other and as they passed the Ranger gave the standard, "how are you?", greeting and the 4 men replied and drove on. The Ranger seemed very nervous. As soon as they had gone far enough to be out of hearing he stopped and called the Ranger centre. I could not understand the language but after the call I asked who they were and he just said, "They know them", and then he raced us back to the Lodge to finish the drive without looking for anything else. We had seen very little but he said sorry, it is quiet tonight. I think they might have been poachers and he wanted to get us safely back to our tents. Poaching is a big problem in the Reserve.

From Mkuze we had a very long drive to the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountain) area via the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Ruth believed that Chris had chosen the wrong route and that was why it took so long. We arrived in the middle of a dramatic electrical storm which apparently is a frequent occurrence in Drakensberg at this time of the year. Although it was early afternoon the sky was dark with huge clouds in coloured layers of slate, steel and black, great grey curtains of rain could be seen distributed across the cliffs and mountains and the lightening was everywhere. At one point 6 forks of lightening flashed down the front of the escarpment simultaneously and the thunder was crashing over our heads. It was the most powerful storm I have ever seen and as we pulled into the campsite the rain became so heavy everything disappeared from view. Not the most auspicious moment to set up our tents but within half an hour the rain stopped and we pitched camp in a soggy but well managed and amazingly beautiful site.

The next morning the sun shone on a superb landscape, emerald green slopes and hills, covered in wild flowers leading up to the rocky cliffs and precipices of the Drakensberg mountains. We had a beautiful walk with Chris, and took photographs of the birds and flowers en route. Unfortunately Chris lost his footing on a rock as we were returning to camp, hurting his ankle and arm so after lunch Ruth took him to the nearest clinic. When they returned a few hours later Ruth said it had taken longer than necessary as Chris was chatting up the nurse. He definitely seems to have a way with the ladies as he often goes missing to be found eventually in female company! The clinic automatically tests all patients for HIV and the nurse told Ruth that it is rare to see a negative result as most of their patients are positive.

This journey feels like more of an epic road trip than our previous travels. I think it is because we are just four and we potter along discovering new places every day. We share the jobs of cooking, washing up and setting up camp etc as well as the 'African Massage' of tough roads.

2 December - Lesotho

Another long day travelling took us across the border into another mountain kingdom, Lesotho, although Lesotho has a President and the King has little power. The lowest part of Lesotho is over 1,000 metres high. We were heading to a lodge in a small village called Malealea. The road was very bumpy and we stopped to stretch our legs and look at the view. Chris noticed immediately that the 2 bolts holding the trailer in place had fallen out. The only thing left pulling the trailer was a chain and padlock similar to what you might use to lock up a pedal bike, definitely not designed to take a lot of strain! As we were in the middle of nowhere we had to travel 30 kilometres on mountain roads to reach the nearest town, Clarens, to buy new bolts. We expected the trailer to sail into the back of the Pajero every time we went down a steep hill. Jim had made a joke earlier in the day about the trailer overtaking us when we were travelling very slowly. Suddenly it did not seem funny any more. Anyhow, we finally reached Clarens safely and the problem was resolved in a few minutes once we had tracked down the hardware store. Jim was very relieved. I am not sure his nerves are up to coping with the excitement of an epic road trip!

The final 30 kilometres of very rough road took us over the Gates of Paradise pass and down into Malealea. It was a relief as the road had provided a double strength African massage!

The views from the Lodge are tremendous but the weather is problematic. It is so changeable. We are about 2,000 metres high and we had a lovely warm evening, freezing night, sunny spells and heavy rain with thunder and lightning. Each afternoon the local choir ( many of whom work at the Lodge) sing for half an hour, and they are followed by a band making music on home made instruments.

3 December

Today we did a village walk. There are 800 people living here in Malealea. It made the village in Malawi that we visited look like an affluent metropolis. Life here is very difficult. The houses are basic, water for drinking is obtained from a pump but washing has to be done in the river down in the valley and there is no electricity. The Lodge has it's own generator which provides light from 5-10pm only.

We tested the local beer made from hops. It tasted good but it is cloudy white/grey and the dead fly in it was a little off-putting. The 'shops' were tiny sheds with hardly any produce. If they have something for sale they put up a flag (i.e. a plastic bag) outside to let everyone know, yellow for hop beer, white for maize beer, red for meat, green for fruit/vegetables etc.

Many of the children are orphans as a result of HIV/AIDS and education is only free in the primary school so few children have more than 7 years schooling. The land is becoming less productive as a result of over farming and poor management. There is a large dam here which provides water (at a price presumably) to South Africa whilst here in Lesotho itself there is a shortage of water.

The Lodge was originally a Trading Post established in xxxx and now it supports the community by providing jobs, allowing the choir and band to perform and receive donations, and collecting clothes that visitors can spare to pass on to villagers.

Tomorrow we plan to return to South Africa where we will say goodbye to Chris and meet up with Albert for the rest of the journey back to Cape Town.

4 December

The last sentence made today sound so easy. It did not work out that way.

We left Malealea on time at 6am and all went well until we encountered 3 uniformed "Transport Inspectorate" people. They stopped us, asked Chris to get out, looked at the front of the car for a few seconds and the senior person asked Chris to go with him to sit in his car. Ruth said that means he wants money. She was right. After a few minutes and a payment Chris was allowed to return and we were underway again.

We crossed the border back into South Africa and by 10am as all was well we decided to eat our sandwiches.

Shortly afterwards in the middle of the arid Karoo region black smoke starting belching out of the engine. We stopped quickly and climbed out of the Pajero. On lifting the bonnet we could see oil everywhere on the engine and dripping onto the ground. There was no water left in the radiator. We were 20 kilometres from the nearest town. After talking to Albert by phone, considering options and standing around for 20 minutes we reached the conclusion there was no easy solution to our situation and we started to regret eating our sandwiches so early.

Vehicles were passing by and then a flat bed truck ( Ute in Oz) stopped and asked if we wanted a tow into Bergersdorf, the town. We gratefully accepted little knowing what a tow entailed. There followed the most terrifying car journey ever. The concern about the trailer when it lost it's bolts a couple of days ago was nothing compared to this experience. Our tow 'rope' consisted of a metre and a half long chain. It was connected to the truck, I stayed in the front seat, Ruth jumped into the Ute (lucky thing!) and Jim sat in the back of the Pajero and we started.

Chris had never been towed before and was nervous to start with. Immediately the guy set off at about 30 miles an hour. We tried to signal to him to slow down as we were in total panic being only a couple of feet from his rear bumper. He was oblivious! The road was hilly and every time we shot over a crest Chris had to time a gentle braking action so we did not end up hitting the truck. Too much brake and we jerked the Ute. I had my side window fully open and my feet up on the dashboard as I thought we would hit and crush my legs. We counted down the 20 kilometres as a way of trying to relieve the stress and by some miracle we made it to the town without serious incident. However by the time we climbed out the tires were smoking badly and the brake linings must have suffered.

After hanging about at the garage for a while with nothing happening Jim and I decided to go and have a drink. We found a lovely tea room and I had a piece of carrot cake. I was celebrating being alive so the sugar content seemed irrelevant!

Within the hour Ruth had found a taxi which would take us and the trailer to Cradock where Albert was waiting for us. Eventually we arrived at our accommodation which was a real surprise. The Victoria Hotel, in addition to rooms, has houses along the street and we were in Lion House. What luxury after camping. A sitting room, 4 bedrooms, kitchen and 2 bathrooms.

As we were now without a vehicle Albert and Ruth considered the alternatives and eventually decided that Albert would take the night bus back to their home in Johannesburg and collect another vehicle. Poor Albert had only arrived that morning from Jo'burg on the bus. Then we would stay in Lion House another night and wait for Albert to drive here. That was a very happy solution for us as we love the period furniture and character of the Victoria and Lion House.

Chris was also reluctantly returning to Jo'burg as originally planned. He was sad to go as he wanted to finish the trip with us and we were very sad to say goodbye. He is quite a character and we shall miss him.

5 December

Today we have had the rare luxury of a relaxing day, a lie-in until 7am, cooked breakfast and a visit to the local museum.

In 1984 four local anti-apartheid protesters were horrifically murdered here by the secret police and the information is available in the museum together with histories of prisoners on Robben Island. I read some of the details about the trials of the period including Nelson Mandela's statement before he was sentenced. It is very powerful and moving. So much of the history is horrifying and inexplicable in terms of understanding how anyone in power felt their position was sustainable and the relationship between the politics, oppression and the churches. It is very heavy.

Ruth has spoken to Albert and he is on his way in the replacement vehicle.

Tonight we will eat in the Victoria restaurant again. It is very attractive with period furniture and fittings, Christmas trees and candles on the tables, a lovely atmosphere.

At present South Africa is experiencing power cuts. Last night there was an outage from 8.30 pm until the early morning and today from 10am until 1700. There are also suggestions that fuel supplies are going to run low.

If the power stays on tonight I might be able to post this blog.

Additional photos below
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9th December 2014

Lovely days - all that drama - what fun!!!!

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