South Africa - journey beginning

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November 8th 2009
Published: December 29th 2009
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"My friends, we are a nomadic people so we cannot stay here - we must travel onwards" - Manda

For the Africa trip, the blog is a journal I kept on the road on my EeePC.

Day 0 - Johannesburg

Have arrived in Johannesburg the day before departure. The flight on Emirates was fine but fairly uneventful, not a bad airline but nothing particularly special. Watched 500 Days of Summer (very good) and Knowing (not so much) as well as all the available Outnumbered and Big Bang Theory episodes. Dubai airport was predictably big and shiny but with all the shops and stuff to buy all I wanted was a cold beer. Eventually I tracked one down, along with Tandoori chicken, for a ridiculous airport price but well worth it.

I’m booked into the Backpackers Ritz for the night - the tour leaves from here tomorrow. The name and ATC’s description of it as “the best hostel in South Africa” made me expect something special - while it’s located in a lovely suburb, the interior leaves a lot to be desired. Looking forward to getting back to the campsites (I hope, if they’re as good as the east African ones). After an afternoon storm cleared went out for a walk in the suburb and got some food. It’s a bizarre city where the centre is practically a no-go area and everyone stays in the suburbs which, while pleasant, are about as interesting as any suburb anywhere. Thankfully won’t be spending long here.

Had the pre-departure meeting at six this evening. The crew until Vic Falls are all Zimbabwean and seem like a good bunch - Manda our tour leader, Gift the cook and Muno the driver. Passengers are a fairly random lot - very different to the previous trip with fewer couples and Aussies, replaced by more Americans and predominantly female. The group will change a lot though when we get to Vic Falls. Now it’s a fairly boring but crowded evening in the hostel - guess that’s what happens when there’s nowhere to go. Haven’t slept more than a few minutes since 7am yesterday so I think I’ll head to bed soon.

Day 1 -Kruger National Park

Early start this morning to depart Jozi at 7am. Back to the big green ATC truck for the next five weeks, brought back a lot of memories from the last trip. Travelling through such a developed country doesn’t quite have the same feel as driving through rural East Africa though, but I guess this will change when we move north. First stop was the Highveld Mall for some shopping and banking - finally got some shorts that I’d been searching in vain for in England. In fact could have done all my trip shopping there and probably cheaper too but never mind. Another hours drive and we stopped for lunch. This was a memory from the last trip that I don’t remember fondly but must get used to the salad sandwiches for lunch every day. Was also fun to flap dry the dishes again.

We drove on for several more hours. The flat terrain around Jozi gave way to the attractive mountainous scenery of the Lowveld. We passed though Nelspruit, one of the venues for 2010, which was undergoing feverish construction of the stadium and other infrastructure. Around five, we entered the Kruger at Numbi Gate and went to our camp. Tonight we weren’t camping but instead stayed in gorgeous en suite huts. After dinner around the camp fire and a few drinks at the bar, we made our way back to the huts, passing by some water buck in the dark, their eyes glowing in our torch light. It’s so good to be back in Africa again and to sleep now with the sounds of the birds and other wildlife all around.

Day 2 - Kruger National Park

Today was a day of game drives through Kruger. I’ve frequently read that this is one of the best places for Big 5 viewing but it is much more densely vegetated than the Serengeti or Masai Mara making it difficult to see the animals. The wet season also started in recent weeks which made the landscape even more dense. Three of us chose to pay extra to do the drive in a safari jeep instead of the truck - this would allow us to drive off the paved roads with (in theory) a greater chance of seeing game than the truck.

As it turned out, it was a really hot day and the animals just weren’t coming out from the bushes. No cat sightings the whole day. Nevertheless, still saw some good stuff. A white rhino pulled out right in front of the jeep, walking along in front of us for a while before making a rather large deposit at the side of the road and heading into the bushes. We also saw several groups of elephants, one group by a water hole where the “bachelor males” went swimming, another group covering themselves in mud that included a sweet 1.5 month old baby. We also saw several giraffes, kudus, countless impalas (known here as the McDonalds of Africa - fast food for lions), some zebra and one of the “Little 5” - a leopard tortoise crossing the road.

In the evening, we went on a night drive - covering the same area but with torches shining into the bush looking for game. Pickings were relatively slim again but we did see a puff adder on the road, another rhino and two families of hyenas, the second had the mother feeding her young. Then towards the end of the night we got the big sighting - a leopard by the roadside. I was too awestruck to get my camera pointed before he retreated but it’s the best sighting I’ve had yet of one.

Back to camp for a late dinner (chicken stir fry, very good) and a post-safari beer before turning in. Unfortunately this particular tradition doesn’t seem to be shared by anyone else in the group.

Day 3 - Polokwane

An early start today to pack up and leave Kruger. We headed east, stopping at Hazyview for supplies, and onto Graskop. From here, we turned north to God’s Window. This is a viewpoint from atop the Drakensburg Escarpment, where the highveld drops over 1000m to the eastern lowveld below. The area is often covered in mist but we were lucky to have a clear day (though by now the rain had started) and a stunning view over the escarpment.

We continued on to Bourke’s Luck Potholes. These are bizarre, cylindrical holes carved into the rock by the confluence of two rivers, the Blyde and the Treuer, which is the start of the Blyde River Canyon. You can walk over the rocks and across the bridges to see the potholes from all angles. We were having lunch here but while we were eating the rain started to fall heavily, which made flap drying a little difficult. Then suddenly a torrential hailstorm began and we abandoned lunch and cleaning and made a mad dash for the truck, not before being completely soaked. At times like this, you need to remind yourself that you’re in Africa.

The downpour meant we couldn’t stop to view the Canyon so we continued north on a long afternoon drive. Crossing into Limpopo Province, our destination was its capital Polokwane - this is another World Cup venue with the stadium visible by the road. Just outside Polokwane was our campsite for the night - Boma in the Bush. It’s a wonderful campsite run by a very friendly couple, Abel and Elsa Jonker. Abel is a classic larger than life Afrikaner, a really big guy complete with white beard. They have a great bar with several cool looking stuffed animals including a crocodile, a leopard and a warthog that they raised as a pet since he was a baby (they had some very cute pictures of him when he was young, and alive).

Tonight was the first night proper camping, so from now on the tents need to be put up when we arrive and taken down before breakfast. Luckily, as the only male solo traveller in the group, I get a tent to myself which gives me a lot more space but makes it trickier to put up and down. After a spag bol dinner we retired to the bar for drinks and a really late night - until almost 10 o’clock!

Day 4 - Tshipise

Had a lie-in today, getting up at 6am! After breakfast we headed into Polokwane for a few hours to stock up on supplies (5 trolley loads of food for the next three days!) and some beer for Gweru as for some reason there’s no alcohol available at the campsite there. The centre of Polokwane seems more typically African than other South African towns we’re been in so it feels we’re getting closer to the “real Africa” now. Stopped at Nando’s for some peri-peri chips, unfortunately it was a little early for my usual half-chicken. Then we hit the road towards the border and our campsite for the night at Tshipise.

After a roadside stop for lunch, we arrived in Tshipise at around 4.30. It’s a huge camp, well stocked with swimming pools and a nice bar where I caught some rugby and footie. Later we had a great dinner - huge steaks, mash and veg. Then it was off to bed early because we were getting up at 3 (AM!) to go to the border.


30th December 2009

This time last year
It's exactly this time last year that I was in South Africa (with Kruger for New Years) with Mike and Des. What an amazing experience. I've doing a mental revisit the last few days so I'm delighted to be able to journey with you in this manner! Before and after Kruger we stayed in Cape Town, which was wonderful.

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