To get off the escarpment meant another drive of forty miles along its top.
The front having moved on we were left with bright clear cool skies, and I took advantage to look out once more at the escarpment, and at Wonder View, I saw at last the great plain below me, stretching out beyond the horizon. Down there the rivers that gush from the mountains snake into Kruger National Park and on into Mozambique and the Indian Ocean, now no more than a 100 miles to the south east. And along the escarpment, what had been covered in mist the day before was a fabulous dark green swathe of pine tress capped by almost cuboid hilltops.
I snaked down one of the river valleys, the Olifant’s. The road was sinuous, and each turn I got a view back to the great escarpment, although not as high as in Natal, it was still striking, a series of bedding planes at all sorts of curious angles. Down I went, left Scotland and entered the Zambezi Valley in three short miles. The high cool air of the pine clad mountains was left behind and I was in thorny scrub the dry grasses as high as the acacias, and then, I saw my beloved mopane trees from Zimbabwe, small trees stunted by the poor soils, but unmistakable from their heart shaped green leaves. Miles and miles of them. I drove for some forty miles north east to the mining town of Phalaborwa, most of it through big ranches and mopane scrub, all very much human tamed land. Even the town of Phalaborwa, with its huge slag heaps and winding gear dominating the town, had a neat and tidy centre, white painted kerbstones edged a cultivated border, and at the far side of town, a couple of expensive looking houses either side, was a stone gateway with a ticket booth. Like any theme park, it looked like you would go in to a car park and be shown where to find the toilets and what height you had to be to ride the ride.
But once I had paid my dues, picked up a whole bunch of maps and information leaflets, I drove back into Africa. A hundred yards from the entrance, with the gate still very much in sight, there was a herd of Impala, chewing on the acacia scrub. It was like passing through a black hole, I had moved from one galaxy to another in a few steps. I had to look back to see that, yes, there was the gate and a few house roofs could be seen in the distance.
Kruger National Park is enormous, nearly three hundred miles long and between thirty and fifty miles wide, it hugs the Mozambique border in Eastern Transvaal, or Mpumalanga as it had recently been renamed. It houses all the big five, the prized trophies of the hunting brigade, those creatures that you knew could damage you as much as you were trying to damage them: the lion, the rhinoceros, the water buffalo, the leopard and the elephant. Why the crocodile and hippopotamus is left off that list, I have no idea as they both cause far more deaths in Africa than any other creature. There are giraffe, hyena, jackal, a hundred types of antelope and smaller mammals, smaller cats like the Serval and cheetah, monkeys and baboons, and countless species of weird and wonderful birds. The problem is the place is so damn big and I had entered just after midday, possibly the worst time to go on Safari. I had pledged to get to Olifant’s Camp by nightfall and could drive no more than 40 miles and hour, so had to keep moving.
Despite the time of day, I did see lots of animals. Most of them were impalas. At first I would stop every time I saw a herd, after a time I would cast an eye over them as I drove past, at other times I wished they could have been some other species. Still they are beautifully delicate animals with striking markings. I saw some zebra and an Eland, a huge antelope with striking white stripes across a rich golden brown back. At each place I marked the location on my map with an X and wrote in the species. I knew I would never otherwise remember what I was seeing.
I don’t remember buying lunch anywhere on that trip until I was heading back to Irene. I lived on biltong. I had tasted this several times before in Zimbabwe and at other times during my trip, but this was where I lived on it like the Boers. Biltong, if you don’t know, is like a dried spicy sausage formed of all the bits of meat you would not see in a roast, mixed with thick animal blood and put in a rather rubbery skin. (I never asked where that came from). With a couple of water canisters in the Bucky , I just dragged a piece of biltong from off the seat and took a mighty chew. Very salty and hard, it nonetheless hit the spot in the dry scrub, and was far less maintenance than a sandwich or a piece of fruit. If it fell into the footwell, I just picked it out, dusted it off and took another chunk.