South Africa – everything is all right

Click here you want to see the first post  in this chapter

Kirsty had taught me the need for patience and lack of speed in safariing.  There is no way you will ever see anything more than a large herd of escaping antelope and a termite hill if you dash around at the rate those guys were going.  And yet many of the cars I was seeing, plenty of them South Africans from whom I would have expected more, were driving as if on the motorway.  Now I had got my eye in and the binoculars were helping, I picked out more and more.  As well as the larger antelope, I saw a tiny Suni, treading meticulously over the scrubby ground layer.

 At one point I was surrounded by water buffalo.



  I had stopped to gaze at a couple of these bulky creatures on one side of the road when I heard a crash on my right side, and out of the tall grass came another three.  They jostled each other and rubbed up against the side of the car.  Very easily they could have bent a bumper or crumpled a plate, but fortunately they were more interested in moving off to the water below me.

 The sun was setting again and I thought I had seen enough for the day so headed along the main road towards the Lower Sabie Camp, my booking for the night.  Just before I reached with the sky already a deep red, the most magnificent sight materialized.  Ever since I saw my first Masai giraffe in Nairobi, I thought they were the true emperors of the bush.  Their grandeur and stateliness, their costume, their mannerisms all show royal breeding.  Four giraffe were standing in various poses across the road, like an exercise in perspective.  The largest was furthest away, straight across the road and looking back at me.  The others were slightly to one side, but their enormous necks reached high into the sky and the suns dying rays hit them smack on.  I sat and watched these creatures for five minutes before they deigned to give me the road back.

 Satisfied that I had seen most of what I set out to do, I spent a quiet night in Lower Sabie.  My accommodation second night was not quite as luxurious as at Olifant’s the night before but when I fell asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow, it really did not matter.

 After another early start I set off for the last thirty miles of so to Crocodile Bridge, at the southern end of the park close to the Mozambique border.  I saw lots again, vervet monkey, fish eagle, another steenbok.  Then over to my right, in an area regenerating from a recent fire, two large grey lumps were moving northwards.  White rhino grazing in amongst the new shoots of grass appearing after the fire.  To me this completed the set; I had never thought I would see the leopard, so when I left the park a couple of hours later, I felt that despite the rush tour, I had accomplished a good safari.



 It was a long drive back up to Pretoria, first down almost to the border at Komatipoort to meet the main road, then along through the bush (littered with private safari camps and touristic shops), and on to the Drakensburg Escarpment.  The weather closed in around me again as I started the ascent, and the part industrial landscape of cement works and electricity plants mixed ominously with the dark pine forests and craggy outcrops.  The road could be seen winding up the wide valley for miles in front of me, occasionally darting into tunnels to avoid the worst of the incline.  Once atop, I went through the regional capital of Nelspruit; compared to other cities in South Africa it was tiny and fairly relaxed.  Then on retracing my steps through the orange groves to the west of the escarpment, and finally back along that long tedious road over the veldt.  I stopped off for fast food near Belfast, where the roadworks duelling the main road from Gauteng to Maputo was causing so much havoc, and realised this was the first lunchtime I had stopped for several days.  Good job too as the remains of the Biltong looked pretty unappetising.

 After a few days in the bush it seemed strange to be back at Kirsty’s , eating out in chic restaurants, heading into Pretoria to see a film, and to be back in the highly charged atmosphere of Gauteng.  The visit to the east gave me yet another angle on this amazingly diverse country.  I was now quite disappointed that I would not get anywhere near the huge Cape, especially the Fynbos, the Karoo and the Cape area itself.  But holidays are never long enough, and wherever I go, there is always another horizon I will not be able to cross.  But even by spending most of my time in Kwazulu Natal and the old Transvaal districts, I had seen a great diversity of landscapes, a rich land for farming and industry.  I had seen diverse people’s, most of them friendly.  The rainbow state concept was being kept in the hearts of most people, it had always been there but not allowed to flourish.  People of different backgrounds genuinely wanted to get along, to be given equal opportunity.  But many of the tensions which had been suppressed during the Apartheid years were also being given their freedoms, and I had seen a lot of that.  The dreadful urban poverty and the continuing distinctions between the rich, mainly white, suburbs of Sandton and Verwoerdburg and the still impoverished black townships of Alexandria and SoWeTo.  And out in rural areas, where the whites were still major land owners the social policies of the ANC could scarcely begin to improve the conditions of Africans – the huge floodlights that drench townships in artificial day are hardly a human method of dealing with darkness.

 And seething away was this tension that erupted in riots, in carjackings, in muggings.  I also saw the reaction to it, the military style quick reaction vigilante groups in the white suburbs, the excessive security around every house – inner and outer gates and fences.  I had had first hand experience of that, caught in a crossfire perhaps, or targeted because I displayed too many traits.  In Natal in particular, the tension is not just racial but tribal too.  South Africa in 1996 was walking a tricky line between freedom and anarchy.

 Although I enjoyed this trip immensely and saw some amazing things and met some incredible people, the tensions of the country were always throbbing close by, and I think I hardly relaxed at all in three weeks, even before I was mugged.  This tension continued right the way up to that evening when Kirsty dropped me off at a crowded departure area in Jan Smut’s Airport.  I hugged my luggage closely till I got through the line; I eyed suspiciously everyone who walked past me as I checked myself in, and only when I went through to the departure lounge did I feel that I had won some battle.  But even now, this raging country filtered back to me.

 As I was driven roughly out to the Al Italia plane standing at Jo’burg airport, crammed in with many other tourists or visitors, a stewardess was speaking dispassionately into her walkie-talkie.  “Yes, we’re missing one passenger; he has just turned up at the check in desk – he was robbed on the way to the airport.  They took everything, his bag, his money, his passport.  He’s bruised but OK.  We’ll have to leave him here to sort it out”.  I looked at her as she said this, her face not cracking with any emotion.  Just another routine day in Jo’burg.  I tried hard again to remember, the guys at Pilgrim’s Rest, the combination of proud Boer, historic Swazi and Zulu, the British tradition, the stunning scenery, the expanse of nothing, the hope.

 “Is everything still all right sir?

 Yes it is, but only just…….

South Africa -how to keep a giraffe to yourself

Further down the road another rogue male elephant went storming past me a hundred feet from the road, then it quietened somewhat.  I did see more antelope, including the massive eland, but generally, apart from a few squirrels it all went quiet.  I was thinking the time of day was wrong, but I was soon proved different as in the space of a few miles I saw giraffe, hippo, a crocodile in a swampy river with some terrapins, herons and circling vultures.  The chance occurrences of Safari still amazed me.

 I zigzagged my way around the roads near Satara for an hour or more, soaking up the atmosphere all the way.  As the heat rose and the glare increased, I was treated to fewer large game.  They were all beginning to find some shelter.  One hyena, a large brown hyena, was sheltering under a tree, but the shade came across the road and he had settled himself right in my way.  I stopped the engine and watched this huge beast.  He was tired, his great shoulders heaving up and down as he panted in the heat.  It was almost like he had just finished scavenging a big meal and was trying to find somewhere to recover.  He acknowledged my presence a couple of times, and wondered why I was just sitting there looking at him.  I was reluctant to invade his privacy by passing him but I really did not want to retrace the fifteen miles of road I had come along.  So eventually I started the engine and inched my way around him.  As I passed within two feet of his paws, he looked straight at me, but either his exhaustion or fat belly overcame the fear of the Bucky  and he continued to lie there.

Tired Hyena

Tired Hyena

 The afternoon was a quiet one, a waterbuck here, some more impala here.  It was getting closer to sunset when more animals came back out.  I moved down a small cul de sac to a waterhole to see if anything was sheltering there.  In amongst some dark green foliage, I spied a tiny steenbock, in springing mode, legs coiled up ready to jump at any wrong move I made.  Its ears twitched the flies away as it stared at me.  It eventually thought I was too much of a risk, but rather than flee, it stealthily treaded behind a bush.  I drove once around the small car park and started to head out when I was aware of movement high in the trees.  I looked up and saw the head of a huge giraffe peering down at the vehicle.  Only a couple of feet of neck was visible before it disappeared below some branches.  I looked up at him, he looked down at me, for some moments.  The noise of another approaching vehicle made him start and withdraw a little.  A large RV came into the car park at high speed and sped around in a tight circle kicking up all sorts of dust.  A large fat South African couple looked over at me and said “Not seeing much round here, man.  We must have driven twenty miles without a single animal.  You seeing much in here?”  I glanced up at the giraffe who was now examining this new vehicle from a lofty distance.  I looked back at the couple.

 “No, not much around here”.

 “Oh well good luck” and they skidded off into the bush.

 I looked up once more at the giraffe; did he wink at me, perhaps it was only my imagination, and I too drove off, but at a more steady pace.

South Africa – Sunrise Safari

Next morning after a surprisingly easy sleep, I awoke to a five o’clock alarm, and gathered my pieces together to head for the Bucky .  I thought I would try and beat the rush but first rays of the new day were already reflecting on the vegetation around the camp.  The air was cool, dew filled my windscreen and my breathe was visible as I loaded the car.  I drove out of the little driveway next to the rondavel I had slept in and found myself in a queue of thirty cars, all waiting for the gate to be open.  Many of them revved their engines and it was more like being in a traffic jam in the centre of Johannesburg than out in the wildest African Bush.  The sun was almost visible when the guards put down their coffees and sauntered out of their shed.  They pulled back the big wooden gates and cars, camper vans and 4×4’s charged out onto the open road.

 For about a mile there was only one turn off and the majority of the cars headed west.  As more and more turns arrived, the line of vehicles gradually broke apart but all the way along, any advantage in getting out while the animals were active was ruined by the noise and fumes from the traffic jam.  I sought the path with least cars on it and drove westwards.  The first animals I saw were a small herd of wildebeest  along the roadside.  I turned south and noticed a whole bunch of vehicles dashing at twice the speed limit in my direction.  One passenger leant over as they drove past and said in a strong boerish accent “Lion – just got it on the radio”.  It seems many spotters were using CB or walkie talkie radios to communicate with each other, and if they saw something, would broadcast around.  Half because I had yet to see a lion on this trip and half for curiosity at how this was going to play out, I set off in the direction of the speeding cars.  I needed no guide to pinpoint where the lion was; about a hundred cars were parked up along the roadside, many still with their engines running smogging up the landscape.  Looking south east into the sun, I could make out the large form of a female, padding gently through the acacia.  Clearly somewhat disturbed by the attention she was attracting she was trying her best to disappear into the scrub, but several people were offroading and following her movements, almost cutting off any escape routes.  I managed to take a very poor photo but then realised this was not what I had come to see – it was no better than a safari park or zoo.  I turned the Bucky  around and headed away from this ghastly scene.

Lion escaping the hoards

Lion escaping the hoards

 Although the traffic was still heavy, it was more spread out and easy going on the next stretch and I saw some of the most wonderful sights in the next hour.  To one side was one of my favourite antelope, the kudu.  Tall and erect they stand, their dark brown bodies contrasting with a series of stripes from the top of their backs; their long white socks standing out against the tall grass.  The males have fantastic horns and their manes look neatly manicured.  I saw more wildebeest – a large herd trooping across the grass.  Zebra grazing in amongst them, impala everywhere.  I stopped abruptly a I saw the head of an enormous bird peer above the grass on the right.  It stalked deliberately through the grass, its top bobbing up and down.  Cautiously, I stood up in the Bucky and leant out of the window, hoping no leopard was sitting at my feet ready to lunge at my throat.  This curious bird was the a cross between an eagle and a heron, but much larger than both.  It had a mottled brown back.  I could just make out a white underbelly and some black markings on the wing.  Its neck was the most amazing thing though, it was a black and white pattern that extended the full length and was so thick, nearly half the girth of the bird’s body.  Its head sat atop the neck with no junction, the long pointed beak reaching out in front as far as a feathery crest stood out backwards.  I had never seen the like of it before and could not find it in my field guide.  Only when I got back to Irene did I discover what I had seen was a Kori Bustard, the largest of all bustards.  At almost three feet high it is an imposing bird and kind of reminds you where the dinosaurs ended up.

 My safariing maturing all the time, I felt less of a need to rush around finding the big five.  When I reached the next waterhole a mile or two on, I was treated to some interesting theatre.  First I noticed a family or two of wildebeest hanging around, neither eating or drinking.  I was surprised they just seemed to be standing there but I eventually worked out that a family of jackal were ambushing them from behind a grassless knoll.  Two or three would come running out and try to get to a small calf in the middle of the huddle.  The older wildebeest would charge back at the jackals, fighting off their teasing and snapping while others would ensure the calf was never left unprotected.  The jackals would then retreat, regroup and recharge.  I watched this for about twenty minutes, the jackals trying all manner of tricks to distract the older beasts, but unlike many of the Natural History TV programmes, it was the prey that got the upper hand on this occasion, the oldest male in particular showing a lot of bravery in charging a pack of jackals in one go; once he managed to flit a jackal, causing the dog to scuttle over backwards and leap out of the way of further injury.

 Eventually, the main huddle of wildebeest managed to remove themselves from the harassing jackals and only the old male, invincible, was left to see that the dogs did not follow further.  I moved on too. The morning was already advancing, the sun was high in the sky and I was less than twenty kilometres from Olifant’s .  This little road close to the Mozambique border had many secrets to let up.  There were ostrich out in the scrub.  Just beyond the landscape opened up to a wide plain of tall grass.  In the little Bucky I could see nothing.  A camper van was stopped up ahead and the occupants were looking through the roof into the grass.  Out of curiosity I stopped the car and leant out of the window.  The van driver looked over at me and hoarsely whispered “cheetah”.  I drew myself steadily up through the window, ensuring I had a firm purchase on my door and looked down in to the grass.  About three feet away, a pair of cheetah were nonchalantly walking through the grass, taking no notice whatsoever of me.  The most elegant of all the big cats, the super sleek bodies were magnificent, their intelligent wily faces concentrating on where they were headed.  Almost within an instant they had merged back into the grass.  They were the first cheetah I had ever seen in the wild and I was amazed at how close I had come to not seeing them at all.  I was also proud that I had shared this experience with only one other vehicle, the memory of how the lion meeting went that morning and how I have heard of vans taunting cheetahs in the Kenyan parks haunted me.  Cheetah are daytime hunters and having hundreds of spectators trailing them across the Masai Mara all day means they do not get a chance to stalk and can go hungry day after day.  Here at least there was enough cover to escape the humans and stalk their prey.

Passing Elephant

Passing Elephant

South Africa – Sunset Safari

 I got checked into Olifant’s, and took a rather nice Rondavel style room, air con and mosquito nets included; how to camp in the bush, eh?  And headed for the shop.  I had intended for weeks to buy binoculars and had not been able to get Kirsty’s pair to bring on the trip.  Today had been difficult, I had seen lots of animals and was able to identify them but was unable to get a really close view.  So I wandered into the shop and asked what they had on offer.  A young gangly Boer took me round the types and said the best way to test them out was to go to the nearby look out point and see what you could see.  So we took three pairs down a few steps at the front of the shop and looked out at an amazing site.

 Olifant’s camp is set on a low cliff above a wide sweep of the river of the same name.  Neither the bubbling mountain stream above the escarpment or the fresh bounding river as it came out from the hills, it had now settled and spread, was much less powerful as so much of its force had evaporated or been soaked up in the sandy scrubby soil.  Still a significant flow, yet it could not force its way through the landscape.  Instead it weaves and splits around obstacles in its way; boulders and bluffs, and could not overcome the layers deposited during storm flows, so left a hundred sandbanks every mile as it trickles past, many clogged with detritus carried down during peak periods, or left high and dry so that thick vegetation had flourished.

 On the far side a thin line of fever trees swayed in the light wind, their green bark highlighted by the setting sun and their feathery branches forming a light mist.  Beyond again the scrub took over remorselessly and to the horizon mopane and acacias carpeted the flat terrain.  Somewhere over in the distance was Mozambique.

 If the setting was spectacular, what happened next was miraculous.  The warden started to point out the range of animals there.  A few tall branches of trees swayed more purposefully next to the river, ruby red as they were caught in the sun’s rays.  Their purposeful movement revealed them to be a small herd of giraffe, in the distance I could see more – perhaps a dozen in total; their long necks breaking through the trees.  Down in the river bed a fish eagle swooped low over the water, the white of its neck feathers giving it away.  Other birds were stealthily treading through the undergrowth; herons, egrets and something similar to a gull.  In the water, the deep throated “gur-gur-gur” of a hippo echoed over to us, a number of them were stirring from the water ready for an evening’s grazing on the banks.  In the water, a number of logs floated downstream, one or two looked too controlled to be inanimate, although it was difficult to see whether they truly were crocodiles.  Finally, stage west, a small herd of elephants uncovered themselves from the scrub.  Almost in slow motion they revolved around each other in a social whirl, watering themselves, touching each other, amusing themselves with bits of branch, or rubbing themselves against the odd fever tree.  Right in front of the hide, bats and birds were picking up the rising night insects.  The ballet that performed itself in front of me continued for half an hour or so, the colours resonating from the land changing from a rich orange to a glowing red, then softening to maroon and purple.  At the same time, the hazy air moistened and a dew rose from the river that eventually shrouded all but the larger features in the valley.  The final rays of sun struck a low ridge well off in the east and the night closed in around Olifant’s .

 I bought a pair of binoculars from the gangly warden. While he was wrapping them I reported the injured hyena that I had seen a few miles back.  I pinpointed it on a map for him.  He suggested that it was probably because it had been hit by a car.  One of the biggest threats to the animals in the National Park, despite the air of protection, is still Homo sapiens.  More animals get injured by cars than by anything else.  Although they do not kill them, the injured animal is put into such distress and disablement that it is unlikely they will last more than a few more days.  If it is prey, its means of escape has been irreparably damaged.  If it is a predator, its means of catching its food has been debilitated.  Either way, if it does not die of shock, the harsh web of life in the bush will get it soon.

South Africa – The young gun

But it was still not true safari – it was a hike.  So one night we clocked off early and with a couple of Robin’s friends who had just survived two long haul flights from the States via London, we set off for the park.  It was already close to dusk when we arrived but it helped in that many of the animals were roaming around in the cooler air.  We saw Masai giraffe, we saw ostrich and zebra, antelope and warthog.  I saw my first lions in Nairobi, two young males still without their manes and with spotty legs like a leopard.  All the while aircraft from the nearby airport were taking off and the edge of the park was marked by low and high rise flats.  Down in the bottom of the park we came across a mother and her baby rhino; again a first for me.  The mother took offence at our stopping and mock charged us a couple of times.  I was so enthralled by the whole scene; all these animals who had been exhibits in zoos or characters on the TV screens were now playing out their parts live.  I did not realise that I was boring my hosts silly.  The two American visitors had fallen asleep in the back of the van – their bodies still here but their spirits having been dumped over the Sahara desert some hours beforehand.  Robin and Russ were fed up of looking at these mammals as a tourist is tired by European churches.  Then they started spotting the birds, a stinky looking Maribou stork, gold crowned cranes, a couple of ground hornbills.  These were quite interesting to me, large ground loving birds with vivid colours.  But Robin and Russ were also much more interested by the tiny birds dashing in and out of the tall grass.  I didn’t get it that time. Now in South Africa where I was tired of the number of Impala I had stopped at, I could start appreciating how you looked at the detail.

 Back in Kruger, after an hour or so I reached Letaba, one of the major camps on the main south-north road.  With the heat now too oppressive for me to continue, I took refuge in the Elephant museum, basically two rooms, one a massive treasure trove of ivory, the other educational boards of how they deal with the huge populations in the park.  Because they are protected, the breeding has been very successful.  It has caused some problems, especially at the interface with tourists.  Rogue young male elephants, chucked out by the matriarch and beaten out of mating by older males, go round testing their strength on anything they come in contact with, and camper vans seem a good target.  The park are castrating some of these males to remove some of this dangerous libido, and several of the females have been sterilised through contraceptives to better control the populations without resorting to culling.  In  a well organised park like Kruger, the prize piece of the South African Parks Service, there is enough money and skilled staff to see it through,; I wondered whether it would make it to the countries further north where similar pressure problems have been found.

 Instead of taking the main tarmac road south I went along by the Letaba river towards Olifant’s  camp.  As if to underlie the problem with rogue elephant, I came across one under a baobab tree.  Another vehicle was in front of me.  Now I am not a complete coward, but I know not to get too close to elephants of any sort and the young males, of which this was clearly and example, should not be trusted as far as you could throw them.  When he saw the activity in the road and stopped bashing the bark of the baobab tree, I knew it was time to retreat, so I put the Bucky  in reverse and rode back to the top of a brow about a hundred yards back.  Under my breath I advised that the other vehicle do the same, but the family inside were leaning out through the windows getting some great photos from about twenty yards.  The young male was even flapping those great ears of his for effect.  I knew better, and was not surprised that when these warning signals were not taking seriously that the elephant charged the car.  All of a sudden, with a spurt of dust and spinning wheels, the other car joined me on the ridge.  The elephant only charged twenty yards, saw he had won and went off into the bush.

 The activity picked up as the sun started to drop and I approached a look out point across the Olifant’s River.  On its banks, amongst a bunch of rounded boulders were two hippos, their pink underbellies the only things belying their camouflage.  As I headed closer to the park, I came across a rather distressed hyena, limping badly.  It could hardly be bothered by me, it stared rather forlornly at the car and staggered off into the bush.

South Africa – Picnic in the Rift Valley

 It was all a good wheeze but I saw little outside the compound and the restaurants at night.  Fortunately my host, Russ, decided to get me out a couple of times.  I had met up with a scientist from the adjoining International Potato Center (did you know one existed?) and she was organising a picnic on Mount Longonot, a volcano in the rift valley about 30 miles from Nairobi.

 Russ picked me up from the institute and we headed to his house in Langata.  Unlike the huge heavily guarded villas of the surrounding suburb, Russ lived quietly and unassumingly in a small house surrounded by trees.  His prized possession in the house was his home brewery ( he was a connoisseur of beer and whenever you met him you had to bring a bottle of bitter along).  Russ Kruska was a man I respected a great deal in the field of GIS.  He had been working out there several years and was probably the best example of someone who could make GIS work in developing countries.  He never compromised standards in his work just because he was in an underdeveloped country, and was a great thinker about information.  He was well ahead of most GIS academics and software providers in talking of metadata years before most people were in the game.  He saw the importance of metadata; recording the sources and derivations of your datasets inside the dataset itself because he was giving data to all and sundry across the continent and he did not want it misused or him misquoted.  He also had a quiet determination.  Very much at ease with himself, he was quiet but not shy, preferring to hear others before pontificating.  I saw him very angry once at one of his bosses, but even through the gritted teeth he kept most of his external composure.  Despite the high standards he set for himself and his work, he also understood the limitations of working with computers in Africa, especially in the early 1990’s.  Instead of trying to get his staff to reach unobtainable goals in one go, he pieced his work programme together in such a way that his staff, while understanding something of the bigger picture, had achievable goals and standards to hit at.  It is something which I have taken to heart in a lot of the work I have done since, and despair at so many projects, consultants, department managers and politicians who expect a country with little institutional and technical capacity to leap to a US or European system in one step.

 We met up with the gang heading out to Longonot and drove along the well made highway NW towards Nakuru.  One of the best roads in the country, it was because it allowed President Moi to have a smooth trip from his country residence into town.  We passed through the pine forest on top of the ridge and then over the lip.  The huge East African Ridge splitting Africa apart was in front.  As the two plates which make up Africa divide, two huge rifts are cracking the continent up; the western one containing deep lakes like Tanganyika, the right hand one largely dry, but the forceful opening has caused conic volcanoes to sprout up along its route.  Longonot is one of the most perfect of these, rising at a uniform angle and covered in a light green carpet of Acacia, at least that is how it appears at a distance.  Up close the acacia is full of vicious thorns guarded by equally vicious ants who if the bush is tapped even lightly, will emerge spraying their formic acid at the unseen attacker.

 We had to climb with an armed guard, unfortunately there are too many robberies in Kenyan parks to allow complete safety, but it was a privilege to be able to walk through the Kenyan countryside without being surrounded by a vehicle.  Giraffe are the worst threat from the bigger animals, although that does not stop the possibility of scorpion, snake or other insect from causing a lot of discomfort.  The view from the rim was spectacular, the inside of the cone is also heavily vegetated but in a few places there were rock faces and here and there a vent in the rock was betrayed by hot steam rising up.  To the outsider, a perfect African scene.  The ridge to the right with its pine forests was just visible in the haze, to the west more jagged mountains (towards the infamous Devil’s Gate National Park) blocked our view, and to the north and south a string of other volcanoes, different eruptions shown by blobs of hardened lava, each a different shade, one on top of another.  To our north a vivid blue lake; Naivasha, had a couple of small motor boats buzzing around.  We weren’t sure we could see any of the flamingos in the water but the area of pink we did see was from one of the many flower farms in the valley, the blooms being cut, frozen and shipped overnight by air to markets in Europe; all cheaper than if done back home.  In the dry heat we basked and ate fresh potato salad and ice cold drinks, biscuits and cake, fruit of all sorts.  The perfect picnic.

South Africa – Memories of my first safaris

When the animals started drying up and the scenery became repetitive, there was always the bird life, which even in the heat of the afternoon was lively.



Grey hornbills, hooting its characteristic call in the trees and flying in a sinusoidal pattern between trees; the hook of their outsize bill arcing upwards, their body arcing down as if a counterweight.  Across the road, occasional flocks of guinea fowl would streak across the road in perpetual fear, and the more assured francolins would almost commit suicide by trying to stop your vehicle to protect their mates.

 Francolins are as common in so much of Africa as pigeons are in Britain.  They are related to partridge, rather dumpy little bodies with tapering necks to a rather thin face and little plump legs.  I am generalising terribly here as there must be a couple of dozen species but the Natal francolin is the one I saw most often in Kruger.  One bird book describes the francolin as “cryptically coloured”,


Francolin – can you spot the female and chicks in the grass?

and I must admit the myriad colours can make it well camouflaged in a range of habitats.  I remember one time that day I saw a male bird darting around on the road.  As my interest in seeking elusive mammals out had waned, I stopped and observed this creature, who once I had stopped ceased to move to.  So caught up in its jerky head movements, sizing the white Bucky  up and down, that it was not until I was about to start the engine again that I noticed an eye blinking in a tuft of grass at the road side.  A female francolin was hiding there while her male distracted me, and at her feet, four tiny chicks huddled together to avoid detection.

 That I had started looking the birdlife confirmed that I was beginning to mature on safari.  I knew when I got to look at every single insect and grass blade along the way I had become too obsessed, but now I was happy not only to search out the big game but start to appreciate the whole ecosystem I was passing through.  I remember my first time ever on safari was a number of years previously when I had the tame experience of visiting Nairobi National Park.  I was spending a couple of weeks at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi to help a tsetse control team, headed by Robin Reid and Russ Kruska, with some remote sensing interpretation of the Ghibe Valley in Ethiopia.  Living inside the heavily guarded compound was incredible; the neatly cut grass, the spacious rooms were luxury and the acceptable if a little pallid food in the restaurant was made up for  by a well stocked bar in the adjoining room.  I had some of the most amazing evenings out there; if I timed it right a whole bunch of students, visiting researchers and old timers who had no other social or family life would meet up in that bar and decide which restaurant it was going to be that night.  I had the best Indian food ever in a place near Westlands.  I had Japanese food, traditionally served by waiters in Kimono’s and stocking feet, even though they were Kenyan.  I ate near the great casino out of the town centre.  I was serenaded by a bunch of Ghurkha pipers in the Hard Rock Café in the heart of town.  We danced the night away at various seedy clubs out west, and ate at the famous Carnivores; my first tastes of giraffe, wildebeest and ostrich.  I had a bight of crocodile too.  Unfortunately the tough meat needs marinating for three days and the taste of all these was of the marinade rather than the animal.

Carnivores BBQ - stacked high with every type of meat

Carnivores BBQ – stacked high with every type of meat

South Africa – Bush and Biltong

 To get off the escarpment meant another drive of forty miles along its top.

Wonder View

Wonder View

  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.

Down the Oliphant's River

Down the Oliphant’s River

 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.

South Africa – Resting with the Pilgrims

I drove on over the Lydenburg pass, a winding but tarmacced road which led back to Sabie and I travelled the last few miles to Pilgrim’s Rest.  After a cold shower and a read, I thought I would go down the bar before dinner.  It was almost empty, a small barman in a new leather jacket served me a Castle with hardly a word and I sat listening to the conversation of a couple of “huntin’ and fishin’ Boers.  Although they spoke in English, they had strong accents and I could not follow most of the conversation.  I was about to finish my beer when the barman said “Weren’t you here last week”.  I was taken aback and said I had never been to this part of the world.  He said I looked just like a guy he knew from Cape Town that travelled up this way last week.  Whether it was just an icebreaker or he genuinely had found my double, I have no idea.  But we started talking.  He was from Venda up north of Pilgrim’s Rest but lived in the small village with the smoke rising I had seen across the bridge the day before.  He enjoyed working in the hotel , although there were many times when it was quiet like this that he thought he should be doing something else.  I was travelling during the week, but the place would fill up at the weekends with the rich from Johannesburg and Pretoria.  The east was the main direction of escape.  Either they would rush down the main road to the border and spend it on the beach at Maputo in Mozambique or go into the park just before the border and dash around trying to find a lion.  But the ones who wanted more tranquillity and the kind of open lifestyle many north Americans and northern Europeans want, would turn left just after Nelspruit and come into the Sabie region.

 Like most in the tourist industry, and especially barmen and waiters, he was not wanting to continue this job for long and was looking to go up to Jo’burg to seek some more education and a job.  I was horrified; how could he leave this beautiful part of the country to brave the expense, depravity and horrors of Get a Gun.  But, as he explained, things were expensive in the country too, and apart from barman, there were few other jobs he could do.  The city of Jo’burg still sounds like it is paved with gold when stuck three hundred miles away in the heart of the country.

Behind me a heavily made up woman, a young male tour guide and the tall cowboy – coach driver entered and gathered around a table.  After a bit of idle chit chat, they invited me down from the bar for a beer and I learnt more about the French coach party.  The girl was a rep from the company, out on a tour to see how they work in practice, the man was the tour guide; he was of French origin but had been born in the Seychelles.  He had lived in South Africa for about two years and was just doing this to fill in some time before going back to college (everyone seemed to be transient in Pilgrim’s Rest).  Even the coach driver, who despite his macho appearance was a talkative and funny guy.  He was exhausted by the French trippers – they moaned about everything, they hated the food, the rooms were awful, even the scenery was not up to scratch.  They had moaned to the coach driver, they had moaned to the rep, the tour guide and anyone else who would get in earshot.  These guys had come in here to get a bit of peace and quiet before the buffet dinner.  They had been on the road five days with these people, starting in Cape Town, going up Table Mountain, then to Stellensboch for the wine tasting, along the famed garden route along the coast. Up to Bloemfontein, through the Royal Natal Park and Durban for a swim, up to here.  They were doing a day trip to Kruger Park and then back to Johannesburg for the last night, some shopping in Sandton and then a flight to Paris from Jan Smuts the following day – the whole bloody extent of the country in a week.  I had come to realise that I had tried to travel too far in too short a time, but when I heard from the Coach Driver what their itinerary my movements seemed parochial.  But I had felt I had seen something.

 After two beers I can get along fine with almost anyone, so I really was not surprised when they invited me to tack on to the buffet in the restaurant laid on for the French.  I was delighted but they had no right, and when the manageress of the hotel found me at the table and I explained I was being hosted in, she said with a sickly, lipstick ridden smile “oh that’s nice” in the most unpleasant way you could imagine.  Well, they only saved me thirty rand or so, but it was the gesture that counted, and I don’t care how the French found their food, my dinner was delicious that night.

 Pilgrim’s Rest was a wonderful place in the heart of the hills, very friendly staff, a lovely hotel , if a little overdone on the authenticity, and surrounded by fantastic countryside.  But, like the tourists, I needed to move on and discover something new.  How much damage we do to societies, environment and economies by dashing from one honey pot to another, I do not know, but my holiday in South Africa was coming to a close, and especially on hearing more about the Cape Province that I had not even touched, I realised I was only scratching the surface of this mighty country.

South Africa – On the tourist trail

I drove on along the escarpment edge to another incredible waterfall, the Berlin Falls.  Just beyond here, just before you bore yourself with another waterfall and gorges, South Africa springs another surprise on you.  In a quite remarkable plateau of orange rocks, a river has gouged out a canyon on a huge scale.  Yes, there are the waterfalls and gorges like the ones I had already seen countless times in my holiday, but the way in which the river had worked against the stone made incredible shapes. Called the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the river must have eroded away at the weak points in the rock, and boulders trapped in these crevasses have been spun around in the water during storm flows like clothes in a washing machine.  Working like a jewel polisher, these rocks have smoothed and rounded these crevasses forming these wonderful potholes.  Where they have been worn too thin the outer wall breaks off leaving hundreds of ornate sculptures naturally formed, for us to wonder at.  The gorge itself gets to over a hundred feet deep, and what seemed most remarkable is that some of these potholes were nearly half that depth and still intact.  You could walk around the rim of some of them, but woe betide if you took a wrong step in either direction.  One way and you were lost in the gorge forever, one step the other way and you were trapped in a deep narrow vat of icy cold water.

I played over these structures for an hour or so, wanting to see every way the water and rock had interacted.  Dramatic bridges spanned the gorge in several places and I got a view deep into the canyon below before it splurged out into the plain.  In one place, a chunk of rock had fallen from the cliff side and was wedged in a narrowing of the canyon, the water forcing its way through underneath.  Massive quantities of clear fresh and disease free water, such a luxury in this massive continent, were washing into the bushland below, most of which seemed to get evaporated before it reached the sea and got blown back over the Drakensburg where it fell once more.  As I returned to the entrance, I fought my way through the French tourists who had barely left the first set of rocks but were all busy taking pictures of each other, and once more, I nodded to the coach drive, leaning again on his coach smoking another cigarette.

A whole series of viewpoints scattered along the road were there for me to marvel once more at the edge of the Drakensburg, several around the highly incised Blyde River Canyon, but the light was poor and the clouds thick and I could not really get the sense of the scale.  And at each point, the coach of French tourists would arrive just as I was ready to go, so each time, I got an undisturbed visit.

The mist started to clear as I reached the far end of the Escarpment, but the rain replaced it and the driving wind made coming out of the car a battle, and staying out stupidity.  I did look at the Rondavels, which even in the gloom were impressive.  Rondavels are one of the names given to African bush huts  – specifically the round style which is prevalent in much of Sub Saharan Africa.  Although the traditional style there are hundreds of designs of huts, based upon the available materials, their utilitarian use, their culture and the need for heat, light and shade depending on where you were on the continent.  I went to a fascinating museum in Dar es Salaam once, which had a series of huts laid around a parkland, one from each tribe of Tanzania.  Even in this one country there must have been thirty distinctive styles.  The flat low roofed huts of the Masai, almost completely enclosed with a corridor with a turn in it to keep out the worst of the heat, dust and wind.  Where the climate is wetter, the rooves are sloping, the materials used reflect the vegetation and geologies of each style’s local region.  Square huts, round huts, elongated huts, ornate huts, simple huts, huts for living in, huts for storing stuff in, huts for keeping your cattle, or goats, or sheep, or women.  The Rondavels of the eastern Drakensburg are three massive rounded rocks that rise sheer about two or three hundred feet and then taper in a grassy conical hill atop them.  They look just like the huts out in the bush, even the grass roofs are replicated.

The rain was getting on top of me and it was only just after lunch, so I headed for an underground refuge.  The Echo Caves are in amongst the limestone hills.  It was pouring with rain as I drew up, a family of pigs and piglets were scuttling for cover along the road side as I drew up.  Apart form an old worn sign above a corrugated roof, there was little to tell that this was a tourist attraction.  I wandered in and a half bored woman looked at me and took my money, and pointed me to a young girl, probably no more than 16.  This girl , dressed simply in a one piece short sleeved dress and flat shoes, no protection against what I thought was dreadful weather, took me quietly into the caves.  It was eerie that although the caves we walked through were dry, I could hear the tinkle of water all around me.  I was shown the different structures formed by the stalactites and stalagmites (tights come down, I had to remember), and , as people do unnecessarily all over the world, she told me all sorts of names of the different structures and got me into contorted positions to try and see the Elephant Rock from just the right perspective.  I tried my best to look interested, since there was no-one else in the caves (I wondered where all my French tourists had disappeared to in the rain), I found myself more than at the centre of attention, and dragged around from position to position faster than I wanted to, and not with enough chance to see the physical beauty before being told another tedious story of what the owner decided to call this rock in 1956.  At the end of the tour, in a small cave near the exit, the girl presented a book and a pen and said it was customary to give a tip.  I hadn’t been that impressed either by the cave or the girl’s spiel.  She was unable to answer most of the questions I had posed just to keep the conversation going, and I felt awkward having this book where people had not only signed their names and put their comments but had written in the amount they had tipped the girl!  Some of the tips looked like they had been changed or added with different hand writing, and some were as large as forty US dollars.  American tipping has a lot to answer for.  I gave her a token donation, I think she would have preferred not to be there too, and left through the mangled up car park and speeded up the road.  It caused me to think again about South Africa’s new openness to the world.  In many places they were unused to tourism and were not providing the things that tourists were pandering for.  While I hate these sanitised tourist destinations, there needs to be a certain standard within the local character.  Unfortunate, as up till that point, this eastern Drakensberg region had stolen my heart.  Vying strongly were the Natal Midlands, Pietermaritzburg and the Royal Natal Park, but this place had such space and fresh air that I felt free.  I wondered if the whole population of South Africa saw this in the same way.  I drove for miles on the back side of the hills, back in the long boring Veldt of Transvaal, and came into Lydenburg, neat Germanic houses with picket fences and a gleaming white Lutheran church, its spire brightly visible throughout the surrounding farm land.  A dirty pickup truck pulled out in front of me and sped off along the road.  I glimpsed the dappled sunburnt thick hairy arms of a Boer out of the driver’s window, and two black workers in blue overalls standing in the back in the drizzle and gripping the sides as it lurched along.  How much was really changing out here in the rural areas?