South Africa Trip Report

Amcan Travel staffers visit South Africa, December 2003.

The journey from Seattle to Johannesburg via Europe took two full days, including three flights and a six-hour layover. We were able to sleep during some of the long hours on the airplane and we felt fairly energetic during the last few hours of flight. We were so excited watching the vast African continent rushing toward us under the rising sun. It is a thrilling feeling.

On our first visit to Africa, we were keen to get out into nature to see some big game right away. So rather than spend even a day or two in Johannesburg, we collected a rental car at the airport and fled immediately, without even going into the city. We drove eastward past the nation's capital, again without a stop.

On the way out of Belfast toward Long Tom Pass, we passed through dense clouds of butterflies flitting westward. Millions of pairs of delicate white wings surrounded us like a snowstorm, and indeed it turned out they were just prelude to a real hailstorm of pellets the size of marbles. We stopped the car and waited under a tree for a half hour, until the worst of the storm seemed to have passed. Then, on the way over Long Tom Pass we drove through fog so dense we couldn't see even a car length in front of us.

We had booked lodging for the night at the Kranz House B&B, just outside the pretty little town of Sabie. The inn owners, May and Peter, are a charming pair of transplanted Scots. They graciously installed us in their nicest guest cottage, built right up on the edge of a picturesque cliff (photo, Sabie cottage). Sitting on our deck above the Sabie valley, we listened to a raucus chorus of birds singing late into the evening. They were at it again before dawn. Early Tuesday morning, May served us a typical South African farmerís breakfast of bacon, saugage, eggs, vegies and fruits.

Our itinerary for Tuesday was a leisurely drive up the Blyde River canyon. Many viewpoints and short trails are marked on our maps, the roads are well-maintained and adequately marked, and specific scenic spots are easy to find. Much of the scenery is quite dramatic, because the Blyde River flows down across the escarpment where the South African highlands drop rapidly to lowveld country. We took several short hikes to take in views of Horseshoe Falls, Lone Creek Falls, MacMac Falls, Lisbon Falls, and Berlin Falls (photos of waterfalls). We also checked out the views from Godís Window (photo, God's Window) and across the canyon from the Three Rondavels above the Blyde River dam. We stopped for a couple of hours at Bourkeís Luck Potholes, where the Blyde ("joy") and Treur ("sorrow") rivers flow together. Whirlpools developed by the confluence carve weird cylindrical holes in the rocks (photo, Bourke's Luck Potholes).

We stopped for the night at The Blue Cottages, a wonderful bed and breakfast place in beautiful surroundings on a citrus plantation near the Monsoon Galleries. We arrived late, but were nevertheless treated to warm hostipitality by the inn keeper, Angela. The cottages are comfortable mud-walled, thatch-roofed Rondavels (photo, coffee at Blue Cottages) and the interior of ours was very blue. Wednesday morning's breakfast was a superior farmer-style morning feast.

We consulted with Angela about our plan to spend Wednesday driving far to the north to enter Kruger Park at Punda Maria. She advised against the long drive, suggesting that we instead enter the park at nearby Orpen Gate, and enjoy the afternoon driving through the park. On the way to Orpen Gate, we stopped in Klaserie for gasoline and some food to keep us going for a few days. South African produce is fantastic: fresh, tasty and very inexpensive. We especially enjoyed the 100% Lichee Juice and cheap local fresh Lichee fruit, which is generally quite expensive everywhere else, including China.

Kruger National Park is the largest park in South Africa, covering an area about the size of Wales (or, the US state of Massachusets) along the border with Mozambique. The park charges a daily conservation fee of $20 USD per person (daily admission fee regardless if you are in and out of the park the whole time). We felt the fees are reasonable and well-utilised in view of the park facilities, the conservation programs, etc. We had arranged advance bookings at three of the parkís rest camps, where lodgings consist of double room cabins with ensuite facilities, sharing a central shared kitchen.

Almost immediately upon passing through Orpen Gate, we saw a crowd of impalas feeding on the grass (photo, grazing impalas). We stopped our car to take pictures and noticed other drivers just zipping past. At the gate checkpoint we purchased a large detailed map of the road system in the park. Driving slowly over unpaved minor roads to Letaba rest camp, we stopped often to watch and photograph animals (lots of animal photos in the gallery, including baboons, zebras, giraffes, and wildebeestes).

We checked in at Letaba and booked ourselves on a sunset game drive, without even dropping our gear at our cabin. Riding along with a dozen other tourists (including three others from Seattle), we saw lots more wildlife, (photos of warthog and kudu). After a lovely Christmas Eve sunset (photo, Xmas sunset), we spotted an African wild cat and other nocturnal beasts.

Back from the evening drive around 8pm, we went straight to bed, to catch a few hour sleep before getting up at 3:30am for a Bush Walk. Park rules don't allow people to wander freely outside the fenced camp areas, nor to get out of vehicles except at a few designated stops. The guided bush walks involve two rangers, a guide and a tracker, each with loaded rifles. Apparently, we were the only tourists interested in taking the early morning walk on Christmas morning. Our guide was a sweet caucasian girl in her early twenties, from Johannesburg, and the tracker an experienced native bushman in his sixties. We were told he had hunted his first elephant when he was 16 years old. He led the way through woods, following the track of some rhinos. We learned that animals have their own pathways to and from watering spots, somewhat like our own human freeways. We never did catch up with the rhinos we were tracking, though we saw plenty of their fresh droppings. We saw some Cape buffalo (photo, Cape Buffalo), and two hippos taking sanctuary in a small pond. When we got close to the hippos, one of them suddenly started wiggling her tail at us. The rangers signaled us to retreat right away and prepared to shoot if necessary. The guide told us that hippos do not like anybody standing on their pathway in and out of water. They are very territorial and can easily charge and bite us in half to defend their access to water, though they are herbivores and do not eat flesh.

After returning to the Letaba camp, we planned a course south to Satara, our rest camp for the second night in Kruger. We picked a route over mostly unpaved roads instead of the major ones, hoping to spot more animals on our own. Our strategy paid off handsomely. we saw ostriches, elephants, reeboks, and vervet monkeys (photos of elephants). We drove at a very relaxed pace, covering barely 100 kilometers in seven hours. After settling in at Satara Camp, we signed up for another evening drive. This time we were booked on a smaller ten-passenger open-top van with a very knowledgable and entertaining guide. He pointed out leopard tortoises crawling along the road, a bushbaby hiding and crying in the woods with its enormous roundeyes, a black-backed jackal, and some spotted hyenas running in the bush.

The wildlife experience in the park was so fascinating that we devoted almost all our waking hours to viewing animals. On our last full day in the park, we started out early, driving slowly on the dirt roads generally southward. We saw many more impalas, zebras, and buffalo. As experienced viewers, we didn't stop so often to observe the herds of impala. Barbara was not able to get over the beauty of the giraffes. To her, they are the epitome of elegance and grace, all long necks and legs moving in a slow and deliberate manner. She believed all the top models must have had giraffe training. For Richard, every time we saw wildbeeste (also known as gnu, apparently after a sound they make), he would belt out a silly song, changing Billy Holidayís "Whatís New" to "Whatís Gnu?" The highlight of the day was spotting a lion couple relaxing after enjoying a meal of fresh gnu meat (photo, lion). We drove very slowly past them, lying in the shade less than 10 feet from us.

When we arrived at our third night's restcamp in Lower Sabie, we found it to be the most beautiful of the camps we had seen. The camp sits right on the Sabie River, a row of cabins behind a fence 10 or 15 meters from the bank. We decided to take a break from game driving and enjoy watching some animals from our porch. Across the river, the crocodiles sat motionless for hours, mouths open waiting for birds to land between their jaws. An elephant came to feed on the grass. We kept watching til darkness fell, and then enjoyed a spectacular lightning show (photo, thunder storm). Saturday morning we got up leisurely, our first time sleeping in since being in the park, and drove south and out the Crocodile Bridge gate. We wished good luck to all the animals we encountered during the last four days.

We entered the Swaziland, a landlocked independent countries wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. The Swazi border was easy to negotiate and the people friendly. Ten minutes down the highway from border control, we were stopped at a roadblock manned by police, and a well-dressed lady. She gave us a Swaziland Tourist Bureau brochure promoting their country. The handsome king has his portrait on the cover. We continued southwest through Piggs Peak and exited the the country less than two hours later at the Ngwenya/Oshoek border post. It's the shortest time we've ever spent in a country and still had our passports stamped.

The reason we did not try to spend a little more time in Swaziland was that we had a very long drive to Injisuti in Drakensberg Park, famous for its natural beauty and prehistoric San rock paintings. On the way to the camp, a dirt road zigzags past Zulu villages of mud rondavels with cornfields and herds of cows and sheep. The road seemed to be the meeting place for teenagers on an early Saturday night. Girls and boys in their nice outfits flirted with one another at almost every telephone pole. We arrived at Injisuti camp just after sunset, ate and rested well in our cabin (photo, Injisuti lodgings).

On Sunday morning, we decided to forego a visit to the San rock paintings, because the required hike would take up a whole day. Instead, we hiked to Van Heyningen's Pass (photo, Drakensbergs), up and back in less than four hours, then headed out for the drive to the canyon below Sani Pass by the late afternoon.

Sani Lodge is a backpacker hostel operated by a delightful Irish couple. The place has a big kitchen and spacious common room, plus a big fire pit set amidst the dorms and smaller double rooms. Behind the dorms are three or four quaint rondavels that serve as the ensuite deluxe accommodations (photo, Sani rondavel interior). Tuesday morning we climbed aboard a Land Rover for a tour up to Sani Pass and into Lesotho. The tour was thrilling. The truck (photo, Land Rover) climbed 1500 meters on the switchbacked dirt road in less than 10 miles, an average 20-degree ascent through the Lower Drakensberg (photo, Sani Pass).

Lesotho is a remote, mountainess country. In the eastern highlands, the people are nomadic shepherds. The men wear colorful blankets while riding horses up and down the steep grazing lands. We visited a local Basotho family in their rondavel. The woman in the house cares for her husband and 19 children. She talked with us while holding her youngest on her lap (photo, Basotho mother and child). The villagers live a simple subsistence agricultral lifestyle, cash poor, but with sufficient food, and wool for clothing. The children can go to school for almost free. We were advised not to give sweets or money to the kids because their teeth will rot without modern dental hygiene. We drank some corn beer brewed by our hostess, sampled her home-made bread, and heard a demonstration of a Basotho musical instrument called Letsiba.

The trip back down Sani Pass was bumpy and harrowing, we had to hurry a little to be in time to cross the border by 4pm, when the crossing closes for the night. We spent the late afternoon driving from Sani Pass all the way to Durban, a truly diverse urban center. Indians and Malays together make up the majority of Durban's population, unique in any city in Africa. We spent an uncomfortable night in a seedy hostel on the edge of a questionable part of town. We spent all day Tuesday touring the city on foot. We visited the Victoria markets, where the air is heavy with the scents of every kind of spice and pepper imaginable. We visited the Juma Grand Mosque, largest Mosque in the southern hemisphere (photo, Durban Mosque). Stepping out of the Mosque, a local radio station announcer invited us to wish Happy New Year to the listeners of his "Morning Splash" radio show. We walked through the main shopping and financial centers downtown and visited the Arts Center at the waterfront where local artists have their studios there and make their arts in front of your eyes. At the end of the day, we headed out to Durban airport to catch our flight to Cape Town.

Nestled around the foot of Table Mountain, Cape Town is one of the world's most beautiful cities. We stayed in the Backpack lodge, near the end of happening Long Street in the City Bowl section of town. (photo, Long Street) in downtown. Waking up to a perfectly cloudless morning on Wednesday, New Year's eve, we scrambled for the mountain thinking we should be sure to take advantage of the good weather in case it might change to bad. The ride to the top of the mountain (photo, Cable Car) is phenomenal and the view from the top is spectacular (photo, Cape Town View). We spent most of the morning hiking around the top of the mesa.

We spent some of New Year's Day walking around the City Bowl, finding it mostly empty after a night of revelry. In the afternoon, we drove down towards the Cape of Good Hope. On the way south, we stopped at The Boulders near Simon's Town to have a look at the colony of African penguins there (photo, Penguins). They are also known as Jackass penguins, after a screechy honking noise they make. Apparently this colony arrived in this part of the world just 20 years ago. No one knows why they came or how long they will stay. But they are everywhere in the neighborhood, under peopleís parked cars, hiding in bushes along the road. Further south toward the Cape, we stopped at a local market of crafts where sculptures were laid on the beach along the road by hundreds, each unique and original.

Friday morning we went down visit the Victoria and Alfred waterfront. We hoped to take the ferry to visit Robben Island, site of the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years (photo, Robben Island). Alas, the Robben Island tours had been pre-booked through the first week of the New Year. We could not get a reservation on the boat during the four days we were in Cape Town. Instead, we lingered on the waterfront, enjoying some great Cape-Malay food and watching the local street performers doing traditional drumming, dance, and township vocal music.

Saturday, our last day in South Africa, we went to the Green Market square and also to the Pan-African Market in search of a native African drum to bring home. We paid a visit to the District Six Museum, where some of the worst abuses of the former apartheid regime are documented. Outside, just two blocks away, a big parade was in progress. The New Year celebration goes on for about a week in this part of the world. It was a little incongruous to be learning about the sad effects of the crimes of apartheid while hearing the sounds of a mass street party. Before heading out to the airport, we spent our last few rands on a picnic lunch and some bottles of Cape wine, drove up into the hilly neighborhood in the shadow of Table Mountain and enjoyed the view of the city for little while before heading back to the airport for another 30-hour flight home.

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Postscript to South Africa Trip Report, 18 June 2005

Amcan customers who visited South Africa recently stayed at the new Butjani Lodge, near Pretoria. They reported that the lodge it is "an absolutely amazing place." For details, check out the lodge web site.

And of course you can feel free to send us email if you would like to contact customers who recommend the place.