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Before we left Dundee we checked with the people at the Royal Hotel which would be the best route to take to get us round and down to Hluhluwe, our next planned stop. They were really helpful and not only told us the best way to go in KwaZulu Natal but also told us lots of places to look out for all the way across to Cape Town. They were really enthusiastic about their country and have given us lots of food for thought.

At their recommendation, we took the road from Dundee to Vryheid and on to Louwsburg. Here we turned off to make our way up to the Itala Nature Reserve which they had said was very beautiful and well worth a visit. It was a small and twisty road that led to the park, passing through Louwsburg along the way. It was a very small town and as usual had lots of people hanging about seemingly not doing an awful lot. The road wound down through the village and then down some pretty steep hills into the valley below.

Local boys dancing at Hluhluwe

Giraffe, kudu and nyala greeted us as we approached the park gate. There we were met by a chap with one eye who checked that accommodation was available before letting us go through. We asked him whether we could drive ourselves around the park or if we needed to go on an organised drive but he didn’t understand what we were asking so we gave up and headed up to reception. At reception they again confirmed they had accommodation available, seemingly unaware of the conversation with the chap at the gate. The only drawback was that we couldn’t check in for another hour and a half.

We decided to stop at the café for a drink and a bite of lunch while we waited. A large family was at a table next to us with kids ranging from a few months to about ten years old. One woman finally stopped breast feeding her baby in full sight of everyone around. She and her husband then picked up one of the toddlers, took it to a different table and proceeded to change its nappy, which they put in the bin near our table. Why they couldn’t go to the changing rooms is beyond me.

After about half and hour Stef went in search of the food he had ordered. He was told that they were very busy but from what he could see they weren’t doing anything at all. When he persisted they finally made moves to start to cook his food by which stage he’d lost the will to eat and gave up. We finished our drinks and went to the shop to get some food for dinner, only to find that they didn’t have any meat left apart from a couple of very dodgy looking bits of chicken. I think for both of us that was the final straw and we decided that Itala was not really the place for us.

We hopped back in the car and made our way back through Louwsburg to the main road. This time round we had more chance to look at the town as we passed through it. Most of the houses were what Pat had yesterday referred to as Mandela Microwaves. Traditional building supplies have pretty much all been used up now so new houses are built out of concrete breeze blocks. They are small, little more than huts, with two rooms and a corrugated iron roof. They must get uncomfortably hot in the summer, hence the nickname, but must also be pretty cold in the winter months.

Surprisingly the town had a couple of almost colonial style buildings, an old church and a low slung building that is now the magistrate’s court. You can’t imagine enough happening around here for them to warrant their own court. The locals seemed to shun the Spar supermarket opting instead for the Khulanathi across the road. Probably the Spar is more geared to the white visitors who go to the nature reserve.

Back on the main road we headed up to Pongola and from there started to make our way south to Hluhluwe. Generally the roads here were pretty good with only a few stretches with pot holes. We made it to the Hluhluwe park gate before 5:00pm only to find that they were fully booked for tonight. It is a long holiday weekend but we had bargained on most people heading for the coast rather than the inland parks and had hoped accommodation wouldn’t be a problem.

A group of enterprising young boys were at the gate to the park performing traditional Zulu dances. A man, no doubt one of their dad’s, was beating out the rhythm on a drum. They put on a pretty good show and were happy to pose for photos. They put loads of energy into it and quite a few people dropped some coins into their hat in the short time we watched them. The dances were very similar to those we had seen at the Swazi cultural village a few days ago.

At the park they had recommended we tried the backpacker’s hostel a few kilometres further back down the road. We were given a very friendly welcome both from the owners and from their dogs. They had a large and very affectionate Alsatian and a very cute little puppy that took quite a shine to Stef’s shoe laces. Coming from a cat family rather than a dog family Stef looked a bit bemused about it all. The people here kindly called around for us to check if other places in the area had availability but both the local hotel and the next backpackers place were full. So we headed out with night drawing close to try and find a bed for the night.

Further up the road we passed the gates for the Tree Lodge. We turned around, their gate man checked they had space and we went up to reception to check in. Time had really run out to try and find somewhere else but I think we were both expecting an expensive stay, similar to the Protea Hotel we had had to stay in before we could get into Kruger. Surprisingly the rate was reasonable, not cheap but on a par for what we’ve seen of South African prices so far, for bed and breakfast and I think we were both pleased we could finally relax knowing we had a bed for the night.

Even better we had got there about ten minutes before a night drive was setting off so we were able to join the drive. With us on the drive was a family from Durban who had two small boys, probably about five and six. They had just arrived today and it was the first time that the boys had been to a wildlife park so they were eager to see the animals and very excited at the prospect. They were at that stage where they mimic other people and every so often one or the other would mutter a phrase that they had heard one of us say a few minutes earlier. They were pretty entertaining.

The drive was pretty good and we saw quite a wide variety of different animals – giraffe, warthog, impala, zebra, nyala (male and female), wildebeest as well as lot of different birds. There were lots of warthogs all over the place. They are funny animals that shuffle along on their knees while they are eating. You can tell the males from the females by the number of warts they have on their cheek. The females have one while the males have two. Our guide told us that wildebeest and zebra are often seen together because they have complementary senses. The wildebeest have a good sense of smell while the zebra have better eyesight. Combined they are a good lookout against predatory lions. He also confirmed that male nyala start off the brown colour of the females and only change to grey once they are about six months old.

Along the trail we passed through a clump of fever trees with thin pale white branches. The name was given to them by the early European settlers who thought that the trees were responsible for the fevers (malaria) that they succumbed to. Further on we came across sausage trees. These have long sponge like pods hanging from them that make good food for elephants.

Back at the hotel we headed for the Safari Lodge reception where we were met by a very flustered looking girl. She seemed to be tazzing about all over the place but didn’t endear herself to us when she said “ah, so you’re the walk ins”. We know that we hadn’t pre-booked but that instantly gave us the feeling we were second class citizens. We got our keys and finally made it into our rondavel. It was pretty similar to the ones we had stayed in at the national parks. All seemed OK until Stef sat on one of the beds. They were incredibly soft and saggy and had obviously seen better days. It was really a foretaste of what was to come. The in room information booklet confirmed that it was a self catering rondavel but all we had was a kettle and a couple of mugs and much as we are both adaptable there’s not much you can cook with a kettle. There was a frog in the kitchen sink, ants in the shower and the toilet leaked.

When we checked in we asked at the main reception about dinner and they had told us that chicken and lamb were on the menu tonight and that dinner was from 7:30pm to 9:00pm. At 7:45pm we headed down to the restaurant. It was very small with only about ten tables most inside but a few outside. It was a buffet dinner and we were both looking forward to the lamb (Stef) and chicken (me). When we got there all that was left were the carcass of the chicken and the bone from a joint of lamb with a few scraggy bits of meat on it.

We asked if more meat was on its way and were reassured that it was so we had a bowl of soup while we waited. The minutes clicked by and no more meat arrived. It was one of those situations where the story kept changing. One minute there was no more lamb, then lamb chops were on the way with more chicken but still nothing arrived. I chased again this time asking a different lady who seemed unaware that there had been a problem. A few minutes later a chef appeared, slapped some food on the grill and then disappeared. This turned out to be fish. Stef queried again about the lamb and was reassured it was on its way.

One of the chaps from the restaurant finally came to say that the fish was drying out and needed to be eaten so I went to get some while Stef still waited for his lamb. They had to go and get plates for us to eat off and while that was happening the chef appeared again with t-bone steak rather than lamb. By this stage Stef was totally exasperated and not a happy chap. He couldn’t be bothered to wait for the steak to cook so he joined me in the fish. All in all it had taken an hour from us arriving at the restaurant to getting a meal. Thankfully they said before we asked that they wouldn’t charge us for the dinner as I think Stef would have gone bonkers if they’d tried to make us pay. It seems that the hotel is fully booked and someone along the line somewhere has obviously cocked up on the ordering.

Ah well. Despite it all we ended the day with both a bed and a meal inside us, something that a few hours earlier looked like a bit of a shaky prospect.