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Checking in at Windhoek

Today we were up and about early although we had loads of time to spare in the morning before our transfer to the airport. We were down at breakfast just after seven, so early that the fresh rolls hadn’t yet arrived, a major crisis that early in the day. We spent the morning packing up our stuff and just killing time until it was time to go. Marita was at reception when we checked out and we chatted about what we had seen and done during our stay. She seemed genuinely interested and when we said we were heading to South Africa she also told us they have a place in Cape Town that we could stay at if we want to. It has been a lovely hotel to stay at, making us both feel very much at home. It is certainly somewhere we would recommend and for Namibia it is good value for money.

Our car from Camping Car Hire turned up on time and a very chatty chap took us to the airport. On the way he talked about how most of the visitors here were from Germany and from him and others I was left with a distinct impression that the German visitors weren’t necessarily liked too much. More British and French people are coming now and even though we have seen few tourists based on the volumes we’ve seen elsewhere he said that there are now too many people coming to Namibia.

At the airport we checked in at the British Airways desk encountering yet another rude person behind the counter. Stef was doing his usual and taking snaps of us checking in which was met with a “why is he taking pictures of the screen?” snarled question from the check in woman. She was really off hand and rude, although not as bad as the one we had come across in town yesterday. She started to query our tickets seeing that they were originally from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg but I cut her off before she could create a problem.

We got our VAT receipt stamped so we could claim back the tax and headed through immigration and customs. The process of getting your VAT back is a bit of a joke. One person on the landside of the airport stamps your receipts. Once through immigration you then go to another office who double check the VAT calculation made by the shop you bought goods from. Not surprisingly they managed to find a way to reduce the VAT we were entitled to. They then deduct N$15 for their admin fee and then issue you with a check in South African Rand. Next door is a branch of Thomas Cook who for a healthy fee of N$28 convert your cheque into cash. The various different charges and commissions gobbled up almost 30% of our VAT refund, a staggering amount of charges.

With just N$6 left in our pockets (about 60p) we soon gave up trying to find something cheap enough in the shop to buy to use up our last coins. The staff joined in looking to see if we had enough for the cheapest bar of chocolate. As I write it has only just sunk in that a KitKat costs about 70p here, a bit pricey. The call soon came through to board the plane and again we were back in familiar BA territory.

Lots of buildings, and roads, *with* cars - quite a change after Namibia!

A short two hours later and we were collecting our bags at Johannesburg airport. With our flight landing in the late afternoon we had decided we would stay somewhere close to the airport tonight as by the time we had sorted a rental car it would be dark and neither of us fancied driving in a new place at night not knowing where we were going. Tourist Information were sort of helpful in giving us a couple of guide books for different parts of South Africa but on the local hotel front they weren’t quite so helpful.

As you approach the Tourist Information desk people come up to you holding leaflets for their hotels trying to entice you to go with them. With our past experience behind us we politely said “no” and headed for the desk. There they can supply you with leaflets but they then just point around telling you which of the guys who had already approached you come from which hotel. They all seem to provide an airport pick up service and have someone on hand to book you in and get you to the hotel.

We really wanted somewhere with internet access in the room so that we could finish off uploading all our photos. Here though we drew a blank. Most places do have internet access but not in the room. The Intercontinental was the only option and although it was ridiculously priced we opted to go there anyway. We had a friendly welcome and were soon ensconced in a very smart, comfortable if small for the price room. We logged on to the internet service, paid for a few hours and then the problems began.

Stef accidentally erased the list of photos we needed to upload so we had to go back through the collection and redo the list, which took quite a while. When we did then log on the internet connection, which was meant to be a fast broadband service, was painfully slow. Stef checked the speed and it was a third of the speed of a normal dial up line. I phoned the help desk and got the expected “it’s the volume of users” story but when I said it was taking 5 minutes for a page to load he went off to reboot “a few things”. This didn’t help so I phoned down to talk to the hotel manager.

The following twenty minutes or so was a lengthy discussion about how we had only chosen their expensive hotel because of the internet service and the internet service was no good. We asked for a substantial discount on the room rate, which was not forthcoming, so we checked out. As we came back down to reception the manager was with another customer and his laptop so no doubt we weren’t the only ones having problems. If you stay at this hotel and want to use the internet make sure you also do so by buying vouchers from reception. We had charged the cost to our credit card and now have to chase down the ISP for a refund.

It was late, dark and we were both getting tired by this stage but we headed back again to the airport Tourist Information desk to have another look for a hotel. The first chap I talked to said they had internet but not in the rooms. The second one, a French guy from The Dove’s Nest, said they had internet in the rooms and a restaurant so we went with them. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t trust what a Frenchie says. Their restaurant was shut so we ended up with take out and there is no internet connection in the room. Not that we have a room. We really have a self catering flat for four people and for a sixth of the cost of the Intercontinental.

We had our take out dinner in the little restaurant area and then succumbed to the cold and headed back to our room. It also has the added benefit of a washing machine and tumble dryer so at least tomorrow we’ll move on with a full set of clean clothes, the first time in a while. It’s one of those little traveller’s luxuries!

Streets of Jo'burg

We both slept well and were awake really early. Our clothes were not yet dry as the tumble dryer had absolutely no heat whatsoever so we left them draped over chairs and headed off for breakfast. For the price of the room I’d expected to get a cup of tea and a piece of toast but it was a full cooked breakfast and very tasty too. Today is Gabriel, one of the owners, birthday. As we were eating we got snatches of the ladies in the kitchen singing. Soon Gabriel appeared and all the staff together with his wife and daughter gathered round to sing him a birthday song. The standard Happy Birthday was preceded by the Lord’s Prayer. The singing was superb seeming to rumble up from the stomach and it was a really melodic harmony led by one voice that was stronger than the rest. There seemed to be genuine affection between the white owners and the black staff, something we have not really seen in Namibia.

With internet access available at the hotel we camped out to start the mammoth upload that we had wanted to do last night. Unlike last night’s connection this one was very fast and stable and we were soon making a dent in our list of stuff to do. Gabriel, the owner, was talking to an elderly British couple about a gold mine nearby that you can visit and it sounded quite interesting. About half an hour later he asked us if we wanted to go to it too. We had planned to spend the day at the hotel but decided to go. We had a quick rush around to get ready and were soon off and out.

Our driver, Alfred, was a really entertaining guy who pointed out the local sights as we drove along. We had to go into the centre of Johannesburg to drop off an Algerian guy at the bus station for his 19 hour bus journey down to Cape Town. The hotel seems to give people free transfers to and from the hotel which is a really great service. The centre of Johannesburg is not one of the nicest places I have been to. In some ways it looks just like any other city with a few high rise office blocks and lots of shops. Some of the buildings are very old and wouldn’t be out of place in a large British city but many are new. The whole place though has a seedy feel and it doesn’t really make you want to wander around it.

After dropping off the Algerian guy we headed to the Carlton Centre where they have a viewing platform on the 50th floor. On the way we came across some sort of a protest with lots of people marching along the road chanting and banging long sticks on the floor. It reminded me of the Zulu war dances you see in films and but for the modern clothes and police escort it could have been. We have no idea what they were protesting about but I sensed from Alfred that protests like this happen on a fairly regular basis.

We drove around for a few minutes looking for a parking space and were then ushered across the road and into the centre. The entrance to the tower is tucked away down a level from the street and you have to pay R7.50 (about 75p) to get in. It is well worth it though because you get great views out over the city. Alfred showed us the various local landmarks and while he was proud of his city on the one hand he also told us that it had changed a lot in recent years and is no longer the clean and safe place it used to be.

From here we carried on to the gold mine. This is just on the outskirts of town and is key to the city’s history - Johannesburg was founded as a gold rush city as it is home to the world’s largest gold reef. What we hadn’t realised that the mine was closed in 1977 so rather than visiting a working mine we were visiting a theme park that has been built on the former mining sites. It comes complete with casino, roller coaster rides, souvenir and curio shops as well as pretty gardens but you can also go down into the mine and see a gold pouring demonstration.

Zulu warrior at Gold Reef City

Having made a detour in town we only had a couple of hours in the park, which wasn’t really long enough to walk around and see all the old mining related buildings and bit and pieces that are still housed there. We went to see the gold pouring demonstration which was really interesting. You have your bag searched on the way in and then sit in a small auditorium. In front of you at ground level is the demonstration area. Behind it to the left is a hug walk in safe and in the centre is a small electric furnace.

We were sat in the third row, probably about ten metres away from the furnace. When the doors to the furnace were opened the blast of heat coming out of them made me catch my breath. The inside glowed a bright orange and you could see two crucibles that were full of molten gold. It took two men to bring the crucible out and to pour the contents into a mould. Gold is a cold metal and molten gold cools very quickly. A couple of minutes after pouring the gold into the mould they tipped the mould out and there was an unpolished gold bar weighing 12kilos.

That one was put back into the crucible and back into the furnace in preparation for the next demonstration but out of the safe was wheeled another gold bar, this time a polished and shiny one. As we all filed out we were allowed to pick up the bar and test its weight. The other couple from our hotel were also there and like me they tried to persuade the chap to let us take it with us but we failed. It was a strange sensation to be holding over £100,000 of gold in my hands.

From the gold pour we went for the underground mine tour. It’s a short tour lasting just over half an hour but worth it to see the conditions the miners used to work in. We went down shaft number 14 in the original miners lift with hard hats and battery lamps so that we could see where we were going. In all the mine has 57 different levels to it, the deepest taking two hours to reach from the surface, time the miners who worked there were not paid for. We only went down to level 5, a short hop in the overall scale of things.

Most of the mine is now flooded as water has not been pumped out since it closed in 1977. However they are still pumping water out from level 19 (why was not made clear and I forgot to ask). The water is then recycled and used to keep the mining equipment cool so in time it ends up back at level 19 ready to be pumped out again. I had expected the mine tunnels to be very small and cramped but for the most part we could easily walk standing up. The mine was electrified in and the 1920’s vastly improving conditions for those working there. Prior to that each miner was issued with 4 candles a day to light their way and enable them to see what they were doing.

The miners drilled holes into the rock, at the rate of 1 per day, which would then enable the rock to be cut away. Dynamite used to be used in the mine although they could only store it below ground for up to 48 hours, after which it would become so moist that it was not useable. Modern mines now use plastic explosives. As conditions improved in the mines men hacking away with a chisel and hammer were replaced by power drills with five or six drills operating in the same area at any one time. The noise must have been incredible.

Our guide showed us where the gold seam was and how the tunnels themselves were shaped to follow the seam. On level 5 the tunnels are wide enough for a small “train” to run carrying the excavate ore up to the surface. Shoots lead down from level 4 so that the ore excavated from there could be sent down to level 5 to then go up to the surface. It is all shored up with large wooden posts and long metal poles that are drilled and screwed into the rock bed to take the pressure and weight of the rocks above.

Our guide stated that this mine had not suffered from rock falls but the miners all knew the drill if one did happen. They would follow the draft of cold air which would lead them back to a lift shaft. It was likely that they would have to find their way in the dark and to ensure they didn’t get lost they would walk with their left foot against the rails of the train track. We had to turn off our lamps and give it a go and I can tell you it was hard work and difficult to do. It was pitch black ahead and very difficult to walk in an unfamiliar place without being able to see even your hand in front of your face.

Escape routes were also incorporated into the mine design in case the lifts were out of action. From level 5 it is a 1,000+ step climb up to the surface, a trip that takes about an hour to complete, if you’re fit! The mine is still an attraction though and as well as the people that visit during the day they have turned one of the “caves” of the mine into a private function room and bar so you can have a party down there if you want to. It’s quite an original setting. I wonder what the people who worked here, just under 7,000 per day, would think of that.

After the mine we had just enough time to sneak a quick look in the casino before Alfred came to pick us up. It was very reminiscent of the ones we went into in Canada with row upon row of slot machines. Here they all had a small number pad and if you pushed number 3 someone would come and take your drinks order, just one more way to keep the punters playing without interruption. The whole casino was decorated to look like an old gold rush mining town.

Outside we all sat and waited fro Alfred to arrive and he did just a few minutes after the time we had agreed. The poor chap had had a terrible time. For the few minutes before he dropped us off the minibus had started to make a rather strange sound and it seemed to be leaking water. About five minutes after he left us, as he was climbing uphill on the motorway the bus conked out and overheated. He had to call Gabriel from the hotel to come and help him out and was only just back on the road. I think he was starving hungry and very thirsty.

Back at the hotel we got back down to catching up with all our internet stuff. Wafts of gammon ham cooking kept coming through to us and tantalising our taste buds. We later ate at the hotel and the food was simple but mouth wateringly delicious. It was a really tasty home cooked meal of gammon, rice, spinach, coleslaw, and mashed pumpkin. They have a lot of cargo pilots staying at the hotel and the home cooked food seems to be part of the draw.

Craft vendors on the way to Kruger

We had another good nights sleep and feast of food for breakfast before Alfred dropped us back at the airport. We’d booked a hire car on line yesterday but when we got to the office it seems I’d booked it from Cape Town not Johannesburg (senior moment!). Nevertheless Europcar had loads to spare and it wasn’t a problem to get a car or to change our drop off date and destination. On line the website said we’d get a Renault Megane but we were taken out to a smallish Chevrolet car. As Stef watched me trying to squeeze our packs into the boot he rightly said the car was too small. Back at the office a different lady switched us to a larger car, a Kia something, amazed that we’d been given a small one in the first place. It’s costing us less than £30 a day to hire a car with unlimited mileage which we thought was not a bad deal.

Europcar throw in a comprehensive road map with lots of useful information and also told us how to easily get out of Johannesburg. Our plan for today is to get to Kruger National Park, a drive which is only about four hours if you stick to the main motorway, which of course we didn’t do. Despite there being lots of traffic around (we think we saw more cars yesterday than in the whole of the time we spent in Namibia) it was a relatively easy process to get out onto the motorway and to start our tour around South Africa.

We both thought that we could have been transported to Britain. Once out of the city the landscape is very green, much more so than Namibia, and there was a definite English countryside feel to it. We drove past ponds of water and lush green trees all framed in a hazy cloudy sky. The car is very comfortable and easy to drive and we were soon clocking away the kilometres.

Rather than staying on the anonymous motorway route we opted to turn off at Belfast and head through the more scenic countryside. At Belfast we were reminded that we were still in Africa as there were loads of people just milling around with nothing much to do. There were some pretty smart and swanky houses lining the road as well. We skirted around Lydenburg, taking the turn to Hazyview, and here there almost seemed to be a festival atmosphere in the air. It could just have been that our route took us past lots of different eateries so it looked like people were celebrating.

At some stage the road started to climb winding round and round the mountains with some pretty tight bends and we both mused about how much it would have been to have the opportunity to drive this section in our Porsche (which is no more). Or rather, Stef mused about the drive, I mused about how often he’d have to stop to let my senses rebalance or to be sick. We climbed and climbed until we were eventually driving through the clouds. One second we were in dense cloud but then suddenly we were in a lighter patch and the sun broke through again. Around us were green hills with what looked like crops all neatly lined in rows upon them.

Hazyview finally came into sight and we stopped here to pick up supplies. If we can we want to stay in self catering accommodation so we again needed to buy some basic food items. Stef has read somewhere that often the accommodation comes with no utensils so we also bought plates, cutlery, a cool box and a small braai grill. We won’t be able to make the fanciest meals ever with them but at least we’ll be able to eat. On the outskirts of Hazyview is a shopping mall that looks like it has just be extended. We made our way to the Superspar which had everything we needed. As ever it took much longer to shop with Stef than it would do if I were on my own as every decision had to be made by committee.

Back at the car we had just about an hour to make it through the park gate and on to Skukuza camp where we hoped to find accommodation for the night. Our map was a bit unclear about the distances involved but what we did know was that time was tight. Had we stayed on the motorway we would have had a couple of extra hours to spare but the scenic route had eaten away a fair chunk of time. The road from Hazyview to the park had a fair few turnings off it for various different lodges so we knew we would get a bed for the night somewhere even if it wasn’t in the park.

We finally made it to the Paul Kruger Gate with about 30 minutes to spare. AS Stef started to fill out the form needed for the car I went to check in at reception only to be told that there was no accommodation at Skukuza so they wouldn’t let us into the park. Even though it was the weekend we were really surprised, as were another British paid (father and son I think) who were also stuck with the same problem. I suspect there probably was accommodation but the reservations systems used at the park was down and they didn’t seem inclined to call the park and check. So we did an about turn and headed for the Protea Hotel just 100m away from the park gate rather than heading back to Hazyview.

This was a pretty price option, despite a massive discount, but at least they had availability. Considering it was a four star hotel, I didn’t think that £110 was bad for dinner, bed and breakfast but unusually for once it was Stef who was focussing on budget. There wasn’t really another option though so we checked in and had a very comfortable night. A buffet dinner was served in the Lapa, a round open air restaurant surrounded by a wooden fence which created the feeling that you were sitting in the middle of an African village. Dinner lived up to expectations and we ate much more than we should have done, both determined to make sure we got our money’s worth out of our stay here!

Chameleon, they have the strangest way of "walking", hovering back and forth at each step

We were up and about quite early and headed off to breakfast, this time going through the garden route rather than back round and through reception. The sprinklers were on so it was a matter of dashing through to try and not get wet. What I’d though was a sprinkler that went clockwise in a circle turned out to be one that waves through a 180 degree angle so I got my second shower of the day. Breakfast was as good as dinner last night and again we both ate far too much. We had a friendly welcome at reception as we checked out from the same lady who had checked us in yesterday and she confirmed they did have availability tonight if we needed it.

Within a few minutes we were back at the park gate again and this time managed to get through. We signed up for a Wild card, which costs us about four times as much as South African residents. It gives you unlimited access to all about twenty different national parks throughout the country and for a couple you only need to visit for about 6 days to get your money’s worth. We drove up to Skukuza camp to find that their systems were still not working today so they again could not confirm where there was accommodation available in the park. Stef was making very sarcastic comments under his breath about what a “Mickey mouse” outfit it was. I gave him my standard lecture about how hard it is for front line service staff when their computer systems let them down and they have to put up with rude and obnoxious customers. It soon shut him up.

We checked the sightings board to see what had been seen and where yesterday. There seemed to have been lots of activity on the main road so we decided to head that way. Before setting off though we went to the shop to see if they had vacuum flasks expecting a shop selling basic supplies as we had encountered in the National Parks in Namibia. Lonely Planet also says the shops only sell essentials and that if you are self catering it is better to stock up outside the park, hence our stop in Hazyview yesterday. Nothing could be further from the truth. The shop was like a mini supermarket selling a wide range of food (fresh and tinned), camping supplies, a full off licence and a large selection of souvenirs. We needn’t have stopped at Hazyview at all!

Finally we made it out onto the road. For about the first 15km the road followed the Sabie River and every now and again there were places where you could pull off to have a look at what was going on in the water. Here we saw our first hippos of the day, usually nothing more than the hump of their backs sticking out above the water but every now and again they came up for air as well. At one point on the far bank one was lying on the ground sunning itself, a hug black creature that was easily mistaken for a rock.

Further on we saw some people had pulled up to the side of the road and stopped on a nearby bridge over the river. Here we were treated to a fabulous display as a herd of elephants made its way along the riverbank. These are really graceful and majestic animals, slowly and gently making their way and stopping to munch at the same time. We were captivated for a while, as were many others. It was a fabulous sight to see but also showed what Kruger was going to be like. At Etosha in Namibia the roads through the park were all gravel and traffic was pretty thin on the ground. At Kruger, you don’t need to leave a tarmac road if you don’t want to but you do have to accept that there are lots of other people around. AT the hotel this morning they had told us that on the Easter weekend the Kruger Gate park gate closed at 10:00am as they had already let in their daily quote of 1,000 people.

As we watched the elephants a group of hippos emerged from the depths of the river. They seem to be able to stay underwater for an incredibly long period of time but frustratingly you don’t get to see much more of them than their snout and the hump of their back. Next up were giraffes and then a buffalo, our second Big Five animal (buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard). We saw quite a few different birds before a couple of warthogs put in an appearance, still glistening with wet mud from a recent trip to a watering hole. A bright green chameleon and more birds rounded off our morning’s viewing before we made it down to Lower Sabie.

A massive white rhino, and he's certainly seen us!

Rather than coming along the main tarmac road we had taken a slightly longer route on a gravel road. It was a very good road, better by far than most we had been on in Namibia, and it was also good for wildlife spotting as there was less traffic about. Impala were a steady companion throughout the morning with lots of young animals all starting to find their feet and create new herds.

At Lower Sabie we checked on the accommodation front only to find that as expected they were fully booked. It seems to be a very popular camp and the lady at reception said that some people book eleven months in advance to guarantee they have a space. Although we couldn’t stay here she was able to book us into Skukuza for tonight and Olifants for tomorrow. We stopped here for a break from driving and to have a drink although I abandoned my Sprite as it was attracting a healthy supply of wasps. In the river a couple of tortoises were perched on rocks watching the crocodiles further upstream. They in turn were simply lazing about enjoying the sun.

Stef had checked the sightings board here and saw that further south people had seen rhinos both yesterday and today. We saw none from the main road but turned off onto the Gomondwane Loop, a gravel road but unlike the nice smooth ones Stef drove along this morning this one, now that I was behind the wheel, was a pretty lumpy affair. After a few kilometres I saw what I though was a hippo but it turned out to be a white rhino with a baby rhino nearby. They are huge creatures and pretty scary with it. I was fine while it was busy munching away but after a while of us watching it is seemed to get a bit fed up and turned to face us straight on. When it started to come towards us I wanted to go but Stef, ever the budding nature photographer, wanted more shots. As it seemed to pick up speed I pulled rank as driver and headed off, not wanting an argument with a rhino.

A little further on we stopped to tell people coming the other way that there were rhino a little way ahead. They seemed a bit perplexed that we were telling them and we soon realised why as three rhino’s crossed the road behind us - we hadn’t even seen them! They are immense animals and certainly not something you want to mess with. Time was starting to run out on us and we had to start to make our way back to Skukuza. Although the distances are relatively short, speed limits in the park are low so it takes a while to get around, especially as you can’t help but stop to look at things as you pass them by.

Elephant, only a few short metres away from us

As we passed the Sunset Dam, a family of monkeys were out playing on the road with a couple fighting quite aggressively. Further on we saw baboons wandering along the road near one of the rest stops looking as if they were on the scavenge for food. For most of the rest of the journey back to camp I refused to stop so that I was sure we would make it back before the gates closed at sundown. As we got to only a few kilometres away though I suddenly stopped and reversed surprised that Stef asked me why. Just off the side of the road, no more than a few metres away, a huge elephant was munching away. We sat and watched it for quite a while before time forced us to move on again.

Back at Skukuza we checked in to our accommodation, a rondavel that could sleep three people. Outside is a small kitchen, with a braai down the steps in the garden. Inside it is pretty basic with beds, a bathroom and a cupboard but it was all very clean and the beds were incredibly comfortable. We sat outside having a belated sundowner and a G&T enjoying the night air. A couple walked past asking if we knew where the shop was so we pointed them in the right direction. It turned out they were Dutch and we chatted for a while.

With a bit of difficulty we got the braai going, for some reason the charcoal didn’t really want to catch, and had a very tasty dinner of sausage and smash. Even though the rondavel came fully equipped we opted to use our own newly bought camping gear, more than anything so that Stef could justify why we had had to buy them. Sleep soon caught up with us and by about 9:30 we were tucked up in bed at the end of what had been a good day’s wildlife viewing.

Tall giraffe in Kruger
"Baboon One calling Monkey Control"
Spotted hyena (massive animals, much bigger than we had thought)

Today marks the eleventh month anniversary of when we left the UK. It is really strange now to be at the one month left to go stage rather than the one month completed stage. That seems so long ago now that it feels like a lifetime ago.

We were awake early but still didn’t make it out and onto the road until about 9:00am, an hour later than I’d hoped. Someone (I leave you to guess who) was in total dither mode this morning and it’s incredibly hard to get sorted when you have a slow coach blocking your move at every turn. We left Skukuza and were soon at a concrete bridge crossing the river Sabie. The river was wide and water flowed pretty quickly beneath it. That has been another difference to Etosha. In Namibia there are big rivers but they had no water in them, here water seems to be in abundance throughout the park.

About half way across a small group of storks was watching the world go by. I had to chuckle because seeing that we’d stopped about three other cars stopped behind us. It’s part and parcel of the game resort “game” of “they’ve stopped I wonder what they’ve seen”. It happens all over the place and we play it as much as everyone else. As we carried on across the river a Waterbuck crossed the road in front of us, a large deer like animal with large spiral horns.

We pretty much stuck to the main roads for most of the day heading north to Tshokwane, then to Satara and finally ending up at Olifants where we spent the night. As with yesterday we had a pretty full day of spotting animals and have even added a few new ones to our running tally. Giraffes greeted us as we left the river and a little further on we ran into our first elephant of the day. They come so close to you it’s a pretty amazing sight to see. Generally peaceful they can turn nasty but fortunately all the ones we saw were quite happy to have us nearby watching them.

We pulled off at one of the watering holes and watched the hippos basking away. They stay under water for ages and when they do come up to have a yawn they’ve normally disappeared again before you can get your camera out. We perplexed a fair few people when we stopped to take photos of an unusual tree, with what looked like beans hanging from the branches, and some pretty flowers. You could sense them all wondering what we’d seen and getting frustrated that they couldn’t see it too. Little did they realise they were looking straight at what had caught our interest.

Mating season is just about starting and we came across a frisky waterbuck that was doing his best. The female he’d picked on wasn’t so sure though so she made him work hard. Between Tshokwane and Satara there is a short turn off to see the southern most Baobab tree in the park. Stef had read about them and knew that they were meant to be pretty impressive trees so off we turned. A sign warning that buses, trailers and caravans were not allowed was a little warning of what lay ahead as we had to forge a, thankfully dry, river. No attempt had been made to smooth out the rocks at all and I wished dearly that we still had our 4x4 truck rather than a very low slung Kia. The crossings either way were uneventful but the Baobab tree itself was not what Stef had expected. It was pretty large but he’d expected something quite a bit bigger.

Monkeys, baboons, zebra, lots of birds, dragonflies, very dark coloured giraffe (which we’ve since learned means it was male) all kept us company along our route until we had one of our best sightings. Ahead of us on the road we saw a female elephant with a little one trailing behind her. We sat and watched for a while and then realised that we were pretty much surrounded by elephants. It was quite a sizeable herd with lots of young elephants and we were so close to them. We both sat there musing about how lucky and privileged we were to be experiencing this.

We stopped at Satara and had a picnic lunch. From here we doubled back slightly and went along the N’wanetsi River Road as the sighting board showed that people had seen lion and leopard along here today. We had no such luck but we did see a large herd of buffalo, a huge tortoise on the side of the road and another rhino. A few of the river crossings along the way had water across the road and with a storm starting to rumble overhead I started to get wary about making it safely to Olifants. Stef on the other hand, in true sailor mode, looked out the window and said it was going the other way. We did have the odd shower but for the most part he was right.

Further on we came across a family of hyaena just off to the side of the road. There were cubs (I’m not sure if that is the right term for baby hyaena’s but it will do for now) as well as adults and the males as well as the cubs were after the mother’s milk. They are strange animals with blunt rounded noses and a sturdy thick body. They look like a hybrid between and dog and a cat but the noise they make is more like the mooing of a cow.

We finally made it to Olifants with darkness drawing around us. We checked in, did a quick stop for supplies and then headed for the viewing point to watch the sun set. Where there were breaks in the clouds you could see the golden light of the sun going down. This was overshadowed though by the sight of the storm. Huge flashed of lightning lit up the sky on the far horizon and I was glad that I was not one of the people still making their way along the gravel road in the dark.

Looking out over the Blyde River canyon, with the Three Rondavels in the background, breathtaking views.

We woke in time to see the sunrise and Stef rushed off to try and snap a few shots from the viewpoint but it had risen too far by the time he was ready with his camera. The sunrise though reflected off the water and where the water ran over the stones on the river bed it looked like quicksilver. Although we had planned to carry on further north in Kruger we both decided that we had reached saturation with animal spottings and instead we made our way out of the park, heading west to the Phalaborwa gate. Dense vegetation lines the road and we only saw a few hippos in a river and some birds in the trees.

Leaving Kruger behind us we turned south and headed on the R40 to Hoedspruit. Just outside the park our view was dominated by what, from a distance, looked like a large white salt pan. Closer inspection showed it to be a mine of some sort. As we drove Stef was reading up on where to head for next for the night and came across information about the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. We did a quick about turn and headed down the R527 towards the canyon. The further we went the more pleased we were that we had made the detour.

To our left, the Klein Drakensberg Mountains dominated our view. As we got closer we could see the different coloured rock strata that make up the mountains. Here too, as in Namibia, they are topped off with a plateau which stretched as far as you could see. The road around gradually started to climb and climb and climb taking us through the Strijdom tunnel and into the centre of the valley. Here we still climbed further, passing lots of small craft and fruit stalls that had been set up on the side of the road.

Once over the top the valley opened up below us with tall mountain ranges on either side. Here was our first view of large agricultural land with fruit and corn appearing to be the main crops. Everywhere you looked, staggering views met your gaze, awash in bright sunshine, a pleasant change after yesterday’s clouds. We stopped for petrol at the Aventura resort and ambled down to the shop to get a bite of lunch. With no coffee to go, we went in search of the restaurant wandering around the back of the shop building. Here there was a large open pool and behind it you could see little cabins stretching out along the valley. We both had a good feeling about the place and were very happy when they had a cabin available.

Back at the shop we now bought in supplies for dinner and went to sort out our cabin. It was a really cosy place to be. A small but well equipped kitchen was at the front with a table and two chairs. Next door to it leading off the bedroom was a somewhat old fashioned bathroom, quaint but perfectly OK for what we needed. Outside there was a table and chairs and a braai for any hardy souls who could brave the now chilly night air.

Within the resort they have two viewpoints where you can look down over the valley. Taking a picnic lunch with us we drove up to the upper point waving hello to the baboons we passed along the way. A short walk from the car park takes you to a small place on the edge of the valley where you can sit on the rocks and enjoy the view. Across the valley from us were the Three Rondavels, rock formations that look similar to the traditional style of house. Below we could see the river winding its way round the valley and small specks of colour which with the benefit of the binoculars we identified as six people out kayaking. It was a superb spot and had a slight end of the world sort of feeling to it.

We drove on down to the lower viewpoint passing more baboons and the people in the cabin next to us who were wrapped up against the cold and walking. Here though the trees were too high and you couldn’t really see anything of the view. We stopped at the restaurant on our way back up to take advantage of the chap doing hand car washes. With lots of Kruger dust all over the car I’m getting covered in it each time I get something from the boot. The enforced wait found us in the bar having a quick drink and enjoying the view. Our neighbours came and joined us and we chatted about our plans for South Africa with them giving us ideas of where to go.

By the time our car was ready it was getting pretty cold and being the kind souls that we are we gave a lift back up the hill to our neighbours and made ourselves comfortable for the night. Stef cooked the most spectacular spaghetti Bolognese he’s done in ages, probably in part due to the enforced simplicity of the ingredients and the cooking utensils. It’s amazing how little you really need and how much you get used to using at home. Full of tasty food and wine and with many diary days caught up we soon snuggled up in our bed, even turning off the TV as nothing much was on.

Enormous potholes in Blyde River

We had both had a good night’s sleep tucked up in our little cabin and it was hard to force ourselves to get up and out. We’d bought bacon and eggs in the resort shop yesterday and treated ourselves to a cooked breakfast. It made a pleasant change to also cook a hot breakfast but shoulder bacon (all they had) is not something either of us would repeat in a hurry. As I was trying to get the bacon to cook Stef suddenly jumped and cried out – one of the family of baboons that was meandering up the road came for a closer look and jumped up to our kitchen window. Fortunately the metal bars across it stopped the baboon from getting in.

We left the Aventura resort and carried on our southbound route. A few kilometres down the road we followed the directions for a viewpoint, taking a very short detour off to the left. A short series of pathways takes you out to the edge of the cliff from where you get fantastic views up and down the Blyde Valley. It is the third largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the US and Fish River Canyon which we didn’t have time to see in Namibia, and it is simply huge. When we drove up towards it yesterday I had no real idea that something so vast lay behind that first face of rocks. By the car park a few people had set up stalls in what looks like an arranged sales spot and they were selling wood carvings, bowls, textiles and other bits and pieces.

Our next stop was to see the pot holes in the rock. We had seen a pothole or two in Canada. They are formed by water getting trapped in a small space and whizzing round in a circular motion. The water then erodes the rock creating a pot hole. We pulled up and were a bit taken aback that we had to pay to get in to see them. The pot holes are one of the star attractions of this area and it was pretty busy with groups of tourists as well as people on their own like us.

A pretty good path winds down from the car park to the river where bridges take you in different directions over the rocks below. We first went off to our right, seeing very small pot holes before we ended up walking up the river bank for 50m or so. By this stage we were both thinking that it was a bit of a rip off but undeterred we doubled back and went across the other bridge. We then saw why this place is so special.

Carved into the rock below us was lots of evidence of this unique geological and physical phenomenon. In Canada the holes had been about 30cm wide and about a metre deep. Here they were enormous and you could still see the action of the water at work digging ever deeper into some of the existing potholes. At the level of the river were the remnants of the outside walls of some of the potholes but the cliff edge leading down to them showed how big they had been. Most were more than a metre in diameter and several had drilled down over the years so that they must have been about 20 metres deep. It was a really unusual sight and I don’t think our pictures do it justice.

Further down the road we pulled in to another view point. This one was on the edge of the escarpment looking down over the valley below. Beneath us we could clearly see huge tree plantations with access roads tracing as rusty lines through the sand. The plantations stretched for miles following the undulations of the hills. Beyond them we could see way off into the distance, with another mountain range visible at the horizon. I have no idea how far we could see but it must have been at least twenty or thirty miles.

Following the same road for a short while more we soon came to the turn off for the God’s Window viewpoint. This again was very busy and the car park caters for tour buses. There is a short walk with a slight uphill climb to the viewpoint which again provides views out across the surrounding landscape. A steeper walk up takes you to the level of the clouds and to a short stretch of rainforest. The viewpoint here gives you similar views to the ones at the last stopping point but also has the added benefit of a short walk through this very different landscape.

At the car park here there was a pretty sizeable crafts market. A sign explains that this is a project to help support the local community and it confirms that the people are there with the consent of the parks management type people. Had we been in the market for wooden carvings of giraffes, different types of 4x4 cars, bowls, scarves etc, all the usual stuff, we could have quite happily parted with cash but we weren’t and we didn’t.

Craft stalls at God's Window

From here we agreed we would make no more sightseeing stops but would just focus on getting down to the border with Swaziland, which we hope to cross this afternoon. We worked our way down to the toll road and then whizzed along the motorway until heading back east for the border. Before long we were at the border, neither of us really knowing what to expect but both knowing that land borders are not necessarily straight forward. On the South African side there were no clear signs of what you needed to do there was just a queue of people.

One of them muttered to us that we needed a gate pass but they didn’t tell us where we had to go to get one. We finally found out that the gate pass was a slip of paper onto which they write your registration number and then two different people at two different windows stamp it. We got an exit stamp in our passports and then drove on a few metres to the South African border. Here they took our gate pass from us. We then had to pull up again to get into Swaziland. Here you were met by friendly immigration staff, laughing and chattering and muttering “PSV Eindhoven, ah this one’s Buckingham Palace”, who told you exactly where you had to go next. It was surprisingly much less chaotic than the South African process.

We drove from the border through the capital Mbabane, a small city which has major road works ongoing to create a bypass. It looked a lot poorer than the places we had seen across the border but people here all seemed happy. We headed out through the other side of Mbabane and down to the Ezulwini valley. Here we checked into the Mantenga Lodge a smallish hotel with views out across the valley, but not as good a view as they make out in their literature! We had a little chalet room which was very cosy. Dinner was served on the patio, very tasty food with generous portions but disappointingly no Swazi options to choose from. A few games of gin rummy and we were soon off in the land of nod.

Fruit stalls in Ezulwini Valley

We’d had a long day’s driving yesterday and both felt in need of a bit of a lie in. I was engrossed in my book (Labyrinth by Kate Mosse) and reached that tantalising stage where I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it, but regretted it coming to an end! Having had a lie in we were late for breakfast and I think the last ones in. At a table in the corner a couple of other chaps sat eating but they were soon joined by a (British?) couple.

They seemed to be connected in some way for work but we couldn’t really work out how and why. The man promptly got out a couple of sheets of A4 paper and started giving the other guys a really tough time. Complaint number one was that they had been booked into a hotel where work was going on. Having queried whether the other guys had ever actually seen that hotel he then went on to say “I wouldn’t even send my servant there”. That really set the tone of the conversation and when we left about half an hour later he was still going strong. It’s a long time since I’ve heard such pompous arrogance and I doubt very much that the problems, whatever they were, will have been resolved by his attitude.

Reception had provided us with a local what’s on style paper which seems to promote every hotel, restaurant and tourist site in Swaziland. It had a useful map in the middle of the Ezulwini Valley which we have come to explore. They told us that at 11:15am there was a Swazi dance performance at the cultural village so we probably had time to see a “sight” before then. We drove up to the main road through the valley and went to take a look at the roadside craft stalls. Having passed quite a few already yesterday we knew pretty much what to expect so we just drove past in the car to see if there was something different. There wasn’t.

From here we carried on down the valley towards the Baobab Batik factory and shop. Time was short so we doubled back before we got there, knowing that we could come back this afternoon, and headed for the Swazi cultural village. On the way we stopped at the local fruit market housed in a brick building on the side of the road. I don’t think many tourists stop here because as soon as we pulled up three of four men appeared laden with different types of fruit trying to get our money. We hopped out and had a wander around, buying the most juicy and sweet pineapple I can remember eating, as well as grapes and oranges. For the first time in quite a while we came across people here who were shy of having their photo taken.

The Swazi cultural village was designed as a tourism site but it is an accurate representation of a typical Swazi village. To pass the entry to the village you have to shout “Ekaya, enkosi” very loudly to announce your presence. Someone from the village then comes to greet you. Our guide, Albert, told us that people did live here but there were not really any signs that it was an active village. We had made it in time for the dance show. There were only five other people watching it this morning and I am sure that in other countries they would have cancelled the show. As with the village it has been created totally for a tourist experience, giving some of the background to Swazi culture and weaving a short storyline through the dances. The dances themselves though looked as if they were still true traditional styles and methods.

In total there were 22 people involved in the performance, with a couple of narrators who explained what was happening as we went along. The “theatre” was an open air circle, designed to look like a traditional enclosure. The “stage” was just the dirt floor and the dancers were all barefoot. They came onto the stage in a single file procession singing as they danced. The sound they made was incredible, filling the space around them and resonating off the trees and the walls of the “theatre”. It wasn’t so much that the sound was loud but more that it had a density behind it. The songs seemed to reverberate around them and rumbled up from inside them almost as if each person was a separate speaker in a good quality stereo system.

The songs weren’t just words though. Throughout different noises and sounds came through which I think mirrored and echoed the sounds of birds and wildlife that were central to the life of the Swazi people. Regrettably, I forgot to check that theory before we left the village. The dances were fun to watch with great displays of agility and fabulous facial expressions. The storyline was one of boy saves girl from a lion and they fall in love. Someone makes false accusations about them and the village witchdoctor is called upon to decide their fate. He declares them innocent, sentences the false accuser to death by being thrown off the hillside but the girl shows mercy and saves his life. In the end they have a big wedding ceremony and I suppose lived happily ever after.

If you go to see the show be prepared to be an active visitor. When they are dancing at the wedding ceremony we were all gently coerced into taking part with the performers quietly explaining to us what steps to take. At the end of the show we also had to join in with a “conga” style dance. It was done in such a polite way that everyone joined in and another member of the team took photos for us all.

After the performance we were given a tour of the village. This too was an interactive experience with Albert decreeing that Stef was the grandfather, another lady the grandmother, me and an Aussie lady were first and second wife respectively and a Scottish chap was the eldest son, our husband. As the eldest in the village the grandparents weren’t expected to do anything for themselves including carrying our luggage. On bended knees and with eyes lowered the Aussie girl and I, in our role of wives, had to take the grandparents luggage from them and carry it for the duration of the tour.

The village is enclosed within a large circular fence made of tree trunks. Inside there are quite a few round huts, some of which also had their own protective walls. Young girls and boys led separate lives with the boys in one house well inside the compound while the girl’s house was right next to the compound entrance. The theory is that anyone coming to the village meaning harm would see the girls first and become besotted with them. If that didn’t work, the screams and shouts of the girls would alert the men inside that trouble was at hand.

Each of the houses were made of tree branches and thatched with grass. Inside you could see the frame structure that was used. Instead of it being walls with a separate roof on top the frame ran from the floor and domed round the hut in arch formation so that it was a single structure inside, a bit like a wooden igloo. The construction is very clever and is deigned to provide maximum protection to the people inside. A spear can penetrate from inside to out to kill an invader but someone on the outside cannot get a spear through to the inside. There is a very low hole for a doorway and a separate piece of “woven” wood that is used for a door. This allows those inside to see out but those outside cannot see in. Very clever stuff.

At the Swazi cultural village

There seemed to be separate houses for the grandfather, grandmother, eldest son, youngest son (the middle sons married and started up their own new villages), the boys and the girls. Each house had two kitchens – one for cooking food and one for brewing alcohol, a type of beer made from fruit. Certain areas were out of bounds to men and others were out of bounds to the women of the village. Skills and stories were passed down through the generations but the society was very male dominated. A dead cows head could only be cooked and eaten by the boys as eating the brains might make the girls too clever!

As grandfather of the village, Stef had the privilege of being dressed up in traditional Swazi garb first. He looked quite happy in his new outfit but I think we would have trouble getting the sword and shield back through customs. His “wife” also had to pose with him for photos and, as Stef was not to do anything for himself, she also had to button up his shirt when he got back into his own clothes. It was quite funny to watch!

After touring the village we walked on to the Mantenga falls a short way along the road. Another one of the “brothers” from the village, Charles, kept us company in his official role as a tourism guide. The falls are small compared to other ones we have seen but they are the widest in Swaziland, the tallest are higher up in the mountains. Once quite a torrent crashed over the falls but Charles explained that a new dam has now limited the water tumbling over them. Even so they are majestic and beautiful to look at.

We spent a while there enjoying the view before Charles took us back to the village, this time leading us through the woods rather than along the road. On the way he and Stef chatted about how the cultural and political life in Swaziland is changing with the role of the monarchy coming under increasing scrutiny and challenge, just as it is in many other countries. Along the way we passed the tented chalets that you can hire here. They looked pretty cosy with their own ensuite, open air bathrooms and a balcony to sit and enjoy the view.

Back at the village we stopped at the restaurant for a drink and a bit of monkey watching before carrying on. We made our way to the Swaziland National Museum which was very small but an interesting place to go and see. The first two rooms are devoted to old black and white photos, mainly of the previous king and his mother. Some dated back to the 1890’s and there was a mix of photos of the king in traditional dress and in Western dress. He looked very uncomfortable in top hat and starched white collar but totally at ease in his full tribal regalia.

I haven’t yet read the history section to find out about Swaziland’s past and was surprised to see that it was yet another British colony. Many of the photos were based around the independence ceremonies, an event that took place in the 1960’s. The lack of photos about the current king left me with a distinct impression that the last one was warmly liked and loved and that his successor has not won over the hearts of his people.

There were some small displays explaining about the Swazi dress, jewellery and way of life and another small national history exhibition with some stuffed animals and a few information panels. The museum was rounded off with a final room housing the King’s cars. There were two Cadillac’s and another car the type of which I have never heard of before (and can’t remember). They were all looking rather sorry for themselves, being slightly worse for wear, but they must have made quite a statement with the King driving around in them.

We did a quick stop at the SwaziPost for some stamps before making out way to the Baobab Batik factory. We had expected to find it in a Baobab farm but none of these magnificent trees were in sight. We had a quick demonstration of the batik process and of how they use wax to trace onto a piece of cotton the required pattern and then die the material. The die only holds on the unwaxed sections. The more colours involved in the final design the more complex it is and the longer it takes. We had a look in the attached shop fully expecting to come away with something. Most of it was not really to our taste but we did find a tablecloth that came close. The price tag was hefty though so we parted without buying anything.

By the hotel there is another craft centre set up in two parallel rows of tin roofed buildings. The central aisle is almost designed to resemble a village street. We ambled up and down the shops but again came away empty handed, apart from some postcards and a Namibia flag patch. We were back in our room by around 4:30 and spent the next hour or so making the most of the view we had paid extra to enjoy. It is a very tranquil spot and, apart from a couple of kids who briefly braved the pool, all you can hear is the rustle of leaves and the calling of birds and monkeys.

Two locals at the Garrulous Griffin pub in Dundee

We were up and out by about 9:00 this morning, heading back into South Africa and down to the Anglo–Boer-Zulu battlefield sites. We had a smooth ride back to the border and a trouble free transfer back into South Africa. Route 17 took us smoothly down to Ermelo, back through more beautiful scenery. At Ermelo we swapped over with me driving the next leg.

It seems to be sods law that if we’re on a long journey and sharing the driving I tend to get the crappy legs. As soon as we left Ermelo, the flat and smooth tarmac Stef had driven over was replaced by road with lots of potholes so you couldn’t really clock away the miles as fast as we’d hoped to be able to. They are starting to improve the road and a few times there were short delays as traffic was reduced down to just one lane serving both directions.

By the time we made it to Newcastle I was knackered and ready to swap over again. Not a surprise then that the road quality improved immediately and Stef again had smooth tarmac to ride on. Both really in need of a break we pulled in at a petrol station with a café attached to find they had no bread and not a lot to eat so we carried on. A few kilometres further on we found where the people in the know stop. A smarted petrol station with a shop and a Wimpy attached to it. It's years since I’ve been in a Wimpy and there is something pretty odd about going to a fast food place and having your burger served up to you on a plate.

From Newcastle it was a short and straight forward hop down to Dundee. We’d chosen to stop at Dundee because it seems to be the best place to go to to get a good tour of the battlefields. The only problem we had was very scant choices of accommodation and no town centre map to show you what was were. By luck more than design we found the tourist information centre but we could see from the road that it was shut. Today is, Constitution day, a holiday in South Africa so pretty much everything is shut.

Behind us Stef had spotted a sign for the Battlefields B&B and Tours which was next door to the Royal Country Inn. There only seemed to be a door for the Inn so in we went. We were met be a very friendly lady who confirmed they had rooms free and took us off to show us one. Designed on a barracks style the rooms are set around a central courtyard garden which has a very peaceful air to it. Our room was also decorated in a country cottage style and although simple it had everything we needed. As we checked in the hotel called around the local tour guides for us to find someone who could accompany us around the battle field sites tomorrow.

We decamped to the hotel bar for an early sun downer. What started as a quiet drink in an almost deserted bar soon changed as a group of bikers descended on the hotel. They almost all drive Harley Davidson’s and are off to a rally at Richards Bay for the weekend. It was mostly men but a couple had their wives and very young children with them, who come behind in a car. We chatted away with them for a while and listened in to their debriefing at the end of the day’s ride. They seem to share hints and tips to make the next days riding better but although some listened intently others seemed to take it with a bit of a pinch of salt.

The hotel was built in 1886 and it has oodles of olde English country charm. There is a large lounge with comfy settees and chairs and a small quaint dining room. All of the public rooms are covered in memorabilia related to the Anglo-Zulu wars. There are pictures of military battle scenes, information panels about key people or facts of interest and different colours (as in flags) also on display. We could easily have been back in home in an English country village hotel which was quite a strange feeling.

We were up and about early this morning and had a hearty breakfast to steel us for the day’s sightseeing ahead. At 8:30am our guide Pat Rundgren arrived at the hotel. He is Scandinavian/Irish by descent and his nickname, Elephant, gives you an idea of his physique. Tall and very stockily built his ex-military bearing comes through as his big beefy hands grip you in a firm handshake of welcome. We had a brief chat to agree our plan of campaign for the day and then headed off through Dundee.

Yesterday the town had been totally quiet and this early in the morning it was still waking up as we drove through. Until a few years ago it used to be a small and pleasant town but it is now changing fast. Cheap stalls now line the streets and it has a run down and seedy air to it. This was a common theme for a couple of villages that we passed through today. By the time we got back in the evening there were a lot more people around and about but they did nothing to improve the overall look of the town.

Pat was a great tour guide and gave us loads of information about the spread of the British through South Africa and the events that led up to the wars with the Zulu’s. Dutch farmers who had settled the Cape area, mainly to provide a resupply base for the Dutch shipping interests going further east, were not keen on the British, especially when they abolished slavery in the early 1930’s. This had the effect of increasing the salaries the farmers had to pay to the black workers on their farms forcing many of them into bankruptcy. Rather than staying and suffering financial ruin the farmers, the Boers, started off on the Great Trek further inland where they hoped to create their own self governing areas to live in.

At around the same time the Zulu’s had been fighting with pretty much everyone they could which had resulted in all the original tribes being scattered and displaced. The Boers thought they were going into uninhabited territory and soon started to establish new farms. A while later diamonds were found at Kimberley so the British moved quickly to annexe the area so they could control the diamond business. The Boers were understandably a bit miffed about that and set off again to find new British-free lands, which they did near Johannesburg. Here, gold was found so the whole process kicked off again.

While the Boers were looking for new lands and free rule, the British were looking for new commercial opportunities and markets. They also needed to protect their land boundary at the north from the threat of the Portuguese coming south from Mozambique. This effectively trapped the Zulu’s between the British and the Portuguese and resulted in the Zulu wars. The Boers meanwhile sat and watched and waited to see the outcome of these battles as both the Zulu’s and the British were causing them problems.

The Zulu lands were immense. Much of the land was difficult to cover due to its mountainous terrain but three different routes led up through valleys and to the heart of the Zulu nation. Not that the nation had a permanent capital. As a grazing people the “capital” would move around with the people causing a bit of a problem for British military strategists. Capturing the capital of the country you were invading was the recognisable symbol that a war had been won. If there was no capital there was no end to the war but with war being a costly endeavour there needed to be a way to bring closure. To resolve the issue the British decreed that Ulundi was the capital of the Zulu empire and was therefore the focus of their battle to quash the Zulu and enable them to protect their northern land border.

Pat gave us a tour of the battlefields

Today we visited the sites of the battles at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, the latter of which is immortalized in the film Zulu. There are no great monuments or remnants of the war and I was really glad that we had chosen to go with a guide. If we hadn’t all we would have seen were a few fields but Pat really brought the battles to life for us and told the story from both the British and the Zulu perspectives.

Both sides had a different objective for war. The British aim was to protect their commercial interests and their colonies and they determined who had won the battle based on the number of casualties suffered by each side. The Zulu’s were only really interested in the spoils of war that they could acquire and take back to their village. This was more important that the number of the opposition killed because it bought favour with their chief and with the young ladies of their village who were prospective brides. A warrior that returned from battle empty handed was not deemed to be a good catch and was teased and mocked by all in the village.

The battle of Isandlwana took place in what at first sight appears to be a wide open flat valley. Isandlwana itself is a hill, shaped like a sphinx or a boot depending on which side you see it from. The British army had a large camp here with a few thousand soldiers, 12,000 head of cattle as well as a few thousand warriors from other African tribes. They had major logistical difficulties to overcome. The land here is rocky and what looks like a flat surface is actually covered in donga’s, run offs for the water that pours down the mountain in the rainy season, most of which are deep enough for people to walk along them unseen.

A good day’s travelling for the contingent would probably cover about one mile in distance. Ulundi was 90 miles away, at least a three month journey. Water was also a key factor in determining the battle strategy as without it the army would quickly suffer. Battles therefore could only be waged during the summer rainy season which also then meant that the terrain beneath them became more difficult to cross. Throw into the pot typhoid, cholera, dysentery, bugs that bite horses resulting in them dieing within a few days, temperatures in the high 30C and thick European uniforms and it was a pretty horrid environment to be in.

The strategists soon realised that they could not take the war to the Zulu’s, they had to get the Zulu’s to come to them. Among other African tribes the Zulu’s were not well liked because of the tribal wars they had waged for many years which displaced the other tribes. The British found a ready and easy supply of black warriors only too happy to get revenge on the Zulu’s especially as they would get paid for doing so. The British used these warriors to ransack, rape, burn and pillage their way through nearby Zulu homelands knowing that this would bring the Zulu army to them.

It was assumed that being a black, tribal army that the Zulu’s would have little in the form of tactics and that the military might of the British would overcome all the Zulu’s could throw at them. Half of the British contingent had gone off, with their commanding office Lord Chelmsford, on a reconnaissance mission in a different part of the valley. The orders left behind were to protect the camp and camp stores, which were a very valuable supply of food, clothing, ammunition and all required to support an army.

Looking at the site it initially seems like a very simple proposition. There is clear land between Isandlwana and another nearby hill and it seems easy to be able to corral the camp and their 12,000 livestock here. But the livestock takes up space and, knowing that they would probably be at Isandlwana for a while as the engineers worked to carve a path through the valley, the camp had a wide range of facilities. There was a parade ground, cricket pitch, hospital, kitchens to name a few as well as row upon row of tents to provide shelter for the army.

All of this took space too, especially the tents that needed to be erected on flat ground. So what at first seems like an easy to defend position soon became a large sprawling camp. With half the army contingent gone it was a very wide boundary to defend, not that an attack was expected, and it was also a camp with no outer fortifications.

The Zulu warriors were traditionally armed just with a shield, a spear and a long stick with a round wooden end used to crack the skulls of the enemy open, causing death. The shield was used to provide shelter from the sun, as a plate for eating, a sleeping bag and also as a weapon in its own right as the shaft of the shield could be removed and was sharpened into a point. The front of the shield has a lattice cut into it which was used to deflect enemy swords and bayonets, bringing the enemy into hand to hand combat.

A Zulu could probably only throw their spear about 50m so their warfare tactics were based on close range or hand to hand combat. Years of trading with foreigners though had also brought rifles to the Zulu. Their battle tactics followed a standard path. Two separate tranches of warriors would advance in a horn shaped pattern, flanking the enemy to the left and right, A third tranche would advance as a chest directly towards the enemy. They would start to close in until the enemy was encircled and would then move in to fight at close quarters.

At Isandlwana the Zulu’s tactics worked superbly. Operating under the command to protect the camp and its stores the British had no time to strike camp and move it and the supplies to a more easily defensible position when they saw the Zulu invasion starting. They initially only saw the 5,000 chest coming towards them but a further 20,000 Zulu’s were also working around their flanks. From start to end the battle lasted less than an hour and was a great victory for the Zulu’s and a momentous defeat for the British. Few British soldiers survived to tell the tale. Some escaped along the Fugitive’s Trail but these were few and far between.

Any soldier the Zulu’s came across, whether dead or alive, suffered a pretty horrific state. The Zulu’s believe in acquiring the fighting spirit or courage of the men they face in battle. Whether you were dead or lying wounded on the battle field the same fate awaited you if a Zulu got to you before your own side did. They would cut out your backside, cut off your private parts (which they then cooked up and ate) and then slit open your stomach and rummage around for your liver, which to the Zulu’s is where your guts (as in courage) is held. As few Zulu men have facial hair it was also deemed to be a sign of wisdom and maturity so if you had a moustache your upper lip was cut off too and taken back as spoils of war.

Apparently there has been much debate in the years since this battle about how and why the British forces lost so badly to the Zulu’s at Isandlwana. They had tried and tested rules detailing how to defend your position and your camp which were not followed. But, having been to the site, you can understand why this was not possible to do. The British had superior firepower and should have been able to blast the Zulu’s before they got close enough for hand to hand combat. But, the site has several black spots which would have allowed the Zulu’s to advance through the network of donga’s and reach the British unseen. Probably the biggest problem for the British though was the size of the camp they were trying to defend with relatively few men.

For Lord Chelmsford Isandlwana was a significant career limiting move and he desperately needed to find a way to minimise the impact. Not only did they lose the battle but the Zulu’s helped themselves to all of the camp stores which would have been worth millions, probably hundreds of millions, in today’s money. But battles with the Zulu’s for that day were not over yet. A few miles further back along the valley was Rorke’s Drift, a small camp and mission post not far from a crossing (the drift) of the Buffalo River. We crossed the river today by bridge and even now outside of the rainy season the water was running pretty fast.

The bridge is the site of just one of four crossings at Rorke’s. The bridge is the sight of where a sling and pulley system was set up to bring the cattle across. Downstream a rocky stretch was used to haul wagons across the river. A little way upstream from the bridge the army engineers built pontoons to get the soldiers across and further upstream, the native soldiers were left to cross by their own devices. They were separated from the rest of the contingent, both at the crossings and in the camps, to prevent them from stealing supplies and making off with them.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift is the story told in the film Zulu. A small camp with a hospital and storehouse, manned by 140 soldiers (a rough bunch, 50% of whom would either be discharged for poor conduct or find themselves “doing time” of some sort during their army career) held out for twelve hours against an invading Zulu army of 4,000. They suffered minimal casualties and having killed more than they lost, the British claimed this as a superb victory, focussing heavily on this rather than the losses at Isandlwana. Not only had they protected their camp but they had also stopped the Zulu advance into Natal so they had protected the British colony also. Lord Chelmsford then set off a few months later to capture Ulundi which he did, but not without further tragedy dogging him.

In his party was the Prince Imperial of France, presumably a descendent of Napoleon who was Emperor of France. The Prince and his escort found themselves caught by a group of Zulu’s and the Prince suffered the fate detailed above at the hands of the Zulu’s. This was a blow to Chelmsford but not as big as blow as the fact that the escort had deserted the Prince leaving him to his fate. Shortly after capturing Ulundi, Lord Chelmsford’s replacement arrived and he retired back to England, never again to lead a military campaign. He died, aged 94, playing snooker.

But back to Rorke’s Drift. The reported events of the battle are well known. The Zulu’s attacked the camp from the hospital end, setting the hospital on fire. The soldiers inside smashed their way out of the burning building and made it across an open courtyard in broad daylight to the other end of the camp, about 100m away, where the storehouse was still being defended. The storehouse was then the focus of the battle until the Zulu’s gave up and went away.

Pat, our guide, has a keen interest in military history and has spent many hours pondering the events at Rorke’s Drift. He’s analysed the battle statistics and the events as reported and has found parts of the puzzle that do not fit. The Zulu’s didn’t have the means to make fire so it is unlikely that they fired burning arrows into the roof of the hospital. They also didn’t have bows and arrows having gone straight from spears to rifles. Even if they had fire, the battle was held in the rainy season so it is unlikely that they would have been able to set fire to the sodden thatch. It is more likely that the fire was started from inside the hospital, either by accident or on purpose. As the Zulu’s needed to take spoils of war home to their village, they would have wanted to plunder the hospital building, another reason why they would not have burnt it.

The battle statistics claim that the British were fighting a 4,000 strong Zulu army for 12 hours. If so, it is reasonable to expect that both sides would have suffered higher casualties than the 15 British and 351 Zulu deaths recorded. Pat has an alternative theory that yes the battle lasted for 12 hours but it was not an intensive all out attack by Zulu’s waging hand to hand warfare. As the Zulu’s fight at close combat they would need daylight to see what they were doing and also so that their colleagues could see, record and verify how many British soldiers each Zulu killed. All of the British Casualties at Rorke’s Drift died of bullet wounds not from spears so this would indicate sniper fire action rather than hand combat.

Pat’s theory is that a small contingent of the Zulu’s kept plugging away through the night at the British to keep them occupied while the rest of the Zulu’s stole their herd of cattle. To the British the cattle were not really that important, they had maintained camp, protected their stores and as they had initially stolen the cattle from the Zulu’s it could easily be replaced. For the Zulu’s the cattle were a major spoil of war and very important currency for them when they returned to their village. While the British won the battle of Rorke’s Drift, the Zulu’s were simply on a cattle rustling expedition so both sides were successful in their endeavours.

Whatever the actual truth is of both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift I think it will be impossible now to tell. Western spin would have ensured that the battles won were hyped up and those lost down played so events reported probably are not an accurate representation of the facts. The Zulu’s version of events has never really been asked for so the history is all very one sided. What is known is that on the day of the battles a few thousand British and Zulu men lost their lives.

The British returned to Isandlwana to find and bury their dead. With the passing of time, the carving up of the bodies for Zulu ritual purposes, local wildlife finding an abundant meal and rainfall washing bones away it must have been a grizzly task. The ground at Isandlwana is too rocky to dig graves so all they could do was to collect the bones together into piles and cover them with stones to try and prevent the jackals having a further meal. There was no way to identify the dead (the Zulu’s also took their uniforms). Up until the 1960’s missionaries at a nearby station were still finding bones that had been washed up by the last year’s rains. Today the piles of stones are painted white to make them easier for people to see. They clearly show a trail of soldiers running from the front line of battle up to higher ground to try and protect their position.

At Rorke’s many soldier’s were awarded the Victoria Cross medal for their bravery in rescuing their comrades from the burning hospital and for protecting the camp. What was surprising to hear is what happened to them when they returned to the UK. People awarded the VC at that time had normally been pretty badly injured such that their army career was brought to an end. Unlike today, there were no pensions or payments for early retirement on medical grounds and no state benefits system either. Many of these soldiers ended their lives in extreme poverty and some committed suicide. It’s not a very glorious end for those who saved Rorke’s Drift and the colonies with it.

If you go to the battle sites get a guide. A small museum has been set up in the old schoolhouse at Isandlwana which runs through the events of the battle held there. It’s worth a visit but has minimal information compared to what you will learn from your guide. If you know where to turn off after you’ve crossed the Buffalo River, you can take a detour off the gravel road and cross a field to see the drift itself close up. At the Rorke’s Drift camp the hospital has been rebuilt and is now also a small museum outlining the events of the battle there. Again it’s worth a visit but you need a guide to really bring it to life.

In 1999, without it seems much consultation with the Zulu’s, it was decided that as there were no Zulu memorials to these events, but lots of British ones, memorials to the Zulu’s should be built. This is not part of Zulu culture and the feeling we got from Pat is that the Zulu’s don’t really care either way. There is one at Isandlwana and one at Rorke’s Drift. Incorporated within the memorial at both sites is a Buffalo Thorn tree, an important tree for the Zulu. The young buds are brewed up into a drink which, to quote Pat “makes ladies want babies”.

Zulu culture is based on ancestor worship. Those that are too badly wounded to make the journey home are killed by the Zulu at the battlefield. For all their dead they take their spirit home. To do this they slit open their stomach and with a small branch from the buffalo thorn tree dig and probe into the guts to capture the spirit. The thorns on the tree grow in both directions so they will catch the spirit whichever way it moves. The branch is then taken back to the warrior’s family and in this way his spirit is taken home.

All in all it was a very informative day.

During the day we chatted on and off about the changing face of South Africa and whether or not the black/white divide is still in existence. Not surprisingly it is and a great example is where people would be on this holiday weekend. Under apartheid the beaches in Durban were for whites only, the beaches further away north and south being for the black population. This weekend Durban will be busy but with all the blacks on the beaches by town that used to be for the whites and all the whites on the beaches that used to be black only.

Pat dropped us back into town where we did a quick detour to get some more accommodation leaflets from tourist information. After a couple of hours at the hotel we then took Pat up on his offer of comings down to the Moths bar, the equivalent of the British Legion. It was a small bar full of military memorabilia, a kind of time capsule. Their Moths club now has only about 40 members and they open the bar for a couple of hours on Friday night only. You very much got the feel that this was a regular spot on the social scene for the white community of Dundee and that the same faces would be seen at every different “social” event.

We had a couple of drinks at the bar then headed back to the hotel for dinner and bed.