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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.

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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.

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Huge white rhino in Hluhluwe

We decided to get up and out early to make the most of the Wildlife in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park. By 6:20am we had paid our fees and driven through the park gate. This park is relatively small compared to Kruger but is very hilly. Steep ups and downs were common in the Hluhluwe section which I suppose must make it a bit tricky for some of the big animals. In addition the vegetation here was very dense so it made it very hard to spot anything.

One of the guides at the hotel last night had told us that the best animal viewing time was between 6:00am and 8:00am. After that, it would get too hot and they wouldn’t be seen. It was certainly not our experience today. We followed the main road from the Memorial Gate for a while before doubling back and taking a gravel road along the river. Along the way were a few detours off to viewing points and we had a look at most of them. We saw no big animals and just a few birds. By the time we reached the Hilltop camp we were both a bit despondent because our game viewing had been nothing compared to Etosha and Kruger. Even at Itala yesterday we had seen giraffe and impala on our drive up to the gate.

From Hilltop we decided to keep on going down into the Umfolozi section of the park. Someone we had met along the way told us it was drier there and the vegetation was less dense, enhancing the chance of spotting animals. And it did the trick. As we left the camp we saw people parked up on the road looking down into a wide open valley below. There a small herd of elephants were meandering up through the dry river bed looking for water. Another couple of lone elephants were munching away at some of the trees and nearby were buffalo.

But our best sighting of the day was soon to come. As I drove round a corner I said “Stef, cat” and we watched the back of a big cat wandering down the road. Stef managed to get a photo before it disappeared but it is only from the shoulders back. We spent the rest of the day trying to decide what type of cat it was and later had it confirmed that it was a leopard, the only one of the Big Five that we hadn’t already seen. It was a shame that we didn’t see the full cat but three quarters was good enough for me. Within seconds we were at the spot where the cat went off the road but you there was no trace of it in the high grass.

Still on a high from seeing the leopard we next spotted three rhino’s. They weren’t really hard to see as they were just off to the left hand side of the road grazing away. The people from the hotel in Dundee had told us that white rhino, although still dangerous because they are wild animals, are pretty docile and we shouldn’t come to any harm but if we encountered a black rhino then we could be in trouble. One of the guides from the hotel last night confirmed this but said it was unlikely we would see black rhino. He’s been working here for six months and has only seen one.

We sat and watched the rhino for quite some time before heading on again and having our next rhino encounter. This one was a little more controlled. The park has one of the largest rhino populations in the world, if not the largest, and they seem to have a reputation for rhino conservation. Off to the right of the road we saw a 4x4 truck which a white guy getting out and then another truck with what looked like a cargo container on the back. Two black chaps were lowering the container down onto the ground. The white guy climbed onto the top with what looked like a cattle prod while the black guys took shelter behind the container’s doors. Soon a rhino came sauntering out the back. It looked a bit doped up and very disorientated. They watched it for a while until they were happy it was OK, packed up and left.

We spent another couple of hours in the park seeing more zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and birds before deciding to head on to somewhere else. We had driven down as far as the Mpila camp. On the way we passed underneath the R618, a major provincial road that crosses through the park. Amazingly, there is little to stop the animals crossing this main road. Along the road there is just the normal sort of crash barrier and where it crossed the park border the only thing to keep the wild animals in is a cattle grid. Rhino and elephant would be able to walk across the grid and the big cats could easily jump it so it would be interesting to know how many escapees there have been.

For the afternoon we decided to head down to the nearby Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site. From the Hluhluwe Park the road wound through a large tree plantation before finally reaching the village of St Lucia. We headed up the beach road, paid our entrance fees at the gate and continued up to Mission Rocks. Here we took a gravel track off to the right to make our way to the coast. A short walk through the dunes brought us out onto a rocky bay on the Indian Ocean. To our left and right there were small clusters of people with fishing rods in hand trying their luck. It seems to be quite a passion here as well as in Namibia but we didn’t see much evidence of people actually managing to catch anything.

We ambled down to our left, working towards a sandy bay but opted to stay on the rocks as we’d come armed with bits for a picnic and I don’t know about you but I don’t really like sand in my sandwiches. As we munched our lunch watching the waves and the crabs wondering about the rocks the sky started to darken and thick black clouds amassed overhead. The peace and quiet of our little picnic spot was soon ruined, not by rain or thunder but by three South African men who had obviously decided they were going to fish from here despite the fact that we were there. Stef trued to engage them in conversation but got nothing back except “it’s good to fish when the weather is bad”. As it started to rain we abandoned our picnic and headed back to the car just missing a heavy burst.

Undeterred by the weather we kept heading north looking out for the gravel road that loops around the Mfabeni Swamp off to our left. There were a few tracks off but none were signposted and we were soon going through the gate to get into Cape Vidal. Here there is a campsite and chalets for people to stay at and it looks like a very popular place. In the car park there was a big fish cleaning station so that those lucky enough to catch something out on the beach could gut and clean their catch before heading home.

The beach here was beautiful. It was soft sand, wide and very very long. Here too people were fishing but there were also kids mucking about in the sea, young people playing rugby and other games on the beach and people just sitting around and enjoying the sun. We’ve noticed a lot more people here of Indian descent, due to the large Indian population in Durban, about two hours further south. Muslim influences were present with women in the sea fully covered up from head to toe and with only their eyes visible. It’s still a puzzle to me why they do it.

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Angler along the coast in the Greater St. Lucia wetlands

Stef had a paddle in the sea, declaring the water lovely and warm and wishing that he had his swimming trunks and a towel with him. We hadn’t even considered this morning when we left the hotel that we would end up on a beach today so hadn’t come prepared. We sat and enjoyed the sun for a while before making tracks to leave the park. On our way out we saw the signs for the loop around the marsh and soon understood why we hadn’t seen them on the way up. The track was wide enough for one car but traffic coming the other way as well would have been a problem.

Our drive around the marsh was again uneventful on the animal spotting front. Despite the signs at the gate that the park has leopard, rhino, elephant and other dangerous animals the local people drive around with their kids in the back of their trucks and hanging out the windows so I suppose we should have realised that the dangerous animals would be nowhere to be seen. We had a few bird sightings but nothing really new.

As we left the park the cheeky chap manning the gate asked us where we were going and whether, as we were heading to town, we would mind giving his wife a lift. He could clearly see we had room and as hitching seems to be part of the national psyche here we were hard pushed to say no. We dropped her, and her son, off at the Spar in St Lucia and the promptly had a row. The town was like a little holiday village full of places to stay and places to eat out. With last night’s dinner fiasco still fresh in his mind Stef fancied staying here to eat. With only one hour of daylight left and a long drive to get back to our hotel on unfamiliar roads I wasn’t keen. As ever we stayed and both of us were right for taking our individual points of view.

The Quarterdeck supplied us with a tasty dinner of fish and garlic mash before we left St Lucia in the dark to head back. A few kilometres after leaving the village it started to rain, very heavily, so much so that it was hard to see the road in front of us. Knowing that we would hit standing water as a minimum and worst case potholes Stef took it slowly. It was a nasty drive back with rain accompanying us for much of the way and what would normally take about half an hour took us an hour. Back in our rondavel we both admitted that the other had been right, Stef to eat in town as we had a much better dinner than last night, and me for not wanting to drive back in the dark.

We had ended up having a very long day and although it was still relatively early by the time we got back I was knackered. I think I was in bed by about 8:30pm and asleep within half an hour.

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Leafy main street of Winterton

We were up early again this morning ready to hit the road for a long driving day. A customer survey had been left in the room so we took our time to complete it recounting all the things we felt had not been right about our stay. It’s amazing how quickly little bits and pieces add up when something sets you off thinking about them. Our experience of the Three Cities hotel chain wasn’t helped when we got to reception and they tried to charge us a higher rate for the room than the one they had quoted when we arrived. Needless to say they are not our hotel chain of choice!

Today was a designated “bus day”, the term we now use when we are travelling a long distance even if we don’t go by bus. Our next planned destination is Kimberley, home of the De Beers diamond empire but it is too far to get to in one day. Our aim was to get to somewhere along the Drakensberg Mountain range, probably spending one or two nights there to enjoy the views before heading on to Kimberley. Route 2 took us down to Durban before we headed inland. It was pretty uneventful driving although the road was busy with people returning home after the long holiday weekend. The rain came and went, no where near as bad as it had been last night, but still a bit of a pain when you’re on the road.

The miles clocked away beneath us and soon boredom started to set in. As usual we took turns driving so that the boredom didn’t have chance to set in so far that your mind starts to wander as you go. In Namibia one of the things that had allayed the boredom was the hunt for petrol. We had constantly been aware of how much petrol we had left and how far we could go on it because petrol pumps were a little on the scarce side, particularly out of main cities. We’d been assured that this was not a problem in South Africa but our car has one of those petrol gauges that sits on full for ages and then starts to move down, quickly. We took a turn off the main road to a village that had petrol but as luck would have it the pump was broken! So with less than a quarter of a tank to go we headed back on to the main road, only to find a stop a few kilometres further on. My panic that we would run out was over.

We ended up stopping for a bite of late breakfast which seemed to be a quick process but actually took about an hour, time we didn’t really have to spend as we still had a long way to go. As you approach Durban from the north you can see the outer suburbs spread out for quite some distance. In Asia cities and towns grow upwards because there is no spare land available. Here low rise buildings stretch far out into the surroundings valleys. One stretch we passed was a clear indication that there is still a large divide in the standard of living between different parts of the community. On one side of the road was a new housing estate with smart and spacious looking houses. Across the road were small huts made of mud and branches with no visible signs of mains electricity or running water. It was a poignant snapshot of the new and old South Africa.

From Durban, Route 3 took us inland again, past Pietermaritzburg, Mooi River and Estcourt. Here there were rolling green hills that reminded me very much of England and you can understand why European settlers who came here liked what they saw. The only draw back so far of driving here is the South African drivers who are a little bit mad but not as mad as those in South America. For most of the way the main highways consist of a single lane in both direction but they also have a hard shoulder. People tend to drive along the hard shoulder, especially if there is someone behind them, rather than on the main carriageway. It makes sense in some ways if you are trying to get past them but they just stay on the hard shoulder all the time. When they overtake they tailgate so close to you that a small touch on the brakes would result in an accident. Throw into the mix the pedestrians who stroll up and down the side of the road and walk across it, even on the small stretches designated as motorway, and it can make for a slightly hairy driving experience at times.

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Autumn colours below the Drakensberg mountains

We turned off onto the R74 making our way down to Winterton. Stef had checked accommodation options en route and found us a great place to stay. Being holiday Monday most places in Winterton were firmly shut but Simmies, a local institution, was open and although the shelves were a bit on the empty side it came up trumps with everything we needed for dinner tonight. Winterton itself is a very small town with not a lot going for it from what we could see. Even today there were people hanging around with nothing to do and a very persistent chap outside Simmies tried to sell us hats and walking sticks on our way in and on our way out. Stef was given his usual title of “teacher” or “master” while I was back to being “mammie”.

The weather has been pretty grotty and cloudy all day today and even though we know that beautiful scenery is laid out before us in the distance we couldn’t see the peaks of the mountain range. We could though enjoy the nearer countryside and the twinges of autumn colour on the trees as we drove by. With a bit of time to spare before we got to our end point for tonight we pulled in to the Waffle Hut (on the R600), a nice place to stop with lots of promising tasty waffles and pancakes on the menu but Stef found his waffle and his hot chocolate disappointing while I had a great cup of tea (ever the Brit!).

We carried on down the R600 passing loads of signs for B&Bs and other places to stay and tempting sounding bakeries. We reached Cedarwood and knew we were close to the Wits End Mountain Resort. On our left was the local country hotel and golf club. Beautifully manicured lawns were home to the fairway and it also boasted the best selection of autumnal trees we have seen so far. The golden yellows and rusty reds looked dull in the cloudy daylight but with sun shining on the leaves you could imagine the warm feeling it would create. It was simply a beautiful sight to see.

A few kilometres further down the road, just when we though we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, we came across Wits End. It’s a small resort with just seven bungalows but our, which I think was one of the smallest, could sleep six people.  It had a well equipped kitchen, a lounge with a fireplace, a dining area as well as a braai and space outside to sit and eat. It was just superb. Before long we were unpacked, Stef had gone to get wood and we were sat relaxing on our settee in front of a roaring wood fire.

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Horses in the fields by Champagne Castle

I suppose today you could say we were at our wits end in more ways than one. It’s the name of the place where we were staying but also frustratingly the weather today wasn’t on our side. We were late waking and only managed to make it up by about 7:00am. I think yesterday’s long drive has taken its toll on both of us because neither of us could really get ourselves going. The weather hasn’t helped because it is still cloudy and misty and we can’t see the tops of the mountains that we know are tantalisingly close to our bungalow. It is also much colder here today than it was in Hluhluwe yesterday.

We had a very lazy morning just lounging around, enjoying the comfort of being in somewhere that felt like home. We hadn’t even had to wash up because the maid does the dishes for you as well as making your bed and generally cleaning up after you. We felt really spoiled. The gardens here are home to some interesting birds and we watched the Hadeda Ibis, helmeted Guinea Fowl and African Hoopoe potter about on the grass outside our bungalow and the horses exercising in their field behind the gardens.

By the afternoon the weather had cleared up a bit and we managed to drag ourselves away from our cosy place for a while. We headed to the local supermarket for our daily task of procuring the evening meal. As with all of these towns it is small but has everything you need as long as you are not after anything too exotic to eat or drink. Next door was a small arts and crafts shop with a little café so we stopped and had afternoon tea – scones with jam and cream in the middle of South Africa.

We decided that with the weather having been so bad today and having had a totally relaxed day doing not an awful lot that we would stay another night and try and get in a good walk tomorrow. We drove up to the Monk’s Cowl Park to have a look and get some information about their walks. The route up took us through more beautiful scenery and also gave us a glimpse of the picture postcard views we would get tomorrow, weather permitting.

Most of today we spent writing our diaries, playing cards and generally just relaxing. Stef lit another fabulous wood fire, got the braai going and we had dinner and went to bed feeling well and truly relaxed and refreshed.

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Imposing Drakensberg mountains

Today was our wedding anniversary, eight years since the superb day we had when we got married. We managed to make it up and out earlier than yesterday to make the most of the day. The weather had cleared up and while the very tops of the mountains were still in the clouds there was bright clear sunshine all around us. We made our way back up to the Monks Cowl part of the Drakensberg range. The park is quite popular and they sell you a little booklet that describes the walks they have available, how long they take and the sights you will see along the way. They range from easy flat walks lasting an hour to long day hikes. You can also walk along the range if you have a couple of weeks to spare spending the nights in caves along the way.

Being quite high up conditions can change quickly here and the booklet tells you about all the common sense precautions you should take to ensure you have correct clothing, a walking stick and enough food and water for your hike. There is one point, Blind man’s Corner, that if you plan to go beyond it you have to complete a mountain register so that they know who’s up in the wilder parts of the range. A mountain rescue team are at hand if you get into trouble and what surprised me is that the people who tend to need them are day hikers who have underestimated the length of their hike and get caught out by nightfall.

We opted not to go for one of the flat and easy walks but to make our way up to The Sphinx and then to see how much further we could make it towards Blind man’s Corner before turning back. The hiking path led off the track from the office and straight away it was a steep uphill climb. Erosion is a big problem here, partly due to the number of visitors but also because of the water that runs down the mountain. Poles and rocks have been put across the path to try and halt the erosion and they also double up as useful steps.

The walk was uphill all the way with some stretches being flatter following the contour lines round the mountain. We passed through forested sections, over small streams and through grassland. For most of the way you could hear water running downhill even if you couldn’t see it. We were both soon very glad that we had invested in a walking pole before leaving the car park. They are locally made pieces of wood with Drakensberg carved into them, cheap, cheerful, slightly tacky but very welcome. Having a “third leg” really makes a difference both going up hill and for coming back down again.

It was a beautiful day for walking. The sun was strong and warm on your back but the mountain air was also cool and crisp. Behind us the valley stretched out a fabulous contrast of rich greens, blue lakes and the golds and yellows of autumn. We met a few other people on the path but mainly we were walking in virtual silence with just the trees whispering and birds calling to each other.

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Enjoying the hike up to Verkykerskop

The Sphinx is a large outcrop of rock which is broadly shaped like a Sphinx, although a little imagination helps with this one. A small plateau here provides a welcoming place to stop, have a bite of lunch and relax the muscles aching from a continual uphill climb before continuing upwards. The path continues up the Little Berg, again rising steeply upwards. In a few places it is pretty narrow with a long drop down to the side, not one you would want to slide down. As we were heading up, women from one of the houses we passed along the way were on their way back down. They didn’t have walking boots and poles to make the trip easier for them. Most were in their wellies and on their heads they were balancing large bundles of grass that they use to make brooms.

We made it up to the top of the Little Berg and out onto the grassy plateau. By that stage my legs were telling me that they were happy to go back downhill but that they didn’t want to go any further up. It had been about a 500m uphill climb so far. We had stopped by a junction for the Sunset Trail which leads up and over the Verkykerskop, another steep hill to climb. I sat and enjoyed the views and watched Stef scrambling up to the top.

With good intentions of continuing further up to Blind Man’s Corner we both decided that enough was enough and started to make our way back down. It was very humbling to be overtaken by a steady stream of ladies balancing bundles of straw on their heads. They must do this trip on a regular basis as they seemed to know the path very well and bounded down at quite a pace. We caught up with them back at the Sphinx where they had stopped to take a well earned rest. All in all the walk was relatively short in distance, I think we covered just under six kilometres, but it took us the best part of four hours to complete it and we both had jelly legs by the time we got back to the car.

We stopped off at the local shops to get a few bits for dinner. Feeling we had earned ourselves a treat we popped into the coffee shop and bought some cakes to take away and enjoy on our patio. A huge slab of chocolate cake and another huge slab of carrot cake were soon parcelled up and were enjoyed in the last light of the afternoon. It was great to just and feel the warmth of the sun, watching the birds pecking away for worms and other bugs just in front of us. Our by now standard fare of a braai dinner rounded off the day and both feeling pretty knackered we headed off to bed.

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Making a pig's ear of it

Today was another bus day and not one we were relishing. Yesterday’s walk was the first we had done in a while and being such a steep uphill climb we were both feeling a bit stiff this morning. Spending all day sitting in the car is not really the best way to stretch out aching muscles but we need to push on. We have both really enjoyed our stay at Wits End in the Drakensberg and it is definitely somewhere we would come back to if we found ourselves in this part of the world again.

The people at the hotel in Dundee had shown a route to follow from here that wound through small villages rather than just heading back onto the main highway. We made our way back through Winterton which had come alive being a normal business day. There was still little to endear us to the town itself which now had a busy market set up along the side of the road on the way in. I think there were more impromptu stalls set up on the grass outside the market building as there were “official” stalls. Lots of people were milling around looking no doubt for the latest bargain and it was a very colourful sight to see.

We followed the R74 through Bergville and around the side of the Sterkfontein Dam. This is a huge reservoir at the foot of the mountains which no doubt is used as a base for water sports. Around the other side of the dam we worked our way through the QwaQwa Highlands National Park and into the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. This took us again through wide open landscapes with rugged peaks ahead of us and quite a climb to get over the mountains.

On the other side was the small town of Clarens, again a recommended stop. It is now home to “artistes” who have moved here from Johannesburg and Cape Town. In some ways it reminded me of Niagara on the Lake in Canada. The town has a large central square with a very neat and tidy and very green lawn. Around the square are small boutiquey shops, cafes and restaurants. The rest of the town seems to be made up of B&B’s. It had a very quiet and relaxed air about it and we decided to stop and have a break here.

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Hadeda ibises on the lawns
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Market day in Winterton

Not a lot seemed to be going on here really. It’s full of little art galleries and the other main commercial attraction in town seems to be real estate. On our way out we stopped at the local butchers expecting to walk inside and find fly covered hunks of meat sat on dirty looking wooden slabs. We were in for a surprise. A very neat and clean shop opened up before us with a wide range of tasty looking meats and vegetables. Biltong was being air dried at the back of the shop and a range of old meat mincers were displayed on the wall. Some wag in the shop has dried a pair of pigs ears and attached them to a frame so that unsuspecting passers by, Stef, can be semi-transformed into a pig.

From Clarens we headed up to Bethlehem and back onto the main highways. The rest of our drive was pretty uneventful and we were simply clocking away the distance to Kimberley. Senekal and Winburg came and went and we joined the toll road to get down to Bloemfontein. South African drivers lived up to their reputation all the way. As we worked our way around Bloemfontein the chap in front of me started to brake for no visible reason. Fortunately some sixth sense stopped me from pulling out and overtaking him as around the next corner a car had broken down and was just sat in the outside lane. Three rather large women were handing around by it in the central reservation but none of them had thought to walk around the bend to warn oncoming cars. I suspect that others were not as lucky as us and that at least one car piled into the back of them.

Route 8 took us from Bloemfontein out towards Kimberley and it was along here that I first noticed the dual town system that still seems to be in operation. As we came close to Petrusburg a village of shanty shacks and Mandela Microwaves lined the left hand side of the road. There were simply dirt tracks leading into it and no signs from the main road to tell you what it was. It seemed to have shops, schools and even a church but it was almost as if it was meant to be hidden from view (not that you could realistically hide a village of that size). About a kilometre further up on the right hand side, tarmac roads led off to the leafy lanes of Petrusburg where everything looked clean and neat and tidy and well organised. This was where the affluent, and presumable white, people lived with the shanty town being home to their black workforce. It was a sight we have since seen several times driving around.

We finally made it to Kimberley for about 6:30, just as the light was giving out. We’d called in advance to book into self catering accommodation at the Bishop’s Lodge which our booklet calls “a cut above the rest”. It was a modern block building and we had a clean and functional room but one that was totally devoid of any character. They seem to have built a block of suites, each comprising of an ensuite double room which comes with lounge and small kitchenette and then a separate en suite room with two single beds. The settee in the lounge also folds down to a bed but six people living in that amount of space would probably drive you nuts.

Compared to our bungalow at Wits End it was a poor relation in terms of charm and facilities and an expensive alternative too. But it had everything we needed and we were soon rustling up a tasty dinner. We had a couple of games of gin rummy but sleep got the better of both of us and we soon went to bed.

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At the Kimberley Mine

The reason we had had such a long drive yesterday was to get us to Kimberley, home of the De Beers Diamond Company. There is a small museum here with replica buildings of the mining town as it was in the early days, views down into the Big Hole and you can also get underground tours of the mine and tours of the treatment works. Or at least that’s what it says in Lonely Planet.

We were up early so that we could make it for the underground tour at 7:45am. We made our way out to the Big Hole and asked at the ticket office about the underground tours. The chap behind the counter seemed clueless so bargaining that we had come to the wrong place we headed back tot eh car as time was running out to get to the right place before the tour started. In the car park I stopped a hopeful looking man and asked him if he knew about the tours. It turned out that he was the manager of the mines area so a good person to ask. Unfortunately though the mine closed down six months ago so there are no longer any tours!

He did confirm though that we could still go and see the Big Hole and see part of the museum which was behind us. The museum though is currently a building site and you can’t get around all of it. It was really frustrating for us because we’d taken a long detour to get here and pretty much everything we wanted to see was either closed or off limits. Nevertheless we decided to make the best of it and headed for the building site, sorry the museum.

Lonely Planet says that the museum has 48 buildings, some original and some copies of originals. The idea is to create the look and feel of Kimberley as it was in the 1880’s. They must now be upgrading and extending the museum as lots of new buildings are being built to the right of where the old village is. We could only really get a glimpse through a barrier at most of the buildings. There is chapel, a bar, the mine manager’s house and a variety of different shops and work buildings.

Compared to the diamond mine town of Kolmanskop in Namibia, which was founded in the early 1900’s, the mine manager’s house was a very modest affair. It was a one story building with a main living room, two bedrooms off to the side and a small kitchen at the back. It probably would have fitted into its Kolmanskop counterpart five or six times over. We were able to see into one of the small rows of shops here. There was a fancy goods store with an interesting selection of undergarments on display. Next door a musical shop had superb keyboards and next to that was the place to go if you wanted to buy your own hand rolled cigarettes. The pawnbrokers around the corner had quite a selection of bits and pieces once treasured items.

The rest of the village is now a building site and we couldn’t get in to see it. It would be interesting to come back and see it when it is finished off. Hopefully they will have character actors working here to bring it to life and to give people more of a feel for what life was like in those times. Behind the village is the Big Hole, the largest mine hole in the world that has been dug entirely by human hands. It is absolutely massive and incredible to believe that it was created without machines.

An enclosed walkway takes to you to a point where you can look down into the hole. It is a bit like a volcanic crater with sloping side leading down to a vertical shaft. The mine is 1,097m deep in total. Open cast mining took place to a depth of 240m, the rest being underground. In total 22,500,000 tons of land were excavated to extract 2,722kg, or 14,504,566 carats, of diamonds, a huge amount of earth to shift. The mine closed down in 1914 as it was no longer economically viable and today the hole has 41m of water in it creating a huge pond 174m down from the surface of the hole.

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The Big Hole, incredible to think this is entirely man-made!

It is a staggering sight to see, even more so when you try to picture what it was actually like to be there and to work there. The hole is slap bang in the middle of Kimberley and would no doubt have been the hub of activity in the town. There must have been an endless stream of mule carts transporting earth, stones and rocks up to the surface to the filtering bays. Conditions must have been extremely basic and pretty grim.

Beyond the observation point there are a few tin huts set up to give you a feel of what it was like for the miners. One was about the size of our garden shed. Inside it was lined with cardboard, no doubt acting as a layer of insulation. There was a simple metal framed bed, a tiny wooden table and a three legged stool inside and that was it. It was incredibly simple. One of the old mine shaft pulleys still stands looking graceful and sleepy and as if it is about to be incorporated into one of the new buildings going up.

As well as looking around the museum and at the Big Hole you can have a go at a diamond dig. For R5 you can buy a bucket that you fill with washed stones and pebbles, amongst which you will hopefully find a bit of plastic the size of a large diamond with a coloured blob inside. If you find one, the colour determines what type of a prize you win and they are all pretty tacky like the stuff you get at fairgrounds. If though you find a bit of plastic with two spots of colour inside you win a De Beers diamond.

We got our bucket of pebbles and spent the next ten minutes or so sifting through it with fingers crossed but, in the spirit of the day so far we didn’t get a single bit of plastic in our bucket. It was a very boring process and must have been mind numbing and back breaking work for the people who worked here day in day out hoping to make their fortune. It was a very different process to Namibia where people just lay down on their tummies on the desert and picked the diamonds up off the sand.

We had a quick look in the gift shop surprised that it wasn’t full of diamonds set in different bits of jewellery. They did have a few that you could buy in a cheap plastic box with a De Beers wax seal but we resisted the temptation. It would probably end up falling out of our packs one day and we’d both be a bit miffed if we lost it. Besides which the ones we could afford were tiny and the ones I could have been happy with were a mere £20,000 each!

By 9:15am we were back at our “hotel”. We’d expected to have a pretty full day of sightseeing but having seen what there is to see we decided to head south today rather than just killing time in Kimberley. Although it seems like a pleasant enough town there is really no reason for us to stay here any more. We packed up the car and were on the road just after 10:00am.

Our route down to the coast took us through the Karoo. People we’ve met here told us that it was a very different landscape in South Africa and something well worth seeing. They are right and we would probably marvelled at it more if it hadn’t been very similar to what we had spent the best part of three weeks driving through in Namibia. We were back to very wide open plains with low scrub style vegetation growing on what looks like very sandy soil. Even the rivers here are pretty much all dried up, again like Namibia.

We passed through a couple of hundred kilometres of desert style landscape grateful that unlike Namibia the roads had been tarmaced and were in good condition. We knew we wouldn’t make it all the way to the coast today and we planned to stop just outside Beaufort West overnight. We pulled into the town which was again a mix of old colonial South Africa mixed with the new and less endearing South Africa. There were few white people around and I could sense eyes following me as I made my way into the supermarket. It was a pretty odd feeling.

Restocked, we headed out of town and found the Teri-Moja Game Lodge, our home for the night. You could barely see it from the main road. There is a main house and then six or seven small thatched cabins built on a stretch of land in the middle of the desert. We had a friendly welcome from the owner and her dogs and soon settled in for the night. There was a large kitchen/lounge area with a double bedroom and a separate bathroom. A mezzanine floor was home to two single beds and the settee also looked like it would fold down into a double bed. It was very comfortable for two, would be OK for four but I think six would be a bit of a tight fit. Outside we had a small patio with our own braai area and views out over the surrounding desert. What it didn’t have though were all the facilities listed in the AA guide we had picked it from.

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Inquisitive ostrich, we named her Olivia

The wind had picked up during the day and a strong breeze was blowing outside. We were sheltering inside writing our diaries and I looked up to see and ostrich ambling about on the lawn outside. Stef grabbed his camera to take some photos and we then had an entertaining ten minutes or so. It’s hard to say who was more curious about whom. We were certainly interested in close ups of the ostrich but she also seemed very curious about us. From the ground to the top of the wall around our patio must have been at least seven or eight feet but she could still pop her head over the top to have a look.

One of the people who runs the lodge was walking past our cabin at the time and he confirmed that they have about thirteen wild ostriches on their land. The females and larger than the males and this one sounds like it is quite a frequent visitor. We have seen them from the road but had never realised how big they actually were. Its feet are huge and very solid looking and you certainly wouldn’t want to get kicked by one. The chap from the lodge said it was OK to feed it bread or dry biscuits so I went and got a slice of bread. This gave us a renewed interest factor and as I tore a chunk off the ostrich went into hyper drive action mode and almost got my fingers too!

With a clear night sky all around us we donned our fleeces to keep warm in the wind and had a superb braai dinner outside watching the stars. We had music playing in the background, too much to eat and far too much red wine to drink but it was a very pleasant evening all the same.

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Driving across the Great Karoo

The wind had continued throughout the night and it had also at some stage been raining. It felt cold in our cabin and you could hear and feel the wind rustling through the thatch. We were slow to get ourselves up and about today, partly due to the long driving days we have had and also I suspect partly due to the excess wine we had drunk yesterday. Neither of us really felt hung over but we were glad to have an alka seltzer none the less.

We made it out onto the road by 10:00am planning to head down at least as far as George but probably also turning back west for a while along the Garden Route. It was another long drive down and through the Karoo with vast African skies creating the backdrop for the wide open vistas we saw along the way. We saw loads of ostriches along the way but here they were mainly farmed rather than wild. This area was home to the nineteenth century ostrich feather industry.

The open view ahead of us soon changed to be dominated by a long mountain range. There was no visible road track winding around or through it but a path had been carved through a gap between two mountains. Beyond this first range you could see the distant peaks of the next ridge of mountains and I think in total we passed over four separate ranges. In between was more flat Karoo desert.

It was a beautiful drive through this part of the country. The road leading through the mountains followed the course of a river all the way taking us through breathtaking views of the red sandstone rocks that had been eroded away through the years. Each drift where the road crossed the river had been given a separate name, some named after individuals, others after animals and more just reflecting the scenery around us. There were lots of places along the way to stop off and just enjoy the view both within the mountain pass and as you reached the other side.

Once through the mountains your view is dominated by the Indian Ocean. Below us sprawled the town of George, its white buildings very much a blot on an otherwise beautiful view. The ocean was a deep, dark inviting blue with the wind whisking the waves revealing white strips of surf. George revealed itself to be a pleasant enough town and you could sense that hidden away in the middle somewhere was an old colonial centre. Here though McDonalds joined KFC and Nando’s as familiar western chains and the outskirts are a sprawl of westernised malls.

From George we headed west to Knysna passing along the way some absolutely stunning scenery. To our right was the ocean with waves crashing down onto the beach. To our left wooded hillsides lined the roads and small lakes and lagoons were in the valley floor. It started to remind us both of the countryside we had seen and enjoyed in Canada. The Canadian similarities continued at Knysna the only different being the names of the shops in the malls.

This whole stretch is very geared towards tourism and B&B’s, guesthouses and attractions lined the road either side. From Knysna we carried on westwards making our way to Plettenberg Bay. We stopped in town for a bite to eat at what looked like one of the few places that was open. We’re not sure if this is the usual weekend shut down or whether it is because we are here at the end of the season and places have already closed until next year.

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Indian Ocean in sight again

We found an internet café only to find it was shut. As we got back to the car a waiter in the Italian restaurant we’d parked in front of asked if we were looking for connectivity. They have a hotspot wireless zone so we headed in and caught up on email. With time marching on we headed out to find the place we’d booked into for the next two nights. It's an Aventura resort, the same chain we’d stayed at in Blyde Canyon where we had a really cosy little cabin.

As I was starting to think we’d missed the turn for the resort we saw the flags flying outside and turned in. It’s slightly inland on the banks of the Keurbooms River. We checked in, bought some wood and found our cabin. We were both disappointed with what we saw. We’d driven past some brick cabins that looked comfy and cosy only to find that ours was a somewhat dilapidated wooden shack. The bedroom was OK but the other main room was crammed with furniture servicing as kitchen, dining room, lounge and bedroom with bunk beds and a full seized wardrobe. Neither of us were pleased and we went back to reception and asked if we could change. Of course we could for some extra dosh but we only had five minutes to have a look at an alternative and make our minds up. Just as well we hadn’t stayed longer doing stuff on the internet!

We unpacked our bits and pieces into cabin number 2 and set about the daily routine of getting our braai set up and dinner on the go. It was another warm night, with the benefit of a fleece, so we again ate al fresco. Further down in another cabin was a group of lads all enjoying themselves immensely. As the evening wore on you could sense that the alcohol was still flowing as the volume control knob was gradually turned upwards.

With the cold finally getting the better of us we headed indoor and caught the last half hour or so of a BBC programme called Pride. It had quite a cast list with Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Sean Bean, Robbie Coltrane, Kate Winslet among others. Their characters were a pride of lions and a story of everyday life in the bush had been woven around fabulous photography of lions in the wild.

We both slept really well, surprising because the bed didn’t look as if it was going to yield a good night’s sleep. We’re waking later and later each day at the moment and we again had a slow and lazy start. As we have run out of clean clothes, Stef went in search of the laundromat on the campsite and we spent most of the day just chilling out and catching up on our diaries. It’s a very peaceful and quiet spot here and you can simply enjoy watching the trees and the birds out of the window.

In the evening we headed back into town. It was still totally quiet although a few other people were around and about. We headed back to the Italian restaurant we had stopped at for a while yesterday and had a very tasty pizza while we spent more time on line. We were back at our little cabin quite early. As we hadn’t been there all night it felt quite cold inside so we were soon tucked up under the covers in bed.

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Clear skies and water at Plettenberg Bay
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Fishing at Buffalo Bay
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Aah, fresh air, give me more!

We had another lie in this morning and were still slow to get ourselves up and about. I think it’s mainly because we are in a seaside part of the world and we’ve both slipped easily out of travel mode and into holiday mode. It will have to change soon though as we still have loads to see and not much time left to see it in.

In the morning we headed back to the mall and tried a different internet café which had a slightly faster connection. We’ve now managed to upload all of our photos from Namibia so only have the South Africa ones to catch up on. It will still take a few hours to do that so we’ll try and gradually work our way through it. We stopped at a local cafe for a bite of lunch before making out way back down the coast a bit to Knysna where we planned to stay for a couple of nights.

The tourist information office had up to date information on accommodation availability, or so we thought. We wanted to stay on the coast not on the lagoon which Knysna is situated around and that limited our options quite a bit. We found a place we liked the look of and went to their office in town only to find that they had no self catering places available. The lady there was really friendly though and called a place further on down the coast at Buffalo Bay. Her son works in the restaurant there and above the restaurants they had holiday flats which sounded pretty good.

We popped into the Spar for our daily shop and then headed down the coast taking the turn off for Buffalo Bay. The scenery here really is breathtaking and I can fully understand why people come here for a few weeks in the summer. Buffalo Bay is no exception. It’s a few kilometres away from the main N2 and there is not a lot here apart from a shop, one restaurant and lots and lots of holiday homes. Only 22 people are permanent residents here.

Miriam gave us a friendly welcome and we had a choice of their flats. We opted for number 6 which had the best views out and over the bay. A chap in full wet suit was kite surfing his way along the bay and he really picked up speed. The bay itself is beautiful with a wide clean sandy beach on one side and a rocky inlet on the other. We dumped our stuff and went for a stroll the fading light. Being on the Indian Ocean we had expected warmish water but it was pretty cold underfoot. We were also welcomed by the same sand shells that we had come across lots of in Ecuador. They still gave us both the creepy crawlies especially as these ones were bigger and you could more easily see them crawling about on the sand. Yuk.

We spent the evening in our lounge overlooking the bay and seeing the lights of other small villages further along the coast. The sea kept us company with the waves crashing onto the beach and it was supremely peaceful and quiet.

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Something goose (?) at Buffalo Bay

Today we woke up to see the colours of the sun rise spreading across the sky before us, more fabulous reds and pinks to wake us up for the day. A layer of mist hung like a blanket over the sea, slowly burning off during the day as the sun warmed up. The light here is fabulous and clear. It is uninterrupted by buildings and wraps itself around you creating a special effect similar to the light in St Ives in Cornwall. The waves rolled in to shore creating a surprising amount of noise for their size.

We have both relaxed into seaside mode and decided that all we would do today was go for a stroll along the beach. The village at Buffalo Bay is on a small peninsula with a wide sandy beach stretching out in front of our flats and a smaller rocky bay on the other side of the peninsula, which then becomes a sandy bay further round. We started over at the rocky bay hoping to find some interesting things to look at in one of the many rock pools that dotted the coast. The pools were pretty large but only full of very clear sea water. If there was animal life within them the animals were too small to see with the naked eye.

We walked as far as we could around the peninsula before having to cut through the village to get back to the sandy beach. The peninsula point is private property and home to Buffalo Bay’s campsite. It looked like a fabulous site to stay at, with wide open views and what looked like pretty modern facilities blocks too. The benefit of cutting through the village though was to see the different styles of the houses and to enjoy reading out the names of some of them – “looking in the cooking pot”, “this is enough”, “ as solid as a rock” to name a few. The village had a very sleepy air with most houses being closed up for the winter. The people we chatted to yesterday told us that there are only 22 permanent residents in the village.

There were a couple of information panels on the beach explaining about the different types of whales and dolphins that came along this part of the coastline. Neither of us had realised before that whales had evolved from land based creatures in effect taking the cycle of evolution back to its sea based routes. This whole area is a marine conservation park where they are trying to protect some of the local fish species which in turn then regenerates a wide sphere of sea based plants and life.

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Beach games

We made our way down onto the sandy bay which runs for about 7km round to the next village. It was soft sand all the way, not as good as the sand in the Malay Perhentian islands but pretty good as sand goes. Dotted all along the bay were friends we had first come across in Ecuador, some sort of shell that lives beneath the sand. In Ecuador we had only seen very small translucent ones but here they seemed to be a wide variety of ages. Some were small and translucent but most now had a hard shell, some with vibrant colours. They still made us squirm though as you could see them sculling over the surface of the sand all seeming to be heading to the same place. It was quite a creepy sight but not as creepy as the big splodge of jelly we found further up.

It was a beautiful walk along the bay in fresh clear air and warm sunshine. High dunes bordered the bay and at one stage we caught glimpses of dolphins out to sea. A game of jumbo noughts and crosses marked the end of our outward walk and we turned around and headed back to the village. All the way we’d been paddling off and on in the sea. Considering it’s the Indian Ocean and meant to be warm it was pretty freezing cold numbing your feet within seconds. It must have been cold because even Stef wasn’t tempted to go in for a swim.

We stopped for a late lunch at the café beneath our flats making the dangerous mistake of having a glass or two of wine while we ate. It was simply a relaxing place to be. As the afternoon wore on more people came out to enjoy the beach but none seemed to stay very long. A couple of chaps turned up in their Land Rover, donned their wet suits, grabbed their surf boards and headed out into the water. The waves weren’t really big enough to surf on though and they gave up after about half an hour.

Our lazy afternoon by the sea merged into a lazy evening by the sea and we both had a very relaxing day.