CONSOLIDATED TRIP REPORTS 1994 TO 1999
By Bert Duplessis
My wife and I visit South Africa from time to time, usually for a few days en route to Botswana, Zimbabwe or Namibia. Over the last several years, I have also co-led a few nature tours in South Africa, amongst others a 20-day trip which visited Cape Town, the northern Cape as far as Upington, Johannesburg, Pretoria, parts of Mpumalanga (the former eastern Transvaal) and much of Kwazulu-Natal, including the southern Drakensberg. Our most recent trip (in Sept. 1999) was our 6th visit over a period of five years, and this report contains elements of all six trips.
On the whole, reports of increased urban crime & deteriorating health & other social services were worrisome, but hardly visible to non-residents. People seemed to go about their business and everything was very ‘normal’, right down to having to deal with surly post office clerks. There is no denying that the ‘new’ South Africa is struggling to cope with an increase in crime, from petty theft to armed robbery and worse. Much has been said and written about this topic; my advice is to go, but to be very alert in the cities.
Having lived most of my life in South Africa, I am – still – used to the vast discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots, all too visible in this country and elsewhere in Africa. To visitors from overseas, especially the United States, it is sometimes shocking to come face to face with poverty and deprivation, and with stark reminders of racial division. I think one should take heart that things are changing for the better. By visiting the country and spending dollars there, you will be making a real difference in somebody’s life. There is no sense in ignoring the fact that underprivileged Africans are materially much worse off than any homeless person you’ll see in America. However, if this kind of thing is going to really spoil the trip for you, going to Africa may not be a wise choice.
My groups certainly never experienced anxiety of any kind, and I think their lasting impression of the country areas (the ‘platteland’) will be one of smiling, happy people. If our vehicle passed by a thousand children in the interior, 999 of them – all dressed in school uniforms – were waving! There is much hope for the future. South Africa still offers visitors from overseas more variety than any other African destination. For wild-life enthusiasts, South Africa is without doubt the best place for rhino – both black and white. At the rate these animals are disappearing elsewhere on the continent, my advice would be to go and see them first! However, South Africa has a lot more going for it than just animals, and one simply has to spend at least a couple of days in Cape Town, a word-class travel destination. Together with the dunes at Sossusvlei in Namibia, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Kilimanjaro, Cape Town’s bay and mountain are deservedly considered to be one of the four most impressive sights in sub-Saharan Africa.
Food: Fast and Otherwise
Before I get to the animals & birds, a few words on logistics, for would-be visitors. The South African currency unit, the Rand, has taken quite a hit over the last few years against the US Dollar. This results in very good prices at restaurants, especially : one has to frequent really fancy joints to pay more than R60 ($10.00) for a main course, and about R50 ($8) for a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. You can get away for less, and for a little more you can enjoy a fabulous meal. At the Quay Four (Victoria & Alfred Waterfront) in 1999, my wife and I ordered the most expensive item on the menu – a grilled seafood platter – with crayfish, langoustine, excellent grilled fish and more. The entire meal (including mineral water and coffee) for two, including a 15% gratuity, came to just under $60. At Cynthia’s – one of the better restaurants in Pretoria, we enjoyed an excellent aged rump steak with a green peppercorn sauce for less than $10 per person.
Don’t bargain on eating fast food: it is generally mediocre & over-priced. South Africa was a late starter on the McDonald’s band-wagon, but the golden arches are becoming a familiar sight around this country as well. So if a Quarter Pounder with cheese is a particular favourite of yours, go right ahead. KFC has been in South Africa for many years, and the Colonel’s fare is not too bad a choice if you are really desperate for fried chicken! Do try some of the local ‘fast food’, though: in Kwazulu-Natal – and for that matter pretty much everywhere – samoosas make excellent snacks. Just make sure that these curried vegetable or meat-filled pastries (of sorts) have been kept at an adequate temperature! Another local specialty is ‘boerewors’, a sausage which is (usually) stuffed with a mixture of ground beef & pork. Like the local potato chips – here known as crisps – boerewors is nowadays available in far too many flavors, from garlic through to barbecue. Everything in this country seems to come in a barbecue flavor! As a rule of thumb, rather order a piece of boerewors on a roll, than a hamburger. With the latter, you never know what you’re going to get.
Places to Stay
Quality of accommodation & service fluctuates widely between urban & country areas. In all the major cities & some of the larger towns one has the choice of hotel chains such as City Lodge, Holiday Inn Garden Court, Protea, etc. which offer good value for money in the 3-star category, where one should expect a good, ‘generic’ hotel room (air-conditioned, en suite bathroom, color TV, telephone) for about $60 per person, per day, bed & breakfast. It’s a different story in the countryside. Two-star hotels are often no better than run-down boarding houses with seedy bars, bad food and no service to speak of. This was certainly our experience at the Hantam Hotel in Calvinia and the Kenhardt Hotel in Kenhardt. However, the 2-star Pofadder Hotel was quite pleasant and the Belmont Hotel in Ceres was terrific, especially the lavish buffet dinner!
City and suburban hotels such as the Grace Hotel in Rosebank, the Cullinan in Sandton, the Cape Grace at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, the Table Bay, The Mount Nelson and the like, offer a first class level of hospitality, service and amenities, comparable with deluxe hotels anywhere in the world.
The concept of guest houses and b & b’s has taken off in South Africa in a big way. The latest edition of the Portfolio collection lists some 200 recommended B & B’s. South Africa also has many excellent guest houses, several of which I can personally recommend, including Fugitive’s Drift Lodge near Rorke’s Drift, Klippe Rivier Homestead in Swellendam, and Welgelegen Guest House in Cape Town.
Getting Around and Getting There
South Africa is very easy to get around in: in fact it is the one southern African country where one should ordinarily not have to travel with a tour group, unless you’re single, interested in a specialized activity, or simply prefer the group experience. Although South Africa has the best road network in Africa, we find it very difficult to encourage self-drive trips. Road safety standards leave much to be desired, with many terrible drivers who speed, tail-gate & overtake when they shouldn’t. Many vehicles are in a shocking state of disrepair and the incidence of drinking and driving is very high. Traffic law enforcement is lax, driver education poor. So my advice is to avoid extended self-driving around the major cities and to avoid night-driving, especially on weekends.
South Africa has a fairly decent passenger rail service (take the trans-Karoo Express from Jo’burg to Cape Town or the weekly train from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, if you have the time). There are several luxury train trips on offer, including the classic Blue Train journey between Cape Town and Pretoria, and as far as Victoria Falls; Rovos Rail offers similar trips. South Africa’s air transport network, which has benefited from privatization, is more than adequate, although some of the airports still leave much to be desired. Recent improvements at Johannesburg Airport’s International Arrivals Hall include modern luggage carousels. Too bad the luggage still takes as long as it does to make it to the carousels…
My experiences with South African Airways have been mixed. I rate the food above average, the service about average and the comfort level no better than anybody else’s. However, SAA is a pretty professional outfit, it runs on time most of the time, and there’s nothing ‘third worldish’ about it. The convenience of South African Airways’ direct flights to Johannesburg and Cape Town makes up for what one may be able to save going via Europe. However it appears that SAA will shortly drop Miami as a gateway city, opting for Atlanta instead. It is a pity. I have flown SAA’s non-stop MIA/CPT flight several times lately and recommend it highly: arriving in Cape Town at about 2 pm after an uninterrupted overnight ‘2 movie, 3-meal’ 15-hour flight sure beats the alternative. This being two long flights; the first one the trans-Atlantic leg to London or Frankfurt or whatever. Followed by another south-bound overnight marathon. Not to mention the time spent cooling one’s heels in the process. Much the same applies to the JFK/JNB flight. Travelers should take note that SAA’s flights have been running to capacity, and I know of at least one incident – I was there – when more than 30 people were bumped from the Miami/Cape Town flight in early October 1995. The same thing happened in September 1999, from Cape Town to Miami. Reconfirm you flight at least 72 hours before departure and don’t show up late at the airport!
But is it Safe?
When to Go
In planning a first trip to South Africa – or any southern African country, for that matter, timing is important. If game-viewing is your primary objective, go anytime from June through October: little chance of rain (except in the Cape) and good game-viewing, due to generally good visibility as the veld is sparsely vegetated. Keep in mind that the greater part of South Africa’s interior, as well as Cape Town, is cold in winter, especially at night, when temperatures routinely drop to the lower 40’s (F) just before dawn, warming up to the 60’s by early afternoon. However, even in winter, temperatures in Zululand and the north-eastern lowveld (including Kruger Park) are mild. For bird-watching, the spring and summer months (September through March) are better, due to the presence of many migrants from Europe & central/north Africa. Also, most land birds breed in the summer, so that by January both parents and off-spring are present, as much as doubling the overall population.
Once it rains (mostly from November through Jan/Feb.) game tends to disperse as they can find pools of water almost everywhere, not just at the few waterholes, dams & rivers which retain water throughout the winter and beyond. Even so, South Africa is largely a dry country, and rainfall is relatively low to very low, even in the ‘rainy’ season. What rain does fall is mostly in the form of scattered thunderstorms so it won’t really affect one’s holiday. Occasionally, however, a tropical weather system will move in from the east and settle over the lowveld for a few days, causing extended periods of rain, especially along the northern Kwazulu-Natal coast. It is only at the end of especially heavy rainy seasons (which are few and far between) that one gets major dispersal of game.
Avoid going to South Africa in December through mid-January, unless you can plan your trip well in advance. December is the biggest local holiday month, with – literally – thousands of people from the interior crowding into coastal cities and other resort & game-viewing areas. In fact, it’s almost comical to see so many Gauteng license plates in places like Cape Town and Durban. Accommodation is hard to find, everything suddenly costs more, there are lines galore, etc. etc. Another ‘busy’ month in Durban and the game reserves is July, which is also a school holiday. Book well in advance!
Mammals from Aardvark to Zebra
Even though our October 1995 trip was geared towards birding, we ended up with a list of no less than 45 mammals, including Samango Monkey, Springhare, African Wild Cat, Bat-eared Fox, Cape Clawless Otter, Striped Polecat, Large-spotted Genet, Antbear (aka Aardvark), African Elephant, Black Rhino, White Rhino, Bontebok, Blesbok, Red Duiker, Springbok, Klipspringer, Steenbok, Gemsbok, Buffalo, Kudu, Nyala, Bushbuck, Eland, Common Reedbuck & Waterbuck. Both the Cape Clawless Otter – which was feeding in a rock pool in the ocean at Kommetjie and the Aardvark (which really is quite pig-like in appearance) were lifers to even our very experienced local guide, so these two sightings were particularly thrilling. Quite a few of the rarer, nocturnal mammals were – obviously – encountered on night drives, which we undertook just about everywhere. To be fair, we did spot some birds on the night drives too, a memorable one being a Spotted Eagle Owl which just sat and sat right in the road, seemingly fascinated by the quartz halogen beam. We never did see large herds of wildebeest or antelope as one might expect in east Africa, and this is pretty much par for the course in South Africa.
On a subsequent trip we enjoyed excellent game-viewing at MalaMala game reserve, highlights being finding ourselves – on an open game-viewing vehicle – right in the midst of a massive herd of buffalo; closely observing a leopard on the hunt, some stunning looks at a pride of lions, very relaxed elephant and a solitary white rhino. Which makes for the so-called ‘Big Five’ and we duly received our certificates. MalaMala is without equal in terms of ‘delivering’ a consistent, quality experience all-round, from its game-viewing which benefits from extensive river footage, drawing large numbers of mammals onto the property, to its superior hospitality and food, resulting in numerous awards over the years. The reason for MalaMala’s success? Michael and Norma Rattray. When we visited there in 1998, the first person we saw as we drove onto the property was Mr. Rattray himself, inspecting one of the roads. Later that evening, he personally inquired about our well-being. And it was obvious that Mrs. Rattray was treated with great respect by all the staff members.
In reply to a question whether Cape Town was safe to visit, a student was given the following advice on an internet newsgroup:
‘Perhaps you should avoid Cape Town. If you take the chance, don’t bother with a return ticket because chances are you’ll never go back. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is a knockout, the view from Table Mountain will slay you, the Capetonian girls will leave you breathless, trying all those clubs and pubs is an absolute killer and the beaches are absolutely to die for.’
For the 20-something crowd, that about sums it up. Even for the rest of us, though, starting a South Africa trip in Cape Town is not a bad idea. It’s a laid-back, relaxed sort of a city, a world away from the Johannesburg rat race, and first-time visitors won’t experience too big a culture shock here. A few days in Cape Town is just what you’ll need to ease into Africa, so to speak, before you tackle a safari or some such adventure further north. It may be tough to leave the city behind, though, even if you’re not a student! Scenically breath-taking, with Table Mountain forming the most appealing backdrop imaginable, Cape Town offers a feast of fascinating things to do and see. Take your choice from scenic drives, tours to the nearby wine country, interesting historical monuments like the recently restored Castle, appealing Cape Dutch architecture & furniture, superb beaches, restaurants to please every taste & pocket, the bustling Waterfront development, good hiking, biking & running opportunities, horse trails & riding, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, scuba diving, boat trips & deep-sea fishing and more.
The down-side? The weather can be crummy, especially in June & July, when it’s rather cold – in the 50’s – and rainy. Spring and summer, although mostly sunny & warm to hot, can be windy, and you have to experience a howling south-easterly wind which doubles up pedestrians and rocks buses to appreciate what I’m talking about. However, one soon learns to appreciate the wind as just one more facet of the incredibly varied experience that is Cape Town. A truly cosmopolitan city with its feet squarely in Africa, but with a feel that is very European.
A ‘must do’ outing in Cape Town is a ride by cable car to the top of Table Mountain for breathtaking views of the city & environs. Amongst others, one can see Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent many years of his life as a prisoner. At the terminal station the dassies (rock hyraxes) are so tame they’ll eat right out of your hand. Conventional wisdom has it that the ‘ideal’ cable car trip is at about 1800 in summer so that all the sights can be seen in daylight, following which one can enjoy the most beautiful sunset imaginable. From November through April the cableway operates until 2130 (2230 from December to mid-January).
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is Cape Town’s most popular attraction, and on weekends, especially over December and early January, it is extremely crowded. With more than 40 restaurants, fast food establishments, coffee shops & taverns, you won’t go hungry or thirsty. Take your pick from Belgian through Mexican cuisine, from burgers to seafood. Leisure attractions at the Waterfront are as varied, ranging from boat trips and helicopter flips to visiting the Maritime or Fisheries Museum. The new Two Oceans Aquarium is fascinating and certainly worth going a bit out of one’s way for. Shopping reigns supreme, however, and the Waterfront boasts well over 100 shops, crammed with jewelry, curios, foods & wines, books, clothing, crafts and much more. Not to be missed.
I never grow tired of visiting Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, one of the more beautiful spots on the peninsula, where some interesting birds and typical fynbos plant species such as Protea and Erica may be seen. The Cape has many hundreds of endemic plants and the area is in fact a separate Floral Kingdom, the smallest, yet richest of its kind in the world. The best time to visit the gardens is in spring, when many of the Protea species are in bloom, but there is always something to see.
When in the Cape, it is considered ‘de rigeur’ to visit Cape Point, the spot where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans purportedly meet (they actually meet at Cape Agulhas). It is a great outing, nevertheless, and in addition to some interesting birds, such as sunbirds and sugarbirds, there is a herd of bontebok, and some eland which are regularly seen. The baboons can be a nuisance. From the look-out point it is also possible to watch the fascinating spectacle of hundreds of Cape Cormorants, which breed on the cliffs, approach and leave the nesting site in a never-ending procession, while a steady trickle of Cape Gannet can be seen making their way around the Point, flying low over the water. The ruggedly beautiful Cape Point is worth a visit just for the view, which is hard to describe without resorting to clichés and hyperbole. The relatively new restaurant, which was completed in 1995, offers some stupendous views and it is a good choice for a light lunch. After lunch, take the funicular tram-way up to the look-out point.
To slow down the pace a bit, consider a guided walking tour of the Cape Malay quarter, including a visit to the District Six Museum, a visit to one of the colorful Malay homes (whole avenues have been declared a national monument) and ending with an interesting lunch at the Noon Gun Tea-room, high above the city. The downtown area has several museums and galleries which are worth visiting, such as the South African Museum, and the South African National Gallery. Try to make time for a visit to the nearby Castle, the oldest building in the Cape, which has been meticulously restored, to see the colorful changing of the guards, but more importantly, the William Fehr Collection. The Grand Parade, on the west side of the Castle, is transformed into a rather funky street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Yet another worthwhile outing is a day-tour of the scenically beautiful Cape winelands, including lunch at a typical estate. There are no less than 10 different wine routes within easy driving distance from Cape Town, the most popular ones being the Stellenbosch and Paarl Wine Routes, as well as the Vignerons de Franschoek. The area is reminiscent of northern California’s Napa Valley, and one need not be a wine-lover to enjoy the rural landscapes. The university town of Stellenbosch, where many excellent examples of Cape Dutch architecture may be viewed, as well as the picturesque village of Franschoek, originally settled by French Huguenot immigrants in the 1680’s, should be on your itinerary. You could actually spend a night or two in either of these towns, Stellenbosch perhaps having a bit more to ‘see and do’, while Franschoek is more isolated, and in a superb natural setting.
With several days in the Cape, you certainly wouldn’t want to miss the ferry ride and tour to Robben Island. It is a most worthwhile morning or afternoon activity. Just be sure to buy your tickets early – seats are very popular and are sold on a first come first served basis. In addition to some great views of Table Mountain (coming and going), the tour offers a nice insight on the natural history of the island (watch for the introduced Chukar Partridge and endemic Jackass Penguins, as well as some rather exotic wildlife, including fallow deer). The tour around the village is rather ho-hum, but few people will easily forget the size of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, in the forbidding maximum security prison where he spent some 17 years of his life. It is smaller than many Americans’ walk-in closets. The guides talk with passion and sometimes even wry humor about their past dismal experiences as political prisoners on Robben Island.
In late 1995 our accommodation in Cape Town was the Townhouse Hotel in downtown, not far from the Houses of Parliament and several other interesting historical places. The Townhouse is a very well run hotel with a restaurant which counts amongst the city’s best. The rooms are on the small side, and guest parking is on the 7th floor, which makes for quite a production coming and going. Even so, the Townhouse, which has the feel of a good downtown club, is excellent value for money, has good security and is very centrally located.
Last year, we stayed in the much more elegant, yet also much more expensive Cape Grace Hotel, on the Waterfront. The choice for someone who appreciates a typical small, deluxe hotel, with understated charm and polished, efficient service. The Cape Grace was voted ‘Hotel of the Year’ for 1999 by the board of the prestigious ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ group, which has nearly 250 member properties worldwide.
Another recommended hotel is the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, which is located in the historic 1904 North Quay warehouse on Cape Town’s waterfront. It has large, luxuriously furnished bedrooms with nice views of Table Mountain and the City of Cape Town. The hotel is a past winner of the much sought-after Silver Collection Award based upon consistently high standards of service, hospitality and ambience. We stayed there in September 1999 and the hotel most definitely lived up to expectations, great views from our room! Of all the Waterfront hotels, it has the best location.
Other hotels at the Waterfront include the budget Breakwater Lodge (a former prison – good value for money in the budget category), the Villa Via, PortsWood and the City Lodge. More recent newcomers include the 4-star Commodore, the 5-star deluxe Table Bay Sun, the Cullinan and the Holiday Inn across the corner from the entrance to the waterfront, and several more.
I also recommend a nice little guest house in Gardens, the very stylish Welgelegen Guest House, a beautiful double-storey Victorian home in a quiet cul-de-sac. Owner-operator Lanie van Reenen will go out of her way to make sure that you have everything you need. Here is what a recent guest had to say about the Welgelegen: “I also wanted to let you know how much we enjoyed the Welgelegen guest house. It may be the best we have ever stayed at. Lanie really makes sure all the “little” things are always done, and of course the breakfasts are fantastic”.
A bit further afield, our latest ‘favorite’ is Bushmanskloof, in the Cedarberg area, about 4 hours from Cape Town by road. We think it is destined to become the Western Cape’s premier game lodge. The game-viewing at Bushmanskloof was certainly better than I had anticipated (we saw Eland, Springbok, Grey rhebuck, Cape Mountain Zebra, Black Wildebeest, Bontebok, Bat-eared Fox, Cape Fox and Aardwolf) but even if there were no game it would be a worthwhile place for a two or three night visit. The variety and abundance of Bushman rock art in the area is phenomenal and viewing it from close up is a stirring experience. The area and its attractions could not be more different than Botswana or, for that matter, any of the real ‘bushveld’ areas. Yet it is still very much ‘Africa’, offering a tremendously wide variety of adventure activities, including hiking, mountain biking, swimming and even abseiling on request. The guiding at Bushmanskloof was as good as any I have ever experienced. There’s a young chap there (I believe he is from Zimbabwe) by the name of Andre who impressed us no end. Personable, articulate, knowledgeable, the lot. They are fortunate to have him.
On a visit to Cape Town in the mid 90’s our local naturalist guide was Dr Peter Ryan, a young scientist attached to Africa’s foremost academic centre for ornithology, the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute for African Ornithology at Cape Town University. Peter made sure that we enjoyed many bird-watching highlights, starting with Jackass Penguins at Boulders Beach. Jackass Penguins are the only penguins found in Africa, so this outing was one which tour members keenly anticipated. They were not disappointed. Boulders’ little colony of Jackass Penguins had over the last few years grown into a very healthy, obviously thriving population, and we had some excellent looks at these aptly named birds, many of which were ‘braying’ loudly.
From Cape Town, our route took us along the West Coast road to Langebaan Lagoon, famous for its populations of seabirds and shorebirds. The southern end of the lagoon, as I had anticipated, was good for Black Harrier, easily one of the most spectacular birds I have ever seen. One of South Africa’s few endemic birds of prey, the Black Harrier is easily identified by its striking black and white feathers.
From Ceres to Calvinia
After a side-trip to De Hoop and the Grootvadersbosch, we found ourselves in the town of Ceres, at the very pleasant New Belmont Hotel. Ceres, which has been described as the Switzerland of South Africa, is a pleasant town, but with quite a lot of snow on the nearby Hex River mountains, it was a little on the chilly side. The next morning we ascended the Theronsberg Pass, entering renosterveldbos, a transitional vegetation zone. The area from here onwards, which is also known as the Tankwa Karoo, is rather barren and will not be high on anybody’s ‘must visit’ list, except for birders who come here for species such as Namaqua Prinia, Karoo Eremomela, Karoo Korhaan and Tractrac Chat. We made an extended stop at the Katbakkies picnic spot, one of the best places in the country for Cinnamonbreasted Warbler, a noisy, but elusive little ‘rockjumper’.
Quite a few miles beyond Katbakkies, literally in the middle of nothing, disaster struck in the form of two flat tires in quick succession. One flat tire anybody can handle, but not two! Fortunately, we were only a 20-minute walk or so from one of the few farm houses in the area. A telephone call later, and the Calvinia tire crew was on its way. Damage repaired, we were underway again in less than two hours. Turns out that our tires were underinflated for the weight we were carrying and for this particular road surface, which consists of small, sharp shale particles. Be forewarned, if you ever wander onto the Bushmanland gravel roads. The quarter sized, jagged-edged pieces of flat rock wedge into the tire tread indentations (of underinflated tires) and slowly penetrate the rubber until the inevitable happens. We spent the night in the only hotel in Brandvlei, one of South Africa’s most isolated towns. It was near here, at the vast dry salt pan of Verneukpan, that Sir Malcolm Campbell set the world land-speed record in his car, the famous Bluebird, in 1929. We had more mundane things in mind, such as hot food and a firm mattress, as we had to rest up for the long trip to Pofadder.
The small, dusty, Northern Cape town of Pofadder had probably never seen anything like it. A member of a French film crew crashing into a gate that had been evaded by everybody else for generations, and a group of crazy birders from the ‘States setting off from the hotel in pitch darkness to go and find a Cape Eagle Owl. Indeed. When I first heard that we were going to be sharing digs with a French film crew, I trimmed my beard. Who knows whom one may run into. It can happen, you know! Alas, all we saw of alluring French actresses were rather sleepy-looking types huddled over their pre-dawn breakfast. I think our small group of birders were the only other people in town awake that early! The presence of a large group of foreigners did help me out of one tight spot, however. One afternoon – after several weeks of driving on the left-hand side of the road – my acquired (in the USA) habit of keeping to the right inexplicably re-surfaced. Half a block down the main drag of Pofadder, I found myself being motioned over to the left by an irate local policeman, who was circling his extended index finger around his right ear and muttering something about crazy Frenchies driving like idiots. Little did he know that the only thing vaguely French about yours truly is a French Huguenot surname and a fondness for good food, and, (in my younger years), good and not-so-good wine. Very French, I’m sure.
Pofadder, by the way, is a lonely but rather cheerful little place, even though its annual rainfall is no more than many cities in Europe receive in a day. One of those rare places where you simply can’t get today’s paper until tomorrow, which is probably why so many people love it. The bird-life in and around the town is sparse, but fascinating. A highlight of both our mid-90’s trips was an outing to Aggeneys, a place-name which features prominently on the South African birding scene, due to the rare Red Larks found there in the dunes. Another memorable experience was stopping to observe the goings-on at a colony of Sociable Weavers. Industry gone berserk. These sparrow-sized birds achieve the improbable feat of building haystack-sized nests which they usually inhabit for life. With luck, a Pygmy Falcon will be found in or near one of the Sociable Weaver nests. We saw several of these shrike-sized falcons, which breed almost exclusively in Sociable Weaver nests. At Onseepkans the South African border officials gave us the okay to walk on the bridge over the Orange River, and we nearly made it all the way across, adding a Rosyfaced Lovebird, perched high up in a tree on the Namibia side, to our trip list.
Augrabies Falls National Park
As our flight to Johannesburg was not scheduled to depart before 16h00 in the afternoon, we took a side-trip to the Augrabies Falls National Park. Here, the Orange River has gouged out a spectacular crevice in the rock, and it plunges down a ravine into a deep cauldron. When the river is in flood – early in the year – this can be an awesome sight but it has been pretty tame on my three recent visits, which were all in the month of October. A few of the viewpoints elsewhere in the Park, such as at Ararat and Moon Rock are worth visiting. At one of these picnic points, which has an awesome view over the Orange River basin, we were enjoying our box lunch while a pair of Black Eagles, arguably the most spectacular bird of prey in Africa, flew low over our heads repeatedly, searching out rock hyrax, of which there were dozens. At Augrabies we also added Klipspringer to our mammal list, but there was not much else to see in the way of animals, the park being particularly barren and dry at this time of the year.
From Augrabies we returned to Upington, killing an hour or two at the Game camp just north of town, where we had some excellent looks at Eland and Gemsbok, both new additions to our growing list of mammals. If you do the self-drive through this seemingly barren area, keep in mind that if you follow the ‘one-way’ arrows, the track winds back and forth, and you’ll cover nearly 40km before it’s all over. The SA Express flight from Upington to Johannesburg was uneventful and on time.
Johannesburg has not been getting much good press lately. Actually, it is not an unpleasant city and as one that has lived there for many years, I can attest to the fact that it has a wonderful climate, nice hotels, great restaurants, a thriving cultural scene, and some world-class shopping centers. Jo’burg also offers its residents very sophisticated entertainment choices and sporting facilities. Not a great deal to see and do for the visitor, however. If you’re so inclined, take a tour of (part of) Soweto, an acronym for South Western Townships. Soweto is not all ‘little boxes'; there are some nice neighborhoods, a lively informal economy, and you may even stop over at a shebeen for something to drink. Of course, Soweto is famous as the flash-point of the Soweto Riots which started at a local school (a mandatory stop on the proverbial “Cook’s Tour” of Soweto) on 16 June 1976, now commemorated as a public holiday. The Soweto Riots, which spread throughout the country and caused great loss of life and damage to property, proved to be a seminal event in the democratization of South Africa. Essentially, it dramatically illustrated that black aspirations for freedom could no longer be ignored. By literally forcing the government of the day into a conciliatory position, the Soweto Riots signaled the real beginning of the end of apartheid.
Another popular outing in Johannesburg is to the Gold Reef City complex, a replica of an 1880’s gold mining village, complete with hotel and restaurants. Traditional African dancing may be seen at the museum on Sundays and there are opportunities to go underground and observe gold ingots being poured. One more thing to do in Johannesburg in the summer months is to go to a limited overs, night-time cricket match at the Wanderers. It will dispel any suspicions you may have harbored about cricket being a slow, genteel pastime.
Pretoria is only about 35 miles or so down the freeway leading north out of Johannesburg. Drive it yourself, but be careful: South Africa has a deserved reputation for terrible driving. If you’re at all interested in history, I’d say Pretoria is a ‘must see’. There’s a host of interesting monuments, museums & government buildings, and even a few good restaurants. The Voortrekker Monument is squat and rather ugly, but it can hardly be ignored. The inside is stark and cold, and the series of friezes depicting the history of the Great Trek, although interesting, does nothing to dispel the gloom. All rather depressing, I’m afraid.
The Union Buildings – where new RSA President Thabo Mbeki occupies an office with a terrific view – is a charming sandstone edifice, designed by famed architect Sir Herbert Baker. In the centre of Pretoria is Church Square which is dominated by a statue of Paul Kruger looking north. Church Square has a nice western facade, and the Ou Raadsaal, old Reserve Bank Building, and the Palace of Justice all date from the days of the South African Republic. Unfortunately, Church Square also has lots of buses as the city council has, in its wisdom, turned it into a bus terminal. Melrose House, a well-maintained Victorian house on Jacob Mare Street is worth a visit, even if it is just to see the stained glass. The Transvaal Museum on Paul Kruger Street, between the station & Church Square, houses many fascinating exhibits of natural history. An hour or so spent browsing around the Austin Roberts Bird Hall is time well spent, and I recommend it as an introduction to the birds of South Africa. The Museum store has a good collection of natural history books at reasonable prices.
If shopping’s your thing, a mall that is as good as any is the Hyperama just east of Pretoria. It has everything from books & maps to clothing (good value at Woolworths), curios (at better prices than the airport’s so-called ‘duty free’) & much more. Across the street from the Hyperama is a discount outlet where you can buy some good – cheap – leather items, clothing and the like. the Hyperama is currently (late 1999) being completely renovated and extended.
Aventura Blydepoort & Swadini
From Pretoria, we headed towards Mpumalanga, formerly known as the Eastern Transvaal. Before going on safari, visitors may want to spend a day or so at one of the two Aventura Resorts near the Blyde River Canyon. These resorts, which are very moderately priced, offer a wide range of activities such as nature walks & scenic drives, swimming pools, tennis, horse-riding, etc. Although many visitors bring their own supplies & do their own cooking, the resorts have restaurants & well-stocked stores.
Blydepoort Resort offers accommodation in rustic stone chalets and is the ideal starting point for scenic trips to attractions like Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window, The Pinnacle and the Three Rondavels. The beauty of the Blyde River Canyon and magnificent views of the escarpment and Lowveld make this resort unique. The resort is heavily oriented towards families and there are children everywhere, especially in summer.
Swadini Resort is below the Blyde River Canyon in true Lowveld (bushveld) habitat. It gets rather hot in summer (I was there early in November a couple of years ago & can testify to that!) but it has lots of atmosphere and is very well run, being a past recipient of a Satour Award for the best self-catering resort in the country. From Swadini it’s a rather long haul to some of the ‘usual’ Blyde Canyon attractions (such as the ones mentioned above), but the resort’s combination of river, mountains and subtropical vegetation is very appealing. Personally, I prefer it over Blydepoort Resort because it is a little more out of the way. Bird-watching is excellent at both the resorts. It’s an easy drive from Swadini & Blydepoort Resort to the private lodges adjacent to Kruger, by the way.
Kruger National Park
My first recollection of a visit to the Kruger National Park dates back to the late 50’s when I was but a bright-eyed little boy in the back of my dad’s VW, scanning the veld in keen anticipation of finding lions. Sometimes, I had to settle for elephant, but I soon got bored looking at Impala, of which there were thousands.
Not much has changed. Kruger is not as inexpensive as it used to be, and there are more visitors from overseas, but impala are still ubiquitous. In fact, visitors soon realize that spending too much time videotaping impala is considered faintly amusing by the locals. I’m still looking for lion – who isn’t – but I’ve overcome the boredom factor by developing an interest in birds, of which there are just as many in Kruger Park as there are impala, the difference being that the birds come in about 400 different species.
It used to be said about advertising that it’s about as much fun as you could have with your clothes on. I’d put a visit to Kruger Park in the same category. It’s all very well to be pampered at a 5-star private lodge, and to be shown this leopard and that lion, but discovering your ‘own’ animals on a Kruger game drive is eminently satisfying. Another facet of the Kruger Park experience is meeting other visitors, and if you’re the least bit gregarious, you’ll soon find yourself exchanging sightings & experiences with people from all over the world. My wife and I still fondly recall an evening in Punda Maria when we met some onion farmers from the Orange Free State around the camp fire. As I recall, they contributed a bottle of Klipdrift brandy & we had some duty-free chocolate mint liqueur, so it was an interesting party.
Kruger Park is famous for its wide variety of mammals, and on our last trip we did pretty well, spotting Impala, Burchell’s Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Cape Buffalo, Southern Giraffe, Tsessebe, Bushbuck, Lion, Cheetah, Spotted Hyena, Black-backed Jackal, Kudu, Waterbuck, Warthog, Chacma Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Steenbok, Duiker and Klipspringer. Mammals in Kruger Park are habituated to the presence of vehicles, so while other African parks may have bigger concentrations of certain species, Kruger Park allows one the opportunity to get really close up for some excellent photographs.
If you are keen on game-viewing, I would definitely recommend a short stay at a private game lodge near Kruger Park, especially for first-time visitors to South Africa. There are convenient daily flights from Johannesburg to Skukuza or Hoedspruit, or alternatively it is a fairly easy – and interesting – drive from Johannesburg – so one does not spend much time in transit. Game-viewing at a private lodge, where you are taken out on fully guided game drives, is usually very productive irrespective of the season. The rangers know where the animals are concentrated at any given time; they are familiar with the territories of predators and there are often several vehicles out at the same time, in radio contact with each other. Notable sighting are shared, so not too much is left to chance! Two game lodges adjacent to Kruger National Park that I highly recommend are MalaMala and Londolozi.
The ultimate Kruger Park experience, though, is to go along on one of the 4-day wilderness trails, operated twice-weekly in 7 different areas. The thrill of a ‘Big 5′ encounter on foot will stay with you for the rest of your life. Being close enough to an elephant to hear its stomach grumble and see the dust fly when it flaps its ears, is exciting when you’re in a vehicle. On foot, in an environment where man is at a distinct disadvantage, it can be a life-changing experience. Reservations for the guided wilderness trails are near impossible to come by and despite regular applications since the early 80’s, I have only been on three walks, viz. Nyalaland, Sweni and Bushmans.
Birding in big game country is fun. On our last visit we purchased a copy of Ian Sinclair’s excellent guide to the birds of the Park at the Phalaborwa entrance gate and then proceeded due east on the tar road, trying to make Letaba by lunch-time. The birding was surprisingly good, and in no time at all we had seen some 40 or so species. Sabota Larks were everywhere, and Southern Yellowbilled, Redbilled and Grey Hornbills were competing for our attention, while the ubiquitous Lilacbreasted Rollers elicited several appreciative comments. A couple of Little Bee-eaters, seemingly indifferent to the presence of the vehicle, posed for the photographers.
Our short visit to Letaba Camp was great. Woodland Kingfisher, Kurrichane Thrush, Redbilled Buffalo-weaver and Mourning Dove were added to the list in quick succession. It was obvious that the dry, dusty conditions had taken their toll of birds in the surrounding veld, and that many species had found the camp to be a good source of food and water. This is true of most Kruger Park camps, and prospective visitors should allow ample time for birding the various camp grounds. All in all, we ticked about 120 species of birds over 4 days in Kruger, including some striking KNP specials such as the Saddlebilled and Marabou Stork, Ground Hornbill, Kori Bustard and Bateleur.
In the afternoon a rather less productive drive saw us arriving at the lovely Olifants Camp, where we would stay for two nights. This drive, and another one the following day, reminded me that Mopane veld is not a very productive habitat. Too many leaves and not enough birds. Plenty of elephant, though! Olifants Camp, which was built in 1960, has retained its old-fashioned charm and it also has the most dramatic setting of any camp in the park, on a rock dome with grand views over the Olifants River Valley.
Itala Game Reserve
From Kruger Park we headed south, skirting Swaziland, reaching Itala Game Reserve after a long drive. From the friendly reception office staff to the moderately priced accommodation and excellent restaurant, Itala scored high marks. Itala’s main camp, Ntshondwe, is one of the most pleasant game reserve camps in all of South Africa. Perfectly situated to blend into the natural surroundings, it has a waterhole with a first-class hide for bird-watching, a great restaurant, and in summer the natural rock pool offers relief from the midday heat. Our very first sighting was the ever-impressive Black Eagle, high against a cliff face.
Itala is also great for game-viewing as it has lots of open woodland and grassland. In very short order, we saw Impala, Common and Mountain Reedbuck, plenty of Kudu, the impressive Eland, Tsessebe, Giraffe, Burchell’s Zebra, Warthog, Waterbuck, Steenbok, Nyala and White Rhino. To be precise, we encountered White Rhinoceros no less than 7 times, and managed to capture some wonderful images. A night drive was no less exciting, with great views of Black Rhino, Porcupine, Brown Hyena, Large-spotted Genet, and Fierynecked Nightjar. Two words of advice about night drives: dress warmly! No matter how warm or hot the days might be, nights in South Africa’s interior are generally cool, cold in winter. Add to this the wind-chill effect of an open vehicle moving at speeds of up to 40 mph and you’ll find yourself freezing in early summer if all you have on are shorts and a t-shirt.
Birdlife at Itala is prolific and our two day-outings produced an impressive tally of birds, including Gymnogene, Natal Francolin, Pygmy Kingfisher, Cardinal Woodpecker, Gorgeous and Olive Bush Shrike and Rudd’s Apalis. A Secretary-bird (an absolute must for a trip to Africa as far as I’m concerned) which was doing its measured tread of about 120 paces per minute, was topped only by a nice view of Shelley’s Francolin, a new bird for yours truly! Yet another Itala birding highlight was a magnificent Crowned Eagle, which we studied at length as it was perched in an open spot high up in the dense riverine vegetation along the Pongola River.
Mkuzi Game Reserve, Kwazulu-Natal
Game Reserve is one of South Africa’s lesser known reserves. It has good populations of white and black rhino and lots of nyala, as well as giraffe, kudu, zebra and the ubiquitous impala, so game-viewing can be quite interesting here. In fact, it is one of only three Southern African reserves where I have seen leopard, the other two being Kruger Park (several times) and the Moremi in northern Botswana. On an earlier visit to Mkuzi I spent quite a lot of time in the Kubube Hide, being lucky enough to observe the very rarely seen Bushpig come to drink. I highly recommend that you spend some time just sitting in a hide, especially between about 0900 to 1200, when many animals make a trip to water, at least in the dry season from about June to October. However, Mkuze is better known as a birding Mecca and it is generally considered to be the single most productive bird-watching area in Southern Africa. In October 1995 we rattled up 200 species in 2 days there, including Barred Owl, right on the southern edge of its distribution. Birding around the main camp with Glen Holland on the first afternoon was very exciting as we added some 36 new species in less than two hours, highlights being Pinkthroated Twinspot, Yellowspotted Nicator and the stunning Plumcolored Starling. In an interesting area outside the reserve we added Lesser Blackwinged Plover, Broadbilled Roller, Lemonbreasted Canary and easily the least handsome bird of the trip, a Marabou Stork.
Hluhluwe/Umfolozi is South Africa’s third largest game reserve (after Kruger and Kalahari Gemsbok) and it offers superior game-viewing. Rhino – mostly white, with smaller numbers of black – takes pride of place here, but elephant, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, kudu, nyala, impala, waterbuck, hyena and several other mammal species may be encountered. With luck, lion or leopard (on night drives) may also be observed. As is the case in other Kwazulu-Natal game reserves, most visitors explore the parks themselves during the day. At night, guided 2 to 3-hour long game drives ($20 p.p.) are available. Be sure to book on arrival. Guided game drives are also available in the mornings and afternoons.
In October ’95 everybody enjoyed the accommodation at Hluhluwe’s Hilltop Camp and the food in the restaurant – although my ‘Nyala strips in a creamy sauce’ was not quite as good as the previous year’s ‘Fillet of Kudu with peppercorn sauce’. We certainly did not go hungry! Good game-viewing there too, with more than enough White Rhino to satisfy even the most avid animal lover. Hluhluwe also has lots of birds, including Crested Guineafowl, which we always enjoy. Very photogenic birds they are, too.
Durban is widely considered to be the ‘fun’ capital of South Africa, especially for people who’s idea of fun is surf, sun & sand. In December and again in July, Durban’s fine beaches are literally overrun by holiday-makers from the interior, mainly of the ‘beachball & bikini’ variety, with kids in tow. Durban’s Golden Mile is a smorgasbord of hotels, restaurants, amusement parks & attractions, not to mention many, many vendors with good (cheap) trinkets & crafts. Surfing is good to excellent, there’s some pretty good fishing off-shore and if night-life’s your thing, Durban certainly has plenty of that. The best way to start a trip to Zululand is to spend a couple of days in Durban to rest up and enjoy the city’s superb beaches & many other attractions. Durban has a wide range of accommodations, literally everything from modest bed & breakfasts through Holiday Inns to the Royal Hotel on Smith Street, one of the best hotels in the entire country. The Royal Grill is Kwazulu-Natal’s most celebrated restaurant. (The Langoustines are simply the best & freshest in all of Southern Africa). From Durban it’s an easy drive to Shakaland, a Protea Hotel near Eshowe. Originally recreated for the film sets of Shaka Zulu and John Ross, Shakaland is an unusual cross-cultural centre and living museum where Zulu people pursue the customs and traditions of their forebears. Accommodation consists of thatched beehive-shaped huts, with all modern conveniences and bathroom en suite.
Driving Up the Sani Pass into Lesotho
Anybody interested in history & nature, and especially keen photographers, bird-watchers or hikers, will enjoy a trip up the Sani Pass into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. The pass offers the visitor a singularly beautiful route into the Drakensberg – “…primitive, rugged, and pervaded by an atmosphere from the past”, as the Illustrated Guide to Southern Africa so aptly puts it. The trip should ideally be done over three days, spending a couple of days in Bulwer, Underberg or Himeville and one day ‘on top’ at the Sani Pass Chalet, which happens to be the highest licensed premises in all of southern Africa. On a trip in October 1994 our local guide, Robin Guy, amazed us with his encyclopedic knowledge of the area, its wildlife and its peoples. The actual drive up the pass, which may be undertaken in a 4-wheel drive vehicle only, is rather bumpy and mildly hair-raising with many tight hairpin turns. At the base of the actual pass one passes through the South African border post, so don’t forget your passport, which is essential for entry into Lesotho. On the way up, the vegetation changes with the altitude, and so does the bird-life, some of the specials being Gurney’s Sugarbird, Orangebreasted Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin and Lammergeier, aka Bearded Vulture.
On top, looking down over a vast expanse of the Natal Midlands, the tension from the drive quickly fades as one steps back half a century or more, encountering people who rely on donkey-carts as their primary means of transportation. In the thin mountain air – the elevation is about 9,000 feet above sea level – visibility is very good and things look larger than life. So don’t mistake a Cape Batis for a Mocking Chat and don’t be alarmed by the size of the rodents you’ll see sunning themselves on the rocks outside the rather rustic Sani Top Chalet. They’re harmless Slogett’s Ice Rats. The Sani Top chalet is very rustic, and can hardly be described as cozy, but it is the perfect base for exploring the eastern highlands of Lesotho, in the direction of Mokhotlong (‘the place of the bald-headed ibis’). At the time of our visit, there was speculation that this isolated mountain track may very well be tarred all the way down the Sani Pass, as an indirect consequence of the Lesotho Highlands water project. Hopefully it will take a while. Last year, Robin took us to a nesting site of the majestic Bearded Vulture along this track which offers a series of constantly changing vistas, each one seemingly more spectacular than its predecessor. When we finally got to the spot and started looking and listening, it was as if we were re-discovering the meaning of words such as silent, peaceful and tranquil. Just sitting there quietly with the telescopes on the birds, watching the receding rays of the lowering sun peel away layer after layer of light from the towering cliffs, we were as close to heaven as we may ever be.
In October ’95 we stayed in Robin & Bella Guy’s cottage, adjacent to their home in Underberg. Definitely an improvement on the local hotel: Bella’s cooking is superb and both she and Robin are excellent hosts, after-dinner conversation ranging from the origin of Southern African bird names to the intricacies of bee-keeping. With Robin as our guide, we again saw every one of the local specials, including (for the first time) Mountain Pipit. The Bush Blackcap could not have been placed better, and we had equally good views of Orangebreasted Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin and Gurney’s Sugarbird. Bearded Vultures may be rare elsewhere, but certainly not here: for almost two days we were rarely out of sight of one or more of these magnificent birds.
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