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Day 23 – Wilderness to Home

This morning we woke up to rain.  This is the first rain we have experienced in 22 days of travel. The rest of the country is still waiting for their summer rains, and fire warnings abound. It’s good to be back in the Western Cape – like Heather said when we arrived at the Karoo National Park, “you know you’re back in the WC when you hear your first “Djzy”!”  The cold weather was welcome after the very warm interior and especially Kruger Park. We are looking forward to a comfortable night at home, then the next day we are off to Langebaan to visit with Heather’s dad for a week. Fortunately we will have all the comforts of home so it will be really comfortable with Erica.

This holiday was over so quickly. I can see how retired folk can go on permanent holiday. There is always something new to see and experience, and when your days are full time flies by but not without leaving you with warm memories of the experiences. A holiday like this is a good test of any relationship, and I’m pleased to say that we remain solid even when faced with the challenges of a sick 8 month old and being away from home. After Erica got better (about a week into our holiday) everything was just so easy. She is a  happy child with smiles for everybody, but when she is hurting she lets us know!

I look forward to taking Erica on safari when she is older. She may not remember much about this one, but nevertheless during close encounters with wildlife and other happy moments on this trip she has certainly grown in personality and intellect. It’s as much fun seeing Erica’s reaction to the wildlife.

Day 22 – Wilderness

Wilderness was such a good break after the fast pace of our demanding holiday schedule that we decided to spend an extra day here. I rode a very steep slope nearby and then another even steeper slope up to the Map of Africa. The Map of Africa is actually a piece of land surrounded by a meandering river, shaped like the outline of the African continent.

A tour official is posted here to provide info to visitors, and he advised me to take a short path to the end of the nearby paragliding field where the view is even better, spanning up the entire coast past Wilderness as far as they eye can see, and in the other direction the impressive forested slopes surrounding the tunnel of the Outeniqua Tchoo Tchoo.

I was grateful for this rest aftert the very tough uphill, and enjoyed a very fast descent. You only realise how tough the uphill was when you have both front and back brakes jammed in on the downhill to stop the bike from picking up too much speed! I reached 62km/hr on the downhill without even trying!

Got back to our Wilderness chalet after 1:20 and 20km worth of brutal riding. Although almost the entire ride was on tar, the roads were not busy and were set into deep
forest on both sides, making it a very enjoyable ride.

We went for lunch to the Wimpy in Sedgefield, where Heather almost drank a large horsefly which was floating dead and undetected under her milk foam!  She’s vowed that to be her last Wimpy coffee (I doubt it). Little Erica has been eating from our plates during the entire holiday as it is just easier, and today she had some pieces of hamburger, waffle and chips.  We’ll have to get her onto a healthier diet as soon as things normalise.

Erica has reached several milestones during this holiday:

– she turned 9 months old
– took her first steps
– stood up unsupported and drank juice from a carton, through a straw!
– learned to clap handies

She is very bright and gets frustrated if we are not constantly doing new things. I hope that home life is not going to be too boring for her after the hectic holiday pace!

Day 21 – Oudtshoorn, Cango Caves and back to Wilderness

The drive from the Karoo to Oudtshoorn consisted of kilometres of dry nothing to either side. We went over many river bridges with only dry channels below. How can you name something as a river if it only runs for a short while each year? Surely it’s nothing more than a gully or a drainage culvert, completely devoid of life?
The terrain changed suddenly as we approached Oudtshoorn, and we found ourselves driving on a well-constructed road running alongside a river. Over millions of years the river cut itself deep into the bedrock, resulting in the sheer cliff sides rising to either side. The foliage in here is green and lush, and we spotted some baboons in this Karoo oasis. The river basin continued for some kilometres with many very well-established rest stops and picnic areas alongside the river. You are free to braai here in the appointed fireplaces, and every one of the five-something sites that we passed had thatched public toilets. For people living in the George/ Wilderness area or even in the Karoo towns on the other side, this is a lovely place to take the family for a budget-friendly and relaxing afternoon.
We had to drive approximately 30km past Oudtshoorn to get to the Cango Caves. This was an awe-inspiring experience and for only R68 per person (Erica free) it was good value. I recommend it to anyone passing near to this area.
We finished with a delicious Karoo lamb curry at the Cango restaurant, which came served in small potjie pots to keep it warm. We drove the last 90km to Wilderness, passing the George airport where we watched a plane land. Heather managed to get is the same unit we had a few weeks back and we settled in for two days of relaxation.
We decided that if we do a trip of this magnitude again we will spend two days in each place instead of one. Otherwise the pace is just too frenetic, especially with a young one. We supped on the last of the Karoo chops, which we decided were just as nice when you fry them. It’s all about the meat, and not so much the preparation. The meat is just that damn good.
We slept in seperate beds tonight, Heather and Erica in one and me in the other so I could rest for my MTB tomorrow(the units come with two singles, which we usually push together). But Erica had other ideas and decided she wanted to sleep by dad tonight, so screamed and shouted until we had her tucked in next to me. This is very endearing but it broke Heather’s heart. Babies can be very fickle and want different things from one day to the next, so I assured Heather that one night’s whim is nothing to be concerned about. I’m afraid we may be in for a lot of re-conditioning when we get back home to get Erica back into her regular cycles.

Day 20 – Karoo National Park

The Karoo National Park has an arid kind of beauty, with large koppies, buttes and mesas rising up suddenly from an otherwise very flat area. Our chalet was nestled inside a ring of these koppies, producing awe-inspiring views in all directions.  We had a tasty braai of Karoo lamb chops bought from the Beaufort West Pick n Pay. They were just as tasty as we remembered from our last visit! Erica crossed another little milestone when she stood and held her own liqui-fruit carton to sip from the straw!
The park is home to many types of grazers, mostly buck and most noteworthy the white rhino. We’ve already seen everything at Kruger so didn’t waste time trying to spot elusive wildlife. Instead we just took a short drive to the top of one of the koppies to admire the view. On the way we did spot both Burchell’s and Cape Mountain Zebra, Red Hartebeest and lots of Springbok. Amazing how they can actually live in this arid desertscape.
The next morning we took an early walk along the short fossil trail, where exhibits of various fossil finds are displayed, all discovered in the surrounding area. One of the glass cases was missing, so we had the opportunity to touch a 300 million year old Bradysaurus. It’s incredible to think that this creature was walking around grazing the ancient foliage millions of years ago, when the advent of humans was a distant and unlikely possibility. Apparently the Karoo was rich with flora and fauna in those days, lush vegetation and water everywhere. An environmental event of some kind caused most of the plant life to die out and along with it, the large animals which depended on it for survival.
Our chalet had a full kitchen and bathroom, and other than Hluhluwe/Imfolozi was arguably the best accommodation of our trip. It costs R635 for the chalets although the camp sites are a lot less and equally well-appointed. Little Erica loved the headboard of the beds here – always the most interesting aspect of each place for her so we have taken to calling her our little headboard tourist.  We managed to remember to take our two-prong adapter with us this time. Unbelievably, we have already lost 3 sets of adapters moving from place to place. A real issue when you have cameras, laptops, cellphones and camping lights which need to be charged.
We stayed in the tree-shaded campsites two years ago when we passed through the Karoo. It sold us on SANParks when we saw the well-maintained ablutions and the well-run facilities, and we decided we would definitely come back, and we were not dissappointed.

Day 19 – Gariep Dam – Forever Resort

Next stop (after continuous roadworks) was the Gariep Dam, nice view, large accommodation and free laundry facility, and we got a discount of R270 because they promised us a unit on the water for R875 but were not able to deliver. Apparently none of the units are actually on the water, but we were not told this while Heather was booking. The MD came to see us personally in our rondawel which I appreciated.   Erica ate short spaghetti for the first time, mixed with some canned vegetables. Feeding her has been a battle lately but this time she polished off the entire bowl!
The beds at Gariep are comfortable and we had a good night’s rest. We probably did not need the full three bedroom accommodation but the extra space is great! Packed up by 9am and we hit the road heading for the Karoo National Park. Looking forward to some freshly killed karoo lamb!

Day 18 – Golden Gate

So seeing that our plans to R&R in Hans Merensky have gone down the drain we’ve decided to torture ourselves with a 630km drive to Golden Gate National Park. This was one of the highlights of our last holiday in 2008, so we booked for two nights. The road there was long but fortunately it was all on national roads which allowed us to keep up a good pace. Lucky for us Erica slept wonderfully, we had her awake time at Engen 1 stops where we dutifully checked tyres and filled up on Diesel and Wimpy, before setting off again in time for her next sleep cycle.
Erica loves the high chairs supplied by Wimpy, I think she must feel very important sitting in her own chair. She played with her very first balloon and loved banging it into our faces and plates. Very sweet to see her smiling and enjoying herself despite the hours in her torture chair.
Before Phalaborwa we drove past a religious centre called Zion City Maria. We saw hundreds of taxis parked as far as they eye can see.  What we thought was dorm accommodation were actually hundreds of buses sardined nose to tail. I feel sorry for the guy in the middle if he needs to go somewhere in a hurry! There were  hundreds of tents and cars, porta toilets, fires, security guards and followers as far as the eye can see.  I wonder if this is a regular Sunday event because the organisation seems very good.  If this is the case, it must be the largest religious gathering in the country.  Will definitely ask Google for more info on this.
We spent a total of R178 in toll fees from Phalaborwa to Harrismith! The roads at least were superb which meant we could fly down the blue roads (national roads are blue on the map). We stopped in Phuthaditchaba (ex-homeland capital) for fuel and wood. I learnt from some friendly locals that wood is called Bathi. I think thats how it’s spelt.
We finally arrived at Golden Gate after 6 driving hours and 3 rest hours. The best time to arrive here is just before sunset. This is when the true beauty of the sandstone mountains is brought to light in the long shadows created by the setting sun. Due to fires in and around the park, it was a particularly red sunset, and in some areas of the park the smoke was so thick you could look directly at the sun without straining your eyes.  We saw  zebra, wildebeest, springbokkies,and heard baboons shouting in mountains all night. For dinner we braaied the last of the Wildebeest steak and Eland kebabs from Kruger. We had no salad ingredients or potatoes so we settled for ripe tomatoes to go with the meat.
Our accommodation at Golden Gate was luxurious with two bedrooms and an en-suite bathroom and open plan kitchen. This always makes it easier especially for looking after Erica. All this and a fantastic direct view of the brightly-lit Brandvlei Gate peak for only R625.
Our plan was to do the two one hour walks today but more smoke from the mountain fire caused us to cancel our plans and get back on the road in search of clear skies. It was so bad that we could no longer see the mountains on the opposite side of the valley and ash was falling to the ground, so certainly not good for Erica.

Day 17 – Just before Phalaborwa

So the receptionist at Hans Merensky gave us directions from the Polokwane side instead of from the Phalaborwa side, bypassing them by an extra hour. Despite Heather questioning her directions and despite me talking to her in Afrikaans, she stuck firmly to her directions and we made the mistake of believing her. We were so upset we decided to press on. Hans Merensky lost out on our two night booking – they didn’t even phone to find out where we were.
We stopped at a roadside fruit vendor to get our bearings, and Heather bought a huge box of avo’s for R15 from a road side trader. Very friendly people who were most surprised that we sometimes pay R10 for a small avo in Cape Town.
We ended up staying in self catering accommodation for R600 per night at a forested place called Penny Father in Haenertsberg. This is an old gold mining town founded in 1885. Other activities include hiking and mountain bike trails in an indigenous forest, or visits to quaint little shops and monuments dating back to the Boer War. Our accommodation was in a zinc house inlaid with pseudo-wood (nutec) on the inside, polished oregan floors and finished with authentic solid wood furniture, some of it possibly quite old (no pine!).  On the walls were framed original gold mining claim certificates and photographs of prospectors dating back to the 1850’s.

Day 16 – Kruger to Phalaborwa

Woke up early to the sound of Hippo in the lake. It sounds like whales blowing spume with some guttural pig-like grunts thrown in. Could have been a scene from a hippo porno or maybe they were just cranky at breakfast time.  Before anything else, we grabbed the camera and raced back to the lion kill site.  We were not disappointed! The carcass had been stripped down to barely more than a ribcage but one female and four cubs had remained to pick it clean. They were busily about their breakfast and the cubs made a game of chasing off a lone vulture who kept sneaking in for quick stabs at the remains. I have some great photos of the mother lion chasing off the vulture.
Back to Mopani for a quick Pro-Nutro and baby feed, and then the laborious task of packing. You can’t leave much behind when there is a little person to cater for. It almost doubles the amount of baggage that you need.
We’re heading for the Phalaborwa Gate and then onto the Hans Merensky Reserve for two days of R&R.

Day 15 – Kruger Mopani Camp

The next day was overcast and cool, a refreshing break from the heat wave. The Kruger Park says Winter is up until 31 Aug but since we’ve been here it has been scorching. Took a leisurely drive through the Western middle of the park and saw nothing remarkable except a lone elephant bull and a herd of Hippo sunning themselves by a pan. Animal sightings seem to be scarce during the late morning and early afternoon. Later on we spotted crocs and turtles. We took lunch at Letaba Camp, which overlooks the Letaba River. A herd of 6 giraffe, some zebra and many types of buck were coming and going while we ate.  A very worthwhile stop to see the game, but the food is not great at this camp.
The next few hours of game driving was uneventful. Our eyes started playing tricks on us with the way the vegetation seems to form animals. Must be from all the days of scanning the brush for animals!  We spotted two saddle-billed storks, a rare sighting since according to Kruger there are only about a hundred left in the world.
Much later around 5pm at a lookout point just before our final camp (Mopani), Heather spotted two female lions camouflaged on an opposite river bank. We watched them until Erica became restless then we headed for camp. Just before the turn for Mopani Camp we saw a large grouping of vehicles. This turned out to be our best sighting of lions yet! Two female lions and four cubs were systematically stripping a buffalo carcass.  The cubs were at time crawling on top of the carcass while the females were pulling on it, very entertaining to see the cubs keep their balance.  We especially enjoyed the juvenile mock-roars of the cubs while playing with each other.
We reluctantly left the scene so that we could make the 6pm curfew at Mopani. Arrived at our accommodation which was spotlessly cleaned. The manager from Sabie had called ahead and ensured that things were spick and span.  The duty manager for Mopani, Winslow, popped in to make sure we were satisfied. Turns out despite their best efforts, fresh bat droppings on our bed meant that we would be sleeping under their toilet area. This earned us an upgrade to a full luxury bush-lodge house with 3 bedrooms and two bathrooms, pristinely positioned on a large lake chock-full of hippo.

The worst part was packing up again and unpacking at our new digs, but once settled we were chilling in style!  At R1200 per night in off-season these houses cost about double the amount for regular chalets, but with a group of 6 people you can actually save money and benefit from better quality accommodation, furnishings, and appliances (we had a brand-new high-spec microwave, full stove and refrigerator).