Jessica Hippo

Snake warning further down the page.

We weren’t able to stay in the park for the middle section of it as it was fully booked. It wasn’t the school holidays, but pensioners get a 40% discount after the Easter Holiday and apparently there were more people because they weren’t going to Mozambique due to police corruption fining motorists for random reasons.

Anyway, Blyde River Canyon was just outside the park, so we thought we’d go there. We first stayed in Jessica Hippo’s house. We’d seen a programme on the TV about unusual relationships people have with animals and Jessica was one, so we wanted to see for ourselves.

She was washed up on the river bank of an ex ranger’s house during a flood. By her size, she was premature and he discussed with the authorities whether he could keep her as she’d been separated from her mother. They agreed and the rest, as they say, is history.

She’s fairly pampered by the owners, but is always free to go back to the wild, which she does on occasion, but always comes back. It is getting into winter here and she sleeps on the veranda wrapped up in a blanket!

First thing in the morning, she gets a feed of lucerne. After finishing that, she saw a pile of sand left down by some builders and thought it was a good idea to have a snooze until it was show time.

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It’s a hard life being a star!

A gaggle of people arrived to ‘see the show’ and we joined them. We had the brief history and watched an Aussie documentary about the story. Then it was feed time. We took it in turns to feed her carrots (that was this weeks flavour as she changes her mind a bit to keep things varied and interesting).

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When she has a mouthful, then she chews and swallows it

After food comes a large amount of slightly sweet rooibos tea in a bottle, and if you’re a lady, you can kiss her on the nose too. Apparently she got attacked some years ago by some wild hippos and had to have several jabs as part of her treatment. The vet was a man and she’s never forgotten!

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After the food and drink, she pretends to have a snooze

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Look at that cute front paw!

Then she stands next to the pontoon for a back and neck massage

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Not surprisingly it feels like wet leather!

The crowd disappear and we’re left in the calm with the owner and some of the workers. He says the benefit of staying in the house (which we had all to ourselves for a few days) was the bits you see behind the scenes. He wasn’t wrong! There was an addition to the household of another hippo – a male 5 year old weighing 400KG called Ritchie. Jessica is 17 years old (it’s rude to ask her weight) and they are trying to get the two to get along as they can then let Ritchie go into the stream alone and Jessica won’t harm him.

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Here’s Ritchie trying to steal some of the show!

As you may have read, we’ve been suffering from squealing rear brakes on the Landy. Every now and then Gareth whips the brakes out for another clean and lube up (getting quite slick at it now). We still haven’t found the right compound that works, but the Delphi make in Namibia didn’t squeal. So one afternoon it was brake time and we jacked the car up on the bottle jack to get the wheel off. As this was going on, Ritchie decided to come over for a look. It was the most surreal experience trying to work on the car with a 400KG hippo coming up to see what’s happening.

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Just don’t nudge the car off the jack

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Ritchie taking a keen interest in the work mat

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Jessica’s out as well now – time to get the wheel on!

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All he’s after is a little bit of affection and an ear scratch

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Sitting chewing the fat with the owner with a hippo wandering around – as you do

Ritchie seemed to be very fond of Gareth and kept pushing his face at him. Relax and don’t step backwards were the words of advice from the owner – easier said than done. The next time he comes at you with his mouth open, put your hand in and stroke the roof of his mouth. Are you serious? Yes, he was!

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Managed to not get eaten by a hippo – very surreal

Apparently, everyone thinks that hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in the wild and kill more people than crocs etc. The owner has been working as a ranger for over 30 years and doesn’t agree. The only time people get killed is if they get between the hippo and water or their young. One tourist tried to get a better close up shot of a mother and baby and got mauled when she got within about 10m of it – really, some people…

We were chatting to one of the helpers and noticed one of the dogs had got something. We went over and sure enough it was a Mozambique spitting cobra. Pretty deadly thing, but the dog gave it a really good chewing. The helper put it out of it’s misery as it was pretty chewed up. The dog, a bull terrier was shaking like anything from the adrenaline (we hoped). After about 20 mins, she calmed down and we found out later that was her 14th snake. She’d been hospitalised on one occasion, but it obviously hasn’t taken her edge away.

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Shame the snake got it

Overall, it was a very enjoyable and very surreal experience, but well worth it.

A Wild Dog Chase

At all of the Kruger Park camps they have a sightings board. This gives and idea of what people have seen that day and where. For the last 3 days there had been Wild Dog sightings along a track just north of Shingwedzi. We still hadn’t seen these endangered animals despite looking for them in various places during our trip so the hunt was on. Sightings of them are rare, even for regular visitors to Kruger, and we didn’t really rate our chances but this was probably the best opportunity we were going to get. Most Wild Dog sightings are in the early morning so it was an early start for us again. As the camp site was allegedly full (actually it wasn’t but who are we to say) we had booked a very cheap chalet, or ‘hut’ as the website describes them. In fact it was a very comfy semi-detached room with a sink and fridge, a shady deck with chairs and table as well as a braai. It wasn’t that much more expensive than camping and was great for getting up early as we didn’t have to pack the tent away.

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The ‘hut’, our accommodation for 2 nights

We were at the gate at dawn. Our route took us alongside a dry river bed. We stopped at regular intervals to look down along the river for any sign of life. After about half an hour we saw movement far up the river. You could just make them out with the binoculars – they were dogs. We hurried down the track to where we’d seen them. The presence of another car, stopped at the side of the road, confirmed the location. There they were, a bit of a way off as the river was wide and the banks high. But we’d finally seen Wild Dog after months of fruitless searching. They had the remains of something which they were chewing and pulling at between them. It was great watching their interaction.

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Then they disappeared behind the bushes along the bank below us, back the way we’d come. By now a couple of other cars had joined us and we all turned round to see if we could follow them. We slowly drove round the corner and there in the road was a dog. Then another, then another. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, and they were all around the car, 9 of them in total.  We’ve seen photos that people have taken of dogs in front of them in the road but never really imagined we would see them this close. They were playing with each other, lying in the road right next to us, trotting past the car and sniffing at it. They were there for about 10 minutes, showing no fear, just occasional curiosity, and getting on with their day. They are also known as Painted Dogs and you can see why.

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Wild Dog lying right next to the car

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Checking us out

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They were so close this was the widest angle I could get

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Completely un-phased by the cars, these guys were about to greet their mates

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I guess you can’t get flea spray in the Kruger

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One getting a bit of an ear chewing…

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Larking around

It was incredible. We could not believe our luck.

Back at camp we celebrated with a glass of Painted Dog Shiraz, bought from the camp shop. Perfick. We were joined by a very friendly and inquisitive squirrel that tried to climb on the camera each time I tried to get a shot.

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Nice end to a great day.

A Lion’s Tale

From Punda Maria we headed south to Shingwedzi camp, where we had managed to book one night’s camping and two nights in a room, as the camp site was allegedly full. We had a relaxed start on our first morning there, chatting to a pair of ex-pat Brits who had spotted the number plate. Our chosen route for the day was to a place called Red Rock, which met a sarcastic reception from the husband – “that will be a riveting drive” – suggesting we wouldn’t see much apart from some red rocks. How wrong he was. The track followed the river and made for a really pretty drive. We found a side spur that took us about 15 metres from the main track down towards the river. There were a group of elephants in the river bed, of varying ages including several youngsters, so we turned off the engine and sat and watched them. The little one was trying to give himself a dust bath, sucking dust up in his trunk and flicking it back over himself. He’d obviously picked this up from the adults and still had quite a bit of practicing to do as most of it missed him and went in the face of an older relative. Very cute.

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As they got level with us they turned and walked up the bank just next to us. They were very relaxed and we just sat there as they came by about 6 metres away. When he saw the car the little one turned towards us and flapped his ears, just to make sure we understood that he was a big fierce elephant and he was boss. Of course we did so, satisfied, he carried quietly on with the others. Then suddenly there was pandemonium. They all started running and trumpeting and growling furiously, up the bank and away from us. And there was another noise, a roar that was different from the elephants. We didn’t know what was going on. We knew it wasn’t our presence but we didn’t want to be in the middle of trouble so we sat and waited until the noise had died down. When all was quiet we gingerly started the engine and crept back up the bank. There at the top was a pair of lions, one each side of the car. They were lying quietly, so we edged the car forward and stopped next to them. They were totally relaxed and after a bit of a look at us got on with chilling.

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It’s very tiring being a lion…

We had them to ourselves for about 10 minutes before another car turned up. They were so close to us. Then he got up and walked towards the car, giving us a moment of alarm as the windows were open so we could get our pics. But we weren’t his target and he quickly turned and walked round the front of the car to say hello to his lady friend on the other side. From her reception he obviously hadn’t made much of an impression yet… 

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Not today sunshine…

The look on his face was brilliant. He turned away looking really dejected and walked past her and further round the car.

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Women! Who’d be a man?!

He sat down about 2 metres from Gareth’s door. He was so close that you can see the car reflected in his eyes.

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It was awesome. We eventually left them to it and headed back to camp. They were obviously building up to mating, even though he still had a bit of work to do on the schmoozing side. This meant they were likely to be in the same area for a while, so we headed back the following day. We found them snoozing, watched by a game viewing vehicle with a very friendly guide and a group of Brits in the back. We were told they had just mated so we had about half an hour’s wait for the next round. Sure enough, after about half an hour he got up and wandered over to her. Whether it was chocolates or flowers I don’t know but things had certainly changed since yesterday. She was very relaxed and rolled around on her back at his approach. Tart. She then presumably decided she wasn’t going to perform such an intimate act in front of a crowd of tourists and led him purposefully behind the nearest bush for the moment of passion, before they collapsed down again, legs akimbo, for another half hours rest.

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They would go on like this for several days, longer than we were prepared to sit and watch them, so we gave them their privacy (or at least left them with the 3 other cars that were watching), and headed back to camp for tea and medals. What a brilliant thing to witness.

Kruger

Kruger National Park lies in the far north-east of the country, bordering Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the east. It is huge, the drive from north to south being over 400km. The park is named after one of South Africa’s former presidents, Paul Kruger, and it would be easy to assume he was fundamental in establishing this huge conservation area. Not the case. Its existence owes itself to the first warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton, who wanted to establish an area to protect the country’s fast-disappearing wildlife. Apparently he suggested the name in the hope that it would help reduce Afrikaner opposition to declaration of the park. Our guide book tells us that the only interest Paul Kruger had in wild animals was how good their biltong tasted!

We were starting at the top of the park and working our way south. The entrance sign at the Punda Maria park gate wasn’t quite what we’d expected of South Africa’s flagship national park …

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Our first night was in Punda Maria camp, about 40km south of the northern boundary. We got an early night and, despite the moonlight from the nearly full moon, we slept pretty well. That was until the early hours when Angela woke to the pitter-patter of something running over the roof of the tent. It loudly patted back and forth a few times, then jumped onto the roof rack behind the tent and seemingly off the car. She then heard the light rattle of something climbing the roof tent ladder. She could vaguely see out of the front as we just had the mosquito net zipped down rather than the canvas cover. Peering into the moonlit gloom she watched as a pair of large rounded ears appeared at the top of the ladder, followed slowly by the silhouette of a round head, a rotund body and a very bushy tail. It was a Thick-tailed Bushbaby. From the front of the tent it walked with great ease along the very narrow ledge to the side, right past Angela watching through the side window, and then up onto the roof again. By now Gareth was awake and we both listened as it trotted across the roof again, appeared at the front corner and climbed down the thin pole holding the flysheet up, before clambering off the car and scampering away across the dry earth of the camp site. It was magic.

We tried to get back to sleep but then a lion started roaring and kept on for several hours. Most other campers were on the road early in search of the lions but we were tired so had a lie in and headed out mid-morning. Our first sighting was a group of Vultures sitting in several trees. They must have been a kill but we couldn’t see it.

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D’you come here often?

We saw lots antelope including more Nyala, the pretty antelope we’d first seen in Marakele. They were everywhere here.

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Male Nyala. Wonder if that’s where Adam Ant got the idea for his face stripe?

Then we came across several cars in the road – a sure sign that something interesting has been spotted. There was a pair of lions in the middle of the road. She promptly lay down in the middle of the road to have a snooze, with 2 cars on one side and three of us on the other, including a large camper van. The van then moved and blocked our view, so we edged forward a bit to restore it. We’d left room so as not to crowd the lions, but another car then turned up and pulled right in front of us completely blocking our view again. It was not the first time other people had done this – they just want to get the best view they can and don’t care about anyone else or the animals. We managed to move the car again, which having turned the engine off meant making more noise which fortunately didn’t disturb the lions.

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We think he has something of Kurt Russell or Michael Douglas about him…

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Stunning lioness

As you can see, we had an amazing view. That was until the camper van that had originally blocked our view decided he’d seen enough and drove through the middle of everything and right past the lions scaring them both away into the bush. Selfish git.

The male was actually injured. He had a cut right round his waist which looked like he’d been in a snare. There is a huge problem with poaching in Africa and not just rhino and elephant. All sorts of animals are poached, for horn, ivory, body parts, skins, bones, and meat. You name it, someone wants it (it has to be said, mostly in the East and Middle East – places like China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Yemen). Sadly it seems that National Park staff members have been involved as they can make a year’s salary from one or two animals. When we got back to camp we reported him to the rangers but they were already aware of him. Our neighbours, Jake and Maxie, told us that they’d seen the same lions later and that he had been treated by the vet. Apparently the vet had been trying to track him down for the last day. He was looking strong when we saw him and the pair were obviously ‘courting’ so if he had enough energy for that we think he has a pretty good chance of recovering. Smile

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Nasty cut around his waist

Back in camp we discovered we had new friends. A Bushbuck and her fairly well-grown fawn were residents of the camp and seemed to like our little corner. She in particular got really close to us without being scared. They’re a bit bigger than a Muntjac deer (and quite a lot prettier…).

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Bushbuck doe

There is a waterhole on the edge of camp (outside the 2 metre electric fence that keeps us safe from the wild things we’ve come to see) which attracted elephants and buffalo at night and various birds during the day, including Marabou Storks, one of the ugliest but most interesting birds you’re likely to see…

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This one was sitting down. The dangly thing is his crop. Very weird but great if you want seconds or thirds…

We also got bird parties flying through camp, with lots of different species of small birds mixed up together. They included a group of Helmet-shrikes, very active little birds that don’t sit still for long so are really hard to photograph, but Gareth managed to snap this one. They have yellow eyes as well as a yellow wattle around the eye. Smart.

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White-crested Helmet-shrike

The next day we chilled and just headed out in the afternoon. We drew up behind another car which had stopped at the side of the road. We slowly pulled up level with them. “What have you seen?” we asked. “Nothing, we’re just pouring a gin and tonic. Would you like one? We have a spare glass.” What a marvellous idea. It was incredibly tempting but we declined. Introductions were made; Mike, Hester, Frank and Joy – the boys were brothers. We had a chat and promised to catch up before we left.

The next day we had an early start and headed right up to the far north of the camp and to the most north-easterly point of South Africa. Crooks Corner is on the border between SA, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and was something of a no-man’s-land in the past, making it a hot spot for rogues, illicit traders and other criminals, hence the name. It is on the great Limpopo River, a name which conjures up images of 1950s Hollywood films of jungle explorers and ‘great white hunters’ but which was pretty uninspiring when we were there.

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A rather murky Limpopo River

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Current resident of Crook’s Corner

Our trip took us through some beautiful countryside including an unusual Fevertree forest, where the tree bark was a beautiful soft and almost luminous yellow-green. Unfortunately you can’t really tell from the photo but here it is anyway.

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Fevertree forest

We had lunch in the beautiful Pafuri picnic site, set on the banks of the Luvuvhu River under huge shady Jackalberry trees. It also had toilets, a kitchen, braai facilities and even hot water on tap for a nice cuppa. We had invested in a pair of thermos-type cups that the campers we’d met in Marakele had told us about. They were dirt cheap and we could make a cup of tea to sip on our journey, which we were really enjoying, especially on those days when we were up early looking for game and could have our morning cuppa on the hoof. At Pafuri we could top our cups up for the trip back to camp. The picnic site had its own residents, with monkeys and baboons taking their opportunities and pinching food from careless and inattentive tourists, just as they do in the camps. They are a pest but they are incredibly intelligent and resourceful and wonderful to watch.

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Chacma Baboon and sproglet

Our journey back to camp took us past several Giraffe, including this handsome boy whose coat was one of the darkest we had seen, almost black in places.

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Then we passed a large bull elephant that was striding purposefully towards the road. We stopped and turned the engine off to watch him cross. He climbed up the bank onto the road and started to walk towards us. There was no ear flapping or head shaking, which is a sign of aggression, but he was having a good old look at us and kept coming forward. He was a big boy and we got slightly nervous (well, Ange did), and started the engine up. As soon as we did he stopped and, almost with an air of disappointment, turned and carried on his way. He was just inquisitive; it felt like he’d wanted to come and have a look at us and say hello. We’re starting to get better at reading elephants – they usually give clear signs if you’re in their space and they don’t like it – so next time we’ll try to be more chilled.

 

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Just popping over for a chat…

Then, as the light was starting to fade on the final leg back to camp, we passed something much smaller in the road. We drove past it and had to reverse. Fortunately it was fairly slow (although much faster than the last one of its kind we’d seen) – a green Chameleon. He (or she?) was beautiful. They are great little critters and it was brilliant to see one, especially out in the middle of the road where we got a really good view. We watched until he marched (at chameleon pace) into the verge and disappeared into the grass.

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Chameleon. Even on tarmac they look so cool

We ended up staying for 4 nights in Punda Maria. We’d only planned to stay for a couple but it was a lovely camp and the park was also much busier than we’d expected so space in the more popular (and more accessible) camps further south was scarce. We’d made good friends with our neighbours, Jake and Maxie, and would see them again as they too were heading south. We’d also planned to meet up with Mike, Hester, Frank and Joy, who we’d chatted to on several occasions and who too were moving south to the same camp as us, Shingwedzi.

We were promised more cats further south, although we hadn’t done too badly so far. And maybe some dogs too?…

Walks, waterfalls and zip wires

From Marakele, we retraced our steps through the mining town of Thabazimbi, to get onto the main road heading east. The landscape around the town was extraordinary; they were literally taking the mountains apart to get at the iron ore, with the slag seemingly dumped down the mountain sides.

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Thabazimbi iron ore mining – this once was a mountain

Our eventual destination was Kruger National Park, via another mountainous area around Magoebaskloof (the ‘g’ sounds like ‘ch’ in the Scottish ‘loch’), and we managed to find some shock absorbers in a town en route, saving us a long detour to Pretoria or Johannesburg. We had already booked a camp to break the trip to Magoesbaskloof, a site up a 4×4 trail deep in the Waterburg mountains. Although we were a little concerned about getting there with the broken shock we decided that, if we drove carefully, it would be ok, which it was. The Waterburg Wilderness Camp was lovely. They had been full for the weekend, with about 60 people, but by the time we arrived we were the only ones there. They gave us a private camp for the price of a shared one, down its own track away from the main camp. It really was a wilderness experience. The reserve was fairly small and securely fenced and as there were no dangerous animals we were free to walk where we wanted. Having been in the national park for a week we were in sore need of some exercise so opted to stay for a second night. We did a really nice walk along the river and up a 4×4 track named Van Zyls Pass (steep but not as steep as the real thing) and to a high point which had a great view. It was great to get out of the car for a change. We even found a porcupine ‘sett’ on the way, a series of huge burrows about 0.75 metres high, and picked up some quills that were scattered around the area.

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Riverside walk at the Waterburg Wilderness

The camp had a portable fire bowl, a huge heavy affair, which provided a bit of warmth on the cold evenings as well as heat for cooking.

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Camping with fire in a bowl

The next day we set off for Polokwane, where we got the replacement shock absorbers fitted and also got the brakes looked at. For most of our trip we have been plagued by squealing brakes. We’re not talking about a bit of a squeak here, we’re talking loud enough to wake the dead. It had been really bad in Marakele, which was a very undulating park, and for about the 4th time Gareth had changed the brake pads and greased everything up, to no avail. We found a specialist who had a look at them and told us that we should skim the discs. It wasn’t expensive (much cheaper than the alternative of replacement discs which had been next on our list of things to try) so we got it done. We drove away with a pile of filings off our discs sitting on the floor and the beautiful sound of silence – no squealing. Hooray! It seemed to have worked.

We’d read about Magoebaskloof in ‘Go!’ magazine, one of several really good SA outdoor publications that have some great tips on places to visit. The area centres around the village and its eponymous mountain pass which drops 600 metres in 5 km. It has a very alpine feeling, with huge conifer and eucalyptus plantations clothing the steep valley sides and numerous streams tumbling over rocky waterfalls and through deep gorges. We paid a small entrance fee to visit and walked up the side of one of these waterfalls, Debengeni, which was magic, especially as there was no-one else around. No-one apart from the guy at the kiosk and a very cocky Samango monkey which apparently joined him every lunchtime to share his mealie pap.

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Cocky Samango monkey

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Debengeni Waterfall

The next day we went to an activity centre and did a canopy trail. This involved a series of 11 zip wires strung across a river gorge. It was brilliant fun and the views were spectacular. The longest wire was 150 metres and we zipped over several beautiful waterfalls. As you can see we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

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Here we go…

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Zip-a-dee-doo-daa!

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Anyone seen the film Cliffhanger?

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Taking a break with a cool backdrop

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It’s a long way down…

In the afternoon we tried to visit Kings Walden Manor Gardens. Sharing its name with a place in Hertfordshire we were intrigued to find out more. Unfortunately we got there to find that it was closed for a wedding, but we got a glimpse of a tree at the centre of a very romantic story. In the 1930s, a woman stood under a Blue Gum (Eucalyptus) tree on the edge of the garden looking across the valley towards the Drakensburg Mountains. At her side was the estate owner. As she gazed at the stunning view she sighed “I never want to leave this place”. Without missing a beat he replied “marry me and you will never have to”. Of course she did and many years later, on the night she died, the tree was struck by lightning. The skeleton, known as the Lightning Tree, still stands to this day.

We finished our exploration of the area with a trip to a Cycad reserve. Some types of these unusual trees have been around since the dinosaurs roamed the earth, and some on this reserve are thought to be several thousand years old. It was an interesting walk and a nice reserve, spoilt rather by the lack of maintenance on the visitor centre, picnic area and toilets, despite the fact they seem to have had no expense spared when they were built. There was no water so the toilets didn’t flush and obviously hadn’t for some time… We mentioned this at the gate when we left and he said “yes, the pipe’s f****d up”!!! It made us smile.

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Ancient Cycads

We made better time on the road than expected and so pushed on to Kruger, arriving at the northern Punda Maria gate with time for a slow drive through the 20km of park roads that led to our camp before its gate closed. We’d finally arrived at one of the most famous and one of the largest national parks in the world. The Kruger is huge, the size of Wales, and has a reputation for big game. After our sightings at Marakele, the pressure for a leopard is off but that doesn’t stop us wanting to see and photograph them … Although our trip is by no means just about safaris, when we have access to such beautiful places with such an incredible variety of wild animals, it’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of seeing them up close, in the wild, whenever we have the opportunity. There’s something really special about getting close to animals like elephants and especially the big cats. The fierce, regal and seemingly lazy Lions; the secretive, powerful and wildly beautiful Leopards. And here we also have a chance to see the rare, threatened and elusive Wild Dog, which so far on our travels has evaded us and which would be truly special to see. So we have lots of hopes and anticipation, but just what the park will bring we will have to wait and see…

Marakele National Park

We were at the garage for 8am and the boys got to work. Gareth had found several possibilities for the cause of the wobble, known fairly aptly in the trade as “death wobble” due to the severity of the wobble that takes over the steering, sending huge judders through the whole car and resulting in the need for immediate and hard braking to bring it all under control. Ronnie at the garage agreed with Gareth so they decided to get his boys to work their way through them. The first that we hadn’t already tried was the swivel bearings. They took the wheel hub apart, which took hours and which Gareth reckons he could have done quicker himself. He was also picking up bits that they’d left off to make sure it was all put back together properly. The swivel joint was indeed loose so they repacked that with grease and shimmed the bearings and did the other side as well. Ronnie and Gareth took it for a spin and returned with downtrodden expressions. The wobble was still there. We were now waiting on the steering damper, which the local Land Rover dealership was supposed to be delivering at 2pm. They’d promised to get it dropped off first of their deliveries but after several irate phone calls from Ronnie it eventually turned up at about 4pm, apparently last on the driver’s delivery route. The damper was fitted quickly and taken out for a spin again. This time the returning faces were smiling. It seemed to have done the trick.

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More surgery in a Land Rover garage (the engine’s not ours, but I bet it sounded great when put back together – V8…)

Relieved, we returned to our camp site for our last night in Jo’burg. We had some interesting companions, Crowned Lapwings, tottering around in the hope of some tit-bits. Most of the Lapwings that we’d seen up until now were very nervous birds which flew off making a ridiculous fuss when you got too close. This little family were really tame, the juvenile sitting down when you got within a few feet, presumably an instinctive “if I don’t move you won’t be able to see me” reaction.

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Crowned Lapwing pretending it isn’t there

We finally left Jo’burg late on the Tuesday morning, stopping at Rustenburg to pick up some supplies. We were heading for Marakele National Park in the Waterburg Mountains. It was a SAN Parks (South African National Parks) site, and as we had bought a Wild Card annual pass when we were in Cape Town, which had already paid for itself before we left SA the first time, we could effectively access the park for free, just paying for camping. We weren’t sure what to expect of the park but it had some nice reviews so we booked for two nights, fortunately only wanting the Tuesday and Wednesday as the park camp site was fully booked from the Thursday night onwards. This seemed odd to us as the Easter holidays had already passed, but we thought no more about it as we were planning to move on anyway.

As had been our previous experience with SAN Parks, the welcome and admin was excellent, with friendly and helpful staff. So different from most of the NPs we’d visited in the rest of southern Africa. The camp sites were set out in the bush, with plenty of room and excellent ablutions. We had an early start the following morning, on the road just after the park opened at 6am. Winter is now closing in on us and it had been a really cold night. The extra blanket, which had been packed away since the car left the UK, had come out a few nights earlier and even Gareth was using it now. The morning was no exception and it was a struggle to get out of bed. But the possibility of seeing big cats called so we wrapped ourselves up and headed off.

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Marakele in the early morning light. Cold but worth the early start.

Marakele means place of sanctuary. It is divided into two sections by a road, with a tunnel allowing park traffic to pass from one side to the other. The camp site is on the west side and, although there are animals such as antelope and giraffe there, most of the big ones are on the east side. The drive to the tunnel takes about 15 minutes. A sliding gate, operated electronically by a push-button, allows you through the huge electric fence which encompasses both sides – a bit like Jurassic Park. We’d heard a particular part of the park was good for big game spotting so headed in that direction. The road took us up into rolling foothills surrounded by the most stunning scenery – great buttresses and sheer rock faces lining shallow, scrubby valleys.

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Half an hour later and into the ‘prime game viewing area’ we were rewarded by the sight of a male lion crossing the road ahead of us. We drove slowly to where he’d been, and although he’d disappeared into the bush we could hear him harrumphing to himself and anyone who would listen not far away. It’s was a brilliant sound, soft yet powerful.

Further on we passed two rhinos, a mother and a large calf. They were White Rhinos, although they do have Black Rhino here as well. We then headed up to Lenong, the high point of the park, where we had a spot of breakfast. The road up was steep and narrow and gave the car a good work out. Apparently there is an elephant in the park that makes an annual pilgrimage up here. Once he’s started they have to close the road until he comes back down again. Smile

At 2,500 metres this mountain gave us an incredible view across the park and the surrounding countryside. It was also the viewpoint for a Cape Vulture colony on the opposite rock face, and these huge birds were soaring over our heads.

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The view from the top

Fortunately we didn’t bump into any elephants or other cars on our way down. We then turned onto a 4×4 track which took us deep into one of the valleys. There were fresh lion tracks for most of the length but we didn’t see one, even when we popped out of the car for a quick pee at the end of the track. Except for in a few designated areas you’re not supposed to get out of the car in the park but a man’s got to go when a man’s got to go.

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Not another soul around

By this time it was getting on for lunchtime so we headed towards a picnic area in the west side of the park. However, some of the local residents had other ideas. A couple of young bull elephants were mock-fighting in the road ahead.

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One ele giving the other a right old poke in the face with his tusk

We watched them for ages, until we felt it was time to move on and hoped that they would too. But they were slowly joined by more and more elephants. It turned out to be a large breeding herd and they weren’t going anywhere. We waited for the best part of an hour for them to move and in the end gave up and had to find another way back. The main route was at least 20km back where we had come from but fortunately we found a short cut in the form of a 4×4 track that was marked on the map as a bad road, and we were told the same by another tourist, but it was actually ok. It saved us a lot of time.

We had a very late lunch before coming back through the tunnel for a late afternoon drive. We had gone about 100 metres past the gate when we saw a White Rhino in the bushes right next to the road. She was with a small calf and a large male. The calf was a bit nervous, and the male hung well back, but she was not at all bothered by us. She mouched around for a bit, grazing on the grass amongst the bushes, and then came across the road to get at the grass on the verge. The calf followed her, still very suspicious of us, whilst mum munched away without a concern in the world. She had the longest horn we have ever seen on a Rhino. The anti-poaching squad are very active in this area so hopefully she will live to keep it.

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Magnificent Rhino mum and calf

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Bit of a cutey

We thought we’d go back to where we’d seen the lion, in case he was around. As we approached we slowed down to a crawl. We got to the spot that he’d crossed and were peering into the bushes. And there, right next to the road, was a Leopard crouching in the grass. It was so close to us that Angela could barely bring herself to whisper it’s presence to Gareth for fear of scaring it away. As soon as it saw that we’d seen it, it turned and slunk back into the bushes a few metres. It stopped and looked back at us for several moments, enough to give us a really good look at it. The look in its eyes was incredible, so edgy and wild; no room at all for confusion with a cute little pussy cat. Then it turned again and walked into the bush. Too quick for a photo but we had finally seen one. Our own one. Yippeeee! As ‘regular readers’ will know, Angela has a slight obsession with seeing Leopards. She was a very happy bunny.

Back in camp we celebrated our sightings. Four of the Big Five in one day. And one of them was a Leopard. What a great place this had turned out to be.

We got chatting with our neighbour, Heather who was a nurse in a private school. That’s when we found out why the camp was fully booked for the long weekend. The Thursday was a public holiday to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president. The Monday was May Day and the private schools were still on holiday until the Tuesday. Most of South Africa take the Friday off and make a holiday of it and head out to camp for the weekend. We’d been so careful about the Easter holidays but somehow we’d missed the May break and we had nowhere booked… She suggested we have a chat with the Honorary Rangers who were camped next door. They are volunteers who help with various aspects of park management, from clearing invasive species to environmental education and DNA research. The said they’d have a chat with reception in the morning and see what could be done. We were to go for our morning game drive and then see if they could fit us in.

In the morning we set off early again. We hadn’t been in the east side for long when we saw a group of Nyala bulls. They are a really pretty antelope, the males being a chocolate brown with white and buff markings. We’d never seen them before so this group was a nice find.

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Then just a few hundred metres further on we came across number five of the Big Five, a big bull buffalo. He was in the middle of the road and we were slightly cautious as they have a reputation for being very grumpy, and therefore dangerous. He looked a bit cross but we kept our distance and he was actually fairly chilled. By the look on his face he’d had a very heavy night out with the lads, or maybe he’d been munching too many mushrooms…

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Hey man, turn the noise down

We saw more rhino and elephants before visiting reception. The Rangers had been to talk to them but she wasn’t sure if they had room as they were very busy and fully booked. How many nights did we want? We said ideally two but one would be great if that’s all they had. (We were sure we could find somewhere for the rest of the weekend). After a bit of teeth sucking and looking in the computer she said she could fit us in for 2 nights. We thanked her copiously and headed back to camp just as all the other campers started to arrive. Our old site had already gone so we quickly found another one and installed ourselves, just in time as it seemed that half of the country was arriving. It was only 11am. We chilled for the rest of the day.

The next day we had another early start. It was quiet and we didn’t see anything for a couple of hours. We’d previously found a little 4×4 track that went to a clearing and decided to go back there for a late breakfast. We pulled up and Angela, who had been hanging on and was getting a bit desperate by now, jumped out for a wee. As she squatted there, she heard a load of chattering start up from the birds and some odd harrumphing that sounded a bit like a lion. Not close but enough to make her look around a bit nervously. Just as she did, a large leopard trotted across the path 20 metres behind the car. “There’s a leopard. Holy shit!” she half shouted as she scrambled to get back in the car, fortunately no longer in full flow. It was a stunning animal. They move with incredible grace, as if their bodies are slung between their hips and shoulders. Needless to say the incident was too quick to get a photo but, in true Blue Peter styley, here’s one we took earlier:

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One of the most beautiful cats in the world, even if you’re having a pee at the time…

Would Ange want to do have the same experience again? Probably not. Would she change it? Not on your nelly. Smile. After the adrenalin had died down and Ange had stopped shaking we had a bite of breakfast and got on the road again.

We got back to camp for lunch, after seeing more elephants on the way. We planned to pop to the shops to stock up, giving us plenty of time to get to the next camp site, wherever it turned out to be, on the Saturday. Our new neighbours, a South African couple and their young son, were out of camp when a raiding party of Vervet Monkeys arrived. We fended them off our site and went to check on theirs. The little buggers had opened the zip of the tent and made off with their sugar, a trail of evidence scattered across the camp site. We chased them off and zipped up the tent. We soon realised they were back in again and this time they’d chewed open a carton of milk which was starting to empty itself onto the floor of their tent. Disposing of the rest of this we gathered the remaining consumables that were in the tent and took them with us, leaving a note while we went to get our supplies and replace the milk and sugar that the monkeys had stolen.

On our return the neighbours weren’t back so we left their stuff with another camper and headed into the park for more cat stalking. We planned to go to the place where we’d first seen the lion and leopard but a pair of young bull elephants were having a rather grumpy fight in the middle of the road. We weren’t going to get past so had to take another route, passing the track we’d seen the leopard on in the morning. Deciding to take a quick look, just in case, we dropped down a steep hill and turned a corner to find a large male lion lying in the middle of the track. He sat there for a while having a good old yawn, before he slowly got up, sprainted in the grass, and headed into the bush.

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Life’s tough for a male lion…

A female elephant and her young calf were edging nervously past us as we sat there watching. We headed back to camp, only to see a male rhino on the way. 4 out of 5 again. Smile

To top the day off we had a nice thank you and a bottle of wine awaiting our return from our neighbours, and had a really nice chat with them. It turned out they were seasoned campers who never usually leave food out but just this once they’d done it and paid the price.

The following morning we went back into the park after a bit of a lie-in. Apart from a couple of elephants (not another elephant…) it was pretty quiet. On one of the tracks we found this fantastically polished tree stump, obviously a favourite rubbing spot for a rhino or some other large beast.

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Rhino rubbing post

Back at camp we were struggling to find any other campsites that had availability for the rest of the weekend. Despite being fully booked there seemed to be spare room here so, on the Saturday morning, when we were due to leave, we headed back to reception to plead to stay for a few more nights. She took pity on us and booked us in, on the proviso that if anyone arrived and couldn’t find a space we would have to move into one of the open spaces between the large camp sites. That was fine by us so we paid up, thanked her profusely (again) and went back to chill for the afternoon and get a load of washing done. We were entertained by a family of Ostriches wondering around in camp. One took a fancy to our braai…

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Oi, that’s our dinner…

In the park again we saw more rhinos and elephants and then came across a couple of cars stopped in the road. They were watching a lion. It turned out to be three of them, but they were snoozing under some bushes and we only had a good view of one.

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Snoozy lioness

On the Sunday we decided to take the morning off and drive into the park for lunch. We took another run up to the high point, this time squeezing past several other vehicles on our way up, which was interesting considering how narrow he road was. We saw several Klipspringers on the way. These amazing little antelope, about the size of a whippet, are designed for the mountains. Their tiny hooves have rubbery centres which help them grip in the rock and they leap around apparently sheer rock faces with ease. They mate for life, usually staying within 5 metres of each other, which was certainly true of the pair we saw.

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Incredibly agile Klipspringer

Monday was our last day in the park. The camp emptied as most of the locals headed home. We had a nice drive in the morning and saw a big breeding herd of elephants and more rhino, but no cats. Our glimpses of leopards had been fleeting and, as they were obviously around, Ange still lived in hope of getting a really good sighting and maybe a photo, so we headed back in at 4pm. It was to be a costly decision. We saw more rhino and elephant, and now that most of the cars were gone lots of Zebra and antelope had came out onto the roads, but there were no cats so we headed home before it got dark, thinking that actually we hadn’t done too badly. However, the roads in the park had suffered badly from heavy rain several weeks back and, although they have sorted most of them out, there are several places with deep channels across the road. Gareth had been doing most of the driving and now knew where most of these were. Ange was driving now and although she wasn’t driving fast the ruts would sneak up on you. Most were fine but she hit one particularly big one just a bit too hard. The car lurched down, bounced up then slammed back down again, the full weight of the car whacking down on the rear suspension. That wasn’t good. We drove on and everything seemed to be working but then we noticed a bit of a knocking noise. Back in camp we found the cause. The impact had broken one of the shock absorbers. We’d fitted very good quality, heavy duty Old Man Emu shock absorbers before the trip and one had sheered at the top. Ouch. That was going to be expensive to fix, if of course we could find any new ones…

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It’s not meant to look like that…

We’d had a really nice time at Marakele, even thought we’d spent much longer there than planned and it had cost us considerably more than just camping fees! It was a rather sheepish Angela that left with a sanguine Gareth to find our next camp site and a new pair of shock absorbers, having taped up the broken one (is there anything you can’t do with Duck Tape?) as a temporary measure to keep it out of harm’s way.