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.

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