Baviaanskloof

We headed west from the park towards the Baviaanskloof. This was another place we had read about in one of the SA outdoor magazines and it sounded worth a visit, especially for an interesting-looking walk. Although not that far from the busy coastline, this valley is remote and fairly hard to get to. The road in from the east was through a narrow gorge on a dirt road. Just how we like it! Smile

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The road into the Bavianskloof

We spent the first night at a camp site near the entrance. It was a beautiful location in a deep valley right on the river. No other fool was camping and when we asked the farmer-owner if he had a location that got the morning sun (to help us thaw out) he laughed. The sun apparently doesn’t get up over the mountain before about 11am at this time of year! He gave us a lovely site which had a covered kitchen area and was near the ablutions. We bought a load of firewood from him and got a large fire going to keep us warm and cook dinner.

We knew the morning was going to be cold. Minus 2 we’d been told. So we decided to get up early, get on the road before breakfast and try and find somewhere to stop once the sun was up. It was a wise move. It was very cold and we had to scrape the ice off the windscreen.

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Ice on the windscreen in Africa! Outrageous.

Not only that, the riverside looked a bit like a winter wonderland. The farmer had left sprinklers on overnight to water the site. This was the result:

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Sleigh bells ring…

We wound our way up the gorge. The only road went through a nature reserve and we had to pay a small fee to go through. It was a lovely area. Our plan paid off and we got up on top to find the sun shining and a warmer if slightly wind swept spot for breakfast. The area is apparently home to zebra and various antelope although we didn’t see anything. It didn’t matter though, it was a lovely drive and we saw no one else up there. Marvellous!

This year saw the 100th anniversary of a huge flood in the valley, when torrential rains had filled the creeks surrounding the area which then poured in to the kloof. The single escape route – the gorge we’d entered the valley through – was not big enough to drain the water quickly enough. Several people lost their lives including several members of one family. We passed a marker post that one of the descendants had erected to show the flood level. It was way over our heads. Scary.

We’d booked ahead to camp at the Bo-kloof guest house, on a farm near the west end of the Baviaanskloof. It was only about 100km but it took until mid afternoon to get there as parts of the road were pretty bad. On arrival, the farmer’s wife was concerned about how cold it was and more or less insisted that we have one of their chalets, offering us a good deal on it. We didn’t argue. Angela was coming down with a cold and we were considerably higher than we had been last night so it was going to be even colder. We settled in, opened up the tent to let it dry out and dragged our bedding inside to do the same. We did a quick clothes wash, getting them up on the line to enjoy the rest of the afternoon’s sun and then went for the walk.

The Waterkloof is a small, narrow gorge that cuts back into the mountainside behind the farm. We followed the track up through the farmyard and into the foothills. The mountain loomed either side and the sides slowly closed in, until we were squeezed onto the river bed, or rather a jumble of rocks with a trickle of water, to get upstream. Then the walls seem to almost join, leaving a cleft barely more than 1 metre wide in places.

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The walls were covered in vegetation with mosses and ferns all over the place. In one part, where the kloof opened up a little, a large area of dense green lilies, with the occasional bright white flower, covered the floor. It was a fantastic place, almost prehistoric and well worth the effort to get here. It reminded us of Ludd’s Church on the edge of the Peak District in the UK, which is well worth a visit if you haven’t been there.

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Lilies growing in the dank gorge

The walk was not difficult, or long, although we spent so much time taking photos and just stopping to admire it that we didn’t get quite to the top. We we were worried about losing the light before we came down so edged on the side of caution and got down before it got dark.

Once the sun had gone down the temperature dropped. We turned the heater on and were glad not to be camping. In the morning we headed out of the kloof, through another cool pass, and back towards the coast. There were a number of game farms along the way, including one with giraffes which were pretty surreal to see at the side of a public road. We also had our road blocked by some other animals which were perhaps more in keeping with the area.

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We chose a route through the stunning Prince Alfred’s Pass and Paardekop Pass, avoiding the coastal town of Knysna. It had recently suffered huge bush fires which had done an incredible amount of damage. Four hundred houses were burnt down including 40 B&Bs, which gives you an idea of the importance of tourism in this area. People also lost their lives including a young fireman. It seems the fires were started deliberately and several local men had been arrested.

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Prince Alfred’s Pass

En route we passed a cafe that we’d heard about and where we just had to stop for a pic…

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We finally found it…! Smile

We dropped in at the surfers’ mecca of Plettenburg Bay, but just to get provisions. Our camp for the night was at Nature’s Valley, just up the coast. Another SAN Parks site, it was cheap and sheltered. There was also a pub nearby which had the rugby on in the morning… We were expecting it to be warmer down here but disappointingly it wasn’t. Another camp fire to keep warm and an early night.

The morning was much, much warmer. The wind had changed and was coming from the mountain – a berg wind – which, counter-intuitively, was warm not cold. We headed down to the Nature’s Valley pub and watched the Lions play the Hurricanes (this time the result was a draw) and then drove to Storms River. The main road was a toll road but there was another route via the Boukrans Pass. Our gps suggested this was sometimes closed but there were no signs or barriers so we drove on. The tree-lined road wound down a narrow valley with a steep drop to one side and the cliff to the other. The further we drove the worse the road got, with trees fallen across it, several small landslides into the road and some bad potholes. But a path had been cut through so we carried on. It was great fun but we decided that it probably was closed after all… This was confirmed by a partial roadblock (a pile of earth across half the road) at the other side. Ah well.

Back on the road, we headed to a fuel station that was said by our guide book to have one of the most spectacular locations in the country. It overlooked the Storms River Canyon, an awesomely deep and narrow fissure which the main road and footpath crossed.

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Storms River canyon

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Here’s one for our mums…

The main Storms River ‘resort’ is part of a much larger coastal National Park. It covers the mouth of the river and part of the adjacent coastline. You can camp right on the front here, with the waves crashing in front of you and the wind whipping around you. Hence why we’d opted for the Nature’s Valley part of the park! As we arrived Angela scanned the ocean and there, in the bay in front of us, was a Humpback Whale tail-slapping and breaching. Our first whale since back on the coast and the best view we’d had so far. We watched it for 15 minutes while it frolicked. Brilliant. Too far away for a pic sadly.

One of the reasons to visit Storms River is the suspension bridge across the river mouth. It’s a fantastic structure, with the sea on one side and the deep gorge of the river on the other. You can do a kayak and lilo trip from the coast up the river. It looked like brilliant fun and we were sorely tempted. However a quick check of the water temperature soon decided us against it, especially with the sharp wind that was blowing. Nevertheless, the bridge was more than enough of an attraction.

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Around the main car park area we watched several Sunbirds sipping nectar from the Aloes. Beautiful little birds, and similar-looking to humming birds, these fellas clamber and flutter around in search of nectar, probing the flowers with their long and delicately curved bills. Many of them are very brightly coloured, just as these were, but they rarely sit around for long so getting a shot was quite hard!

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Double-collared Sunbird…

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… feeding on Aloe

We drove back to camp along the Boukrans Pass again, this time feeling a little guilty as we were actually passing “road closed” signs, but we knew it was passable so we went for it. What rebels. We spent 4 nights in Nature’s Valley before heading back inland again to take the R62 through the Karoo, one of South Africa’s must-do routes, so of course we had to do it.

In Trouble at the Park and Cold Camping

Before heading inland we stopped at a post office to drop off our Carnet, which our shipper needed to make the preparations for the boat trip back to Europe. We also decided to change our last few dollars to Rand and made the poor decision to do this in a bank as we didn’t know where the nearest ForEx was. We told the receptionist what we needed, were given a number and joined the queue. Time passed, people came and went, everyone who’d arrived before us had been seen and we still waited. After half an hour we asked when we might be seen. We were told to wait and the receptionist disappeared. After about 5 minutes, through the window in the staff door, we could see him talking to someone and looking at us. More time passed, then he finally came out and said that someone would be with us in 5 minutes. After 10 minutes, when we were about to leave, a lady came out and finally dealt with us. She was very nice and we got our money sorted but, really?! It took an hour to change a few dollars. Africa time.

It was now lunchtime so we grabbed some food from the supermarket and went down to the edge of a coastal lagoon to eat it, having a chat with a fisherman who was after cuttlefish while we were down there.

Back on the road, and as the day went on the wind picked up, bustling the Landy around a bit and giving Gareth a bit of fun at the wheel. It didn’t let up and we were getting concerned that it would be as bad inland as had been forecast for the coast. Fortunately, not long before we arrived at our destination, the wind dropped right off. It was now dark but we’d made it half an hour before the gate closed. We were at the Addo Elephant Park, where we hoped to spend two nights. The park has the Big 5 but is particularly known for large numbers of, you guessed it… We’d phoned ahead and they had a camp site available for tonight but the only one left for tomorrow was a tiny ground-tent site so we’d have to have a look and see if we could fit in. We put the tent up and treated ourselves to dinner in the restaurant. Steak. Yum.

We were up fairly early in the morning but the days were shorter now so dawn was about an hour later, giving us a bit of a lie-in. This would be our last safari opportunity. We’d checked with the receptionist which routes we could use in the park and were told we could go anywhere that there wasn’t a no-entry sign. We saw little to start with but then a little figure, so familiar from wildlife programmes at home, stood out on the low hill beside us. It was a Meerkat, or Suricate as they are known here. There was a small group of them. We were very excited, as we’d only seen them once before in the Kalahari, and they’d been some distance away. These were fairly close. A track ran up the side of the hill and took us a little closer. There were no signs so we headed up and parked at on top of the hill, watching the little critters sunning themselves and digging around in the dirt for their breakfast. Fantastic.

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Meerkats on the lookoout

As we drove back down a game drive vehicle was stopped at the bottom. The guide immediately started having a go at us for going up the track. “You’re not allowed up there. I’ve taken photos of your vehicle, noted your registration number and am going to report you to the park authorities. There’s a fine of ZAR 2,000 (about £120) for going off the tourist route”. He was really aggressive and rude. We explained that there was no sign. “You’re not allowed up there”. “We didn’t know that”, we replied. “There is no sign and the receptionist told us we could go anywhere unless there was a no entry sign”. “ His response? “ The elephants knocked the sign down two days ago”. We weren’t entirely sure how we were meant to know that and reiterated that the receptionist had told us. His tone changed slightly and he headed off telling us that we had to stay on the main tracks. It was all rather unpleasant. We’d had no problems in any of the other parks and always obeyed the park rules and it put a bit of a mar on our last day. We got photographic evidence that there was no sign and spent much of the day wondering whether we would get back to camp with a posse of park staff after us, get throw out and / or have a large fine to pay.

Anyway, we carried on and our next encounter was more welcome, an elephant marching to a waterhole and spending 10 minutes drinking and washing. We had breakfast at a fenced picnic site, joined by a umber of very cheeky birds who fancied a few crumbs.

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Cheeky Cape Robin-chat

After food we got chatting to some other visitors who told us about a lion kill, another unfortunate buffalo, which the lions had left but was now being scoffed by hyenas and jackals. Of course we had to go and see. En route we came across a small herd of elephants at a water hole. They were hogging it, keeping at bay a rather decrepit looking buffalo that seemed pretty desperate for a drink. Each time it approached they closed ranks so it couldn’t get in. Even one of the babies came out and had a bit of a go at it, flapping his ears and having a bit of a trumpet, though h wasn’t brave enough to get too close and quickly ran back to his mum.

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Elephants hogging the water hole while thirsty Buffalo looks on

As we approached the area of the kill we made out two big male lions snoozing on the hillside away to our left. They were fairly distant but you could see them occasionally twitch their tales or lift their heads up for a moment before flopping wearily down again. A little further on and there was the carcass, right by the road. At first there were no scavengers to be seen but then a single jackal turned up. He was incredibly nervous, not so much of us it seemed but of other predators. A lion would certainly kill a jackal and I’m pretty sure a hyena would too. Nevertheless he hung around and we watched him for about half an hour as he tore small pieces of what flesh was left from the bones, constantly checking for danger as he did so. It was a fascinating if somewhat gruesome scene!

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Nervous Jackal on Buffalo carcass

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Not a lot of meat left but he had a good feed

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At times he went right inside the carcass

Eventually he disappeared and so did we, slowly making our way back to camp. We’d been recommended a water hole where dozens of elephants were supposed to congregate and headed there en route. There was nothing to see at first and then a young bull came marching across the plain behind us and down to the water to drink. Then he was joined by another, then a small group including a baby. The edge of the pool was down a steep bank and he had real problems reaching it as his legs weren’t long enough. After coming at the bank from several angles, and with a bit of help from family members, he eventually got the drink he was after. It was very sweet and we watched their antics for a while before deciding to get on our way. Just as we were about to start the engine we looked in the mirror and saw the ‘big boys’ arriving for the party. Behind us a large female crossed the road with a few younger family members. It seemed that the small parking was right in the middle of their access route to the water and they passed us fairly close by. Behind her were three huge bulls heading our way. It was too late to move the car – that would probably upset them, so we had to sit tight and wait for them to pass.

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The boys are back in town…

I don’t mind saying we were a little nervous. They came really close. One had a good sniff at the back but carried on past, another walked right past Gareth, within a metre of the car. He stopped about 5 metres beyond us and turned his head in our direction, stepping back and round to get a better look.

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As you can see from the reflection, we had the windows closed…

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A heart-stopping moment as he stops and checks us out

We held our breath. He paused for longer than felt comfortable before turning away and carrying on to the waterhole. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and muttered the odd expletive.

Fortunately he was the last so we made our escape while the coast we clear. Back at camp we braced ourselves for an argument with the park staff about our earlier unwitting foray onto unauthorised ground. But nothing was said and we can only assume he realised it was a mistake and didn’t report us. We sized up the small camp site and decided we could, just, fit into it, so moved the car and chilled.

The morning was freezing cold, literally. Angela had got up at about 6 and gone for a wander. We were close to the park fence and she was hoping to see some early morning animals but it was all quiet. By the time she got back to the tent the ladder was covered in a thin layer of ice as was the inside of the tent. We stayed snuggled under the duvet for as long as we could but eventually dragged ourselves out into the cold as we had a date. The Lions were playing the first of their tests against the full All Blacks team and we’d asked if they would show it on the TV in the bar. As it turned out we weren’t the only ones watching – some other Brits and quite a few South Africans. Nor was the TV in the bar, it was in a large marquee next to it. It was freezing and even a full English breakfast didn’t really warm us up. Nor did the result, but we did meet a very nice South African couple, Judy and Dave, who offered us accommodation if we needed it when we got to Cape Town. After the match we packed up and headed west. There would be no more early mornings looking for elusive animals or close encounters with large herbivores on our trip.

It Wasn’t That Wild When We Went There – other than the wind!

The Wild Coast is a stunning and fairly undeveloped coastline which has (as much in South Africa) a bit of history. During Apartheid, the government set up a number of ‘Homelands’ for the black majority. One of these was called the Transkei for the Xhosa people. It was given independence that was only recognised by the South African government in 1963, but later brought back into the fold as part of the Eastern Cape. It had accusations of corruption and providing safe areas for ANC activities probably adding to it’s description as the Wild Coast, not just for it’s geography.

We’d been told that the area around Coffee Bay was worth a visit and found a great little secluded cove called White Clay. Unlike the crowded and ramshackle Coffee Bay, White Clay only had a few people staying and the second night we were the only fools to camp there as the wind had picked up. So much so that we moved from the sea front to somewhere a bit more protected in the campsite. It may be wonderful to be at the seaside, but it isn’t half noisy if you’re trying to sleep!

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A fine view from the White Clay campsite

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You can see how windy it’s getting from the spray

Each morning, there were fishermen diving for mussels and crayfish. Not keen to relive some of our past experiences with mussels (sitting on a toilet with a bucket in your hands is something we both hope never to repeat…), we declined, but asked about crayfish. One of them came back with 3 reasonable sized (and alive) ones. A deal was made and the deed with a sharp knife was done. On to the braai for a fresh seafood lunch.

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Fresh crayfish were really nice

The Lions were playing again and we camped up in front of the telly to watch them. At least Gareth watched, while Angela kept getting distracted by a large school of Bottle-nosed Dolphins that had turned up in the bay at half time and spent the next hour frolicking in the waves and chasing fish. Seeing groups of them through the water, rising up with the waves as they swelled into rollers was just brilliant. She hoped to see them ride out through the whites of the breaker, like a dolphin equivalent of white horses, but they never did, always staying with the main body of water until the next roller built up and gave a great view of their bodies again. Back to the important things: the Lions beat the Chiefs 6 to 32 with 3 tries and a penalty try. Excellent game (and excellent dolphins). Later that day we had a walk on the beach with the aim of exploring a cave on one side of the bay. Unfortunately the tide, which we thought was going out, turned out to be coming in, so we had to make a swift retreat before we got there. Back to the tent for tea and medals.

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The bay’s edge, with the cave just visible in the bottom right and Aloes clinging precariously to the cliff top

The next day we moved on again, with a quick stop at the well-known Hole-In-The-Wall. A large number of local touts tried to persuade us that we must stop in the nearby village and they would guide us (for a fee of course), despite the fact we were still a few km from the site and could get there easily on our own. We ignored them and carried on, finding a great viewpoint from the cliff above. It’s a cool feature, a tunnel carved into an outcrop of rock that separates the sea from a tidal lagoon. As the waves swell they force through the hole and when big enough, spread out into the lagoon in a beautiful symmetrical arc. When the tide conditions are right you can apparently ride the wave into the lagoon. Looking at the force of the water coming through, today was not one of those days!

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The Hole-In-The-Wall. The ‘Hole’ is the dark blob in the middle

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A closer look, showing the water pouring through

We didn’t have time to go down to the lagoon as we had an hour and half’s journey just to get back to the main road before we could head further west. We passed a sign to a place called “Collywobbles” on our way, which raised a smile. We found a lovely backpackers’ lodge called Buccaneers at the village of Chintsa. It was set on a sheltered lagoon behind an idyllic beach which stretched for 18km along the Indian Ocean. We’d love to have stayed longer but the forecast for the next day and was for very strong winds along the coast. Despite its sheltered location we didn’t want to spend a night in the tent with 40 mph winds battering us so decided to head inland.

But during the stop we did finally manage to sort out the next big leg of our trip. We’d been trying for days to change our flights, which had originally been booked to bring us back to the UK in mid-September. We wanted to bring them forward and change the destination. After becoming jaded with things in Zambia and Malawi we had decided to cut our Africa trip short by a few months and spend some time exploring Europe instead. Ironically, we had got our ‘Africa travel mojo’ back in Botswana but we were now nearing the end of our 3 month visa for SA so it was time to move on. We’d found a shipper to take the car to Europe instead of home and we would spend a few weeks visiting some of the ancient cities and towns in Spain, which we’d long wanted to see and could explore much more easily without a large and loaded Land Rover, while she was in transit. All we needed to do now was change the flights.

Unfortunately we were booked with South African Airways and, despite the fact that they are the national airline and their business is to fly people around the world, and that people must make changes to their flights on a regular basis, it seemed nigh-on impossible for us to do this. We made 10 calls and spent over two and a half hours on the phone (mostly on our mobiles, at one point running out of credit, because we couldn’t get them to call us back) trying to get a price to fly to Madrid instead of London 2 months earlier than planned. All we wanted was a price. Not difficult, surely…

We first called on a Sunday. We explained our enquiry and got put on hold for 20 minutes. When she finally came back on the line we were told that the Reservations office was closed until the Monday… We phoned them in the morning and were told they would have to look into it and please call back later. We called back and there was no record of our request. They would have to check it again so please call tomorrow. In the morning, you guessed it, they had no record of our request. This happened 3 times. We eventually got a price from someone who told us we would have to phone back to book “so that they knew it was us”… So we phoned back only to be told the price we had been given was only for part of the trip and we would have to call back.

We then complained to Customer Services, who the SAA website tells you to contact with a complaint. They just referred us back to Reservations. It was appallingly bad customer service and we were intensely frustrated. Gareth did a sterling job of not losing his temper but pushed it and finally got them to promise a call back from a supervisor that afternoon. It was 6.30pm and we’d given up hope of hearing from them when she did call and explained the apparent problem. Our original flight was 2 legs – Cape Town to Jo’burg, Jo’burg to London – whilst the new one was three legs and we would therefore need to book an additional flight rather than just change the original ones. Not something anyone else had explained but regardless, we still didn’t see what the problem was as all we’d wanted was to know the cost and details of getting to the new destination. If it meant 3 rather than 2 then fine. She gave us the cost of changing the London flights and a few somewhat unclear prices for the final flight to Madrid. We said we’d think about it. A bit of research showed us it would be cheaper to cancel the flights (and lose most of their value) and go with someone else. We’d had enough of SAA so cancelled and booked with Emirates. We are going to Madrid via Dubai. Our flight leaves the same day our visas expire. Let’s hope it’s not delayed! Smile

So, with that saga out of the way and our exit from Africa finally sorted we headed in-land to escape the oncoming storm.

A Bit Chilly in the Mountains

From the Sani Pass we carried on along the Drakensburg, roughly following the Lesotho border in a south-westerly direction. Our friends Jake and Maxie had recommended this route and another place to visit – a village called Rhodes – so we were heading there. The scenery was again beautiful. It was too far to drive in one day so we broke the journey at Mount Currie Nature Reserve. We didn’t get there until about 7pm and were received by a slightly surprised (you want to camp???!) but very friendly guard who directed us to the camp site about 1km away and offered the warmth of his cosy office should we get too cold.

It was a pretty site, laid out under Plane trees on the shore of the Crystal Dam. We wrapped up warm and made a quick pasta dinner and got ready for bed. Despite being the only ones there we used the separate male and female facilities. Is that a British thing?… There were Zebras in camp as we went back to our tent, all fairly relaxed about our presence. We slept well, cosy under our duvet and blanket. The morning was chilly but beautiful, with mist rising from the lake. The inside of the tent was damp so we moved the car into the sun and let it dry while we went for a stroll.

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Looking across the Crystal Dam to our camp site (you can just make out the red of Eningu)

After a trip into the nearby Kokstad town to stock up with provisions we headed for Rhodes. The drive was fantastic, taking in several high passes along the way – the Pitseng Pass, Elands-hoogte and Naude’s Nek, the latter being touted as “the highest publicly accessible pass in South Africa”. We took their word for it. The going was slow and the roads were very rough in places. The journey took 6 hours instead of the 4 we had anticipated but it was worth it. We hardly saw another soul all day, unless you count a few shepherds herding their sheep.

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Stopping for lunch at the side of the road

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Traffic congestion African style

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Pitseng Pass

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Going up Naude’s Nek pass – you can see the road ahead on the opposite mountainside

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At 2,500m at the summit of Naude’s Nek pass

We approached Rhodes as the light was fading and had a phone call from our worried hosts. Knowing how bad the road was they were checking where we were and if we were ok. We had no intention of camping up here and had booked a cottage for 2 nights, Ash Cottage, which sat on the edge of the village with lovely views over the fields and mountains. In common with most of the houses in the village, it was built of timber and corrugated iron sheeting. It had a solid-fuel Rayburn which turned out to be a godsend. The first night the temperature plummeted to minus 14! The house was very cold in the morning but we managed to keep the Rayburn going, along with the gas fires that were also provided, and kept the worst of the chill at bay. We were a bit worried about the water supply in the car as we had not planned on anything quite this cold and had not insulated it. The pipes froze but fortunately did not split.

Rhodes was a surreal place. It was a small village, with a handful of streets laid out in a grid a bit like we might imagine an early American frontier town. Tucked high in the mountains and difficult to access, it’s a place South Africans love to visit to escape the rat race. There are just 30 full-time residents but a large number of holiday cottages. One of its residents apparently came to help marshal a cycle race and loved it so much he never left. At the time of our visit it had a really sleepy feel to it.

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The main street in Rhodes

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A bit of a “one cow” town…

Despite the cold of the nights, which even the locals were talking about, the days were warm and sunny. It was incredibly relaxing and our 2 days turned into four, giving us time to plan for the rest of our trip. We got a load of washing done – the cottage had a washing machine, yay! – and despite it stiffening up like boards when we first hung it on the line in the frosty morning, it dried out fairly quickly once the sun had started to warm things up.

The village attracts a lot of artists and artisans and has its own pottery and brewery. We visited the first, buying a couple of lovely bowls from the potter herself, and sampled the good if somewhat pricey produce of the second at the local pub. We walked up towards the mountain behind the village, encountering an unusual and quite rare bird on the way, a Bald Ibis, which had the look of a Franciscan Monk without a fringe.

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Bald Ibis with African Hoopoe feeding in the foreground

It was getting chilly again as we descended into town so we called in at the pub for a wee dram. They had a surprisingly good selection of scotch at very reasonable prices, and we sampled a couple while we chatted to Maria, who had originally shown us round the cottage and was now the bar-tender. As I guess with many a small village, few people have one job here. If you’ve seen Local Hero you’ll get the idea. One of the whiskies was particularly good, Clynelish, which we have noted for future reference… Smile

We’d brought some dvds on our trip, to watch on the laptop, and for the first time decided to put one on. Much to Angela’s disappointment we couldn’t get the Star Trek dvd to work so put on The Men Who Stare at Goats. Odd but enjoyable Cohen Brothers fayre. In fact we had a bit of a film fest during our stay and watched 5 or 6 of them, a slightly eclectic mix including more Cohen brothers (does anyone actually understand A Serious Man?), Mission Impossible 3 and 4 and The Matrix!

On the Saturday we watched the Lions play again, over a hearty full English breakfast at the pub, this time with a much more satisfying result of 10:32 to us.

it was time to move on and we headed south towards the Eastern Cape. The pub landlord, Dave Walker, had recommended a route via a new pass which we decided to take. Barkly Pass was indeed pretty and pretty high at 1,990m. We were slightly alarmed by a large sign that read “This pass is extremely dangerous. Please drive carefully”, with the presence of vultures at eye level adding to the anticipation of potential doom. But the road was good tarmac and although it twisted its way quickly down the high mountainside it was absolutely fine. After a long drive we were back on the edge of the Indian Ocean in an area known as The Wild Coast.

Sani Pass

Coming south in the Drakensberg range you come to one of the highest passes in Africa, the famous Sani Pass. We stayed over in a backpackers the night before – it was getting very cold at night now so again we decided against camping – and had a full English breakfast to set us up for the day!

There has been much to-ing and fro-ing on the subject of making the pass tar. It is currently gravel. A lot of people want it to stay gravel, but the powers that be are inching closer to putting tar on it. There are already road works underway on some of the lower river crossings to put bridges over them. We were glad we were able to do it whilst it was still gravel.

The road starts as tar and then drops to reasonable gravel interspersed with rough gravel near where the road works are. The view up the valley is stunning and gets better as you go up.

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A view from low down in the valley.

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We’re heading where those two mountains come together.

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Now getting higher, we’re heading for the low point.

The Sani is one route into the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, a country in its own right despite being completely surrounded by South Africa. We go through what must be the quickest border post in Southern Africa. The South Africa side is down in the valley and the Lesotho one is up the top – a good few miles and about an hour and a half’s driving in no-mans land!

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You are now leaving South Africa.

The road just continues going up revealing more of the pass as you go. It’s winter down here, but fortunately they haven’t had snow in a few weeks otherwise this might have not been such a good idea!

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Near the top now, you can see the road snaking up toward the low point.

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Nearly there now!

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Just below the top, there’s a bit of ice on the road.

The top has been recently graded (which is good as we’d heard that it gets a bit exciting after rain wash-outs) and it’s easy going, albeit with tight turns, a few steep climbs and fantastic views over the side! Then the road begins to level off, you see the highest pub in Africa on the right hand side, the Lesotho border post on the left and the road turns to tar.

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That was a bit of a climb. Well done Eningu.

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Well it would be rude wouldn’t it?

We then headed for the Black Mountain in Lesotho. Our original plan was to spend some days going through Lesotho and back out again, but the weather up here was changeable at this time of year, it was very cold and camping in the snow would have been a bit tedious, so we decided on a day trip and the Black Mountain was a good turn around point. The roads here are spectacularly good tar and have been paid for (and probably laid) by the Chinese. Some of the sweeping curves on the Black Mountain were obviously designed for lorries, no doubt fully loaded with Chinese gear to sell (may be why the South African side is under pressure to tar as well..??). We hit the top and take some gratuitous pictures Smile

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The highest we’ve been in Eningu.

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The remnants of a dusting 2 weeks previously.

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Just look how good that tar is..

Then we turn around and head back down, getting stamped out at the border on our way through.

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Just below the border post heading down.

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Look at that road snaking off into the distance.

Well, we made it (having stopped for a picnic lunch half way down). Another whistle stop border crossing and we were down to a more sensible altitude and off to the next part of the Drakensberg.

The Land of Giants

We stayed with our friends from Kruger, Maxie and Jake in Hilton, just outside Pietermaritzberg. We had a great time there being fed and cooking for them and even getting in the odd bath! We managed to watch one of the Lions games with them on Saturday morning, then went to a place called Piddly Widdly for a great lunch and a rather dangerous secondhand bookshop. With our fairly packed car, we managed to avoid buying any books, although they gave us a braai book and Out of Africa, which we managed to squeeze in!

On the way back, we visited the place where Mandela was captured. They have a memorial to him which is made of tall steel rods with various bits on them that when viewed from afar show his face. It’s an impressive work of art.

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Mandela’s capture site

After talking to them about where we wanted to go next, they thoroughly recommended staying at Giants Castle in the Drakensberg range. We couldn’t camp there so we would have to book a chalet, but it was going to be so cold in the mountains that we didn’t really want to camp anyway. Jake made a call and we were booked in, with some guidance of which chalet to get for the best views.

We said our goodbyes and headed off and found a bit of a lifestyle shop (which even had an estate agents in it) and bought some fab looking (and tasting) pies for lunch. We passed a pub called the ‘Knackered Swan’ on the way and the sign for the pub looked it as well.

The car was too tall to fit under the thatched roof of the entrance gate, but fortunately they had a bypass – obviously not too many rooftop tents head to the chalets!

This part of the Drakensberg is famous for Lammergeiers, or Bearded Vultures as they are also known. Their popular name is a bit of a misnomer as they don’t take lambs, but feed on bones instead. In fact the whole vulture family are specialists, with some taking the heart and liver, some the skin, some the meat and the lammergeier the bones – a fairly impressive clean up eco-system.

There is a private hide that they hire out at Giants Castle, so we booked in for 2 days and got the hide for the following day. Whilst we were in reception a Dutch couple were checking in and they asked about the hide. “It’s booked out, I’m afraid”. We overheard this and said they could share it (and it brought the cost down for all of us!) We’ll see you at breakfast, we told Milka and Gerry.

The view from our room was stunning, and at dawn especially so.

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Not a bad view from the bed eh?

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…and another from the balcony

We met Milka and Gerry at breakfast and then picked up the large bucket of bones that we were given to attract the vultures. The guys didn’t have a 4×4 so were going to walk the 3km up to the hide. We talked for a while about giving them a lift but not having any seats, but they were game for it and they squeezed into the back of Eningu, along with the bucket of bones, and we all headed up the steep path to the hide.

The hide is on a ledge overlooking the valley and there were already a number of carcases up there which about 30 Cape Vultures were feeding on, flying off when we arrived. We put half of the fresh bones out and all got comfy in the hide for the long wait.

The first to show were the ravens which were having a go at the small bits of meat left on the bones. After a while we saw the Cape Vultures come soaring past looking over and they eventually landed to see what they could find.

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Cape Vulture cruising for a snack

Yes, we’ve seen Cape one’s before, but where are the Lammergeiers? Eventually a few came cruising past looking over to the ledge to see what was on offer. They did numerous fly-pasts but it was ages before one finally landed and had a snoop around. It found a bone (which was massive), walked it to the edge and just about managed to take off. The ones that they can’t swallow (and they swallow big ones), get lifted high into the air and dropped onto rocks to break them into smaller, more manageable pieces.

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Again browsing for food

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Then coming in to land amongst the ravens

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This one’s got my name on it

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And off he flies with it in his talons

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You can see where they got their bearded name from!

What a fantastic experience, and after we got down, Milka invited us for a drink at their chalet. They were celebrating their wedding anniversary and had booked the honeymoon suite. It was called the ‘Bride’s Bush’…. We had to explain why we were laughing so much.

The following morning there was another Lions match on, one of the midweek games against a league team. It finished after we were due to check out. They needed our room for the next guests and the TV in the bar wasn’t working so the receptionist let us watch the match in a room they didn’t have guests booked into. Sadly the Lions lost.

We had pushed the boat out to visit Giant’s Castle but were so glad we did. It was an awesome place. We were sad to leave but had a date with the one of the highest and most talked about passes in Africa – the Sani Pass.

The Battlefields

We hadn’t intended on visiting the infamous Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift before our trip, but met a few people that said it was definitely worth the time – how right they were.

This isn’t a full account as there are many versions and numbers on the internet, so this is one very short summary, based on Wiki.

Colonial Britain was expanding in Southern Africa and they gave the Zulu nation an impossible ultimatum to give up their arms. After the ultimatum expired, Lord Chelmsford led the British forces in the Battle for Zululand and invaded it from the neighbouring Natal province on the 11th of January, 1879. The British had state of the art weaponry and the Zulus had their traditional assegai (stabbing spear), knobkerrie clubs and cow-hide shields. They also had some old guns, that they hadn’t been trained to use.

The British got to Isandlwana on the 20th of January and set up camp, but did not entrench and circle the wagons to form a protective laager. Much debate is had about this, with some saying they weren’t planning to stay very long and others saying the British command seriously underestimated the Zulu numbers and capabilities. After some skirmishes with some early scouts sent out, Chelmsford split his men and took a large number to where he thought the majority of the Zulus were. This left around 1,300 at Isandlwana, with around 1,000 modern rifles and two 7-pound field guns.

What Chelmsford thought to be the main body of Zulus was in fact not; they, some say 20,000 of them, were actually in formation near Isandlwana and were discovered, sitting silently, by some British scouts on the 22nd of January. They then began advancing on the British camp. A message was sent to Chelmsford to return to camp, which he didn’t do for some time.

The Zulu formation was that of a buffalo head, with the main parts consisting of a number of groups which would advance on the enemy. The two horns would then encircle the enemy, who were busy fighting the main thrust, and cut off any retreat. The Zulu groups were divided by age.

There was a total eclipse at 2:29pm which must have added to the grim state of the battlefield.

The Zulus routed the British and one of the Zulu reserve groups (about 4,000 who hadn’t been directly involved in Isandlwana, but some think they also wanted to ‘wash their spears’) followed some retreating soldiers to the hospital at Rorke’s Drift and spent all evening attacking a group of 140 people, many of whom were already wounded but who ultimately defended their position against all the odds, their hastily-erected barriers made from mealie bags found in the store rooms.

In the meantime Chelmsford returned to Isandlwana to a scene of devastation, with hundreds of his men dead and wounded. The recriminations were fairly severe as you can imagine (against the British commanders as well as the Zulus) and a second invasion happened which led eventually to wiping out most of the Zulu nation.

But until our visit we knew little of this, other than faint memories from the rather sketchy and somewhat inaccurate version of events given in the epic film “Zulu”. We started at Isandlwana. It was an eerie place, standing where the camp was below the hill looking out at the large valley to the right where Chelmsford was seeking out the Zulus and up at the hills to the left where the majority of the Zulus came from. You can’t imagine what it must have felt like seeing a huge number of your enemy coming over the hill towards you.

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Isandlwana hill with cairns that mark some of the mass graves of the British

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Looking with Isandlwana behind us out over the valley. Zulus came from the left hand hills

There is also a monument to the fallen Zulus here. Their numbers were not recorded (they did not keep records in the way that the British did) but probably matched those of the British. It was commissioned only after Mandela became president…

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Zulu memorial, representing a necklace of honour awarded to brave warriors

We then drove to Rorke’s Drift (a ford near what had been a trading post once belonging to Jim Rorke). The original buildings have been replaced, but there is an outline of the old buildings for you to walk around after visiting the museum. The area the British defended was tiny. Again it was difficult to imaging the fear and noise of the battle that lasted for hours overnight on the 22nd.

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Monument to the fallen British at Rorke’s Drift

It was very interesting and very sobering to see the small model of the battle in the museum, showing the trading post and it’s defences with a small number of red figures for the British and an enormous number of Zulus attacking it. The whole day took much longer than we expected and we were due to visit our friends Maxi and Jake, who lived miles away near Pietermaritzberg, that afternoon. We left and tried to make it as quickly as possible…