To The Coast

(Warning – contains slightly gruesome pics)

Our whistle-stop tour of Swaziland was coming to an end and we headed down toward the southern Swazi border with South Africa. We had a slightly nervy trip as we’d assumed there would be plenty of places to get fuel en route, passing a Galp station whose name we did not recognise in favour of finding a better-known brand where we thought we’d have a higher chance of getting better quality diesel. Fuel snobs. But we’d broken the cardinal rule of over-landing in Africa – always top up when you pass a fuel station no matter how little fuel you need as you never know when you’ll have the next opportunity. As the miles went by so did the villages but none of them had fuel. After about 80km we fired up Google to find that the nearest petrol station in our direction of travel was over 100km away in South Africa. We were getting short. Did we turn back? Our gut feeling was that we just about had enough to make it so we pressed on. Fortunately we didn’t have to test our hunch as 10km further down the road a Total garage appeared. Phew. That took the tension out of the trip and we carried on to the border at more ease. The last 20km of road was horribly corrugated and again pretty empty but this time at least there were early signs to confirm we were on the right road. A few locals on foot were crossing but we were the only car and the whole business took about 15 minutes.

We were finally heading for the coast in the hope of snorkelling with Whale Sharks in the Indian Ocean. We’d originally planned to travel to Mozambique for this. Our route would have taken us directly into Mozambique via a border in the Kruger Park, spend a couple of weeks there including a nice chill out on and around the beach, Whale Shark and reef snorkelling included. We’d even booked our first couple of nights in Mozambique. But then we heard some horror stories about police corruption along the road we were planning to travel, repeated huge fines for non-existent offences and guns being waved in people’s faces as they were forced to the cashpoint to pay the fine. Some of these stories were first hand. Our British car was likely to be a particular target so, just as we had for Zimbabwe, we chickened out. We just didn’t think the hassle was worth it. So we were now pinning our hopes on the South African coastline. Research didn’t give us much useful information so we’d just go and see.

We’d heard about a camp site right on the beach which sounded idyllic. Unfortunately we couldn’t get hold of them. Every number we tried either wasn’t answered or went to answer phone, never to be responded to. Maybe they were closed. It was too far to drive there to find out so we settled on a backpackers in Sodwana. They had a little bush camp with a few rondavels which cost little more than camping so we elected for one of those. We had the place to ourselves. It was very basic and somewhat unkempt but it meant not having to dry out the tent each morning as the cold nights were leaving it damp with condensation. We had to use our own bed linen and the mattress in the rondavel was so grotty and knackered that we got our whole bed out of the tent, mattress and all, and put it on top. It was slightly precarious as it was larger than the bed, but it just about worked.

Having ‘settled in’ we headed off to find out about snorkelling with Whale Sharks. But our excitement was short-lived. We had a chat with a really helpful girl in a dive shop who explained that they rarely saw Whale Sharks in this area. She said we could go snorkelling with the dive boats or fork out for our own boat but that we would be snorkelling 12 metres above the reef. There was a shallow reef that we could snorkel right off the beach but, as the currents could be dangerous, we needed to do this at low tide. Over the next couple of days this was going to be about 7am. Hmmm. That was really not what we’d hoped for! It was mid-winter in South Africa and the sea, though not freezing, was now pretty cool. In the warmth of a sunny afternoon that would have been fine but at 7am on a decidedly chilly morning, that wasn’t our idea of fun. We could hire wet suits but with the cost of the snorkel gear as well it would make for a very expensive swim. Not worth it. We gave up on the idea. Whale Sharks would have to wait for another trip.

We stayed for a couple of nights and enjoyed a lovely if expensive walk on the beach. It was in a nature reserve and you had to pay the best part of £10 to get in but we’d come all this way so we forked out and got the chance to dip our feet in the Indian Ocean. The beach was stunning and really quiet, especially after lunchtime when the dive boats had come back in. They always went out early, straight off the beach and crashing through the surf, to get to the dive spots before the wind picked up too much. On the shore, the surf-line was dotted with small holes, the largest no more than a centimetre wide, with a small spray of sand spreading out from their lip. As we walked we realised they belonged to tiny crabs. We found that if we went very slowly we might sneak up on them a little but they were usually far too quick and shot down their holes as soon as we got too close.

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The Indian Ocean at Sodwana

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Just to prove we were there even if we wimped out of swimming

In camp, we caught up with a load of washing and general chores. We were adopted by a very friendly cat who we let in to our hut for a while on the first night. He asked to be let out before we went to sleep but was back again the following morning, trying to get in through a hole in the roof. Needless to say, we let him in and he snuggled up at our feet as we snoozed. He hung around with us all day. When we were cooking dinner he got right in underneath the braai. We kept trying to move him away from the heat but he wouldn’t have it and just moved back.

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Cooking curry for tea with the help of a crazy cat (he got much closer to the heat than this)

In the morning we bade farewell to our new furry friend and continued our journey. Despite having around 6 weeks left in South Africa we felt time really pressing on us, as there were so many places we still wanted to visit. Our next port of call was to be Hluhluwe Umfolozi National Park, which we’d heard from numerous sources was a fantastic place for wildlife. We allowed ourselves 2 days to explore here, stopping for a couple of nights at a camp outside the park as you couldn’t camp inside. The place had been recommended to us, not just because it was close to the park but also for a particularly special reason. It was called Bushbaby Camp and every night at 7 the owners, Pim and Thandie, would feed the wild Bushbabies. Having had them climbing over our tent we couldn’t resist the possibility to see them in the flesh. At 6.45 we went to the feeding place and waited. After 5 minutes we heard chattering and there in the tree above us was a Bushbaby, waiting for its dinner. By 7, when Thandie came out with a plate of sliced bananas, there were 4 of them. She held out her hand and the Bushbabies descended. Some were more bold than others and they squabbled with each other for access, the dominant one growling at the others to assert its authority. It took the first pieces from her hand and expertly and very quickly removed the sweet flesh from the skin leaving the latter completely intact. After hand feeding a few of them she spread the feast out on a feeding table and stepped back. They were quick to action and lined up to stuff their furry little faces.

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Thandie feeding the Bushbabies

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Bushbaby heaven

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You can see their amazing, long-fingered hands

It was just wonderful to watch. They’d started feeding them years ago, initially just putting food out but over time the critters had gained in confidence to take the pieces from her hand with an audience watching.

The following morning we headed into the National Park. It is the park that played the biggest role in saving the White Rhino from extinction in South Africa and their work had been justly rewarded. Within about 20 minutes of entering the park we had seen a family of 3 rhinos. By the end of the day we had totted up a total of 21 of these amazing animals. Sadly we didn’t see much other wildlife and the word seemed to be that this was down to local poaching, probably for bush meat – i.e. for food for the local population. It was rather sad as from everything we’d heard this park had been rich in wildlife as well as the rhinos. The signage certainly suggested it…

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Do no enter. There be lions…

We headed back to Bushbaby Camp and met with a lady we’d chatted to the day before. She had been made redundant and decided to sell her house, bought a camper and was travelling around her country in it. She was not alone though and had three cats with her! They were all wearing harnesses with long leashes and seemed very relaxed with their new lifestyle. She also had a trailer in which she towed a moped for trips to the shops, etc.. Brilliant.

We couldn’t resist Bushbaby feeding time again and this time Thandie offered for the audience to have a go. No-one else seemed interested but Angela was up like a shot (after a modest pause). They were a little bit wary but the boldest (and smallest) tentatively stretched out its long fingers and took the banana from her hand, having warned the others off with a chattering growl. Awesome.

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Angela gets a go. Happy days!

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Another gratuitous shot because we can… Smile

It was brilliant to think it was these little fellas that were running all over our tent a month or so earlier.

The next day we spent in the southern part of the national park. We went up towards a lookout point and found several game viewing vehicles stopped on the track. A few metres away was a half-eaten Buffalo carcass. We were told that there were Lions lying in the grass but they were all out of site. We decided to wait, not sure if they would feed again before the evening. The other cars headed off and we pulled up in prime position, with a fantastic if rather macabre view of the unfortunate Buffalo.

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That’s a buffalo’s face! (or at least it was…)

We waited for half an hour, having been joined by a British couple who also sat it out. After about half an hour a feline face appeared in the grass behind the Buffalo. We rattled on our window as quietly as we could and pointed the others towards it. Slowly the young male sauntered towards the kill and we poised our cameras to get the fantastic shot we’d set ourselves up for. Lion munching on Buffalo’s head. What we hadn’t counted on was that they’d already had the good bits from there. Our dashing beast headed straight for the belly and tucked in. A part of the animal that was discretely hidden by a bush. The result was a fascinating image of the head of a very dead Buffalo and the tail end of a Lion. Ah well, not one for National Geographic’s wildlife photographer of the year but still an amazing experience (as long as you weren’t the Buffalo).

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A weird take on a pantomime horse!

After he’d stuffed his face (you can see how full his belly is in the picture above) the lion went for a sleep and disappeared into the grass. After 15 minutes more a cub came out and had his own feast. He too tucked into the belly where we couldn’t really see him but it was still great to watch. It was really nice to share the experience with the other couple as well. It seemed like it was their first Lion encounter and it made us realise how incredibly lucky we’ve been on our trip, and made this encounter even more special.

We spent the rest of the day wondering around the park taking in a large herd of elephants and notched up 25 more white rhino! We finally left the park and headed further into Kwa-Zulu Natal and the battlefields.

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