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…

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.

Swaziland

We got the car serviced in Nelspruit, and headed south towards Swaziland. It was a false start. We’d found a camp site on a farm which was listed on an overlanders website but couldn’t find it where it was supposed to be. We stopped at a bar (one of these places where everyone looks at you when you walk in) and were told that the lady that ran the place had moved away a few months before after her husband had been murdered! Woh, that was unexpected. We’d read some horror stories about farmers being murdered in South Africa over he past 10 years and perhaps this was one such incident. We didn’t know, but we needed to find somewhere else. We had a quick search on the net which identified a caravan site near the border. When we got there our gut said no, don’t stay here. Had we imagined the car that seemed to be following us just before we pulled up there? There was no real security at the entrance and something just felt wrong. Always trust your gut instinct. We did. It was getting dark and our alternative was back in Nelspruit at another caravan park, 45 minutes away, but that’s where we headed. The site was simple and welcoming and felt ‘right’. We had a good nights sleep.

In the morning we headed back south and to the Swaziland border. The scenery was beautiful. The land rose steeply as we approached this landlocked Kingdom, with green vistas in all directions. We were the only car on the road. There had been no signage indicating that there was a border crossing here at all but the map, our guidebook and our gps indicated there was so we kept going and were slightly relieved to see a sign a few miles from the border itself.  We were the only people there, apart from about 8 staff, most of whom were sitting around doing very little except watching us with apparent interest. One of the men came over and started looking at the car in more detail. We waited for him to find a fault and ask for a ‘fine’; but no, I think he was genuinely interested in the Land Rover. “Strong car” he said. It was not the first time that expression had been used to describe the Landy and we had to agree. He waived us in the direction of the office, we showed our passports, they stamped us out without looking at the Carnet, we drove through to the Swaziland side who stamped us in and that was that. It took barely 10 minutes. Marvellous.

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The quality of the road immediately changed and the fine tarmac on the South African side was replaced with a very rough dirt road. This probably accounted for the lack of other travellers at this particular border post, but we had chosen it for the mountainous landscape it took us through and the Landy was more than up to the job. Strong car. Smile

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Road from the border

Our destination for the first night was a nature reserve in the mountainous north-west of the country, an hour or two’s drive south from the border via the rather frontier-like town of Piggs Peak. The scenery en-route was somewhat marred by the industrial-scale forestry that the area was being used for. There were huge plantations everywhere, mostly Blue Gum (Eucalyptus) and Pine, which, from what we were told, was mainly destined for the paper industry. They were harvested by clear felling and dotted around the landscape were large areas of cleared ground with just the remains of the tree stumps, waiting to be replanted or with tiny saplings levered into the unpromising-looking spaces between. The air was hazy and we could see areas of smoke rising. Many of the road verges were burnt, some still smouldering, as were some areas of open ground, presumably to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fires. We passed a crew burning a large area of ground right next to the road, fire engine at the ready.

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Smoke from controlled burning

We arrived at Malolotja Nature Reserve with just enough time to check in and set up camp before the sun set. It was a beautiful place and the setting of the campsite was fabulous. It seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere, although it actually wasn’t that far from the road, with rolling grassland and rocky outcrops and mountains in the distance.

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Looking down over our camp site

We had the camp site to ourselves that night and although it got rather cold in the evening (we had the braai and a separate fire going to try to keep warm) it was brilliant. We decided to stay the following night too, which gave us a chance to explore the park. It had several 4×4 tracks which led us deep into the park and provided some stunning views, albeit rather hazy.

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The wild Eningu in her natural environment

Apart from several antelope species there wasn’t much game here, and no dangerous animals. This meant that you could walk in safety and, unlike all the other parks we’d visited so far, the area had a large number of trails to explore on foot. We didn’t have time for most of them but there was one that led to the highest waterfall in Swaziland which was supposed to take a half hour to walk down to and an hour back up. That would do.

We drove to the start point and set off. The path immediately headed down a steep hillside and continued like that all the way. It was relentless going and all the time we were aware we had to come back up this way. It took us nearly an hour to get down. I wish we could say it was worth it. The ‘bottom’ of the path was half way down the hillside and gave us a limited view of the top half of the waterfall. Another couple, a British man and his Swazi wife, were down there already and they confirmed that this was indeed ‘it’. As we sat down to have a rest and admire ‘the view’ they started on the torturous walk back up. We had a 15 minute rest and headed back ourselves. Although we weren’t climbing up like mountain goats we passed them very quickly. By the time we got to the top over an hour later we had completely lost sight of them. At the rate they were going they must have been an hour behind us. Time was getting on and the park closed not long after that. We left a note on their car to let them know we’d inform the gate, just in case they were late or had problems. This we did, although the guard didn’t seem that concerned, but at least they knew. We heard nothing more so assume they got out ok!

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It may be the highest waterfall in Swaziland but not sure this view was worth the walk…

Back at camp we had a very quick shower to wash the day’s sweat away. The water was nice and hot but the air was not. Deciding it would be less cold than in the morning we braved it and got a couple of big fires going again to warm up!

We had company in camp that night and got chatting to them properly in the morning. A young Capetonian couple, MJ and Hannah had originally headed for the north-eastern coastline to go surfing but the waves weren’t cooperating so they’d opted for a few days in Swaziland before heading back to the coast to try again. Their car had overheated on the way up and they were talking about going to a local petrol station to get it looked at. Angela offered Gareth’s services to have a look. (Thanks Angela!). There was nothing obviously wrong and the verdict was that it might be a problem with the thermostat so they needed to get to a proper garage. There was one not far out of our way so we offered to go with them in case they overheated again. The trip was about an hour and we got there without incident, unless you count the car that nearly crashed overtaking us like an idiot in the face of on-coming traffic, or the coach crabbing up the inside lane of a dual carriageway with his front nearside wheel and his rear offside wheel lining up nicely!! A beautiful dressage move but not so good in a bus. His suspension was, to use the correct technical vernacular, completely shagged and his tyres dragged along the tarmac leaving dark streaks of rubber and thick black smoke as they went.

We left our new friends at the garage after exchanging contact details and with an invitation to visit them and Hannah’s family when we got to Cape Town.

After a very good lunch of local lamb curry at a place called Boma we made our way to another nature reserve, Mlilwane, where we planned to do some more walking. The park was established from farmland by the owner Ted Reilly, a leading light in Swazi nature conservation, to preserve Swaziland’s diminishing wildlife and provide a place for people to enjoy it. The place was dotted with walking and cycle routes – just as with Malolotja there were no dangerous animals here. It was Thursday and our plan had been to stay for two nights but they could only fit us in for one as they were fully booked for the weekend. It turned out they were hosting a huge biking event on the Saturday, where about 500 cyclists were due to compete in races of varying abilities, from family events through to a crazy off-road route of 64km. We managed to find an alternative for the second night, meaning we could spend the day exploring the park as we’d originally planned.

The camp was unfenced, with zebra and warthogs grazing around us. We cooked and ate dinner in a kind of scout hut, which gave us welcome protection from the chill of the evening. Heading back to the car in torch-light, we discovered a herd of Impala snoozing right next to the car. Our caution not to disturb them was successful but wasted as, just as we’d quietly climbed into the tent without a single animal getting up, an Impala buck arrived round the corner and harried the whole herd to its feet. It was Impala rutting season; the males were noisy and agitated and the rest of the herd was harassed! Which is rather how we felt about a group of loud Americans who were ‘entertaining’ the whole camp (i.e. them and us) with their delightful conversation until the early hours.

Our day in the park started with a drive up some of the tracks that the hard-core cyclists would be using in the following day’s race. The route was steep and twisting. On each corner there was a berm to take water away from the track (and so prevent erosion) which meant two things: firstly as you came flying into the corner on your bike you might be fooled into going straight on (which, on the side of a hill, would be very bad) and second, assuming you took the corner the berm would quite probably lift you into the air as you turned. It was mad, and there were going to be some very sore bodies.

After a bit of a bimble in the car we parked up and put the solar panels on the roof to save the battery and keep the fridge powered up. We were more than slightly concerned by the presence of a nearby troop of baboons but made it as baboon-proof as we could and headed off on our walk. The Mochapane Trail. It was lovely. The path wondered along the hillside, snaking through trees and open grassland with views all around. It followed an old aqueduct which had been built along the contours to provide a head of water for the tin mine that had operated here during the early-to-mid 20th Century, before the land was turned into a nature reserve. In places the aqueduct had been built along the rock face and now a somewhat precarious boardwalk and bridges had been put in its place.

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Why is Angela standing so close to the rock face?

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Oh, that’s why… Smile

Most of our route was fairly easy-going but we took the option of a detour to a hill top – Execution Rock, a high outcrop with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet to the rocks below. As the name suggests, this was a place where murders and thieves would meet their end. As we climbed we couldn’t help but think what it must have been like for the condemned to make this steep walk to their demise, where they would be “forced to jump” (surely pushed?) to their death. To add to the atmosphere, as we approached the summit we heard drums beating from far below, faster and faster until they ended abruptly just as we reached the top. Pure coincidence – they were from a cultural village with a daily display just at the time of our walk – but it was a slightly unnerving feeling  nonetheless. For us no such horror was in store and we had fantastic views as we gave our legs a much deserved rest on the warm rocks and doused our dry throats with gulps of water.

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Execution Rock

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The view from the top

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The rock face

We were later told that Ted Reilly’s father, who had farmed the land before his son, had seen witch doctors sneaking around the foot of the cliff searching for human bones to use in their craft…

After descending from the rock in a less terminal way we found a great spot for lunch, under the shade of a tree – despite the colder nights the days were still pretty warm – and with a great view. As we ate Gareth spotted something going on in a fenced-off part of the reserve below – an area where they focused on reintroduction of their more endangered animals. A large livestock truck was parked just inside the entrance and several groups of people were positioned variously to open the truck, take photos and generally to watch. It was evident they were releasing something. We waited and watched with them. The ramp door was open and they kept encouraging the animal out, opening a hatch in the roof and waving a bright yellow hazi-vest at it without success. After about 10 minutes and several more attempts the beast finally made a run for it and Gareth managed to snap it just as it did so. It was a big Waterbuck stag. We’d seen quite a few in Kruger but evidently they are not common here. They are easy to identify as they have a ring on their bottom that looks rather like a toilet seat.

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Look carefully and you can see him about to run behind the bush on the right

Our route home continued along the aqueduct, with more ‘bridges’ and this rather interesting if slightly wobbly ladder through an area of rock fall.

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We’d had a lovely day and after so much time in the car in Kruger, Swaziland had offered a much needed opportunity to get out and get some exercise, and all the better for such great surroundings. Our camp site for the night was at a backpackers 15 minutes away. As we drew up in the late afternoon sunlight we had a final view of Execution Rock, its beauty belying its grisly past.

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