01 January 2013

From Kruger Park to Johannesburg

A cheetah at the HESC.
On our way up Abel Erasmus Pass. Stunning scenery.

Leaving then Kruger National Park, our destination was the Manor Guest House in Lydenburg.  We stopped for a tour of the Cheetah Sanctuary, or the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center (HESC) where Joe had booked an 11:00 a.m. tour several months before. When we arrived the staff had no record of our booking. We were shown a 25 minutes National Geographic video and taken on a 30 minute drive in a Land Rover.  We drove between numerous, spacious fenced enclosures and were disappointed that we couldn’t see any of the animals close-up without a fence between us. The lunch was good however, salvaging some of the disappointment. An African Grey parrot kept Avery amused. The HESC is a worthy project but when you have spent ten days seeing wildlife roaming free in the open bush it is a disappointment.
The scenery along the highway to Lydenburg was ever changing as we left the bush and drove westward to Abel Erasmus Pass, past the Blyde River Canyon turnoff and up the mountain to the J. G Strijdom Tunnel.  We stopped to look at the crafts and visit a bit with the women who sat there all day with their small children enticing tourists to buy their wares. We drove on and detoured to Blyde River Canyon overlook and took photos of the Three Rondavels on the opposite the edge of the gorge. Regrettably we had not allowed ourselves time to explore this region which is very picturesque and has many interesting stops. It was late in the day when we arrived in Lydenburg and city traffic was just like rush hour at home.  The streets were filled with people walking in all directions as it was the end of the workday.  It took a while to find our B&B (Manor Guesthouse) and it was a little difficult to park the large van in the small gated area. 
The Manor Guest House - Lydenburg
The accommodations were spacious and lovely, however, very cold.  The hostess turned on our electric blankets and the wall space heater.  CJ and Joe and Jan had free standing fireplaces in their rooms—but J&J couldn’t light the fire because they had no matches.  We took the van and went in search of something to eat and found a pizza-fish place, fast food that was filling and satisfying.  Michelle caught the attention of the girls behind the counter, they noticed she was American, and soon they all left their posts and were asking all sorts of questions about the US.  Pictures were taken, the food was delicious and we were on our way to Spar (store) for more provisions.  Biscuits disappeared quickly and we had another day on the road tomorrow.  The beds were warm and comfortable, but the wi-fi was tricky.  We had been without email for a several days and we needed to check in.

It was nice to have coffee and tea service in our room, so we enjoyed a cup before packing up and having breakfast at 7:30 Wednesday in the sun-room in the main house.  We again had typical African fare, a choice of cereals, fruit, yogurt and cooked breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon or sausage and toast.

The N4 to Pretoria
Our drive was mostly on a toll highway to Pretoria.  We had a standing PBJ (peanut butter and jelly – for those who are not familiar with this staple) picnic at a rest stop on the way.  Pretoria (Tswhana) is a bustling capitol city to the north of Johannesburg.  We stopped at the historic Union Buildings where the administrative government for South Africa has its offices.  The lovely gardens were not in bloom, as it was wintertime, but the vista was impressive and there were crafts to browse.  Michelle and Avery picked up small gifts for Avery’s friends. 

Joe phoned Barry Blair (old friend from Rhodes University and Rhodesia) and got directions to his home.  Of course, we missed a turn on the busy confusing highways but Kevin used his GPS and rescued us.  Barry welcomed us and served tea before Hilary arrived home from teaching her Pilates class and reminded him of the milk tart (melktert), so we each had a slice of the wonderful pudding.  Joe and Jan wanted to visit with their long-time friends and the kids were eager to move around so Barry and Joe took them to nearby MonteCasino where they toured the Bird Sanctuary and shops.  Jan stayed to visit with Hilary and then we made plans to have dinner at our airport hotel that night.  J&J then met the kids at Monte- Casino.  Before entering, we had to pass through a security check, opening our bags and being frisked—they were looking for handguns.  We sat with the kids while they had an Italian dinner and heard tales of the birds attacking them in the aviary.  They laughed so hard telling us about their experience there.
Historic Union Buildings - Administrative Capitol of SA.
We encountered rush-hour traffic on the drive to the Garden Court Hotel at O.R. Tambo  Airport.  An accident brought traffic to a halt—no matter what country one may be in, highway traffic can be a pain.  Thankfully Kevin used his GPS to get us on the right highway.  As we neared the airport, we could see the hotel, but couldn’t find an exit to get to it, so we went in circles until Kevin found the exit we needed on his GPS.  We were all a bit stir-crazy by the time we unloaded our luggage.  Joe needed to return the rental car but decided to call the agency and asked them to pick it up at the hotel—the road maze was too much to deal with a second time.  Advice to anyone visiting O. R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg for the first time (or tenth time!) - call for help.

We put our luggage in our room just as Barry and Hilary arrived.  It was so much fun sitting down for a relaxing buffet dinner and catching up, laughing like we always do together.  The dinner was delicious and the puddings plentiful.  We had long ago given in to the delicious fare.  
And so ended our adventures in the northern provinces.  Tomorrow we would fly to the coast at Port Elizabeth and bring Joe back to the familiar Eastern Cape where he had attended High School and University in the 50s and 60s.

28 November 2012

Gomo Gomo to Kruger National Park

A stop at PicknPay in Hoedspruit
After renting our eight-seater Hyundai (a very comfortable vehicle!) in Hoedspruit, our first stop was at the Standard Bank to convert US dollars into Rand.  Then we made the first of many visits to the PicknPay to buy travel essentials:  biscuits (cookies) and snack food, water (although we could drink tap water), a Coke Light and naartjies (tangerines).  It was interesting to mix with the African people and note the differences in customs and cultures.  For instance, check-out clerks sit down as they scan groceries and there is a charge for the plastic bags to carry the purchases. We found many examples of recycling and conservation conscious policies during our trip.

We drove north from Hoedspruit on the highway to the Phalaborwa Gate and the entrance to Kruger National Park (KNP).  

One of the first animals we saw in KNP - a baboon

The Kruger National Park is one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It covers 19,485 square kilometres (7,523 sq miles) and extends 360 kilometres (220 mi) from north to south and 65 kilometres (40 mi) from east to west, not including the Private Reserves which adjoin it on the west side. To the west and south of the Kruger National Park are the two South African provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. In the north is Zimbabwe, and to the east is Mozambique. It is now part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a peace park that links Kruger National Park with the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, and with the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. Gomo Gomo, where we had spent four wonderful days is in the Klaserie Private Reserve which is now part of the Greater Kruger Park Wildlife Management area.  The objective in spending three nights in the Kruger Park was to be able to see what a unique conservation area it is and to experience its wildlife while self-driving.

A Ground Hornbill

One of the oldest in the world, Kruger National Park (KNP) was first designated a Government Wildlife Park in 1898 before being expanded and named the Sabi Game Reserve.  It officially became the Kruger National Park in 1926. It receives over a million visitors a year now and is a favorite vacation destination for most South Africans, offering a wide range of affordable accommodation from basic camping, to RV’s, cottages and luxury lodges. It is important to plan any visit to Kruger Park outside of school holidays!

On our drive through KNP to Letaba Rest Camp we again saw wildlife; ground hornbills, giraffe, rhino, buffalo, elephants and a baboon sitting high on a rock.  We didn’t stop too long for photographs as we had to reach camp before the gates closed at sunset.

We had a bungalow with two bedrooms and two baths for two nights.  Each bedroom had three single beds.  KNP thatched camps are set up for self-catering and each unit has a fully furnished kitchen, dining table and sitting area as well as a covered porch.  There is also a filling station, restaurant, gift shop/grocery store, camping area, ablutions, and washer/dryers.  Guests are cautioned that monkeys, baboons and honey badgers are problematic in the camp so food should be securely stored and doors to bungalows should be kept closed at all times.  Resident bushbucks were wandering around the camp.  We walked along the river path to the restaurant for some dinner and bats flew overhead.   The air was filled with the smell of outdoor cooking from the many self-catering residents and campers.  The seating was outdoors and the night air was quite chilly; our bungalow wasn’t much warmer.  The service was slow—something we noticed everywhere on this trip—and the menu limited.

We rose at 6:00 a.m. Sunday, July 22, and went for a short game drive to the bridge over the Letaba River.  It was cold and we were grateful to be in an enclosed vehicle.  We returned to camp and had breakfast at the restaurant and although we ate indoors, we were still very cold.  Most foreign visitors would not think of Africa being a cold place but if we visit again in July we would bring more suitable, warmer, clothing instead of trying to wear multiple layers to ward off the chill. We decided to buy some bread, peanut butter, jam, cheese and other provisions at the store and we needed to stock up on biscuits before returning to the bungalow.

Carol, Kevin, Jan and Joe once again left camp for a game drive.  Michelle and Avery stayed behind to relax and have a swim.  The day warmed up nicely once the sun came up.  Kevin took the wheel and he too turned on the windshield wipers when he meant to signal a turn and we all laughed. 

Hippo in the Olifants River

We drove the dusty back-roads to Olifants Camp and stopped often to photograph giraffe, elephant, and baboons. Olifants is one of the most picturesque camps in the Kruger National Park.  Joe had visited here in 1958 and, although the camp had been enlarged and modernized somewhat, the spectacular panoramic views over the Olifants River had not changed at all.  CJ became the crocodile and hippo spotter with the aid of binoculars.  They blend in so well with the landscape they are difficult to see with the naked eye.  We stopped for lunch on the veranda at Olifants and enjoyed the beautiful view of the river while we patiently waited for our Greek salads.  On the return to Letaba we spotted a fish eagle and a jacana (lily trotter) as well as many other birds and antelope—yes, more impala.

Little Bee-eater
The bird-life in Kruger Park is quite remarkable and we extended the checks on our list almost hourly.  Some of the bird photos are shown with this narrative.

Pearl Spotted Owl at Satara Camp
Joe and Jan had made plans to meet old friends at Letaba.  They had visited their lovely home in Tzaneen (a two hour drive west of the Park) on a previous trip and they came to KNP to spend a night so they could see us.  We enjoyed a short visit and Joe and Mike toured the elephant museum at Letaba in the afternoon.  The four of us met later for very enjoyable dinner and the hake was delicious.  The family stayed in and had sandwiches and Michelle made a trip to the laundromat.

Everyone packed up early Monday as we left Letaba for Satara Rest Camp.  We stopped again at Olifants Camp for breakfast and enjoyed the game drive along the way.  Again we saw ground hornbills, which are endangered, ho-hums, hippo and crocs, thanks to CJ.  There were a large number of cars parked on and beside the road at one point which indicated something worth seeing.  We followed the lenses and finger pointing and saw a fresh impala kill in a tree in the distance, which meant a leopard was in the area.  We wove our way through the maze of cars and drove on.  We checked into Satara and had to wait for our bungalow which gave us time to explore the gift shop and have a bite of lunch.  A sign pointed out the “most photographed Scops Owl in Africa” sitting in a bush.  The photographers kept up the tradition but then a Pearl Spotted Owl was spotted in a tree near the shop.  A monitor lizard peeked over the roof of the lodge as he slept in the sunshine.

Once we were in our bungalow, similar to the one at Letaba, we went different directions.  CJ, Kevin and Joe went on a game drive, Jan read while she did the laundry and Michelle and Avery visited the swimming pool.  A large herd of waterbuck was seen, a new antelope to check off the list, as well as zebra, impala, elephant, and giraffe.  Kevin was keeping track of game and birds spotted.

We ate in our room for dinner and breakfast the next day.  We had purchased staples and were already a bit tired of “eating out” and spending an hour or more waiting for a meal.  Fruit, PBJ, pasta with butter for Avery, cereal (Wheatbix) and toast filled our tummies.

After breakfast Tuesday we loaded the car and did our final game drive on our way out of KNP through Orpen Gate.  Someone mentioned we hadn’t seen buffalo as we neared the exit and, wouldn't you know, there was a herd just off of the road just a few yards from the gate.  More photos.  We stopped again at the gate shop for a leg stretch and a cup of coffee as we had a long drive ahead.

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An active blogger since 2004, I will write about travel to Africa and/or about publishing books, both of which are passions. I lived in southern Africa for 25 years and have run a book publishing business since 2007.