An Adventure In South Africa
South Africa has become a popular destination for the Irish with the promise of sunshine, beaches, vineyards and sightings of the Big 5 (lion, buffalo, hippo, rhino, elephant). The most common route is to fly into the cosmopolitan Capetown, venture along the spectacular Garden Route and do a safari in one of the private reserves on the south-east coast. I’ve done this trip and it’s one of my most memorable. However, before Christmas this year, I was lucky enough to go on a trip to see the another side of South Africa, both literally and metaphorically.
Flying Turkish Airlines meant our trip began in Istanbul (a full post on Istanbul to follow). We had a day to wander the narrow streets, crammed with a blend of new and old buildings. European, Asian and Arabic influences are woven together seamlessly creating an enchanting architectural mosaic. My memories of the city are the smells of the spice market, the calls of the stall vendors in the Grand Bazaar, the outline of the Mosques domes and protruding spires on the city skyline and always, the sound of the call to prayer resonating throughout the city.
After just 24 hours in Istanbul I was on a southbound flight to Johannesburg. Istanbul left me not only with a host of colorful memories, but a tummy bug that would last the entire nine hour flight. My poor travel companion wore the burden of sitting beside me very well, trying to distract me from the endless nausea with stories of his country to which we were winging our way to.
We landed in Johannesburg on the 1st December 2012 and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be off a plane in my life. We made the journey across the countryside to our guesthouse in Dundee. I can’t write about the scenery for this part of the trip, as my vomiting had ceased and sleep finally came to me. I slept most of the five hour journey.
When we arrived in Dundee, a small town founded by a Scottish coal miner in the early 1880’s, my heart lifted to see the quaint country inn which would be our home for the evening. We received a warm welcome and were led into the cosy drawing room, offered a glass of orange juice and invited to stretch out on the comfy couches. Functioning as a hotel since 1886, The Royal Country Inn has an old charm, with spacious, homely bedrooms and friendly staff. That night I slept the sleep of the dead.
My second day in South Africa and my enthusiasm had returned as I delved into a delicious breakfast. The Inn is often used by travellers visiting the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer War (South African War) battlefields which are only a 45-minute drive away.
The battlefields are located in a picturesque valley and was where, in 1879, the British Army fought the Zulu’s, resulting in a loss of 1300 of the 1800 officers. Today, white stones mark the mass graves of the officers who lost their lives in the brutal battle and the traditional Umfafa Tree stands to commemorate the estimated 1,000 Zulu’s also lost in the war.
Perfectly camouflaged, tucked into the rocks overlooking the valley is the luxurious Isandlwana Lodge. It is here I can see myself lounging in a wicker chair looking across the valley before embarking on a guided walk, learning the battle history and seeing the landmarks.
However, after a short walk and a brief , we push on towards the coast. The road twists and turns through the forested countryside, an area popular for artisan shops, arts and crafts and charming country inns.
We spent that night in Umhlanga, a small town north of Durban, making our way early the following morning up the coast to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a Natural World Heritage Site on the Indian Ocean.
St Lucia sits at the gateway to the park, a small town with a handful of hotels, guesthouses and restaurants. At night, hippos traipse up from the river and prowl the streets of the small town, while during the day they can be seen lounging in the mud at the river’s edge or bobbing about in the middle of the river, their beady eyes peeking menacingly above the surface of the water.
This is an area of outstanding natural beauty, a place for nature lovers, birdwatchers, divers, walkers or simply those looking for adventure. Here, the Indian Ocean laps onto pristine beaches and the bushland stretches down to the shore. Whales can be spotted off the coast and the unspoilt coral is a haven for a diverse range of marine-life and Sodwana Bay has been voted one of the top ten dive spots in the world.
After feasting on a banquet fit for Kings at the charming Santa Lucia Guest House, we jumped aboard a river boat that took us up the St Lucia estuary (Advantage Cruises). We spotted weavers building their nests in the reeds, pods of hippos, crocodiles, eagles, kingfishers and zebra in the distance. It was magical to get so close to the wild-life and that’s what it’s all about here.
The joy of this area is that you can be by the coast and also do a game drive in search of the Big 4 (no lions)that pound the grasslands. After our boat trip we were then in safari jeeps and drove through the grasslands of the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Hogs were the first to welcome us, then a small heard of buffalo and zebra, preening baboons and a white rhino.
There is something truly special about driving in the back of a jeep, binoculars in hand, seeking out the shapes and shadows of wild animals. The thrill when you spot an animal makes your heart beat faster and a thrilled silence descends upon the jeep.
St Lucia may not be for everyone, it’s remote and rugged, undeveloped and mysterious and it is for these things that I will return. A week in one of the quaint guesthouses, day trips on the water and land, a fishing trip for my other half and of course, some chill out time on the beach. I can’t think of a more wonderful getaway.
Our journey took us inland, through Swaziland, a land of lush fields, rolling hills, vast valleys and poverty. With a population of 1.2 million people, 60% live on less than $1.25 per day, 75% live on subsistence farming and a staggering 75% are HIV positive. It reminded me of Zimbabwe, a country with so much potential and beauty, destroyed by the greed of those in power. I only had a glimpse of Swaziland through the bus window, but having seen the landscape, I think I’d like to return.
Our final destination was Kruger National Park, where we stayed in lodges at the friendly Thandi Nani Game Reserve, an excellent budget-friendly resort only a ten minute drive from Kruger National Park. To be totally honest, our drive in the resort’s reserve was far more rewarding than our six hours in Kruger.
When you’re doing a safari it’s very much pot luck. One drive you may see lions making a kill, a herd of elephants, zebra and a host of other animals. On another, it may be fruitless and a sighting of a lounging rhino in a mud bath may be the highlight. This is why people tend to stay for 3 nights, factoring in 3-4 drives to increase their opportunity to see the Big 5.
For our last few days we enjoyed home-cooked meals each evening, gathering around the open fire after dinner, where we spent the night chatting and roasting marshmallows. Our hosts at Thandi Nani Lodge were welcoming and fun, the guides knowledgable and passionate. They took us around the reserve determined we would see the herds of giraffe and zebra and the illusive rhino all of which we saw. We were even treated to a rare sighting of buffalo cooling down in the mud pools, staring threateningly at us.
If you’re treating yourself on safari, check out Bongani Mountain Lodge, where accommodation is in luxurious lodges, meals are served on the terrace overlooking the plains and an infinity pool boasts unbeatable views of hilltops, bushland and if you’re lucky a few of the animals that inhabit the reserve.
If you’re thinking of going on safari choose carefully, pick the right season, check the weather, private reserves will offer more of a chance to spot animals and will sometimes offer night drives, stock up on mosquito repellant and most importantly of all, don’t forget your camera.
I discovered another side of South Africa on this trip, a vast, diverse landscape that surprised me with its raw, natural untouched beauty.
Gohop.ie do package holidays to this area and it is highly advisable if travelling to iSimangaliso to go through a tour operator like Gohop.ie who is familiar with the area and have trustworthy ground operators. Go to:http://www.gohop.ie/2/South-Africa/holidays.html for more info