Tag: South Africa

:: the middle of nowhere ::

For three days we didn’t exist within any country. We physically inhabited a place and continuously wandered back and forth across the old border between South Africa and Botswana, but technically we were outside the bounds of any nation.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was created in 2000 as Southern Africa’s first Peace Park.  The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana were merged together and the international boundary torn down. Since then, nine other parks have been established in Southern Africa, including the Maloti-Drakensberg Park on the eastern side of Lesotho.

Kgalagadi means place of thirst in the local San language and a more apt name could not have been thought up! There are few words to explain how hot it was there, and our visit wasn’t even in the height of the summer months. Day time temperatures were in the low 40s, Celsius, and that was in the shade. All animals, and intelligent humans, would stay in the shade for most of the long sunshine hours. The shade available would sometimes only be big enough for one animal, so you would see a lone wildebeest or kudu standing on its own under a small tree.

As usual for safaris or game parks, animals were most active early mornings and evenings. We were rewarded our very first evening with a lovely encounter with a pride of 10 or so lions, including some little cubs. They were still largely being lazy under the trees, but the young ones were up and play fighting and jumping on their moms and aunts! The male lion meanwhile was twenty meters away, under his own tree, peacefully asleep.

One of the great things about Kgalagadi is that some of the campsites are unfenced. This is only on the Botswana side of the park, but it was too great of an opportunity to pass up for us. We stayed in the Rooiputs Camp, about 30km from the southern park border, and felt very removed from civilisation. There were six sites here, each with a concrete pad and a wood shelter for setting up your tent.

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The purpose of the constructed shelter was to protect the site from the harsh sun and provide a place to be off the sand and away from scorpions and snakes. The first element worked pretty well, but the second didn’t work as well as we discovered a squashed scorpion under our tent when we packed up the last morning. It had obviously made its way under the tent during the day while we were gone and then got flattened by us that night when we went in.  Needless to say the ants were happy so there were some winners.

The pride of lions we had seen the first night are apparently well known to hang out at Rooiputs, but we didn’t see them. We did see several live scorpions and the tracks of some seriously large millipedes, as well as hyena tracks the second morning. Unfortunately we didn’t have any other nocturnal visitors, at least none that woke us up!

Our days at Kgalagadi were spent slowly picking our way across the parched sand and dirt tracks of the park. There are two main routes up the two dry river beds of either the Nossob or Auob Rivers. Neither river has permanently flowed in more than 40 years and only fill up after unusually heavy periods of rain. Time in the park is mostly spent driving up parched rivers scanning the variety of red dunes, tan dirt and scrub bushes for animals.

As befitting a park that was initially set up to protect them, there were lots of gemsbok, or oryx depending on your naming proclivities. There were also large herds of springbok, lots of wildebeest, kudu and black-backed jackals and a rather skittish spotted hyena.

On our last day we saw lots of giraffes near a popular waterhole which was magical.

Our first early morning out we were treated to a brief but lovely backlit sighting of a Cape Fox mom and a couple of pups.

What we really wanted to see however were cheetahs. Kgalagadi is well known cheetah territory, but sadly the best we could do was a rather long distance view through binoculars of two cheetahs laying on top of a dune, doing nothing. This is a normal occurrence for cheetahs, as they are largely regarded as the laziest of the big cats, which is saying something considering how much lions sleep!

Though we left without the cheetah experience we craved, the park was magical in its remoteness, dryness and some special experiences. We even got to feel rain on our faces and watch huge lightning storms far in the distance from our campfire – two things not at all common in this remarkably dry corner of southern Africa for most of the year.

:: karoo ::

The chuffing lion, freezing cold and pitch blackness were not conducive to anything other than expeditious tent building and diving into sleeping bags. No need for a camp fire. No need for dinner even. Our sole objective was to go to bed and wake up in what we hoped would be warm sunshine and clear skies amidst the quiet landscape of the Karoo.

The Karoo is a huge swath of central South Africa running from Cape Town to the velds of the Free State and from the mountains of southern Western Cape to the desert edges of the Kalahari. With just a few settlements dotted along the motorways and huge farms that stretch 40km across, the Karoo can overwhelm you with expansive horizons and little else.  Most people just drive through this part of South Africa on their way between Cape Town and Johannesburg, but if you take some time you will find a few special places.

Karoo National Park is one such gem to waiting to be discovered. Located just off the N1 and close to Beaufort West – a bustling crossroads of motorways bisecting the vast empty landscape of the Karoo – this park is very convenient and yet ridiculously remote feeling all at once. Driving away from the park gate, you enter a landscape virtually untouched by humans. The craggy hillsides and dry stream beds indicate the effects of eons of rain, wind and sun. Prickly shrubs and stout grasses grow, but many lay dormant between the intermittent rainfalls.

Amongst the bush beautiful geological features, there is animal life. Various antelopes, ostrich, zebra and small mammals live here. There are birds of prey searching out dassies, bat-eared foxes and of course snakes and lizards. In the hopes of sighting some of these beautiful creatures, we took the 4×4 track out into the park for a big loop across low-slung hills, under the shadows of rocky peaks and across dry water courses. We saw a lot of animal life, including a pair of breeding black eagles, but unfortunately didn’t see the aforementioned lion. There were even more intense 4×4 tracks available, but we didn’t have the time to truly do them justice, so we departed back for the joyless tarmac of the N1.

All in all Karoo National Park was a really nice little stopover – one we definitely recommend. As the last real stopping point on our 3,700km trip to see the desert flowers of the Western Cape, it offered up yet another unique landscape within this hugely diverse country and region. The adventures of this final stop, combined with the varied ecosystems as diverse as the Fynbos, Green Kalahari and Namaqualand, made it a fantastic trip filled with the colour and vibrancy of nature wherever we turned!

:: table tops and wine ::

It is a special sight to see Table Mountain rising up across the water.  This huge, hulking block of rock seemingly rises out from the sea and looms over an energetic city on the edge of terra firma.  Driving through the suburbs was a less exciting experience, but to finally be arriving in Cape Town brought a nice level of anxiousness.

For more than a year we have been told by everyone that we will love Cape Town.  So far we have put off going to Cape Town in favour of more remote and wild attractions.  This trip provided us an opportunity to have a little look, though it was more of an ‘add-on’ our of convenience than a determined choice of a destination.  Still, cities excite the senses and it was great to find ourselves amongst the throngs of humanity once more.

We were lucky and had a fairly clear day on the only morning we were in Cape Town so we took advantage and made our way up Table Mountain.  It was cold and very windy, but the views were fantastic and it was great to stand atop that huge plateau and see the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean stretching away towards the immense open space of the Southern Sea.  Looking over the city was a special sight as well, but it was the wilder more natural views down the Cape Peninsula that captured our imagination.

As we stood up there, we knew we would come back to Cape Town to explore not only the cityscape but particularly its wilder parts.  In many ways our time in Lesotho and southern Africa has re-affirmed our preference for nature over city.

That isn’t to say we didn’t enjoy the pleasure of walking amongst the shops and restaurants of the waterfront on a fine winter’s evening.  It made a nice change from our existence in Maseru, where driving is much more common and the choice of where to eat out is between six restaurants, not sixty!  We enjoyed a lovely outdoor dinner for our anniversary, but we both felt the lure of the open road the next day.

A trip to Cape Town wouldn’t have been complete without a stop off in wine country and as our route took us directly through Paarl, we stopped off for a wine tasting at one of our favourite vineyards – Nederburg.

They laid out a tasting of their special line of wines created and named after various key individuals in Nederburg’s past.  Surprises waited along that line of bottles and we were both pleasantly excited most by a lovely white wine, not the richer red wines that we tend to enjoy.

It was great to finally go to a South African vineyard and experience the wines from the source after all the enjoyment we have had from these grapes over the past few years.  A future trip will bring more in depth investigations for sure!

Not even 24 hours after rolling through the northern suburbs of Cape Town, we rolled out of Paarl and started our journey up the N1 and towards the open expanse of the Karoo, our next and final stop before returning to our beloved Lesotho.

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:: quiver tree forest ::

On a farm track in the middle of nowhere suddenly hundreds of quiver trees appear.  These large aloes, so called because the San people have a tradition of making quivers out of the hollowed branches, can be several meters tall and live hundreds of years.  This particular ‘forest’ of quiver trees, also known as kokerboom or aloe dichotoma, is the largest concentration of these trees in South Africa and though it is on private land, the owners are kind enough to allow visitors for free.

Quiver trees sprout out in various manners, but they always have a slightly gangly and unique look about them.  The fibrous branches are amazingly light with a honeycombed interior, making them perfect for drinking and storing water.  The dead branches crumble in between your fingers and don’t feel strong enough to even hold up the leaves on the tree, let alone survive a fierce storm or moderate breeze.  The bark is unique to each tree, with beautiful patterns and colours creating a dramatic texture.

The trees were spread out across the hillsides of a series of bluffs all facing north, towards the late morning sun.  At their base were small shrubs and succulents, little friends to these magical trees.

We wandered through the dried stream beds and rocky soil, looking up at the trees standing quiet and still.  We came across one unique tree that was covered with yellow flowers.  It stood out as a beckon against the other trees, seemingly showing the others what was possible.

All in all, it was a lovely place to wander around on our own for a couple of hours and see these unique trees up close.

:: papkuilsfontein ::

Suddenly we were back in England. The grey skies threatening rain. Driving winds and rolling moorland dotted with flocks of sheep. Yet, we were in the Western Cape. We were unprepared for the scenes around Nieuwoudtville and our camping spot for two nights on Papkuilsfontein Farm.

The atmosphere setting up our camp in the gathering gloom of twilight surrounded by acres of nothing but grouse like shrubs was fantastic. It wasn’t like our previous nights on the trip had been in the middle of Times Square, but here was a feeling of true seclusion. There was just one other couple at the camp site, but they left the next morning, so night two was just us and our small circle of light from our camp fire. This was the epitome of what we were looking for.

The flowers were different up on the plateau, much more of the yellow bulbs protruding up on stalks. Around the campsite were spotty patches, but elsewhere on the farm grounds were whole fields of them.  We were told this area is known as ”the Bulb Capital of the World” because it has the highest speciation of indigenous bulbous flowers on Earth, and that certainly didn’t disappoint.  We wandered past the ruins of an old farmstead, built when the land was shared amongst three families, and marvelled at the beauty of so many yellow flowers reaching into the air.

Papkuilsfontein is a working farm, but it is also has a restaurant and guest cottages, as well as the camp site. This is a family affair, with the current owners being one of the three original families.  Now in their sixth generation the husband still runs the farm, whilst his wife runs the guest side of things. Her mother is the chef! She came to visit six years ago and hasn’t left! The food is fantastic and we were lucky to be able to take ours to go and sit by the camp fire each night and enjoy truly wonderful offerings. We can’t recommend it highly enough and they do lunches, for those not interested in battling the moorland roads at nighttime.

The name comes from the Afrikaans names for bulrush and spring, so it is the spring covered by bulrush. A meandering stream flows through the property, before plummeting 60 or 70 meters off the edge of the plateau. It had little rain in it, but the falls were lovely to see nestled within a horseshoe of cliffs. A short hike brought us along the edge of the cliff face, but we did not attempt the extreme trail down into the ravine. We instead found our way a little upstream to enjoy the peace and tranquility that comes from the sound of only flowing water on a sunny afternoon.

:: namaqua orange ::

The Dutch would be so happy – nothing but orange. Every flower season Namaqua National Park goes bright orange with a carpet of Namaqualand Daisies.  It isn’t a particularly large area of the park that is covered, but with lovely sloping lawns of hundreds of thousands of flowers and views across the sweeping hillsides it is really quite stunning.

You can’t really walk too far within the flowers, but even going a few meters into the fields is enough to truly feel overwhelmed by their sheer numbers.  With biking and hiking trails an option, this would be a lovely place to take a picnic and just soak in the pure flowery nirvana of this corner of Namaqualand.  We unfortunately had more travels ahead of us that day and so were content soaking up this sea of orange for a few hours before heading off to our next adventure.

:: goegap ::

Nestled in the northern area of Namaqualand near Springbok in South Africa, Goegap Nature Reserve is a 7,000 hectare park home to a dazzling array of flowers and a sprinkling of large mammals and birds to keep the ecosystem intact. The terrain is quite varied, with wide open savannah-esque fields surrounded by craggy mountains and hills. It would be a nice enough park to explore even without the lure of the flowers.

We had been hearing that this was a good year for the flowers, but we still struggled to visualise what we were going to see. Were there going to be huge fields covered in orange, pink and yellow blooms? Was it going to be everywhere or just in pockets? Can you spend a whole holiday looking at flowers? Goegap provided some answers. Yes.

It started along the road into Springbok – patches of orange right along the edge of the tarmac. Then we dropped into the town centre and there were larger patches of orange crouched under road signs and circling park benches. The drips and drabs of colour turned into full blown swathes within Goegap.

Driving to the visitor’s centre we passed large fields with solid patches of orange, white and yellow flowers. From a distance it looked like you could have walked on them without touching the ground they were so thick, but up close it is a different story. The flowers delicately swayed in the breeze and they looked almost sparse in comparison to what they looked like from the road. In way that was indicative of the whole trip, lots of changing scenes and unexpected finds.

Goegap has a couple of nice little hiking trails and we wandered up the dry stream bed and over the silent hollow of a waterfall. The climb was sharp, but the views were fantastic looking out over the park. The small rocky hills popped up around the park and we could clearly see some of the 4×4 trails snaking their way into the more secluded places. After lunch we followed some of these to find more flowers and quite a few Gemsbok and Zebras. We also found the most hectic trail we have driven on, but the car performed admirably!

One thing that was fantastic about this trip was the open skies. There is very little light pollution or trees and so the views of the night sky in particular were at times phenomenal. We sat out under the stars, huddled around a small camp fire and looked out at the carpet of stars. Much like the flowers, from our perspective it looked like the stars were right on top of one another, but a closer examination would show a very different story.

:: to the blooms ::

Driving a two lane strip of tar due west and dead straight for twenty kilometres can be seen as monotonous. A slight curve and then another fifteen or twenty more kilometres of straight road, this is more or less what you face from Bloemfontein to Springbok, South Africa.  There we found ourselves, covering a thousand kilometres of arid, windswept landscape, on our way to see some flowers.

We are not known to be great botanists, yet the idea of seeing regularly arid desert landscapes covered in vibrant oranges, pinks and yellows seemed too unique an opportunity to pass up. During August and September each year, the early spring rains bring hundreds of different types of flowers out from Southern Namibia to the Cape of Good Hope. Some are so specialised they only grow in fields or hillsides around specific towns or nature reserves. Even without a botany degree, the small variations in petals, stems and other floral accoutrement are known to be stunning.

Though there are stretches of the road so straight that you need not have to steer for fifteen minutes with a good wheel alignment, the drive across from Lesotho isn’t as boring as some would have you believe.  Along the way you come across some real surprises, especially the Green Kalahari. This thin strip of land that straddles the Orange River produces enough water that large scale grape production is possible.

The grape vines are impressive to behold as they cling to the rocky soil with just a thin hose providing the irrigation lifeline necessary for their survival. These vines produce wonderful harvests of grapes each year, some which are transformed into a lovely Orange River wine, while others are sold straight off the vine as fruit, or dried and packaged as raisins.

Another surprise awaits along the way at Augrabies Falls. The Orange River gets squeezed through a narrow fissure in sheer cliffs before tumbling 56 metres into the gorge below. From there, the river that starts its journey in the far north of Lesotho as the Senqu, then forms the border between South Africa and Namibia as it makes the last couple of hundred kilometres trek across the southern reaches of the Kalahari Desert. Besides the falls themselves, which are breathtaking, this little undiscovered National Park has great hiking and game watching opportunities. We didn’t have the time to properly explore, but something tells us a couple of days would be needed to do this little gem justice.

As night closed in around us, a thunderstorm chased us down the last desolate stretch of road. The phrase ‘pitch black’ surely must have been created to explain what the night is like out in this unpopulated corner of South Africa. There were no lights. None. In any direction for the one hundred kilometres from the park to Pofadder, our stop for the night. Even when we reached town there were barely any lights.

This small town named with the Afrikaans word for Puff Adder, the venomous snake, sits in its own world. We didn’t spend long enough there to know if it is a happy or sad place, but it is a place that offered us a comfortable sanctuary from the long road. It was a place to park up, have a meal and sleep before heading back into the great empty corner once more towards the land of the desert flowers.

:: winter sunrise ::

A winter sunrise provides a special palate of colour. With the ground full of tans and browns and the smoky nature of the air refracting the weaker sunlight, the whole scene becomes a little softer and more golden.

There was no reason to wander up a random hill overlooking Ladybrand in South Africa, other than to capture the scene and then enjoy a lazy Saturday breakfast at Living Life with good friends.

Sometimes it’s the simple things in life which are the most beautiful…

:: a royal ampitheatre ::

The jagged teeth of rock rose into view. Still far on the horizon, they foreshadowed a return to home climes. Gone was the humidity and salty air of the coast we had just come from. In their place was dry, fresh, clear air and endless blue skies reaching over the soaring peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains.

We came off the motorway and back onto the lovely two lane roads that snake through the golden fields and undulating hillsides of the foothills of the Drakensberg. It’s a similar landscape to that which you find in the Free State running along the north-western border of Lesotho, but from this side the mountains rise straight up. It is an impressive sight to behold as pinnacles of sheer rock reach for the sky like freshly planted trees searching for the sunlight.

We were heading for Royal Natal National Park in the Northern Drakensberg, and more specifically for the Amphitheatre. Named due to its likeness of a concert venue, this prodigious geographical feature stretches approximately 5 kilometres across and rises more than 1200 metres straight up from the base of the Tugela River Valley. From the top, the Tugela Falls cascade close to 1000 meters down the cliff face, making them the second highest falls in the world, behind only Angel Falls. There is little that can explain the sheer awesomeness of this place. It is truly something that needs to be experienced on foot, up close.

We arrived just as the late autumn sun sank behind the foothills, with the last rays of golden sunlight striking the awe-inspiring walls of rock. Suddenly reds and pinks and oranges danced over the sheer cliff faces that stretched in front of us. Heads on a swivel we tried to take it all in and quickly realised that the one night we had there was not going to do this place justice – not by a long shot!

The morning light on the rock wall was different, but equally mesmerising. The only problem was the cold, even with cups of tea and many layers, our hands started getting rather cold and ineffectual after a short time sitting watching the sun rise. Luckily for our hands, but not for our photos, the light quickly changed as the sun rose and we retreated inside. Staying at Thendale Camp inside the park was ideal for being able to see the sunset and sunrise. Right out the back door of our cottage we had an unencumbered view of the entire Amphitheatre. It was spectacular.

It goes without saying that this is hiking territory, and so we laced up our boots and headed up the Tugela River Valley directly towards the cliffs. It was a lovely walk slowly uphill the entire way, but it included little patches of forest that have grown up along the water courses coming down off the hillsides. Tucked into the clefts of the hills, these waterfall fed trees are home to troops of baboons. We heard them more than we saw them, but a few showed themselves for fleeting glances through the branches.

The trail was easy enough, but towards the end it offered some nice boulder hopping and a chain ladder up a small rock face. We were short on time, so we unfortunately couldn’t follow the trail all the way to the cliff face.  It would have surely been an amazing sight, staring straight up at the crushing amount of rock tower over us. Still, with low river levels there probably would have been very little water in the falls so we will just have to return in spring or summer for a more thorough exploration!

All in all, it was lovely to spend even a very brief amount of time in Royal Natal. It was in many ways a homecoming for us. Returning to the mountains after ten days along the coast re-enforced just how much we crave landscapes that feature mountains, hills and plateaus. If there is something to clamour up, then chances are we are happy to make the attempt!