Tag: wildlife

:: captivating cotopaxi ::

It is a constant in our lives.  We see it from our bedroom, on our commute, and from the embassy.  It sits quietly in the near distance, yet that potential for catastrophic eruption persists.  It is impossible to be in Quito and not be drawn to its beauty.  Cotopaxi is an iconic volcano, one that occupies a central part of Ecuador’s identity as a destination of natural wonders and adventurous spirits.

Reaching nearly 6,000 meters into the sky, Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador and one of the tallest volcanos in the world.  Unlike the ‘active’ volcano of Pululahua, Cotopaxi was actively erupting from September 2015 until January 2016.  This most recent eruption cycle caused mass evacuations of nearby towns, extensive emergency preparedness drills, and not a few ruined car engines from the ash clouds.  Luckily a full fledged eruption didn’t occur, but the national park was closed at the time and the summit remains closed.

Eruptions of Cotopaxi would be disastrous due to the lahar mud flows that would follow.  Basically an eruption would flash melt the glaciated peak and the resulting fast moving mud would engulf all surrounding areas, especially along the various river valleys.  Past eruptions have twice completely destroyed the provincial capital of Latacunga and lahar once even made it to the Pacific Ocean more than 100km away!  Most scientific models show the lahar flowing in the river valley immediately below our neighbourhood – about 50 km from the summit of Cotopaxi – with enough force to do significant damage.  It is a form of nature that we would rather not see or experience.

Cotopaxi is a temptress though.  It is a mountain with sacred ties to the indigenous cultures in the area – including beliefs that gods lived at the summit and it being sacred as a form of rain producer.  That reputation for rain is not unfounded.  A completely clear day, all day, around Cotopaxi is exceedingly rare.  There are constant changes to clouds and light conditions, with rain, wind, sleet, hail, and snow all being common occurrences in the same day.  The best conditions tend to be first thing in the morning or around sunset.  Because of this we commonly inform guests that if the volcano is visible at first light, and clearly so, then we will rouse them and get them in the car by 7am in order to get to the park in time to see the summit properly.

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The drive to the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park is only about an hour from Quito.  After a short drive through some evergreen forests, you enter the rock strewn plains around the base of the volcano itself.  Here there are great hikes available especially around Limpiopungo Lake or a well hidden spring fed stream on the backside of the park.

The true draw however is the road up the volcano to the carpark at 4,600 metres above sea level.  Here the dusty slopes and intense winds can make walking rather difficult.  For the more hearty you can walk up to the refugio which sits at 4,900 metres.  This is currently the highest up you can go, but it used to be the key jumping off point for climbers attempting to summit Cotopaxi.

The snow line is usually above the refugio, but after extended periods of particularly wet weather, the snow descends down to the carpark.  We had a particularly fun family outing during one of these times – complete with michelin baby Piper!

Most people drive up and down from the carpark, but there are tour operators who will drive you up and then give you a mountain bike to descend the rutted dirt road.  Some really go for it on the descent and others appear out for a Sunday ride.  Either way it looks like a great way to experience the volcano and environs.

Of course there is the option to walk, or even run down as well, and with our good friend Thierry, I did run down quite a ways.  It is only a downhill run that is possible at that altitude – going up would require excessive amounts of training!

There isn’t a ton of flora and fauna up at that altitude, but the ground is covered in a wide array of flowers, lichen, moss, and grasses.  Little spurts of reds, yellows, and blues pop out from the white lichen to add colour and texture to the plains.

There are over 800 wild horses in the park along with foxes, deer, rabbits, lizards, and of course birds of prey circling – maybe for gringos stupid enough to run down a volcano!

Beyond the aforementioned 800 wild horses, there are numerous options for horseback riding in, and around, the park.  No matter whether it is an hour plod or a full day excursion, horse riding in the park is quite something.  Cora and our friend Ruth went on a lovely hour ride from Tambopaxi, with me acting as a horse for Piper as she rode in her backpack alongside!  Although the weather was quite overcast, it was lovely to wander out amongst the undulating terrain and really feel the true size and power of Cotopaxi.  The ride took us off into some of the hidden corners and dry river beds that would be filled in seconds should an eruption occur.  It was hard for this two legged baby pack heavy horse to keep up, but all in all we had a fantastic time.

You would think a behemoth like Cotopaxi would be sufficient to capture anyone’s attention, but there are actually several other volcanos surrounding, usually easily visible from the park.  Ruminahui – a jagged dormant volcano reaching over 4,700 metres – sits overlooking Limpiopungo Lake.

Sinchalagua – an imposing 4,900 metre high peak is also easily overshadowed by its more famous neighbour.

On clear days, Antisana, the fourth highest peak in Ecuador, is also visible as are numerous other peaks in the area.

Ruminahui, Pichincha and Sinchalagua all in site from the road on Cotopaxi

There are camping sites in the park, but only one indoor sleeping option – Tambopaxi.  This haven for climbers is very comfortable and is on the track to the more rugged northern entrance to the park.  Being in the park itself means that on a clear night or morning, you can go out and experience the star strewn sky over Cotopaxi or watch the sun come up.  Both are truly magical to experience.

Outside the park borders are numerous other options – our favourite little find is La Campiña – a small little farmstead with wonderful owners (post to follow soon).

Cotopaxi is majestic and magnificent.  Not a single day goes by where we don’t look for it.  Sometimes I will wander out our front door for no other reason than to look southeast and see if it is visible.  If it is, I will usually stand and look at it for awhile, immune from the visual distractions of the neighbouring houses and suburban detritus.

The park itself is one of our favourite places in Ecuador – rugged, largely empty, and with the mountainous surroundings that feed our souls.  You can have spectacular experiences throughout Ecuador, but not visiting Cotopaxi would be to deprive yourself of the opportunity to truly experience the unique and amazing wonders of nature.  Rain or shine, make an attempt and it will truly astound you.

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Thanks to all of our friends and family who have helped us to have so many opportunities to visit this majestic beauty — Aarne, Mom, Heather, the Brooke family, the De Saint Martin family, Mom and Dad and Ruth!

:: cloud forest ::

Some places in the world on the tourist trail can seem off the beaten path despite how well known they are.  Mindo is such a place.  Settled into a valley surrounded by lush cloud forest and small rivers rushing off the Andes Mountains, this small little town is a place to slow down and enjoy whatever nature is willing to reveal.

The town center is home to a few blocks of dusty streets, little shops, wood houses and a half-neglected town square.  From every corner you can see the clouds rolling in and out over the lush green landscape that surrounds Mindo.  Within minutes of the town center you can find yourself a million miles away, on the banks of a rushing river or on a trail surrounded by enormous leaves, tropical flowers and cascading waterfalls.

The cloud forests of Ecuador are home to an amazing array of biodiversity and birds.  Hummingbirds are such a common occurrence here that you can become almost complacent about seeing them zipping around mere feet from you – always too fast for the camera unless you are dedicated to photographing them.  The natural beauty is extremely accessible and almost hypnotic.

One of the great natural highlights of Mindo is the chance to hike in the cloud forest of the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve.  A rough hewn path traces the edges of hillsides and takes you down sharp slopes to small secluded waterfalls.  It is a trail where you will see a few people, but you can still feel as if you have the entire expanse of nature to yourself.  To reach it, you ride the several hundred metre long tarabita over the river valley below.  The tarabita can best be described as a metal cart suspended off of a solid cable that holds about six people.  Think coal mining cart crossed with a zip line run by a diesel engine.  It is magnificently simple and beautiful to dart across the open vistas on something that undoubtedly would not pass a safety check in the States or Europe.

There are other hikes around town including down the quiet road along Rio Blanco with its waters that flow directly out of the crater of the Guagua Pichincha volcano.  Or head to the La Casa Amarilla and follow trails through the guava plantations and up to a rickety perch high above town.

Of course if hiking isn’t your thing, then you can go for a relaxing tubing ride down the river or check out the Mindo butterfly farm.

Then again, maybe you need more adventure, in which case the canyoning and zip-lining options await.  The latter was quite fun as I went with our friend Aarne one morning.  We had a great time flying from hillside to hillside, sometimes upside down in the mariposa (butterfly) position!  It might not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it!

When you need an escape from all the nature, you can check out one of the local chocolate businesses in town.  El Quetzal, now famous for its chocolate tours and treats, started as an internet cafe.  The owner’s brownies were so good, and the supply of sufficiently good chocolate so spotty, that the owners decided to start producing their own chocolate.  Now you can tour the small production site and have an interesting overview of the process, and most importantly get a custom tasting of them all!  The chocolate is very good, and it is only available in Mindo, Ecuador and in Michigan – the home state of the American owner.

With a laid back feel and nature at every turn, Mindo is a lovely little getaway.  Spend a day or a week and you will surely recharge your batteries and feel like you escaped the big city for a while.

Thanks to all of our family and friends who have explored this area with us so far – it’s been a great adventure discovering and rediscovering different parts each time!

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Amongst the many places to stay, we highly recommend the little unknown airbnb ‘wooden cottage’ set amongst gorgeous gardens and hosted by the fabulous Clemencia and Jaime Beron.  Stay tuned for more about their expansive botanical garden, pitahaya plantation, haven for the local birds, homemade breakfasts and their very own frog concert – an amazing experience overall!

:: the great pan ::

Imagine looking out at something so immense and featureless that your brain literally just stops comprehending the visual clues being sent to it. That is what it is like to stand on the edge of Etosha Pan in northern Namibia on a bright, sunny day with nothing but blue sky and clouds above and kilometre after kilometre of parched earth below.

Located within Etosha National Park, the salt pan is nearly 5,000 square kilometres and stretches 130 km from east to west. Nothing lives out in the hypersaline environment except some rare micro-organisms. It is just a huge swathe of earth that leaves one thinking of getting back in the car and drinking a lot of water.

However to stand on it and feel the heat radiating up off the ground is to realise how vulnerable we humans really can be. Then to see a small group of boks out on the pan, in the middle of the noonday sun, you realise the lengths some animals go to survive. Better to be hot on the open expanse of the salt pan than to be a lion’s dinner!

Etosha is one of Africa’s great wildlife parks, yet it exists in one of Africa’s most inhospitable climates. Driving from the south, there is nothing but scrubland for hundreds of kilometres, with huge farms trying to feed sheep and cattle on the short grasses and brush that grow intermittently in the rocky soil. Once inside the park the terrain seems to get even more arid and rocky, as if the salt pan is exerting its influence via osmosis or gravitational pull. The brush gets more sparse and vicious, with thorns and jagged edges sticking out in all directions. The effects of the excess salt blowing off the pan parches the land and temperatures rise without mercy.

In this ridiculously harsh land life proliferates. Large herds of zebra, gemsbok and wildebeest wander the open plains and towering elephants move from water hole to water hole, knocking over the thorny trees. Prides of lions saunter around and birds flit here and there eating the insects that follow all these huge mammals.

Visiting Etosha in the beginning of the summer months was both good and bad. It entailed long hot days driving over the parched roads or sitting in the stifling heat by a water hole hoping to see an animal or two, or two hundred wander past. But the benefit of all the heat was that water was at a premium, so animals tend to congregate near the water holes. That is the theory at least.

In reality, there is so much land here and so many water holes that you have two options; either drive from hole to hole trying to see what you can see or just sit and wait at a water hole for hours, knowing eventually something will come by for a drink. Besides it being over 40 degrees in the sun, and not being able to get out of the car, we just don’t sit still for long periods of time well, so off across the huge of the expanse of the park we went!

We have no regrets with our choice as the landscape was truly stunning – the emptiness stretching off into the far distance, with dots of wildlife here and there. We had some great animal experiences, from the two huge bull elephants walking right behind our car to the family of mongooses sprawled out in the shade by the side of the road. We watched giraffe graze from trees and zebra frolic by water holes.

And then there were the predators. The first evening we came across a spotted hyena lounging on the road as we headed back to camp. With the sun setting behind him as he laid there lazily waking up, we sat and watched him, not more than five meters away. Being rather mesmerised by him, we at first failed to notice his two partners in crime, who were also getting ready for their nocturnal escapades. We would see these three hyenas the next morning, and evening, always in the same spot – a well placed culvert under the road.

The hyenas were great to see, but it was two lion sightings that really were special. One morning on our way across an open plain we suddenly saw a pride of lions ambling towards the road. We stopped and waited and watched as 11 lionesses and young male lions, covered in blood from their night’s kill, casually walked in front of our car. These animals are truly majestic, even just walking their power and athleticism is clearly evident.

Of course, they are also ridiculously lazy. Late in the afternoon we came across three lionesses crashed out in the shade of a small thorn tree. They couldn’t have been more than a meter or two from the road and they only occasionally moved to keep in the shade or to lethargically pick up their heads for a quick look around. They knew we were there and couldn’t have cared less. They are in charge in Etosha, and they know it!

Etosha was filled with surprises, from hidden little water holes, to the behaviour of boks out on the salt pan, but the biggest surprise were the huge storms that rolled across the landscape late one afternoon. With the fading light slanting across the huge, dark clouds it was very easy to see the rainfalls in the distance. Dozens of kilometres away, these storms were clearly visible across the barren emptiness of the great pan, bringing life saving water to the mass of animals that call this ancient corner of Africa home.


:: 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.


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!

:: postberg ::

When a place is only open to the public two months of the year and the main hiking trail is only open to twenty people a day during that period, you know you are in for a treat.  The Postberg section of the West Coast National Park about an hour north of Cape Town was just that.

Nestled between the raging Atlantic Ocean and the sublime Langebaan Lagoon, Postberg is a private section of this national park that opens to the public in August and September for the flower season.  There are a few roads that take you through the rolling grass and shrub covered landscape, but to truly experience this little slice of heaven you need to be on foot.

We had been told about this wonderful experience by some really good friends and so we made special plans to ensure we could undertake the 14km hike during our trip.  Imagine how disappointed we were to be told that there was only one space left for that day and there was nothing they could do to accommodate us!

Thankfully Cora was persistent and the rangers at the gate had a much more rational and reasonable approach than the bookings office at the park headquarters.  The forecast wasn’t good so they assured us that someone would likely cancel so they allowed us both in.  The hike has become increasingly popular so it gets booked out as early as May or June that year so anyone interested plan ahead!

The morning was gray, rainy and windy as we set off across a marshy section at the start but none of that could dampen our elation at being able to do the hike.  The first short climb was also wet and blustery, but we still had some great views over the lagoon and surrounding parts of the park.  Before long, the sun came out and we had even more beautiful views throughout the hike.

The trail takes you over the hillsides, through thick brush, along the side of open savannah-esque grassland and along the boulder strewn coastline.  You even get to wander across a sandy beach before you are done – the diversity of landscape was stunning!

Throughout the hike we came across a massive array of flowers – blues, whites, reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and lovely combinations of all the above.

Grazing amongst these flowers, fields and bushes were scattered herds of zebra and kudu.  At our feet, we would frequently stumble upon one of the hundreds of tortoises who call this place home.  With intricate markings and a deliberate pace, you do have to be quite aware of these special little creatures.  This is the reverse side of the large wildlife out on the plains – hidden and intimate.

We can’t tell you how glad we are that we were able to walk amongst Postberg.  It is without a doubt one of our favourite experiences since we arrived in Southern Africa and though it is a long hike, it is one I would gladly do over and over again.

:: the gateway ::

The sign in front of you shows a hippo grazing under a crescent moon and three stars. Beware Hippos at Night, it reads. Nothing makes you feel more welcome than to know that the mammal responsible for more human fatalities on the continent of Africa than any other roams freely on the streets of the town you have chosen to stay in!


Though the hippos of St Lucia are moderately tame, they are still very large and skittish animals, and extremely aggressive when agitated. The idea of encountering one on the suburban streets in the dark as they graze on the grass is not to be taken lightly, but it is a very unique and memorable experience. Though we weren’t lucky enough to encounter them, we did hear that they had been engaged in a territorial battle just a few streets over from where we were wandering.

St Lucia is the gateway town to iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This thin strip of coastline and wetlands is home to close to 800 hippos as well as Nile crocodiles, rhino, leopard, water buffalo, zebra, nyala, warthog and numerous other land based species. The ecosystem is a mixture of the world’s highest vegetated sand dunes, marshy estuaries and open plains. Off the coast are excellent snorkelling and diving waters on the migratory path of humpback whales and whale sharks, while the beaches are known nesting grounds for loggerhead and green turtles.

iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale) Nelson Mandela


There are two main ways to experience this area – either in your car or on the water. Driving up from St Lucia to Cape Vidal will take you right through the heart of the park. The key is to take every little turn-off loop from the main road which will take you past watering holes filled with hippos, up into the forested dunes and right to the edge of the inland estuary.

We were both extremely keen to see hippos so the signs everywhere warning visitors of them crossing the road made us even more excited. The idea of seeing something so large both on land and in the water was overly enticing and so we were thrilled when our first turn-off loop led us to a small pond filled with eight to ten hippos floating in the water!

At first all we could see were a couple of sets of eyes, some ears flapping away flies and the occasional snout. Before too long there were a couple of younger hippos play fighting, displaying their enormous mouths and sharp teeth. As the sun grew stronger the family of hippos made their way into the muddy shallows and spent hours basking in the warmth of the sun, laying so still they could have easily been mistaken for huge grey rocks.

One of the best ways to truly feel a connection to the hippos and get up close and personal with them is to kayak out on the estuary. St Lucia Kayaks will take you out for a few hours to look for hippos, crocs, birds and even sharks! Unlike the wildlife boat cruises, you have to do all the work, but it is something special to come across hippos in the water and to be at their level!

Within ten minutes of launching we spotted half a dozen hippos relaxing in the shallow waters. Much like the other ones, we could just see eyes, ears and snouts, but this time it was from fifty meters away across water. It was thrilling to momentarily be in the same water with these giants, steadily getting closer as the current pushed the kayaks towards the shore. Further up river we were treated to sightings of Egyptian geese, a kingfisher, herons and even a shark ever so briefly. As the temperatures of the water dropped headed into winter, the crocodiles were unfortunately well out of sight in the reeds trying to stay warm.

This little corner of KwaZulu Natal province is really quite special. Driving yourself up the coast and having close encounters with so many different animals is not necessarily unique in Africa, but the variety you can see here is special.

After a couple of hours watching hippo, and having up close encounters with a water buffalo, kudu and warthog, we popped out onto the huge expanse of sand at the top of Cape Vidal. There the warm waters of the Indian Ocean washed up onto smooth white expansive beaches nestled right up against the vegetated dunes.

It was the perfect place to poke around on the exposed rocks as the tide receded, looking for interesting crabs, mussels and other animals left in the rock pools. The waters were inviting, but as we looked north up the coast past the weekend tourists, we could see the desolate expanse of beach and knew we could wait for a more special swimming opportunities.

Exploring the park’s natural beauty, spotting wildlife in the wetlands and enjoying the warm humid air was a perfect way to spend a day in this hidden gem in the corner of South Africa.