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Touring some national parks in South Africa – 2016.

Ok, so this is my first blog. Let’s see how it goes. The idea is to share our travels with the reader. Sometimes  it may be useful and sometimes it may be interesting. 

A short introduction:  My wife and I are a retired South African couple from beautiful Cape Town.

We are both in our sixties. My wife’s real age will stay a secret, though, as these things can get quite sensitive sometimes. My name is Henk and her name is Magda. I will be publishing photos and short videos as we go along, so you will see what we look like, especially while travelling!

As I am a very late starter regarding this type of thing, I will start with our present holiday through South Africa.

Later I will try and capture our experiences of the last number of years. We have done interesting and wonderful tours through southern Africa, South America, China, Borneo and Reunion island.

I must admit that I find blogging quite tough so far, as I have (up to now) tried to do this blog in the evening after our meal and after playing the mandatory board games with Magda. Maybe I should cut back on the wine with the meal…

Our tour

Our present holiday is a trek from Cape Town  through South Africa with our car and caravan. The tour will take us to four national parks: Karoo NP, Marakele NP, Mapungubwe NP and Kruger NP.  Our travel map looks something like this:

 

So let’s go!!

We have made a list of everything that needs to be packed for this type of holiday, and the days before we depart are filled with checking through this list, and greeting our family and friends. We have three children and 6 grandchildren, all living within 10 kilometers of us.

We leave Cape Town on Sunday 14 August 2016. I have taken a 20 litre jerry-can of diesel with us, because there is a labour dispute in the fuel industry and some filling stations have been left dry. With 20 litres I should be able to travel about 200 km at a slow pace to the next filling station!

It is raining lightly when we travel through the beautiful  Hottentot  Holland mountains after leaving the du Toits kloof tunnel. Many waterfalls are cascading down the mountains as the Cape has at last had good rains. But now we are going to parts of the country that have been starved of the life-giving rains.

Karoo national park

Our next stop is the Karoo national park near Beaufort-west. This has always been a favourite stop because of its distance from Cape Town (about 450 km) and because of the great facilities, both for campers and non-campers. They have a great restaurant with very friendly staff. We stayed here for 3 or 4 days on a previous occasion, and were strolling through the gardens at the educational centre, when we were surprised by a  caracal (‘rooikat’).  Initially we did not realise it was reasonably tame, and were pretty apprehensive when it approached us!

These cats can jump a tremendous height from a stationary  position. Check those hind legs! The Karoo NP offers wonderful, mountainous scenery interspersed with flat plains where many antelope are grazing. There are even a few lions roaming wild. One of them, nick-named Sylvester, escaped a few times and killed the nearby farmers’ cattle and sheep. San (bushman) trackers were called in to try and help find this marauding young lion.

The national road through the Karoo is in good condition but can become very long. We shorten the journey by playing good, loud music and singing along (well I try anyway). We do about 100 km/h with the old Isuzu 280DT with the caravan in tow. Just watch out for those speed traps near every little town! This time of the year the verges are covered with flowers of many shades. Beyond the flowers lie the koppies and mountains of a pretty desolate Karoo. Also beautiful.

Every now and then a train comes lumbering past the highway. Unfortunately most of the freight is carried by huge trucks these days. They cause lots of wear and tear on the roads and are not easy to pass with a caravan behind you (especially those with a sign that says ‘not allowed to travel in yellow lane’) !

Our next stop is at a B&B called Cherry Lane, near Bloemfontein. This was a 530 km stretch,  so we are happy to be pampered a bit by the wonderful hosts. It is well situated just off the N1 and has lots of space to park a caravan.

The next day we are on our way to Pretoria, but stop over at Kroonstad for a quick lunch at the Shell Ultra with my late brother’s eldest son, Hugo. Nice to see him again.

Unfortunately we hit the rush-hour traffic at Johannesburg, but we reach Hennops Pride campsite at about 5pm. It is very dry around there, but the Hennops river is in full flood. So it rained well somewhere!

 The Hennops river in flood. Note the red Mercedes in background. Quite a lot of water rushing through this arid landscape.

Hennops Pride has very basic facilities, but good enough for overnighting.

The next day we take the R510 to Thabazimbi. The nearest Sasol filling station is without diesel, but we can fill up at a nearby one. The road is in pretty good condition, with ongoing maintenance. Marakele national park is about 15 km’s beyond Thabazimbi. It is difficult to distinguish natural mountains from man-made mountains around the town. The iron ore mines have changed the landscape. Kumba mine has just recently closed down , with the loss of many jobs.

MARAKELE national park.

The short road to the campsite at Marakele is quite passable. It has not rained here for ages, and there is no grass in the campsite. There are two ablution blocks and you drive around to find your own site, as is usual in the national parks. Some of the trees still have some leaves for a bit of shade. It is a sandy, dusty campsite now.

We had heard that the rhinos were the only members of the ‘big five’ to roam this section of the park, but it seems they do not visit the water-hole at the campsite anymore since new farms were acquired adjacent to Marakele. They have new stomping-grounds now. What a pity. The campsite is not fenced so the rhinos used to graze in the campsite sometimes!

But there is always something interesting to see. There were some ostriches strolling around the caravans, and we saw that the male had very red shins, so obviously it was mating season. It was  not long before we saw the male perform his beautiful mating ritual. The female then walked away casually, but puffed her wings a few times. This was obviously enough encouragement for the male, because he followed her and then promptly mounted her. It was the first time we had seen this. She had her neck absolutely prone to the ground during this grunt-accompanied performance.

It was difficult to take a decent picture of this performance, but below are 2 pictures.

    Note the female’s neck lying flat on the ground.

Note the male’s shrinking  penis after the act. He has done his duty and is off to the pub or whatever.

 

Bloukop koggelmander (blue head Agama lizard).  Not just a pretty face… about 25 cm long.

 There is a large section of the park (entered through a tunnel with a gate) where they keep the ‘big five’ and you can drive right to the top of the lovely Waterberg mountains. The views from up there are beautiful. We came across two young lionesses on the way to the top.

Two views from (and of) the Waterberg:

 

 

We saw no elephants or rhinos, but lots of elephant droppings! In an effort to find the elusive elephants, we drove down a 4×4 road for a few kilometres. It was on the park’s map, but we struggled to find it because it is unmarked. It was pretty tough going. Lots of boulders to navigate. Quite pretty, but not worth it for us. No animals.

So Marakele was a bit of a disappointment. But you know what..  Just sitting in the open and listening to the wild is fantastic. We love small camps and camps without fences. There is not much that can beat the roar of a lion and the howling of jackals while sitting by the fire with a glass of cold Sauvignon Blanc in your hand…

Next we are off to Mapungubwe ( about 500 km). We take the R 511/R516 to Bela-Bela. It is a good road. But we do not want to arrive at Mapungubwe late afternoon, so we sleep over at The Protea Landmark hotel at Polokwane(Pietersburg). The hotel  is right next to the N1,  just before Polokwane.  They give us 3 parking spots for our vehicles. I don’t disconnect the van, and connect up to the power of the hotel (all pre-arranged). Next morning we have breakfast at Steers at the Ultra-city filling station (the hotel’s breakfast is R 160 pp!).

From Polokwane we take the R 521 to Alldays. The road to Alldays is pretty good. Alldays is a real one-horse town, and we arrive there on a Sunday, so that horse has also bolted. Thank goodness we have enough provisions for Mapungubwe. We can get diesel though, so we fill up.

Sections of the road to Mapungubwe (R521) are potholed, so we drive carefully. Standard road caravans do not like potholes! Many Baobabs are visible from the road. They are so iconic to this part of the world…. certainly one of my favourites.

MAPUNGUBWE NATIONAL PARK

The gravel road (den Staat) to the gate is OK, with many speed-bumps. This is to keep you from kicking up too much dust onto the farm next to the road (mostly tomatoes).  After we bought the Palma caravan I had it raised about 30mm with spacers because it is quite long and it does not do well in dips and on rises. At least it gives some peace of mind on these gravel roads.

The camping area at Mapungubwe (Mazhou) lies in the Western section of Mapungubwe,  just off the ‘den Staat’ road not too far from Pontdrift.  This is quite far (70-80 km round trip)  from the Main gate, where you have to book in at reception. We have arranged to leave the caravan at the gate near the camp, before we book in. But we ask very nicely and the guard allows us through so that we can find a nice spot at Mazhou camp. There are only about 10 sites. All the sites are pretty good, depending on what you like. We chose a private site in a corner. Nice big trees everywhere. We are going to like it here!

The monkeys are so cute.  Did I say cute??  The @#*& little monkeys are a nuisance.  They are so clever that even I learned from them that I have Velcro on the surround of the roof. We were walking the camp to look for the best site when we heard that typical tearing sound of Velcro. Monkeys do not look very cute when they are running away with your favourite rusks brought all the way from Durbanville…

So we park the caravan ( we had to lower the roof every time we left camp) and head off to Main gate to do the necessary booking in. This is a bit of a pain but we have the time. We even see a giraffe and lovely Baobabs along the way. We actually drove via den Staat road to Main Gate. It is quite corrugated and a section has been washed away, but there is a reasonable detour if you have an SUV or bakkie.

Mazhou camping site is not properly fenced. Only a strand of lightly electrified fence to keep out the elephants. Beautiful  bushbuck have the run of the camp, and other animals roam there as well. We were told there are lion there but never saw or heard them, and we were there for 5 nights.


          Mazhou camp site

 

There are a number of drives on this (western) side of the park.  The drive along the (dry) Limpopo is nice. But most of the action happens at the hide. A long elevated walkway takes you to a well-designed hide. Water is pumped to a waterhole just in front of you, and about 3 meters lower than the hide. We saw elephant, water buck, impala, blue wildebeest etc  come and drink at the waterhole. The elephants are almost within touching distance. We even had two water monitors(waterlikkewaan)  fighting (or mating) in the ceiling. They are huge and the thought of one crashing down on us was ‘interesting’.

 Lots of birds also come to the waterhole. A saddle-billed stork was fishing all the time, as were a couple of kingfishers. A beautiful fish eagle also paid a visit.

The awesome fish eagle
Saddle-billed stork
 
 The Eastern section of Mapungubwe is much larger. You can get there by driving back to the potholed tar road (longer but faster)  or by going via the corrugated den Staat road, with a tricky but interesting deviation where a bridge was washed away. Not sedan-friendly.

The scenery is very beautiful near the river, and especially at the confluence (even though the rivers were dry). An extended pathway has been built at the confluence, with four viewing platforms.
Four busloads of primary school children arrived when we were leaving. It struck me how well-behaved they were in their smart school uniforms.

There is also a beautiful elevated walkway built along the Limpopo river. Lovely for bird watching and sometimes the elephants wander below the walkway.

A few 4×4 drives have also been laid out. Easy to navigate with my Isuzu.

We had lunch at the little restaurant near the main gate. The meal we had from their limited menu was value for money. A cold beer was very welcome (no wine). We did not visit the little museum (R50 a head).

So we saw lots of elephants, giraffe and antelope here, but no cats of any sort.

One of the mornings we had no water at Mazhou camp. The elephants had ripped up the plumbing somewhere. The rangers were sent out, and had to shoot 3 elephants… I mean they had to shoot 3 warning shots at the elephants. Silly me. Only then they could fix the pipes.

We liked camping here. It was nice and peaceful with lots of shade. Every campsite has its own tap, electrical point and braai (including a ‘stir-fry’ steel plate). Visits from various animals were always appreciated (except the @#* monkeys).

Iconic  yellow-billed Hornbill. When I see them, I know I am in a national park somewhere!

Another Icon for me : the Baobab against an African sunset

                               

 

 

And so we said goodbye to Mapungubwe. We really had a lovely stay here. Now we are moving on to Punda Maria via a stopover at Louis Trichardt.

We travelled back along the R521, dodging the potholes on the other side of the road this time.

Then onto the R523 towards the N1. This is a good road and also very scenic. Then south on the N1 and , just before you descend towards Louis Trichardt, we took the turnoff to our guesthouse, called the ‘Ultimate guesthouse’. It is well signposted. They accommodated our caravan right next to our room (no 1). Nogal the honeymoon suite.  Charles and Mine (pronounced Miney) manage this guesthouse very well, and we had a superb stay there for 3 nights. The driveway down to the guesthouse is quite narrow, but I could navigate it with my Palma caravan. The setting is great, the meals were good and the staff very friendly indeed. We did our booking through bookings.com.

The town of Louis Trichardt was a pleasant surprise. It is pretty neat and nestled at the foot of the lovely Soutpansberg. Nice to drive below the Soutpansberg and visit the other lodges for a beer or so. Two nights would have been long enough though.

   

    
    The view of Louis Trichardt from the top of Soutpansberg

   So then we were on our way to Punda Maria via the R524. The first part is a lovely drive along   
   the mountains. But eventually you drive through settlement after settlement at 60 km/h. No
   problems, but just a nuisance.

Kruger Park.

Punda Maria

At last we arrive at Kruger! The first impression is just how dry it is now. The Mopani trees are the colours of Autumn, and yet it is spring now. We have never been to Punda Maria, and our first impression was that it is dusty and dry. But then we saw the waterhole… A lovely raised ‘hide’ has been built for good viewing. There were almost always animal there. Mostly elephants and buffalo (and lots of them). We also saw all kinds of antelope, including Nyala. The elephants were having a roaring time wallowing in the water and having fun.

There are 2 ablution blocks. The one is higher up and is larger. This is further away from the waterhole. The small block only has 1 toilet and 3 showers for men, and the ladies have 2 toilets, a shower and a bath. We manoeuvred our Palma underneath the Mopani trees at lower left. Nice and shady.  and next to the fence. Taps are very scarce at Punda, which is a pity. So you usually end up quite far from a tap. Power points are a little bit more accessible, but bring your long leads!

The camp also has a swimming pool and some old-fashioned chalets. There is a decent shop. The wine was quite reasonably priced. We did not eat at the little restaurant.


The campsite at Punda Maria

  A happy little elephant family at the waterhole. The daddy looks especially happy!

    These crested guineafowl visit the camp every morning

There is a nice circular drive just outside the gate. It is about 30 km long and winds between many koppies and along a river for part of the way. We also drove up to the S63 which winds along the Luvuvhu river towards ‘crooks corner’. This is a very nice drive. There are many turnoffs to the river, which had some slow-moving water in it. Enough to sustain some hippos and many crocodiles. There is also a lovely picnic spot.

     Hippos fighting. Deep water pools are scarce up here now. A lot of rapid tail-wagging is
    involved.  They look like little outboard motors!

  
   The seasonal bee-eaters have arrived!


    On the way back to camp we stopped at a lovely water-hole at Klopperfontein and saw this    
    hamerkop catch a frog

So Punda Maria was a camp we enjoyed a lot. Could have stayed here for longer than 3 days.
You may have noticed that Magda and I are not rushing off to see the big five every day. We like to take it easy and enjoy the atmosphere of  every national park and every camp.

And now for Tsendze with the Palma caravan.

Tsendze Rustic camp

By the way, one of the outstanding features of our little tour so far was the friendliness of the locals.
I have often heard it said by overseas visitors that we South Africans are a friendly lot. That has been my impression as well. Down in Cape Town you sometimes wonder how you will be received in Limpopo. It seems a world away and the news is usually negative. But we found the people extremely friendly and warm. I suppose your own attitude does matter as well…

Well at Tsendze the chief cook and bottle-washer is called Roger. He does everything around camp and is a first-class source of information, especially about the local owls. Every evening after dark he does the rounds and visits every site to say hello and chat and laugh. And he has a great laugh.

You have to check in for Tsendze at Mopani camp.

We had been advised that site 34 is a great site, near the fence and with lots of shade. So we booked it of course (you  can book your site beforehand at this camp). Well please give 34  a miss. We parked our caravan in the sun and drove around camp looking for sites with shade. Then drove back to Mopani camp (about 10 km’s) to re-negotiate our site. We managed to get a better site, but had to move after 1 night, for our next 2 nights here. Tsendze is very popular, so book your site as early as you can.

We liked the following sites: 19-30 (23 & 24 are prime). Then also 5,6,7. These have all got some shade and are close to the fence. 

Tsendze has no power at the sites. So the whole camp is dark at night, except for the braai fires. This is great! There are 2 lovely ablution blocks with hot water. You can shower outside in your own open-air private cubicle if you wish (it is great when it is hot there). And it can be hot here. It was 35 Celsius with our visit (and it is early September!).

Our Palma caravan has a fridge that can work on gas and 220v, and it has a battery for the 12 volt lights and the taps in the little bathroom and kitchen. But I have no way of charging the battery, so we only booked for 3 nights. The water is heated by 220v but we could live without hot water for a few days. We found that the fridge was not very effective on gas, but perhaps that was because of some technical problem. I also have a dual-battery system in the Isuzu, and that was freezing up the meat in the Engel fridge. Thank goodness.

The day before we arrived a boomslang was removed from one of the sites. While I was setting up camp I heard the neighbours getting a bit excited. I thought that maybe we were in for a few noisy days but then I noticed they were looking at a tree with some interest. So I sauntered over and enquired what was so interesting. They pointed at the black mamba which was slithering away. It was about 2 meters long and I guess about 3 centimetres in diameter. Not a pretty sight. I refrained from telling Magda because she is petrified of snakes.

Roger called us one morning to show us the pair of  ‘banded owlets’ resting in a tree.

  
   Beautiful banded owlet

There is a hide near Mopani where you can sleep over at about R 650 per night per couple. I think next time we will try that. It must be nice waking up with nature’s sounds at sunrise. On the way to the hide you cross a river over a low water bridge. I photographed this Jacana there:

    Jacana

So Tsendze rustic camp is always a favourite of ours and we hope to come back some time. I must just sort out the Palma’s fridge when working from LPG.

Next stop lovely Letaba for 4 nights. It also coincides with our 46th wedding anniversary.

Letaba

I think it was at Letaba that an old omie ( at that time I was not yet an old omie) told me how tough a Corey Bustard (Gompou in Afrikaans) is to cook. I think he used to be a hunter or a farmer or something. There were a few special tricks. You have to have the fire ready immediately. You have to add 3 teaspoons of salt. You have to add a piece of dry wood (preferably Mopani) to the mix and boil it for 12 hours solid. Then you throw away the bird and eat the wood. Yes, they are very tough.

Letaba is a lovely camp. There are many trees for shade. We always look for a site next to the fence. They are popular so get here as early as possible. There is a sewerage point just outside the fence so we try to avoid that area. It can pong sometimes. We were lucky and found a nice spot under a tree. No need to put up the awning. Up to now we had not put it  up once!

The first day we spent doing some housekeeping at snail’s pace. It was hot, about 35 degrees.
We visited the bird hide at Engelhard dam. It is a lovely hide. On a previous visit I left my cameras in the car because we had been driving for hours and saw very little. So guess what… a beautiful leopard walks within meters of the hide. A beautiful sighting. You will just have to believe me.

    There are lovely view points along the Letaba river.

    Some hippos have been dying (fighting over water?) and the maribou storks and vultures were
    in attendance.

In the evening we celebrated our wedding anniversary at Mugg and Bean.

The next morning we drove along the river and saw this Hyena with her baby. They were living in a drainpipe under the road.

 The gravel roads around Letaba are mostly very corrugated. Unfortunately this caused a brake-fluid pipe to crack and we  drove back to camp slowly. The brakes were very unresponsive. At camp all the neighbours were extremely helpful. Thanks Vic, Ries, Brian and John. We did a temporary repair. In the afternoon Magda and I went for a swim. The pool was very refreshing, considering that the air temperature was 37! That evening we had a lovely braai and some refreshment. The Hyena decided to come and patrol the fence. So Henk (that’s me) tried to video the hyena as it passed our section of the electrified fence. But I had to shine my torch on him at the same time. Things did not go according to plan, as this very short video will indicate:

The next day (our last at Letaba) we set off to Phalaborwa to have the car’s brakes fixed. We were very lucky to be sent to ‘Andre’s Auto repair’ (right next to Midas). Within 3 hours he had a new hydraulic brake pipe fitted for the very reasonable price of R450. Dankie Andre!

Now we are on our way to Maroela. We pop in at Satara, which is a busy camp. The scenery on the way is pretty sad. It is very, very dry around here. The Mopani trees are black and there is almost no green foliage to be seen. The little steenbuck and the warthogs try to feed on seemingly nothing on the road verges.


Maroela

Maroela is a satellite camp of Orpen, so we went there to book in (it is only about 2km’s past Maroela). It is a small camp, on  the edge of a (usually dry) riverbed. There are only camping sites here. There are electrical points available. I did not think I would be able to park the Palma next to the fence, but we squeezed it in. Worry about getting it out again later…. When you book in at Orpen you are warned that there is a honey-badger that pays a visit, but I have not seen it yet, and this is our third visit to Maroela. The hyena is there every night though. Looking for scraps, I suppose.

Up to now we had seen only the big two. But who wants to see a lion anyway…they just lie around all the time. And who wants to see a leopard anyway… they just hang around in trees and stuff. And who wants to see a rhino anyway…. they are just horny most of the time.

We heard lions roaring at night. Beautiful. And then we saw them too!! Maybe they are not so bad after all.

One morning early we saw a Pangolin (Ietermagog in Afrikaans). This is a rare sighting, we are told.

The pangolin is a strange little creature. It walks on its hind legs with the front paws held just above the ground. They are an endangered species.


    This baboon was sitting like he was wondering whether he should go to work today

 
 

  Leopards are powerful animals. They can carry prey that is twice their own bodyweight up into a
  tree.  Pictured above is a large impala very high up in the thinning branches of this tree.

     Our campsite at Maroela

I cannot emphasize enough how very dry the Kruger park is now. I am afraid it is a sad, almost depressing picture.

    This is a common sight now. Animals coming to water-holes that are just dry mud.

Maroela is a very nice little camp, and we will always come back to it. The roads there are pretty quiet because it is a bit out of the way and not too near a large camp. And, for us, it was near the Orpen gate which is the closest gate to Swadini, our next destination.

We exited the Kruger via the Orpen gate and took the R  ?? to Swadini. The road was quite good, except for the last bit of potholed tar before you turn off to Swadini.

Swadini

This is a ‘forever resorts’ resort and is very well looked after. Their out-of-season rates are reasonable too (much cheaper than ‘forever Badplaas’). We were stunned by the beautiful scenery. The resort is  surrounded by the northern Drakensberg mountains and the trees are enormous and beautiful. And we saw stands with grass for the first time on our trip! Every stand has a paved section for your caravan. And the staff help you to set up camp (for a tip, of course).


our site

                                                                           

View from our site

 


  

We enquired at the little ‘adventure’ office and were advised to go up Mariepskop to see the lovely views. It is advisable to have a 4×4 or at least a ‘bakkie’ otherwise you may damage your car ( a rented sedan will be OK, I suppose 🙂 ).

The photo below indicates where we are heading:

 


And this is the view from the top :


You have to pay a small fee to get to the top of the mountain. We also took a route to the picnic spot down at the Blyde river. Another small fee is applicable. The road was very bad (about 6km). Definitely not sedan-friendly. But the view down there was also good:


We stayed at Swadini for 4 nights. Next time we will stay here for a week or so. There is a lovely pool, a TV room (for the sport fans), a nice restaurant, a tennis court and a putt-putt course. The restaurant can get quite busy when they have conferences here, but they try to separate the working class from us holiday types. We also visited the very interesting Moholoholo wildlife rehabilitation centre. At R100 for pensioners we thought it was well worth it. It is a guided tour.

                               
                               That’s me with a beautiful bateleur. Definitely a nervous laugh..

                                       
                                         This cheetah is a lovely specimen. And large as well


                                         Adorable little Rhino (until he is big!)


                                       This is Stoffel. He is famous for all his escapes. It was
                                       documented on Animal Planet.

So we would love to come back to Swadini, and follow that with a tour down to the south of Kruger.
At the same time we will probably explore the rest of Mapumalanga as well.

Next stop is Forever Badplaas.

See you later!!