South Africa

The end of this particular road

After five months, twelve thousand kilometres, one broken tent, one puncture and an awful lot of insect repellent, we’ve spent the past week back-tracking across the country to bring this trip to a close. We have stitched together some of South Africa’s finest sights with some of its most breath-taking driving routes, but it’s probably fair to say that we don’t need to hear any more Julia Donaldson CD audio books for a while.

At the beginning of all this we – and others – held some reservations about the potential safety concerns of a journey of this nature in South Africa and so it is worth a mention here then, that these fears were thankfully not realised. Other than one minor incident of petty theft in Port St Johns, our pathway through this spectacular country has been a smooth one. Indeed, the people we have encountered along the way have seemed to want nothing more than to help us out and to accommodate our boisterous travelling roadshow.

Our young party accounted for the fact that we had to move slowly, stay for a while and not include anything particularly out of the ordinary – all of which allowed us to indulge in a pretty unique southern hemisphere summer. It is unlikely that we will ever again all fall asleep in the same tent and be woken at day break in quite the same manner. And while we remain optimistic, it is hard to imagine that we will ever again enjoy the collective enthusiasm received from our three daughters at the start of each day; be it for a hike, a swim, reading the same book again, setting up camp, packing up camp, or just more colouring. However, the past few months haven’t always gone to plan and certainly there has been some childish bickering along the way (and the kids have had some disagreements too), but by placing ourselves in some less-than-typical situations, we have been served an invaluable lesson in just how creative these youngsters can be.

Of course, the most pleasing element of bringing the curtain down on this chapter is that we can finally provide a satisfactory answer to the most frequently uttered question from the past five months: are we nearly there yet? Yes, we are.

We found the end
No more morning game drives for a while
Probably time to run a comb through the hair now
Cheerio, until next time

The Orange River

The Orange River isn’t as well-celebrated as some of the other great African rivers, but as the longest within South Africa it is worth some attention. Our first week was spent on the banks of this river, overlooking a watercourse at least one hundred meters wide. Our second week was spent within earshot of the same water funneling through a granite channel no more than the width of a swimming pool. The resulting waterfall is quite a sight, in quite the setting.

Augrabies Falls (and if you’re not South African, you’re almost certainly pronouncing that incorrectly) was a pretty impressive spectacle when we were in town. However, had we been here a month earlier – immediately after some particularly heavy rains – we would have seen something considerably more spectacular. Had we been here in 1988 or 2011, we would have seen Mother Nature at her most devastatingly awesome, and it is worth a google search of these flood years to see just how volatile this river can be.

The setting for all this has been the Northern Cape, which is the least densely populated of South Africa’s nine provinces. There isn’t much unnatural noise or light pollution in this part of the world and the people we have encountered along the way have been overwhelmingly hospitable. Without trying, this leg has delivered some easy camping spots, some excellent day hikes and plentiful peaceful evenings. It has been a rather pleasant few weeks really.

The Green-ish Kalahari

The attraction of the Kalahari was well established with us before our arrival and while we were prepared for the heat and the vastness of the place, we hadn’t expected it to be quite so green. Parts of southern Africa have received some much needed rainfall recently and as a result this corner of South Africa has adopted a much lusher appearance; we even met a few folks who had made the journey specifically to witness these unique conditions. This did present us with a bit of a quandary though, as we had spent the past couple of weeks describing to the girls in great detail what they should expect to see during our trip to the desert. The twelve hours of rain shortly after our arrival only added to their general confusion. Mum and Dad’s home-schooling was starting to lose credibility.

The first day delivered our first puncture of the trip and a less-than-satisfactory repair job ensured a far more gingerly approach over the next thousand kilometres. The camps of Twee Rivieren, Mata Mata and Nossob were dry and dusty affairs, but the old adage that absence of phone reception usually correlates to more worthwhile places was once again substantiated, as we enjoyed the remoteness of these camps. Indeed, it was the general routine of camp life which provided most entertainment and even included regular athletic meetings in an attempt to burn some energy after the daily drives. Astonishingly, no one else was keen to join in.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park straddles South Africa, Botswana and Namibia and is famed for – among other things – its big cats, and on this front it duly delivered; with leopard, lion and cheetah all popping up to say hello. Much to the disappointment of our group though, no unicorns on this occasion.

During this leg more than any other, we did seem to draw a few comments of surprise that we would venture into this part of the world with such a young party. In reality though, the children appear to be far more resilient than most adults. Seemingly unfazed by the stifling weather, the sleeping conditions or the dwindling food supplies, they maintained an unwavering level of energy and enthusiasm throughout, and this injection of youth seemed to be refreshingly well-received by our various camp ground neighbours. 

This has been a very memorable fortnight and certainly represents one of the highlights of our trip, but having exhausted our coffee supplies and having realised that we were down to our final two nappies, it was time to leave the park in order to restock in the pleasant Northern Cape town of Kakamas. The Kalahari did not disappoint.

Twee Rivieren camp
Sadly did not demonstrate full pace
Three children slept through this whole episode
It seldom looks like this
Mata Mata camp
Daily running races were a regular feature
Pack up day
The desert can do funny things to people
Evelyn trying to stay quiet in the hide
Final camp

Finding our stride

Much like the residents of Pisa in Italy, the good folk of Kimberly in South Africa have decided that there should be absolutely no room for interpretation in the naming of their tourist attractions. And it was with this guidance that we headed out to see The Big Hole. 

We were not disappointed with the centerpiece of this town even before learning that, astonishingly, this crater had been dug by hand, in the search for diamonds. There is a twee Disneyland-type village around the Big Hole that attempts to recreate the town life and trading posts that would have previously existed, though thankfully without the carefree visitor having to experience what were no doubt the horrific working conditions of pioneer open pit mining. This hole and this town has played a pretty significant role in South Africa’s recent history and whatever your views may be on the cast of characters who made their fortunes here during the diamond rush of the late 19th Century, there is no doubt that this relatively small part of the country played a disproportionately big role in its future.

Kimberley represented the final stop on our cross-country transition before heading into the peaceful serenity of South Africa’s newest national park; Mokala. The keen followers of this blog will both be aware of the camping challenges we faced during our time in the Wildcoast, and so it was with much relief that Mokala made life about as easy as possible for us on this front. The wind was non-existent, the daytime skies were cloudless and the nighttime skies were spectacular; this was camping but not as we knew it. Had we conjured up ideas of how this trip would play out, then this is about as close as we’ve got to it so far. Don’t be fooled though. Anyone with a troupe of similar aged children might be reassured to know that despite the overwhelmingly pleasant setting in which we found ourselves, we were still being run ragged by these delightful little cherubs. We have now learnt that it can be particularly tricky keeping everyone entertained in the bush and despite exhausting every storybook, playing out every possible sequence of snakes & ladders, and having seemingly spotted every single animal in the park, it was the value of a gin and tonic that really became apparent during this stay.  

Thankfully though, the long uneventful roads of the Northern Cape sent everyone into a deep midday slumber today which gave us some time to consolidate our position and align strategies for the next leg. Before they all woke up again.

Dug by hand
The very pleasing camp in Mokala

The joys of the open road

Travelling with small children does sometimes feel a bit like spinning plates, and we were served a lesson this week on how a couple of minor oversights can quickly snowball into some broken crockery.

We had made an early arrival at the highly impressive Ithala game reserve and all parties were thoroughly enjoying the fine weather and the pleasant swimming pool in the central camp. We should have probably called it day at that point but in what turned out to be quite a suboptimal idea, we decided to head out for an evening game drive and in doing so, push back the regular supper time and bed time. It all started out very well but as the road became far less appropriate for our chosen vehicle, progress became excruciatingly slow and as one child cried from a missed sleep another cried from a missed lunch. Not wanting to be outdone, the third then chipped in by projectile vomiting over the passenger airbag, twice. The chorus of wailing and general panic was not exactly in-keeping with the serenity of the park and as the sun was setting over this beautiful reserve, we couldn’t help but reflect on just how well things had panned out. 

After regrouping and a thorough cleaning operation we departed Ithala the following day, though our woes were not yet behind us. We have typically tried to limit any travel day to no more than three hours; anything beyond this, then all occupants become progressively unsettled and the whole situation becomes progressively less bearable. The eight rainy hours of weaving through some fairly cavernous potholes wasn’t exactly conducive to happy driving and although we didn’t quite reach breaking point during these eight hours, we weren’t far off. The pressure test was adequately rewarded though as we settled into the aesthetically and culinarily pleasing surrounds of Clarens.

Clarens is a cracking little place close to the Lesotho border and Golden Gate Highlands Park, and although the grandeur of the park can’t be denied, for us this has been outshone by the substantial punch packed by this little mountain town. The excellent network of trails in the hills above Clarens have kept us very busy; either with the full entourage in tow or lightweight and at pace (or at least what little pace we can muster up these days).

Given what an enjoyable stay this has been and what we endured to get here, everyone seems a little gun shy about getting back in the car. 

All smiles at this point
The Kudu were not phased by our shenanigans
The impressive Golden Gate Highlands National Park
She marched them up to the top of the hill….
….and she marched them down again.
Hiking above Clarens
An impressive little walk for Harriet

Treading Carefully

Sitting on a sand dune one morning this past weekend, we found ourselves watching curious crocodiles poke their heads above a river channel in search of breakfast, while sharks thrashed about in the nearby surf, as hippos lurked around in the reeds no more than a hundred meters away. It turns out that this is a corner of the country where you want to keep a careful eye on your toddlers.

Our route planning has needed to be somewhat fluid recently; firstly avoiding international border crossings, then malaria areas, and most recently the path of cyclone Eloise (which thankfully missed us by some margin). The latest re-routing ultimately delivered us to St Lucia and on this occasion route flexibility turned out to be rather serendipitous.   

St Lucia sits to the south of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and in addition to being an overwhelmingly pleasant place to unwind, there is also an awful lot to keep the carefree visitor busy. Not many places we know of can provide a morning at a beach quite like Cape Vidal, followed by a lunchtime game drive through the grasslands of the park, and capped off with sundowners while hippos graze on the back lawn.

Our time in St Lucia was bookended with rainfall of an almost biblical proportion which if nothing else, made us quite pleased that circumstance had dictated that we hadn’t spent this leg of the journey under canvas. 

The sand dune in question
Return journey from Cape Vidal through iSimangaliso
Juniper getting shouty
Face off

On The Road Again

At the start of this journey, any casual observer could easily have spotted that we were not exactly travelling light. Indeed, rolling out of Cape Town we would have struggled to find room for an extra Swiss army knife. As a result, opening the vehicle doors at any new destination we often resembled some sort of spring-loaded travelling jumble sale.

And so, while visiting family over Christmas we took the opportunity to lighten our load for the onward journey. We are now a considerably leaner outfit and after some truly ruthless decision taking, we have departed with the absolute bare minimum of only eight face creams. That’s right; now we are really roughing it in Africa. In some ways it’s a bit of a shame, as the last two months of practice manoeuvring items into footwells and strapping whatever remained on the outside, now seems like a waste of time.

After a slightly longer than planned stopover for the festive season – on account of a virus you may have heard of – we are pleased to be back on the road and heading north. Our first stop being the famous Zulu battlefields of Natal. 

We have spent a fascinating couple of days being educated on the Anglo-Zulu battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Although described as the greatest defeat in British colonial history, it does seem that these battles – which took place on the same day in January 1879 – didn’t appear to work out particularly well for either side; with both ultimately retreating and carrying massive loss of life. By all accounts the Brits seemed to have quite significantly underestimated their enemy here and this error in judgement gave way to the legend of the Zulu Warrior. Our stay with Nicky and the team of excellent guides has certainly given us plenty to ponder during the kilometers ahead of us into Zululand.

Finally in mobility news; since our last post Harriet has graduated to swimming without the need for armbands, which gave us one less thing to worry about. Though Juniper is now walking, which has given us one additional thing to worry about. 

Isandlwana battlefield
Above the battlefield. The white cairns indicating the location of British grave sites.
Staying out of trouble
Our guide Mphiwa, whose great grandfather fought at the battle of Isandlwana
It wasn’t the most child-friendly stop of our trip. But they did bear with us.
Before and after: room to breathe now.

Haven & Msikaba

Impressive places to visit are abundant along the Wild Coast, but most of them do seem to make you work quite hard to get there.  

We had recieved a few friendly warnings about the road leading to the Haven Hotel, but were reassured that it was really only troublesome if particularly wet. So after three days of rain (and a final nervous morning phone call from the hotel staff), we approached this leg not exactly brimming with confidence. Leaving our comfort zone several kilometers further up the track, we slipped and slided towards our destination with clenched jaws and expletives aplenty. Pleased to have made it down in one piece, we settled the nerves with a few rapid refreshments at the welcoming bar. 

The Haven is a well-established Wild Coast destination and has been the choice for many generations of South African families. With the isolation, beautiful beaches and absence of phone reception, it’s very difficult to suggest an appropriate alternative. Our outbound journey was dry and subsequently a cakewalk in comparison. 

The couple of nights spent in Port St Johns can be best described as dreadful, and served only to give us a compelling reason to venture into Pondoland. And yes, we had never heard of Pondoland either. 

Pondoland stretches over 120 kilometers of the eastern coast of South Africa and is jam-packed with some quite astonishing landscapes.  Our first stop was the idylic Msikaba Camp, and the approach from the main road made it clear that our experience getting to the Haven was very much par for the course around these parts. We lost ourselves for only a few nights here, but could happily lose a few months. If rugged coastlines, waterfalls and sunsets float your boat, then happy sailing.

Our final nights in the Eastern Cape were spent at the unique creation of Mark and Lynette’s Protea Ridge. Mark has enjoyed a career as a props guy in the movie industry and as a result, it’s safe to say that there is nowhere in the world quite like Protea Ridge. If you’re looking for that perfect blend of eccentricity and outrageous hospitality, then this is the place for you. What a pleasant and unplanned surprise.

We crossed over the Mtamvuna river to leave the Eastern Cape behind, and while the smooth tarmac of KZN provided a welcome respite, we were certainly sorry to say goodbye to what has provided the most interesting days of our trip so far. We barely scratched the surface of this region, but the scratches we did manage have already prompted our plans for a return. What a superb corner of this country.

Bath time
Air conditioned facilities
The lighthouse overlooking Msikaba camp
Evelyn’s bunny captures the overall mood upon arrival at the Haven
Easing into life at Msikaba
The aesthetically pleasing Wild Coast
Bush life can be tiring
The charming Msikaba camp
Any words to try and describe Mark’s place would do it no justice

A ripping good time

Last week began in the picturesque surrounds of Kingsvale Farm close to Bedford in the Eastern Cape, and in the hospitable arms of Ken and Simone. Ken had recently left behind the big city and the rock ‘n’ roll life of an environmental consultant in order to take the reins of this farm, which his ancestors first established in 1855. As he proudly showed us around the impressive backdrop to his new career choice, it was difficult to question Ken’s decision. The girls revelled in the freedom of farm life; seeing goats being sheared, lambs being nursed, swimming in reservoirs, and generally burning themselves out every day. 

Leaving our gracious hosts behind we headed to the ominously named Wildcoast. Having not planned our arrival into Morgan Bay particularly well, the brewing storm was about to make us pay. On what was somewhat of a gusty evening, we emerged from the regular bathtime routine carrying three towel-clad and shivering cherubs, just in time to watch a couple of splintered fiberglass poles rip through our tent canvas.

As the situation unravelled in front of us, we very quickly adopted the calm composure of a man who had just been set on fire. After a civilised and constructive discussion about our life choices, we hastily found the most sheltered position available to us and set up tent number two, which itself was a bit of a challenge. The pleasing consolation to all this being that the youngsters found the whole thing to be most entertaining and rather enjoyable.

One night in and one tent down; welcome to the Wildcoast, rookies. 

Ken’s new office
Our wonderful hosts, Ken and Simone. Most probably quite pleased to have their quiet house back
Evelyn had a little goat. Its fleece was white as snow.
Ken’s father, Gray. What Gray doesn’t know about farming in the Eastern Cape is not worth knowing
The crew is in town. Arrival into Morgan Bay

South Africa at its finest

Those of you unfamiliar with South Africa may not appreciate some of the questionable actions from the ranks of Government over the past decade. Take for example the good folks running Eskom, who, as the State’s electricity public utility have not exactly showered themselves in glory during the past few years and as a result, the country still endures periodic blackouts. For some, this particular State owned enterprise has come to represent the ills of leadership in this country. You can imagine our surprise then, to have spent the past month hopping between the State-funded and world class South African National Parks (SAN Parks).

These places are excellent. And not just in the context of this country, but in the context of any other corner of the word we have sampled. What’s more, given that the jewel in the SAN Parks crown still awaits, we are feeling pretty buoyed by the Wild Card pass we purchased before leaving Cape Town, which gives us entry into all these highly underrated parks.  

We took a week in Storms River Mouth, which provided a quite breathtaking setting in which to pitch a tent. A fortnight previously, an affable and well travelled chap by the name of Roy spoke highly of Storms River, but did suggest that as a priority we find good shelter from the wind. In hindsight, we didn’t really pay enough attention to Roy and having now comprehensively tested our kit, it’s fair to say that the weather at this time of year is not for wimps. However, the rain, wind and relentless crashing ocean combined to create some sort of extreme ambient white noise, which seemed to send everyone into a solid nights sleep. Which was a pleasant surprise. 

The Otter Trail begins at Storms River and although circumstance at this time in our lives has not allowed us to indulge in a hike along this world famous stretch of coastline, we did manage a quick jog on Day 1 of the five-day trail, and by all observations the hype is thoroughly warranted. 

According to the purists out there, the Garden Route ends at the suspension bridge over Storms River, and so we left one of the country’s best-exported draw cards behind and headed further into the pleasing contrast of the Eastern Cape. Our first stop was Addo Elephant Park and this place doesn’t pull any punches; it’s a massive area full of elephants. Like those before it, this SAN Park was near flawless, and the kids were quite taken aback by the close encounters with wildlife. All combined to deliver a very memorable couple of days. 

In a nutshell, we have struggled to find fault in these superb places which seem to showcase the very best of this country. Perhaps the thoroughly good team in charge of SAN Parks could have a crack at the Eskom portfolio for a while. Just to get the lights back on. 

Storms River camp is a bit of a jaw dropper
Our sample of the Otter trail
Something spectacular just seems to pop up around every corner
Surprisingly keen to help out
The different stages of learning how to smile
The end of our very rewarding time on the Garden Route
Mission very much accomplished
The games of eye spy became less challenging
Enjoyable driving through the Eastern Cape