Travelling Hopefully

20 February & 21 February

I checked in on-line last night, which meant, according to the airline, I'd only need 90 minutes to board. So I decided to stay in bed until 7.30am and didn't leave the house until around 9am.

The drive down was mostly uneventful, except that a bit of traffic congestion at the wrong spot meant that I knew I wouldn't 'make it' to the next services. So at a slow point on the M25 I pulled over on the hard shoulder and climbed up the bank to become better acquainted with some bushes. I always rely on the idea that people going past in their cars won't recognise me should we ever meet later in life. But I do have this concern that one day someone will say to me, 'Don't I know you? Didn't I see you squatting near the M25 last February?'

So, as ever, I arrived at Heathrow in excellent time for my flight. Ironically, in previous holidays I've been stuck with a 21kg bag limit I've gone over and had to do some quick talking/repacking. This time I had a 30kg allowance, but my bag only weighed 20.9kg! I wandered around the duty free area, but I did not allow myself to go into the 'World of Whiskies' shop for obvious reasons for the fear of being tempted.

I'm flying with Emirates for the first time, and the flight from London to Dubai was only two thirds full. The food was a bit better than I've had on other airlines, and the cabin crew were very attentive. I also found that the first four episodes from the latest season of 'Doctor Who' were an option on the in-flight entertainment, and I watched three of them.

Dubai Airport, although it was midnight their time when we landed, was very busy. All of the shops were open, and I stared at the size of the gold bars and coins which you could buy. I treated myself instead to a coffee and then found the correct departure gate. I was amused/alarmed at the shower attachments in the ladies loos...

The flight to Cape Town was over nine hours and felt like more. I managed to get a little sleep between meals (a breakfast at 2am Cape Town time, and a dinner at 10am Cape Town time!). After we landed I got through passport control and customs in good time, and Duncan and Linda were waiting for me.

We're staying in their lovely flat near the sea in Cape Town. We had lunch, I had a shower, and we ventured out along the coast to admire Table Mountain and flocks of white (not pink!) flamingoes. After dinner it was back to the flat and an early night.

22 February

I slept very well and got up 7am South Africa time. As this is about two hours ahead of UK time, coffee was essential!

Our first destination was Table Mountain. We took the cable car up despite the clouds at the top, rather hoping that they might dissipate over time. The cable car rotates as it goes up the mountain, which does allow everyone a good view over time but is also somewhat disconcerting because you can't lean against anything. As we approached the top the women operating the cable car tried to get all of us to be quiet so she could make some announcements. Regrettably 'shh' doesn't seem to translate across cultures--one man continued to talk loudly despite her best efforts.

We wandered around the misty top, then had a coffee. I was quite happy even though we didn't get the views. The mist blowing over the mountain was interesting. Clouds were coming over the city as we came back down.

Our next stop was at Groot Constantia for some wine tasting. I took some photos of the vineyard before we went inside. My favourite was the Shiraz, although the Blanc de Noir was also very nice. We were given large samples of five wines and I was feelin' no pain as we headed further into the vineyards to have lunch. It was lovely to sit outside, admiring the view, whilst eating an ostrich salad.

Our last stop was at Kirstenbosch Gardens. Again it seems strange to have gone from the British winter to late summer. I saw butterflies and birds which were new to me--something I find more exciting than plants, actually, although I did enjoy the sweeping views. And the sunshine!

We returned to the flat (which has a nice view of the Greenpoint Stadium, built for the 2010 World Cup) and I worked on my photos. Later on we went out to a steak house with Lana, Duncan and Linda's daughter, and her fiance Kevin. Another nice Syrah went well with the medium rare steak.

23 February

We headed down the peninsula today. Our first stop was at a small fishing harbour at Kalk Bay. A seal was lounging on the steps and the fishmongers were just in the process of packing up for the morning. I was intrigued by the fish which had been wrapped around metal bars to dry in the sun.

The road gave us views of the shore and took us through other small towns. At Simon’s Town we stopped at the Boulder penguin colony. Boardwalks have been built so that humans can watch the African penguins without disturbing the birds. I'm of the firm opinion that one can never see enough penguins, so I was very happy to spend some time watching them interact. One couple were busy ensuring that the next generation would be assured (honestly, guys, rent a bush somewhere!) and others were sitting on eggs.

We continued down the coast to the Cape of Good Hope. After lunch in a restaurant with fabulous views we took the funicular railway up to the point. Duncan and I climbed the last bit to the lighthouse where we viewed the point and admired the sweep of the peninsula. According to Duncan and Linda we were lucky with the weather--sunny with little wind. We also saw a number of baboons which, it seems, can be rather dangerous.

For the return journey we went on Chapman’s Peak Drive which gave yet more glorious views along the coastline. The water was at times a brilliant aquamarine blue, and the white beaches swept along the coves. At the end, in Hout Bay, we stopped for a drink in a bar at the harbour. From our table we were able to watch seals and seagulls darting between the docked fishing boats.

Then it was back to Cape Town for dinner and the task of working through all the photos! 

24 February

A very leisurely start to the day. We didn't leave the flat until around 10.30am. We took the Red City Tour bus to see the sights of Cape Town. Duncan and I sat in the open section upstairs where the wind was welcome on this hot, sunny day. I took photos with my compact camera (SLRs were given a rest today).

Our first get off point was at St George’s Cathedral. The service had ended earlier in the morning, but the delightful smell of incense still hung in the air. The many stained glass windows and dark stone walls made for a very dark interior. I looked through the service leaflet and was intrigued to note that I recognised the musical settings for the Eucharist. I signed the visitor's book directly beneath the signature of two Daventry friends who are also visiting Cape Town at the moment.

We walked through the Company’s Gardens, stopping for a drink at the cafe. I admired some dragonflies who were darting around our table. At the other end of the Gardens we caught the bus to our next stop, the Castle of Good Hope. There were no guided tours today (Sunday), but we wandered through the grounds and looked at the exhibits. The Castle is a squat, fortified building and I've visited similar designed forts in the Netherlands.

Then on to the bus again. We rode it up to the entrance to the Table Mountain cable cars (quite a queue today) and then down to the coast. This time we got out at Camp’s Bay and had lunch at an Italian restaurant with wonderful views over the beach. A lot of people were enjoying the sunny weather and working on their tans.

Again back on to the bus, and we emerged at the V & A Waterfront. It seems that this is named after Queen Victoria and Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria's son. I found a small guide to South African birds in a bookshop, and Duncan and Linda were good enough to accompany me to a local brew pub, Mitchell’s. I wasn't sure which beer to try, but the dilemma was solved by ordering a tasting platter--a small glass of each one. The alcohol content ranged from 3.4% up to 11%. Part way through Duncan decided he'd better order us a snack so I'd have something in my stomach to take the edge off the alcohol. And I hadn't even started singing at that point...

Then it was back to the flat, where we had a sandwich supper.

25 February

We packed this morning for our trip down the Garden Route. Duncan and Linda were also preparing the flat for a long absence, so bits of clearing and cleaning.

At 9am we were on the road. The first bit took us past some townships, built of all sorts of materials and with electricity cables carried across great distances. Then we turned down towards the coast. The hot day (over 86 degrees F) gave for hazy conditions over the mountains. The coastal road gave plenty of places to pull over for quick photos of the lovely scenery. Bright blue skies!

We stopped for lunch at Hermanus. During the whale watching season (June to December) you can see whales whilst standing on shore. As we were out of season the place was a bit quieter. I enjoyed a lovely if rather unusual salad of greens, cashew nuts, cherry tomatoes, figs, and strawberries.

Then we headed inland. The countryside was dry for quite some time, with only the scrub which the South Africans call ‘fynbos’ to be seen. Then rivers became evident, bringing both trees and vineyards. We saw people harvesting grapes at one, and when they saw my camera they lifted up grape bunches and posed for me. Then the land became drier again and recently shorn sheep hid in whatever shade they could find from the mid day heat.

We arrived at Arniston Bay in the mid afternoon. Our hotel for the night is the Arniston Spa Hotel, and Duncan booked us into the rooms with balconies overlooking the sea. What I found interesting is that there are four different types of electrical socket available. I've been able to plug in my English plug without an adaptor. Never seen that before.

After a short time to freshen up, he and I ventured over to the nearby fishermen's cottages. Bright sun on white buildings posted an interesting challenge for two keen photographers, as did a dog who took a shine to Duncan and kept bringing him rocks to throw.

Dinner was at the hotel restaurant and, when it arrived over an hour after ordering, very tasty. I'm now in the room with the patio door open. It's been years since I've fallen asleep to the sound of the sea.

26 February

I slept well and dawn was lovely across the bay. I discovered that the room came with ground coffee and a coffee press, and I enjoyed some real coffee whilst getting ready. There was a great selection at breakfast and I loaded up on fruit.

We set out around 9am. There were some clouds in the sky but not enough to reduce the heat. We drove to Cape Agulhas, which is where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. A small cairn and a plaque mark the place. I did the touristy thing and posed for a photograph. There were a number of lizards on the beach and one did the touristy thing and posed very nicely for me. We stopped for a coffee (which would become important later) and then continued east.

Raptors and other birds were out in force by the fields. Duncan would helpfully bring the car to a stop when an interesting bird was spotted, although this quite alarmed Linda. I was able to photograph White-Breasted Cormorant, a Pygmy Falcon, an African Spoonbill, some Sacred Ibis, and I saw a number of birds which eluded photographic capture, such as a bright Yellow Canary.

We stopped for lunch. It was there that Duncan discovered he was without his wallet. As the last place we'd been was the cafe for coffee, we tried to remember its name so we could 'phone to ask if the wallet were there. In the end we drove back (it was only around 25 miles). As soon as Duncan entered the cafe the owner said to him, 'I was wondering when you'd be back!' Duncan had left his wallet on the table, and none of us had noticed. Oops!

We continued our drive to Swellendam. This is South Africa's third oldest town and was founded in 1742. A friend of theirs, Kathy, owns a house which used to be the residence of a farm manager. The back garden still features the old slave bell. The house is a lovely old building, dating back to the 1745, and she hopes to run it as a bed and breakfast in due course. My room was upstairs, with a balcony giving views of the Dutch Reformed church and the mountains.

A flock of Helmeted Guineafowl, accompanied by many chicks, were on the back lawn. Of course as soon as I returned with my camera they had moved on. I stalked them for a bit, and other birds which came to the back garden whilst we enjoyed a glass of wine.

Dinner was at a place called Field and Fork. I had the escargot starter, which I quite enjoyed but I'm glad the light was dim so I couldn't see the bodies too clearly. Main course was a lovely steak. The South Africans know how to cook a steak medium rare!

27 February

A hot night. I was finally falling asleep when the distinctive whine of a mosquito filled the air. I pulled the sheet over my head as protection which of course meant I was too hot again. And to think just the other week I was shivering in an English winter...

We had breakfast on the patio and even though I didn't have my camera the birds still stayed away. However, as I took some photos of the church from my balcony, I saw a Lesser Double-collared Sunbird harvesting nectar from flowers in the nearby tree. I soon became distracted by photography and my fellow travellers wondered where I'd got to.

The morning was grey until we went over a mountain pass. Then we hit blue skies and, again, hot weather (30 degrees C). As we drove inland the area became more and more arid, between bursts of green around rivers. More wine growing country, along with sheep, cattle, and ostrich farms.

Our destination was the Cango Caves. I have visited numerous caves in several countries, but the formations in these caves are possibly the best I've ever seen. The guides liked to start us off in near darkness before turning on lights so we could see and photograph the structures. The last portion of the cave had a humidity of over 90%, which made us all sweat and long to return to the drier heat outside!

We had lunch at a nearby resort, and I ate Springbok for the first time in my life. Rather nice, not at all gamey. We paused at atn Ostrich farm, where the ladies came up to investigate cameras. Then we made our way over another mountain pass to our destination, a town called George. We saw the clouds pouring over the mountain range as we came near, and then we drove down into the clouds on the other side. The temperature dropped to a more tolerable level., thank goodness.

28 February

I slept well during a much cooler night. However, around 2am I woke up to what sounded like the largest kettle in the world boiling over. It was the sound of wind and rain lashing down outside. Amazing noise.

The rain was still going when we went over to the main part of the hotel for breakfast. The weather forecast on my iPad (can't get wifi except in the main hotel section) predicted rain for the day but better weather the rest of the week. Duncan's Blackberry gave a somewhat different forecast, predicting rain for tomorrow as well. We'll see which is right.

So we visited the Outeniqua Transport Museum. This housed a wonderful collection of steam engines, including a large number of Garretts. There was also a large collection of antique cars (with posters advertising that you, too, could have your car stored there) and railway carriages. It was quite pleasant to be inside with the sound of the rain pounding down on the metal roof of the railway shed.

Afterwards we drove along the coastal road to Knysna. We stopped at a small complex of shops and a cafe for a mid morning drink. Linda was amazed/amused that Duncan and I paused to take photos of the chickens wandering around the complex. The rooster tried to mount one of the hens, but she was having none of it and ran off protesting loudly whilst he tried to hang on.

The sun was making brave attempts to emerge as we drove into Knysna. Duncan had picked up a brochure about boat trips on the lagoon. We stopped at the ticket office, and were told that the day's trips had been cancelled due to the weather. However we could go the next day at noon. So we had lunch (Duncan told me to try some prawns, which I did and they were excellent) and a wander around the shops at the waterfront.

We got back to the hotel around 4pm. I managed to get photos and blog up to date as of yesterday, and went over to the main part of the hotel to get it all uploaded. The rain has eased off, so we'll see which is better at predicting the weather, Apple or Blackberry.

1 March

Sunshine across my face woke me--what a welcome sight! Apple wins! The rains had passed over and we had a lovely day, a bit cooler than before.

We continued our drive along the Garden Route which, confusingly enough, does not contain human made gardens. The beach at Wilderness was an amazing sight, long stretch of sand with low, rolling waves. The Outeniqua mountains frames the route on the left and increasingly rocky coast on the right. Road bridges took us over deep chasms.

At Knysna we took an hour long trip on a small boat across the lagoon to the Heads. One of our fellow passengers asked if we'd see hippos on the trip. Linda was very tactful as she pointed out that the water in the lagoon would be salty, and hippos are in fresh water only! We saw Oystercatchers and Cormorants, as well as marvellous houses hugging the sides of the hills. The sea was rather choppy at we stopped to admire the waves coming in through the Heads.

Back at the harbour Duncan convinced me to eat oysters for the first time in my life. Vegetarians may wish to skip the next paragraph.

For those who have never before eaten recently shucked oysters, there is a bit of a trick to it. You pour out the remaining saltwater, then use a small fork to loosen the animal from the shell. A small drop of tabasco sauce, a squeeze of lime, and then you swallow the intriguing combination of salt and spice and citrus. I liked how each shell was so different than the last.

Then back on to the Garden Route. We stopped at Bloukrans Bridge which proudly boasts the longest bridge bungy jump in the world, 216 metres. I put the telephoto lens on the Canon 7D and took shots of two jumpers. I was surprised to find that the nearby shop didn't sell clean underwear...

Our destination for the night was the Tsitsikamma Marine Reserve. We stayed in a cabin as close to the water's edge as one could safely build. The waves were breaking spectacularly against the rocks, and a wind was whipping the spray. Now I finally understood why breakers are called 'white horses.' The waves undulate like galloping horses as they race towards the shore. I took far too many photos of waves, both from the cafe (Duncan and Linda had a drink whilst I photographed) and later from the patio of the cabin.

I was also thrilled to finally see 'dassies' (hyrax), small rodents which, strange as it seems, are distant cousins of the elephant. There were family groups all around the area. A seagull family perched on the patio railing hoping for some hand outs. We went to bed with the sound of the crashing waves and a decent view of the Milky Way.

2 March

We packed up the cabin and parked near the cafe. Duncan and I did the 1 km walk to the suspension bridges. The larger bridge crossed the river mouth and gave great views both up the river and out to the sea. A group of kayakers rowed from the sea and into the river whilst we watched. The forest was full of birds who acted like naughty children (heard but not seen) and various insects buzzed past.

The waves were still doing spectacular things near the cafe. I had a quick coffee and then took a few more photos and a short video. Then we headed away from the coast for some time. The land became drier and we were once again in farming country. Plenty of cattle and their companions, egrets (which the South Africans call 'tick birds' just as people in Florida do). We drove through Port Elizabeth and out to a small restaurant on the coast named Sacramento after a ship which had been wrecked on these shores centuries ago.

We checked into our hotel at Port Elizabeth, the Radisson Blu. Our rooms were on the 14th floor with a window for the fourth wall. This gave spectacular views out across the sea front. Good thing I don't suffer from vertigo!

Dinner was at the house of Duncan's older sister and her husband. Duncan's niece, her husband, and a friend of theirs joined us. I had my first experience of a South African braai. To call this a barbecue would be doing the experience a disservice. The men first made a fire out of stacked hardwood. When this had burnt down (took about an hour) the meat was put on a grill over the coals. We had sheep ribs, chicken skewers, and sausages made from some game animal, probably Kudu. Alongside we had an excellent salad and a potato dish. I was offered a lovely red wine which went down rather too well.

One of the nicest aspects of this holiday is that I'm seeing South Africa with South Africans, and I am able to enjoy these sort of family occasions. I also understand that we've been very lucky with the weather--sunny but not windy.

3 March

A leisurely start to the day. We had breakfast at the hotel, and Duncan's sister and brother in law joined us. I did a final repack. Although I have purchased very few souvenirs, what I have bought are fragile and bulky (a wine glass and a mug).

We checked in for our flight to Johannesburg. Duncan had booked us into Business class--a new experience for me. I liked the waiting lounge with the varied offerings of drinks and snacks. However, as we boarded the 'plane I was informed that my wheeled carry on was too large for the cabin and would have to be added to the hold. Fortunately the camera equipment was in a smaller, padded bag inside the case so I slipped it out and carried this on board.

The flight took around 90 minutes. We were collected at the airport by Carrie, their daughter, and her boyfriend Ryan. They brought two cars to ensure that our luggage would fit. I shared the car with Linda and Ryan. We were driven to Duncan and Linda's house on a gated estate in Sandton. Their house is a large and open plan, and I approve of the bar and the small garden!

Dinner was at Carrie and Ryan's house, a gas-fired braai. I met the rest of the family--Andrea, another daughter, with her husband Mark and their two year old son Thomas. And Carrie and Ryan's young Boston Terrier, Millie. Dog and boy interacted very well and it was a close run contest as to which was the more active. Thomas particularly enjoyed taking gravel from the flowerbeds and putting into the doghouse. What Millie thought of this is unknown.

We returned to the house and I worked well into the night trying desperately to catch up on photos. It's all my fault for shooting in RAW and then processing them through Photoshop...

4 March

Awoke to yet another sunny day. Going back to the UK is going to quite a shock to the system.

Duncan and I headed out for the day. Our first stop was the Voortrekker Monument. I had a bit of a crash course in part of South African history. Inside the monument both a long marble frieze and tapestries depict scenes from the Great Trek made by settlers from Cape Town into the interior of South Africa. Although I knew little of the story, I was reminded of what I was taught in US history classes about the European settlers travelling across the USA in their covered wagons and facing attacks by Native American tribes.

After a coffee break we drove down into Pretoria. We parked by Church Square and walked around to admire the monuments and official buildings. Duncan carried my backpack and asked me to stay close to him. This area of South Africa comes with a bit of a reputation. Even my guide book urges people not to wander around Johannesburg unaccompanied. I must admit that I was very glad that Duncan was driving. Although the road signs follow UK conventions and in South Africa one drives on the left, in Pretoria both drivers and pedestrians seemed to think that traffic laws were there to be ignored.

We drove up to the Union Buildings to admire the view. Sadly one can no longer easily get inside to visit the buildings, due to security concerns. At the bottom of the hill Duncan pulled over so I could get some photos looking back up at the grand buildings.

After lunch we headed back home before rush hour traffic could hit. Linda made a nice chicken dinner and we watched some TV whilst I tried desperately to catch up on processing photos.

5 March

Duncan and Linda had various appointments in Joburg, so Duncan arranged for a friend of his, Reg, to take me out for the day. Reg had gone with them on the Antarctic trip and I remembered him from that holiday, so it was good to see him again.

Reg collected me, and our first stop was at the Apartheid Museum. Your entry ticket randomly assigns you the classification of either 'white' or 'non-white' and you are asked to enter the museum through the appropriate entrance gate for your classification. As I knew only a little about the Apartheid era I found it very educational. The museum is well laid out with information placards (all in English), video clips, and photographs. As ever with museums I was flagging a bit after two hours, so the latter sections received less attention than the former.

After a cup of coffee, Reg drove us to the ‘Cradle of at Maropeng. We took the scenic route--he says he navigates based on instinct! The main attraction are the Sterkfontein Caves, in which fossils of early hominids have been found. An interpretive centre takes one through the evolutionary history of humanity. Then a guide takes you into the caves themselves. These are not show caves. Although there are some steps, much of the flood is only covered with rubber mats to provide some traction, and we had to duck and crawl through various sections. Even I hit my head twice! There was very little even artificial light, so I took most of my photos on an ISO of 25,600.

A thunderstorm had been developing when we entered the caves. Rain began to pelt down when we emerged. The guide gave each of us a plastic poncho. I wore mine for the sake of my camera equipment. Reg pocketed his for future use and sprinted back to the centre. I had a more leisurely return, and enjoyed the smells released by the rain.

We went back to his house, where I met his wife Theresa and their two miniature dachshunds,Zoë and Smudge. When offered a drink I asked for a glass of red wine. Out come six bottles with about a glassful left in each. All had been opened at previous occasions and left for some time in the cupboard as they both prefer white wine. I put my expert taste buds to the test and we quickly dumped most of the bottle contents into the kitchen sink!

Dinner was at an small restaurant, and then I was dropped back to Duncan and Linda's house.

6 March

Today was another side of South Africa. I went on a small guided tour in the company of two people on holiday from Brazil. Our Joburg born guide gave us the challenge of seeing a single white face during our tour and, except for other tourists, we failed.

Our first stop was in Soweto. We were in a people carrier, which gave us height and ample space to see the streets. We passed the original homes of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela before stopping at the Hector Pieterson Museum. For those like me whose history classes in school did not cover much of South African history, Hector Pieterson was one of the children shot and killed by police during a student uprising in 1976. The photo of his body being carried by grieving students became famous at the time. The children were marching in protest because the government had decided that they must be taught in Afrikaans, a language very few of them actually spoke.

We then drove on to a shanty town. A man who works in a local project, Kliptown Youth Programme, to improve the lives of the children who live there. We walked down the dusty streets, avoiding the water running from the communal washing area, and saw the conditions in which a large number of black South Africans live. We were allowed to go into one two roomed house. Electricity is obtained by illegally tapping into powerlines and is therefore unreliable. So those who live there cannot have 'fridges, although a number do have TV sets. The lack of 'fridges explained the large warehouse we saw later, in which live chickens are sold. People take them home to slaughter for their meal.

We also had a tour of the KYP facilities. They use solar power to run the kitchen (which feeds around 400 children a day), computer room, and office. The programme has won various humanitarian awards.

Afterwards we drove around a few more areas of Kliptown, Soweto. A four star hotel is in the area, but hardly used. Underneath the hotel are the usual markets offering fresh produce. It was in this area that we saw the warehouses with live chickens.

The tour included a visit to the Apartheid Museum. I took my time over a sandwich lunch at the museum's cafe, and then went back to see the bits I'd skimmed over yesterday.

Our next stop was Constitution Hill. This was the site of the Old Fort Prison Complex, in which thousands of people had been imprisoned. Among them was Mahatma Gandhi. A local guide gave us a tour, and we were not spared the grisly details of what non white men endured. The South African Constitutional Court, the highest court in the country on constitutional matters, now occupies what had been the prison site.

Our final stop was at the Carlton Centre to take a lift up 50 floors to the ‘Top of Africa.’ This gave us great views over Joburg city. I was equally fascinated and somewhat disturbed at what we saw as we drove through the city centre. All the infrastructure of a first world city is in place--the high rise buildings, the shopping centre complexes. However the streets and shops have a third world feel. There are no posh shops, mainly the sort of small stalls which you'd expect in a third world city or town. And the our guide won, other than fellow tourists we did not see one white face during the entire tour.

7 March

We decided to take things easier today. Duncan and I visited Liliesleaf Farm mid morning. The farm had been a meeting place for the ANC, and it was at the farm that the South African police arrested a number of the ANC leaders in 1963. The museum is based in the original farm house and various outbuildings.

After a coffee we returned home. We packed for tomorrow's trip to Kruger and I've finally caught up on photos! It's been lovely to sit outside in a t-shirt, trousers and bare feet in the warm weather. Andrea, Mark and Thomas came over for a visit in the evening. Beverly, Duncan's older sister, has come to spend the night. She will be the fourth member of the Kruger party.

For only the second time in my digital life a memory card has let me down. So the few photos I took of Liliesleaf Farm have come from my iPhone.

8 March

An early start. We were packed and ready to go at 7.45am. I pulled out my lap top and worked on the photobook of the trip whilst we headed up what has been described as 'the most boring drive in South Africa'. We had a stop for coffee, and later on for lunch and to buy some supplies.

The lap top battery ran out around the same time as the boring bit of the road. Now, I was told, we were in real 'bush country.' My first reaction was that everything was much greener than I'd expected. It seems Kruger has experienced a wet summer, which could make game viewing more difficult, both due to the greater amount of vegetation and that the animals can easily find water.

We arrived at the lodges around 4pm. We collected the keys, drove down, and unpacked. The lodge is four bedroomed, with an open plan lounge/dining area/kitchen downstairs. The other three have chosen the downstairs bedrooms, so the entire upper floor is mine. The lounge downstairs opens on to a large balcony with great views up and down the river. My bedroom upstairs opens onto a smaller balcony with the same views. It seems that elephants have been known to come down to the river to bathe. None showed tonight, but we did see one water buffalo and heard a hippo coughing. Duncan had set up his monster lens and looked for wildlife, while I set up the much smaller kit of a landscape photographer and took shots of the sunset.

The lodge is air conditioned, and you really notice the difference when you step outside. The car told us the temperature was in the 30's centigrade, but the high humidity makes it seem much warmer. Unfortunately I already have several insect bites. Good thing I'm on anti-malaria tablets.

9 March

Duncan had declared that we'd have an easy day today. So breakfast was at 7am, and around an hour later we were on the road.

The entrance to Kruger nearest us is Crocodile Bridge, it only took around 20 minutes to get there. Inside the park we picked up some coffees, and then we went hunting for critters. The roads through Kruger are a mixture of tarmac and gravel, and we used both.

Soon into the morning we saw our first elephant. I think Duncan relaxed after that point. He was so keen that I'd see at least one! We also saw zebras, giraffes, wart hogs (their tails flip up when they run!) and a small tortoise crossed the road in front of us. Lots of bird life, usually in the wrong direction for the sun! The highlight of the morning (perhaps will be of the whole week) was a Pied kingfisher pounding a fish against a log. Duncan and I aimed our long lenses at the bird and you could hear the whirring of camera shutters firing at high speed.

This method of viewing game is so very comfortable. Air conditioned car, just roll down the window when you have a wildlife spotting, drive from place to place. Linda kindly did the driving, Duncan kindly insisted that I have the front seat, and Beverley kindly helped to spot and to identify the animals.

We stopped for a picnic lunch. I chased a Bulbul and Duncan spotted a Wood kingfisher. We found some more elephants and confused other drivers by stopping to photograph a Hoopoe who kept well hid in the grass (no doubt the other motorists thought we'd found something far larger!). Duncan broke the rules by getting out of the car (you are not meant to leave the car except at the rest camps) to rescue a Leopard Tortoise who was in the middle of the road and in danger of getting run over. Good man.

The clouds were beginning to build up and I could smell rain on the air. Our last spotting was of a group of white rhino. They crossed the road in front of us and grazed for awhile on the other side.

We returned to the lodge complex around 5pm. The complex has a lookout for the river with a cafe alongside. So I had a beer whilst we watched a water buffalo swim across the river. 'I've never seen one do that before, have you?' a woman asked me. 'I've never seen a water buffalo before today,' I told her, 'so I couldn't possibly comment.'

At the house Duncan did a braai of sausage and lamb chops, which we ate alongside Linda's home made potato salad. As we settled down for the night we were joined by a small fruit bat. He flew in hunting circles around the lounge, so we decided that he probably lives in the house. We've decided to call him Fred and to let him clear the insects from the air.

10 March

We set off earlier today, on the road by 6.30am. At the entrance we were told that lions had been seen, so we were hopeful. The day stayed mostly grey, and the temperatures were far more comfortable as a result.

A number of Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills amused us throughout the day. We watched a pair arguing early on. There were also lots of Rollers out, both European and Purple. They are migratory birds and perhaps are trying to get a group together before they pack their bags and fly.

Then we found ourselves in the middle of a great of Water Buffalo on the move. Swallows flew around the large beasts, catching inserts disturbed by their movements through the long grass. Ox-peckers came and went throughout the herd. I was photographing the head of a Buffalo (over Linda's shoulder and through her window, as they were closer on the other side of the car) when a Ox-pecker landed on the Buffalo's face.

We had to stop for a Hornbill in the middle of the road. He was rubbing a caterpillar vigorously on the ground. I think it may have been to remove the spines. After he'd finished swallowing his reluctant breakfast we were able to drive on.

A clump of parked cars told us that something had been spotted. Indeed, our first pride. Before you look at the photos expecting to see that full frame image of a yawning lion I need to tell you that none of our sightings were at that level. The lions were well hidden in the long grass, relaxing. That is the downside of visiting Kruger at the end of summer, the grass is long and animals easily disappear in the bush. However I was very excited to see lions in the wild.

We stopped at a hide at which was spotted the desperate human bottom. Feeling somewhat relieved, we went into the hide and saw hippos and a Crested Barbet. More lion prides (you can tell where the lions are by the number of parked cars) and two Kudu having a a wrestle. Later Warthogs and hard to see bathing elephants completed the morning.

We returned to the house for a late lunch. Two elephants were grazing on the grasses across the river from our balcony. I took some photos of them interacting before eating my sandwich. Later in the afternoon I took more photos of them, and later on a herd with two youngsters came down to the water. Quite far away, so the photos are not brilliant, but it was lovely just to watch them. The trunks of the youngsters writhed as they walked, as if they couldn't quite control them.

11 March

A late start--we left the house at 10am. However, an Egyptian Goose landed on the house roof around 6am and started to call loudly to his friends. What an alarm clock!

We entered Kruger by a different gate which meant that we saw a rather different landscape. This part was more hilly and with more trees. Our intention had been to stick to the paved road and eventually end up at Lake Panic hide by early afternoon, when the light is best there. However, the reports of a cheetah signing sent us down a dirt road. We not only did not see a cheetah, we saw very little other animal life either. The landscape was lovely, albeit in the grey weather I didn't feel inclined to photograph it.

After a picnic lunch (where various Hornbills tried to steal food) we arrived at the hide around 4pm. We only had 90 minutes there (we had planned to arrive earlier!) as we had to leave the park by 6pm. We saw plenty of birds, plus some large hippos. The sun even emerged, finally. I was entranced by a nest of young Green-backed heron. There also appeared to be a family of Pied Kingfishers. One parent landed near a chick (camera shutters operating madly!) and later several gathered together on a branch.

We made it to the gate with 10 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, as we could not go back through Kruger, we had a long journey around to get back home. We didn't arrive until 9pm. We had a quick dinner and it wasn't long after before we headed off to bed.

12 March

The other day Duncan and I were comparing how we marked up our photo files. He has a whole numbering system so he can precisely identify his photographs. I, on the other hand, put each day's photos into separate folders and I name the folders after the noteworthy event of that day. So yesterday's folder, for example, was called 'Lions'.

Today's folder is 'Lazy Lizard Day. ' We had a day at the house and had hoped to lie in, except our Goose alarm was working again at 6am. The balcony was pleasantly warm, so we spent the morning outside and ate our lunch under the shaded portion. However, the only wildlife of note which we saw were lizards. Ones about the length of a palm turned up on the balcony, and I'd lean over the side to photograph them hanging on to the wall. A resident Water Monitor lizard stalked past. My friends were blase about him, but I was thrilled to see such a huge beast, about three feet long.

Duncan and I went out to a local hide for an hour, where we sweated and admired the scenery. We saw a Pied Kingfisher in the distance and not much else. We headed back to base. The only excitement had been the spotting of two more Monitor lizards on the way to the hide, sunning themselves on the recently mown grass.

A stray cat has been haunting the balcony since we arrived. Linda and Beverley finally gave up and have been feeding him. So of course he now calls regularly for food from the patio door.

13 March

Today Duncan, Beverley and I had hoped to go on a day trip, organised by a local company, to Mozambique. I had obtained my visa in advance whilst still in the UK. However the trip needed at least six people to run and we were the only three interested.

So we headed into Kruger again today. We had a mixture of sun and cloud, so a bit brighter than the last couple of days. Our eventual destination was the hide at Lake Panic, but we'd decided that we'd leave earlier so we could head out again through the park rather than the main roads like the other night.

The first bit of excitement was a herd of wildebeast. They crossed the road in front of us, and had a couple of young calves in their midst. After admiring a Terrapin on a sandbar, and a stop for coffee, we went on to a waterhole. Here we were rewarded not only with various birds, a number of which passed along the shore near the car, but also with the experience of watching a hippo come out of the water and attempt to cross the road, perhaps to the river on the other side. A car raced up to video the proceedings, which sent the hippo back to the waterhole again.

We had a close encounter with three elephants. One crossed the road in front of us and posed obligingly for photos. It's the closest I've ever been to an elephant. What amazed me is how quietly they move. I took a minute or so of video footage with my camera and I think I stopped just before Duncan made a slightly rude comment about filming back ends of animals (which is a common experience!).

We had a fantastic sighting of a couple of Saddle-billed Storks. According to our bird book there are only 16 pairs in Kruger. What intrigued me is that the male and the female have different eye colours.

After a quick sandwich lunch we went on to Lake Panic. You can tell it's the low season here. For long stretches of time we were the only ones in the hide. We were rewarded with the appearance of a Malachite Kingfisher. I even saw him eat a fish (too far away to photograph properly). A Pied Kingfisher frustrated us by spending a very long time simply preening on a log. Every so often Duncan or I would take a photograph out of sheer boredom. Finally he went off to catch a fish, then turned his back on us to eat it! (The bird, not Duncan.)

After a couple of hours we headed out. And then we came across eighteen White Rhino in about 45 minutes. One was quite threatening, flicking his ears as he stared down the road at us. Then we realised that they wanted to cross over to their midden--Rhinos like to return to the same place to poop time and again. We backed up, and the three of them did cross over and did proceed to add to the midden. Duncan videoed proceedings. We reckon his two year old grandson will love to see that.

When we arrived back at the house the temperatures had cooled down to a very pleasant evening. We sat outside, drinking and nibbling, as the stars came out. The constellations look wrong to European eyes, and I was startled to find Orion's sword pointing up instead of down. Fireflies made an appearance down by the river, and a bat swooped past.

14 March

Last day in Kruger and, for me, last full day in South Africa. We headed into Kruger for a morning drive, driving on the other side of the river which flows alongside our accommodation.

There were vultures aplenty circling overhead and on the trees, so no doubt there had been a large kill during the night. A few moments later we saw two Black-backed Jackal--not a common sighting. They were well hidden in the grass, but one looked back and I got a photo of his head.

Our next treat was a zebra herd with several young foals. One posed quite nicely for us. I think she knew that this was her chance to be immortalised on this blog. We saw plenty of Impala, including some young bucks wrestling with each other. I was delighted to spot a Leopard Tortoise eating his breakfast at the side of the road. There were also a great many Terrapins out and about. We stopped to watch a troop of Baboons, ready to raise car windows at any moment. Baboons have been known to jump into cars through open windows.

We stopped for a coffee. From the look out point I saw that elephants were crossing the river on the other side of the bridge. We drove back to the bridge, and from there I took my best elephant photos of the trip. Only one other car joined us, so we felt free to stay in our spot and enjoy the action. The elephants came down for water, including some young ones.

The elephant action continued as we drove back to our exit gate. Duncan drove carefully as elephants crunched greens no more than ten feet from us--they can suddenly decide to cross the road and despite their size the bush hides them very successfully.

Then we came across a huge bull. His trunk was so large that he rested it on one of his tusks. I leaned out of the window to take photos. Then he started coming towards us. 'If you need to back the car quickly,' I told Duncan, 'don't worry about my photos.' 'Don't you worry, I won't.' he replied. Elephants have been known to roll cars over, and we had no desire for that adventure.

We returned to the house for lunch. During the afternoon more elephants came and went on the bank across the river from us. I worked on photos and, later on, packed up my stuff for the return to Joburg tomorrow.

That evening Fred decided to again grace us with his presence. I took a photo of him when, at one point, he came to rest on the steps.

15 March

We left the house around 7.30am for the drive back to Joburg. The day dawned bright and clear. Beverley noted that the day one leaves a holiday is usually a lovely day!

The drive was uneventful and we were back at the house by 1pm. I had a quick sandwich and prepared my bags for the flight home. I thought I'd be clever. The airline had a total weight, not number of pieces, policy. I decided to check in two bags (the usual one plus the roller carry on) and take the camera equipment in the backpack as my carry on. Although I haven't purchased any large or expensive souvenirs the extra bits would make a tight squeeze in one bag.

Duncan kindly accompanied me on the train journey to the airport. He also recommended that I get the two check in bags plastic wrapped to prevent thieves. I was pretty confident that I would be well within the weight limit of 30kg as the bag had only weight 20.9 kg on the way out and, as I've already stated, I hadn't purchased anything large or heavy.

Well, the combined weight was 3kg over. The airline wanted to charge me 1650 Rand for the excess weight. So, as I have done on several trips previously, I hauled out the tripod from one check in bag (Duncan had to rip away part of the plastic wrap) and that plus one book meant that I was within the limit. This also meant carrying the tripod along with the backpack, smaller bag, and coat around two airports. This photography hobby can be very hard on the back!

After two pleasant flights I arrived home the next day, 16 March.

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