Sunday, 19 December 2010
Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
Plane being De-iced
(Heathrow, Gauteng, United Kingdom)

For the second time in a year we got caught up in a major national air travel outage. Earlier in the year we had been stuck in Mexico unable to get back, this time however we got stuck in the UK. We were due to fly with our friends Greg and Fiona on the Saturday night but there had been six inches of snow which had incredibly bought Heathrow to a standstill on one of the busiest weekends of the year. We had gone to the airport, checked in, then had not been allowed through passport control and had queued with all the other passengers for about two hours until we were finally told our plane was cancelled. We then had to figure out how to get our bags back. This involved queuing at a staff entrance to be security checked, six people at a time, and let into the baggage hall. We were very lucky as we managed to get this done pretty quickly and got back to London on the Heathrow Express with relatively little pain. Many others were not so lucky and had to spend the night on the floor of the airport.

I would like to say Virgin handled the process efficiently but far from it. Their first mistake was checking everyone in, other airlines held off doing this, but Virgin seemed over optimistic about leaving. Then after this there was a distinct lack of information just a hand out which suggested calling a permanently engaged telephone number to try to re-arrange the flights. From our experience earlier in the year we knew that Virgin would not be able to add extra flights to catch up and it would be a matter of getting a seat on a later flight or with another airline at a very busy time. Thus we checked the availability ourselves online and swiftly found that Virgin had no seats until four days later. BA however has seats on the Sunday night. Unable to get through to Virgin we had made the call to book the BA seats and resolve the matter with Virgin when we got back.

However the next day the news presented us with a grim picture. Heathrow had not been able to clear the snow and ice out of the plane loading bays so had been forced to cancel all long haul flights for the second day in a row. It looked like it was going to be a repeat of Saturday but our plane had not been cancelled so the four of us went to our local pub for Sunday lunch whilst waiting for an update. We got to about four and still our plane was showing as departing so with a lot of trepidation we set out for Heathrow for the second day in a row.

When we got to Terminal 5 we almost wept with joy, it appeared that whilst all incoming flights were cancelled they were letting a handful of long haul (the rumour was it was less than ten) flights take off of which ours was to be one. We checked in but retained a healthy level of cynicism, refusing to believe that we were going to be going anywhere, We sat at the departure gate watching our plane repeatedly being sprayed with green deicer. Finally, only an hour after the scheduled time, we unbelievably were told to board and staggered onto it in disbelief. It was only when the plane finally took off that we finally started to realise that we were actually going on holiday...

Our Room at White Elephant
(Pongolapoort, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

We arrived at Johannesburg around nine o'clock the next morning and picked up our hire car. We had a seven hour car journey in front of us to get to our first destination the White Elephant Safari Lodge. We started off South on the N3 (the more direct route on the N2 being closed for road works) through the plains of the High Veld. Driving through Gauteng and Free State is definitely a big country experience with huge tracts of flat grasslands at over 100m with very little to break the view. These grass lands appear to be divided into massive farms which from a UK perspective have a relatively low number of cattle spread over a huge area. 70% of Free State's area is devoted to grazing so I thought it probable that although it looked very lush during what was the wet season it must be fairly dry during other season's hence not able to support huge herds.

It was not until after we got to Vryheid and we started to descend to the Low Veld that the scenery started to become a bit more dramatic but by then it was nearly 1700 and we were already getting concerned that we would not make it to Pongolapoort Nature Reserve in the light. This concern turned into reality as we realised at Lowsberg that it was a lot further than we thought and by the time we got to the reserve it was around 1930 and very much dark. This would not have been a problem apart from the fact that the Lodge itself was half an hour drive through dirt tracks in the reserve, and the reserve itself was packed full of animals as we were to find out the next day. We were very lucky and ran into relatively few, a late night encounter with an elephant would have proved deadly.

We finally got to the Lodge around 2000 and had a much scrub up before dinner. The Lodge itself consisted of a charming old hunting lodge with eight luxury tents spread out in the surrounding bush. The tents themselves had two rooms, a very open bedroom and an equally open bathroom with an external canvas shower. We could wake up looking at the sun rising over the lake from the comfort of our bed.

Fighting Hippos
(Pongolapoort, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

We had decided to start the day very early with a boat safari on the lake. Pongola nature reserve is the oldest in Africa having been set up by Paul Kruger in the 1890's, it is now owned by seven private owners and has pretty much everything with the exception of lions. Our excellent guides Freedom and Moses drove us down to the banks of the Pongola river where we boarded a launch and we set off. It was slow at first with a few sightings of crocodiles and zebras, however we were soon rewarded with a rare treat. Whilst we were looking at some distant rhinos two hippos started fighting just behind us. This was a vicious affair, we watched for an hour whilst they lunged at each other mouths wide open. Whilst it does not look it they have huge tusks the results of which can be quite gory.

Leopard Tortoise
(Pongolapoort, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

We slept for a couple of hours after an excellent early lunch and then were taken out for a more conventional safari in the afternoon. This was to prove just as spectacular as the boat cruise. The first thing we found was a journey of Giraffes including some really young ones just sitting in the grass. Freedom then made us get out of the jeep and walk like monkeys to get closer to them. We the laid on the grass to see if their curiosity got the better of them. It did but not to the extent we would have liked, nevertheless we got pretty close. After this we set off to the lakeside to watch a mass herd of water buffalo whilst sipping a beer as a sundowner.

Charging Black Rhino
(Pongolapoort, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

Straight after this we ran into four black rhinos, quite a feat given there are only 2,500 left in Africa. Watching a pair of them we were noticed and the Rhino charged at us, fortunately stopping short. From what we understood they are highly aggressive so will charge anything they view as threatening. We then set off into the bush, found a leopard tortoise crossing a railway track, then finally finished up the day by finding a herd of elephants in the failing light of dusk. They were a delight to watch as they had a recently born baby which had not yet learnt to use its trunk. However here again we were charged by a protective bull elephant. We swiftly returned to the camp to have an excellent dinner,

Giraffes in Silhouette
(Pongolapoort, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

We had lost a day at the White Elephant so we decided to get up early and go for one last drive before departing for the coast. This time it was not quite so eventful however we caught up with the elephants again who were being tracked by a scientist at the game park who we talked to for a while. She was concerned about the large numbers of elephants in the park. Sadly they are very destructive and their long memories mean that you cannot kill a couple of them to reduce numbers, you have to kill the entire herd. We also got some time to watch two dung beetles, a male who was busily rolling a huge ball on which a female was just sitting on. Apparently they bury such balls after implanting eggs in them and then the larvae hatch and eat the dung.

Charging Elephant
(Pongolapoort, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

In retrospect the game drives at the White Elephant were a lot better than what we experienced at Kruger. We were the only guests at the lodge and the only jeep driving around. Our guides were very entertaining often devolving into a comedy duo as they discussed animal behaviour. Although there was a conscious decision not to have any big cats in the park this meant there was more of the other types of game and always an animal in sight. Whereas in Kruger there were huge stretches of time when you would not see anything. In addition there were no tarmac roads in Pongola and so the majority of the driving was on smaller tracks which criss crossed most areas of the park.

Suckling Zebra
(Pongolapoort, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

The drive to Rocktail Bay was fairly lengthy but well worth it. The coastline of Northern ZwaZulu-Natal is an endless stretch of perfect white sand backed by dunes and jungle. The Rocktail Bay Lodge is situated about ten minutes walk from the beach in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The rooms at the lodge were again fairly open tent like structures on stilts surrounded by trees. After unpacking we went for a stroll along the beach. The waves were fairly intense but we managed a bit of a paddle and spent some time in the sun.

That night we realised the food at the lodge was not up to much, a shame really as it was one of the only low notes on our trip.

Anna at Thonga Beach
(Rocktail Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

The next six days were spent at the beach, diving every morning and resting up most afternoons. The diving was fairly adventurous as we were diving from a Zodiac launched from the beach. The reefs were really pristine with a large variety of fish and plenty of opportunities to see turtles, huge rays and moray eels. There were also a number of massive rock groupers some of which even allowed divers to pet them.

Diving with Zodiacs
(Rocktail Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

On Christmas eve we were slightly shocked to arrive at the beach to find the zodiac overturned in the waves. We helped to get it righted but it was severely in need of repair, we were lucky that the dive shop had a second boat. Dinner on Christmas eve was a temporary respite from the mediocre food after which we stayed up drinking and watching films.

Lake Sibaya
(Rocktail Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

The dive boat did not go out on Christmas day so we had a rest day with a pretty dull trip to South Africa's largest freshwater lake Lake Sibaya  for a sundowner. We thankfully resumed diving on Boxing day. On the 27th we dove in the morning then transferred to a much nicer hotel further South, the Thonga Beach Lodge in the afternoon. This had amazing individual cabins set in the jungle right next to the beach and unlike Rocktail the food was top class. We spent the afternoon and the 28th sunbathing and walking along the beach, clambering up huge dunes and exploring rock pools. We did not do any diving as although they had a dive shop the waves required them to launch their boat at low tide which when we were there was around 0430am.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010
Mhlambanyatsi, KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland
Playing Petanque
(Mhlambanyatsi, KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland)

We left Thonga early to get to our next destination, Swaziland. We were heading for Kruger national park and cutting through the land locked kingdom. It took us a couple of hours to get to the border back near Pongola and we then drove up North to the capital Mbabane. The drive was fairly pleasant, the country mainly relies on subsistence agriculture and as it was the rainy season was very green. As we climbed out of the lowlands the scenery became increasingly hilly and driving through the suburbs of the capital there were some modest signs of wealth. From the capital we then drove 30km South up into mountains to the Foresters Arms where we were to stay for the night.

Foresters Arms
(Mhlambanyatsi, KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland)

Swaziland is a little unusual in that it is the only absolute monarchy left in Africa. King Mswati has fourteen wives and a very extravagant lifestyle being the richest person in the country. South Africans we spoke to had a very dim view of him thinking the whole country corrupt. We thought the people seemed relatively happy, quite baffling as the average life expectancy is 32 years and at 26% of the population the country has the highest HIV infection rate in the world.

The Foresters Arms however was in a world of its own set in a vast forest plantation South of the capital. Surprisingly forestry accounts for some 10% of the country's GDP however for the land area consumes employs relatively few people. The hotel tries to style itself as English and almost gets there with its manicured lawns and croquet hoops. We got there around 1600 and with relatively little to do we decided on a game of Petanque in the dedicated patch of gravel just underneath a huge walnut tree. We sipped white wine and put in a passable performance, with Greg and Fiona winning just as the light started to fade. Dinner was a bit odd with a selection of starters and main courses.

Thursday, 30 December 2010
Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa
Giant Kingfisher
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

It was a relatively short drive up through the scenic Piggs Peak area of Swaziland to the border and then on to Kruger. We stopped off for a while at a tourist attraction, a glass blowing factory, and unusually for us bought a few nick nacks to take home. The border crossing was painless and we were at the Needles Lodge in Marloth park at around 2pm.

Marloth park is an unusual place, a residential game reserve where the various home owners and lodges are not allowed to have fences so warthogs and zebra frequently wander through your garden. Needles was a great place to stay as the very friendly owners operated the place almost like a house cooking on a big island unit in the huge central living area. After arriving we decided to do a bit of sunbathing and were almost immediately awarded with a tropical thunderstorm. This had been a frequent occurrence during our trip, however they were mostly limited to late afternoon or the evening so had the beneficial effect of clearing the air. So instead we stayed in read, watched a film, had dinner then went to bed. A pretty stress free rest day.

Lions Resting after Kill
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

I am not sure what it was with our holiday but everything involved us getting up super early. For game drives in the Summer you have to be at the gates of Kruger National Park at opening time 0530 and since Marloth park was a bit of a drive this meant a 0430 start. We were picked up in the dark by our driver Cliff who proved to be pretty good but perhaps a little quiet. We then drove the half hour to the Crocodile Gate where there was already a queue of cars and through some arrangement of Cliff's skipped the queue and went straight in.

Interloping Hyena
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

We were instantly rewarded by seeing a pride of lions. They had made a kill during the night and a stripped wildebeest carcass was sitting by the road, with the pride a little way away relaxing after their meal. There were also some hyenas who were attempting to get any remains but the lionesses were having none of it, chasing them off quickly. However the incident quickly showed how spoilt we had been at the White Elephant. Within minutes there were ten cars on site all vying to get the same photo. We watched for a while and then drove off to see more.

Surfing Hippo
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

Driving North it wasn't too long after this we ticked off most of the main animals, a white rhino, some zebra, an elephant and as usual millions of Impala's. We then stopped for some breakfast at a large centre on the Sabie river. After this we stopped off at a watering hole and saw a few unusual birds and then went to a viewing hide where we saw almost nothing. We found a Hippo surfing the rapids below a bridge over the Sabie, walking upstream letting the waves break over him. We then went back to the gates for some lunch and at that point we were going to stop when Cliff got a call from the lodge to tell him that a black mamba had been found in the staff quarters and they had to call in a specialist to get rid of it. We decided to go back into the park for a couple more hours and avoid the action.

Curious Giraffe
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

Back at Needles the owners were organising a Braai (barbeque) for New Year's eve so Cliff stayed for a beer or two. The cooking was excellent - some delicious Boerewors and steaks cooked to perfection. All of the lodge's guests sat at the same table, another Kiwi couple who were working in Angola and a British family of four. We had dinner and chatted but it was clear that the 0430 starts were getting to us. It was with some difficulty that we got to 2300 and at that point we gave up, the first New Year we had not made it to Midnight!!

Lion in Tree
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

We were keen on punishing ourselves and had organised another game drive for New Years day. This time the British family joined us so we were rather cramped in the car. Cliff had seemingly been up all night so was predictably rather subdued. Once in Kruger the first thing we saw was again Lions. This time the pride were sitting in a tree which is very unusual behaviour for them. Again the crowd of cars was pretty unhelpful and this was not helped by someone giving Cliff some duff info on a sighting of a Lion cub - so we were whisked away without much of a chance for photos.

Cape Buffalo
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

Following this we again worked our way through the animals, stopped for Breakfast at the Sabie and then went to the hide. By this point I was ceasing to enjoy it, we were spending hours sitting in a jeep just driving around tracks with no opportunity to get out. We were somewhat trapped into seeing all of the Big Five: lions, elephants, rhinos, Cape buffalo and leopards. However the leopards were just not showing themselves. We spent a large part of the late morning driving along the banks of the Sabie which apparently was prime leopard spotting territory without seeing one. They are apparently almost impossible to spot so we were somewhat relying on Cliff but he wasn't having any luck either. The whole thing was literally like a huge spotting exercise with not a huge amount of variation so started to get dull. We realised it was summer with water and food plentiful so the game was not so concentrated. However I do think they could have done something to break up the monotony. For example a nice high-end restaurant where you could have a two hour lunch during the hottest part of the day, or a reptile house would have been nice to pass the time.

White Rhino
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

Anyway we almost got charged by an elephant, saw some giraffe up very close and watched baboons climbing all over someone else's car. We then had some lunch by the Sabie again (I think the restaurants are few and far between) and headed back to the Lodge. Here we caught up on our lost sleep and then got up in the early evening for a few beers and then dinner.

Duelling Dung Beatles
(Kruger Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa)

Sadly our last day in South Africa, although Greg and Fiona were to stay on and fly to Namibia. We got up relatively early for breakfast at the lodge then hit the road. It was a fairly easy six hour drive back to Jo'burg. The scenery was again the open scenery we had seen on the first day but broken up with a climb up to the high veld through rocky escarpments by the Elands river. We got to the airport around 1500 as Greg and Fiona had to catch their flight at 1800 but our flight was not until 2100 so we had a few extra hours of reading in the airport then it was time to go. It was an excellent holiday and I was not keen for it to end but like all things it had to....