SOUTH AFRICA: iSimangaliso, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and Drakensberg

Regular readers may have noticed an unexpected hiatus mid-way through posts about our last trip to South Africa, Eswatini and Lesotho. Life got rather busy with moving house and the arrival of our little girl, Indy! Thinking back to the first trimester nausea that characterised our African adventure for me, it seems time has flown by. Indy is now nearly three months old and her passport has just arrived in time for her first adventure next month, to Lisbon. We’ve settled into something like a routine at home so I thought I’d get back to the blog, albeit typing with one hand whilst Indy sleeps in the other!

Big cats are usually the most elusive – and most sought after –  safari sightings so, unsurprisingly, we hadn’t managed to see any other than lions. When we discovered our route from Eswatini back into South Africa passed near Emdoneni Lodge Cat Rehabilitation Centre, we decided we had to stop and take a look. We arrived just in time for the 4:30pm tour – tea time for the wild cats, servals, caracals and cheetahs! The knowledgeable guide seemed to have good bonds with the animals and, towards the end, we were able to get up close to one of the cheetahs unsuitable for rehabilitation into the wild. Such majestic beasts!

Wild cats:

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Caracals:

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Serval:

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Cheetahs:

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On we drove to St Lucia, famed for its nightly visits from the local grazing hippo herd! After a week off-grid, it was quite a pleasant change to be in a busy town with a range of restaurant options and wifi. One of the loudest storms I’ve ever experienced meant we didn’t encounter the hippos, sadly!

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This was our base for a self-drive visit to iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, a place of lush rainforest scenery with little detours off the main route to bodies of water. Among the trees, we spotted these beautiful, Disney-esque kudus while monkeys and various birds, including kingfishers, looked down upon us from above.

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It’s a great place to see rhinos and we weren’t disappointed; some even walked right alongside our car!

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We also managed to spot some wallowing hippos:

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Another draw of this park was the beaches, although it was a bit windy for sunbathing. We drove down to a couple – one was busy with barbequing families and thieving monkeys whilst the other was quieter and full of rockpools and more crabs than either of us have ever seen in one place!

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After stocking up on supplies back in St Lucia, we drove a couple of hours to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park.

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Here, the landscape was rolling, green hills with small areas of forest. Our accommodation was this amazing elevated safari tent with an al fresco bathroom, a decked seating area and its own separate kitchen building (locked to keep out the monkeys!). We love safari tents because you get the comfort of real beds and protection from bugs but you can still enjoy the sounds of the wilderness – wind, thunder, rain, impalas, warthogs, crickets, geckos and, of course, the pesky primates!

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In the morning, we set off on our game drive on the iMfolozi side of the park and soon spotted the top half of a giraffe. We also saw four pairs of white rhinos, vultures, warthogs, impalas, lots of different kinds of bird and a leopard tortoise.

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The Hluhluwe side of the park, which we visited in the afternoon, was rather underwhelming – lots of miles for very little wildlife. And then, as we were leaving, the storm hit. It was immense: dark clouds accompanied by fork and sheet lightning on every horizon and torrential rain! This made finding our accommodation somewhat challenging. Once we found it, things became more problematic as the owners seemed to have mislaid our booking. We were brought in and made to sit and dry off by the kitchen stove whilst several men worked frantically in the dark, the pouring rain and the deepening mud to re-establish an electrical supply to their remaining empty rondavel hut. Apparently, a workman had dug through the electricity cable but the problem had only come to light when the storm caused it to start to smoke! Eventually we gained access to the room and the long wait was soon forgotten as we enjoyed some warming local-style beef curry and our first proper vegetables of the trip!

The next morning, the storm had passed, bringing a bright, fresh new day. Our next destination was the Drakensberg mountain range. It was a day-long drive through the countryside and, with it being a Sunday, there were people hitching lifts to church along the empty roads as well as lots of overflowing cars and minibuses. A couple of larger towns, like Ladysmith, were in stark contrast to some very poor townships like Verhad.

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Eventually we reached the entrance of Royal Natal National Park and proceeded to drive up an incredibly steep, narrow, brick-paved road, hoping we wouldn’t meet anyone coming at speed in the other direction! The wind was intense. The views down the mountain were breath-taking. Once we reached the top, and our accommodation at Witsishoek Mountain Lodge, we took a little walk around, admiring our location which included the staggering Amphitheatre.

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Our room – the most expensive of the trip – had panoramic views of the landscape and the plan was that Dean would do a hike the next morning whilst I enjoyed a rest day.

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However, the weather had other ideas. This first evening was the last time we would see the Amphitheatre! Instead, this was our view for the rest of the two-night stay: rain, fog, more rain and the occasional cow wandering past, its bell jangling as it fed!

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It was a real shame but we made the best of the situation – reading, playing games and enjoying the restaurant.

We left feeling a little bit glum and worrying that the rest of the holiday (also at altitude) would be a write-off but, as we descended the steep road, we emerged below the cloud and everything became brighter. Soon the sky cleared completely and we had a lovely, meandering drive through Golden Gate Highlands National Park and a stop off in the strange little town of Clarens where we bought little Indy-to-be her first toy – a cuddly rhino. On we drove, towards the border with Lesotho but I will leave that for my final post of the trip!

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