All posts by Brad

Getting up close and personal

Last full day in the mountains today. We were up early, and the sun was glorious – hardly a cloud to be seen. We hadn’t planned much past breakfast, after which we retired to the room to sit and read for a bit. It was clouding over quite a lot, and we heard the thunder starting, so were glad we hadn’t set out on another walk. We read a bit more, then went for tea, and while trying to decide what to do, we had the idea to get on one of the local helicopter flights if they were available.

I rang the helicopter place (a technical term), and booked a flight for two of us to do a round trip to see the area and get right up to the big mountains. As we were about to set off we got a text from the pilot to say that drizzle would interfere with the flight, so we postponed, and were told to wait patiently. We read, had lunch, and waited (almost) patiently, and at about 1350, got a message to get down to the airfield, which is only 5 minutes drive away.

Flying up Wonder Valley
Flying up Wonder Valley
Waterfall from the air
Waterfall from the air
Gatberg up close
Gatberg up close
Cathkin and Monks Cowl - map of Africa
Cathkin and Monks Cowl – map of Africa
Aerial view of waterfall
Aerial view of waterfall
We stopped on a plateau at about 2000m to have a glass of champagne
We stopped on a plateau at about 2000m to have a glass of champagne
Side view of Cathkin Peak
Side view of Cathkin Peak
Cathedral Peak range
Cathedral Peak range
Coming back in to land
Coming back in to land

We arrived, signed up, and crossed the field to find a tiny helicopter that seats 4 (including the pilot) waiting for us. We had a quick briefing, climbed in, and then went on a magical flight. We crossed two of the valleys that lead down from the main mountains, then flew up into the main range. We passed fabulous waterfalls, and had all-round views for miles along the Drakensberg range. We rose above the small berg (the foothills), and then flew in and around the main mountains that I know and love so well. Sterkhorn, Monks Cowl, Cathkin Peak, Champagne Castle, – we could have touched them all.

We also had really great views along the Southern and Northern ranges, and hugged the great mountains for a while, before landing on top of the small berg once more. Our pilot gave us each a glass of champagne, and we had a few minutes to take pictures and marvel before climbing in to take off again and fly back along the small berg range, again flying very close to the sandstone in places, before getting back to the airflied and landing safely.

It was a really incredible experience, and for once Lena was not scared of the flying (she normally gets very nervous on a flight). I would recommend this to anyone who knows or loves the berg.

Champagne Castle Hotel

Much of our honeymoon anticipation and excitement, at least form my side, was focussed on how Lena would enjoy the places that I have taken her to. South Africa is so beautiful and diverse, and I was really looking forward to showing her around. However, the one place that I was most looking forward to visiting for my own sake was the Drakensberg. The Dragons Mountains, this is the area which separates the costal plains that have risen up slowly to a height of around 1200-1500 metres above sea level, and suddenly take a step up to well over 3000 metres. There are stunning views, fantastic walking, climbing and hiking.

As a teenager and into my early 20’s, I did a lot of hiking in the area with my Dad and Dave (best friend from school), as well as spending some wonderful family holidays at one of the longest established hotels in the region, the Champagne Castle hotel. The views from the hotel are spectacular, and it serves as a base for lots of activities. Many are the hikes and climbs that Dave, Dad and I returned from, to sit on the verandah at the hotel, have a cold beer, and look back to the peaks that we had come from.

Easy rider

We awoke to a clearing day, and started to get glimpses of the big mountains. After breakfast, we went on a beginners horse ride. There was a guide, plus us two, and we had a lovely and gentle horse ride through the area for an hour. I managed not to fall off once, which was quite good.

After our ride, we packed up our sandwiches that the hotel had made for us (along with various bits of fruit and snacks), and headed out for a walk. The path away from the hotel towards the mountains climbs the small berg, which rises about 600 metres, and is quite steep in places, but offers spectacular views.

Lena at Crystal falls
Lena at Crystal falls

Somehow, I am not as fit as I imagined, but we managed to walk a fair distance, stopping at the various streams to drink the beautiful water. At Crystal falls we dipped in the water too – it was very refreshing. We got as far as the sphinx, a rock that does look quite lot like the Egyptian Sphinx’s head. We climbed on top, and ate our lunch, gazing at the mountains around us.

After lunch, we headed back down to the hotel, and I had a beer while Lena swam. The hotel has a buffet dinner, after which we played a game of Table Tennis, and then retired for the night.

Sphinx
Sphinx
Picnic lunch and views
Picnic lunch and views

 

Midlands to the Drakensberg

Woke up quite early, so I crept outside and sat on the balcony of our chalet, overlooking the river and listening to Africa wake up. It was lovely, and to complete the natural picture, I surfed the net, Facebooked and checked emails. Lena woke up eventually and found me on the deck outside. We got dressed and the met the folks for breakfast, which we had outside. The weather cleared and it was lovely and sunny.
After breakfast we packed up, had a quick walk to see some distant birds through binoculars, and then drove to a nearby home where a couple make beautiful wind chimes. Called Culamoya, there were dozens of large and small chimes, all made by the couple who run the place. It was quite noisy, as various people were there and all wanted to try out different chimes at the same time. We found a lovely wooden chime, with figures of people made of wood, which makes a gentle sound. The proprietor, Frits, had made it the night before, and it was nice to get a personal perspective on something we bought.
We stopped at various craft shops on the way, bought a few more bits of junk, and then had lunch at Thokozisa, a collection of shops and a restaurant in the Drakensberg. After lunch, we said goodbyes to Mom and Dad, who headed back to Durban, and we went on to our hotel. I spent many happy times in the area as a child, and as a young adult, hiking and climbing and camping in the mountains with my Dad and Dave, my best friend from my youth. I was very excited to be coming back, and strained to catch glimpses of my beloved mountains. Unfortunately the main Berg (mountains) were obscured by cloud, but the foothills (the little berg) was clear, green and very pretty.
We checked in, have a room with a great view of the clouds(and hopefully mountains to come), and then had a swim and chatted to other residents. Now we are in the bar, having a pre-dinner drink, and typing blog posts. The internet is not working here, either, so I will post this once we manage to get online once more.
Tomorrow we plan to go horse riding if the weather is OK, otherwise will do some walks in the area. G’night.

Umhlanga and Durban

We spent two nights at the Oyster box hotel. It was pure luxury, and we spoiled ourselves. The meals were great, the view fantastic, the cocktails sublime. I had got Lena a birthday present of a spa “togetherness” experience (you will notice that I bought it for Lena, but it was actually for both of us). The hotel has a top class spa, and we spent Thursday being pampered, massaged, exfoliated, lightly cooked in a steam room, and otherwise treated by thorough professionals. I have never done this kind of thing before, but loved it. I was so relaxed by the end of the day. Flipping Marvellous.

Friday we left the lap of luxury, and returned (via couple of very frustrating hours in a shopping mall where I failed to get any presents for my kids) to Durban – back to Mom and Dad. We had lunch at home, then Lena and I went to the beach for a swim. It was a bit overcast, and within a few minutes we were the only two fools swimming at North beach. Still, we enjoyed it, and then went back home to look at safari pictures. On Friday eve we went out to Joops Steakhouse with the Foster family, and had a lovely time. (and a really great steak).

Saturday (yesterday) we packed up all our various bits, and drove via a number of stops (Kloof Gorge, Howick falls and a number of Natal Midlands craft shops) to Granny Mouse’s Country house. Somewhere between a B&B and a hotel, it is in a secluded and pretty spot in the hills. We are staying here with Mom and Dad, and today are driving up to the Drakensberg, where we will say goodbye to the folks, and enter into our next mini-holiday, a few days at Champagne Castle hotel.

Hluhluwe to Umhlanga

Hluhluwe is pronounced almost like “Shlu shlu wee”. The “HL” sound is more like the welsh “LL” sound than like a “SH”, but it will do. We woke again at 0430, did the “stumbling about” routine, and joined our fellow game-drivers. Again there were 3 vehicles, but today we only had one other couple with us and our ranger. And again, the guide was informative, and found us a fair amount of interesting game to watch. We saw a lot of elephants, including watching a set of them wade across a river. The river came up to the elephants shoulders. We also found some rhino bathing in mud – apparently that don’t have pores in their skin, so they regulate their temperature by rolling in mud.

Ellie v rhinoWe also saw a wary (but ultimately innocuous) meeting between a single male elephant and a rhino. Our guide told us that a few years ago the park had introduced a bunch of young elephants, and that without the guidance of the older elephants, they had been somewhat unruly and had actually killed some rhino. OUr guide said that this was typical adolescent behaviour, but that the conservationists had not taken this potential outcome into account, and had since learned that when they introduce new elephants to an area, they now include some older elephants with the new herds to provide guidance to the younger ones.

Back at the camp we had breakfast, packed up to leave, and then spent a few hours driving some of the sand roads to try find some hippo before we left. We were somewhat successful, but could only observe them through binoculars, floating in the river, with their ears, nose and eyes visible. Still, it counts as a sighting, so we left the park happy.

We drove down the coast, now heading towards a nice hotel in Umhlanga Rocks, a seaside resort near to Durban. The thermometer showed 40 degrees for a while, so we really appreciated our air-conditioned hire car.

We arrived mid afternoon at the Oyster Box hotel in Umhlanga Rocks. It was bit disorientating for us, as we were not prepared for the rush of activity as we slowly got our of the car after a long drive. Hordes of hotel staff, all dressed in colonial style, took our cases, our car, escorted us in to reception, gave us glasses of champagne while we listened to a pianist in the lobby and waited to be checked in. This place is superb in terms of quality and service, and they could not do enough for us. We needed some medication, so they sent someone to a local chemist to get the necessaries.

View from Oysterbox room
View from Oysterbox room

Our room faces the sea, and has a spectacular view. The picture on the left was taken from our room. We are here for a couple of days of relaxation, cocktails and catching up on sleep, and are looking forward to it immensely. We are ready to have them take very good care of us.

In the cocktail bar at the Oyster Box Hotel
In the cocktail bar at the Oyster Box Hotel

Hluhluwe – Safari in Africa

After a short nights sleep, I was up before the alarm. We stumbled about the room putting on clothes and making sure we had binoculars, water, hats, snacks, cameras and various other equipment needed for a game drive. We walked toward the main reception building from our chalet, and just yards form our door saw a pair of bushbuck in the trees. Waiting near reception were about 20-25 people, all blinking in the early morning light, trying to wake themselves up. All except a German contingent, who were singing. I said a silent prayer that we wouldn’t be in the same vehicle as them.

Game drive vehicle with a wild animal inside
Game drive vehicle with a wild animal inside

The guides turned up with 3 vehicles. The guides are all working game rangers, with years of experience in the bush, and they divided us up into groups (fortunately we were spared the singing Germans), and we climbed into our respective vans. They were quite high, open on the sides, and seated 10 people plus the ranger. We had 8 people in our van, and headed out of the gates at 0500. Our camp is called Hilltop, and as we drove out our guide stopped, got out some binoculars, and scanned the area before setting off in his chosen direction.

About 5-10 minutes out of camp, we encountered our first, and one of our most exciting of the whole trip, animals. A lone hyena was walking up the tarred (I use the term “tarred” very loosely) road. She stopped for a drink from a puddle, looked at us with disdain, and carried on walking for a bit while we reversed alongside her, and then she turned and walked into the bush. Very good start to the day

Thirsty Hyena
Thirsty Hyena

Our guide was very informative, and we saw a lot of different animals and birds on the drive. Sat so high up, we got a better chance of spotting animals while driving, but the ranger was so experienced he managed to spot most of the sightings while driving and watching both sides of the road. We also stopped for a hot drink and some rusk biscuits along the way, and were back in the camp at about 0815, where we had some lovely breakfast.

After eating, we loaded up our car ready for a day of driving and exploring, and headed off towards the south of the park. We had heard from our guide about an area that offered the best chance of seeing a big cat, and we were keen to maximise our opportunities. We spent about 8 hours driving, and had a really wonderful day, finding all kinds of animals.

At one spot, on a twisty sand road with a drop of about 8-10 metres down to the river on one side, we encountered some buffalo. We had been warned that they can be dangerous, and I knew from years of experience in game parks to be wary of buffalo. A large herd were making their way to the river to drink, but our road was on their path. We had to stop and wait for about 10-15 minutes for them to pass, but Lena had quite a panic and convinced herself that the buffalo were going to eat us, destroy civilisation as we know it, and introduce a new strain of incurable disease to mankind. The large bulls stopped one by one to check us out (we were about 15 or 20 metres back from where they were), and Lena was sure that they were just calculating the distance to see if they would catch us unawares by suddenly charging. Needless to say, they all crossed calmly, and after giving them a couple of minutes to clear the road, we headed onward.

The highlight of the day (in fact of the whole trip to Hluhluwe) occurred late in the afternoon, around 4pm. We had stopped at a river viewpoint, and watched 3 elephants on the other side, then taken a sand road loop towards the area where we had been told to look for cats. Not 2 minutes down this road, and we approach a corner when 4 or 5 impala came hurtling down the road towards us. They were all mature, but lagging behind was a very young one. They saw us at the point of the corner, and ran straight on into the bush. About 3 seconds later, a female lioness came running in the same direction that the buck had come from, and seemed startled to see us. She got disoriented for a second, and lost sight of the impala. she came so close to the car that we could have touched her, while she sniffed the air and looked for signs of the fleeing impala.

Our first sight of the lioness as she chased after the impala
Our first sight of the lioness as she chased after the impala
The lioness behind our car as she searched for signs of the impala.
The lioness behind our car as she searched for signs of the impala.

The lioness walked a few paces beyond the car, then heard the buck in the bushes, and quickly headed after them. She stalked slowly closer, and the last we saw was her accelerating rapidly to try and grab one, but the whole show disappeared into the bush, and we never saw the outcome, nor any further site of the hunter or prey. It was so exciting.

We saw some really good sightings of other animals, from a bunch of mongooses (mongeese?) to a close up elephant. Back at the camp we had a nice evening meal and a bottle of wine, and went to bed very tired, but very happy. We had booked another game drive for the next morning, so we were keen for an early night.

Durban to Hluhluwe – on Safari

(Written 18 November)

Monday morning and Dad took me to pick up a hire-car. This one will be with us until we leave SA. I went back home for coffee and to pack up, and then we headed north up the coast. About half an hour out of Durban is Umhlanga (we will be returning here later in the week), and the largest mall in the region. We stopped to stock up on some provisions for a trip north to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, and we also got a few bits of clothing each – very good value.

We set off again around midday, and about 3 hours later arrived at Hluhluwe. The trip was pretty easy, the weather was great, a mostly blue sky and 30 degrees Centigrade, but a bit windy. Anyway, we arrived to the reserve, signed in, and entered the next part of our adventure – safari in Africa. The reserve is huge, and is home to many animal and bird species. Lena has never done a safari like this, so it was very exciting. Basically, we are driving around, looking for game, not knowing what we will find around the next corner.

Usually, you find (around the next corner) a blackened tree hiding 8 meters back in the bush that looks just like a buck. Or a stone that looks almost like a lion. It is possible to drive for a long time without finding anything, but we were very lucky today. Not 5 minutes after entering the reserve, we saw a large herd of buffalo, intermingled with zebra. this was a bit unusual, as zebra normally are found with wildebeest, or sometimes giraffe. WIthin half an hour, on our trip to the camp within the reserve, we also saw a white rhino, some warthogs, an iguana, a giraffe, impala and nyala.

We checked in to the camp where we will be staying for 2 nights, and have a lovely chalet room, with a little balcony and a fantastic view of the KwaZulu Natal hills. We threw our stuff into the chalet, and headed out again to find more animals. We had a nice drive, and had a wonderful sighting of a white rhino, who was about 20 meters form the road, but slowly made his way towards us, and ended up being just 3 or 4 meters away. We took loads of photos. We also saw more warthogs, nyala, zebra, and had a nice time watching a shy giraffe.

We are booked on a game-drive with a ranger tomorrow morning – we have to report in at 0450, so we are off to brush teeth and go to bed for an early night.

Durban

(Written 17 Nov)

I am just doing one entry for our time in Durban – we were reasonably busy, but also the internet connection at my folks is pretty crappy, so didn’t do much online-ing at all.

We arrived in Durbs on Friday night, after a pretty bumpy flight. Mom and Dad met us, and we went home. It is always nice to be under my parents roof. We showered and chatted, then went to our friends Lynn and Peter for dinner. Lynn is a fantastic hostess, and she feed us to within a micrometer of bursting, including some BBQ’d steak that was fabulous. I have known them since I was about 17 or 18, so it was nice to catch up.

On Saturday it was quite overcast, but we decided to go to the beach for a swim. Any trip in Durban (when being driven by my Dad) involves “just a quick detour to show you something”, usually a walled property that you can’t see, or a view that is “normally great, but the clouds are in the way today” or similar. We had a lovely swim while mom watched our stuff, then had a bunny chow for lunch. This is a uniquely Durban meal, and is basically a curry served in a hollowed-out half or quarter loaf of white bread. Yum.

After swimming and eating, we did a tour of Durban, and survived (my Dad is quite a lucky driver). We then went home for a rest, and went to a great eatery called Spice for dinner. Dad had his 70th birthday there 7 years ago, (well, the same owners and cuisine, but new premises), and they treated us very well. Again we were joined by Lynn and Peter, as well as my folks friends Paul and Clint. Clint had made us a wedding gift of a table-cloth with a South African slang motif – I am going to have to do a lot of translating and explaining to Lena. The meal was really something special.

Sunday morning again saw us head to the beach. It was much sunnier and hotter, so we applied many layers of sun-lotion. Back home (again via some minor but interesting diversions) we swam in the folks pool to get rid of the beach sand from our bits, and then went for lunch to a great seafood restaurant. Great food is playing a key part in our holiday, as you may observe. SOme more sight-seeing, then back home.

The folks had more guests invited, and we sat by the pool, and had BBQ’d (a BBQ is called a braai in South Africa) Boerewors, South African farmers sausage, which I love.

Honeymoon in Africa

One of the challenges in Africa is availability and stability of communications technology. Even in a top class 5 star luxury hotel, we are having internet connectivity challenges. No problem, it is nice to be out of touch sometimes, but I have wanted to post some pictures and blog entries, and haven’t been able to. I have written some posts while we were on safari in the bush, and in Durban at my folks, so will post them, and some pictures, now.