Road Report #11
Traveling from south to north, our route began in the semi-tropical
fields. As the slopes steepened we came into vast areas of cultivated
evergreens. Approaching an area of the Drakensburgs known as Cathedral
Peak the hills became mountains, with one village after another marching
up and down their steep slopes.
The photo to the right is of a family walking through their village in the Drakensburg Mountains. My own son and his wife had just had their first child, my first grandchild and this couple with their infant were such a clear reminder to me, that all over the world, we all want exactly the same things for our children and our grandchildren.
The terrain here is open and rolling with occasional outcroppings of high ground. We can well imagine the battles taking place in front of us. The Boers were more guerrilla-style in their tactics but both the British and the Zulu fought in clearly demarcated battle formations that you can visualize marching across the rolling grasslands.
W e spend the night at a beautiful private campground on
the outskirts of Dundee, known as the Kaw-Rie Caravan Park. The sites
are all centered around a small lake with lovely gardens. Peacocks and
other pretty birds march around acting like they own the place.
Next up was the Blood River Heritage Site. This is about an hour from Dundee and requires about 20 km of gravel to get to. We were the only visitors.
A brief history lesson:
Andries Pretorius arrived in Natal in November 1838 and was elected as the new Voortrekker leader. Pretorius immediately organised a punitive commando consisting of approximately 64 wagons and 464 Voortrekkers accompanied by the same number of servants and wagon attendants. On December 9, 1838 the Voortrekkers made a Covenant with God, that should he grant them victory over the overwhelming Zulu force, they would commemorate that day as a Sabbath and erect a church in His name.
The Voortrekkers organized their wagons into a laager (circle) in a strategically advantageous position on the banks of the Ncome River. On the morning of December 16, 1838 the Zulus attacked with between 12,000 and 15,000 warriors. After mounting wave after wave of attack throughout the morning, the Zulus gave up and retreated. Pretorius pursued them with a mounted commando. So many Zulus were killed in their attempt to cross the river it was re-named Blood River. Body count? Voortrekkers 0 dead, Zulu 3000 dead.
The pursuing Voortrekker commando reached Dingane’s royal kraal on December 20th. They found it already deserted and burned to the ground. The remains of the Voortrekker’s first leader, Retief, were found nearby. The treaty that Dingane and Retief had reportedly signed was found in Retief’s shoulder bag. According to this treaty, Dingane had voluntarily gifted a choice piece of land in Natal to the Voortrekkers.
The Blood River Heritage Site consists of a number of memorial cairns and markers, the most important of which is the bronze wagon laager. This is a replica; every piece cast in bronze, of the original circle of wagons that the 464 Voortrekkers gathered within and empowered by their Covenant with God overwhelmingly destroyed the might of the Zulu nation, some 15,000 battle-hardened warriors.
If you find this all a tad farfetched, so did we. So after watching the 45-minute video in the museum then marching around the bronze laager, we headed across the river to Ncome, where the Zulu version of history is depicted.
As we arrived the Zulus were hard at work, building, building, building. They are making a grand facility here which will host cultural events, workshops, admin offices, etc. They are also building accommodation chalets, restaurants and shops to attract visitors. Fortunately they finished the museum first. The presentation within is very nicely done. Without the hyperbole of the Blood River Site, it simply makes the Zulu’s case for a more realistic version of history.
As we arrived a guide greeted us, a youngish man in his late 20s. We had a great time talking to him, not just about the Blood River history but about the evolution of South Africa. He explained that the current generation of youngsters has no memory of apartheid, carry none of the baggage. They are focussed on getting ahead and moving forward. He sees a bright future for all South Africans, whatever their colour; a place where everyone who calls this country home belongs.
In regard to the Blood River Historical Site he and the museum offer the following version of the event:
They claim that several thousand Zulus were thrown at the laager. As per their custom in battle, these would not have been the best, battle-hardened warriors. The veterans were always held back for the most strategic fighting.
When the Zulus immediately came up against guns and cannon fire the commanders realized how out powered they were so they staged a tactical retreat to rebuild. They have no argument with giving the Voortrekkers the victory, but the concept that a few hundred Voortrekkers vanquished the might of the whole Zulu army is a highly romanticized version of history. The Zulus claim they made a strategical retreat to rebuild and carry on.
The photo to the right shows the display of cowhide shields that the various regiments of Zulu warriors carried. Each regiment was identified by the colour and design of its shield.
The Zulus who actually died in the Ncome River were few – not enough to make it run blood red. It was already doing that courtesy of a recent rain and the run off that carried the red silt made it look red. We noticed this colour when we were there too.
After viewing the Zulu exhibits and having a good talk, we carried on to Rorke’s Rift but got hopelessly lost. The gps has been very good at finding our way for us but on this occasion it led us into the mountains and through small villages along bumpy rural tracks. We were obviously an oddity in the area because when they saw us hundreds of school children, returning home on these tracks, jumped up and down, madly waving and laughing with us. This was lots of fun but the children made it very slow going. Eventually we realized that dusk was coming and we were nowhere near Rorke’s Rift. We headed for the nearest major road.
This was not a great day for navigation because our first choice of caravan park was closed and our second choice had vanished from the landscape. So once we found the highway we just headed in the direction of Dundee, figuring we’d go all the way back to where we started from that morning. But enroute we came on the Battlefields Karavaan Park. This is a really interesting place, a farm with a few spots for travelers to park in. Cows mooed and ducks quacked. We liked it.
July 19, 2012
First up this morning was another attempt to find Rorke’s Drift. This was where about 100 British soldiers are said to have held off 4000 Zulus. Today it is a beautiful peaceful spot and hard to imagine. Steve loves this stuff. I enjoy driving through the countryside. The road to it is horrible gravel. They do not try to make it easy to see these sites.
The most interesting thing to me was an artists/craft cooperative onsite. Women were busily at working sewing all kinds of fabric products: bags of every size and configuration cushion covers, etc. Their work is colourful and professional. I left a few dollars there.
Next up was Islandwa, where the British garrison was wiped out by the Zulus, just before they ran through the night to Rorke’s Drift. This location is basically just a graveyard so we did not pay to go see it. We drove on.
After we got off the gravel, the road south, R68 is quite scenic. First we wind up, down and around through the cultivated forests. These are planted in big blocks. You can see the blocks of trees at different stages of development, including where they are currently logging. Workmen were hard at work trimming the smaller logs into 8 foot fence posts.
The forests are in a mountainous area at about 1200 metres. As we descended the highway segued into R34 and we found ourselves in the midst of a semi-tropical area of sugar cane fields. At this time of year the sugar cane vibrates with this fresh fluorescence. As they ripen the stalks are burnt and cut so these fields look quite different, black with the stink of smoke. The rural roads are congested with massive sugar cane trucks, unconcernedly losing a percentage of their load to the road. Locals gather it as they walk, sucking on the stalks like a lolly.
The marketing slogan says”It is always summer in Richard’s Bay” and that seems to be true. The caravan park here is so pleasant. It's set in a jungle of semi-tropical foliage with the beach at our doorstop.The weather is semi-tropical – winter but still very warm in the day and at night. Monkeys scurry from camp to camp, looking for treats. One of the women baked a cake and set it on her kitchen counter to cool. A line of monkeys perched just outside the window of her caravan, watching and waiting for their chance. They have quite the sweet tooth, monkeys do.
There is a large contingent of “swallows “here. That is what they call retirees who come to the warm places for the winter months. They are very friendly. We’ve been made to feel very welcome.
Today passed so very quickly. We did laundry and had a long,
leisurely breakfast. We got all our shells and rocks out and washed them.
We went for a walk to the beach. We paid for another night which entailed
two very long walks. We read.
We came to Hlane Royal National Park about 3 pm and immediately headed out to look for game; saw very little. They are in the midst of a hot and dry period here – the dust is terrible. The main road through the park is good gravel but the side roads are red dirt and have huge depressions/holes and high humps. The bakkie handled the terrain fine but the overhanging dread trees branches were scraping at the camper. We’d like to get through this trip without massive damage claims so after an hour we found our way back to the campground. We are not too impressed by this park but perhaps it is the drought that is making it seem boring.
There is no electricity in the camp at all, not even in the ablution block. It gets very very dark at night. There are eight showers but an overland group arrived just after us, the young women behaving like guinea hens, running in packs with endless nattering. There was no getting near the showers once they start in there. But I should not be so harsh. When I wade into their midst I discover that they are a church group from England who came to Swaziland to build a school. Once that was done they went on a 5-day backpacking trek. They’ve just returned from that and five days in this drought without a shower …well, they needed a shower more than I did.
The evening is warm and lovely. We sat outside till very late, reluctant to give up one moment of our dwindling time in Africa.
Kruger National Park
It was an easy 200 km today on good asphalt. I remember some horrendous roads through Swaziland when we were here ten years ago but today there were no potholes and few speed bumps.
We stopped at Komatipoort right on the Mozambique border to refill the larder. We will be in Kruger for 5 days and while there are small food shops at reception they are not useful for anything more than a quart of milk or a loaf of bread.
We entered Kruger through the Crocodile Bridge Gate at the far south end. From there it is 33 km to Lower Sabie our first campground. This is the same campground we stayed at on our first trip here in 2001. It is still recognizable although everything has been updated.
The chalets we stayed at were already old then, now they are new and very attractive with lovely front patios overlooking the river where the elephants come to drink and the hippos live. We can hear them grunting through the evening. There are also some beautiful safari tents overlooking the river that I would love to stay in if I live long enough to return here with my grandchildren someday.
Driving up to Lower Sabie today we came on a bridge over a river with elephants, giraffe, marbou storks, kudu, springbok and wildebeest. It looked a lot like I imagine the Garden of Eden. Further on we saw several herds of elephants and three bulls up really close; excellent start. Just before the camp we crossed a bridge over the Sabie and saw a large herd of hippos, several tortoises and some elephants in the river.
It is very hot today so on arrival in camp we just settled in and read our books. About 4 we went out again, south of the camp this time and had a lovely interaction with some giraffes, especially the little ones who simply would not move off the road. They just stand there looking at us like WE are very interesting. We also saw two sets of vultures in the trees. We have not seen vultures on this trip before so that was neat. Went back and had another look at the hippos that were all in the water now, heads and snouts poking out like crocodiles.
Lower Sabie camp is very full –at capacity. People are really camped in each other’s back yards. But still, it is nice, this sharing of humanity – on a limited basis. We have to be back in camp, behind the locked gate by 5:30. We are the ones in the cage, not the animals.
As I sit here it is 8 pm the vocalizations of the hippos in the river below are reverberating through the camp. I love it. When I die please send me off to the next world to the sound of hippos grunting.
Kruger - Satara
The main camps each have a wide variety of accommodation from luxury guesthouses to cottages, tented chalets, campsites. There is always a shop with basic groceries, liquor and expensive souvenirs. There are excellent kitchen facilities with instant hot water and hot plates and hot water washing up sinks. There are laundry facilities and of course ablution blocks with hot water showers.
Our third camp is Letaba. Getting there required a whole long day on mostly gravel roads. You can go the distance on tar but the theory is that getting off the main roads will lead to more prolific game sightings. I am not sure that is so. Once we returned to tar we saw a large herd of elephants at one of the artificial water holes. We also saw a leopard stalking an antelope. He did not get the buck. But it caused one very huge traffic jam while people jockeyed for position.
Yesterday we were following a more remote gravel road when we unexpectedly came on a waterhole with a wonderful blind from which we could stealthily observe the crocs and hippos. The waterhole was very active and frankly, we only left because dusk was coming and we had to get back inside the fence.
A giraffe came down to drink and that was cool to see because they are very nervous about getting down to drink so they are rarely observed doing it. It’s a very vulnerable position for them. There were all different types of birds and this really has been a wonderful discovery of this African journey. Yes, the elephants and hippos and rhinos are wonderful. But Africa makes us all into birders. We get just as excited about a new species of bird as we do a lion sighting.
One of the best was a tiny six-inch pygmy owl that we nearly drove right on by. I just caught him out of the corner of my eye and usually, when that happens and we back up, the bird flits off. But not this fellow, he just sat there and stared, unblinking. Like he owned the place.
Kruger - Letaba
Tonight we’ve come to Letaba. It is an attractive camp although they do not put the sites for camping in the most scenic spots. They save those for the more expensive accommodations! Their campsite system is also a bit weird here. Sometimes they are numbered but not usually. It’s like there were numbers on the sites at one time but the numbers fell off or got pushed over or whatever and no one replaced them. They make no attempt to assign spots. You park where you like.
We pay for electricity but we have to go looking for the poles. They are placed in odd positions and will have up to five outlets on them. We plug in wherever we can find an empty outlet. Campers have very long extension cords that wander back and forth over each other’s sites. In Lower Sabie there was a campsite monitor who ran around checking people off a list. That is the last time we saw him. In the other camps it does seem to be a free for all which seems to suit the independent personalities here. After all, a lot of these people are descended from Voortrekkers, the ultimate seekers of independence.
Kruger - Punda Maria
Today we headed north to Punda Maria the camp that is almost at the top of the park. The road sign said 160 km from Letaba but the odometer said nearly 200 and we did not do that many detours. We stuck to the main tarred road except for a few diversions to waterholes and to see Red Rocks.
Red Rocks was interesting. A herd of Cape buffalo blocked the road. They are very intimidating and I keep remembering what Tekko, our guide in the Okavango Delta said. “They are exceedingly dangerous because they stand there looking benign and stupid. Then without any warning whatsoever they get it into their stupid heads to charge. A guide can read the behaviour and body language of most animals, its how we keep our guests safe but not the buffalo.” I once read that they are responsible for killing more people in Africa than any other animal.
The huge elephants we saw beside the road certainly gave us lots of warning. Two cows and a tiny calf were munching leaves on the trees beside the road. We stopped to watch. The bigger one stopped eating, advanced on the truck then stood there stamping her feet, waving her tail around, grunting and flapping her ears. When she charged, roaring like a banshee we lit out of there plenty fast.
Generally they don’t do that but we are noticing that the elephants here in Kruger are more aggressive than we’ve experienced elsewhere. So we hang back further and are being more cautious than we’ve needed to be in other parks.
We don’t want to get the camper tossed just when we’ve nearly got it home safe and sound. Not without a few scratches. When Steve was backing up in a hurry yesterday he ran right over a thorn tree. That was nasty but there does not seem to be any harm done. The camper is fibreglass with a gel coat finish which fortunately does not seem to scratch very easily.
Today we saw a LOT of elephants, mostly in herds, some quite large – like 30 or more. Whenever we saw a couple there were always many many more in the background once we stopped and looked closer. The exception to that is some large bulls – and there are very large, what they call “tuskers” here. One fellow dominated the road in front of us, literally filling it with his huge body. We just sat there; immobile and hoping he would pass us by without interest. He did.
When we returned home a friend sent us a series of photos that were taken in Pilanesburg in February. When a small car got impatient (okay, the driver) and tried to edge on by a bull on the road, the elephant sat on the hood of the car then used its trunk to get some leverage under the body. It rolled the car over and over into the grass. It happens.
When we arrived at Punda Maria we found a large waterhole beside the campground. Very soon it was filled with Cape buffalo, a herd of at least one hundred. There is not much water but they seemed to come for the mud. Later in the evening another herd arrived, same thing; tromped through the mud, rolled around in it, went away bellering at each other, looking belligerent.
It was a very long day today of driving. We did see quite a bit of wildlife but what we are really looking for are lions and we always miss those. At one waterhole the caretaker told us that just last week a pride of lions occupied the waterhole for five days solid. They brought down a zebra and a wildebeest and just stayed there feasting, never moving. The caretaker could not service the pump because it was out by the waterhole and when he went to leave his house one morning the pride was lazing around outside his door. He was trapped inside all day.
Tomorrow we head for Letaba for a final day in Kruger. Then out to Blyde Canyon and then to Rudi and Brenda’s for two nights then home. It feels surreal, after nearly 3 months in this tiny camper we will be taking our life back to Vancouver in just a few days.
The brilliant bird to left is just a common campground scavenger.
Kruger - Letaba
The road between Punda Maria and Letaba today was occupied by hundreds of Cape buffalo and several large herds of elephants. The Cape Buffalo were a little intimidating, blocking the road then just standing there and challenging us to dare moving past. We sat silently, waiting for them to part and move off but Tekko’s words about them charging without warning kept reverberating through my brain. We were also challenged by a large mama elephant again.
Back to Joburg
After a leisurely breakfast this morning we left Kruger. On the drive out of the park we saw several giraffe. Then a big bull elephant that was fortunately quite passive. A family of baboons were executing a feeding frenzy on some buds in a tree. With most of them busy in the trees a mother wandered near us with a tiny, wet newborn clinging to her chest. Another female approached, stroked the infant, then appeared to kiss its head before moving off. In the distance a big male regarded the mom and babe with an expression that was not exactly friendly. When he moved closer the mother clutched the infant to her chest then rolled into a ball, protecting the infant with her body. The male moved off.
After leaving the park we spent the rest of the day exploring the Blyde River Canyon then overnighted at Graskop, a town on the edge of the canyon. Very scenic, by the way.
The next day was to be our last driving the camper. Unfortunately it was not without incident. The first occurred first thing in the morning when we started down the road towards Pilgrim’s Rest. There was a terrible screaming noise coming out from under the dash. We called Bobo, the rental company. They told us to take it to a Nissan dealership. Hellllloooooooooo. We are in a tiny town in the mountains. Not only no dealerships here but also no mechanics, period. After several hours of back and forth phone calls we found the problem. I had inadvertently turned on the air conditioning and it was malfunctioning. Turned it off and we were good.
We continued back up the road towards Pilgrims Rest. This is an old
mining town that has been restored as a tourist attraction; chock a
block with curio shops and chi chi cafés. We drove through slowly
but we are not interested in more curio shops.
Unfortunately the tire that blew was the new one we just paid $120 US for 2000 km ago. We would have to buy a new one to replace this one too. When we returned the truck to Bobo we made the case that four flats including two complete blow-outs is not normal. Surely the tires mounted on the truck are not skookum enough for the weight of the camper and the roads. But they did not agree and refused to reimburse us for the tires.. We were happy with this company in every other way but this tire thing is just not right.
A few hours later we arrived to a warm welcome at Rudi and Brenda’s home. These are truly special people. They did so much to make our time in Africa wonderful.
I don’t know what I expected, but not the bustling city within a city that we toured. For one thing, the size of the place; 3.5 to 4 million people live in Soweto. There are highways and big roads and tiny lanes. There are schools and hospitals and sports arenas. There are 260 Christian churches, one of which we stopped by has 7000 congregants. Everyone was coming and going around it – all dressed in their Sunday best.
We saw the place that Nelson Mandela called home when he lived here with Winnie and their daughters. The house itself was burned down and rebuilt several times, but the present replica sits on the original foundations. It is now a museum, furnished as it would have been and displaying a wide range of Mandela memorabilia.
There are lots of curio stands around the Mandela house. There were musicians and a contortionist and a lovely little boy who flirted with me and wanted to be picked up. Neither he nor his mom asked for money although I am sure that had something to do with why they were there.
We drove around Soweto for several hours, viewing some of the locations where pivotal events in the evolution of South Africa occurred. I will write more about those in the future but for now, the experience is still too raw. I need to study the issues and events more before I comment on them.
In the afternoon we attended a Poitkje Festival. This is an event where teams of poitkje chefs compete, including not only the quality of their poitkje but dress and decorate their tent to a theme. But to back up, what is a poitkje?
It is a large black cast iron pot that cooks over an open fire for hours, slow cooking a mixture of whatever the chefs deem best. The recipes ranged from beef ‘n beer to springbok and kudu and prawns, chicken curry, chicken with pineapple and bananas, Greek mixtures, Italian versions and so much more.
The way it worked was that we bought tickets for a few dollars each. The money all goes to local charities. We get a plate of rice then go around to the various poitkje pots, handing over our tickets in exchange for a big ladle of this, another ladle of that. The teams enthusiastically solicit our business.
We take our overflowing platters to an area of long tables where we quickly make a whole raft of new friends as we compare poitkjes then quickly move on to solving the problems of the world.
At our table we met a South African woman married to a Portuguese man. They had six sons. One of the sons was there with his wife and young daughter. The daughter-in-law’s parents were there – a Yugoslavian father and an Indian mother. We were quite the United Nations; had a wonderful time talking world politics.
What a wonderful finale to our 2.5 months in southern Africa. We enjoyed our time here so much and learned so much about road tripping in this part of the world. Stay tuned, there will be a book to help you plan your own self drive through southern Africa – scheduled publication is September 2013.