Strathspey Wildlife
Africa 2011
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 Sunday 21st August 2011


It seemed a long time before that we booked our South African holiday - eighteen months in fact, but it's finally arrived, and time to dust off the old holdalls. Having lodged our dog Riley with our two very good friends, Chris and Cilla, we could finally get those last-minute items packed. This, today, was officially the start our trip, but as per usual our journey had started two days earlier on Friday with a flight down from Inverness, followed by an overnight stop at Heathrow. As on our last trip to Botswana, our friends Ros and Mark were travelling with us. First of all however we had to take the bus-link from Gatwick - always such a drag that one just has to contend with. Eight hours (yes - eight hours!) after leaving Inverness we finally checked into our hotel. After a comfortable night's sleep at the superb Premier Inn, we took the hotel hopper bus the short distance to Terminal 1. We knew exactly where to head to on arrival - the excellent Italian restaurant that serves the most excellent traditional British breakast. Our flight was not scheduled until 7 pm that evening, so a fair few coffees punctuated our wait until 2 pm when we were able to check in for our flight, and importantly, relieve ourselves of our bags and pass through to the departure lounge. Here the level of comfort comes as a welcome relief from the hulabaloo on the other side of the gates. A light lunch followed, yet more coffee, and before too long we were being called aboard our South African Airways A340-600. We took off more or less on time, shortly after 7 pm as the late evening sun threw long shadows over London's landscape. Clear conditions gave us some good views of the activity in the busy English Channel and before too long the French countryside below gave way to cloud, and the time came to settle down. With dinner having been served, the cabin lights were dimmed and we prepared ourselves for the inevitable cat-naps that follow on such a long flight. The Airbus 340 (Z5-SNH)  provided a very comfortable flight, with plenty of leg-room. Our arrival at Johannesburg at 6.45 am gave us a much-awaited opportunity to stretch our legs. Such relief however was short-lived as we entered the hustle and bustle of arrivals at Johannesburg - queueing for passport control, reclaiming our luggage and seeking out our tour leader and guide, Robert who was awaiting our arrival. Slowly, the remaining six members of the party joined us - Matthew, from Los Angeles, Richard, from Berkshire, sisters Brenda and Katherine from Toronto, and Rachel and Steve from Yorkshire. Having completed all the formalities, Rob guided us out of the terminal building to join the one remaining member of our party, our driver-guide Sifiso, from local operator Mask Expeditions. He arrived a short time later in our Mercedes Sprinter minibus and trailer, containing all the camping and cooking equipment and paraphernalia to see us through the next three weeks. Having loaded up all our luggage and with our introductory exchanges complete, we hit the road towards Graskop, our first destination.

         


This involved a three-hour driv. On route we stopped for a stretch as Rob and Sifiso prepared our lunch. This consisted of cold meats, salad and fresh bread rolls, which was to become the regular fayre of any journey involving a roadside stop. Suitably refreshed, we continued to the nearby village of Pilgrim's Rest. This village, situated in Mpumalanga Province, was declared a National Monument in 1986, in recognition of its history as a late nineteenth century "gold-rush town," when up to 1500 prospectors arrived. Within a short time a small community of tents and shacks had developed. More permanent brick buildings followed, and much of this early architecture still remains today, many retaining their late 19th century character. In the village graveyard lies the "Robber's Grave," one of the early prospectors who was caught stealing from a tent. As the grave of a robber, it is the only grave that lies north-south, unlike the resting places of those of the others  who lie east-west  (or is it the other way around??!!) This made it much easier to locate the grave of the robber amidst those of the other early prospectors whose remains lie here. The identity of the robber remains unknown. We strolled around the village for an hour or so, but one could happily spend half a day or more exploring this delightful little place. Time however is always the enemy on such trips, as Rob had planned to bring forward part of our itinerary that was planned for the next morning. Though this was to make our day a bit longer, it meant that we could make an early start towards Kruger the following day.

       

So with our all-too-short trip to Pilgrim's Rest over, we continued to our next destination at Blyde River Canyon. The canyon extends for a distance of 33 kilometres, and is the third largest in the world. (After USA's Grand Canyon, and Nambia's Fish River Canyon) Rob and Sifiso had chosen one of the most picturesque and best-known locations, the rock formation of the "Three Rondavels" (or alternatively the "Three sisters,") towering 800 metres above the canyon floor, so named due to their resemblance to the rondavels - or round houses - of the local population. Conditions for photography were somewhat hazy, but there was no doubting the spectacular landscape spread out beneath. The Three Rondavels occupy a position at one end of the canyon, whilst at the other lie Bourke's Potholes, named after an early prospector who searched for gold he thought existed here. (It didn't .... it was further south!!) The Potholes are numerous, caused by the erosion of whirpools of sediment at the confluence of the Blyde and Treuer Rivers. Whilst river conditions were fairly calm on our visit, one can imagine, from the safety of our pedestrian walkways, what a spectacular place this would be when the rivers are in spate.
 
         

Time was now getting on, and the long overnight flight was beginning to catch up. It was 5 o'clock and before too long we were heading to our first overnight stop at Graskop at Mogodi Lodge, perched at the top of Graskop Gorge. The Lodge was a collection of individual chalets in a beautiful location, though the haze still hung over the area today, spoiling any photographic opportunities. At the edge of the Lodge area was a bungee jump, where you could "enjoy" a 68 metre freefall into the gorge below. Today however the jump was closed - due to some safety issue I understand. This 68 metre jump however was small compared to the one we would encounter later in the trip - more of that later!  Having unloaded our luggage from the trailer we took a much-awaited shower, and assembled for an equally much-awaited cup of tea whilst Sifiso prepared dinner in his and Rob's chalet with  its adjoining kitchen.
Sifiso announced that we would have a traditional African meal, and furthermore, would eat it in traditional African style. He served up lamb chops in a chilli sauce, ostrich sausage (thankfully no ostrich eggs!) and pap. Pap is made from ground maize and is actually a porridge, not as we know it, but of a high consistency - similar to mash in appearance. It is picked up with the fingers and used to absorb - in this case - Sifiso's delicious sauce. Another cup of tea followed, then off for an early night in preparation for an early start and our much-anticipated trip into Kruger.
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