Blog Archives: South Africa


A family holiday in South Africa

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Lions Manyoni Reserve South Africa

“A cheetah, smoking a cigar, wearing leather slippers” retorts my son. Our guide Vicky, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed city-girl turned bush-ranger, has just asked my twelve-year old son George what animals he was hoping to see.

Vicky laughs and gives George a look that tells me she has immediately got the measure of him. Children on safari are the ultimate cerebral work out for guides. An inquisitive mind coupled with a vivid imagination can produce questions that few guides could ever anticipate. On our safari that afternoon, we drive through a forest teeming with small yellow and white butterflies that flutter through the air like falling confetti.

“Where do butterflies go at night?” asks George.

“I’ll come back to you on that one” Vicky replies with a wry smile.

Manyoni Reserve is 23,000 hectares of riverine forest, rolling hills and open plains, home to elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions, cheetahs, leopards and antelopes. While the reserve is fenced it is big enough to feel wild and untamed and it is not overrun with safari vehicles as the reserve is only accessible to a total of seven small camps and lodges. That afternoon we head out to open savannah and before too long, Vicky has located two young male cheetahs, walking purposefully across the open plains through the long grass. The iconic nature of the sight before us is not lost on George, whom excitedly takes photographs with his new camera.

“No leather slippers and no cigars…I must try harder, eh George”?

George gives Vicky a bashful smile.

Our journey back to camp is a night safari and Vicky is adept at using a flash light to spot nightjars, owls and even a small chameleon hanging from a tree. We stop by a large croton thicket and Vicky shines the torch onto it.

“Here you are George – the answer to your earlier question.”

It takes a moment and George is the first to realise – every inch of the bush is occupied by sleeping butterflies. George has met his match.

The next morning, we are up before the butterflies, united in our desire to find big cats. The sun has not yet risen and within five minutes of leaving camp, we drive through long, thick grass which lets off a nutty, sweet smell not dissimilar to popcorn. We learn this is the distinctive aroma of leopard urine and given the smell’s pungency, Vicky is sure the cat has only recently scent-marked this area. Our unaccustomed eyes do their best to pierce the dawn gloom, but the shadows reveal no feline shapes and the leopard remains only an aroma, albeit a strangely pleasant one. As the sun rises, Vicky tells us to keep our eyes glued to the trees that dot the open plain in front of us.

“Leopards take to the trees once the sun has come up” she says.

With noses twitching and eyes straining we are rewarded with the sight of a big cat in a tree. Vicky sees it first but allows George the bragging rights of calling it in. She is doing her best to stifle a laugh, as the cat before us is not a muscular leopard, insouciantly draped over a tree branch like you see in the pages of National Geographic magazine but a sub-adult male lion that has climbed a tree that can barely accommodate his sizeable belly. The lion has clearly made a kill in the night and has eaten way more than he should. His distended belly is stuck between the ‘V’ of two branches and it is hard to imagine how he could look any more uncomfortable or undignified. More obese cat than big cat, his weight eventually breaks the branch on which he is resting, and he falls to the ground in a humiliating heap. As George’s first ever sighting of the king of the jungle, it is hardly auspicious but as the stifled giggles break into full-blown belly laughs it is an apt reminder of the guiding principle of travelling with children – learn to see things through their eyes rather than forcing them to see things through yours.

Photos taken by George Kyte, aged 12, who is an aspiring wildlife photographer after seeing Jonathan Scott and Chris Packham at the Steppes Travel Beyond Festival. 

Cape Town: Why Not Visit an Uthando Project?

Uthando is a non-profit organisation that supports and works with independent, innovative and inspiring community development projects. Steppes Travel are one of a number of responsible travel companies that contribute a small amount via tourism.

On my most recent trip to South Africa, I found myself in Cape Town with some time on my hands, so I signed up for a short tour of some of the projects that Uthando supports:

Isiseko “The Foundation” Educare Centre

It was the noise that I heard first, a deafening joy coming from the open door in front of me. Some of my group had entered through the class door and were greeted with a very loud cheer. I was keen to see what all the fuss was about and tentatively crossed the threshold, to be greeted by approximately 30 smiling children holding their thumbs up. This was a hello, and even a goodbye, to them. They were happy children, keen to interact with us in their classroom.

This was the first community project we saw that morning. Isiseko is a pre-school, non-profit-making daycare centre for underprivileged and vulnerable children in the township of Mfuleni. This school was one of the projects Uthando support and was certainly a worthwhile cause.

The teacher put the children through their paces – they were all four years old and were keen to show us what they knew and what they had learnt. Days of the week, months of the year and numbers up to 20 were quickly reeled off with such enthusiasm and clapping it was difficult not to be impressed.

We also popped in to see the younger children in the next classroom – the same roar of cheers greeted us. A lady knelt down to chat with one child and, immediately, she was engulfed in a ten-deep hug of three-year-olds. It was such a joy to watch and it made my day.

I was so glad to have experienced this project, which grew hope from the grassroots. Tearing ourselves away from this fascinating centre, we left for the next project, just a stone’s throw away.

eKhaya eKasi “Home in the Hood” Art and Education Centre

This community project, eKhaya eKasi, is an oasis for poverty-stricken families. Immediately upon entering the facility, we were greeted with warm handshakes and hugs from everyone. The ladies here were delighted we had stopped by and were keen to show us how they were turning their lives around and making a difference to other families within their community.

Making jewellery was the order of the day – a very intricate and time-consuming mission. They sat patiently making their wares, which were all available for purchase in the Boutique Arts shop. Additionally, the centre offered skill training for the unemployed to encourage entrepreneurship. A rooftop garden grew a plethora of vegetables for the soup kitchen, with training to learn how to grow them.

Whilst I was there, I was entertained by the Youth Male Voice Choir – again, another example of the youth within their community trying to improve their lives through dance and voice. I learnt that this group spends a lot of time making visits to local communities.

Macassar Pottery

My last stop was Macassar, a township that has its very own pottery studio. Aimed to give the youth an opportunity to be employed and learn new skills, this business is a focal point of the community, using storytelling as a healing process that hopefully can unravel the enduring pain of apartheid.

I met a couple of young people who were very proud to be working there. Enjoying a little fun with ceramic drums, we all sat in a circle trying to make some kind of rhythm between us. Obviously, there were a few of us that did not get a rhythm out of these drums (Phil Collins has nothing to worry about), but we all very much enjoyed the experience.

When you visit Cape Town, I strongly recommend that you take some time to visit a project funded by Uthando. It offers a very different perspective from the usual tourist traps and I for one very much enjoyed.

 

“Kiss the Rhino for Good Luck”

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As we drove along the dusty road, heading out of our camp, there was a sense of nervousness and excitement in the air. Our group was heading to the secret meeting point, to join Dr Peter Rogers and his expert team, to help dart a rhino as part of the rhino conservation group tour, which I had been accompanying for the last four days. This was undoubtedly the highlight of the whole trip for everyone in the group.

I had spent the last few days travelling from Johannesburg, where the group met, to Kruger National Park, where we had stopped for a couple of nights and seen an abundance of wildlife, as you would expect. However, it was when we had entered the Timbavati Private Game Reserve that I had started to feel a sense of real wilderness.

Located on Kruger’s southern border, Timbavati has no fence separating it from the national park, which allows for greater access to game, including lions, cheetahs, rhinos and elephants. However, with this comes danger, in the form of poachers, especially rhino poachers.

The numbers of black and white rhinos living in this region are closely guarded secrets, hence our secret meeting location with Dr Rogers. We were even asked by the local rangers to turn off the location settings on our phones and cameras, due to the increase in poachers accessing wildlife locations from people posting images on social media, something which shocked members of the group.

But poaching is serious money. Gram for gram, rhino horn is worth more than diamonds and gold, and is one of the world’s most expensive commodities, fetching up to $60,000 (£40,500) per kilogram. The reason for its value is that, in parts of Asia, ground rhino horn is falsely thought to be a cure for cancer and, among other things, an aphrodisiac.

This was all explained to us as part of our briefing, where we were talked through the reasons why Dr Peter Rogers and his team were acting against the poachers. We would accompany him and his team throughout the process. Dr Peter, also known as, ‘Probably-the-best-vet-in-Africa Rogers’, was the kind of unflappable expert that made you feel instantly at ease as the group drove up and then walked to the sedated animal.

The full process involved four key aspects and took around 15 minutes in total to complete. These were carried out by Dr Peter and his team and aided by members of our group, whilst the rhino was under complete sedation. These included:

  • Inserting a large needle behind each ear, which implants an individual microchip. When a rhino is killed by poachers, their ears are often chewed off by hyenas, so the chips are the only way conservationists can identify the carcass.
  • Drilling a tiny hole into the rhino’s horn before inserting a microchip and sealing it in with a spot of glue. All the microchips used contains an ID code – if the horn ever turns up on the black market, a quick scan will reveal which rhino and area it came from.
  • Punching a triangular shape into each of the rhino’s ears by Dr Peter. Wildlife rangers have developed a system that enables them to identify individual rhinos from a distance using a series of triangles punched into each ear.
  • Taking DNA samples from the rhino horn, as well as skin samples and tail hair samples. These are taken back and analysed.

For those without jobs, including me, we just stood back admired in awe at the precision to which Dr Peter and his team worked. It was clear to see that they had a real passion and dedication to make a difference to help this miserable poaching situation.

Just before Dr Peter was about to wake up the rhino, he paused and turned around to the group and said the words I never thought I would hear in my lifetime, let alone follow, “Kiss the rhino for good luck.”

One by one, the nine of us gave the rhino a kiss on its shoulder, and although we knew it would take more than just luck, we all grew a special attachment to the rhino we had just helped. As we were walking back to our vehicle, one of our group summed up the experience perfectly with three simple words: “What an honour.”

South Africa – Digging Deeper in the Cederberg

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Bushmans Kloof Cederberg landscape

“To understand the ecology of a place, you must first understand the rocks”

My guide, Christiaan, stops and gets out of the vehicle. The smell of rooibos leaves, dampened by the recent rain, dances through the air as he strides a few metres to our right.

“Look, here.” He says, pointing to the still damp ground. “Do you see this change in the soil?”

Peering down, I squint at the earth – unusual on a safari. But this is not quite like any other safari. Christiaan is not carrying a gun, and no elephant droppings or lion pawprints mark the ground. I am in the Bushmans Kloof Reserve, in the Cederberg Mountains, just inland from South Africa’s Atlantic Coast. Here, wilderness, rock art and rare endemic species provide the thrills, rather than the big game of elsewhere.

Bushmans Kloof landscape

Looking closely, I struggle to see it. But as I allow my eyes to take in the wider area, I notice what Christiaan means. There is a subtle change – the landscape suddenly, but softly shifts from one form to another, darkening slightly. The fynbos vegetation also subtly melts away, to be replaced by something that reminds me more of the Kalahari.

“This is where the sandstone of the Cederberg turns to shale. In essence, here, the Cape Floral Kingdom ends and the Great Karoo begins.” Christiaan tells me, as he sees recognition dawn on my face. “You can see how the colour of the rock changes, but also how this affects the vegetation. Even though the climate of this general area remains the same, the plant species present change due to the geology. This, in turn, determines the animal species that thrive.”

Christiaan grins, looking up. “Basically, rocks dictate everything.”

Cape mountain zebras, Bushmans Kloof

Indeed, the wildlife here is quite unlike anywhere else. Beyond Christiaan, there is movement in the bush and I see three heads turn in my direction, startled by my presence. Against the bare branches of the low fynbos, the zebras’ camouflage makes perfect sense – they are near invisible in the dusk light. “Cape mountain zebras”, mutters Christiaan. “They are the smallest of all zebra species and only found in this region. They are one of the unusual endemic species that we find in the reserve. I think they are the most attractive of the zebra species, personally.”

Looking pensive, he stares at the immobile zebras. “There used to be far more wildlife here, but humans drove most of it away or to extinction. The Cederberg was once home to three now-extinct species – the black-maned Cape lion, the quagga and the bluebuck.”

The idea of lions roaming this now peaceful wilderness silences me for a minute, as Christiaan strides back to the vehicle. The engine rumbles into life and we head back from the brink, leaving the foreign shale of the Great Karoo for the familiar fynbos-carpeted sandstone.

Eland, Bushmans Kloof

Ahead of us, a lone eland jogs inelegantly into sight, quickly turning away from the noise of our approach. Then a pair of red hartebeests appear to our right, their coats gleaming in the soft dusk light. This reminds me how much there is to see, lions or no lions. And set against the dramatic rocky landscape of the Cederberg, even a lone eland or oryx looks impressive.

Oryx, Bushmans Kloof

“It is not just the animal species here that are unique.” Says Christiaan, interrupting my thoughts. “This area is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom and, as such, is home to more than 700 plant species. The ground is carpeted with countless different varieties, with each season bringing a fresh cast of regulars. The crazy thing is that some of these plants are only visible for one month of the year. As a guide, it makes our jobs almost impossible.”

I know that Christiaan is an avid birder and can name several hundred bird species endemic to Southern Africa. But apparently learning 700 plant names is a step too far, even for him. For a botanist, however, this place is nirvana.

Bushmans Kloof vehicle

The following morning, rain has yet again poured down on this arid landscape, announcing the changing of the seasons. But Christiaan’s enthusiasm for this fascinating environment remains undampened. We drive out as dawn breaks, heading for the very fringes of the reserve. We stop for fresh coffee and traditional rusks as the cloud begins to lift from the hilltops. Shuffling to the edge of a deep-sided river canyon, we position ourselves on an overhanging rock, suspended in the air, savouring our bush breakfast.

Looking down at the river below, Christiaan’s keen eyes spot a malachite kingfisher – a flash of colour skimming over the green waters. Immersed in the wilderness around him, he never disengages from it, even as we chat and sip our coffee. Admiring the deep canyon beneath his dangling feet, he says, “These signs of erosion show great forces were once at work here – the hallmarks of an ancient, and very different, climate.”

His gaze shifts up. “The sandstone that forms these mountains is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it contains rounded quartz pebbles trapped inside – very unusual. Secondly, it is totally absent of fossils, showing quite how old it is.” Waving an arm nonchalantly at our surroundings, he continues, “Tectonic activity has tossed these ancient stones around, leaving behind a puzzle that we now struggle to piece back together.”

Coffee spot at Bushmans Kloof (4)_compressed

It is not just the rocks that are puzzling. I comment on the lack of cedar trees – surprising given the name of these mountains. Christiaan nods, agreeing with my bemusement. “You’re right. The upper slopes of the Cederberg were once carpeted with cedars. But when colonists arrived, they soon realised that these trees were a wonderful source of straight timber for building. Now, there is hardly a tree left. People have tried to reintroduce them, but despite once flourishing here, they now have just a 25% survival rate when planted.”

We leave this topic behind and with it our dramatic breakfast spot, clambering back towards the vehicle. The sun begins to burn through the lifting clouds, dappling the reddened rocks of the slopes above. I imagine these very slopes were perhaps once home to cedar trees that now find themselves used as lintels, joists or floorboards in some of the quaint colonial buildings that dot the Cape.

Rumbling onwards over the loose rock and gravel of the reserve’s tracks, we continue beside the deep ravine, coming to a stop on an area of bare rock, high above the river below. Christiaan looks at me and says, “The Imax is not suitable for everyone, but you’re pretty fit and you said you’re up for a bit of a scramble.”

Bushmans Kloof landscape

We are not, unsurprisingly, about to enter a cinema. Instead it is a rock-art site that has been given this very unscientific nickname. Christiaan has already told me, tactfully, that this adventure is not possible if you are a little rotund, as there are narrow gaps involved. Fortunately, my lanky form is no issue. However, with more than 130 other rock-art sites on the reserve, there are options for all abilities.

Even here, as we walk across the almost purple rock, plants cling to its surface, sprouting from every crack and fissure. We descend slightly, following a gap in the rock – about a metre wide. Grabbing hold of a small tree that emerges from below, Christiaan scrambles down and I follow him. It is only a few metres down, but the atmosphere changes as we leave the direct sunlight behind and scramble down between the cool rock walls.

Access to Imax rock art site, Bushmans Kloof

At the bottom, one side disappears, replaced instead by a narrow cave that runs horizontally along the fissure, falling into the darkness below. The smell of bat droppings wafts upwards from within, the air damp and cold. Our headtorches flicker on and the bright white light illuminates bare rock, then sand below. We both flatten ourselves and wriggle down over the rock, until we feel our feet touch the floor.

Now, we are surrounded by solid rock, with only our torches for light. Christiaan ushers me forward and we enter a narrow rock passage that takes us away from the light. The smell of still air and bats intensifies, as the two sides begin to close in. This is not for the claustrophobic. Squeezing through a section so narrow that I’m almost touching both sides, I see light filling the passage ahead.

Access to Imax rock art site, Bushmans Kloof

Only a few steps later, fresh, warm air engulfs me and I feel the sunlight on my skin again. I can tell that the river is now closer, ahead of us. The cave’s exit is an unimpressive jumble of rocks, but Christiaan guides me to our right. Rounding a large boulder, we find ourselves beneath a magnificent sandstone overhang, which curves outwards, dwarfing us. “Welcome to the Imax.” Christiaan announces, smiling.

I pause for a minute to take it in. The scale of the place is impressive. The rock above me extends up at least 10 metres, until it curves to a point straight above my head. At my feet are a jumble of loose stones, mixed with a yellow-grey sand. But it is the blotches of colour on the smooth stone in between that catch my eye. Immediately, human figures are discernible, as well as other shapes that are less clear.

View of Imax rock art site, Bushmans Kloof

We walk closer to one of these clusters of burnt-red smudges and Christiaan points to what are clearly human shapes. They are elongated and barely more than stick figures, but undeniably human. “This is one of two styles of rock art found here.” Says Christiaan, leaning closer. “These kind of paintings depict people and animals engaged in everyday activities. Look closely and you will see that the painter has made a determined effort to be very clear about each person’s gender – this is a key element in the rock art found here.”

I too lean closer and see that some of the figures a have thick smudge of paint extending horizontally forwards from their groin. Others have pronounced semicircles attached to their chests and at the top of their legs, at the rear. The symbolism could not be plainer, even if anatomical accuracy clearly wasn’t a priority.

Christiaan at Imax rock art site, Bushmans Kloof

Christiaan shuffles across and points out a very different painting. This one has no human shapes and the lines are much finer, but there is a symmetry to it that is quite appealing. “This is the second type of rock art found here. It consists of various geometric patterns, similar to this one.

“For many years, we were baffled by the existence of this second type. However, researchers conducting psychoactive drug trials found that their subjects described seeing numerous geometric patterns whilst hallucinating. This suddenly made sense because we know that drug-fuelled trances are practiced by the modern inhabitants of this area, so it would hardly be a surprise if their ancestors were doing the same thing.”

Geometric rock art, Bushmans Kloof

I marvel at the idea of these Stone-Age stoners frenziedly daubing these walls with depictions of their hallucinations, only to come back the next day, sober, and return to painting scenes of everyday life. It is an odd image, so I ask Christiaan, “What do we know about these paintings and the people who painted these?”

“We don’t know exactly how old the paintings are, but we believe they were painted by the Bushmen, the original inhabitants of Southern Africa. That means they could date back 10,000 years, but we will never know because there is no organic material for us to carbon date.

“However, we can use other clues. There are a number of rock-art sites where handprint paintings have been placed on top of more complicated work. These are obviously more recent, but their simplistic form suggests an odd regression and loss of skills. The only major event that would explain this would be the arrival of the Khoikhoi people.

“These Bantu people arrived from Central Africa more than 2,000 years ago and intermingled with the Bushmen. It is suggested that skills such as rock painting were perhaps lost then. If this is the case, we know that the paintings here are a minimum of 2,000 years old.”

Rock art, Bushmans Kloof

This complicated history fascinates me and I stare more intently at the paintings that dot the imposing wall of the Imax. It is a mesmerising place. Looking down, I see white, powdery droppings that remind me of hyenas. But Christiaan notices them too and says, “Those are from a cape leopard.” These rare cats are almost impossible to see. Smaller than normal leopards and even more elusive, they are so rare that even signs of them are unusual.

I’m already in awe with this remarkable place, but news of this new resident adds another layer of magic to the already surreal feel. It occurs to me that most of the time, these millennia-old paintings are the domain of this diminutive predator alone. The only disturbance comes in the form of the occasional paunch-free, adventure-seeker that Christiaan honours with a trip to the Imax, for the Cederberg’s greatest show.

The Garden Route: Much More Than Horticulture

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Garden Route coast

I imagined the Garden Route to be a horticultural holiday, with a string of designer gardens to inspect. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover rich, diverse vegetation; great food and wine; and a succession of coastal lakes and lagoons.

Certainly, if you like good food and wine, the Garden Route is the place to go. South Africa produces some of the world’s best wines. The food is all locally sourced and freshly cooked. I quickly realised that my usual eating habits had to be set aside, to allow myself to enjoy at least four or six courses of dinner a day.

So, what is the Garden Route? As I discovered, it is actually an area of South Africa, nestled between the mountains and coast, stretching from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. It encompasses 800 kilometres of coastline, with some of the most breath-taking and diverse landscapes – beaches, forests and lagoons.

I began my adventure by collecting my car from Port Elizabeth and headed to Plettenberg Bay. Just driving into ‘Plett’ (as the locals call it), I was greeted by endless sea views. As I approached the town, I could see that it was set above miles of wonderful white-sand beaches.  The weather was just right at about 22 degrees… not too hot at all.

I discovered some fun places to shop in Plett: the Heath has some fun gift shops, while the Global Village & Earth Cafe has a range of creative offerings, and is a fun place for coffee. There are quite a few boutique shops down the main drag, not to mention beach-gear shops.

I also highly recommend walking down to the beach for some lunch at the Lookout Deck. A five-minute walk from the town centre with incredible views of the sea and excellent food, this is renowned as a good place to see dolphins. Unfortunately, though, I did not get to see any.

There is lots to do in and around Plett, including hiking on the Robberg Peninsula, boat trips to see dolphins and (between the months of June and November) whale watching. There are also child friendly beaches with plenty of room and shallow water.

I must admit that I did not feel like I was in Africa. I could have been anywhere in Europe. The infrastructure is so well developed and you can go for miles without seeing anyone on the road.

My next stop was Knysna. Apparently a Khoi word, no one really knows what ‘Knysna’ means. Some say it means ‘place of wood’ and others that it could mean ‘fern leaves’. I like to think it has some relation to the impressive heads that the town is famous for.

Knysna is on the shore of a shallow lagoon that is now a protected marine reserve – home to sea horses and over 200 species of fish. My first impression of Knysna was the sandstone cliffs that dramatically separate the lagoon from the Indian Ocean. There was something about this place that made me feel like I was home.

I went on a morning cruise along the lagoon, which afforded lovely views of Knysna town and took us to the Knysna Heads. The Knysna Heads are the most striking geological features along the whole of the southern coastline. In the past, this was a treacherous place for sailors. I could totally understand why…I imagined it would have been like the Skeleton Coast in Namibia.

Knysna was possibly my favourite town along the Garden Route. You can easily stay here two or three nights – it has lovely restaurants and bars. If you love oysters then you will find some of the best oysters in the world, here.

There is also a lot to do in and around Knysna, and I personally think you do not need to stay in Plett. Knysna is a good central point to explore the surrounding area. I visited the 1,000-year-old Tsitsikamma Forest Big Tree – very impressive and definitely a must-see.

Last – and definitely not least – I visited Babylonstoren, a boutique hotel and working farm that lies between Stellenbosch and Paarl. I did not quite know what to expect because I had been to a few working farms, but not one quite like Babylonstoren. It was a perfect place of serenity, where you could almost touch or feel the passion of the people who created this Garden of Eden.

At Babylonstoren, I met Lizl, the gardener. Having worked at the farm for nearly 20 years, she took us on a tour of the garden. I discovered that Babylonstoren is one of the original Cape Dutch farms, dating back to 1777. It is also linked back to the mythical gardens of Babylon.

The best part of the tour was when we were encouraged to pick guavas and lemons – taste, smell and touch, while walking through the garden. It brought back memories of my childhood. My grandparents had a big farm that had fruit trees and I particularly liked the picking season.

Another activity that I enjoyed was their wine tasting tour. I do not normally drink alcohol, but this time I thought it will be good to explore the world of wine. The farm has 72 hectares under vine that produces 13 different grape varieties, including pinot noir and chardonnay.

I liked the fact that I could see how the wine has been produced and the love put into it. For the wine tasting, I was offered five different wines and discovered that my favourite was a dry Chenin Blanc – with hints of guava and melon.

A complete novice, I learnt some useful tips for wine tasting:

  • You need to have eaten something before you start your wine tasting.
  • Tilt the glass and stick your nose in. This will enable you to identify the type of wine – is it fruity, floral, sweet or woody?
  • Swirl the glass – this will enhance the flavours of the wine and bring out all the flavours. My favourite wine was the Chenin Blanc. It had a light crisp taste and was unwooded. (Unwooded wine is the wine that has not been fermented or aged in oak barrels.)
  • Cleanse your palate between wines. I used biltong and water

After my wine-tasting adventure I went for dinner at Babel Restaurant. It was absolutely delicious. The menu is guided by what is available in the garden.

The farm also hold workshops on gardening, teaching guests about herbal tea blends made from fresh herbs and flowers, as well as how to grow various vegetables.  Babylonstoren is definitely a special place. It left me with a big smile at the end of my Garden Route trip.

Get in touch to learn more about the Garden Route. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Kalk Bay: Sea Anemones and Sushi

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Anemones at Kalk Bay

“Have you ever had your finger nibbled by a sea anemone?” Hanli enthuses.

An afternoon walk along the seaside has turned into an eye-opening voyage of discovery. Perhaps unsurprising given that I am with Hanli Prinsloo, world champion free diver and passionate ambassador for our oceans.

Hanli’s childlike enthusiasm is infectious. I eagerly share in her curiosity as we discover starfish, sea urchins, anemones and mermaids’ earrings. Two young children, intrigued by our behaviour – a behaviour not normally displayed by adults in Kalk Bay – run over and join us staring into the magical watery world of the tidal pools.

Kalk Bay sits on False Bay, an eighteen mile bite out of the rump of South Africa, right on Cape Town’s doorstep and under the shadow of Table Mountain National Park. False Bay has a diverse cast of actors, from the bit-part players such as my nibbling anemone to the whales, dolphins and Great White Sharks.

As Hanli explains, “Few people consider the extraordinary diversity beneath the waves. There are 11,500 species in False Bay – that is more than the total number of species of birds in the world.”

By day, Kalk Bay is sluggish and Bohemian. It has a friendly charm as I amble along the quaint village streets browsing the artisan stores – vintage clothes, jewellery, antiques. My favourite is Quagga, not just for the name – it is named after an extinct sub-species of zebra – but that it is bookshop stacked full of rare books.

I step into Quagga and back to a dusty past and learn that Kalk Bay was originally a ‘Cape coloured’ fishing community. Once déclassé, Kalk Bay is now a fashionable district and, sadly, one of the pitifully few racially mixed communities.

Outside in the sunshine, we stroll through the packed Brass Bell pub and tight-rope walk around the walls of the man-made tidal pools. I would have loved to have stopped in Cape to Cuba to enjoy its exquisitely eccentric décor, its relaxed atmosphere and spicy seafood salsa.

Instead we walk through the fishing harbour full of colourful boats that are still very much operational. We negotiate a couple of gangster seals fat from the cast-offs of the fishermen. We enter Harbour House bathed in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun. Whilst looking out over the pier and lighthouse I have sushi – line-caught, of course – whilst Hanli has a vegetarian option. She doesn’t eat fish.

Later we find ourselves swamped by welcome and food at the Olympia Café. Olympia is quirky, friendly and undiscovered. A metaphor for Kalk Bay and perhaps the whole of False Bay.

With such a dramatic setting, False Bay deserves a more illustrious title. Named by disappointed sailors who thought that they had found a route to the riches of India, had it been dubbed “Bay of Plenty”, the heritage status bestowed upon the land would have extended below the waves to what many dub the ‘Serengeti of the Seas’.

Grootbos: Safari through the Cape Floral Kingdom

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Lilac flowers at Groobos

“It’s like driving through a painting.” I whispered to myself.

I was on a 4×4 safari of Grootbos, an Afrikaans word literally meaning Big Bush in reference to the Milkwood Forests of the region. Nestled between the mountain and the sea, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is 2,500 hectares of wilderness showcasing the flora of the southern tip of Africa. All of this set against the backdrop of sweeping panoramic views of Walker Bay.

During my 4×4 safari, I learned the importance of fynbos, an evergreen fire-adapted vegetation type that occurs in nutrient poor soils. Making up 80% of the Cape Floral Kingdom – the smallest of the six floral regions in the world, fynbos is incredibly diverse.

 

There are over 9,500 species of plants and flowers occurring in the area, of which over 6,200 are endemic. Table Mountain supports more plant species than the whole of the United Kingdom. And at Grootbos alone, my knowledgeable guide told me that there are a staggering 765 flower species, of which six were discovered on the private reserve.

My guide explained that fynbos – literally meaning fine bush in reference to the leaves of the vegetation – include proteas, ericas (in England called heather) and restios. She showed my cone bush, wild marijuana and pin cushions. However, it was not about names and numbers but an interactive and sensory adventure.

Whilst the focus is very much on the plants, it is difficult to ignore the birdlife and not to be charmed by the invigorating birdsong. The slender body and long beak of a sunbird sitting in bush surveying the scene or a sugar bird with his head halfway into a Proteus, flicking his tongue.

Not only the relationship between the flowers and birds was captivating, but also between the flowers and insects. I was shown a rain spider nest, we talked about the honey bee. We saw a camera trap – capturing grainy images of the nocturnal and elusive porcupine, caracal and cape mountain leopard – but no wildlife.

Indeed, this was the first safari where I had not seen any wildlife, but that did not detract from my enjoyment and what was a wonderful experience. It was the adaptations of the plants, the interactions and the symbiotic relationships, that gave the landscape a new significance and a more profound beauty.

Get in touch to learn more about how to visit Grootbos and the Cape Floral Kingdom. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Swimming with seals in South Africa with Hanli Prinsloo

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“There are no Great Whites here. The water is too cold.”

I looked up at Chapman’s Peak unconvinced – in the next bay beyond the peak was False Bay where there are thousands of Great White Sharks, so much so that False Bay is known as the ‘Serengeti of the Seas’. Surely word had got on GrubHub, or the GWS equivalent, that there was food aplenty in Hout Bay. However, in the same way that you trust a ranger on safari implicitly, I trusted Hanli and Peter.

Hanli Prinsloo and Peter Marshall, South African world champion free diver and US world record holding swimmer, respectively, are seeking to challenge our preconceptions and get clients to reconnect with nature and in particular marine life and the oceans with their inspiring I Am Water Foundation. They do so in jaw-dropping dive sites around the world from the Maldives to Mexico to Mozambique. Now also in Cape Town.

As Hanli says, “Cape Town is an iconic city. One of the favourite cities in the world. Yet there is so much of it that we do not appreciate. So much of it that we do not get to appreciate. We are trying to change that by getting clients into the water.”

Hence my maladroit manoeuvres to get into a wetsuit in Hout Bay harbour. I note with envy that Peter and Hanli have an organic soap-based product to ease their transition from terrestrial mammal to mermaid/man. I clamber on board in ungainly fashion and feel very self-conscious as I sit on the side of the inflatable – neoprene is not a good look. I try to breathe in.

Duly briefed on what to expect, we taxi slowly out of Hout Bay harbour paying fleeting homage to the gangster seals of the harbour – so-named as this is their patch and that they are fiercely territorial about their watery ‘turf’. The gangster seals, like their terrestrial counterparts, have become fat from the cast offs they exist on.

We head out to the incongruously named Duiker Island. No small antelopes but thousands of Cape Fur seals crowding the sun-drenched 1,500 square metre rock. The smell, the sounds, the sight made me tingle with excitement. And it was not just on land – the ocean was boiling with activity. Seals of all shapes and sizes, swam, jumped and cavorted. Not all were frenetic: some lay on their backs with their fins resting on their stomachs or in the air.

“You know the reason why they put their fins in the air?” Peter asks.

My lack of immediate intuition gives Peter the go-ahead to continue.

“Because they use it to cool down. Can you believe that? There I am freezing my nuts off and they have to cool off.” How cold is the water?

I find out soon enough as I lower myself into the water and gasp as the cold seeps up my leg. I fully immerse myself, gasp again, and place my head underwater. In spite of the initial shock, it was not as cold as I thought and I quickly begin to enjoy the view.

On land, the seals are cumbersome and laughable. Underwater they are acrobatic and impressive. Aerobatic connoisseurs of the sea, they dart, race, dive, weave, twirl and somersault with a gay abandon that is bewitching to behold. Their balletic somersaulting belies their size. Their enthusiasm and exhilaration was infectious.

They are curious, intrigued by us and race right up to my mask. Some occasionally baring their teeth in play, most just staring eyeball to eyeball. On land their eyes are tiny but in water they are huge and all seeing. They have to be: they are predated upon by Great White Sharks, the apex predator of the sea. When the sun is overhead the seals are well aware of what is directly below them.  Thus the Great White Sharks feed mainly in the early morning and late afternoon – the crepuscular equivalent of leopard – as the slant of the sun’s rays make it difficult for the seals to see what is below them. It won’t surprise you to learn that I was snorkelling with the seals at midday.

“Justin, come with me,” Hanli beckons.

I follow at some distance and with a distinct lack of speed – maybe Peter would just beat me in a race – to the kelp beds. Overgrown triffids of the seas, the kelp dances hypnotically to the beat of the swell. The sun dances in and out of the golden fronds of the kelp. A wonderful strobe effect.

“Take a deep breath, grab the kelp with one hand and work your way slowly down. Remember to equalise,” Hanli advises me.

I looked uncomfortable. Hanli nodded encouragement. I put my mask into the water, looked down and kicked down to grab a frond. I pulled myself down. I quickly ran out of air and returned to the surface getting caught up in the forest of kelp above me.

“Slower,” was Hanli’s sage advice.

I try again. Heeding Hanli’s counsel, I lower myself hand over hand, alternating between equalising. The change of technique was transformative and I make it to the bottom. I stare up at the ebb and flow of the forest above me. It was magical. It was wonderfully therapeutic. Until I ran out of air and realised that I was many metres below the surface. I would race to the surface and in so doing surprise the living daylights out of an unsuspecting seal.

Every now and again, I would pull my head out of the water to readjust my mask to see a seal leaping in the air against the backdrop of Cape Town’s impressive massifs. My heart would soar.

Get in touch to learn more about our freediving holidays with Hanli Prinsloo. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753. 

How do you beat a family holiday in South Africa?

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Where Next? The Moon?
A family holiday in South Africa.

“Wow, Daddy. There is so much cool stuff – free eye masks, free socks and even glue.”

Perhaps given my seven year old son’s reaction to the South African Airways freebie on his seat and his inability to identify a miniature tube of toothpaste, the omens for this holiday were looking good. Notwithstanding his low expectations, both his and ours were more than surpassed on a children’s and parents’ holiday of a lifetime.

Right from our midday arrival in Cape Town we hit the ground running. Or rather cycling. We were out as a family pedalling the streets of Cape Town with the charismatic Skizo as our guide. He was unwavering in his watchfulness as the children negotiated the streets and traffic of Cape Town, lavish in his descriptions to the benefit of the adults and equally lavish in his distribution of cakes and ice creams much to the delight of the children.

That night it was a visit to and supper in Camp’s Bay market. Trinket heaven for ten and twelve year old girls. An opportunity for seven year old boys to run amok and worry nervous parents until we, the parents, realised that we were on holiday and this was a much more child-friendly market than they had hitherto been exposed to.

The next morning we were up early for a walk through and breakfast in Cape Town’s dazzling waterfront. A ferry ride took us to Robben Island, ‘home’ to Nelson Mandela for eighteen of his twenty-seven years in imprisonment. From the outset, I was worried that the children were here under duress, a parental diktat that “it is one of those things you need to do.” Thankfully, in spite of the numbers on the tour, both the initial guide and the ‘inmate’ managed to inspire a modicum of passion in our children as to the gross injustice of the inequality that existed. No mean feat.

A lazy lunch on Cape Town waterfront, a guilty pleasure given the deprivations we had been told of first-hand in the morning, fortified us for our assault of Table Mountain. We took the cable car up Cape Town’s iconic landmark as the cloud began rolling in from the sea. On top the children roamed with gay abandon on a mountain

The next day we headed into the Winelands. A day of respite for the adults or so we thought. A wine tasting brought meagre joy; far greater joy was watching our children interact with the animals of Spier Wine Estate. Unlike the cheetah outreach centre that we visited earlier that morning, this was far more intimate and engaging.

They got to hold baby tortoises, have pythons draped around their necks. Best of all was being in a cage with owls flying all around, over and above them – it was like being in a Harry Potter film set but with real owls. Not only that but they were privy to one of the best bird displays that I have seen. All the way back to Cape Town, various facts were regurgitated with glee: “Soft wings and soft feathers means silent flight and a deadly predator.” “The owl swallows its prey whole.”

Cape Town had provided us with such variety, constant entertainment. My only disappointment being that the swell had been considered too large for us to go swimming with sea lions.

As we headed east along the whale route, I was worried that the winds would cause further disappointment. I could not have been more wrong. As we stopped at Gordon’s Bay, there were squeals of delight as the surf challenged their footing. Shouts of amazement as the sand and wind pricked the back of their legs.

Even when we stopped to see the penguins of Betty’s Bay – far less touristy and infinitely more enjoyable than Boulder’s Bay – the wind was ferocious. Yet even here, the wind did not dent the children’s awe and wonderment at getting so close to an animal that they had only hitherto seen in ‘Happy Feet’ (a film that I have not seen but dislike intensely as when I returned from Antarctica ready to show my children some remarkable footage, they dispatched me with a dismissive look, “Daddy, we’ve just watched ‘Happy Feet’.”). Needless to say the penguins were great and so too the visitor centre.

Driving into Hermanus we were immediately swept away by the charm of the Marine Hotel. Location notwithstanding, the marine Hotel went out of their way to look after us and especially the children, who had their own kids’ toiletries, their own mini hotel dressing gowns and chocolates. The children were almost swept away by the surf crashing into a rock pool. It is one of my (many) images of the holiday – the girls standing in the rich colour of evening sunshine, arms held aloft in defiance to the oncoming waves. And then an even bigger wave crashes against the rocks and they are last seen retreating fast as they are engulfed by the spray. Hours of fun.

The next morning the wind had abated, replaced by bright sunshine. As if to complete the change we saw whales breaching out in the bay. Again and again they would leap out of the water. We would see the splash and three seconds later hear the thud as they hit the water.

“If the speed of sound is 340 metres per second and we heard that splash three seconds after we saw it, how far away is that whale?” A moaned protest of “Daddeeee.”

Thankfully for the children we were lucky to see whales a little closer on a whale watching trip and their mental arithmetic was not tested again. However the southern right whale we did see was with a calf and thus not as acrobatic as the ones we saw from the hotel. And whilst much of her remained beneath the water you were able to get an impression of her size.

Much to the boys’ excitement the boat drove through Shark Alley. To their disappointment and affronted nostrils – they held their noses and screwed up their faces at the smell – we saw no sharks but hundreds and hundreds of seals. We did stop by a boat later on from which they were cage diving and did see sharks. Although once again there was a sense of disappointment that the sharks were not as large and not baring their impressive array of teeth as per much of the marketing literature. Perhaps a salient lesson for them.

Next it was to Camp Jubalani in Kapama Private Game Reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park. A camp that is renowned for its fourteen elephants – from Pisa, the baby of the herd, to Sebokwe, the largest male, from Tokwe the matriarch to Mambo, the playful hooligan of the herd – riding these elephants and elephant interaction.

Whilst the children loved riding the elephants – more so than the adults whose lack of flexibility caused a certain amount of discomfort – what really lit up their faces was interacting with the elephants. Isabel, my eldest daughter, was asked to drop an ankus on the ground. Uncertain she does so only for Jabulani to pick it back with his trunk and ‘hand’ it back to her. The smile of joy on Isabel’s face was glorious to behold, pure enraptured delight. So too Jabulani. He seemed to be beaming with pride and behind his thick curly eyelashes his eyes were smiling with real pleasure at being so appreciated.

Jabulani turned the end of his trunk upwards inviting contributions. The children with huge smiles on their faces poured pellets into his trunk. I didn’t know who was happier – Jabu in receiving his treats, the children in touching, feeling his trunk or me in enjoying my children’s delight.

The children came away with their minds full of elephant facts. The trunk contains an estimated 100,000 muscles and tendons. Elephants are left or right handed, similar to us. They have an organ in their mouth, the Jacobsen’s organ, that allows them to recognise smiles as much as forty years ago – hence the phrase, the memory of an elephant.

But it wasn’t just elephants they learned about. “Geez you guys know a lot,” admired Kevin our guide as the boys rolled out statistic after statistic: “A baby giraffe is heavier than a baby elephant which only weights about 100kg at birth.”

We saw a warthog reversing into his hole like some proud house-owner parking outside his house. We saw genet, bush baby and white-tailed mongoose. And yes, we did see the Big Five. We heard the guttural growl of the impala, the distant roar of lion, a leopard crunching noisily on bones and the maniacal laughter of hyena. We learned the collective nouns for a whole host of animals: a dazzle of zebra, a crash of rhinoceros, a tower of giraffe and an implausibility of wildebeest.

But above all the children loved ‘doing’. They loved using our cameras – thanks to digital we were able to delete all photos of headless animals and the ground. Perhaps most of all, using the spotting scope at night was a big thrill.

For me there were two key highlights. The first more of a guilty pleasure – guilty as I am not sure how much the children appreciated the enormity of what we were doing – was being involved in the darting and notching of a rhino.

Not to say that the children were excluded. In fact to my surprise, the opposite. They were all give roles. Anna was to place a blanket over the rhino’s eyes to protect its eyes. Ear muffs – a pair of woollen green socks – were given to the seven year old boys, Benedict and Charlie, to stuff in the rhino’s ears. Isabel was in charge of monitoring the rhino’s respiration and Izzy had to administer eye ointment – a rhino’s eyes stay open during the anaesthetic and thus need lubrication in the form of ointment.

Emotion reigned amongst us throughout the whole process, whilst Pete, Colin and Ginelle, the veterinary team, were calm and composed – efficiency personified. It is a spiritual, surreal experience, to have subdued, without stress, such a prehistoric animal. To hear its deep breaths, to smell it, to touch its skin, to see how delicate and vulnerable they really are. These are primordial sympathies. Nothing quite compares to the sheer emotional power of being so close to a wild creature of that size and stature (rhinos have been around for millions of years). For my eldest daughter, Isabel, it was all too much. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

The second highlight was the joy of seeing wildlife of learning through my children’s eyes. Their response both emotionally and intellectually was energising. Perhaps most so in Isabel for whom there were a number of defining moments from the rhino darting to her revulsion at seeing a zebra used as decoration on the floor. She was clearly moved by much of what saw. She wanted to do something about it.

“Daddy, how can I make a difference?”

Kevin interjected, “You have (made a difference) just by coming here.”

Talk to our South Africa Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour of South Africa, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Rhino Notching in South Africa – Steppes Travel

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The White Rhino Conservation Project is committed to notching and inserting microchips into Greater Kruger National Park’s 130-strong White Rhino population. Experience first hand conservation work in the company of the chief vet and rangers from Klaserie Nature Reserve as they locate a rhino and proceed to notch and microchip it.

Below is copy of my presentation on South Africa at our Steppes Beyond event in March 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

Have a direct involvement in rhino conservation, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Discover South Africa

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I was born in South Africa and have travelled around the country from an early age. Before joining Steppes Travel in 2000 I qualified as a safari guide and worked in various lodges. I have since returned to South Africa with my young children; it never to ceases to amaze me.

I believe, as many others do, that you can ”see the world in one country” when travelling in South Africa. Indeed there are few countries in the world that offer the same level of diversity of holidays as South Africa. Sandy beaches, snow capped mountains, lush vineyards and the Kruger National Park provide a plethora of dramatic scenery. Despite being vast in size, travelling around the country is surprisingly easy, making a combination of the county’s highlights possible and most rewarding.

Watch my video following my latest trip to South Africa and please do get in touch me if you would like more information on 01285 880980.

Take care of my children!

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‘’Take care of my children!’’

This was the first thing I thought and consequently exclaimed as I watched my seven and nine year old walk hand in trunk away from me with a group of powerful adult elephants.

This sort of parental helplessness is not that new to me, it had happened when I first let go of their bicycle, or their hand on the first day of school. However this was different. There was great potential for critical danger. A drastic change of circumstances.

Being that close to an elephant humbled me greatly, and putting my children between us brought a strange realisation to me. Maybe this is what the elephants feel when their young come between us, when we encounter them in their environment. There is a palpable helplessness in the air – a responsibility. Immediately I wanted to champion the cause of wildlife.

A general acknowledgement of the fragility of us and them was apparent throughout the holiday where I introduced my children to animals in the wild. As fragile as the children are, so too is the environment. However as resilient they are, so too is the environment and hence it is important to encourage children first hand to find out about the world in which they live.

But it’s not always easy to introduce children to the African wildlife of documentary fame. The practicalities don’t always seem so easy, unless of course, you let someone who knows the pitfalls, someone who has been there, do it for you.

I definitely feel that by taking my children there, I can help others take their children into Africa. Not everywhere on the continent is suitable of course so the malaria free Eastern Cape of South Africa definitely lends itself to this introduction. With family-friendly accommodation, child orientated mealtimes and endlessly patient rangers, each child can have a chance to find a place amongst the wildlife of Africa.

It is easier than you think – ask us – we can show you how.

The Storm Gods of Africa

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An iridescent green haze falls over the waterhole as we watch a hippo. Opposite, a breeding herd of elephants are taking a drink and a baby elephant, no older than three weeks, is bounding around, trying so hard to use his trunk in the way his older sister seems to have mastered. The wind starts to pick up and a change of air is felt, even the animals start to look up to the ever changing colours of the African sky.

A storm is brewing and it looks big, very big.

The first drops of rain start to fall and seem to dry almost just as they hit the ground. Impala bark in the distance and the hot, dry earth seems to let out a massive sigh of relief as the rains begin to fall faster and harder. As the sun sets, the green haze turns into a greyish dark cloud with a dazzle of silver lightning. Our ranger has a look of both excitement and apprehension as she tells us we need to finish up the sundowners and return to camp.

As we head off, I look back to check on the baby elephant, he seems to have worked out he can use his trunk to give himself a small mud bath. The wind is getting stronger and the impala have been joined by some kudu who have made their way into the clearing almost as if to suggest they will sit this storm out together. In the distance I see some lions walking away, maybe they are not so brave after all.

As we trundle along the roads of the Sabi Sands the rain and thunder seems to be calming, could this storm be all show and no substance? Arriving in camp it’s dinner time and we discuss the lack of potency of the Storm Gods. Fellow guests are joking with our ranger that African storms are all bark and no bite. I remain silent, I have full respect for the Storm Gods and don’t want to upset them. Out of the corner of my eye I can see the night sky getting brighter with the lightning in the distance. There is also a continuous rumble of thunder. The rain is falling again, and this time it is seems harder and more persistent. Perhaps the Gods have woken from their brief slumber.

Just as I get into my tented chalet for the night the grand opening of what becomes a spectacular show begins, with lightening streaking across the sky and a tremendous beat of thunder following behind. The wind picks up, the rain intensifies and so does the thunder. As I am peering out of my window a lightning bolt hits the earth, a little too close for comfort. I let out a loud yelp and scamper to my bed hiding under the covers like I did when I was five years old. The skies are so bright with lightening I don’t need the lights on and my tented roof is being punished with the tireless wind and rain. The show continues for the next two hours, only with this show there is no intermission.

Someone has clearly upset the Storms Gods tonight.

Finally the winds die down, the rain stops and the Storm Gods are silenced. As I drift off to sleep I wonder if my little elephant friend has survived his first storm. I am hoping I will see him tomorrow so I can tell him to be respectful of the Storm Gods of Africa and not to make them angry.

*As part of our partnership with the World Land Trust, we have offset the carbon emissions (4.37 tonnes) of Bridget’s long haul return flight and we would encourage you to do the same, if you are able.*

South Africa – Then and Now

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Today I sat next to Sibosisu. He is forty years old, just like me, he is South African by birth, just like me but he is black and I am white. He was my guide around Johannesburg, the city I once called home. We sat, side by side in the Apartheid Museum, watching a short movie which chronicled the struggle of the anti apartheid movement between the 1980′s and the early 1990′s. His and my childhood/teenage years.

Sibosisu grew up with a passbook, in a homeland, in a hut without running water or electricity. I grew up in a white only town, strapped to the back of my nanny as a baby whilst she cleaned our home. I vividly remember my mother taking her each day to the train station before curfew so she could travel the hour journey back to her township home. It was all so normal. There were just white children in my school, I didn’t know any black children at all. The news on TV was always scary, a mass of black people Toi-Toing in revolt, coming to get us, but it was far away, a place I never went to. I always had genuine fear of strangers who were black people and of the police. I remember once, whilst driving in my mother’s car getting stuck on a remote road. The spark plugs had got wet after driving through a puddle, a white policeman came to assist and I was inconsolable with fear.

Nowadays it’s a difficult concept to grasp, there I was, riding ponies, watching television, going to school, enjoying holidays and playing whilst the world around me burned. It was all very well for the megastars of the day to sing emphatically about the plight of the black people in South Africa but I never heard it, we lived in a bubble of sanctions, music, news, history lessons were duly filtered. In a way I think sanctions fed the bubble. I was not old enough to understand and too young for university where I may have got a better idea. It reminds me of those simulated suburban towns built in nuclear blast zones containing everything you can think of, an unreal existence.

In the late 1980′s I did join a rally in Cape Town, it rained that day. I worked for the Red Cross, they staffed township hospitals during the riots and work stoppages. I slowly started to get an idea of a world that was wrong. I watched Mandela walk free and met some black people on a personal level, I learned to speak some Zulu, I stood in line in 1994 and voted, side by side for a democratic South Africa. In my mind the equilibrium started to be restored. However I didn’t struggle in any way, Sibosisu rioted in Johannesburg and lost eight friends. We were exactly the same age but at the end of two extremes, each on the side of a fence which we didn’t build. He confided today that if he were to be reborn, he would like to be a white person. How can I not feel guilty? I don’t like guilt, I feel it is a wasted emotion.

The white population in South Africa made up just 9 percent of the population, why did it take so long for me to see? How did 9 percent manage to keep the 80 percent from me? If you had said to me 20 years ago that I would walk through Soweto, I would have told you to get real, no one did that, it was just unthinkable. Well, today Sibosisu and I sat on a bench, both 40 years old, both South African.

Refuelling the Senses on Safari

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“So how long has it been since you have been home?” Came this voice from behind me, “too long” was my reply.

Without even noticing I had placed my hand on the window of the plane as we touched down in Johannesburg. I could feel the warmth of the African sun through the window and I was drawing in as much as I can. I was back on African soil and more importantly I was back home to refuel my senses.

The sights, sounds, smells, touch and tastes of Africa will stay with you for a life time. Who can forget the sight of their first leopard? Mine was squashed in the back of my dad’s car with my brothers and sister while we were on self-drive safari in the Kruger National Park.

The sound of a lion roaring, especially when it is right next to you goes to the bottom of your soul and back. The smell of the bush after a particular long, hot day followed by a tremendous thunderstorm. The brief unexpected touch of a branch against your arm when you’re on a bush walk, makes your heart beat just a little bit faster than it should. And finally the tastes of a brilliant cook meal from what is essentially a very modest kitchen. All of these contribute to your senses being challenged and tested when out on safari.

I always enjoy travelling with people who have never been on safari before as from the moment they arrive their senses are on overdrive.

“Wow look at that!”

“What’s that sound?”

“Could it be a lion?”

And as you drive past a rotting animal carcass: “Eww, what’s that smell?”.

And then, at dinner it is: “Wow the food is so good and the wine is just perfect!”

With your senses on full alert all day long it is not surprising that when you head off to sleep at night you do have the best night sleep as your mind, body and soul are so just exhausted.

Ok yes, I agree it does take a bit of time to learn that the scratching you can hear outside is not a lion sharpening his claws, it is actually a brunch rubbing up against the side of the tent…or is it??

So as the plane is making its way to the arrival gate I am full of excitement and wonder what my senses are going to get treated to this time round.

Am I going to see my first pangolin?

Am I going to hear the call of the fish eagle?

Am I going to smell the pungent smell of a ruptured stomach as a leopard
starts to tear into its kill?

Am I going to feel the first refreshing few raindrops on my skin at the start of a storm?

And am I going to taste something new and unusual?

It is time to get off this plane and find out…..

Distractions

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Today was a busy day, those who work here in the bush often refer to it “being another day in the office”. Like my daily schedule today was fraught with distractions. There was the elephant bull I almost walked into after finding fresh tracks on the road, the thrill of hearing an elephant “domestic” from afar. An adult female shouting at a young delinquent bull who, just having come into must, fancied his chances. The giant eagle owl that was being mobbed by a host of go-away birds (all he wanted was a quiet place to sleep). The busy sociable spiders in a tamboti tree, the vividly coloured blue waxbills flocking to the water’s edge and the shell of the giant African land snail. All these distractions before 9 am! Then there was time for contemplation as I sat at a waterhole and had peace followed quickly by a superbly mastered bush brunch conjured by the never faulting guides. It was then time to gather all my belongings and head out to the Moholo Holo animal rehabilitation centre, ever the pessimist about these places.

Oscar, the guide there did a sterling job as he deftly explained the reasoning behind the centre’s existence. You see, I had always thought that animal rehabilitation centres were merely a place of refuge for people who wanted to give wounded animals a cuddle, a bit of a Bunny-Hugger retreat. Lonely housewives who we’re hoping to add some meaning to the day. My suspicions seemed confirmed as, on our arrival, the tame warthog ambled over for a belly scratch.

I enjoyed Oscar’s jolly welcome and explanation, something to do with the conflict of local belief and conservation, the pressure on wildlife as it is hemmed-in by communities and the analogy of how we would feel if someone came onto our territory and made it home. In the end everyone has to exist together. Unfortunately there tends to be collateral damage – usually to the animals.

Some animals that are no longer able to hunt, fly and catch are housed here as a “hook” to educate visitors on the struggle facing snared lions, leopards and poisoned birds of prey. However all is not lost as the servals are part of a successful breeding project and the animals who can’t be rereleased into the bush offered me a unique chance to get close and personal. I enjoyed the opportunity to get really close to a variety of vultures as they are usually too far away to observe closely, hence being able to really see the colours, sizes and claws. I chuckled as Oscar gave me a nudge, “look lively! They have a sharp eye, don’t stand still for too long.”

I am not too sure of how I felt as I walked into the eagle enclosure, each regal bird had a deformity. (A bit like all the toys in the bad kids’ garden in Toy Story). The black breasted snake eagle had a broken and protruding wing, the gymnogene a missing claw and the bataleur eagle could no longer fly. A motley crew but a very vivid reminder of what we do to the animals of this earth as we erect power lines to run our TV’s and charge our iPads.

As I sit around the fire tonight I don’t have any answers, just more questions. A revived realisation that there is a lot going on that is not in favour of the wildlife we feel we need to protect. I recently watched the Tusk Trust awards where those individuals who championed the cause of the animals were honoured and I wished I was amongst them. However I have a different life, on a different continent, a family and a pretty normal job. The enormity of the problem is vivid, my shortfall very apparent. What can I do to ensure the leopard stays in its territory and doesn’t eat Oscar’s cattle? I read somewhere that you can do anything, just not everything, why does that make me feel weak?

I’m not about to do without the power lines, I don’t poison birds, I fly in aeroplanes, even if I was a more diligent recycler, a constant cyclist instead of a motorist, that bird of prey is still going to fly into that cable.

Whatever you do, do not run

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“Look at me and I will tell you exactly what to do”! These words went through my mind but just didn’t seem to stick. Courtney and Jason were reciting the rules. I am partial to rules, but I was distracted by a lilac breasted roller as it posed provocatively in a “look but can’t photograph” kind of way.

It was a hot afternoon, early spring and the temperature was coming down from 32 degrees. It’s well known that when going for a walk in the bush you get to appreciate the smaller things around you, the huge spider in its hole, the magic gwarrie bush with its multitude of uses, (including that of being a toothbrush), the spider hunting wasp and the fact that the scrub hare eats its own feces to ensure it obtains all the nutrients thereof! What you perhaps weren’t expecting was that your guides (suitably attired in khaki shirts, socks and shorts – riffle in hand, equipped with a well worn knowledge of the area) were intending on making you more acquainted with a herd of buffalo.

Why only concentrate on the small stuff if you can sneak up on a herd of 500 strong buff in a muddy pond in the Kruger Park? The concept was admirable, we would track behind them, wind in our faces and follow well worn game trails. Stuff of legend! Funny that one of our guides was called Courtney and had inherited his father’s zeal for the bush. No problem then…

What we weren’t expecting was that once well ensconced in the watering hole, the buffalo would be spooked by a pack of sleek painted wolves (yes in my day they were called wild dog too). It was a great pity we hadn’t made it to the suitable down-wind termite mound we were hoping to bag as a lookout, before we met with the solid stare of a “dagga bull” – mud bull or old male buffalo. Suddenly the phrase rock and hard place came swiftly to mind, second only to the “do not run” advice so nonchalantly listened to at the start of the walk. What to do when you hear 500 panicked buffalo extract themselves from the mud hole and heading your way, clearing the vegetation in their midst? Move swiftly back but do not run! Not that my kind of running would have helped circumstances.

Stay close to your guides (easy!), and headout of danger, simples. Stop! Let’s see if we can look into another spider hole whilst the buffalo calmed down. Them, not us of course.

Nothing quite like a walk in the African bush, just remember – look at me and I will tell you exactly what to do? More like, grab a Savanna, settle at the fireside and I will tell you about my day in the bush.

The difference a day makes

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Yesterday…a rhino died in one of the northern parks of South Africa, a tranquilliser was used and it was de-horned before it died. The horrific fate that stares every rhino in the face today is that the demand of its horn has increased dramatically. It is now target number one.

Poachers want to sell its horn to our fellow man who think it has medicinal properties, are on the prowl, using any way possible to get their hands on it.

Today… a rhino lived because of a tranquilliser dart and the work of dedicated conservationists. The steppes discovery clients. As the dawn broke, a small group of people gathered in the Klaserie game reserve in South Africa and they were on a mission, they had come a long way to sponsor an expedition which will save a white rhino. Those gathered were normal people from all over the UK, just like you. A quick cup of coffee, a short drive from camp and a briefing from a very grateful game warden and his vetenary team headed by the ever cool Dr Rodgers. The mission was to dart a rhino from a helicopter, implant microchips into the horns, take measurements and samples and finally notch the ears. (Notching is a form of body art for rhinos, incisions in the ear, enabling game scouts to identify the animal easily on foot and if a rhino is identifiable, it can be accounted for).

Today the participants were not here to watch, they took part in all the hands-on activity that was required and under the watchful eye of Dr Rogers, each Steppes Discovery client was involved, up in the helicopter whist the darting took place, recording the rhino’s breathing, notching the ears and even administering the antidote. Because its such a professional operation, the rhino was darted with minimal stress (although his friend had to be chased off )and finally walked away from the group without great agitation – almost as if it was grateful that in a world where it’s kind is so persecuted, there were people who cared.

My hope for today is that more people would book the rhino conservation holiday and, you may laugh and say “of course she would say that, it’s her livelihood to sell holidays”. I see and create a lot of safari holidays, sure, but this one pays for the darting, the practicalities of getting the helicopter into the air, the vet on hand and the drugs.

Now, because of our clients’ direct contribution this rhino can be identified, tracked and watched, protected because it is recorded as number 144.

Now she has a name and her name is Hope.

Shark cage diving – Is it ethically justified?

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“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

That’s all I could think of as we set sail from Betty’s Bay at high tide first thing in the morning, coordinates set for an area of ocean that was home to over 10% of the world’s Great White Shark population. As I reverse peeled my way into a wet suit, clumsiness personified, I gave more serious consideration to what I was about to do. Here was an apex predator, the epitome of cold-blooded ruthlessness, and the leading role in many a nightmare and I was about to put myself at its mercy, in its element, with only a cage between me and it. “This is going to be insane”, said a twenty-something Swede, laughing uncontrollably as we put on our weight belts and pulled on our face masks.

I went in search of the researcher on the boat who had assured me there was a serious point behind the twice daily shark cage diving trips operated by Marine Dynamics in the Gansbaai. I wanted to reconcile my conscience with the impulsive, thrill seeking side of my personality that had jumped at the chance of cage diving the night before, when at least half a bottle of Pinotage to the good.

“Should I have misgivings about the ethics of a shark cage diving?” I asked the researcher, a Canadian PHD student. “Our actions here are not instigating behavioural change – for me that is the critical point. They don’t call this stretch of ocean Shark Alley for nothing and Great Whites were here long before cage diving started, taking advantage of the huge Cape Fur Seal numbers.”

Steppes’ cage diving partner works with Dyer Island Conservation Trust, who place researchers, interns and volunteers on their boats to conduct acoustic-tagging and tracking of sharks to record their movements and interactions with other marine species. They are also encouraging tourists to submit photographs to assist with compiling a fin-recognition database. “We recently had one of our sharks turn up on the west coast of Australia” the researcher proudly told me.

Scientists estimate that there are only approx 3,500 Great White Sharks in the ocean today – that’s less than the number of tigers roaming the world. Numbers continue to decline due to the growing demand for shark fins and meat in Asia and modern fishing practises such as the use of gill nets. Urgent conservation solutions are required if this great apex predator is to be protected however there are still many unanswered questions about the Great White’s behaviour. What is their life expectancy? How and where do they breed? How do they move from ocean to ocean? These are fundamental questions that urgently require answers if the Great White is to continue terrorising the seas and so if conservation bodies can take advantage of tourism ventures like shark cage diving to help with crucial research, then surely this is a positive thing.

It was my turn to go down in the cage. I tried to spit into my face mask as I’d seen people do this before. “I don’t have any spit” I announced. The Swede offered to assist with his own phlegm, of which he nonchalantly declared to have in copious supply. The next hour can only be described as one of the most exhilarating experiences I have had in years. The crowning moment came when a Great White, the size of a large caravan with teeth like gigantic Stanley knives, swam with malevolent intent straight up to the cage and rubbed his sizeable snout up against the bars, less than a foot from my face-mask. Whether he was sizing up the cage and its occupants, working out if we would make a decent meal or not, we’ll never know. What is for sure is that if Great Whites remain a mystery, to both the general population and more significantly, marine biologists, these magnificent animals will move closer to extinction.

Meerkat Magic

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An (unscheduled) early morning disturbance meant my 5.30am wake-up call was not received with joy. But I had a pre-arranged rendez-vous with meerkats that morning which I was certainly not going to miss…

The crisp early morning air of the Oudtshoorn semi-desert soon wakened my senses and a small group of us were shortly on our way to view these intriguing creatures just 20 minutes down the road from my overnight stay at a charming guest house set on an ostrich farm just outside Outdshoorn.

Devey, our guide, was quiet, unassuming and extremely knowledgeable about all things meerkat. He runs a conservation research project, and his morning and evening daily visits to this patch of 2km squared land where these wild but habituated meerkats roam gives us some insight into his profound understanding of this type of mongoose.

My concern on this particular morning as the sun rose over the mountains in the distance? What if these meerkats proved a no-show? The scenery was spectacular but I was getting a little chilly and not convinced I wanted to spend the next two hours sitting in a fold-up chair staring intently at the fauna ahead. Devey seemed unphased by their non-appearance though; he said they sometimes liked to have a bit of a lie-in and – as there was a definite nip in the air – could I really blame them?

Soon however, one by one, meerkat after meerkat emerged as if by magic out of a tiny hole in the ground. My first reaction? Very small and
surprisingly rather adorable. In front of me stood a family of mongoose, ten to be precise, each one facing the east, standing on their back feet and resting on their tail, as they soaked up the early morning sun for warmth. They also kept up a continuous predator check in all directions.

I think Devey probably got bored with my constant stream of questions, so fascinating were these tiny animals, but before I had built up a quick symposium of meerkat knowledge.

For example, did you know that – in this area of the eastern cape, their biggest predator is the human, or that they work and travel as a group all day, constantly on the look-out for anything threatening. When it comes to food though, each to their own; absolutely no sharing. (They will bite you if you interfere with their eating – not ideal pet material I would suggest). They also have incredible hearing and eyesight – they could see a plane flying so high in the sky above us that human vision did not allow … handy for identifying incoming UFO’s I guess.

The ‘dominant female’ meerkat normally gives birth twice a year to between 5 and 8 babies. Sadly one of the babies from her last birth had been snatched by a Cobra whilst in the den, the second biggest threat to a young meerkat’s existence. I was not very happy to learn that I was at that moment sitting within approximately 10 metres of a cobra, but Devey had won my trust and respect and his lack of concern was contagious.

So if you have plans to head off down Route 69 / The Garden Route, I would recommend you drop in on Devey and the meerkats. Don’t be put off by the adverts! The chance to see these animals as the sun rises amidst such majestic surroundings is really rather special. Contact our Africa team for more details on 01285 880 980.

Watch out for the Leopard Toad

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If you are out and about this month in the Cape peninsular beware of a cold and rainy night as the endangered endemic Leopard toad will be coming out to mate.

A usually sedate creature it survives in the gardens and fynbos of the region but, for 10 days a year they become frenzied mating machines. Males and females will travel long distances to breeding ponds and in the process they become the target of predators and cars. If you travel on the roads in the cape peninsular this month you will see many signs asking road users to be aware of toads crossing roads. The toads can move up to 5km from their place of residence to find a breeding site and a mate. They have to cross roads, homes and building sites to get there.

Fortunately every year volunteers step up to help save the toads (which become an indicator species for our biodiversity). These volunteers do toad patrols at night helping the toads who are distracted by their hormones to cross the roads, control traffic and save the next generation of Western Leopard Toads.

For more information about travelling in the Cape, contact Illona on 01285 650 011.

Royal Madikwe Updates

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We bring the latest news from our friends at Royal Madikwe Lodge in Greater Madikwe, South Africa.

We would like to take this opportunity to introduce Royal Madikwe’s resident Klipspringer – “Bokkie”. This young male antelope has been spending much of his time within Royal’s fences and around the water hole, but never venturing further than that. The lodge seems to bring him comfort and on one particular day, he made himself quite at home as he came strolling through the main lodge where he exited through the sliding doors, walked out onto the ledge above the breakfast buffet, posed for a few seconds before leaping onto the deck next to them and then onto the ground where he continued to graze as if this was the most normal thing for a dashing young Klipspringer to do!

After much laughter, we thought it would be great to share this with you and if you have been to Royal, you may have seen little Bokkie around the lodge, if not, we welcome you to come and meet him at Royal Madikwe.

Dining with Madikwe’s African Elephants seems to have been a regular occurrence in June! Massive herds of these friendly giants pass the lodge almost daily to have a drink at the Royal water hole situated right in front of the lodge.

Decadent meals, created by our Chef – Amos Ncube – have been a delight, with some lavish dishes and new creations!

There have been incredible sightings this month and a lot of action with the shifting of male lion coalitions into the Royal Area. Royal Madikwe has been in the middle of the change. The Local territorial Male Lion – Kgala- who is a massive Kalahari male lion, is being pushed out by the Naledi brothers aged around 8 years old.

In the past few weeks there have been numerous groupings of female lions around Royal Madikwe Lodge and this has definitely been the reason for this shifting of territories. Royal have been very fortunate to have one of the remaining waterholes in the park that still has water and this has lead to a significant amount of action around the lodge. The local male leopard has been a regular sighting from the lodge balcony, lions everywhere, wildogs have killed twice this month at the Waterhole and we still get great action from the dogs who love to hunt around the Royal Lodge Game Fence.

For more information about Royal Madikwe Lodge, or for further advice about travel to South Africa, please contact our Africa experts on 01285 650 011.

Kwazulu Natal Wonderland

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Many people believe that in South Africa, the only beautiful and safe places to visit are the wine lands, in the shadow of a mountain with a flat top and the Kruger Park for wildlife. But alas no, the country’s strap line is not “a world in one country” for nothing!

I wanted to talk a bit about the area that I love most and one that is often overlooked but is so wonderful for both genuine South African Culture and wildlife, for beauty and wilderness, good roads and fine food. Not to mention some of the best accommodation in the land.

Having grown up in South Africa I was bitten by the travel bug early in life as my parents not only travelled within South Africa but also across the continent. My fondest memories are when, deep in the night, my father would bundle us into the gold Chevrolet station wagon and we would sleep flat in the boot, on beds of foam until the dawn broke. We would be passing van Reenen’s pass, the highest point in the Drakensburg. I remember lying there studying the clouds and the mountains as I couldn’t tell them apart. My father would tell us ghost stories along the way about the old woman who hitches a ride and then disappears from the seat beside you.

We would travel further into the rising sun past Zulu huts and endless fields of thorn trees. Eventually the Pongola River Bridge would mark the start of our holiday and the air would become soft and fragrant with a hint of humidity, just enough to make your hair curl. (As a student, on route to my place of holiday employment, I would cross the bridge and feel the pang of joy as if returning home). You would never say I was a Transvaal girl, I am at heart a trans Pongola girl with Natal firmly etched in my heart.

As the Chevrolet bumped up to our chalet on the St Lucia coast we just had about enough time to pile out of the back window and head straight for the dunes whilst my mother unpacked the car and my father got the boogie boards out. At night we sometimes combed the beach for signs of the leatherback turtles who came to lay their eggs. In the day we visited the nearby Hluhluwe and Unfolozi Game reserves or learned about crocodiles at the education centre near St Lucia. However, most of the time we enjoyed the endless wild expanses of beach, jumping from the dunes into the soft warm golden sand, the crash of waves in our ears.

It was like that for many years, I studied and worked in the area 12 years later and was the one who fed the crocodiles at the education centre and tagged the turtles on the beach, I walked patrol with the Zulu game guards in Hluhluwe and guided visitors through Umfolozi. Later on I worked at Phinda Game reserve which was still in its infancy, where I was later head guide at Forest Lodge. The days were packed with wildlife and adventure either on the boat, in the canoes or on walks.

My favourite past time with my guests was to encounter White Rhino on a grassland plain called the pineapple fields (this is because the reserve was reclaimed from farmland), check the wind direction and walk toward the rhino. Then at a safe distance we would judge the direction the rhino were grazing towards and then find a termite mound, get comfortable, down wind and we would wait. In a matter of minutes the rhino would have grazed up to the foot of the termite mound. We were safe as we were reasonably high up and down wind and the rhythmic crunch from the rhino’s mouths and the thrill of being so close was mesmerizing. It made for great dinner conversation and often afforded a slap on the back for my tracker and me by even the most hardened of safari addicts.

Natal also features the wonderful culture of the Zulu and the drama of the Anglo, Zulu and Boer wars echo across the plains and from the vantage points afforded by the brilliant hillside landscapes. The battlefields of Rourkes Drift, Fugitives Drift and Spionkop all offer testament to the men who fought and lost their lives there. The mountains of the Drakensberg are so high and majestic that I sometimes wonder why the flat top of Table Mountain gets all the attention and to hike or ride in the Drakensbergalong well marked paths is a challenge and a delight. A hot drink and a warm fire awaits you on your return and the views are spectacular. The port town of Durban was always a fun town and still is considered the party capital of Natal.

If you have experienced the Cape and the wonderful South African hospitality and you are looking for more, then please talk to me, Illona. I can get to the heart of Natal and we can have a long chat about the beauty, the wonder, the whales and the Wildlife.

Have a look for some inspiration for your holiday to South Africa.

Please contact Illona on 01285 650 011 for more information and advice.

Cape Town Easter escape

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Cape Town is very popular over the Easter weekend when runners, families, friends and chocolate lovers descend on the Mother City for a combination of sun, sea, mountains and fun! There is so much to do and see that we’ve listed our top ten’s below to help provide a little inspiration.

*Top Ten things to do with children in and around Cape Town *

1. Take the cable car up table mountain and enjoy a picnic on top.
2. Swim with penguins at Boulders beach.
3. Visit the baboons at Cape Point and scout for whales off the coast.
4. Visit the cheetah sanctuary at Spier, with a picnic of locally produced food and wine afterwards.
5. Eat fish and chips at Hout Bay.
6. Get hands on at the fifth biggest aquarium in the world, the Two Oceans Aquarium.
7. Visit the theatre of Stars at the planetarium.
8. Witness the noonday cannon fire from signal hill.
9. Take a boat ride to Robben Island and learn the history of south African democracy.
10. Visit the statue of Able Seaman Just Nuisance at Simonstown,
overlooking the harbour.

*Ten additional things to do in Cape Town*

1. Enjoy a harbour cruise and watch the city wake up.
2. Try a thrilling horse ride along Noordhoek beach.
3. Visit the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens and enjoy tea at the tea room.
4. Enjoy a behind the scenes tour or a live game at Newlands Cricket
stadium.
5. Stock you cellar at the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction.
6. Fish for your own lobster off the coast at Simons Town.
7. Stop in at the Brass Bell for a beer or a meal overlooking the sea at
Kalk Bay.
8. Join an African Drumming session at the Drum Cafe – Pumphouse.
9. Picnic at the remote and unspoilt MistyCliffs Beach.
10. Spend the night in an airstream caravan on a rooftop in the city.

With so much on offer, Easter in Cape Town is pure pleasure for the whole family and it’s not too late to book something for this Easter.

Please contact Illona to find out more about availibilty or planning your
holiday to Cape Town, on 01285 650 011.

Save the Rhino

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The game rangers on patrol in the Kruger National Park have reported that they have found eight rhino carcasses which have been dehorned.

The high demand for rhino horn used in traditional medicine in Asia is causing the gradual depletion of the Rhino Species. Just a few years ago the Northern White Rhino Species was lost to poaching and after 443 South African Rhinos were poached in 2011, there is grave concern for the survival of the species.

It is said that the best way to protect the rhino is for the private reserve owners to keep them on private land where they are more likely to be better protected. It is on these private reserves that you will find the lodges that we support such as Lion Sands who are a family owned private reserve and passionately support the Save the Rhino Foundation.

Safari Vet School

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Tonight at 8pm tune into the new ITV series Safari Vet School.

Filmed and set in one of the world’s toughest vet schools in Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, 32 of the UK’s top university students try to learn the skills needed to survive in the bush!

TV vet Steve Leonard mentors the group through their physical and emotional rollercoaster as they face challenges like never before. Working with everything from lions to rhinos, to giraffes and elephants, many have never even seen these exotic species, and none have worked with wild animals before.

The series should make for exciting watching as the first episode follows the young vets pinning down animals barely under sedation, with teeth and claws bigger than the average household pet they must keep their wits about them to stay out of harm’s way.

For more information about Amakhala Game reserve, or planning a safari to South Africa, to see these animals up close and personal, please contact Illona on 01285 880 980.

Babylonstoren cannot be put in a box!

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Babylonstoren cannot be put in a box and labelled as just another wine lands property. It’s quirky – a rather unusual adjective to describe a Cape Dutch winery and fruit farm which dates back to the 1700’s!

It effortlessly manages to combine its history (such as 19th century Delft pottery) with modern and luxurious guest cottages which are set on either side of an oak-lined avenue.

The eclectic mix of delights continue with the extensive gardens. It’s not an every day occurrence that a walk around a garden includes an invitation to stretch out on an indigenous lawn of flowering chamomile and the rather pleasant experience of eating a day lily (the farm has more than 300 varieties of edible plants)!The result is delightfully refreshing and intriguing and I haven’t even touched on the food yet…

Breakfast in Babel restaurant was a gastronomic delight which included fresh fruit and vegetable juices, muesli ‘cakes’, beetroot yoghurt and French toast (served with great coffee).

Babylonstoren will start producing its first wines next year, but you are right in the heart of the winelands here, so if its wine you’re after, you will be spoilt for choice with Franschhoek and a myriad of wine estates just a stone’s throw away. I would, however, suggest doing Babylonstoren justice by staying here for three to five days and savouring its magic.

This is the sort of place that challenges the world-weary traveller. There is very little ‘pomp and ceremony here’ and it leaves you to decide between going for a bicycle ride, going for a walk to see fruit being picked in the orchards or vines being pruned, enjoying a long lazy day in front of the fireplace soaking up some of the great literature on offer (the books have obviously being chosen by someone who loves reading) or waking up early to see the snail-harvesting ducks (affectionately referred to as ‘the workers’).

I sadly wasn’t in time to see the opening of the new Babel tea house, but it is an exceptionally good reason to return!

Whether you are a keen gardener, on honeymoon or simply looking to stay somewhere a little special and a little different, then Babylonstoren will tick all the boxes!

Contact Mandy on 01285650011 to discuss staing at Babylonstoren, or for advice on planning your holiday to South Africa.

A day in Life at Garonga

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“Down here in not so sunny Garonga we have been blessed with rains. First of all though many congratulations to Martijn and Annelies for cracking the bottle, tying the knot at a splendid wedding here!The veldt is looking really lush and green now after having had 236mm since the season began in October. Plenty of thunder and lightning storms which also blew our PC’s. To be honest recently we have had hardly any sun for about 2 weeks or so. But it is now back, so don’t start unpacking yet. The game viewing has been haphazard with some really splendid moments, and some frustrating with the bush being so thick. The reserve took off 15 Ellies and relocated them in a new reserve just north of Pretoria. They are well settled in by now, and the others that remain have resumed normality as it is an extremely stressful time for them during the operation which worked very smoothly thanks to Ross (reserve warden) and his wife, Auds (research ecologist; should also be reserve psychologist!). We have purchased a rhino cow, hopefully pregnant, and the new 4 lions we swapped have all settled in well. For further information on Garonga, please contact Illona, our South Africa specialist on 01285 650 011.

*Garonga Recipe* French toast with crispy bacon and brie cheese drizzled with honey for a single serving. 3 slices bread 3 rashers bacon Single wedge brie cheese 2 large free range eggs Zest of lemon Zest of orange Honey Oil Cut out the centre of the bread with a round shape cutter (optional.) Beat the eggs lightly while adding the orange and lemon zest. Heat some of the oil in a saucepan and fry the bacon until crispy and set aside. Heat the rest of the oil and when hot dip the bread into the lemon and orange beaten egg and fry off. When the bread is slightly golden brown in color remove from heat layer the egg bread, bacon and brie cheese. Drip a drop of honey on top for the final touch and enjoy! “Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food” Hippocrates

*An excerpt from the Garonga Diary in November*

Brown Hyena spotted at Pafuri Camp – South Africa

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It would be safe to say that July was the month of unusual sightings for visitors to Pafuri, as a brown hyaena was spotted twice on the western side of the concession towards the end of the month. They also had a great sighting of common reedbuck along the Limpopo floodplain. There is a very small population of these antelope along the floodplains and they are very elusive, there strange alarm call being the only clue to their presence in most cases.

The Robertson Wine Festival, South Africa

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Now five years old, the Robertson Wine on the River will take place 14 – 16 October 2011.This idyllic open-air wine festival takes place on the banks
of the Breede River at the Goudmyn Farm between Robertson and Bonnievale. Just image a setting with the river flowing by, vineyards all around, beautiful hills and shading poplar trees. Add to that live music, plenty of wines to taste, picnics and other local produce – and you’ve got yourself a spring festival not to be missed! maybe you would like to stay at Le Quartier Francais whilst you are in the area.

contact Illona on 01285650011

Rights for Rhinos

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Rhinos constitute one of the highly-regarded “Big 5” animals of African wildlife, which include elephants, lions, leopards and the Cape buffalo. South Africa is home to approximately 21,000 rhinos, more than any other country in the world, unfortunately, Black rhinos are currently listed as critically endangered – with only about 4,200 remaining in existence.

Since 2007, the number of rhinos killed in South Africa has risen sharply from 13 to 87 in 2008! A year later, figures rose again to an alarming 120 kills. 2010 however, was the worst year in the Country’s history, which saw 333 animals slaughtered for their horns and in 2011 the country is once again heading for catastrophe, with a total of 174 animals having been killed so far.

Halting the current wave of poaching is going to prove extremely difficult and if unsuccessful the hard-won population increases achieved by conservation authorities during the 20th century will be completely reversed. Especially as in their bid to avoid law enforcement, these sophisticated poachers are using ‘high-tech’ gear, including night-vision equipment, veterinary tranquilizers, silencers and helicopters. If not stopped in its tracks, South Africa’s Rhino populations will soon fade to critically low levels, and again be pushed to the point of extinction.

Adding to the vulnerability of the rhino is the ‘heightened’ demand for rhino horn, which has long been prized as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine. More recently it has also been claimed to possess cancer-curing properties; although there is no evidence to support these claims. Only a concerted and unified national response by law enforcement agencies, government departments and local communities will provide these magnificent animals with a realistic chance to halt this massacre.

In order to reach as many South Africans as possible, Sboniso and Paul plan to walk from Musina in the Limpopo Province, to Cape Town in the Western Cape. This will be a distance of around 2,000km. By doing this they will bisect the country and create a path of awareness along the way.

Education is at the top of their list, and as such they will visit as many schools as they can – hoping to talk to our young people about the importance of conservation. They expect to attract significant media attention along the way, which will assist them greatly in getting their message across. Sboniso and Paul are also hoping to raise funds to support the growth of a greater national awareness of the rhino-poaching problem. The funds will be administered by the Game Rangers Association of Africa and a small committee will assign funds to genuine and reputable organizations, projects and/or reserves, once the project has been completed.

Funds raised will be used to:

– Improve and implement better education and skills development programs that address the issues of improved conservation and anti-poaching.
– Procure better equipment to assist conservation field staff in the employ of organisations tasked with rhino protection.
– Assist with better intelligence gathering for relevant reserves including their joint ventures with the law enforcement agencies involved.

Should you require more information, wish to make a donation or support this project in some other way, please contact:

Paul Jennings
Physical address: Umfolozi Game Reserve KZN
Tel: +27 35 55O 8479,
Fax: +27 35 550 8479
Cell: +27 79 879 1073
Email: paul_jennings@vodamail.co.za
WWW.RIGHTSFORRHINOS.CO.ZA

Black Mamba Holiday Highlight

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I had been planning this family holiday for some time. It was my mother’s 83rd birthday and all my siblings (yes, all six of them) joined us. We all headed off to Morokuru in the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.

I wanted to find a lodge that could accommodate all eight of us in style and comfort and that could cater for my darling siblings’ varied culinary wish lists. So, I chose a new property in the Morokuru family, the Farm House, which has recently been built to a very high five star standard and I can definitely say we were not disappointed.

The location, the surroundings, the staff, vehicles, food, wildlife, even the African singing and all of the extra attention to detail (albeit subtle) for my elderly mother could not be faltered.

Peter, the chef at Morokuru Farm House, really stepped up to the occasion. My sisters do not eat dairy and so he produced fresh breads, muffins, cakes and such a variety of savoury dishes with such ease that we all seemed to put on at least 10kgs in weight. Mother has two new metal hips and a variety of other ailments and, in order to ensure she was nice and comfortable, the staff provided raised seating, extra cushions for game drives and personal assistance with breakfast. The need to accommodate for mother’s wheelchair, not to mention her slower pace never seemed to bother the staff. With everything they did or offered, the response was always: “No problem” or “You are welcome”.

Paul, the game driver and his guide, Tom, were always the first to know where to find the game and we saw the big five in abundance, many times. In fact, we saw wild dogs, four-month-old lion cubs, a pride of 17 lions, jekels making a kill, cheetah and, the highlight of my trip, two black mambas’ dancing about in the bush in a mating courtship. The longest and fastest venomous snakes in Africa just ignored our jeep and twisted and curled as if to dance a show just for us. It was quite amazing and not surprisingly my video footage has a nervous shake!

If you are going to celebrate a birthday or make any occasion special, I think doing it African style is a must. My mother’s birthday celebrations lasted three days. From the lodge decorated with orange balloons and the staff singing Happy Birthday throughout the day, to personalised messages on the breakfast plate, hand made (dairy free) birthday cakes and all the highlights of elephant back riding and viewing the big five….. the list goes on and on. It really was the most memorable trip and one I will never foI had been planning this family holiday for some time. It was my mother’s 83rd birthday and all my siblings (yes, all six of them) joined us. We all headed off to Morokuru in the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. I wanted to find a lodge that could accommodate all eight of us in style and comfort and that could cater for my darling siblings’ varied culinary wish lists. So, I chose a new property in the Morokuru family, the Farm House, which has recently been built to a very high five star standard and I can definitely say we were not disappointed.

The location, the surroundings, the staff, vehicles, food, wildlife, even the African singing and all of the extra attention to detail (albeit subtle) for my elderly mother could not be faulted.

Peter, the chef at Morokuru Farm House, really stepped up to the occasion. My sisters do not eat dairy and so he produced special fresh breads, muffins, cakes and such a variety of savoury dishes with such ease despite the challenge they gave him that we all seemed to put on at least 10kgs in weight.

Mother has two new metal hips and a variety of other ailments and, in order to ensure she was nice and comfortable, the staff provided raised seating, extra cushions for game drives and personal assistance with breakfast. The need to accommodate for mother’s wheelchair, not to mention her slower pace never seemed to bother the staff. With everything they did or offered, the response was always: “No problem” or “You are welcome”.

Paul, the game driver, and his guide Tom, were always the first to know where to find the game and we saw the big five in abundance, many times. In fact, we saw wild dogs, four-month-old lion cubs, a pride of 17 lions, jekels making a kill, cheetah and, the highlight of my trip, two black mambas dancing about in the bush in a mating courtship. The longest and fastest venomous snakes in Africa just ignored our jeep and twisted and curled as if to dance a show just for us. It was quite amazing and not surprisingly my video footage has a nervous shake!

If you are going to celebrate a birthday or make any occasion special, I think doing it African style is a must. My mother’s birthday celebrations lasted three days. From the lodge decorated with orange balloons and the staff singing Happy Birthday throughout the day, to personalised messages on the breakfast plate, hand made (dairy free) birthday cakes and all the highlights of elephant back riding and viewing the big five….. the list goes on and on. It really was the most memorable trip and one I will never forget.