Sunday, 3 January 2010

Day 10: Punda Maria to Sabie

Wednesday 5th August 2009

Having tried (and failed) to get a good sighting of lion, and knowing that a pride had been spotted in the area the previous day, Harriet and I decided that it was worth one last shot before leaving the park. We set off as soon as the gates opened, just as the sun was coming up, and drove around the loop close to the camp. Despite going very slowly in both directions, there was still no sign of the elusive lions. Quite a lot of other game, though, including: a lilac-breasted roller on its roost, kudu, mongoose and a herd of impala, some of whom were rutting.

Resigned to the fact that we'd need to return to the park another year in order to see any big cats, we packed up our stuff from the bungalow and went to the restaurant for a hearty breakfast. Since we were sitting virtually under a "sausage fruit" tree (only this time without any warning signs) it seemed like a good idea to take a picture of them for future reference. We then filled up the car with fuel and headed slowly for the Punda Maria gate.

Once outside the park it soon became clear that life was very different: exclusively black, as far as we could see, and obviously very poor. Domestic cattle wandered across the equivalent of a trunk road, and the rondavel dwellings were built out of necessity rather than as a quaint attraction for the (predominantly white) visitors.

The road then turned South through a flat, dusty and featureless landscape. This went on for mile after mile, so luckily Izzi had brought a very long Harry Potter book to keep her occupied: a good job, as there was very little to see out of the window.

In the early afternoon the landscape began to change into one which was obviously more prosperous and heavily farmed (i.e. white). The majority of the plantations were citrus fruit - mainly oranges, which were being carried around by the lorry-load. There were also lots of small, private game reserves which bordered onto Kruger Park. One of the local road signs indicated the kind of hazards to expect in this neck of the woods...

Gradually, out of the haze, a range of hills appeared in the distance - insignificant at first, but more and more impressive the closer we got to them.

The ascent was steep and spectacular, with impressive drops at the sides of the road. Half way up there were a set of stalls where the local women were selling cloth, bowls, carvings and the like, so we stopped to buy a few items. It was extremely hot with lots of flies, so we made our purchases and got back into the air conditioned car! When we reached the "summit", there was a natural expectation that we would, somehow, go down the other side. Well, there wasn't another side: just a huge plateau covered in patches of bright emerald green, which looked a bit like astroturf compared to the dry and dusty surroundings! We had arrived at the start of the Mpumalanga Panorama Route.

The landscape became more wooded with pine plantations as we got further South, and significantly hillier too. We soon encountered evidence of logging activity, and saw several huge articulated trucks carrying tree trunks. I have no pictures of this part of the journey as I was busy driving the whole time and there was nowhere to stop.

Eventually we arrived in the town of Sabie, and checked into the Jock Sabie Lodge - the South African equivalent of a motel. There were a set of bungalows in an enclosure (protected by barbed wire and an electric fence) around a garden and communal braai. Our bungalow was well equipped, but - in true South African style - only some of the items worked, and then only sporadically.

Being tired and hungry, we then went in search of food (and, in Izzi's case, an internet cafe). Harriet also found a fly fishing shop for me, and we arranged for me to hire some equipment in a couple of days' time so that I could try the local river. The food and drink was purchased from a large, modern SPAR, including beef steak and "Boerwors", the local spicy sausage. After our day-long drive, we simply collapsed in the evening and had a relatively early night.

Day 9: Shingwedzi to Punda Maria

Tuesday 4th August 2009

Dinner in Shingwedzi involved rather too much wine, resulting in a rather disturbed night and a trek to the communal ablutions block at 4am! The others got up about 6:30, and after a minimalist breakfast of bread and marula jam, we packed the car and set off on the road going North. There wasn't a great deal of game around, but we did see the occasional zebra in the vicinty of one of the picnic sites. This one was pretty spectacular, having been built around (and incorporating) a large fever tree.

The journey to Punda Maria didn't take us as long as we expected, and we arrived at the camp around 10am. Having tried (and failed) to check in, we decided that "second breakfast" was in order: Harriet and I were relatively abstemious, but Izzi went for lamb stew and rice served in a cauldron!

Suitably fortified we set off again, heading for the Pafuri picnic spot on the banks of the Luvuvhu river. On the way we managed get our first good sightings of a warthog family, a grey heron fishing and a herd of eland.

We were also entering baobab country, and there were large numbers of the trees dotted all over the place. They towered over everything else around, and lent a very distinctive character to the area. Certainly, much more interesting than mile after mile of mopani bushes!

By lunchtime it was very hot, so we were glad of the air conditioning in the car. From Pafuri we travelled East along the banks of the Luvuvhu, and saw some of the best game of the entire trip. As well as lots of nyala, there were monkeys, warthog, elphant, zebra, bee-eaters and (as Izzi rather charmingly put it) "rumpy pumpy hippos". The river was also lined by dozens of fever trees, which looked absolutely stunning in the sunshine.

Eventually the road led to a place called Crooks Corner - so called because of its smuggling history. The junction of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers is also the boundary between three countries: South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The confluence of the rivers leads to a wide, sandy area where the water is shallow - relatively easy to cross on foot, in other words. As a result the location was used by those wishing to avoid the more formal border crossings, but in doing so they ran the risk of an encounter with one of the many crocodiles which inhabited the area!

We drove slowly back to Punda Maria (with the air conditioning full on) and headed to the shop for cold beer and ice cream. Unusually, the person who served us was a middle-aged white woman, and she was obviously keen to chat. We complimented her on the way the camp was maintained, and the excellent facilities in the bungalows themselves. The lady commented that the camp used to be run by "blicks" and as a result, nobody came. We made our excuses and left at this point...

I then spent the next hour fixing a suitcase which had decided to jam with its handle fully extended - so much for the "lifetime" guarantee! Dinner was eaten outdoors by the light of hurricane lamps, one of which had been lit and hung outside each of the bungalows. A wonderful atmosphere, saddened slightly by the knowledge that we'd be leaving the park the following day.