My favourite animal is the elephant. Always been. It’s just that it’s impractical to have one as a pet, so I took a cat.
And I wanted to be a paleoanthropologist, had I not born in Italy, and not in the need for a paid job.
And one of my favourite books is “Heart of darkness” by Joseph Conrad, and also a small, clever Italian book by a Luigi Guarnieri, named “Tenebre sul Congo”, which is a sort of biography of “Heart of darkness”. Then came Nadine Gordimer, and her “A guest of honor”. And after that, Doris Lessing, with her “African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe”. And finally, Ryszard Kapuscinski and his travel books, “Heban” to name just one.
So I knew, I knew that I had a strong disposition to develop Mal d’Afrique.
That’s why I kept a safe distance, being to Africa only once, to Egypt in 2007: no elephants in sight.
But then last February a combination of different factors led me to have 2 weeks free, in mid april. Where to go? Not to ski, too late in the season. Not to the sea: in the Mediterranean Sea, it’s still cold and even in the Caribbean daylight time is still very short. Not to the Northern emisphere in general, as april is cold and rainy nearly everywhere. To the southern emisphere, but not to Australia or South America, ‘cause 2 weeks are too few to absorb the travel time plus the jet lag… so not much was left, and my husband immediately seized the opportunity. In no time he had organized a mini-tour of South Africa, bought plane tickets, booked accommodations… even rented the car! I suspect that he would also be ready to pack my suitcase, if I didn’t get a move on!
So we went, and it has been every bit as exciting as I expected it.
We visited only two areas: first the Mpumalanga region in the north-east (where the Kruger Park is) and then Cape Town area; our itinerary, as always, was decided in order to minimize the cost of plane tickets.
So after landing in Johannesburg we made the 4-hrs drive to Hazyview, where we were staying at the Rissington Inn. Our room was one of the most spacious we have ever had, and the view from our patio made me feel Hemingway!
The following day we drove to Graskop and then, on R532 all the way up along Blyde River Canyon: situated in the northern part of the Drakensberg escarpment, it is the third largest canyon in the world. Along its 25 km there are a number of falls and scenic viewpoints, but all the canyon is amazingly beautiful with its red sandstone walls and lush vegetation. It reminded me of Australia’s Kakadu National Park in Northern Territory.
We also visited Pilgrim’s Rest, a small village dating back to the gold rush, where we had a small stroll through the historical (140 years old!) buildings and the “traditional” “draught in the famous Church Bar” at the Royal Hotel, but due to a power shedding (very common in this part of South Africa) we could not visit Alanglade House Museum.
The following day we drove through the Kruger National Park . We got inside at Paul Kruger gate in and got out at Orpen Gate some 6 hours later.
You have to realize that Kruger Park is big, so very big that there are 414 km between the northernmost and the southernmost entrance. We visited a small, small part, and yet, we saw so much.
We were not ten minutes into the gate that a rhino decided to cross the road immediately ahead of our car… I had not even prepared the camera yet! We saw hundreds of impalas, gnus, zebras; and then giraffes, warthogs, baboons, waterbucks and kudus; and yes, even my beloved elephants. No cats though!
Even though there are many camp sites with supplies and guided tours are available, the park is meant for self-drive and self-catering. The roads vary from tar to well kept gravel, but the speed limit is not given by the quality of the road: you want to drive slow if you want to see the animals. And then you don’t want to have a car crash with a rhino or an elephant, trust me!
Other tips on driving in the Kruger:
1) for your safety you have to stay shut into your car, meaning that not only you can’t get down, but you also have to keep the windows up. Be sure your rental car has air conditioning, and that it works properly.
2) If possible, rent a car which is higher off the ground than the average so you can have better chances of game viewing.
3) Try hard not to be obsessed by the big five: animals are fantastic, but the scenery is even better.
After this brief visit to the park, we headed towards one of the many private game reserves that dot the Kruger border. The private reserves are rather expensive, and not places where you drive around yourself: the rangers take you around on board of high off-road vehicles, and are dedicated to finding you wildlife. This means better photos. In a way, the private reserves give you a greater sense of being in the wilderness as there are no tarred roads or buildings except for the lodges, and you will not be sharing your sightings with a number of other cars. The architecture of this lodges varies, but they have one thing in common: all are beautifully set.
The downside of the private reserve is that the animals get used to get driven around by vehicles, so you’re left with this doubt: an encounter with a lion in the park would be exactly as quiet as the encounter with the ones in the reserve?
Anyway, we were staying at the Kapama River Lodge , and I loved it.
Without seeing any leopard or any cheetah, we drove back to Johannesburg to catch our plane to the Cape Region. Special mention for R36, very scenic route.
First we went to the Cape Winelands region: about an 1-hr drive east from Cape Town, it comprises the earliest European settlement in places whose Dutch-sounding names (Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek…) betray this origin. It is a system of valleys backed by mountains which contributes to the scenery as much as they do the wine.
Of course, now nearly every wine estate has equipped itself with restaurants, and all offer guided tours and wine tasting. We stayed at Rickety Bridge , very romantic looking and with an amazing view.
Finally, we got to Cape Town. Probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, disgustingly favoured by the geography, a natural amphitheatre with the bay in front and the mountains to the back, it is not hard to understand the reason why it became the first permanent European settlement in South Africa. We toured the City Bowl, the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, the hillside communities of the Atlantic Seabord, all the way south to the Cape of Good Hope and the Table Mountain National Park.
We went up on top of the impressively steep Table Mountain with the famous cableway.
We also visited Robben Island, the penitentiary island where Nelson Mandela and many others have been imprisoned during the apartheid. The guided tour is held by actual political prisoners, not without some heart-breaking moments. Trevoyan Guest House, in Tamboerskloof. Very recommended. It is a charming villa, with stylish decor and classy rooms, a lovely garden pool and terrific views from the roof of the terrace. Staff was very kindly and helpful with reservations for dinner.
Plus it is in a comparatively safe area of Cape Town: one evening we even felt like WALKING to the restaurant. And you never feel really safe anywhere in South Africa, what with all those “ARMED RESPONSE” signs, and armed guards, and dogs, and gates, and barbed wire everywhere. Besides, if you don’t count a failed attempt to pick something from our backpack, we never had any trouble, so, as usual, good sense gets you through.