All posts by Chris Harvie

Welgevonden – Well-Found and Well-Founded.

‘You’ve been living in the bush for a long time; you must know how to tell when a zebra is sick.’ Lazarus, our Makweti ranger, is taunting me. I have to admit that I don’t – but this is what is so refreshing about the lodges of the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve. The rangers and staff are firmly in tune with the game and therefore full of fascinating snippets. Sylvester at Mhondoro later tells me that a fork-tailed drongo can imitate as many as two hundred different bird calls. I hadn’t known that either.

The 36 000 hectare reserve was established only seventeen years ago, on the Waterberg plateau north-west of Johannesburg, and its nearest town, Vaalwater, a once-obscure dorpie, now finds itself firmly on the map due to its proximity to Welgevonden and the reserve’s neighbour, the Marakele National Park.

The reserve covers a broad range of different habitats from rocky ravines, studded with low trees, through almost miombo-like woodland to the plains in the south. It is home to more than 50 species of mammal including some more unusual ones: brown hyena, aardvark and aardwolf. There are also fifteen species of antelope due to the fact that the reserve broaches both bushveld and drier biomes, allowing eland, gemsbok and hartebeest to exist alongside the more common impala, klipspringer and duiker.

But one picks up on numerous more subtle differences. All the operators have traversing rights over the entire reserve, for example, rather than by negotiation with other owners, as is the case in some similar set-ups.

There are no road-signs pointing out the lodges and homes that are hidden away in the mountains and, although there are 53 owners, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have the place to yourself. The lodges, only 13 of which are commercial, are limited to 10 guests and seven staff on site and no private vehicles are allowed in. Instead visitors are picked up from the gate by lodge vehicles.

When, in 1993, these 18 farms were all cobbled together to form the reserve, every building and structure that fell into it was flattened and buried in a deep hole, covering up the evidence that there had ever been any cattle on this sourveld.

Speaking to Hennie Roets, an Oom Schalk Lourens type who farmed here for many years before he sold up to the new owners but stayed on as Operations Manager of the reserve, you get a strong impression of the essential pride the former owners have in what has become of their land.

The sections were divided off using helicopters to survey the land and plan the roads but Hennie was on the ground planting crosses to mark the internal boundaries and plotting the 450 kilometres of tracks he would later construct over the hills. ‘Ek het die hele plaas met my voete deurgeloop,’ he says in his matter-of-fact way. (I have covered this entire farm on foot). ‘We used to farm cattle, now we farm elephants. It’s basically the same idea.’

This concept is precisely what makes Welgevonden so interesting. The management of the reserve makes no bones about the fact that this is a form of farming whereby game numbers are controlled just as they are in any such reserve. Here, though, the ongoing revitalisation is more proactive and there’s a refreshing honesty about the difficulties they have faced.

For example, explains conservation manager André Burger, they bring in a klomp of wildebeest that are unaccustomed to living in a reserve with predators. The lions take full advantage of the antelopes’ naivety, often killing more than one at a time. At least lions are gutsy and eat until the plate is clean.

So do lions kill for fun? No – but they make hay while the sun shines, pure opportunists that they are. The wildebeest have to learn quickly and those that don’t become part of the food chain. But predator-aware wildebeest are expensive and hard to come by so it is inevitable that some will be sacrificed during the learning experience.

Welgevonden is well-known for its excellent rhino-viewing but the reserve can support only a carefully-calculated number of the creatures, so they dart a couple of young males and send them off to new homes in the Kgalagadi. With the proceeds of the sale, they can buy more and savvier plains game for the two prides of lion to feed on with rather less ease and abandon. (We watched the rhino-darting and I touched the animal’s mouth, which was as soft as a baby’s cheek – in that second, my entire image of a rhino changed forever.)

This reserve, just like any other, can only cope with a limited elephant population, so they contracept (as they call it, although I am sure it is not a word) the females every year. However, to prevent a breakdown in herd structure, they have recently skipped an identified cow from each herd to allow some young to be born. Last year they gave contraception to one female who, unbeknown to the vet, was already pregnant. The calf was born unaffected. So contraception works and poses no risks to the elephant and once again Welgevonden is at the forefront of the research.

Sourveld, for obvious reasons, supports far fewer animals than the sweet grasses of the Lowveld so the reserve is carrying out ground-breaking work in what they called the Plains Project, whereby areas of open grassland are actively fertilised and mown to stimulate grass growth and change the mineral content and sweetness. This attracts the game to the chosen areas, which are easily accessible for game viewing. The animals keep the grass short, defecate and urinate – a form of bush fertilisation that will ultimately result in these areas becoming self-perpetuating grazing lawns.

And where something is out of kilter in the natural infrastructure, the reserve management is quick to put it right by the most natural means, such as the planned reintroduction of oxpeckers 13 years ago, to counter the residual cattle ticks which were infesting the kudu.

They were busy planning the oxpecker reintroduction, André explains, and awaiting the birds, when the they started to return of their own accord. He feels that this was an indication that the system was starting to function more naturally and that there were no oxpecker-unfriendly pesticides being used in the area. The birds have done extremely well on Welgevonden and the tick numbers have also consequently reduced radically.

Likewise, buffalo were temporarily removed a few years back after an outbreak of corridor disease. Healthy bulls have now been reintroduced to act as sentinel animals to determine whether the disease remains on the reserve after a quarantine period. Fortunately no further indications of its presence have emerged and recently a herd of buffalo has been re-introduced.

In a way, it seems somewhat artificial but in fact it couldn’t be further from that. It is a perfectly-managed microcosm of how the entire planet ought to be run and it is a privilege to be a part of the process, as was explained to me by Sibusiso Vilane, veteran climber of Everest and a renowned motivational speaker, as we looked out over the sweeping views to the west from Nungubane Lodge’s vast deck.

Sibusiso is now deeply involved in the rhino project, keeping tabs on these beasts by sketching them and monitoring their movements. The man is as inspired as he is inspiring and he’s also heavily committed to community work in Vaalwater. The reserve maintains strong ties with the townspeople and such is the enthusiasm for conservation and education here that everybody in Welgevonden seems to be on something of a high.

Including the zebra who, evidently, aren’t sick. How can you tell? Because the mane lies flat when a zebra is in poor health. Thanks, Lazarus. No need to raise them from the dead, then!

The Leopard and the Aardvark

‘Lunch was a good tuna-fish roll with very average salads, on a deck with a huge tree growing through it. Then we went to our rondavel – a round room with a shower tacked on and gas lights. Perfectly adequate and nice hard beds … Dinner was an impala kebab followed by impala steak or fish pie and pineapple crumble.’

So I wrote of Londolozi in May 1983. The rate was R75 per person per night including all meals and game drives. It was more than a month’s salary to a poor hotel barman like me and I don’t think I thought it was worth it.

But it’s thirty years on and things have changed a bit.

On arrival at Founders Camp, our bags make their effortless way to our room, while we follow smiling camp manager Tammy down a winding path to a wooden deck the size of a tennis court and seemingly floating on air above the Sand River, and a glass of seriously moreish home-made iced tea.

In a place dedicated to the taking of magnificent photographs, the style is deceptively simple. For all their lightness and brightness, Londolozi’s five riverside camps blend discreetly into their environs in colours best described as dramatically black and white with superimposed splashes of sepia, matching the enlarged photos of the reserve’s founders gathered on the walls and cleverly picking out the yellows and browns of the veld.

The bedrooms are equally muted in colour, with soft light fauns and creams reflecting the light of the surrounding bush. The Founders Camp rooms have private decks and splash-pools. The massive high-roofed bathrooms have vaulted bay windows which look out into the trees but ensure privacy from human passers-by whilst not excluding the stares of the odd prurient baboon.

Just as the rooms have taken on a whole new dimension, so lunch, thirty years on, is certainly not a tuna-fish roll. Nor is anything average. The salads are imaginative and delicious, as are the gooey quiches, the sliced rare fillet, a chilled gammon, and smoked salmon with sour cream and fresh capers the size of grapes. Then comes cheesecake. Arguably the best in the world.

There are many aspects of this place that match the ‘best in the world’ label. Londolozi has been acknowledged as such in many ways and has been voted, on numerous occasions, one of the 100 top hotels in the world by the likes of Condé Nast Traveler and Tatler magazines.

It is renowned for the world’s best leopard sightings, largely down to its spacious traversing of great swathes of the Sabi-Sand and the combination of open grassland and towering riverine trees. We would see it for ourselves a bit later on. I would also put it out there that the game drive open vehicles are the best in the world; genuinely comfortable, so that you don’t bash your elbow on a sidebar every time your ranger takes on a tree and kitted out with blankets, raincoats and even hot water bottles.

Our ranger, Daniel Buys, has been at Londolozi for more than three years and personifies the ethos of the Varty philosophy – it is a gentle combination of courtesy, consideration and professionalism.

There are no Land Rover jockeys here. There’s no chasing through the bush for the best position; no bragging on the radio. Londolozi is a place of open spaces with room for everyone. And is if to prove it, our afternoon game drive among the elephants, buffalos and rhinos yields one particularly astonishing sighting, which we have to ourselves for almost an hour. We find ourselves completely transfixed by a leopard, lodged up a tree and cumbersomely skinning and eating an aardvark while, below, a skulking hyena is showered with falling fur as it picks up the leftovers dropping through the branches. A first for all concerned. In fact, maybe a regional first? Later, in the creeping dusk, we come across four male lions asleep in the long grass. We have, as if it matters at all, seen the Big Five in one drive.

Tammy had told us – or rather warned us with great glee but not much promise as far as I was concerned – that there will be a traditional South African dinner in the boma on our return and I am dreading it. How could Londolozi let itself down with such a crass and dull event as a boring old braai in a reed-sheltered enclosure?

I should have known better.

The warmth of the circular fire is reflected a hundred times by the light of dozens of paraffin lamps and candles, flickering across white-clothed tables and warm blankets over the chair-backs.

A warming sweet potato soup is followed by a juicy roasted coconut chicken, perfectly rare sirloin and a selection of superb side-dishes, among which the most unlikely success is a samp and bean stew. There follows an exquisite Amarula mousse. More than sated, I turn to my host to say good night. With the deception of the bush, it feels like midnight but it is in fact a whisker past ten o’clock.

Driving through the river in the cold light of the next morning’s dawn in pursuit of a leopard and cubs, I mull over what it is that makes Londolozi so particularly iconic of its genre and I realise that the answer lies in the realisation that this safari, this journey, will always be with me. It had started days before I arrived, in ‘stalking’ the Londolozi website, and it will be with me for months afterwards as I look back at a perfect experience.

How often can you say that? I may not have been saying it in 1983 when Dave and John Varty had recently opened their camp of adequate rondavels and average salads but I am saying it now: Londolozi is perfect.

BASICS
Where it is: Right in the middle of the Sabi-Sand Wildtuin on the western border of the Kruger National Park.

Why go there: For the Before, the During and the After of a safari. Get involved with the Londolozi Family on their website before you travel – maybe buy one or two of their books and apps – and follow the blog to keep up afterwards. I am still following that leopard, three weeks on.

What it has: Five camps with varying high standards of comfort. Choose the camp that suits you best. Children are welcome and should join the Londolozi Cubs for an unforgettable safari, kids’ style.

What it’s like: Well, it’s nothing like it was 30 years ago in terms of facilities, but the emphasis remains on unpresumptuous hospitality, an unobtrusive ethos of community-minded sustainability and top-class wildlife-watching.

Rates: From R6950 per person per night in Varty Camp to R11950 in the Private Granite Suites. Includes all meals and game activities.

Getting there: From the R536 Hazyview-Skukuza road, just before the Paul Kruger Gate, turn left towards the Shaw’s Gate entrance to the Sabi-Sand from where you should allow 45 minutes to reach Londolozi. The route is well signposted.

Contact: See www.londolozi.com. For reservations, call 011 280 6655/6 or email news@londolozi.co.za

Visiting Cape Town, the Mother Ship.

The extra-terrestrial experience begins with a five-minute check-in and a stonking breakfast at Lanseria airport. Never again, I promise myself, will I unnecessarily go through the horrors of OR Tambo. Two hours later, the Mother City. Or as it turns out, the Mother Ship.

To a Lowvelder, it is undeniable. Cape Town is another world. Capetonians are aliens. As alien as Marmite-flavoured rice cakes and Badger-friendly muesli.

“So, what did you do in the holidays?” Two students, recently returned to the centre of their studies, conversation-locked and loafing, dangling kikois and piercings down Dock Road.

“Sleeping. A lot of sleeping. It was good. I love sleeping. You?”

“I smoked a lot of weed”

“Good?”

“Yeah, great. I love smoking weed. Next year I am thinking of getting a job at Afriski, but this year, it was weed.”

The weather is unseasonably warm. The Waterfront brims with childish smiles and confusion-wracked parents orienteering their offspring through the diversions and interpreting the endless stalk-mounted signs in front of strands of candy tape. Everything, it seems, is temporarily elsewhere.

Arts & Wellness Craft Curios is temporarily at the Craft Centre in North Wharf” reads one such piece of advice. Wellness is very Capetonian, I think to myself.

At the Aquarium, more signs: “The Rockhopper Penguins are temporarily in the kelp forest. The Outside Penguins are temporarily on the beach upstairs.” Probably smoking weed, I reckon.

By a dry dock: “Bypass route available when closed.” Bypass route to where? For whom? Dry boats?

Warning Cannons Firing”. Where? At whom?

Cannons notwithstanding, Cape Town is a Hard Hat Area. It will be wonderful when it is finished but for now, just as the pavements are closed, so is the skyline filled with cranes. And while we visitors from up-country herd our mini-hordes from one attraction to the next, Capetonians hibernate rather than don protective clothing to negotiate the detours.

Burying themselves in shopping malls and coffee shops where the ambient temperature is 22 degrees, they wear hibernal long coats and woolly hats. They hang out in supermarkets with specialist sections appealing to unusual diets. Their rice cakes really are Marmite-flavoured – “Rice cakes will never have to be bland and boring again now that we have baked them with lovely Marmite” says the packet, apparently not taking into account that this judgemental measure could be avoided by not making any rice cakes at all. They still eat like polystyrene, however Marmitey. And Cape Town’s  Muesli really is badger-friendly. What can this mean? No badgers were hurt in the harvesting of the wheat flakes or the drying of the raisins? How unsurprising.

A coffee shop in Mouille Point. Clutching a laptop, a pale, scarf-swathed, leather-clad maiden in knee-length boots,  to the not-so-pale waitress: “You can feel the South-Easter coming in. The ‘marntin’ is going to be buried in cloud this afternoon.  I don’t know whether to face the sea or look inland from under the heater. Oh, decisions! What do you think? Anyway, darling, bring me cappuccino, you know the way I like it, not more than half a centimetre of foam and min sprinkle on the top.”

I smile at her over my perfectly normal cappuccino but she ignores me. It all becomes clear. These creatures from another world can’t actually see us. This is not ET. It is The Sixth Sense. They look straight through us because they don’t know we are there. Like the penguins, we are temporarily elsewhere. But it stops them badgering us about the depth of our foam and what flavour rice cakes to buy.

SWAT a Nuisance

Call me a Philistine but, after nine days, I was Pharaoh-ed out, tomb-ed out, hyroglyph-ed out, Egyptian-ed out; instead I amused myself with some birding from the open deck of the Nile Cruiser, surrounded by flappy-stomached Brits baking in the spring sunshine.

The boat was also surrounded – four police launches, manned with blue-bereted, green-jerseyed, machine-gun toting officers. In addition, a couple of mercenary-looking armed youngsters in black T-shirts were perched on the prow of our boat, with two more aft.

“Purple gallinule. In the reeds.” It is a bird one sees in the books, but never seemingly in real life. I had evidently travelled all the way to Egypt to see this one, but in a flash, it disappeared.

“Smyrna Kingfisher!” shouted the only like-minded passenger with glee. “Gone!” And that was how it was.

It was the police outrider dinghies that were scaring off the birdlife, especially when their sirens kicked off. So, I thought, this is what it is like to be on the inside of a blue light brigade. Unlike our politicos, though, I found it embarrassing, noisy and rather patronising.

This high security was, we were told, normal and unconnected to Alexandria’s bombs of the previous week. The Egyptians won’t allow anything to happen to their tourists, and here we were, sitting ducks on the Nile. Literally. Stepping off into one of the towns that stretch along the banks, we were greeted by the mayor and then despatched on a tomb-spotting expedition, shepherded by four bakkies marked SWAT and an armoured vehicle. On one occasion, 70 troops altogether accompanied us into the sandy wastes, where our guide helpfully pointed out that one is most at risk in the desert. From what, he did not say.

We reached a temple. The troops fanned out onto the hilltops; the SWAT team in Kevlar, scarves and helmets, silhouetted against the skyline, alongside every pillar, mounted on every mound, like so many real-life Ninjas.

Egypt has the tenth largest army in the world. Most of it seemed to travel with us. Everything ancient – every well-dead pharaoh, crumbled-nosed sphinx or collapsed temple – seemed, in my photographs, to sport its own incongruous 21st century sentinel with an AK47.

Soon, everything looked the same. Every figure had its left foot forward and a hand outstretched, much like the bullying salesmen in the souks. “Bonjour. Guten Morgen. Special price. Only one pound.” At least our security phalanx spared us the predations of the plastic-pyramid and model-tin-camel sellers. These were English pounds, not Egyptian.

And the place-names! When the guide tried to get us correctly to pronounce Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and Al-Dier-Al-Bahari, I tried in him on Tweebuffelsmeteenskootmorsdoodgeskietfontein and then Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, but he wasn’t playing along. So we stuck with Cheops and Giza, which we could all do.

South African history, I get. I was once a tour guide for the colonial wars. Dead Brits’ graves, I can do; Boer memorials; Zulu monuments. It all seems relevant to our current world. But these venerable Egyptians are so long-dead that nobody knows much about them except their names and the type of furniture they had buried with them. Nobody believes in their gods any more. Nobody is mummified. OK, apart from Walt Disney.

It is as if, in five thousand years’ time, future Azanians will be digging up graveyards in Mpumalanga and knowing only that we were Van Schalkwyks or Mnisis and that we bought our wardrobes at Joshua Doore.

I was musing on all this – and my hopeless cynicism – when somebody shouted: “Duck!”

It was not someone throwing a bomb, though. It was just another gallinule.

South Africans know it is good to be home

She looked at me as if she might collapse and weep.

“There was a fire in the camp site and they lost three huts. An old lady threw out some embers, the wind caught them and set alight to the bush all around. The people were so upset for us.”

Naturally the locals were distraught for this charming (if, unintentionally, patronising) American visitor that she had to witness the devastation that had befallen “her” camp, but they were also showing a stalwart stoicism in being upset for the khaki-clad, camera-toter and not for themselves. It was indeed a big fire. As it happened, whole villages had been reduced to embers. Crops gone. Animals, probably, too. But the first concern was for the visitor’s spoilt holiday.

The destroyed camp was near Thohoyandou, but we meet such folk everywhere and especially in rural parts. Decent, helpful, mildly eccentric South Africans with a polite welcome, exemplary manners and an unending enthusiasm for our land. Every tourist that comes here is blown away by the warmth of everyone they meet. We must remember that.

Hello, how are you? The standard South African greeting. The answer: We are fine. Always. Can’t complain. Sikhona. Ke teng. Goed dankie, self?

Even if we did have a problem, why would we tell a visitor. It doesn’t help to ruin someone else’s day, just because yours isn’t going so well.

We know disaster and we put it into perspective. Fire, flood, pestilence, crime, drought and cold are all part of life and we don’t use them to seek sympathy. In the face of chaos – and let’s face it, we’ve had a bit of that – we pull together with our unique ubuntu-based community spirit. We don’t make our problems other people’s problems.

Middag, Oom.” A young fair-haired child walks towards me across the parking at Kruger’s Mopani Rest Camp. I reply, asking him how he is. He says he is fine, thank you, Oom.

He greets the man behind me, who has a longer chat with the boy and instructs him to tell his parents what good manners he has.

He agrees, with a modest grin.

The Kruger National Park has a particular capacity to bring out the best in us. Recently, near Pretoriuskop, we came across nine sable and we were so chuffed that we made it our business to wave down passing tourists with a “Do you know what that is?”

“I sink it is an antelope …”

“That is an antelope alright. Even better, that is a sable antelope. One of the rarest creatures in the country. You will never see another one.” I wanted them to be as excited as I was – and they did their best. Moments later, we saw six hartebeest. I almost had to be tied down to prevent me going back to find the Germans, tell them and then invite them home for a braai with pap and a 3-bean salad.

Last week, I met an “ex-South-African”, now working the till in a hardware shop in southern England. Although both English-speaking, we spoke Afrikaans because he missed it and using it apparently helped with his homesickness. I told him that I lived ten minutes from the Kruger National Park. He looked a bit upset and then, with a wry smile, told me that he still managed to come “home” every couple of years.

Have you tried ordering a coffee in a café in Europe recently? Often, you are met with a surly get-it-yourself scowl. Order a coffee in South Africa and, once you have fought your way through the tangle of how-are-you-fine-and-yous, and although admittedly you might get a cup of tea, it will arrive with a huge smile.

That’s why most overseas visitors, at the end of their holidays, say “I am going home, sadly.”

The returning South African says “I am going home, and I can’t wait!”

A Kingdom of Discovery

“We just wish we had arranged to stay longer. This is the best secret we have ever unearthed.” The departing couple walked, disconsolate, down the boardwalk towards us, binoculars still in hand, but on their reluctant way to the exit gate. “Look, there’s a pair of broad-billed rollers right here on that branch.”

We could see the birds clearly, only metres away. What a sighting!

The desire to stay longer was common to every visitor we met. Mapungubwe shows the fastest-growing visitor-numbers of any South African National Park and everyone has a favourite aspect to recommend. It is that kind of place. It engenders the enthusiasm to share discoveries; not to allow fellow visitors to miss out.

“Have you seen the Limpopo Valley View yet?” The river sweeps in a great arc from west to east and, beyond it, long views stretch across Botswana’s Tuli Block and deep into Zimbabwe beyond the Shashe.

“You mustn’t forget to walk the length of the boardwalk.” Especially at sunset, we discovered. There is something perfectly apt about the clanging bells of the cattle in the riverbed, accompanied by the overhead whistle of the African Harrier-Hawk (Gymnogene) and the ubiquitous trill of the Woodland Kingfisher, while elephants galumph, oblivious, through the distant mopane.

“Walk the loop from deck to deck at the Confluence Lookout.” Skinks scurry, finches chirrup and hand-sized grasshoppers lurch through the dried-twig bush. Way below, the openness is broken by scampering baboons and dozens of waterbuck in small laagered herds.

The Botswana flag flies from a distant pole, a single reminder of man’s often-absurd imposition of himself on Africa’s open spaces.

Mapungubwe is a glorious place. It offers a combination of impressive beauty, enrapturing history, good wildlife viewing and excellent birding. There are over 400 bird species here, one of a very few places where you can easily see three pairs of broad-billed rollers on one walk – and purple, European and lilac-breasted rollers as well.

The park was established in 1995 and covers an area of 28 000 hectares. Statistically, it may not compare very favourably with its nearest South African neighbour, the Kruger National Park, but size is measured differently in the face of such unspoilt isolation. The elephants on the Khongoni Loop look bigger than most of their Kruger counterparts. Even the temperature reached a whopping 46 degrees when we were there.

And here’s a statistic. One of their baobabs has a 31 metre circumference. That’s 10 old-shape Minis, nose-to-tail.

The statistics tell us nothing, however, about the sheer dramatic beauty of the place; about its dramatic desolation and the stress-numbing stillness.

Mapungubwe is more than a celebration of the wildlife and birds that live there. It is more than a great place to take photographs. It is more than peace and tranquillity in hot windless bush. It is greater than the camps in their extraordinary settings under red, brown and green kloofs and on forest-fringed riverbanks.

To the local people, Mapungubwe has a relevance which transcends all of this, arising from the ruins of Mapungubwe’s own ancient civilisation. Our guide was the charming and erudite Johannes Masalesa, but the enthusiasm of the entire team is enthralling. Most of them are directly descended from a people who reputedly built a significant settlement on this site nearly a thousand years ago. Before Great Zimbabwe. Even before Thulamela.

Mapungubwe Hill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason and Johannes’s tour begins with a riveting talk at an excavation of several layers, showing the different periods of the rise and fall of the kingdom.

“I am not scared now”, Johannes explains before we head up the path to the summit, “but there was a time when I would not even dare to look at this hill, let alone climb onto it.”

And climb onto it we did, the tales ringing in our ears of sharded clay pots, of giant walls and exotic glass beads, of buried chiefs in gold-wired bangles.

Like so many successful new projects, the enthusiasm of the team is contagious, so everyone who visits feels lucky to be part of the driving force that brings an exciting find like this to light.

Mapungubwe’s signature discovery was the golden rhino, which was discovered on Mapungubwe Hill in 1933 and which led to the excavation of the surrounding mountains and the villages in the valley below. The rhino was supposed to symbolise the isolation of the king’s hilltop residence and the solitary nature of his position.

Today, the isolated solitude of Mapungubwe belongs to all of us. And it is magnificent.

 

Basics

Where it is – Right at the top of our country, where we meet Botswana and Zimbabwe on the banks of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees’ albeit that the said river is barely running at the moment.

Why go there – For birds, beasts and borderless beauty. And for Kipling’s Elephant’s Child itself.

What it has – Day visitor facilities and five camps. Leokwe is the most accessible camp, set under sandstone hills and offering 14 fully-equipped self-catering huts, a central braai area and swimming pool. Vhembe, Mazhou and the Limpopo Forest Camp are situated further from the main gate and offer varying levels of more rustic facilities. Tshugulu is a luxury lodge sleeping twelve. A restaurant at the Interpretive Centre offers meals from 8am to 8pm.

What to take –  Stock up on everything right down to firewood and ice in Musina or Alldays. There is a ‘tuck shop’ but it can be short of things to tuck into unless, of course, Fizzers are your thing. There is no fuel in the park.

Rates – Seasonal rates apply. See the website for details. Campsites at Mazhou start from R225 and Leokwe’s cottages come in at R1090 for 1-2 people in low season, rising to R1275 in high season. Vhembe’s cabins fall in between, cost-wise. Conservation Fees apply from R40 per adult. Wild Card accepted.

Getting there – Take the occasionally spectacularly-potholed R572 just North of Messina. The main gate is 75km from Musina and 75km from Alldays.

Contact – Reservations may be made online on the SANParks website www.sanparks.org, by email to reservations@sanparks.org or on the telephone to 012 428 9111 or 082 233 9111

Spilling the Beans

Put out of your mind any preconception of what Ethiopia might look like and replace it with the very opposite. That’s is the kind of country we are dealing with here. A country of contrasts, of surprises, of shattered preconceptions.

Forget drab dry scenery, unhappy faces, sand and interminable droughts and replace it instead with twisting road passes, lush high green mountains, sophistication and smiling faces.

And coffee. Everywhere.  Served by beautiful, genteel, bronze girls behind clothed tables, roasting fresh wild coffee beans with scented herbs in a ceremony of great social significance and gentility. Respect is shown for the process, the beans are presented for the approval of the imbibers and then ground and turned into a strong-enough elixir to make even the most hardened espresso-drinker’s hands shake a little.

Amasekanalo – Ethiopian words are very long and very hard to pronounce. It means thank you.

Ethiopia has much to be grateful for, despite its complicated colonial past and its more recent political turmoil. You would think, for example, given the instability of some of the neighbours – such as Kenya and Sudan –  that the fact that Ethiopia is essentially a Christian country with a forty percent Muslim population might present a few challenges, but not at all. We were told by Muslims that to insult a Christian in Ethiopia, in any way, was a mortal sin. And by Christians, that to insult a Muslim was a mortal sin in the same vein. Problem solved. Ethiopians are, above all, a tolerant, calm, smiling, polite people with a well-earned pride and deeply-entrenched integrity.

The country’s history is a delightfully mangled version of the actual events, interspersed with legend and drama of, often literally, Biblical proportions. They tell you without even the smallest modicum of doubt that they have the Ark of the Covenant (although we know, of course, that Indiana Jones has it) and that the Queen of Sheba (who was beautiful and not half-ape, as some disrespectful non-Ethiopians have suggested) visited Solomon’s Court and consequently bore him a son who was the first Emperor, leading to a long line of Christian Emperors which ended with Haile Selassie (who doubled up as a Rastafarian God in his spare time) and many of whom, at the heads of their massive armies, fought off invasion by hordes of all descriptions, but mostly Italian.

And you believe them, because not to do so would be disrespectful and would risk cutting short the story. It would be like interrupting a Venda guide who was telling you that the Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse had met King Arthur and sired a line of saints in Albania. Why wouldn’t you listen? And just buy into it a little to see what happened? We had three different guides tell us the same story, in great detail – and eventually we almost believed it. The evidence is there, even if it is a bit bonkers.

Our journey began with an over-full Ethiopian Airlines flight arriving, heavily laden with small Ethiopians and their overflowing bags and boxes of blankets, car parts and food processors, arriving two and a half hours late in Addis Ababa. At night, on the day before New Year’s Day. In September.

Yes. They have their own calendar, as well as their own language and alphabet. The Ethiopians actually don’t do anything in quite the same way that everybody else does. We had our first coffee ceremony before we had even found our transport.

We had pre-booked only the first night and a driver awaited us, whistling us through the hybrid ancient and modern streets of Addis to our hotel.

The tiny over-furnished room was full of the kind of surprises that Ethiopia throws at the traveller all the time. Too much clobber and not much of it working. Huge dysfunctional lights, sloping shelves, loose-tapped basins and rocking beds. It was as if there had been an earthquake but nobody had straightened up afterwards. We slept though, and looked forward to breakfast. And coffee.

It is ill-advised and nigh-on impossible to hire a car so we had arranged a driver, who had little English, as promised. It had been clearly pointed out that Semagn was a driver, not a guide, so we armed ourselves with a Lonely Planet and pointed where we wanted to go.

“Chigarillo!” came the response. Every time. It meant ‘No problem’. And when he said it, he meant it. Semagn was the nicest guy in the world, with a ready grin and considerable driving agility, bobbing in and out of donkeys, tuk-tuks, horses and carts, goats, pedestrians and low-flying cars and trucks. The traffic police stopped us once or twice but, contrary to the South African system, waved us on the moment they realised we were tourists.

We had been recommended to stop at the Stelae at Tiya, our first introduction to ancient Ethiopia. These dramatic tombstones pierce the sky with engraved pictorial stories of the life buried beneath, interpreted for us with skill and charm by a local guide from the village and followed, inevitably, by a coffee ceremony in a grass-strewn tarpaulin shelter.

Moving on, and after dropping down into the Rift Valley, we stopped just short of the home of Rastafarianism for our first taste of the local food. Don’t expect to like injera. While the stews and pastes daubed on top of it can be delicious, injera itself is little more than a sour dough pancake. It looks like a cement-flavoured facecloth and tastes only a little better than one. You will get used to it, but I venture to suggest that you will never really like it. There is, however, little alternative in most places.

Shashemane has little to show for its fame as the home of Bob Marley’s religion. Red, yellow and green dominate but you are warned not to be dragged into anything illegal. The town is, however, thought-provoking if only in wondering why it is that so many foreigners want to be Ethiopian and yet so many Ethiopians want to be foreign. Ethiopians talk about the rest of Africa as if they are somehow not part of it.

Our destination, Bale Mountain Lodge, in the national park of the same name, was a wonderful revelation of green-topped peaks and cloudy forests. We particularly enjoyed the hikes and the birding, managing 47 species on our first one-hour walk, including the Abyssinian Black-headed Oriole, White-cheeked Turacos, numerous Augur Buzzards (including melanistic) and the extraordinary Abyssinian Catbird, and all of that despite the rain.

Climbing Gujaralle, the peak in front of the lodge we saw numerous black and white colobus and even a brief glimpse of the rare Bale monkey but it was breath-taking in more than one sense. I mentioned to our guide, Awel, as he skipped effortlessly through the bamboo and swung on the vines that lined the steep slopes, that I was feeling a little jaded, and was relieved when his reply came that we were almost 4000 metres above sea level. Ethiopia is high and much of the Bale Mountains National Park is more than 3800 metre above sea-level. The highest point on the park’s Afro-Alpine Sanetti plateau, Tulu Dimtu, peaks at 4377m.

eWe loved the lodge, we loved the food and we saw a lion; one of very few in the park. Awel had never seen one before and didn’t believe us when we told him what it was. On the way out, though, he showed huge skill in locating the wolves for us. The icing on a magnificent high-altitude cake. 6-metre high lobelias and coffee included.

Another night in Addis Ababa and a short flight to Mekele saw us shifting from wildlife to history. Our guide on this occasion was Kidane, an archaeologist and fluent French- and English-speaker, whose knowledge of the rock-hewn Tigrayan churches of the Gheralta cluster was second to none. He and Sisay, the driver, whisked us up and down the mountains around Adigrat and Hawzen, in and out of churches, including the Maryam and Daniel Korkor, and through the most beautiful scenery imaginable for four days, ending in Aksum with its awe-inspiring stelae, the church that (arguably) houses the Ark of the Covenant and the Queen of Sheba’s palace.

Kidane was a consummate host and we were sorry to part from him and his enthusiastic stories but Lalibela called with its extraordinary churches carved, not out of the rock, but out of the ground. An afternoon in the so-called New Jerusalem could only be the high point, and it was.

But where was everybody? Ethiopia’s history and its architecture are as mind-boggling as Egypt’s and yet we barely saw another visitor, which was wonderful, of course, for us but not good for Ethiopia.

It is the perfect destination for South Africans. Easy to get to. Inexpensive accommodation. Stunning scenery. Friendly people. Go there. It is only the year 2008 in the local calendar and you will genuinely feel eight years younger the moment you step off the plane. And as you tuck into plate after plate of cement-flavoured pancakes, remember that the questionable food fades into insignificance in the face of the sheer magnificence of Ethiopia. And the delicious coffee.

How to go there

Contact Molla Miheretu of FKLM Ethiopia Tours on info@fklm-tours.com for a driver to take you to the Bale Mountains. He can also help with the planning of your entire trip. www.fklm-tours.com.

Alternatively email Red Jackal tours on info@redjackal.net. Kidane and Hailu (our guide at Lalibela) may be booked through them. www.redjackal.net.

Bale Mountain Lodge can be contacted on bookings.bml@yahoo.com. Seewww.balemountainlodge.com.

Visitors travelling internationally on Ethiopian Airlines are entitled to considerable discounts on domestic flights, which operate like buses and – like buses – are often full and late.

South Africans do not require visas in advance when flying into Ethiopia but must buy a visa, currently US$50, at Addis Ababa’s Bole International airport. There are no compulsory vaccinations.

Chris Harvie received no discounts and paid in full for all travel and accommodation.

Sightings in Sussex

Rambling in the English countryside is more perilous than the African bush

I had never before wondered what Priscilla Presley, Marlon Brando, Leonard Nimmoy and King Hussein of Jordan might have had in common.  After all, King Hussein isn’t much of an actor. Neither is Priscilla Presley, actually.

It had been an uncharacteristically warm start to Autumn in England. The trees were turning gold around fields under the plough.

There was a harvest festival in every church but old traditions had adapted. Altars were no longer decked with sheaves of corn but with tins of baked beans. Stalls didn’t brag giant marrows; they held cupcake-decorating competitions. I daubed mine with a proud SA flag, which was roundly approved by the South African vicar.

The English talk a lot.  You bump into them by a stall at a fete or a ploughing match or a garden-opening or an apple fair – there’s a seemingly endless string of lane-clogging local events – and you accidentally ask how they are. They tell you. “My joints are playing up a bit in this damp” or “Coming down with a bit of a cold” or “I am fine but my spaniel’s developing a nasty rash.”

They dawdle. They walk slowly, they think slowly and they order slowly in pubs: “Ooooh, I don’t know. Nothing alcoholic. Gives me headaches. What do you think I should eat, Susan? The Vegetarian Rissotto with Shiitake Mushrooms or the Sea Bass with Mashed Swede?”

Who on earth wants to eat mashed swede with their fish? Or with anything?

We had walked there through the woods. Everyone else was in jeans and gumboots. I was in shorts and vellies. I had slipped on slimy bridges, trodden in badger poo, been stung by nettles, tripped over mossy tree trunks and fallen down holes in the bracken.

It was far more perilous than a walk in the bush at home. We had crossed fields on guilty footpaths and skirted people’s gardens, trying not to stare into their kitchens. We had passed an amateur toy aeroplane show – there are professionals at this game? – and a miniature boat regatta on a murky pond. More events. More eccentrics.

After lunch it was off to the railway and a car park packed with aficionados hoping to board a steam train to East Grinstead. A woman blocked me: “Do you mind if Clemmie takes a picture of your hat? She’s collecting hat photos for school.” Of course she is.

“It’s an African Hat,” I startled Clemmie. “Kudu skin.” But Clemmie wasn’t impressed. Her mother was born in Kenya. Blimey. They traded a ranch in the Rift Valley for this?

I retreated to the men’s lavatory. A sign on the wall: ‘Please adjust your dress before leaving’. I was not wearing a dress, then I realised what was meant.

At a table in the car park, behind woven webs of cable and heavily-wired boxes, sat a bunch of old men with glasses and big noses.

Train spotters. No. Wait. Amateur radio enthusiasts.

They wanted to regale me with the details their pastime and would surely have gone on for hours had a train not steamed in, with a piercing whistle, just in the nick of time. I took a brochure. Priscilla’s call sign is NY6YOS if you want to get in touch. She’s probably free. She certainly won’t be talking to Marlon or Leonard or Hussein who are ‘Silent Keys’, as the radio hams call them. ‘Dead’, we might say.

In fact, the Departed Ones are probably all talking to Elvis. It beats going to a ploughing match, I suppose.

A Road Trip through Heaven

They say ‘Don’t drive there’. Don’t listen.

The cashier peers curiously at me and asks whether I am Cuban as well.

As well as what, I wonder. Is everyone else here Cuban? It seems unlikely. This is Mthatha.

The advice has always been the same: Don’t drive through Transkei.  They drive straight at you and then swerve suddenly.  They don’t place rocks in the road, they place whole kopjes. The potholes are the size of a Kimberley mine. They actually keep cattle on the highway. They throw boulders at bakkies. Uncle Frikkie and Auntie Magda set off down the N2 from Kokstad in 1979 and have never been seen again …

Well, it is rubbish.

Yes, there is road-kill. Plenty of it. Although some is clearly fresh and I don’t look too carefully, none looks human. Goats. Cattle. Chickens. No Frikkie, no Magda.

I am rushing. Mthatha Airport is staying open late for me to collect a missing bag and, in my little white toaster-sized hire-car from ‘Maritzburg, I splatter speedily through squashed bovine corpses towards Transkei’s Big City.

Trucks indicate that I can that I can safely overtake in the dark and, holding my breath, I trust them. They know the road. They could drive it with their eyes closed. In fact, they probably do. Often.

The only traffic police are blue-flashing an overturned oil tanker, gurgling ominously, where it straddles the highway. The taxis approaching Mthatha don’t use lights at all – not even during loadshedding – although they too pull over, unfailingly polite.

Bag recovered, I turn in at a Sasol petrol station, smiles all-around in the half-glowing lights.

“Where are you from?” a Pirates-capped taxi-driver asks the man before him at the till.

“Bangladesh,” comes the reply. He is dhoti-clad and chestnut-brown.

“Is that in Africa?”

“Yes,” the Bangladeshi assures him, thinking fast on his sandaled feet, but there is no sign of xenophobia here.

My interlocutor declares himself from Havana when I reveal my own total lack of Cuban-ness. He looks disappointed. Perhaps he is lonely. Maybe he arrived as one Manto’s doctors and turned to the more lucrative business of supplying fuel to the Eastern Cape. I feel a twinge of guilt.

A few days later, the dawn drive home from Umngazi along the gentle national road is a delightful counterpoint to the night terrors of the highway.

Past Lusikiki, I motor through lovely hills dotted with pale blue and burnt orange houses and white rondavels emitting occasional puffs of smoke. Wound with laundry, collapsing fences sway in the sunshine before leading down bush-laden river gorges.

Blanketed women are genteelly escorted by bent old men with sticks, woolly hats and close-fitting buttoned jackets, their church-bound milling faces brushing through the tall yellow flowers on the roadsides.

Here and there, a large tent promises a wedding or remembers a departed neighbour’s well-lived life in this rolling unspoilt landscape.

Disused collapsing stores shade languid cattle and wagging-tongued, mating dogs. Three donkeys stand unmoved in a pathway while chickens pick at the dust and a cattle-warning sign hangs forlornly aslant alongside a rusting overturned bakkie, its wheels still turning where a child spins them in the sun.

I am listening, aptly, to Ode to Joy. Heaven must be like this, I decide.

Two traffic officers are sleeping peacefully on the roadside, windows down, and the child beams at me as I bawl the words to the inside of my car-roof.

Do, do, do drive through the Transkei. It is achingly beautiful and unerringly courteous. Whether you are from Bangladesh, Cuba or Kokstad.

And if you should see Frikkie and Magda, leave them be. They probably chose to stay.

‘Abandoned’ in France

Those who want to be hand-held through a holiday should go online before they leave home

“We have a dishwasher in the tiny kitchen, but we can’t get it to work. Nobody explained it to us,” the crimson-faced Englishman bawled into his held-aloft cellphone in the WiFi-lounge-cum-games-room of our Alpine self-catering apartment block.

He was evidently hopeless, not only for his inability to use a dishwasher – or, heaven forbid, to find an alternative involving using his hands, the sink and some dishwashing liquid – but also for having failed, before hitting the ski-slopes, to apply sunblock to the areas of his face not obscured by his ludicrous goatee. The room fell silent. Children stopped playing pinball, ping-pong and pool. Adults looked up from their online newspapers in disbelief.

“Oooooh, I know,” replied the dismembered voice inside the phone for all to hear. “I read online that the place has a problem with dishwashers. Everyone’s complaining. But it’s better than the other review I saw about the fully-catered chalet next door, where they were given steak and ale pie. I mean, that’s not very French is it? At least you are not staying there.”

Imagine their disgust if they had been served frogs’ legs or thrushes’ gizzards instead. That’s very French …

“It’s disgraceful,” continued the increasingly red and apoplectic Goatee Man. “There’s nobody here to ask. No receptionist. We have been left totally alone.” The room-full of people again looked surprised. We didn’t feel alone. There were dozens of us, listening to his idiotic diatribe.

Luckily there was a defibrillator on the wall behind him, in case, as we say in South Africa, his heart attacked him.

We had found the place, on the contrary, to be remarkably well-equipped. The beds were comfortable, the furniture was sturdy and only in France would a self-catering flat include such crucial equipment as a carafe and a glass lemon-juicer. There were two salad bowls (because to a Frenchman, one salad bowl is never enough) and the provided rubbish-bags had built-in little strings to tie their tops tidily.

In the lounge, the ubiquitous music that risked drowning Goatee’s complaints was delightfully cheesy. France is stuck firmly in the Seventies –tight John Travolta pants, loads of Abba and D.I.S.C.O. – but in a country that produces 600 cheeses, I guess the music mirrors the diet.

The blue-sky views from the huge windows of towering, snow-clad mountains promised many days of enviable skiing. Had we a complaint, it would merely have been that the room smelled of stale cigarettes, but it seemed oddly apt in the land of Gauloises.

An irresistible rummage through the establishment’s online reviews unearthed proof, not of any inadequacy in the establishment itself, but of the appalling incompetence of the people frequenting it. There was the usual whinging and whining, my favourite involving a family, left similarly “totally alone” by the management, only for one of them to get stuck in the loo. In the absence of a receptionist, they had been left with no choice but to call the fire brigade, who had smashed the door down.

The reviewer’s indignation was multiplied ten-fold when he was charged for the broken bathroom door and for the callout of the emergency services.

As I read it, and aptly for many reasons, Waterloo was playing in the background.

This was the “worst hotel in the entire world”, wrote our keyboard warrior. It was entirely management’s fault that he was incapable of extricating a family member from the bathroom without structural alterations. And nobody spoke English. How disgraceful! In France!

I hope these people didn’t try to use the dishwasher. The chances are they’d have needed someone to help them to operate the defibrillator as well.