Category Archives: Sunday Times Travel

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.



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, by email to 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 for a driver to take you to the Bale Mountains. He can also help with the planning of your entire trip.

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

Bale Mountain Lodge can be contacted on

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.

A Hotelier’s Lament

Chris Harvie puts his neck on the line and looks at how TripAdvisor has taken much of the joy out of hospitality to the detriment of both hosts and guests.

HAVE you noticed that we hoteliers have undergone a sinister character-change? Do you see fear in our eyes? A persecuted look? Well, if you aren’t aware of it, you should be. Because you are ruining our lives. Not all of you, admittedly. Only a miniscule percentage of you, but enough people to make a significant change to the way we operate.

More than almost any other industry we give up our entire lives to serve the public. We give up our homes, our marriages, our holidays, our Christmases, in our endeavour to achieve 100% guest satisfaction at all times.

Hospitality is a lifestyle. A calling. It is not a career. We don’t do it for the money, and being ‘nice’ to people is not an easy job.

So what do we get in thanks for our efforts? TripAdvisor.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? There’s no worldwide website called SickAdvisor where ‘millions of members’ crit doctors in over 100 million reviews, is there? Or a RipAdvisor site to attack clothing manufacturers? Or TrickAdvisor to expose second-hand car dealers?

So why pick on us, when we are the ones who are at work when nobody else is? For whom a public holiday is not a day off but an even longer and harder day than usual?

I have been in hotels for more than 30 years, from frequent guest to junior employee, manager and owner, and I am always filled with admiration for my colleagues for what they put up with from some of the more unsavoury members of the public.

I use the word ‘professional’ deliberately because I think we are probably the most professional profession in the world. You trust us with your down-time, your recreation, your secrets, your trysts and your dirty linen. You trust us to feed you, to make your bed, to keep you safe, to wash your clothes and to clean your car whilst you switch off and relax.

And in return, talking of dirty linen, we get internet-wide vilification.

Until the advent of TripAdvisor , we hoteliers took a pride in what we did. You loved us, we loved you. We’d go to bed exhausted but satisfied that we had done our absolute best and believing, realistically, that we had satisfied more than 99% of you. And that the 1% simply wouldn’t come back. After all, if you go to a supermarket that doesn’t sell what you want, you don’t go the media. You go to a different supermarket the next time.

Nowadays, things have changed. We go to bed in fear, we sleep fitfully and we wake up in trepidation. And, believe it or not, our first move over our morning pick-me-up is to log onto TripAdvisor to reassure ourselves that, during the night, some disgruntled whinger (or even worse a bitter rival, rancorous blackmailer or a scorned lover) hasn’t wreaked a worldwide web of retribution, public vilification and personal attacks that will sit and fester in the search engines way beyond any relevance they might ever have had.

We are under attack. And to make it worse, our persecutors are allowed to remain anonymous so we don’t know their names, when they stayed, what room they were in or where they sat in the restaurant. They can attack us, name us, humiliate us but we are not even allowed to know who they are.

Our pride in our art is wilting. The fulsome joy and spontaneous hospitality are on the wane as we find ourselves more and more on the defensive.

If you don’t like my hotel, tell me privately, but don’t emblazon it across the ether. It may not be what you wanted but it might well suit somebody else. Although, like most hotels, we aim to please the maximum number of people, we can’t, realistically, be everybody’s cup of tea or favourite soup, so if we are not what you wanted, don’t blame us alone. You may be equally at fault for choosing the wrong place for your needs and I am not going to waste my heart attack on reading your unreasonable rantings posted on a busybody website.

So what’s the solution to this seemingly intractable issue? Well, firstly, if we must have a TripAdvisor, it should be optional and attractive for hotels to have an entry. The website is well-followed enough, now, surely, for everyone in hospitality to want to be on it and for an absence from the site to raise enough questions on its own? I am all for reasonable and constructive guest feedback, but it should be the hotel’s choice as to how it receives that.

Secondly, reviewers should be obliged to use their real names and not hide behind keyboardwarrior anonymity. Reviewers’ contact details should also be available to hoteliers and restaurateurs on request. In this way, we can find out more details of any complaints and rectify any problems.

Thirdly, as with a number of similar sites, TripAdvisor should approach hotels for comment before publication in the case of an aggressive or negative review, instead of allowing the industry a limited (and heavily censored) opportunity to reply after the event, by which time the damage is done. We hoteliers are not allowed a website where we can complain or warn our colleagues about difficult or immoral guests — it has been tried but was ironically declared defamatory — so it is only right that we should have a veto or at least a right of reply to any attacks on us before they go public. (TripAdvisor is not alone here. causes similar problems by asking for both positives and negatives when soliciting reviews from users, which has the disadvantage of asking people to scratch their heads and find a negative, even when they might not previously have been bothered by one.)

Hoteliers hate TripAdvisor. Full stop. It’s not a watchdog. It is potentially the hotelier’s enemy in the way that no other industry has one.

Certainly it provides a great opportunity for good feedback and positive promotion through genuine rave reviews, but it is also a potential vehicle for systematic persecution, and is easily used by the unscrupulous to threaten and blackmail hoteliers into providing more than has been paid for and to seek out special favours.

For now, the hotelier’s best option still seems to be to ignore TripAdvisor and not to court reviews.

We hospitality folk want you to be happy, because if you’re happy, we are happy. Then we can put the joy back into hospitality. It will be to everybody’s benefit.

The Tour de Tuli

Chris Harvie takes his padded pants on a Botswanan cycling safari

It was midday when we arrived, tired, scratched, bleeding, battered and bruised. A smiling face offered chilled damp facecloths and directed us to a tableful of juice, cold drinks and water and then to a line of sturdy canvas chairs into which we slumped gratefully.

Who in their right mind would put themselves through this agony willingly, I wondered, and knowing that this was only day two of four, how was I going to survive another two?

Where were we? Climbing Everest? Shark cage-diving? The Funfair at the Rand Easter Show?

No. Cycling. The world’s fastest-growing sport. And we were at Mashatu in Botswana’s Tuli Block.

I had always thought of chafing as a culinary term until now but today no amount of gel on my saddle or padding stuffed down my spandex could prevent a new interpretation dawning on me and my nether regions.

We’d been on our bikes since just after dawn and had covered about 40 kilometres, which would have been a doddle on-road but in these conditions was far from it. My doddle was, in fact, completely doddled from hours of bashing through the bush, tearing down elephant paths through the mopane, struggling through soft-sand riverbeds, splashing through streams, dodging boulders and bouncing across rocky drifts.

“The lekgotla is ready for you.” The smiling face was speaking again. It belonged to Annelien who, with her husband Stuart, was our host for the rest of the day. “Lunch will be ready in 30 minutes.” Good. We were ravenous.

The “lekgotla” consisted of a circular enclosure of leadwood shafts embedded in the ground under the shade of a giant mashatu tree. Once the gathering place for the tribal elder deliberations in this corner of Botswana, it had been transformed into a dormitory. Around an unlit fire stood a ring of beds. Yes, real beds; decked with cotton sheets, proper blankets and pillows. It was outlandish and fabulous, reminiscent of the album cover of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which seemed strangely apt, as we all picked one and collapsed onto it, groaning with pleasure now that the weight was off our calves, thighs and aching backsides.

Then it got better. A corridor of trees led from the lekgotla to four hot showers and a couple of flushing lavatories.

I ride a mountain bike regularly and I knew Mashatu was famous for its annual Tour de Tuli but this was my first ever cycling safari.  My first foray into the world of camelbaks, gel packs, jelly babies and energy bars.

We were on a tailor-made route which would have us sleeping in three different venues. The mornings were spent cycling an often circuitous route between those camps and on each afternoon a different activity was lined up for us. There were bush walks, bird-spotting and game drives, architectural sites, Anglo-Boer war battle-sites, elephants at a hide and drinks on the banks of the Shashe river.

We walked in the shade of Botswana’s own Mapungubwe, climbed kopjes, strode floodplains, unearthed shards of ancient pottery, strutted with a secretary bird, ate sumptuous brunches, marvelled at magnificent landscapes, perched on hilltops at sunset with a glass of wine in hand, witnessed Rhodes’s initials carved in a baobab, drove alongside a stalking leopard in an open vehicle, dined on the finest fine fare around fires under the stars and more than anything, enjoyed the incomparable company of efficient, charming and amusing Batswana people.

We followed our intrepid and inexhaustible Motswana guide Joe through vast herds of impala, scattering wildebeest and passing up-close huge gangs of root-grubbing baboons. One morning, a pair of hyena wandered nonchalantly past us in a riverbed as we rested on the bank.

Back-of-mind was the ever-present knowledge that Mashatu is also home to lion and large numbers of leopard. There were elephants everywhere. The heavily-treed section through the riverine bush is not called Ambush Alley for nothing!

The cycling is off-road but varies greatly from relatively gentle level single-track on game paths to tricky technical cycling across boulder-strewn hillsides. Joe would tell us at the beginning of each ride what to expect and what our nett climb or descent for the day would be. He was cunning, too, in his encouragement and harmless disinformation when it came to our probable arrival time at our camp for the night.

Our second overnight stop was Mashatu Tented Camp, only metres from Zimbabwe on the Tuli Circle, an anachronistic border established by the pioneers to protect the grazing in a ten-mile radius of Fort Tuli in what was then Rhodesia. The camp’s canvas-roofed rooms look out from large verandahs onto the riverbed and a cacophony of birds while, out back, a spacious courtyard leads to an outside shower.

The crowning accommodation experience was our last night at Mashatu Main Camp. By now, we had covered well over a hundred kilometres, the last couple of hours at speed. More welcome than ever was the row of smiling faces, facecloths in hand and ready to whisk away our bicycles for the last time and lead us on winding gravel paths to vast rooms and wallowing baths. An afternoon game drive would give our rear ends a final pounding before we took drinks in the bar overlooking a large waterhole and another fine dinner, this time in a boma.

The trip was hard work, make no mistake! We were mostly of average fitness and none of us – even those who cycled regularly – found it easy going but the rewards were phenomenal.

You will fall off your bicycle and you will hurt yourself, your legs will ache and your back will twinge but the pain is more than made up for by the privilege of bonding with a group of like-minded folk and experiencing the thrills and hardship of a bicycle work-out in some of the most spectacular game-viewing land in Africa.

Just get fit. And don’t forget the sunblock, a helmet, the sticking plasters, and as much padding as you can get your hands on to keep the chafing to a minimum. Everything else you can leave to Joe and the Mashatu team.


Where it is: Tuli Block in the south-eastern corner of Botswana.

Why go there: Cycling is more energetic than a game-drive and covers more ground than a bush-walk. Mashatu and its associated companies also offer horseback and vehicle safaris in long-view scenery with generous game populations. And the wildlife is really wild.

What it has: A range of cycling safaris of different levels of comfort and discomfort. Take your own bicycle if it’s up to it or hire one from Mashatu.

What it’s like: Periods of mild pain, interspersed with frequent moments of unforgettable glory.

Rates: Accommodation at Mashatu Main Camp: R2464. Mashatu Tented Camp: R1792. Rates are per person and include meals, game drives and transfers to the border. SA residents only. Cycle Mashatu offers a 3-night 4-day cycle tour from R4350 per person staying in rustic wilderness camps. Guests at all camps may take morning or afternoon bicycle safaris for $55 per person. Bikes and equipment are available for hire. Horseback safaris are available from $80 and walking safaris from $50.

Geting there: Cross the Botswana border at Pont Drift, north of Alldays in Limpopo Province, leaving your car on the SA side of the river. You will be collected from here. It is a 6-hour drive from Johannesburg. A passport is required and you will need your vehicle papers in order to be allowed to leave your vehicle at the borderpost.

Contact: For all arrangements contact Mashatu on or

Shakin’ all Over with Suzi Q

Chris Harvie braves a fading train and a failing car for a two-week escape in Kenya

Not too long from now, a four-lane highway will link Cape Town and Cairo, punctuated with one-stop borders and shiny new service stations sporting motels and fast food outlets. Mercifully, that time is not yet here.

It takes four days to drive to Nairobi, excising a good-sized chunk of the annual holiday allowance. A quick self-drive trip to Kenya, therefore, is out of the question, but fly-drive is not. Both SAA and Kenya Airways offer daily direct flights and Kenya’s hire cars are generally reliable, although obviously you get what you pay for, as we would find out.

On arrival, we spent a couple of nights in Nairobi from where the overnight train delivered us, a respectable two hours late, to Mombasa. It’s now a twice-in-a-lifetime experience for me and the faded colonial glory is more faded than ever. The liveried crockery has been replaced with melamine and the seats are patched and torn but the chicken-or-beef at dinner is edible, breakfast is still just recognisable as breakfast and the sheets are clean. It is memorable but don’t leave it too long if you want to do it. Evidently, it will finally come off the rails completely quite soon.

From Mombasa, a matatu minibus-taxi was the cheapest way to lug our kit to Diani Beach, where we passed a couple of easy days on the beach, whiling away the drinking hours at Ali Barbour’s Forty Thieves beach bar and dining in the Coral Cave restaurant.

Picking up, from a local car hire outlet, a Suzuki 4×4 which we nicknamed Suzi Quatro, we pointed out to management during negotiations that the vehicle rattled like a stock car, had no suspension and needed two hands to push up the electric window on the passenger’s side. Management, in turn, was honest enough to point out that the fuel gauge was permanently stuck on three quarters and advised zeroing the tripometer each time we filled up. Haggling over, we swerved Suzi Q through the potholes and back to our campsite, where we packed her up for her mission.

The airline had allowed us to bring along a small tent, sleeping mats and sleeping bags, all tied into one bundle, and I had a squashable cool box which I was using as hand luggage. On a two-week trip at a warm time of the year, very little is required to be comfortable, so we needed to pick up just a small selection of cheap knives, forks and plates and a couple of pots.

The route from Mombasa to Voi has recently been resurfaced but the chaos on Kenya’s railways is not limited to passenger services. Consequently, the road takes an absolute pounding from the trucks that carry freight and fuel from the second city to the capital and beyond to Uganda.

While most major towns and cities now boast a Nakumatt supermarket – think Game combined with Checkers – in small towns such as Voi you need to rootle around. All the shop fronts sport the same cellphone company liveries and while some might be no more than kiosks selling soap, headache tablets and bottled water with their airtime, others can lead into deep labyrinths of shelves filled with every tin and package you could hope for.

Good meat is hard to find; there is a limited range of fresh vegetables available at stalls near the taxi ranks and bus stops. When you find something beyond the basic onions and tomatoes, don’t be surprised if you let out a whoop of joy along the lines of “Weh hey! I have found some green peppers!”

I also had a vague recollection from an earlier visit of a petrol station selling ice and unearthed it on our way into Tsavo East. It was a little luxury that would change everything. Cold water. Cold beer. Fresh milk.

The debate will always rage between the respective champions of the two halves of Tsavo, the East and the West being operated as separate National Parks divided by the main road, but what will always be certain is that both hold iconic status, dating back to the days of the pioneers. It was here in Out of Africa that Karen Blixen’s life changed forever. Remember the romantic images of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in his yellow bi-plane circling above vast herds of buffalo and loping giraffes? The rawness goes back even further in time, to the man-eating lions of Tsavo chomping their way through the railway workers, as portrayed in The Ghost and the Darkness.

For me, the two parks are equally worth a visit. The mostly flat Tsavo East arguably offers better game-viewing, albeit in a small area. The northernmost sector is closed to due to poaching issues, but the close-up lion sightings of the Kanderi Swamp, next to which the Ndololo campsite lies, and the vast herds of mud-red elephants are hard to beat. It’s a great place for gazelles, both Thompson’s and Grant’s, and for gerenuk.

In Tsavo West on the other hand, the game is shyer, but scenically, the area is far more impressive. The Chaimu volcano crater offers a great walk and the seemingly-endless views from Roaring Rocks and Poacher’s Lookout, both with the immortal backdrop of Kilimanjaro, are unforgettable.

The public campsites in both parks are basic but comfortable and although cleanliness can sometimes be a bit last-minute – “Wow, we have people, we’d better clean those showers!” – once the team has got the idea that you are there and sticking around for a few days there’s generally hot water and sometimes even a willing soul who will collect firewood for you and do your washing-up for a few extra shillings before the baboons get to it.

The post-Hemingway view of the mountain stayed with us through the astonishing 50 sq km Shetani Lava Flow to the attractively-named Maasai town of Loitokitok and on to Amboseli, one of Kenya’s more controversial parks. Whatever the political debates about its official status and the Maasai’s management, though, it still offers excellent game-viewing on windless dust-free days and that iconic photo of the elephant, the thorn-tree and the snow-capped peak cannot be better taken than from here.

By now, Suzi Q was beginning to collapse under the strain, emitting some unusual knocks and scrapes which became progressively louder and more alarming, causing us finally to call the hire company, who helpfully suggested that we limp back to Nairobi, where they’d give us a replacement. The noises increased. We stopped with a roadside mechanic, spent a packet and made no progress apart from holding a lengthy debate on the guilt or otherwise of Oscar Pistorius.

Suzi Q made it to Nairobi, where she was replaced by a larger, heavier Suzuki, Suzi 2, which was almost un-driveable due to broken power steering but otherwise in good shape, allowing us three relaxing nights camping on the shores of Lake Naivasha, a walk around Crater Lake and tour of Joy Adamson’s house. I also fell spectacularly off a wreck of a bicycle in the face of a surprise wildebeest assault in Hell’s Gate National Park.

Camping in Africa is never for the faint-hearted, but we got it right. Somewhat dusty and bruised, we returned the remains of the second car to the airport and agreed that we wouldn’t have done it any other way.



Stilts, Diani: camping, stilted rooms and a cheery bar Camping by arrangement. Tree houses from R180 per person. Communal ablutions.

Ali Barbour and the Forty Thieves and the Coral Cave; iconic beach bar and bizarre fine dining.

Ndololo Campsite, Tsavo East; Chyulu Campsite, Tsavo West; Community Campsite, Amboseli. All managed by Kenya Wildlife Services. Safaricard, required for entrance and camping, may be bought with US dollars or Kenya Shillings from the main gates. Conservation fee R585 per person per day (Amboseli R720). Camping R135 (Amboseli R225). Conservation fees are for a 24 hour period so can cover an afternoon game drive and a morning drive the following day. Cheaper camping options exist outside the parks.

Fisherman’s Camp, Lake Naivasha, hangout of the Nairobi crowd and a fine chicken Camping R50 per person

Glory Car Hire, Nairobi, Mombasa and Diani: the cheap and usually cheerful Avis, and Europcar also have a presence in Kenya.


A Bush-school Holiday

An Eco-course makes for a unique break, writes Chris Harvie

The stillness of the bush is numbing – the kind of silence that you can’t listen to without suffering a mild bout of panic. A loud deathly quiet.

Then, in the distance, the piercing bawl of a nagapie breaks on the air, followed by the whooshing call of a Pel’s fishing owl and the earth seems to breathe again. I don’t know what the time is – my watch has been confiscated – but it is still some hours before dawn, so I turn over and go back to sleep. The drums will sound when I have to report for duty at sunrise, ready for my next Herculean challenge…

When we arrived at the EcoTraining Camp in the Makuleke Concession it was a matter of weeks since the northernmost reaches of the Kruger National Park had been swept bare by the worst floods in living memory, leaving broad floodplains astride the banks of the Levhuvu and Limpopo Rivers and clearing huge stretches of bush. South of the Levuvhu, the popular and lovely Pafuri picnic site had been washed away completely and the roads to the Pafuri Borderpost, leading ultimately to Mapai and the Limpopo National Park, no longer led anywhere.

The camp had been underwater only weeks earlier and head instructor for six years, Bruce Lawson, and his wife Dee, who runs the camp, had kayaked in water three metres deep amongst the fever trees on the swollen Limpopo, more than two kilometres from the river’s normal course, but, with the tents perched up on stilted decks, operations had fast returned to normal and we were there to assess the day-to-day goings-on as far as the trainees were concerned.

While the majority of the students – and I use the word loosely – are studying for Field Guide certificates, many of them are mature students taking a break from their careers and others are taking part in shorter courses that anyone can join in order to broaden their bush knowledge. There are week-long courses, perfect for a different bush break, and there is nowhere better to immerse yourself fully in bushlore and bushlife, not to mention survival techniques. But is it a holiday? If you like to walk in the bush, you couldn’t ask for better.

We had joined only for a couple of nights but it turned into so much more than an insight into student life. Sheltered under the nyala trees with no power, no cellphone coverage, no television, no internet, buried deep in the silence, our souls stopped searching for solitude and settled into the daily sunrise to sunset routines of this remote spot.

Luxurious it isn’t, but is it comfortable? Most definitely. And very well organised. The rules are the same for all students on any course, be it a week (like Bruce’s Wilderness Trails Skills course or the Advanced Birding course), a month (bush trails and firearm handling) or a year, which gives you a full Field Guiding qualification (provided you pass).

You sleep in a tent, shared with one other, looking over the bush from under huge shady trees. There is an en-suite loo and piping hot shower. You bring your own lighting – torches and head lamps. You eat in a communal open-sided dining room with the rest of the team and the food, whilst far from gourmet, is tasty and plentiful. Just what you need to sustain you on days of hiking.

For that is what it is all about. Hiking; trekking; yomping. There are few roads on this corner of the Makuleke concession, returned to its owners in 1998 after a successful land claim which left them with one of the most beautiful stretches of our country, across the top of the Kruger from the Levuvhu to the border with Zimbabwe, and the lack of roads means walking. Lots of it. Sometimes 20 kilometres per day, through forests of glowing fever trees and majestic baobabs, over boulder-strewn copies, past rivers and streams and along the banks of pans, old and new. It is truly awe-inspiring.

Flanked by trainees armed with rifles and blanks, we looked like the intended-victims of a firing squad each time we set out, but there was no duress here. Sometimes we would push south from the camp along the silt-strewn flood plain, other times take a drive to a distant base from where we would follow the watercourses and wallow in the wildlife and the history of this distant outpost with its evocative landmarks: Lanner Gorge, Crooks’ Corner and, just across the river, the ruins of the great Thulamela, symbol of a people’s past glory.

The north of the Kruger has a reputation for poor game-viewing but this is as far from the truth as this region is from the populated south of the park. Bruce explained that the game was only now beginning to return after the floods but it was certainly plentiful. Generous herds of impala mingled with nyala, zebra, wildebeest and kudu. Troops of raiding baboons strode through the scrub. We saw numerous elephants, giraffe, hippos, massive crocodiles and fresh leopard spoor. All on foot.

The area offers some of the best bird-watching in the park and we enjoyed incomparable sightings of the rattling cisticola and the wattle-eyed flycatcher, as well as hordes of oxpeckers, both red and yellow. And as the students learned, so did we, about the host-specific nature of those oxpeckers, for example. It was as knowledge-broadening as it was thrilling.

Was it dangerous? Not really, although the need for the students to face a certain number of ‘dangerous game encounters’ meant that we probably got closer than most. And nothing can match the thrill of walking into a herd of buffalo, sending them into paroxysms of snorting, standing your ground – forgetting momentarily that most of your unqualified cohorts are armed only with blanks – and then watching those huge-bossed black beasts turn and run, kicking a cloud of dust in your face as they scatter through the undergrowth.

No longer silent like night, the bush is now filled with the crash of hooves; the alarm calls of numerous wild creatures float on the air.

It is thrilling to the core. I’d do it again tomorrow.


Where it is: In the northernmost wedge of the Kruger National Park, surrounded by some of the finest scenery in the land.

Why go there: To broaden or brush up on your bush knowledge and tracking skills. To make the step from being a tourist in the bush to being something of a fundi. For the birding. For the solitude.
What it has: Basic but comfortable tents with en-suite facilities, lots of good solid food, free teas, coffees and cordials. A fridge full of cold beers, ciders and cold drinks to buy. And Bar Ones. Take your own bird books, torches, comfortable but solid walking shoes and blister plasters.

What it’s like: It’s like having your own bush camp and really learning how to get the most out of it.

Rates: A one-off R50 entry fee for the Kruger National Park also applies, from which Wild Card holders are exempt. Courses vary in cost. Information on availability at Makuleke and its sister camps, Selati, Karongwe and Mashatu may be found on the website Makuleke’s sister camps also offer similar one-week wildlife photography, tracking and birding courses among others.

Getting there: All visitors must leave their vehicles at Pafuri Gate from where camp staff will collect them at 14h00. The gate may be reached from the park of by taking the R525 from Mussina to Tshipise and then on to the gate. It is a 6-7 hour journey from Johannesburg.

Contact: EcoTraining Tel: 013 752 4791 Email:

Maputo Blues

Chris Harvie goes looking for music in Mozambique

The Mozambiquan capital is well-known for its fabulous nightlife and particularly its jazz clubs, which I had never plucked up the courage to investigate. I had therefore launched a plan to indulge in the inevitable prawn fest on the Saturday evening, then head out to discover those famous clubs and investigate the local marrabenta music, said to be an exotic melange of Portuguese fado folk music, church music and local rhythms. It promised to be a musical feast.

Booking into the city’s newest hotel, the Radisson Blu, a note was thrust into my hand, clarifying that we were to be guests during a period of “soft opening”, which, it pointed out, explained the lower rate. I hadn’t known this, but apart from a few unfinished finishes, there didn’t seem to be anything soft about the place at all. In fact, it would be hard to beat.

The welcome was as polished as the stainless steel décor. The 12-storey building consists of a hollow triangular tower of glass focussed around a red, green and blue light-streaked staircase. All the rooms offer a sea view of some kind or other; all are modern and light with all the trappings of a five-star hotel and service to match.

Our room looked out to the west along the coast and down the estuary into the port. High up on the right, we could see the newly-refurbished Polana Hotel and below us, the Avenida Marginal promenade bustled with evening revellers, on route for their Saturday night entertainment.

I had written in advance to the hotel for advice on music venues and received a very detailed reply from Ivan Laranjeira, the Guest Relations Manager, offering numerous options for a Saturday night. He particularly recommended the Kamfumo Bistro, also known as Chez Rangel, in Maputo’s signature railway station, and Modas Kavalu, on top of the Teatro Avenida, which was, he said, quickly repositioning itself as one of the most influential venues on the Maputo musical scene.

On check-in, we asked how we should get to Kamfumo, only to be informed that it was closed, so we opted for the second suggestion. But that was closed too. Ivan’s third choice, the Gil Vicente Café Bar, promised lively jam sessions and ‘karaoke’, so we decided against that and threw ourselves into the search for crustaceans instead, discovering in the process that yet another Maputo landmark, the Marginal’s Costa do Sol restaurant, was also currently not functioning, although it is still unclear why. There was a rumour that the old icon is to be turned into a hotel school but, on investigation, the sign on the fence merely said it was being refurbished.

Defeated at every turn, we decided to beat a thirsty retreat to our hotel bar and then dine in-house.  It would turn out to be a very wise plan.

I have never been a big barracuda enthusiast, always finding it to be dry and rather tasteless, but at the blue-lighted Filini Restaurant I underwent a Damascene moment. In Carpaccio form, barracuda takes a lot of beating; it is soft, juicy and with the mild zing attributed to it by the chef, it was somehow reminiscent of South American ceviche. With it, in the mixed hors d’oeuvres, were four stupendous prawns, roasted peppers, a shrimp salad, grilled calamari and some clams.

My colleague Kevin followed his enthusiastic attack on the starter with another ten prawns, whilst I went for a crab pasta, topped with half a crab, a garnish that was almost a meal in itself. Kevin then braved a crème brulée, which impressed a keen dessert critic.

Withdrawing to the balcony for a nightcap, sheltered from the on-going drizzle, we watched and heard Maputo at play. It might not have been the sound of a jazz band but it was lively enough – the hum of vehicles enveloped by soft rain, the swaying of the palm trees in the wind and a gentle pulse of African rhythms from the surrounding restaurants.

Sunday morning’s breakfast was a six-star affair and sported more berries, pastries, juices and seeds than you could throw a stick at, followed by the perfect scrambled egg. We had nothing planned, so took a drive into the downtown Baixa area for a forlorn look through the closed glass doors of the station’s Kamfumo Bistro which would certainly be an impressive venue when open, before turning our attention to the city’s other landmarks: the Botanical Gardens, the Iron House and the Municipal Market. Like almost everything else (apart from the potholed streets) theMercado was under reconstruction.

We lunched in the rain at the Polana, made our way through more rain to the Marés shopping centre where we took coffee at Beatles after a rowdy game of ten-pin bowling with the local Sunday crowd, ending up some hours later at Miramar, opposite the Radisson, for a few 2Ms with prawn cakes and seafood samosas. Miramar was already rivalling Costa do Sol when the former was still open. Now it seems to be cementing its position and proved another highlight of a wet weekend.

Maputo is a refreshing break away from home but be sure to check what’s operating before you make too many plans or you, too, might end up ten-pin bowling instead of tapping your foot to some lively African rhythms in a splendid art deco bar.

So, musically I guess we blew it. No jazz, no blues. But our stay at the Radisson Blu blew us away.  Especially the blue-lighted restaurant.



About the Radisson Blu


Radisson Blu, Avenida Marginal Maputo, Mozambique.

Tel: +258 21 24 24 00 (Pre-Opening Office)
Fax: +258 21 24 24 01(Pre-Opening Office)
Email: Website:


154 exceptionally well-appointed rooms and suites. Free WiFi. Swimming Pool. The superb Filini restaurant is a highlight. The Palmeira lounge serves light meals and the Oceano Bar is open as late as 2am when the hotel is busy.


The hotel offers a wide range of special deals for weekends, long stays and even Valentine’s Day, so send an email and see what they can do.

Ain’t Seen Notten’s Yet

Chris Harvie gives top marks to this family-owned Lodge

From the shaded wooden deck, we look out over a gentle upward slope studded with giant trees. A pair of cud-chewing buffalos lie next to a distant termite mound, vervet monkeys squabble in the trees and the chatter of starlings floats on the warm afternoon air.

We arrived at Notten’s Bush Camp only ten minutes ago, and after a welcoming hug – this is a friendly place, after all, and I am a returning guest – we are stretched out, beer in hand on a watchtower upper platform, contemplating and feeling very much a part of the Bushveld scene.

Notten’s is one of the oldest lodges of its kind and it is family-run. We’ve been greeted by a Notten and served a drink by a Notten. We are to be taken on a game drive by Joseph Mathebula, a local Shangaan who has been driving here for thirty years and some of whose children work alongside him. He is almost more Notten than the Nottens.

We have barely left the lodge in Joe’s Land Rover when we become embroiled in a cameo performance by a breeding herd of elephant at a small waterhole, distant trumpeting giving away the presence of another group a couple of hundred metres away. As they line up to drink, despite the greying light and with the camp perfectly poised in the background, our fellow guests click cameras and gasp with ratcheted excitement.

To say that Joe is a character is a ludicrous underestimation.  His broad smile and jaunty enthusiasm are as catching as the thorns on the bushes through which he drags his guests. He knows the area better than the back of his hand; the hand on which he will later gently perch a chameleon and break open elephant dung to show the grass content.

Joe is a local legend, dating back more than half a lifetime. He is the Skukuza Methuselah; one of the most respected trackers in the region. Everyone tunes into the radio as he unearths a female leopard and we bump off the road in pursuit, through what he calls, in the Sabi Sand’s quasi-Shangaan vernacular, the ‘makhulu hlathini’ (deep bush).

Joe and his colleague Median are a well-oiled telepathic team, bundling us from one sighting to the next, from deep ‘hlathini’ and herds of half-hidden impala littered with newly-born lambs, to the open veld, where three behemoth rhinos lumber about directly in front of us.

Alighting on a knoll to pour us a drink, Joe continues with his colourful and occasionally over-vivid stories from his years in the ‘Sands’. He tells tantalising tales of brushes with long-toothed leopards and angry elephants; he laughs at the young upstart rangers and fondly remembers long-gone colleagues. A couple of calm kudu browsing in the near distance ignore our wine-filled intrusion. Beyond them a family group of woolly waterbuck meanders obliviously across the plain.

As night falls and the bushbaby starts to call, we make our way back onto the vehicle and slowly back to camp. The elephants and the darkness have blended into invisibility; our leopard has long disappeared into the night. In the deep distance, the roar of a lion breaks the stillness.

Paraffin lights and burning torches show the paths to our rooms, themselves lighted by the glow of burning lamps. Notten’s has no electric light in the rooms; it’s a welcome relief for night-accustomed eyes not to be bombarded by the brightness of modernity as we hurriedly shower and change for dinner.

The lodge’s rooms are blissfully devoid of the usual cliché trappings of bush décor. There’s no leopard-skin or zebra-stripe; no overwhelming insurgence of khaki. Ours is spacious and furnished in light pastels. The bathroom is modern with clean finishes, a deep bath and the choice of an inside or outside shower.

Our favourite spot is the covered deck outside with its two sunbeds. We collapse on them briefly before dinner and vow to return to them afterwards.

The lunch before the game drive – a spectacular sprawl of salads, quiches, cold meats and cheeses – had filled us up at the time but left us with high hopes for dinner which are more than met. Comparing sighting notes over a pre-prandial glass of wine, we are enthralled by the conviviality of Notten’s; cheerful smiling faces rise and fall in the light cast by the dancing flames of the fire and, all around us, the night is abuzz with the calls of the veld.

Seated at a long table, we dine with like-minded guests, on a delicious red pepper soup, followed by a perfect tender fillet of beef cooked over the coals by Dave Notten, who then regales us with his own memories of his childhood in this ethereal place.

Some hours later, replete after a superb cheesecake and with a last glass in hand, we return to the deck in front of our room as a small herd of buffalo moves through the grass below. We reflect on our day between the buffalos and the decks of Notten’s.

The word ‘hospitality’ seems inadequate for the incomparable warmth of the Notten’s experience. The magic lies in the personal approach, the history and the genuine concern with which they look after their guests.

And Joe Mathebula and Dave Notten and both of their families are at the heart of that ineffable warmth. Ten out of ten for Nottens.


About Notten’s Bush Camp



Notten’s Bush Camp, Sabi Sand Wildtuin, Mpumalanga. Telephone: 013 735 5105 Reservations: Website:


Notten’s has only eight rooms, all spacious and elegant, but remember that there is no electric light. A plug-point is however provided for the charging of cameras and other equipment. A long pool allows for a bit of exercise between bountiful meals and sedentary game drives! There is also a small spa.


R3350 per person per night full board with two game drives. A winter rate of R2950 applies from 01 May to 31 August. The rate also includes a daily bush walk, cold drinks, house beers and wines plus a bag of laundry per stay. No children under 6. Children 6-12 qualify for a 30% discount.

All tartanned up

Country bumpkin Chris Harvie attended a tattoo at Jozi’s Tuscan Palace, where he enjoyed the full Monte treatment.

Bagpipe music skirled through the flag-decked streets of Montecasino as we made our way to the arena. Upturned faces, many pale and freckled betraying Gaelic roots, looked wistfully to the roof-painted sky, whence the call of the pipes seemed to emanate, and smiled. Let the show begin.

And what an impressive event it was. Proudly South African, with no fewer than twelve acts made up a cast of 800 performers marching and drumming and piping their way in and around and through each other whilst an enthralled crowd, encouraged to make as much noise as possible to egg on the performers, did just that.

We cheered and stomped and clapped Highland dancers, Irish dancers, Indian dancers, acrobats, the South African Military Health Service Band (yes, there is one) and even the Harley Owners Group of Johannesburg, who made almost as much din as the legendary and unearthly Haggis and Bong electric guitar and bagpipe combo, another highly entertaining act.

Away from the ceilidh and the pipe bands, we had booked into Montecasino’s five-star Palazzo Hotel, where we had been greeted on arrival by a flurry of friendly faces, bearing cold drinks, hurtling us through the paperwork and then whisking our bags to our rooms.

One forgets how good Tsogo Sun is at these things. When I booked, they confirmed me, unasked, onto a weekend breakaway deal which included all sorts of fascinating extras and freebies to ensure that we made the most of our stay. And we did. With the tattoo now firmly under our sporrans, it was time to take in the rest of what the bright lights of Montecasino had to offer the bedazzled bush band.

We went ten-pin bowling, we played in the entertainment arcade, we drank world-class coffee at Fego, we enjoyed an excellent curry at Raj and we watched bands and street players doing wonderfully clever things on every street corner. Montecasino is a Wonderland. It has the feeling of an imaginary world in a vast indoor stadium. We half-expected a dozen Mary Poppinses to come floating down from the concrete ether, as they did in London’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, and take on Lord Voldemort.

We didn’t use the free movie tickets but we’re saving them up for another time and we’d already paid to go into the Bird Garden when we realised that we had free tickets, so we went mad and went twice. It was a highlight.

I am somewhat ornithophobic and although I have no problem with birds in the outside world, wandering around under shadecloth surrounded by strutting, poeping, flapping creatures is really not my bag. Having said that, Montecasino’s Bird Gardens didn’t worry me in the least. In fact they may have cured me.

Huge tented aviaries are home to an eclectic range of multi-coloured birds of all shapes and species. The most colourful, the scarlet ibis, is an astonishing bright red, but there were many other beauties to ogle: turacos, cranes, peacocks, ducks, geese and parrots with a smattering of monkeys, snakes, oversized geckos and lemurs to calm the nerves between avian dive-bombings.

The stars of the show are the birds which take part in the live demonstration, where handlers lure owls, a toucan, a pelican and a ground hornbill into swoops and waddles in the purpose-built arena. It’s good wholesome fun – and when you have had your fill of gawping, you can get up close and personal with a bunch of lorikeets. Buy your nectar on the way in and these colourful little chaps while climb all over you to get their beaks into it. A hat is recommended!

All in all, whether you are coming from out of town to spend a night at one of Montecasino’s three hotels or whether you just want to pop in for the day, it cannot be recommended too highly. It’s safe, it’s well organised, there’s plenty to do and the visitors come from all over the place. The family in front of me in the bird queue had come down from Zambia for the weekend so if you can overnight, do so.

The Palazzo is superb with comfortable, spacious rooms and arguably the finest breakfast on earth. There’s a buffet and a choice of individually-cooked breakfasts; there are cereals and smoothies; there’s a parmesan the size of a medicine ball and there’s a fruit collection from around the world; there’s muesli to accompany it and a selection of seeds. Just watch out for any passing predatory birds.

And this a palace, after all, so eat breakfast like a king, then go and check out what’s happening over the road in Tuscany. It may not always be tartan, but there’s sure to be somebody waving a flag and putting on a show.



Where it is: Fourways, in amongst the malls, in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.

Why go there: For an in-town out-of-this-world experience and to get over any fear of birds you might have. For shows, music, good food, a family-friendly atmosphere. And there’s a casino if you are really desperate.

What to do: Montecasino Bird Gardens. Adults: R48. Children under 10 years: R27. Open daily from 08h30 to 17h00. Demonstrations 11h00 and 15h00 with an additional 13h00 show at weekends and on public holidays.

Getting there: Access from William Nichol Drive. Blink 20 times and you still won’t miss it.

What there is to see on the way: Small Tuscan mansions down every side-street and in every cluster development, in preparation for Montecasino – the real thing.

Contact: Tsogo Sun reservations: 011 367 4250 or 0861 005 511 Choose between the 3* SunSquare, the 4* Southern Sun Montecasino and the 5* Palazzo. Rates from R525 per person per night. Ask about the Sunbreaks Special and special deals for children.

Thank Heavens, it’s Friday

Chris Harvie goes beyond Mozambique’s beach chaos and sports bars for a true ‘Robinson Crusoe” time

“Watch out – the mosquitoes come out early here,” warned manager Lloyd, squashing an example the size of a small bird between his fingers.

He was right. There was something of a plague in the early evening and they appeared immune to any lotions and potions we might apply. Having said that, they were the only blight on an otherwise perfect seaside camp.

The route from Bilene to Vilankulo is liberally smattered with “beach paradises” but whenever a new paradise is unearthed it is promptly rendered hellish by new developments, quad bikes and illegal bakkies stuck in the beach sand.

Between Vilankulo and the spectacular Save river bridge the road is admittedly in bad shape, as is the section of the EN6 between Inchope and Beira but they are gauntlets worth running for the pleasure of a beer in Beira, Mozambique’s gangster city, followed by a few nights up the coast at the spectacular Rio Savane camp.

The camp cannot be reached by road. Instead, when a vehicle pulls into the parking area, a flag is hoisted, bringing a motorised dhow scuttling across the creek to rescue arriving guests and ferry them and their belongings across the water.

By crossing the Savane river, you seem finally to escape the South African colonies of beach chaos and sports bars. The dhow ripples gently through the mangroves beset with one-pincered crabs and colourful birds. Safely deposited on the northern riverbank, this extraordinary hideaway then opens its face to the visitor with a broad swathe of palm-strewn level sands.

At the heart is a spacious campsite with shady pitches and generous-sized ablution blocks. On the perimeter stand a number of cabanas and machesas – reed-thatch huts with mosquito nets and shelving but no other furnishings. Bring your own camping kit and settle in. Outside, you are provided with a table, benches and a braai.

Along the riverfront are four rooms with a few more facilities although they are in different states of almost-charming dilapidation. This is, after all, definitely a camp, not a lodge, with the basics covered and the shortcomings more than made up for by the position.

The wind rustles through the swaying coconut palms and the sea crashes thunderously onto the dunes beyond the camp. It is so idyllic it almost a cliché.

A morning walk along the beach to the north of the peninsula allows a friendly glimpse into the local community and, on a good day, the fishermen will sell their catch for your evening braai.

The sea is invitingly warm with good surf for swimming and a lesser swell than the problematic pulls of the sea further down the coastline.

New managers, Lloyd and Debbie, have come in from Zimbabwe and are setting about an update of the property with gusto. They have, however, promised not to kill off its ineffable rustic charm by tarting it up too much.

There’s something marvellously relaxing about having to order your dinner in the restaurant by 5pm if you want to eat it by 7pm. The food is delicious and the beers are many and cold.

The menu consists of whatever is available. Our grouper steaks, for example, were small cuts off a very sizeable 25kg fish and served with chips and shredded cabbage. It was tender, tasty and ideal. On the second night, they rustled up a magnificent crab curry and some fine prawns.

Rio Savane’s charm is untouched by the depredations of human encroachment now endemic on almost every dune in Southern Mozambique.

It is still how you imagine a castaway’s desert island: you half-expect to hear drums in the interior and for a dusky maiden in a grass skirt to shimmy up with a rum and pineapple juice in a coconut shell.

They may have promised not to ruin it but don’t take any chances. If you are up for a remote and basic getaway with all the essentials provided, it’s only a short boat ride away from reality. Enjoy it while you still can.


Where it is: Across the Savane River to the 34km to the north of Beira in Mozambique

Why go there: For a Robinson Crusoe moment, with Man Friday already laid on for the cooking.

What it has: Camping, cabanas, machesas and four basic chalets. Carry all your equipment across the creek on the boat with you and don’t be shy. There’s plenty of space in the dhow and there are porters at both ends. You will regret leaving your extra comforts behind (although you can always go back and fetch them). The cabanas, machesas and campsites are unfurnished, so take your own campbeds, camping chairs and sleeping bags. Everything. And loads of mosquito repellent. There is a generator for lighting from 17.30 to 22.00. The water is drinkable and there is cold beer. You can keep your food in the camp’s fridges.

What there is to do: Boat trips up the river, birding (chestnut fronted helmet shrike, blue quail), sea and river fishing, swimming in the sea, long walks on the beach, rare blue and red duiker, bushpig and hippos. Take a day trip to Beira, Mozambique’s second city.

And the food: You can take it with you or rely on Simala, the chef, to come up with something interesting for you from the day’s catch. He will also cook your own food for you if you prefer not to do it yourself.

Rates: Camping $12 per adult and $6 per child. Cabanas and Machesas an additional $15 and $13 respectively. The fully-equipped (but basic) self-catering units sleep 4 from $120 with a charge of $12 for each additional person. No meals or activities included. Ice, firewood and coconuts for sale!

Getting there: Entering Beira on the EN1 from the East, take the Dondo turning, on the left, 1km before the airport exit. Marked by a rusted blue board in a busy market, this road leads to Rio Savane. Allow at least an hour for this hard and sometimes bumpy road to the car park where you leave your vehicle and continue by dhow. The vehicle is guarded and completely safe. 4×4 recommended but not necessarily essential in the dry season.

Contact Rio Savane. Telephone: +258 82 598 9751. Email: GPS co-ordinates S19 40.495˚ / E035˚ 07.765