Tag Archives: South Africa

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 www.ecotraining.co.za. 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: enquiries@ecotraining.co.za.

Free State town, dead-end world

You’ve got heart of glass or a heart of stone, either way you can’t wait to go home

I had breakfasted with a clergyman in George, and arrived here just after dark. The Free State town’s roads were empty, thanks to the truck strike. It was drizzling.

My chosen hostelry was poetically misnamed after a rambling, bougainvillaea-clad Spanish villa. The giant concrete edifice loomed above an Engen garage, off a potholed roundabout. A demented mesh of cement masked the windows and forbade the murky street-lamp half-light from permeating the building.

Reception was down a dark grey corridor along which studded dusty pillars were wound with purple polyester netted scarves. A poodle-haired Granny greeted me through a speaking-hole in her cage. Behind her, a wooden grid of post-boxes was stuffed with keys and unpaid bills.


I nodded in Afrikaans and filled in a card. There were no computers. She handed me a key fob, a receipt, an aircon control and a TV remote; I lugged my bags to the clunky lift, which let out loud explosions on its lurching ascent towards the third floor.

Nothing had changed here since the Nats lost power, I thought. The shampooed receptionist was probably still unaware that they had and, from the many pigeonholed envelopes, there might even be some dead clients in the rooms dating back, undiscovered, to that era.

The bedroom’s swirly curtains were adorned with mauve plastic beads like the headdresses of Indian dancers and tied up with red, brown and russet cord.

On the plywood table stood a trimphone and tea tray with a brown shiny mat. The kettle had to be moved to the floor in order to boil water. Once the aircon and TV had been unplugged.

The bedhead was cushioned with studded white plastic. The furnishings were fablon-covered chipboard. Half the cupboard was padlocked and marked DANGER WATER PIPES PASOP WATER PYPE HOLOKOMELA POMPO YA METSI.

A television was firmly enclosed behind an iron grille and offered three blizzarded Channels.

There were no windows. A glass door led out onto a viewless balcony too small even to stand on and enclosed by a wall perforated with clay pipes through which a light breeze was squeezing itself.

There were four wastebins in the bedroom and two in the bathroom, alongside a vast cast-iron bath with solid taps squirting brown damp-smelling hot water. The lavatory seat sported a fluffy cover in green, brown and purple, crowned by a polyester-crafted rose with a button at its heart. High up, goose-curtained louvre windows opened out onto the corridor.

There was a toothmug, a tissue holder and one of those drying lines that wind up into a bell-push above the bath. Also above the bath, interestingly, at just above head-height, was a bottle-opener. Two facecloth-sized towels, embroidered with the hotel’s initials, hung on the back of the hollow door, which had a punch-mark and kick-hole in it.

With the enthusiasm of a depressed monk, I left my cell and headed for the windowless bar. The walls were obscurely decorated to show crenelated castle fortifications. There was painted bougainvillea. Two likely lads where chatting up a sun-starved barmaid, smoking up a storm and drinking beer by the neck.

I ordered a dinky of red and lit a small cigar. It seemed that the rules of the world didn’t apply in this concrete mausoleum. The Eagles’ apt Hotel California gave way to a selection of Bles Bridges.

Ons is moeg” said a tired waiter to a tired waitress and started to slam doors. I was also moeg. An SMS sent by the Georgian priest asked how far I’d reached.

I texted: I AM IN HELL.

He replied: GOD BLESS.

I slept well. The benediction must have clinched it. There was nothing else here that was sleep-inducing.

Places of Solitude

Cederberg Trail, Western Cape

Sunshine to sepia in seconds.

Climb past the gently waving fynbos to sit aloft in the Cederberg, looking back down the valley into the sunset. The mountains turn their signature golden orange as the last few birds circle into their roosts. myriad streams send rushing waters tumbling into the world far below. A full moon rises behind you, bathing the scene in a washed pale light. There’s nothing out there but the night.

The Idea

Using Algeria campsite as a base and carrying the bare minimum in a backpack, camp high in the mountains in the cool, fresh air.

The Camp

Algeria has 48 campsites, each with power point and braai spot, plus good ablution facilities. Hiking huts up the mountain are basic, remote shelters without any furnish- ings. More like an adobe hut.

Soak up The Solitude

Walk in the shadow of the San amongst vast boulders and wind-eroded rock arches as birds call overhead. It’s just you, the odd grey rhebok or klipspringers and some ba- boons. They lope away. You stay put. This is your moun- tain, for today.


Valley daywalks, overnight mountain hikes, rock climbing at Truitjieskraal or Kliphuis. Visit Stadsaal Cave and its nearby rock art. Overnighhikes to camp in the wild must be booked in advance. Minimum three people, maximum 12.

Bring along

All your food. Warm clothes, sturdy walking boots and a detailed map are essential. Fires are not permitted on hikes so carry a gas stove. A copy of Henrietta Rose- Innes’s The Rock Alphabet to absorb the story as you never could before.


Campsites for up to six people at Algeria from R165 (week- days) to R220 (peak). Over- night trails cost R65 a person and are for experienced hikers only. Wild Cardholders don’t pay the daily conservation fee of R40 for SA residents and citizens.

Where on earth

The Cederberg Wilderness Area stretches from Middel- berg near Citrusdal to Pakhuis- berg north of Clanwilliam. Algeria, in the northern sec- tion, was named by a Frenchcount who was reminded by the cedar trees and mountains of the North African country.

The Best Approach

Come cross-country over the Pakhuis Pass from Calvinia to see the Karoo scrub turn to fynbos and sense the undulat- ing rise of the mountains. Head home over the moun- tains to Ceres or Wuppertal.  CH

3 Bitterpan, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

Look out across the Kgalagadi dunes from your reed cabin. Beyond the waterhole, a gemsbok stands proud. A grey, brown and white sheen against the glinting sand, its finely curved horns cutting a perfect arc in the stark, sharp light. Later, at the dying of the day, the brightness gives way dramatically to night and a black cloth pricked with billions of bright stars stretches uninterrupted above you. The yelp of a jackal breaches the silence of the darkness. All around is emptiness.

The Idea

To follow the 4×4 route from Nossob to Mata-Mata and spend a night in the middle of the dunes.

The Camp

Four canvas-and-reed struc- tures on stilts are linked by a walkway. Each has its own bathroom. There is a commu- nal kitchen, which is fully equipped. Linen and towels are provided. Water is gas- heated. Lighting is powered by solar panels. Children un- der 12 aren’t allowed.

Soak up The Solitude

This is a place of grandeur and silence. For the most part, even the animals are solitary in the Kgalagadi. The exception being the springbok whose vast herds, building up for safety in the riverbeds in the evening, somehow seem only to accen- tuate the human solitude.


The waterhole is only 20 me- tres from the cabins. Although driving in the area is limited, there is a short game-viewing loop from the camp.

Bring along

All your food, including drink- ing water. The pan is, after all, bitter! Also bring firewood or charcoal and maybe an extra blanket in winter.


R795 for a cabin, with two single beds. One cabin has universal access and accessible ablutions (see page 11 for more destinations). Visitors without a Wild Card also pay a daily con- servation fee, from R40.

Where on earth

In the red dunes at the centre of the South African sector of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, halfway between Nossob and Mata-Mata. Check-in is at Nossob, around three hours away.

The Best Approach

The only road to the camp is by the 4×4 route from Nossob to Mata-Mata, which is a one- way road. No trailers are per- mitted. It’s wise to spend a few nights en route at Twee Rivieren, the main camp. The Twee Rivieren entrance is 265 km north of Upington on a tar road.  CH

4 Sirheni Bushveld Camp, Kruger National Park

The far northern camps of Kruger are all but forgotten by the hordes. sirheni is an oasis on the mphongolo River under a vast, undisturbed canopy of jackalberry and leadwood trees, a light breeze rustling their upper boughs. By day, a leopard sips from the dam below you. Squirrels run and dart busily in the dust. A buffalo shuf- fles in the long grass only metres away, on the other side of the fence. A snorting rhino hurtles across. Bee- eaters glide above the buzzing bush. By night, the call of a nearby lion and a hyena’s overconfident reply.

The Idea

To immerse yourself in the still of the bush and the ma- jestic colours of the dusty Mopani belt.

The Camp

There are 15 fully equipped units of varying sizes spread out along a dam. Unusual an- telope sightings around the camp include Sharpe’s grys- bok, sable, roan and eland. Scan the dam for pygmy goose, painted snipe and dwarf bittern.

Soak up The Solitude

Take a walk along the fence in the heat of the day. Climb up into one of Sirheni’s two hides with binoculars in hand, sweep the view of the river and revel in respectful silence.


Guided walks and night drives are especially intimate due to the small numbers accommo- dated at the camp. The roads to Sirheni are open to resi- dents only and passing vehi- cles are rare.

Bring Along

All the sustenance you need. The camp usually has ice and wood for sale, but bring your own just in case, plus all your food and drink, your binocu- lars and a copy of Peter De- rich’s Kruger National Park guidebook.


Cottages for four people from R1 035 to R1 180 a night. Six- and eight-sleepers can accom- modate additional adults for R248 and children for R124. Wild Cardholders have free entry into Kruger, otherwise there’s a daily conservation fee starting at R40.

Where on earth

Roughly halfway between Shingwedzi and Punda Maria camps in the far north of Kruger National Park.

The Best approach

From the north on the road to Punda Maria gate. It’s ap- proximately two game-filled hours from the gate to the camp.

Did you know?

Sirheni is a Tsonga word that means cemetery, referring to an elephant graveyard in the surrounding area.  CH

5 Sirheni Bushveld Camp, Kruger National Park
Iphika Camp, Spioenkop Game Reserve

The flames of a dancing fire blaze brightly under a clear black sky. A stillness pervades the night, to be shattered by the stumble of startled hooves a few metres away as a white rhino and her calf go crashing through the undergrowth. silence falls again, then is pierced by a
distant jackal’s howl. in the morning, a dense cold cloud slowly lifts to reveal towering caramel mountains, stub- bled with shady umbrella thorns. The golden sunlight reveals sloping landscapes soaked in the blood of bat- tles long ago.

The Idea

Explore the many activities available in the reserve during the day and, at night, retreat to the remote iPhika Camp on the lower slopes of Spioenkop. The Camp
Maximum four people in two spacious permanent tents perched on mountainside decks. Rock-and-thatch ron- davel with Jetmaster. Kitchen hut with gas stove and fridge. Reed hut with lavatory, basin and steaming hot, open show- er. No electricity. Paraffin lamps, gas, linen and towels are pro- vided. The camp is unfenced.

Soak Up the Solitude

Pull up an armchair on the verandah overlooking a water- hole or take a cautious walk
through the long grass, closing in on giraffes and herds of ze- bra. Listen for the sound of tearing grass; numerous rhino middens are proof of a healthy population.


Game viewing from your own vehicle, on horseback or on foot. Almost 300 bird species. Boat- ing and fishing on the Spioen- kop Dam. Battlefield tours.

Bring Along

Torches, a warm jacket, all your food, drink and firewood. Bin- oculars to watch the bobbing blue waxbills.


R190 a person, minimum charge R570 (three people). Day visitors R20, free entry for Wild Cardholders. Prices valid till 31 October 2010.

Where on earth

Along the Spioenkop Dam and the Little Thukela River. The main entrance is 14 kilo- metres from Winterton on the R600 towards Ladysmith and the N3.

The Best approach

Take the Van Reenens Pass and follow the winding road from the Free State down through tree-studded hills and valleys into the foothills of the KZN Drakensberg.

Don’t Miss

Exploring the reserve on horseback for close-up views of plains game. Horse trails R110 for 11⁄2 hours.  CH