Tag Archives: Weekend Getaway

Good Neighbours

Wild horses drag Chris Harvie to Kaapschehoop – but its antique charm and easy-going vitality keep him there for a while

The road from Nelspruit (Mbombela) leapt and lurched through seemingly endless steep uphill curves, leaving the Lowveld far behind in a haze of tantalising glimpses into the distant valleys around Barberton.

The roadsides were lined with pine trees, whilst above us, the deep blue sky was patched with great swathes of white cloud that became fog and rolled in and out over the edge of the escarpment.

Ahead, a line of chestnut brown horses emerged from a patch of mist. Kaapsche Hoop is famed for its wild horses, which number as many as 250. In fact, talking to the locals and looking at the fortifications they have built around their gardens, the horses, once a major attraction, have become something of a menace to the hydrangeas.

There are only 120-odd people living here. I say ‘odd’ in both senses of the word. There are approximately 120 people here, and they are, for the most part, unusual. It’s something of an artists’ hangout. A historical relic. A haven from the heat and hurry of nearby Nelspruit. And the only required security precautions are against the marauding equine population.

There are plenty of places to stay. We chose the off-beat Flintstones, a circular above-ground cave rondavel, complete with Neanderthal Jetmaster chimney and prehistoric rock Jacuzzi. If that’s not odd, I don’t know what is. We resisted the Jacuzzi for fear of finding underwater bubbling bones, but the house was an ideal base for a weekend of exploring.

An early fog-dodging wander along the ridge yielded a massive view southwards towards Barberton and over the mountains to Swaziland. The plateau is scattered with jutting rocks across open patches of horse-strewn grassland. A pair of seemingly oblivious klipspringers perched calmly on an outcrop. Larks, pipits and a range of impossible LBJs flitted from one rock to the next; their clicking wings the only sound on the Alpine air.

Following the overstated signs to TOWN, we returned to the hamlet. It’s not even a village. Apparently during the gold rush of the late 19th century, there were as many as a thousand people living here.

The old jail still stands alongside a couple of original dwellings, as does the post office, complete with red telephone box. Many of the older buildings are now dwarfed by modern shiny-tin walled monstrosities but the place still manages to retain an antique charm and an easy-going vitality.

In its heyday, there were as many as 50 watering holes in the dorp but that has been whittled down significantly. Breakfast at the excellent Bohemian Groove Café supplemented a fine scrambled egg on toasted soda bread with lovely peppery mushrooms in a creamy sauce. The mushrooms, we discovered, were ceps, picked in the pine forest that morning.

Thus fortified, we headed off on a longer route in search of the blue swallows which breed only here and in a couple of other remote parts in Mpumalanga and, deep into the trail, we came to the area’s other main draw: Adam’s Calendar, billed by its discoverers as “the oldest man-made structure on earth”.

A rather ordinary pair of solstice-aligned upright rocks in an uneven circle of about 40 metres across, the site is strangely closed to the public for renovation and thus only accessible with a bird guide. The abandoned mine claims, where the swallows nest, are anyway probably of more interest than the calendar itself.

The nearby stone ‘workshop’ does show signs that the rocks may have been ‘worked’ and that there may have been some Stone Age activity here but is hard to accept that this site dates back further than Stonehenge. In fact, to a passing amateur like me, the Mapungubwe era seems more likely.

Dinner at Bohemian Groove was a world-class lamb curry. Owners Charl and Andrea Böhm, both artists, have created a wonderfully simple thrown-together eclectic concept. There are candles for Africa and tables and chairs in no fewer than 15 completely different designs. Everything down to the chandeliers and candlesticks is of Charl’s own design.

All the art is for sale. The music is Sweef soos ’n Arend translated into French. It’s the kind of restaurant where you know you’ll have a good meal. And we certainly did.

The Böhms have only been in Kaapsche Hoop for a year so they too are still discovering the allure of the area. On their advice, the next morning, we went into the nearby Berlin plantation on our mountain bikes, stopping on the way to pick mushrooms.

En route back to our overnight cave, before winding our way back down the pass to the Lowveld, we looked in at the old Kaapsche Hoop Cemetery. As with all such far-flung places, every grave tells a story. Tragedy, war, sickness, hardship.

In a corner stands a gravestone which particularly caught our attention. Above the name and the dates stood a simple message. GOD NEEDED ANGLES. It might explain the number of sharp bends in the road to Kaapsche Hoop.


Where it is: On the southern detour off the old N4 past Nelspruit’s defunct airport.

Why go there: For cool, fresh mountain air and gentle breezes. For high-altitude walks. To see blue swallows. To fantasise about Stone Age rituals.

And the food: This is Mpumalanga so naturally, there are the ubiquitous plentiful pancakes and a pub. Bohemian Groove has a broad-ranging menu of country-style cooking, with vegetables and herbs from the garden. Don’t miss the cocktails or the chocolate vodka.

Getting there: Take Kaapsche Hoop Road for 25km out of Nelspruit or 12km from Ngodwana and follow the horses.

What there is to see on the way: Long views. Hundreds of locals searching for the Kruger Millions, rumoured to be hidden down a mineshaft. Manure on the tarmac.

Contact: Bohemian Groove Café. Open 9am – 8.30pm.S Sunday till 4pm. Closed Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tel 013 734 4545. Website www.bohemiangroovecafe.co.za. Flintstones may be booked through Bohemian Groove. Their website also gives a number of other accommodation options.

A place to crash

Rhinos apart, there are few more peaceful places on earth than iPhika Camp in the Spioenkop Reserve

IF you’ve ever wondered why the collective noun for rhino is a crash, you haven’t been for a walk in the Spioenkop Nature Reserve.

The word doesn’t begin to cover the explosions that emanate as these near-dinosaurs hurtle blindly towards you through the scrub, kicking up dust and breaking everything in their path. They may be unsure of your exact location but they’re coming to get you regardless.

The crash is accompanied by loud cracks, splutters, snorts and stampings. And probably the panicked scramble of human feet and some panting.

Rhinos apart, though, there are few more peaceful places on earth than iPhika Camp in the Spioenkop Reserve. We arrived in pitch darkness (not recommended) under a starless sky, with not a light in sight anywhere on the plains below or the blood-soaked mountain towering above us.

There being no power in the camp, some fumbling around and dextrous torch-work unearthed gas and paraffin lamps from the boulder-and-thatch hobbit house at the back of the wide terrace. Further investigations later uncovered two spacious East African safari tents out on a limb up gently sloping winding paths.

En route we had stumbled into a reed construction, housing a flush lavatory and an open-sided shower, so we were set. As we lit a fire, so the moonless sky cleared to reveal a million pin-prick stars so bright we could see by them. A jackal howled in the distance, otherwise all was still. There must be ghosts on Spioenkop, we thought, but none showed themselves. Instead, we slept like the dead.

An early morning mist burned off as fast as dawn’s shadow could recede down the mountain, revealing golden grass and hundreds of shapely umbrella thorns.

Here a giraffe’s silhouette broke the skyline, there a dazzle of zebra stumbled across the rocky ground. Fresh rhino dung lay in middens at selected locations around the camp – just outside the hobbit kitchen, for example. And just below the shower. Just behind one of the tents. They were there alright, but we hadn’t seen one yet.

The principal game-viewing area at Spioenkop is away from iPhika, on the other side of the dam. There is a small shop, selling not much more than curios and cold drinks, surrounded by the sadly derelict buildings that once made up Ezemvelo’s offices and the occasional useable still-inhabited buildings of the staff. An abandoned tennis court makes up the centrepiece, weeds growing through the asphalt, and what’s left of the fence hangs in bent and twisted rolls from its supports.

Paradoxically, once you leave this forlorn sight behind, the reserve is immaculately managed. The roads are in good nick with excellent sightings of zebra and hartebeest and especially photogenic giraffe clambering around on rocky hillsides. And plenty of rhinos, easily watched from the safety of a vehicle.

Along the shore of the dam lie picnic sites with braais for fishermen and day-tripping families. There are even rows of swings for rhinoed-out children and, at the far end, through the fence in a rhino-free zone, there’s a well-marked walk among the aloes.

Back at lovely iPhika in the afternoon, we took our mountain-bikes up the hill and cycled right up to a herd of zebra, which promptly scattered flatulently.

Propping the bikes up against a tree, we wandered into the dense bush to see how close we could get to a puzzled giraffe. There are so few places one can safely walk unaccompanied with wildlife and the thrill tickles every vertebra of the spine.

Skidding back down the road to camp, we made out a couple of tantalising grey bulges on the other side of the waterhole, only 30m below the terrace. Carefully and sensibly, toting binoculars and cameras and keeping the waterhole between us, we approached them. They didn’t know we were there.

Then the crack of a stick alerted them and they turned, mother and calf, towards us through the bush. There was much human scrambling and much human panting but no one was hurt. So it wasn’t a major rhino crash.



On the Spioenkop Dam between Winterton and Ladysmith.


For complete solitude. For boating, fishing and horse riding. And to walk with giraffes and zebra. And rhinos. Carefully.


It sleeps a maximum of four people on proper beds in two spacious, permanent tents. The water is hot and the camp is cleaned daily.


Basic but comfortable. Lots of rickety, shiny velour armchairs inside but the outside braai area is well furnished and the views are unforgettable. It’s like having your own private bush camp.


The iPhika camp is self-catering but cooking equipment, cutlery, crockery and bedding are supplied. Bring all your own food, drink, firewood and plenty of torches.


R610 for three people. Each additional adult pays R203; children R101. Park entry R20. Wild Card holders don’t pay entry fees.


The main entrance is 14km from Winterton on the R600 towards Ladysmith and the N3. Pick up the keys there (before 4pm) and receive detailed instructions to find iPhika.


Battlefields or the views from the Van Reenen and Oliviershoek passes.


Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife on 033 845 1000; e-mail webmail@kznwildlife.com or visitwww.kznwildlife.com.

Mozambique: A Little Peek

In just five days, Chris Harvie discovers the many cheap and cheerful treasures of southern Mozambique

Maputo was washing away under a deluge of rain. Rivers poured through the streets, running with litter and all manner of floating debris. The lines of new cars in the Toyota depot lay in a vast temporary lake at the bottom of Avenida 24 de Julho; the bulls of yore could never have kept up with the flood rushing past Matadoro, their now-defunct bullring.

Suddenly, the downpour stopped, the skies cleared and the city was fresh, sprightly and bathed in sunlight.

Splashing through the treacherous water-filled potholes, we drove gingerly into the Baixa, the business heart of the city, to visit the market and Eiffel’s station before heading for lunch at the eternally delicious Costa do Sol restaurant. As the menu proudly boasts, they have “hosted such dignitaries as singer Tom Jones and the Swazi Royal Family”. I am fairly sure Leonardo went there too (Di Caprio not Da Vinci), but they don’t mention that. Quite right too.

We had only five days in Mozambique. Avoiding the chaos of the Lebombo border post, we had entered through the modern and efficient Lomahasha post from Swaziland, bringing us in at the appealing little town of Namaacha, with its dilapidated but attractive tiled-roof villas, manicured trees and public gardens.

It was dark by the time we followed the EN1 northwards from Maputo, through the still-bustling crowds at the street-side stalls, swerving among the minibus taxis, called chapas, the carts and the pedestrians lurching in and out of the gloom.

With some relief, we pulled in an hour after sunset at Bruce Buckland’s Casa Lisa, 40km north of the capital. The lodge is 1km from the main road among the pineapples and set about with swaying palms. The setting complicated one of our chosen activities – kite-flying for a 6-year-old – but was perfect in every other way.

The reed-walled and reed-roofed rooms have no window panes, allowing the cooling breeze to billow around in the interior. The word “rustic” springs to mind, but springs out again just as quickly. There are flushing toilets, hot showers and comfortable beds. The bar is ideal for a kuier with passing travellers and justifiably famous for Casa Lisa’s chicken supper.

With our two-night stay around the capital behind us and a length of kite-string forever wound around a palm tree at Casa Lisa, we moved on up the EN1 to Xai-Xai, where it had also rained. Sloshing in and out of the Mercado, we found coffee, tea, eggs and fresh vegetables. There was no meat, but there would be fish where we were going.

The road north of Xai-Xai was under repair but, no thanks to a confused GPS, we found the right tree for the turn-off and followed the sandy road for 20km to the beach. I have been visiting Nascer do Sol for many years and, from a couple of affordable cabins in the dunes, it has developed – very carefully – into quite a number of affordable cabins in the dunes, each with several bedrooms, hot water, electricity and a well kitted kitchen. There’s a bar and seafood restaurant down on the beach.

Besides a huge quantity of sand, there is swimming protected by a reef, good fishing and, by a quirk of geography, on a long summer’s day you can see both sunrise and sunset over the sea. There is some low vegetation, but no palm trees, so to celebrate we got out the kite. To the delight of the 6-year-old (and a growing crowd of onlookers), it was bombed by a real ornithological kite of about the same size, for a full hour of circling, rising and falling. Magic. And it only rained some of the time.

A couple of sea-soaked days later, we found the route from the coast to Massingir and the Limpopo National Park badly pot-holed but lined with lively towns and attractive churches and monuments. The infrastructure is under repair, bridges have been rebuilt and road-side stores are opening up.

Crossing the impressively long wall, we could look over the vast expanse of Massingir Dam on one side and down the Olifants River on the other, as it heads for its confluence with the Limpopo. The national park is well organised but unusual from a South African perspective in that it still has a human as well as a wildlife population.

The gate guard told me the plan was that the people would move out, although the people seem fairly determined that this is not their plan. Few in Mozambique have such good water (and arguably meat) supplies as the communities along the shores of the dam and the Limpopo. My guess is that they are in no rush to be relocated to the dusty interior.

Booking confirmations from the park state that the game-viewing is “not great at present” but the accommodation at Aguia Pesqueira (Fish Eagle), the flagship camp, is excellent. The clouds cleared just in time for sundowners on the deck of one of the cabins overlooking the dam. The sporadic cry of a fish eagle pierces the silence, the hippos grunt and good birdlife flits in and out of the mopani. But no kites.

Next morning, we took the slow road towards the Giriyondo Gate border, near Letaba. It is heavily rutted, which is more than can be said of the impala. We saw five in 80km. They’ll need to rut a lot more if they are going to keep up with demand. The game is, indeed, not great but the facilities are excellent. I’d have liked a couple more nights there.

The buzz of the city, the thrill of the waves and the quiet of the bush. All in five days. You’ve got to love Mozambique, even when it’s raining. After all, most kites are waterproof.

If you go

Pack your vehicle registration papers and, if applicable, permission from the financing bank to take the vehicle into Mozambique. Proof of insurance may be required. Mozambican third-party insurance must be purchased at the border. South African passport holders do not require a visa for Mozambique.


* Casa Lisa Lodge, 40km outside Maputo. Phone +258 8230 41990 or e-mail buckland@teledata.mz. Chalets from about R130 per person per night; camping R65. Breakfast R50. Dinner R100. Cash payment only.
* Nascer do Sol, Praia de Chizavane. Phone +258 2826 4500; e-mail nascerlodge@gmail.com or visit www.nascer.co.za. The bigger and fuller the chalet, the cheaper it gets. Smaller chalets from R935 for two to four people, A-frame from R545, camping from R95pp.
* Aguia Pesquira, Limpopo National Park. Phone 072 447 4270 or e-mail limpopo@wol.co.za It has three sections – one for overlanders and big camping groups, another for individual campers and, lastly, the most exclusive section consists of four wooden chalets with beds, linen, kitchen, bathroom and a covered deck overlooking the dam. Chalets R370. Camping R50 per person. Park entrance fees (R50 pp and R50 per vehicle) also apply.

A Mosey around the Misty Midlands

In most of South Africa, we have bush. In KwaZulu-Natal, by contrast, there is countryside. It’s a fine distinction but it is a distinction nevertheless and it maybe goes some way towards explaining the quintessential Englishness of the KZN Midlands.
Rolling hills, spotted with high-eaved, thatched homes. Bright-white walls. Pergolas, latticework and rambling roses. Cackling streams meandering through colourful woodlands. Farms named after English villages and villages named, no doubt, after English farms (although The Dargle itself was named after the Dargle River in Wicklow, Ireland, by Irish settlers in 1848 and it is very like it).

I don’t know whether the Beverley Country Cottages were named after the East Yorkshire wool trading town, but if they were, the town was honoured. Beverley is in the Dargle Valley and, not unlike the Dales in some respects with its swirling mists, it is as pretty a place as anywhere in Yorkshire.

Just across the Umgeni River on a grassy knoll atop a rise stands a from-a-distance apparently ramshackle assortment of old sheds and dairy buildings. Above them presides a gracious hundred-year old home overlooking a long lawn which extends into the view itself and beyond and around them lie 20 hectares of lawns and paddocks with more farms stretching deep into the distance.

But if the buildings are ramshackle on the outside, the inside is another story. Swish, squashy sofas, huge beds, televisions and fully kitted-out kitchens are the order of the day. The fridge is stocked with fresh milk, there’s real filter coffee and a jar of shortbread. The linen is of the finest quality and for cool nights there are piles of blankets, log-fires and a braai around which to huddle.

The garden has all the English trappings, right down to the rhododendrons.

We turned up fairly ramshackle ourselves: adults, children, young and old. Kate and Garry came out to meet us, their infectiously delightful four year-old twins, Jade and Jasmin, hurtling behind them, squawking joyously like teletubbies. These two hove into sight and then out again, with my youngsters in tow. We would barely see any of them for days as they happily moseyed around the garden in successive searches for duiker, chickens, Frisbees, tame rabbits and lost balls, with intermittent leaps on the trampoline.

For the rest of us, Beverley was an escape from everything we knew. We stretched out along the gravel road on a straggle of mountain bikes in the drizzle. We fished for trout in nearby sunny streams and dams. We walked the hills and undertook more strenuous hikes in the foothills of the Drakensberg and below the majestic iNhlosane (maiden’s breast) mountain, which dominates this region of otherwise gentle undulations.

In between activities, we went exploring. The Dargle Valley is in a remote corner of the Midlands Meander which means that, while there is no passing traffic, you are still only a leather sandal’s throw from Lions River and Nottingham Road with their seamless supply of city refugees and artisans knocking up everything from footwear to fudge and pickles to pottery. A shopaholic’s dream, spattered with pubs and coffee shops for the less enthusiastic spender.

There are resorts abundant in the area but Beverley somehow seems to offer everything that a resort would have been able to provide for less money and with fewer people around. The children would happily have stayed there forever. I guess we all would. If home was like this, I’d never leave.

For Kate and Garry, who moved back down to her native KwaZulu-Natal from a lodge outside Bela-Bela a year or so ago, there’s no looking back. And from the way they have lovingly restored the homestead and its surrounding buildings, polishing up the yellowwood and Oregon and sprucing up the dairy, the hayloft and the stable, I don’t think they’ll be moving away in a hurry.

This, of course, is good news for the rest of us. After all, why beat about the bush, when you can enjoy a weekend in the countryside?

Where it is: In the Dargle Valley, 45 minutes from Pietermaritzburg.
Why go there: For cool, quiet mountains and the peace of the countryside. And if you have kids at the nearby boarding schools, this is spot-on for those weekend visits.
What it has: Four self-catering cottages with plenty of bathrooms and lots of space. Two en-suite rooms in the main house.
What it’s like: Actually, it is quite plush, but you still feel you can kick off your shoes and put your feet on the furniture
And the food: Self-catering with an option to include breakfast and/or dinner. The Midlands Meander also offers countless food options from the wild to the wonderful.
Rates: R295 pp/night. Children under 12 pay 50%. Children under 4 free.
Getting there: S 29 deg 29.845 E 29 deg 58.351 Take the Impendle/Dargle turning off the R103 between Nottingham Road and Howick/Tweedie off ramps and travel until the road crosses the Umgeni. Beverley is over the river at the top of the hill on the left.
What there is to see on the way: Shopping. Beware!
Contact: Kate and Garry Kelly Tel: 033 234 4771 Cell: 082 895 4002
Fax: 086 616 0835 Email: info@beverleycountrycottages.co.za Website:www.beverleycountrycottages.co.za

On the road to Rhodes

Exhausted from standing in the burning sun of the Beit Bridge border and dealing with its long-winded officialdom, we stopped only once, for an ice-cold dry lemon at a spaza on the roadside, then pushed on to Bulawayo.

In a lay-by a few kilometres south of the city, a horde of hardy Ndebele women were flogging red onions and pumpkins alongside one of the $1 toll booths that now liberally sprinkle Zimbabwe’s thoroughfares. Cheerful pedestrians milled around in the hot afternoon sun, their smiles darkening only momentarily as a dusty twister blew through.

A bored policeman had recently and disinterestedly checked our vehicle papers before waving us on but Karen, our trusty Garmin Australian, was uncharacteristically confused (we found that Karen, with her obvious aboriginal roots, pronounced African names better than Serena, her pukka British counterpart).

We weren’t exactly lost. We were on Cecil Rhodes’s road on what is, I suppose nowadays, a somewhat politically incorrect pilgrimage to his grave. This required, we realised, a small detour from his Cape-to-Cairo route, up to the hills and balancing rocks of the Matopos. We just weren’t sure which was the quickest route, the afternoon was wearing on and we still had a tent to pitch.

We hailed a would-be red-onion-buyer, a tall man in his 30s, an oversized mac shielding him from the blazing sun. Hello. How are you? Fine and you? Fine and you? Fine and you? Etcetera. One must be especially polite when seeking directions from people in foreign climes.

“Which way to Matobo?” I asked, pleased with myself for using the new name of the park where Rhodes companionably shares his impressive World’s View resting place with his old buddy Leander Starr Jameson, eponymous of raid fame, Patrick Coghlan, a former Rhodesian PM; and sundry victims of the Shangani raid.

“‘Matopos?” said Mac-man, using the old name with reckless abandon.

“Yes, please. There seem to be hundreds of roads to Rhodes,” I jested, pointlessly.

“No there aren’t!” he politely corrected me, going on to prove himself conclusively wrong. “Travel straight for 3km, then, at the second junction, turn left into Cecil Avenue and go 1km, turn right and then left into Matopos Road.”

Cecil Avenue sounded promising.

“Or carry on and just before the Ascot Racecourse, turn left and go 1km and turn right and then left into Matopos Road.”

“Or go a bit further and at the Kenilworth Towers skyscraper and the Ascot Shopping Centre turn left .

“Or go on past the museum and Centenary Park and then left onto Matopos Road.

“Or just go straight and ask somebody,” Mac-man helpfully added at the end.

We decided to go straight on. Bulawayo is renowned for its wide streets in which you can turn a full span of oxen, so a U-turn in a bakkie wouldn’t be a problem if we went wrong.

What a place. Broekie-lace abundant in faded colonial glory; many mock-Tudor mansions with ill-fitting tiled roofs. The Natural History Museum with the world’s finest collection of stuffed animals and birds. Everywhere, Bulawayo’s droopy-Y-shaped streetlights towered above us. This was no longer a decaying city. It was alive with traffic and commerce.

But I digress. We had a grave to find and we were looking for Matopos Road.

Which was all very well except that it isn’t called Matopos Road until further out of town. Numerous oxen-free U-turns later, we found it. It’s called Samuel Parirenyatwa Road.

Karen, who would later in the trip get horribly confused trying to find the “Hwan”‘ National Park, says Parirenyatwa much better than I do. Nevertheless, it seems after all that Mac-man was right. All roads lead to Rhodes.

Blood, sweat and cheers

Chris Harvie investigates two of South Africa’s dry national parks and finds three rivers, one full and two empty, but no leopards.

The river runs with my blood and shall henceforth be called the Orange River. I fell off my bicycle crossing a slimy ford in the Augrabies Falls National Park and a few nasty gashes sent a not insignificant quantity of my left arm’s liquid contents trickling into the great river below via a small tributary. Tying a handkerchief around it, I bravely pedalled onwards and dried out almost immediately in the sun.

We had asked at reception whether cycling was permitted in the park but nobody seemed to know. Perhaps there are not enough nutters wanting to cycle in 40 degrees of dusty desert for it to be required knowledge but, while the receptionist expressed concern that we might become the protein in a ‘laypod’ picnic, permission was eventually granted.

We cycled early every morning before taking shelter from the heat under the vast Camel Thorn trees in the shaded campsite. Wittily, we called it ‘taking cycle-logical advantage’ of the early cool air. The gemsbok took refuge in the narrow, angular shade of the quiver trees and even the springbok were panting. Only the geckos and the soaring eagles seemed content in the sweltering sun. We saw no laypods. Luckily.

The park offers well-graded roads to its viewpoints through undulating patchy streaks of yellow grass dotted with rusts and reds, under an endless blue sky broken only by sudden juts of black rocks. The closest is Moon Rock, a large, smooth climb from the end of a sandy track with an outlook stretching right across the park. From Ararat, further along, there is a long view both upstream and downstream along the 18-kilometre gorge carved by the Orange River below the falls. Echo Corner is the furthest viewpoint over the river and, as its name suggests, is not always a quiet place.

Dassies and meerkats hurtle across the roads and I fear I may have clipped the tip of a Kalahari sand snake’s tail with my front wheel on the return journey. It whipped back at me angrily before slithering off. With this sinuous exception, however, cycling proved a low-impact and highly rewarding way to explore the park. The passing occupants of rare, sealed vehicles looked out with envy, leaving us covered in dust but infinitely more in tune with the smells and sounds of the veld.

The camp at Augrabies, like most SANParks camps, is clean, comfortable and efficiently managed. The brick-built chalets have been thoughtfully constructed and sensitively positioned to reduce the impact of their presence on the natural phenomenon they celebrate.

Several people have fallen over the 56 metre drop of the falls through the years, but nowadays there is safe viewing from seemingly-endless wooden walkways and platforms over the river and its bulging gorges and gurgling pools. Safe, even for amateur bush cyclists. Especially those with a tendency to fall into rivers.

The campsite, like any campsite, is only as satisfactory as its residents. We were kept awake one night by a neighbouring camper’s hysterical screams when she couldn’t find her cellphone to call her brother-in-law in the next tent to come and rescue her from a cricket she had discovered in hers. And we were woken at 5am every morning by her hairdryer. The dozens of fat dassies, on the other hand, are good company, provided you check under you car before pulling out for fear of splatting them.

The facilities were good, the camp was spotlessly clean and the ablution blocks were in very good nick. There were even coin-operated washing machines and dryers in full working order and a good solid fence to which to chain bicycles.

The South African section of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 380km up the road via Upington, offers no cycling, principally because laypods are not the only danger. We had taken a round route through Namibia and come into the park through the Mata-Mata gate which has recently been opened to tourists. The road runs along the Auob riverbed and ends at Twee Rivieren Camp, where the park’s two rivers meet. The Auob flows, on average, once every eleven years and its sister river, the Nossob, only a couple of times in a hundred years, so they provide little disruption to game-viewing and the wildlife concentrates around the numerous boreholes scattered along their beds.

On the run from the Namibian border to Twee Rivieren, I saw a number of mammals I had never seen before. A Cape fox lay half-submerged in the cool sand on one side of the road, while on the other side a huge Kalahari lion lay motionless in the shade of a Camel Thorn. The Kalahari is like that. Endlessly surprising and unpredictable. There’s always something, a bush, a flower, a creature at which to marvel. And to wonder how it survives in this unremitting dryness.

We saw a number of giraffes sitting awkwardly under trees with their necks held aloft, frequent wildebeest, red hartebeest and gemsbok and vast herds of springbok, one numbering more than five hundred animals. Our second lion sighting was probably the best I have ever experienced in a national park two males and four females, all with different colourings and character-full faces boasting more scrapes and scars than my left arm. Only five metres away. And with none of the jostling, hooting and squashing of small creatures that characterise lion sightings in the Kruger and the busier reserves.

The joy of the Kgalagadi is its silent isolation and its lack of vehicles. In two hours on the Dune Drive we passed only one vehicle. The road runs through vivid orange sweeping sands between the rivers and offers impressive birding with close-up sightings of crimson-breasted shrike, kori bustard, secretary birds and northern black korhaan. We later sat riveted while five bat-eared foxes romped under a Shepherd’s Tree.

Twee Rivieren offers large, cool chalets and another excellent campsite, this time with wooden shelters under which to pitch tents in the shade. The camp managers are enthusiastic and helpful and allowed us to pass through the gate to ride our bicycles down the road to Upington when we had tired of cycling the perimeter fence.

The only annoyances were the jarring crow of the alien cockerel, from outside the park at dawn, as it mingled with the wail of the hyena and the unfriendly shop. But the camp’s display of Kalahari enthusiasts’ photographs alone makes the long journey worthwhile and the region’s star-gazing is unsurpassed.

The Kalahari offers game viewing on a higher plain (sorry) with its harshness and its vast open spaces, the light and the colours, not to mention the history and the hardships of the San and Mier communities still living there and those of the more recent settlers and trekkers.

As the writer Oliver Goldsmith said, “Life is a journey that must be travelled, no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.” The Kalahari may well seem a long, long way away for most of us and it is but let’s face it, the roads are good and the accommodations are outstanding.

A South African traveller’s life is a journey incomplete without visiting and absorbing these two Kalahari national parks. And if you take your bicycle, use it, but go slowly through the fords. And mind the laypods.

If you go 

Bookings for both parks may be made with SANParks on 012 428 9111. Emailreservations@sanparks.org, or look up the exceptional SANParks website www.sanparks.org for more information or to make an on-line booking. It is quick, easy and efficient.

Augrabies National Park (55 383 hectares) named Aukoerebis, ‘place of great noise’, by the Khoi. Conservation Fees R22 (SA citizens) per person per day. Wild cards accepted. Chalets from R600 for a 2 person-chalet, camping from R145 for a 2-person site. Organised night drives R100 per adult / R50 per child. Overnight hiking trails and kayaking also available. Mountain bikes for hire, in theory. Contact the park for details. The excellent Dassie Interpretive Trail is 5km long and there is no charge. Just follow the numbered signs but, as the map says, please don’t remove them!

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (3.6 million hectares in South Africa and Botswana combined) means ‘place of thirst’ in the language of the Khoi. Conservation Fees R40 (SA citizens) per person per day. Wild cards accepted. Twee Rivieren Camp : Chalets from R690 for a 2 person-chalet, camping from R135 for a 2-person site. Organised night drives R145 per adult / R70 per child. Walks and 4×4 Eco trails available. Contact the park for details. The park’s roads are described as ‘not sedan-friendly’ but sedans are permitted to enter certain areas at own risk (and, frankly, would not have had a problem on the roads we travelled). The road from Upington to Twee Rivieren has recently been tarred. NB All visitors entering or leaving by the Mata-Mata gate on the SA-Namibia border are required to spend a minimum of 2 nights in the park. Improvements are under way to the infrastructure of the park, roads are closed in places and both Mata Mata and Nossob camps are currently being upgraded (although Mata Mata remains open).