South Africa and Mozambique Sept 2019

25th September – In the Grey Green Limpopo

We flew overnight to Johannesburg with British Airways and then connected to Hoedspruit where I collected my pre-ordered camera kit (600mm and 5DIV MK1) and bean bag. The airport was just a hut and a curio shop. Everybody was standing around either waiting for bags or their safari guides.

By the time we arrived at Garonga Safari Camp in Limpopo Province we had been on the go for 30+ hrs so we didn’t take in much.  After a short nap it was time for dinner.

Lovely open fire place complete with a large, scuttling sun spider which pleased some guests (Una) more than others (shrieking Swiss teenagers).  Very good dinner. We met Katie from Hull who would be our field guide for 5 days and Bongi, our tracker.  Katie’s first job of the evening was to catch and relocate the sun spider. You are escorted to and from the tents in the evening, but it doesn’t feel strictly necessary to us especially as we are the closest tent to reception.

Colder than we expected in the evening and very windy.

Just outside our tent is a woodpecker nest in a hollow tree. Much chipping and tapping during the day as clearly renovations and alterations taking place Chez Woody. If we got too close, he stuck out an indignant red-tufted head.

26th September – The Red Snot of an African Safari

Up at 05:00 for the first drive. Quick coffee before we headed off just after sunrise. We bumped along the roads in the chill wind and the typical African red dust blew around us. A buff or scarf around the face area is handy otherwise you think you have a nosebleed when you see the tissues.

We saw a reasonable selection of animals quite quickly. Giraffes, zebra, kudu, impala, a huge bull elephant and various birds including the ubiquitous yellow hornbill. Just like in the Lion King.

The best part of this drive was hearing about the kill of a baby hippopotamus on the other side of the reserve.  We shot off to see this arriving to be #5 in the queue. They try hard to both limit the number of vehicles in places at one time and not to disturb natural behaviour. The lions were in a food coma as they digested the meat. Apparently, some younger male lions had made the kill and the two alpha males had nicked it from them.

Lots of birds around the camp swimming – pool after the drive. Makes for easy bird watching. I loved hearing about the bird which has a sort of helmet, flies through spider webs and then uses to weave a silky nest.

Breakfast was delicious with a wide spread of breads, fruits, yoghurts etc followed by a full English and plenty of other choices. Even had HP Sauce. Very welcome after the early start.

We relaxed and walked around the site until lunch time. As the Wifi is only available around the dining area this acts like a watering hole for the millennials on the campsite. Like impala they herd together and are absorbed by their phones.

This evening we’d booked the Bush Bath before dinner which is right on the outskirts of the site with fine views over the bush and stars.  We could not understand why the paths were so dangerous at night that an escort was needed to and from the bath area yet while we were nicely peeled and poaching in our bath, we were totally safe from predators ? The sky was clear and we could see the Milky Way. We had two strong local gins and were given a couple of glasses of bubbly as well.

We had pre-dinner snacks around the campfire and then dinner in the round with all the guests together. Lots of talk of holidays, sabbaticals and the animal sightings of the day.

27th September – Hard Drive and Sleep Easy

Game drives involve lots of driving trying to find animals. At this time of year, it also involves putting on as many layers as you have for what is amusingly called summer – starts around 5C and then climbs to near 30 during the day.  Possible to get hypothermia and sunstroke in the same day. Several shirts, fleece, jacket etc. were needed. Una really regretted not having thermals and woolly tights and even contemplated making use of the supplied bathrobes as another layer.

On the way back to camp we stopped at a viewpoint and had coffee and biscuits. The rest of the journey was packed with animals.

We were very excited about our glamping night on the Sleep Out platform. Before we arrived at the platform, we had a private tour to the far end of the reserve. We got to see the lionesses from earlier resting near a watering hole. We didn’t manage to see much else as the area was less populated with game. It appears that a visiting pride of lions tends to have that effect on the locality.

The Sleep Out itself was a platform on stilts wrapped around a tree and overlooking a watering hole which was somewhat deserted. The staff set it up, putting up paraffin and solar lights and showing us the mod-cons like the flushing loo.

The latter had a nutty looking monkey turd close by. Shame they hadn’t figured it out.  We also got a book about the stars, but we didn’t manage to work out any of the constellations.

We had a ready prepared dinner for two of chicken pie and shepherds’ pie, a small bottle of gin, a bottle of wine and the local Amarula.

The view was stunning. Nothing for miles, distant hills and the blaze of the milky way over head with zero light pollution. The first time I’ve been able to see it this clearly horizon to horizon.

As we got to bed, we heard various noises- off but we settled down and had a comfortable night as it was not too cold and not too hot. Slightly different climate with less chilly wind and a higher temperature from Garonga itself.

We were collected at 06:00 to rejoin our fellow guests on the morning safari. Well worth doing and we’d do it again if we could.

28th September – The Call of the Wild

Katie was on a mission to find the buffalo for us as they are part of the usual Big Five.  On the way we saw an eagle enjoying a gory breakfast.

We eventually found the herd but had to circle round to get ahead of them as they were on the move through the scrub.

In the middle of the night we heard hair-raising roaring that sounded nearby. Una and I both thought up the same escape plan of hiding in the toilet which had the only truly solid walls of the room. Happily not needed as no furry guest came to the door. As far as we know, anyway.

29th September  – Malarone Dreams

The weather was starting to get a bit warmer in the mornings.  We are now used to the crackle of the radio as guides swap information about a “loc” and jostle for a position place.  It is good to get out of the jeep for the morning snack break or evening sun-downer.  Katie’s love and enthusiasm for Africa and conservation is obvious.  She told us about Facebush, not a dating or other site but a network for guides and trackers to arrange future employment. Interesting why young people choose this work and it is clearly very different to life in the UK.

Then we saw a mother cheetah give her two cubs a fairly half-hearted hunting lesson.

Dinner on a big table tonight with all the guests. In the middle of dinner we heard a series of low roars from the trees opposite which excitingly was the call of a leopard.

We are much more used now to the Malarone side effects of mild motion sickness and very vivid dreams. Cyclizine works well for the former.

30th September – Jacaranda Blossom

We decided to skip the morning drive, have a lie in and explore what we could of the camp prior to checking out. Lots of colourful birds around the pool. Feathers with shimmers like Quality Street sweets.  Our first use of our legs after days of sitting in the jeep.

Bernie the camp owner checked us out himself. He is an excellent host with a quiet, friendly manner and a military bearing. Our tracker Bongi drove us to the local airport for our connecting car.

Bongi is looking for a job in the anti-poacher brigade and was telling us how rhino poachers went to jail for only a short time before re-offending. He said there is a reward scheme for shooting poachers and even killing them. A lot of money could be made and it would save the poor rhinos too.

A long and hot drive to Hazyview town which has developed and expanded considerably since Una was here 2 years ago. Our driver was very talkative and gave us a low down on all the politics and corruption around. It turns out that Bernie had paid for him to go to school and to learn guiding plus time off to study.

Rissington Inn is probably the standard of a UK Travelodge but in a compound with a reasonable size garden . We went for a walk in the grounds. The dining room was cosy with a fire for a grey cold evening and the hot comfort food was very welcome.

I gave the room a good dose of Doom the dramatically named local insect spray. We’d finally learnt that the other provided spray, Peaceful Sleep,  is for skin and not rooms.

1st  October – Local is lekker

We decided to make the most of a holiday-from-the holiday and  have a rest at the Rissington Inn. There was very little we could do without either a car or signing up for an expensive and long day with a tour company. At least we were comfortable, the weather was cloudy and the food was home cooked and tasty. Nice to see local African dishes on the menu after a week of very European-style food.  We walked to the shopping mall along a dusty path and then alongside a dual carriageway. The Lowveld Mall was packed with people either queuing for the cash machines or in the packed supermarkets. Today was the day after pay-day. Contented babies were strapped on by blankets on mothers’ backs. Sacks of maize were being heaved into minibuses and bakkies. Chicken feet were being sold by the crate. All the traffic, dust and noise of Africa.

The afternoon was spent reading, editing pictures and doing this blog.

2nd October – No News No Shoes

A driver came to take us to KMI airport. Like a kidnap handover as Una said. We were handed over at the small but pretty airport to our second driver who had come from Mozambique that morning and he pointed out the development of Mozambique after we crossed the border. Almost all the big new houses were government employees, he explained. He was quite scathing about the corruption endemic in both countries. We were waved down by the police once then moved on as we were tourists with a local. He said that they usually wanted some money for a “refreshment” to make any problems go away. He also told us fascinating stories about local African illnesses that only a traditional healer can cure. These include a niche illness contracted by a widow or widower if they have sex within the one year mourning period. Or if they do not keep to one clothes outfit for the year.

The border was just like you see on TV a huge long queue of lorries which can take several days to clear. Our driver said that the drivers often went home and awaited a call to say they could pick up the lorries. Of course, paying a bribe would expedite the process.

Our visa at the crossing was slow and the staff not very interested in actually doing their job.  Still, it was a lot cheaper and more convenient than via the Embassy in London.

Maputo was a heaving African city with lots of street hawkers and dense jostling traffic. We were dropped at the marina to wait for the tide and our boat. The trip took 1.5hrs due to the waves but much faster than the 6hr road -only alternative which they have to use if the weather is really bad.

All discomforts were forgotten when we were shown our room with views over the channel and sandbanks. Machangulo Beach Lodge is a proper beach paradise.

3rd October – A Whale of a Time

Much reassurance from staff that the boat ride to see the whales would be just fine. But we were strapped into sturdy lifejackets none the less and Una eyed the choppy waves dubiously. The channel was rough and the waves were a metre or so high. The captain ramped the engines up and down in time with the waves to jump over them. At one point I was at least 30cm in the air and hanging on to the boat just by my fingertips. Una thought this was yet another drowning opportunity of 2019 and two little South African boys heaved their guts up, one on each side of the small boat.

We motored along until spotting the spouts of water and approached the humpbacked whales. We kept the regulation 300m distance away and the captain avoided disturbing them with our engines. There were around 4 in a pod which lob tailed, spy -hopped and tail slapped for our entertainment.

The trip back was much smoother.

We’d booked the Dhow Trip and went further up the calmer coast away from the churning waves opposite the hotel. The captain used the engine to get across to the lagoon before unfurling the battered looking sail.  Just us two guests this time. It was a calm experience in a traditional boat and we were served drinks and snacks.

4th October – Leave Only Footprints

Today we walked the 7km round trip to the shipwreck along the stretch of wild coast. We met some men from Jozi who were on a Boys’ Weekend fishing trip with all the gear. They said that the fish were channelled through this location and they could get some up to a metre long. King fish and barracuda. We saw lots of interesting shells and small wader birds, maybe a hundred in a group.

The walk seemed quite far in the heat. The wreck itself was a tourist ship that had been hit by a large wave and capsized before hitting the rocks in around 2009. A good rusting hulk for pictures.

The round trip with stops was ~3hrs and we managed to get back for lunch. I’d booked a full body Swedish massage which was very good while Una relaxed by the pool.

5th October – Pretty in Pink

This morning’s activity was the mangrove swamp kayaking. An early start and across to the lagoon where we saw a huge flock of flamingos picking their steps delicately on the sandbar. This is where we jumped ship and collected our kayaks to start the paddle into the mangrove channel. It transpired that the guide for this trip had a day off so we went alone and the boat followed us until it could go no further and the way was blocked by branches. Not the longest kayaking trip we have done by a long mark but the water was shallow and calm and the flamingos at least were worth the trip.

On getting back we and another family complained about the brevity and lack of guide and the activities officer offered to do something in compensation.

After fish and chips for lunch we went up the sand dunes behind the resort for a walk. The area is covered by huge white shells quite a way and height from the sea. I wonder if they had been buried on the sea floor long ago or washed up in big storms? Having said that one of the staff said they don’t get tropical storms due to the geography. There also seems to be something like coral on the dunes next to the sea.

We saw lots of strange tracks; birds, crabs exploring around their holes, hare like jumps, possibly a wild cat tracking a small antelope, a snake track and the tunnels and mounds of a dune mole rat. David Attenborough needs to get himself to the sand dunes of Mozambique while he can as there seems to be a shortage of information on what exactly lives there.

On the way back we met a couple who on hearing about the tracks said oh yes, there are leopards everywhere…. Especially further along the reserve past the elephant sanctuary! Nice to know.

G&T on our deck watching the sunset before our dinner.

6th October – Desert Island discs

The hotel Whatsapp informed us that today was ideal for the reef snorkel and picnic so off we set in one of the hotel’s small boats.

Inhaca island is opposite the hotel and as we turned into the coastline we could see that on that side the water was much calmer than the waves of the sea channel. We arrived on a strip of talcum powder sand surrounded by water on 3 sides with the only thing on it a set of deck chairs and a table with a parasol. Perfect blue sea and a reef to snorkel around whilst the tide was going out.  We limited ourselves to swimming around the large rock pools and avoided the open sea. There were plenty of multi-coloured fish. Not as good as the Red Sea in Aqaba Jordan but enough for 30 minutes or so of fishy entertainment. It looked like what we imagine the Maldives are like.  For a while we had the whole beach to ourselves but then another couple had their table set up further down.  A fish eagle looked down from the trees behind with interest as the little speedboat came back with our hot lunch. Hot fish sandwiches, toasties, spicy mackerel samosas, warm homemade crisps and more drinks than we needed. We munched this in front of clear turquoise sea and watched shoals of little fish. It was paradise and we regretted not staying longer but we had Gin Tasting Experience booked back at the hotel.

Gin tasting had been arranged to ensure we didn’t miss the chance to sample Mozambique’s largest collection of gin (somewhat smaller than our own!). Jacques had lined up 5 gins for us to try. First neat, then with 1:1 tonic to see the quinine oil separate and the taste evolve and then with a garnish which again changed the flavour.  The garnishes were: lemon, orange, dried grapefruit, chocolate and then pickled ginger!

A key effect was the wax being stripped off the fruit by the alcohol which intensified the flavour – further enhanced by eating crisps. He also gave us some cooking tips eg lamb chops with the rosemary based Scottish gin which again takes the lamb fat to enhance the flavours.

Early evening dunes walk in the beautiful light followed by dinner looking over the sea. A fantastic, isolated place away from the madding crowd with plenty to do to fill the days.

7th October – Homeward bound by sea and land

We were sorry to be taking our last breakfast at Machangulo beach lodge. The restaurant windows open out to a perfect view of blue sea and backdrop of birdsong. No feedback forms here, this is a very paperless hotel. Instead, Jacques the Manager came to get face to face feedback on our stay. It was perfection.  A climb into the speedboat and off we went across the calm sea back to Maputo and the airport.

Not an airport you would choose to linger in but soon we had boarded our short flight to Johannesburg.

We booked The Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton for the final night as it is directly on Nelson Mandela Square.  This meant easy access to many good restaurants and an adjacent shopping mall to pass the time before our evening flight the next day. We chose Trumps Grill house for our steak dinner.  David devoured a huge fillet steak (350g) that challenged him somewhat. Delicious and juicy though and organically fed without growth hormones. We even got to compliment one of the three brothers who own it.

We did a circuit of the mall to work it off and then collapsed into bed.

8th October – Biltong in the Bag

Excellent breakfast at The Michaelangelo Hotel. Special points for bircher muesli with tropical fruits and our last exposure to warm South African scones.

Sandton Mall is an odd distorted version of Africa with well-heeled and well-dressed folk milling around the designer shops and Nelson Mandela Square.  A good place to people-watch and have a light lunch in The Big Mouth restaurant. Not sure if this is the vision of South Africa that Mandela intended, but it goes on below his statue and massive portraits. We spent a few hours wandering around looking for a few small gifts.  We bought a miniature game reserve sample of top-quality biltong from the Butcher Shop.

We also found a bottle opener by a local designer Carrol Boyes . Shame she so recently died; her work is very eye catching.

We were collected by our driver from Ilios Travel and travelled at sunset out to the airport and the flight homewards.

 

The hotel staff were a cheerful bunch and appreciated the small tips we gave. It is sobering to see the evening commute of staff from work in places like 5- star hotels back to the townships such as Alexandra. Una wanted to read about why there was still economic apartheid, why the townships were still as they are and what was happening in education to create a fairer South Africa.  South Africa enchanted and challenged us and we felt very privileged to have been able to enjoy everything we saw and did.

Notes:

  1. South Africa and Mozambique can both be colder than you expect in our autumn.  Bring fleeces and thermals. Mornings in the bush were around 5C plus the wind chill from the jeep. It gradually warmed up as the week progressed to around 10C at the start. Take a wind proof fleece.
  2. Bring a good pair of binoculars (10×50) for wildlife. Even a 600mm lens was a bit short for the birds. Should have used my extender.
  3. Some Hazyview hotels give out anti-corruption cards to show to traffic police if stopped if you are self- driving. Always say you are happy to go to the station and fill out the paperwork if pushed. They usually prefer to let you go than face the hassle of this.
  4. Mild anti-sickness tablets are advisable if taking Malarone for the game drives – quite bouncy and even those not prone to motion sickness may find that Malarone causes it.
  5. Rehydration salts even if you don’t think you need them. Easy to not realise wind is dehydrating you.
  6. Travel Butlers  were very good at organising all our lodgings and transfers at a fair price. Everything went like clockwork, and in Africa too.
  7. I rented a 600mm lens, 5DMKIII body and a bean bag from Africa Photographic Services and would recommend them. They can deliver to lodges or airports (prices vary).
  8. Remember to keep the camera and binoculars with you on every trip. Kicking myself for forgetting a waterproof bag at the beach resort for the camera kit.