The Group (l to r): Craig, Laura, Robert, Kathy, Jim, Robin and Graham
27 September 2011
Hello everyone! I hope this 3rd installment of photos and news from South Africa finds you well!
We are not long back from a wonderful visit to our favourite South African National Park and to Namibia, the country which lies to the north of South Africa. In 33 days, the seven of us - Robert and me, our son Graham, our daughter Laura and her partner Craig, and Craig’s parents Kathy and Jim - traveled just over 5100km. We brought back many fond memories and over 6000 photos (that’s just Robert’s and my tally).
Kathy and Jim arrived in Cape Town from Canada via Heathrow at the end of July on the first rainy day that we had experienced in Cape Town in a month. Up until their arrival, Cape Town had been experiencing an unseasonably dry and remarkably warm winter, with bright, sunny days and daytime temperatures in the low to mid 20s. Perfect weather from my perspective! We met Kathy and Jim, who looked remarkably chipper given the two long flights they had just endured, at the airport and, over the next month, took them to visit some of Craig and Laura’s and Robert’s and my favourite places in Southern Africa.
Love the logo!
We began with a few days in the Cape Town area. We first took Kathy and Jim to the Winelands, an area less than an hour east of Cape Town that has thirteen designated wine routes and over 250 estates. On this visit to the Winelands, Laura and Craig suggested that we try an estate that we had not visited previously, so we headed first to Saxenburg, which appealed to me not only because their merlot/cabernet/shiraz is a favourite in Calgary, but also because their logo is a guinea fowl feather. I suspected, quite rightly as it turns out, that guinea fowl would feature prominently in the winery’s décor.
Saxenburg Wine Estate tasting room
As we entered the beautifully maintained Cape Dutch estate, which dates back to 1693, we saw a variety of wildlife, including zebra, ostrich, springbok and blue wildebeest – a sneak preview of our upcoming safari in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. We sampled several wines and although the estate is known for its award winning shiraz, it was not a big hit with our group. We left with bottles of sauvignon blanc, merlot and the blend instead.
From Saxenburg, we drove to Morgenster (Morning Star), a wine and olive estate that was established in 1711. Morgenster, we discovered on a previous visit, is not the most attractive estate, but the olive, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil tasting sessions more than compensate for the surroundings.
Sampling olive oil and balsamic vinegar at Morgenster
In the tasting room, each of us had four small glasses placed in front of us, with three containing different varieties of extra-virgin olive oil, and the fourth holding a sample of the estate’s balsamic vinegar. We were instructed to sip each in turn, after first warming the contents of each glass in our hands. The lemon infused (a lovely citrus aroma and flavour) and white truffle enhanced (think mushrooms and garlic - Robert complained that he wasn’t able to get the taste of garlic out of his mouth for the rest of the day – it is strong!) olive oils were delicious, as was the balsamic vinegar (three years in a wooden cask does wonders for the flavour), and we purchased some of each to take with us on safari.
The entrance to Waterford Estate
From Morgenster, we headed to the Waterford Estate in the picturesque Blaauwklippen Valley, which offers the unique and decadent combination of wine and chocolate tasting. It is a beautiful estate, with rolling lawns, citrus groves, and immaculate gardens featuring wonderfully fragrant lavender beds.
Wine and chocolate - now this is life!!
We sampled three wines and three types of chocolate, with the chocolate paired with the appropriate wine - a shiraz with masala chai dark chocolate, a cabernet sauvignon with rock salt dark chocolate, and a sweet dessert wine with rose geranium milk chocolate. Sooooo good! We left with an embarrassing amount of chocolate and a few bottles of wine.
The Dutch Reform Church on the main street of Franschhoek, one of many lovely buildings in the town
By the time we left the Waterford Estate, it was late afternoon, and having had nothing to eat since breakfast other than chocolate and olives, we were feeling a bit peckish. As a result, we ended our tour of the Winelands with a stop in the town of Franschhoek, where the seven of us devoured six large pizzas at Col’Cacchio, a pizza chain in the Western Cape that produces unique and delicious pizzas. Our favourites were the Rustica (roasted butternut, gorgonzola and pumpkin seeds), the Autunno (caramelized onion, sundried tomatoes and smoked mozzarella) and the Brie (brie cheese, peppadews and onion). Also soooo good! After a very satisfying meal, we wandered the main street of Franschhoek, and purchased a few lovely souvenirs.
Birds of Paradise in Kirstenbosch
We wandered the walking trails that meander through the gardens, admiring the fynbos (fine bush) - hardy, thin-leaved plants that proliferate in the Western Cape and are found nowhere else in the world. Our favourites are the silver trees, the king protea, the delightful pin cushions, and the ericas.
Graham, Kathy, Laura, Jim and Craig loading one of 4x4s on the street outside our home in Cape Town, Table Mountain visible at the top of the street
The afternoon before we left Cape Town for our safari in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, we picked up two Toyota Hilux double cab 4x4s from the Avis outlet at the airport. For those of us who had been driving a little Honda Jazz for the past month, the 4x4s seemed enormous. We packed all but our computers, cameras and other electronics into them later that evening, including two weeks worth of food, water and wine, duffles with our clothing, a braai grill and charcoal and everything else that we needed to be completely self-sufficient while camping in the park. Laura took charge of organizing all the food into large plastic tubs, while Craig, the acknowledged packing expert (from his student days working at Costco), was in charge of fitting everything into the vehicles. We looked mighty organized by the time we retired for the night, and I couldn’t wait to get underway in the morning.
We parked one 4x4 on our driveway and the other at the B&B that Jim and Kathy were staying at. There is so much security in both our neighbourhood and the community in which the B&B is located that we felt they quite comfortable leaving the packed vehicles unattended overnight.
In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we threw the remainder of our belongings into the 4x4s, sorted out who would travel in which vehicle (there were various configurations tried out during the trip such as adults vs. kids, girls vs. boys, avid birders vs. the not-so-keen-on-birds types, one family vs the other etc.), and were on the road by 9:00am. It was a clear, warm morning, and the view of Table Mountain as we drove north out Cape Town was lovely.
The view from the top of the Du Toit's Kloof Pass - Table Mountain and Lion's Head in the distance, the town of Paarl and vineyards in the foreground.
The journey to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where we were to spend twelve nights on safari, is a long one (1078km), but one that is possible to do in a day. However, no matter which route you take, it is a very scenic drive and it is a shame to rush it. We chose to break up the trip with a night in Karoo National Park, which lies 450km to the northeast of Cape Town. We followed the N1 northeast out of Cape Town and climbed through the 820m Du Toit’s Kloof Pass, from where the views of Table Mountain and Lion’s head were lovely.
A community in the Breede River Valley
Unfortunately, as we crested the pass and climbed down into the Breede River valley, we found ourselves in very low cloud. Nonetheless, the Breede River Valley was very pretty, with row upon row of vines and many fruit trees. Robert and I noticed that, since our last visit in 2008, new townships had sprung up in the valley, and that many featured new, low-cost housing units, as opposed to the dilapidated shacks of the past.
Snow on the mountains in the Hex River Valley and many vines
As we continued northeast through the Hex River Valley, our bright blue skies and sunshine returned. This valley is the largest producer of table grapes in South Africa, apparent by the rows of vines that extended for as far as we could see. The annual harvest starts at the end of December and, from then until February, signs along the highway warn motorists that they may be fined R750.00 (~CDN$100) for stopping. This is to prevent people from buying stolen grapes that are sold along the busy highway by young children. We have witnessed children selling cases of grapes along this highway, and it is terrifying to watch overloaded trucks roaring past them as they ply their wares from the narrow strip of gravel along the highway.
We felt right at home in the Hex River Valley when we discovered snow on the highest mountain peaks, including Matroosberg which, at 2249m, is the highest mountain peak in the province of the Western Cape.
Typical Karoo scenery
The highway was very busy, the N1 being the main cross-country route between Cape Town and Johannesburg. We hoped that the drivers of the many 18-wheelers we met were heeding the signs which suggested, “!A Unidiniwe Misa-U” (in the local language, Xhosa) or “If tired, stop and rest.”
Karoo National Park
Surrounded as it is by wide plains and the appealing, flat-topped Nuweveld Mountains, the Karoo National Park is a truly tranquil place. What I love best about the park are the wide open spaces and the spectacular sunsets, when the mountains, semi-desert and sky turn to glorious shades of red and orange.
Karoo National Park
We had been assigned to chalets #6 and #23, and the accommodation was as lovely as always. The larger cabin, for the four parents and Graham, had two large bedrooms, each with three beds, an ensuite bathroom, a fully equipped kitchen, a comfy sitting area, an outdoor veranda and braai area that offered glorious views of the mountains and, best of all for those cold desert nights, heaters!
The Klipspringer Pass in Karoo National Park
Since there was still a couple of hours of daylight left, we decided to take a drive through the Klipspringer Pass, where we could view the spectacular scenery and enjoy the wildlife. The route through the pass was winding and rather steep in places, allowing Robert and Craig who were driving, to hone their 4x4 skills for the upcoming challenges of Kgalagadi National Park.
Cape mountain zebra in Karoo National Park
We saw a dazzle of the endangered Cape mountain zebra, kudu (magnificent antelope, with spectacular spiral horns, that are the emblem for South Africa’s national parks), springbok (very pretty and delicate antelope, and South Africa’s national emblem) and, perhaps not surprisingly given the name of the pass, a klipspringer (“rockjumper” in Afrikaans).
Karoo National Park at sunrise
The following morning, we were up at 5:30am, when the generators were switched back on, and the heaters started up again. We enjoyed lovely hot showers, and then headed outside to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery. It was a clear but cold morning - around 4ºC according to the folks at reception. Breakfast, which was included in the tariff, wasn’t served until 7:00am so we packed, loaded up the vehicles and drove down to reception.
The South African version of the Three Sisters
We stopped briefly in Beaufort West for petrol (Rand 9.85/litre or CDN$1.23/litre for diesel) and then continued northeast along the N1 highway to the South African version of the Three Sisters - not quite as majestic as the Alberta version, but very pretty, flat-topped mountains nonetheless. Along this busy stretch of the highway, we passed several troops of vervet monkeys and signs warning of "rots storting" – rocks falling!
Another casualty of the highways in South Africa
We passed an 18-wheeler lying on its side, most likely another victim of a highway with narrow, paved shoulders, which truckers and motorists use as a second lane, pulling over onto it to allow vehicles to overtake them - very dangerous at highway speeds if the driver pulls over just a bit too far, and the tires catch the soft gravel beside the shoulder. Of course, this custom of moving over onto the paved shoulder to allow those wishing to pass to do so, even in the face of oncoming traffic, means that it is imperative that drivers watch carefully for oncoming cars doing the same thing, and infringing on their lane.
In addition to the hazard of vehicles encroaching on your side of the highway, there are the two very different types of vehicles and drivers on South African highways - those who drive at least 20 km under the speed limit (because their poorly maintained vehicle isn’t able to go any faster), and those that drive at least 20 km over it (the BMWs and Mercedes). This makes driving at the speed limit rather frustrating (continually having to pull out to pass), and dangerous (speeders suddenly appearing on your bumper). Highway driving in South Africa requires your full attention, and is not often a terribly relaxing experience!
Multilingual highway signs - English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and ?
At the Three Sisters, we were happy to leave the busy N1 highway and start our journey north along the N12 towards the town of Upington, which lies 620km to the north of Karoo National Park. We were to spend the night in Upington before venturing into Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. At the Three Sisters, we left the Western Cape (province) and crossed into the Northern Cape.
The highway across the Karoo -stretching out in front of us to the horizon
The day’s drive would reinforce just how vast the Karoo is. We traveled through the semi-desert for the entire day, admiring the flat-topped mountains, vast plains, fields of prickly pear cactus, termite mounds, dried up riverbeds, large flocks of sheep, windmills and vast blue skies. The further north we went, the redder and rockier the soil became. Despite the remoteness of the area, the highway was surprisingly good, although only two-lane, with no shoulders. Passing wasn’t a problem, as there seemed to be very few vehicles. We stopped to take pictures of the highway, which was straight and stretched out in front of us to the shimmering horizon. Reminiscent of the Canadian prairies!
A home along the highway near Victoria West
In the small town of Victoria West, we found an interesting juxtaposition of affluent white Victorian houses and black shanty towns. The town’s cemetery reflected the housing. In one half, the graves were marked with large, extravagant granite tombstones and, in the other, interestingly shaped rocks of all sizes, clearly chosen with care from the nearby desert. Apartheid may be over, but the evidence remains. We were again struck by the large number of fresh graves in the cemetery. AIDS continues to take its toll in this country!
Investigating a warning light in one of the 4x4s
From Victoria West, we continued north along the N12 highway towards Britstown. Just south of the town, a warning light appeared in one of the 4x4s, so we pulled into the Shell station in town. The very helpful mechanic indicated that he had seen the same model of truck with the identical issue the day before, and he suspected that water in the diesel that we had purchased in Beaufort West earlier that morning was the likely culprit. Given that over half a metre of snow had fallen in the area just a week earlier, the first snow in that semi-desert region in 30 years, it seemed quite possible that the diesel was contaminated with water. The mechanic indicated that, as long as we filled the tank, we should make it to the town of Upington, some 375km further north, where the Toyota dealership would be better able to assist us.
Sociable weaver nest beside the highway
At Britstown, we left the N12 and turned onto the N10 towards Prieska, some 123km to the north. On this stretch of highway, we saw very few other vehicles. We passed many telephone poles that bore huge sociable weaver nests. These nests on the poles are a unique feature of this arid northern region, where there are few trees for these birds to build their nests. Dozens of individuals combine to create huge nests that occasionally bring trees (and poles) crashing down. Robert, Graham and I began studying the shapes of the weaver nests, and came up with a T-shirt, glove, wheat sheath, Santa Claus hat, shoe, lamp with a shade, mushroom, a map of the South African continent, and a snowman.
Students walking along the highway
We passed through the towns of Groblershoop and Putsonderwater - such great names!
About 80km south of Upington, the highway became narrow and winding, and Robert and Jim had to drive with great care because we began to encounter many people walking along the highway. These included many students in their school uniforms, which reminded Graham of his days at the Yeronga high school in Brisbane, when we spent a sabbatical year in Australia. The students would smile and wave as we passed. Forty kilometres further north, we spied the first vines and wine estates of the Orange River Valley. The valley looked incredibly lush after a day spent crossing the semi-desert. Arriving in Upington, we are amused to note that the Department of Water Affairs appeared to be on fire. The air was thick with smoke, and ash fell on the 4x4s.
Brown's Manor, Upington
The Toyota dealership in Upington was incredibly helpful, and the members of our group in the troubled 4x4 were in and out in 17 minutes. Even better, the staff at the dealership announced that the bill “had been taken care of.” They had phoned Avis in Cape Town, they informed Craig and Laura, and indicated to Avis that shoddy maintenance was responsible for the problem and that Avis should cover the cost of a new fuel filter, which they did. Very impressive!
We spent the night at Brown’s Manor in Upington, a lovely guesthouse overlooking the Orange River. We admired the view, immaculately kept gardens and lovely fountains.
Our room at Brown's Manor
We were greeted in the parking lot by Bonnie, a shy man with impeccable manners, and Heidi Brown, the owner of the guest house. The rooms were beautifully decorated, including the room that Graham stayed in, which was the “pilot’s room.” This room is normally reserved for pilots, who are flying rich guests around the country in a private aircraft on an exclusive safari.
Craig, Kathy, Robin and Laura enjoying a drink on the balcony at Brown's Manor
We enjoyed a night of luxury before heading into the national park to camp. After a drink on the balcony overlooking the river, and dinner in town, we headed to bed, anxious to be up early and get a quick start in the morning.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park entrance, Twee Rivieren Restcamp in the background
Located some 800km north and 400km east of Cape Town, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was established in 2000 with the unification of South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok Park (1931) and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park (1938). It lies within the Kalahari Desert in the far north of South Africa, on a narrow piece of land that juts north between the countries of Botswana to the east and Namibia to the west. The name “Kgalagadi” (pronounced kalahardy) is derived from the San language, and means “place without water” or “place of thirst.” The park is a stark and desolate place, but very beautiful.
The South African side of the park comprises roughly 10,000km2, with a further 28,000 km2 on the Botswana side, making it almost twice the size of the better known Kruger Park, and one of the largest protected wilderness areas in the world. It is famous for its gemsbok (large, beautiful antelope, with striking black and white faces and long, straight horns) and its large, black-maned lions. The park also boasts leopard, cheetah, kudu, giraffe, wild cats, hyena, wildebeest, jackal, giraffe, and some striking snakes (no pun intended!). A number of desert species, such as the Cape Fox, rarely seen elsewhere, also make the park home. For birders, two-thirds of the raptor species found in Southern Africa can be seen in the park.
Winter in the Kalahari - warmly dressed for breakfast at sunrise on Graham's birthday
We visited the park in winter, which in the Kalahari Desert is from May to August. It is a cool, dry season, when temperatures at night often fall below zero and frost is common. The temperature has been known to fall as low as -11oC and, after a particularly cold night at one camp, we did wake to thick frost on the windshield of the 4x4. We slept in long underwear, socks and toques. In the morning, it was challenging to crawl out from under the warm duvets and heavy blankets. Showering in the morning was out of the question. It was too blessed cold! We would often wear gloves while eating breakfast. Temperatures during the day were very comfortable, rising surprisingly quickly in the morning to the mid-twenties. By lunch, we had usually stripped down to shorts and T-shirts.
Kgalagadi, a semi-arid region, receives only 150mm of rain annually, mostly during dramatic thunderstorms between November and April. As it is dry in winter, the animals are forced to congregate around the waterholes, which makes game viewing easier. This is why we visit the park in winter. Although the park’s policy is minimal interference, artificial water is supplied to the animals because of human settlements and fences that prevent access to natural, permanent water sources. While we experienced no rainfall, we did find the typically clear, cobalt blue skies to be quite cloudy and grey at times - unusual at that time of year.
Robert, Laura and I first visited Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in November 2004, during our previous sabbatical in Cape Town. We had returned in August 2007, as our first visit to the park had been a highlight of our year in South Africa. It is our favourite South African national park, and we were looking forward to our return.
At Brown’s Manor in Upington, we were up at 6:15am for breakfast at 7:00am, where we were taken care of by the ever attentive Bonnie. We concluded that he works very long hours. Breakfast was a feast of fresh fruit, granola, yogurt, omelets made to order, toast, and fresh muffins and croissants. We left the guest house around 9:00am, and headed into town to purchase our perishable groceries for the next twelve days. We would be preparing all of our own meals in the park. We had already purchased most of our groceries in Cape Town, where the prices were a bit better. Our total grocery bill for the twelve days in the park, including drinking water (the water in the park is too salty to drink or even cook with), was R5825 or CDN$724 - roughly CDN$8.50 per person per day. In the Pick ‘n Pay parking lot, we packed all of the groceries into the two vehicles, again leaving Craig in charge of fitting everything in.
We were finally underway shortly before noon, with the “kids” in one car, and the adults in the other. We headed north along the paved R360 towards Askam, the highway stretching out before us to the horizon. Just twenty kilometres north of Upington, we began to see the beautiful red dunes of the Kalahari. We were struck by how dry it was. There were numerous water-rich tsama melons along the highway, which are vital to many animals in the Kalahari during the dry winter months.