Because of the limited bus service through this part of the country (3 times a week from Joburg to Durban) I had to stay for at least 3 nights in the Northern Drakensberg. Nothing wrong with this except that without your own transportation here the only interesting things you can really do during the day require going on a tour run from the hostel, more money. I don’t think I’ve ever paid for a tour just to go hiking in the mountains before, but that’s how I spent the first full day. Ah well, at least it was a good hike.
The hike was to the 2nd highest (in terms of the vertical drop) waterfall in the world, despite the fact that it’s the dry season here now and there was only a trickle of water going over the falls. That didn’t take away from the hike at all though, the mountains here are awesome.
Usually climbing to the top of the “ampitheatre” peaks takes 2 or 3 days, but the tour guide took us on back roads to a remote starting point 2500 meters high. We hiked up to about 3100m at the top and then back down in a loop. The weather was perfect, clear skies, great visibility and not too cold. The hike itself was easy for the most part, the only semi challenging bit was scrambling the last 250m up over rocks with no real trail. Nothing serious though.
The panorama from the top was fantastic.
Tugela falls, with a distinct lack of water.
On the way down, it was mostly gradual decent except for 2 chain ladders on sheer rock faces. One was 15 meters, the other one 25 meters. These had been hyped up by other people, but were very anticlimactic, too easy guys!
We were hiking for 5-6 hours in total and the view changed several times on the trail. Standing on top of the shelf with a 1km drop-off right next to you and the whole mountain range stretching in front of you is quite a sight.
I had one more day in Pretoria before the bazbus (hop on hop off backpacker bus, my mode of long distance transit here) left for the Drakensburg mtns, I used it to get supplies for my time there, it’s pretty remote and I didn’t want to get stuck paying for meals at the hostel.
I discovered that my hostel here in Pretoria is very close to the main rugby stadium in the city and today was game day. Roads blocked off, security people and police all over the streets watching peoples parked cars and people “brai”ing all over the place wearing the team colours, in the road, on the sidewalks, in their driveways. It resembled the outside of a stadium before a American college football game, just spread out all over town. I ate lunch in the main square of one of the suburbs here which had a live band warming up the crowd of people for the game and a massive projecter for everyone to watch the game on. The Pretoria team won, apparently the super14 semi final and they’ve been celebrating ever since, I can hear the 2 local sports bars from my hostel and there’s been cars driving like mad honking their horns all evening. They sure do love their rugby here, I can’t imagine what it was like when the Springboks won the world cup in 2007!
I left Pretoria early the next morning, via Joburg on the bazbus for the Drakensberg mountains. The bus, 16 seater minibus, only had 4 of us on it and only me and one other guy were going to the Drakensberg. When we arrived at the hostel in the gateway to the Northern mountains there was hardly anyone else staying there either. It’s low season in this part of the country for tourism but I expected a few more people around!
Day 4 we took a trip to another reserve for a change of scenery in an attempt to spot some different animals. On the way there we passed a large herd of buffalo, several giraffes and a jackal (african version of a dingo). We also saw another white rhino running in front of us. It’s amazing how light on his feet he was for such a huge animal, almost dancing in a curvy line down the road before running off. I finally managed a few, albeit not great photos, of a rhino. Brilliant to watch!
Then, in the other reserve, all of a sudden a snake appeared in the middle of the road. What happened after that was so fast it was unreal. I didn’t see it at first because I was looking off to the side at that moment, but the snake rose up off the ground, then there was a collective gasp by everyone, the guide on the front viewing seat jumped half up onto the front of the vehicle, the snake dropped down again, the vehicle stopped and the next thing I knew the snake was directly below me at the back of the vehicle hissing and moving very quickly into the nearest bush. That snake was a 2 meter long black momba, one of Africa’s deadliest snakes. It can kill you in 45 minutes. No wonder the guide was jumpy.
We stopped at a campsite in the other reserve for lunch, then headed off on a drive. The terrain was more hilly in this reserve and slightly more open making it easier to spot stuff. First we saw a large group of baboons not far from out lunch spot. Then, coming across a large open area we saw a group of impalas, a few warthogs that retreated into the distance very quickly and a couple more jackals.
Not far away from there was a group of wildebeast mixed in with impalas. Apparently the wildebeast are quite stupid animals so they hang around other animals who have a better sense of danger.
After a short walk, we stopped at a water hole on the way out of this reserve with 3 hippos in it, slightly more visible than the one previously seen.
On the way back to our camp, just before leaving the other reserve one of the best moments of the safari happened. We saw a couple large bull elephants eating and stopped to watch. We’d seen lots of elephant by this point but these 2 weren’t very far off the road and were pretty large ones (for elephants even). One of them soon wandered away, but the other one slowly came closer. We stayed here for around half an hour and eventually he slowly walked within 3 meters of us, alongside the vehicle, eating as he went. Every now and then he’d stop and look at us, but wasn’t bothered in the slightest. Being so close to a wild elephant is amazing, I took videos but even they don’t convey the awesomeness of the experience.
Lots of various kinds of antelope on the way back to camp and a few more giraffes. After a braai (South African bbq) of ostrich sausages we went out on another freezing cold night drive…
Didn’t see much this time, though at the end we saw a couple jackals running alongside us.
The weather, which was awesome on days 1 and 2 had become much cooler and overcast on days 3 and 4. The last day however was warmer with hardly a cloud to be seen. We didn’t see much on our early drive, went back to camp, packed up and headed out of the reserve. On the way out we saw a family of warthogs come out of nowhere, cross the road and disappear on the other side just as fast.
Several kinds of antelope, including the quite large, waterbuck. We saw several different groups of baboons, and this one with a baby.
My last sight of the park was a herd of elephants eating just off the road. Nice way to finish a fantastic 5 days. I saw 4 or the big 5, countless birds and smaller animals and had a great time the whole week. We didn’t find any leopards or cheetahs, though this isn’t too surprising and never saw any zebras (though we did see their tracks), slightly more strange but overall we saw a lot of wildlife and had a great experience doing so.
I’m back in Pretoria now for another day, leaving here tomorrow morning for the Drakensburg mountains.
Every day on the Safari we were woke up at 5:30 for a light breakfast and then off on either a walk or a drive. I picked a company that did walking, most just do drives. On day 2 we drove about half an hour from camp, watching the sun rise and then started walking.
You don’t usually encounter large animals on foot, they hear you coming, they move faster than you and leave the area. We did see a few buffalo though, and towards the end of the walk one elephant eating in the distance. The stuff you really see when you walk is more birds, insects, plants and lots of animal tracks. The guides were excellent and full of information about the whole bush, not just the big 5. Did you know that smoking elephant dung will get rid of your headaches?
After the walk, we drove back to camp and saw another elephant en-route, ate a large brunch and had several hours to relax in the camp before the 3:00 afternoon drive and following night drive. This was the basic schedule every day. On this day however, around 1:00 we were sitting in camp reading, talking, chilling out when a herd of elephants walked by. There were around 15 of them and they were only 100 meters away at most. This was amazing, I filmed part of their procession, eating as they went past. The camp was not fenced at all either, making encounters like this even more cool!
The evening drive was good, starting off with a giraffe, then we saw some kudu (large antelope), steenbock (small antelope) and I saw the back of a white rhino running into the bush, not long enough for a photo though.
After the sundowner drinks we headed back towards camp, saw a large Porcupine running into his hole and had to wait a good 20 minutes for an elephant to move off the road so we could continue. When we got back to camp, the guides found buffalo tracks all over the place, then we heard them and it became apparent that they were spending the night very near camp. After that discovery we had impala stew for dinner and went to bed. Some of the more nervous people in the group (ie the girls) had stories of hearing lions attacking buffalo outside their tent before dawn. It’s amazing what the mind can invent.
The guides did find lion tracks not far from camp the next morning, no dead buffalo though and we spent the morning driving instead of walking, following lion and buffalo tracks. We saw a few buffalo but never found the lions. Instead we saw a mother giraffe with a baby close by, an african wild cat and we startled 3 white rhinos on the road. Again they disappeared before any photos could be taken. On the way back to camp for brunch we drove up to the water hole and saw a large herd of elephants there, one taking a bath. Just as they were leaving a buffalo came right past them, and started drinking. The mainly submerged hippo in the pool didn’t seem to care at all.
That night we saw a couple large owls, then were charged by a rabbit who stopped a foot in front of the land rover and then ran off. The best was right at the end of the drive, a spotted hyena running alongside and then in front of us. Back at camp after dinner we were sitting around the campfire, everyone else departed for bed but I stayed up a little longer talking with the guides and listening to lions and hyenas calling in the distance. Getting the full bush experience!
For the last 5 days I have been on a safari in Kruger park and I’ve taken about 400 pictures/videos in that time. I’ll start at the beginning, this may take a while.
My safari was not within the national park, but in a couple different game reserves bordering the park on it’s Western edge. The only difference between the park and the reserves is one is govt run, the others privately owned and managed. There are no fences and the wildlife is free to move about to wherever it wants. The reason I chose a private reserve safari instead of the park was A, no mobs of other tourists around, and B, me and my small group would have 2 professional guides taking us around for the time period. I also chose a camping safari instead of going to one of the lodges, since the price tag for these is very high (by camping I was able to stay in the park twice as long for the same $$$).
My 4 night/5 day safari started with me getting up at 4:00 in the morning for the bus pickup taking me to the reserve. (after it went to Joburg to pick up the rest of my group, why is my hostel always the first pickup location!?) It’s about a 6 hour drive to the park from here, which is in the far East of South Africa, bordering Mozambique. That drive time was spent sleeping, or trying to anyway.
Once we arrived there we stopped at a bush pub just outside the reserve to meetup with out guides and have lunch. The rest of my group were, remarkably, all Norwegians! Two separate groups of them, all together we were 8 + the 2 guides.
After lunch we drove into the reserve and to the camp, I wasn’t really expecting much from this but since it’s through the reserve the whole way it’s essentially just a viewing drive that gets you where you’re going. We saw impala pretty much straight away, the novelty of that wore off by the evening though, there’s lots of impala around.
Then we came across a large herd of buffalo crossing the road, the first “big 5″ sighting. These guys are quite different looking than the North American “buffalo”.(the term “big 5″ was invented by the hunters originally as the 5 most dangerous animals to hunt, now it’s basically just a marketing term for the tourism industry. the big 5 are: Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo and Leopard.)
After that, when we were getting pretty close to the camp we suddenly rounded a corner and there were a group of elephants. Females with young, we startled them as much as they startled us and one of the females was trumpeting and being aggressive towards us. Needless to say we drove off pretty quickly.
We soon arrived at camp, already very happy about already seeing 2 of the big five on the afternoon of day 1. Camp was large, very nice tents on wooden platforms off the ground. Solar power was the only power except for the gas heating the water for the showers. Nice spot.
Next on the agenda was the sundown/night drive. Starting about an hour and a half before sunset, stopping for sundowner drinks, and concluding with a 2 hour drive after dark. Lots more impala were around, and then just before we stopped for drinks we saw another elephant. This one was a male by himself, and much more placid than the earlier group.
The last part of the day was the night drive. Essentially driving around in the very cold night looking for animals. One guide driving, the other sitting on the lookout seat on front of the landrover with a spot light, shining it from side to side looking for the animals that are only active (or more active) at night. Top of the list being the cats, and I don’t mean household pets. First sighting was a Caracal, a small wildcat similar to the Lynx and apparently very rare to see. The the best moment of the already awesome day, nearing the end of the drive we saw a Lion. A solitary male Lion, who walked along side the vehicle a little, about 5 meters away, then stopped to look at us before walking off and disappearing into the bush. Taking pictures after dark is next to impossible in these circumstances, I tried my luck with videos. (I can’t embed the videos from youtube here or it messes up my formating so just click the link)
Technically May 16th was the longest day of my life so far. The flight from Sydney to Johannesburg is 14 hours and there’s an 8 hour time difference between them. That works out to mean that I spent 14 hours in flight and arrived 6 hours after I left.
Once I got to the airport in Sydney I stood in just about the longest checkin queue I have ever had to queue in for more than 30 minutes. When I finally got up to the counter everything got much better though, I had been randomly selected to be upgraded to business class since economy was overbooked! I’ve never been in business class before and it could not have come at a better time. The food is actually good, the seats recline almost horizontally and I had 40+ films and loads more tv shows to choose from on my personal tv. Managed a bit of sleep, and never really got bored, it didn’t seem like 14 hours that’s for sure.
Entry into South Africa was the easiest for any country so far, there was no entry card to fill out and the only question I was asked was where I had flown in from before my passport was stamped and I was waived through. From the airport I was met by a driver from my hostel in Pretoria, a 45 minute drive. That trip cost me less than the 10 minute shuttle to Sydney airport. You may be wondering why I’m in Pretoria if I flew into Joburg, but I got so many comments from people telling me to leave Joburg as soon as possible I just decided to bypass staying there at all, I may do a day tour there from Pretoria on the day after I return from my safari to see the sights there. Once I arrived at my hostel, which is in a quiet mostly residential area I went down the road to restaurant/pub on the corner for dinner. The place was packed full of white South Africans very passionately watching a local rugby game. The food there was centered around steaks, in many many shapes and sizes (they like their meat here). My very large grilled steak came with chips and a beer and cost me $7USD, hallelujah I can afford to eat out again! After that I went back to my hostel exhausted and went to bed.
Next day, after confirming my safari trip the following day to Kruger NP and being briefed on which areas around Pretoria were safe for me to walk in/go to and which weren’t, I went out and got some stuff I needed for the safari trip in a nearby suburb complete with a small shopping mall and a Sunday morning flea market. Pretoria is the administrative capital of the country so in the afternoon I checked out the Union buildings (headquarters of the South African govt) and their grounds.
One thing that features above most others when people talk of South Africa is crime and it is evident that people take lots of precautions against this. My hostel is walled in with an electric fence on top of the brick wall, only way to get in is with a code at the main gate.
There’s also a night security guard on duty. I’ve never stayed anywhere with such things before. What’s strange is, the whole street is lined with nice looking houses, walled in and with either razor wire or electric fences atop the walls. There’s loads of streets like this in the suburbs here.
People driving around in bmws, audis, mercedes etc and barbed wire surrounding their houses. Perhaps the weirdest thing about it is it doesn’t feel unsafe in this area during the day, a nice middleclass/upper middle class tree lined residential street with electric fences and razor wire. At night it’s a different place.
On a lighter note, I have elephant and rhino paper money now. That is just cool.
In the morning I’m off to the land of the elephants and rhinos for a 4 night guided driving/walking safari in Kruger national park. There will be no electricity for the duration of that time so I’ll blog next when I get back.
Today I’m flying to South Africa and it feels like I’m starting my trip all over again from the beginning. I’ve been in Australia for so long that even though I’ve been traveling around and seeing stuff recently the country itself has grown very familiar to me, to the point where just being here in itself is not exciting anymore. I can’t wait to be in South Africa, a new country, culture and continent for me. The only thing I’m not looking forward to is the flight there, 14 hours long, 4 hours longer than any previous flight I’ve taken in my life, and it’s through the middle of the day. I have armed myself with some Bill Bryson reading material, a fully charged iPod and I’m hoping Qantas has some good in flight movies. The fact that I could watch 4 full length films and still only be just over halfway done with the flight is not something I want to dwell on.
I’ve been in Oz for 5 months and here’s my quick review.
My favourite city here is Melbourne, except on the 46 degree days, I could live there.
Snorkeling on the Ningaloo and GB reefs was amazing, a whole new world to me and probably my #1 memory from my stay.
Queensland is awesome, the beaches, the rainforest, the reef…
Tasmania is also beautiful, in different ways, just colder.
I tried to pick a favourite beach but I couldn’t, there were contenders from all the states I’ve been in here..
Thursday was my last day in Cairns and the original plan was to be spending it getting stuff sorted for South Africa but because of my reef trip fiasco I had another day trip to do. The weather was gorgeous, the first time on any of my reef visits, making for some great views at the michaelmas cay where the boat went.
This was by far the largest and nicest boat I’ve seen the reef on, with a fancy buffet lunch and wine included and the boat was only half full with 50 people on it. There were a couple other boats at the same reef section but for the most part I wasn’t crowded by other snorkelers, some people go all the way out there and settle for glass bottom boat viewing, I spent as much time snorkeling either side of lunch as possible.
Despite everything I’d heard about the disappointing state of the reef near Cairns, at least the part I saw was nice. Hardly any obvious fin damage and what there was was in the very shallow bit near the beach. Loads of cool corals and fish, I saw an octopus, first time for that, and while I was taking a closer look at it and turtle swam no more than a meter away from me! This was incredible to me since the water was so busy in this section, I figured all the larger stuff would be scared off but this turtle let me swim with him for at least 10 minutes, as he went down into various coral formations looking for food and then surfacing for air before disappearing into the distance, those guys can move fast when they want to. It was the largest sea turtle I’ve seen yet and I’ve been really lucky to see as many of them as I have.
I arrived back in Cairns at sunset, exhausted, sore all over after spending so much time on the go this week after a great boat ride back and fantastic day out. This week has been beyond great, including the white water rafting, rainforest and two reef snorkels in 4 days, a fantastic way to finish up my time in Australia. I fixed dinner at the hostel, and ended up spending the better part of the evening hanging out with some other guest there, after so long of not wanting to be around the main backpacker crowd it was really refreshing to meet some other like minded people. Eventually I retreated to the formalities of packing for my flight the next day and booking a room in South Africa for my arrival date. I still only have a basic plan for South Africa and at this point I see it changing the whole time I’m there, I just need to pick a safari to do, there are just too many great sounding ones possible!
Just under 4 months until my rtw ticket is up, I’ve been on the road for over 9 months now and this is the end of this leg of the trip, I’m highly anticipating the next one, bring on South Africa!
My last few days in Australia have been hectic, fast paced and awesome. I’ll start at the beginning…
Monday morning, still on a high from the previous days rafting trip I left Cairns for Cape Tribulation, which is home to apparently the oldest surviving rainforest on the planet, the Daintree, and with the great barrier reef not far off shore. The tourist term is “where the rainforest meets the reef”. Stunningly beautiful would be a good description. Crocs, sharks, jellyfish, massive spiders, snakes, this area has it all! My tour on the way North stopped at a few worthwhile locations but the rainforest around Cape Tribulation beats the rest hands down. The fact that it rained all day, very heavily for most of it couldn’t even conceal that. My hostel at the cape was made up of little cabins surrounded by rainforest, very close to the beach with nothing else anywhere near.
I was supposed to go on a snorkeling trip to the reef on Tuesday, but when I called the day before to confirm they informed me that the boat I was booked on was out of the water for repairs this week. There was one other local fast boat doing half day trips to the reef but the agency I booked with didn’t deal with them so they offered to put me on a boat out of Cairns when I was back there. Despite the fact that it was a nicer boat, with more stuff included I only reluctantly accepted knowing that trying to get my money back would not be nearly worth the hassle. I didn’t really want to see the reef around Cairns with all the stories of overcrowded trips and damaged coral, more on that later.
I decided to go on the local boat the next morning so I could still see the reef in Cape Trib, and it’s nice up there. Saw a couple turtles, and swam with one of them for a while, the visibility in the water was great and the reef there is home to a massive group of clams. Massive in the sense that these clams are larger than me, I didn’t know such things existed.
In the afternoon once I returned from the reef the weather had cleared off somewhat so I walked around Cape Trib beach.
My last day I did a hike along beaches and through the rainforest to a water hole in one of the rivers, such an awesome place. Surrounded by rainforest, the water wasn’t even cold and it was too far upstream for the crocs to be. Beautiful swimming spot, this area is amazing!
Later that day on my tour back to Cairns we stopped for a Daintree river cruise to try and see some crocs, just finding one female, only about 1 1/2 meters long. No sign of the 6 meter dominant male that lives on the river, I can’t really imagine a crocodile that big…
My 2nd overnight bus in as many days went better than the first one, though this is mainly because I was so tired from not sleeping on the first one that I would have slept anywhere. I arrived in Cairns at 6:30 in the morning and was greeted by rain, dry season my ass. I basically spent the rest of the day either reading my recently purchased book on South Africa, figuring out various travel details for the rest of the trip and just getting things done that need to be done before I leave Australia.
Next morning I was up at 5:30 (before a few other people at my hostel here had gone to bed…) for my pickup to go rafting on the Tully river, I’m actually used to early mornings now. This river is grades 3 and 4, compared to my only previous experience with rafting in New Zealand where it was grade 4-5. However, this was a far better rafting day, and I loved the NZ one.
We were rafting for about 5 hours in total, with a lunch break in the middle, it rained on and off but rafting through the rainforest is actually one thing where the rain didn’t affect the enjoyment. We started on the easier grade 3 section of the river, the on to the grade 4 section. It was all great, especially the grade 4 stuff in the afternoon. The biggest improvement over the previous time I rafted was the sheer amount of rapids we went through. Last time there were a handful of big rapids (maybe 5 or so if I recall correctly), on the Tully there were probably 10 or so of the grade 4 rapids and an equal amount of the grade 3 stuff in the morning, the river was running high due to the recent rainfall making it even better. Also the environment you’re rafting in is awesome, ancient rainforest with various butterflies and birds flying by the rafts and passing quite a few nice cliffs and waterfalls along the rivers edge, it being a wet misty day added to the atmosphere.
Here’s a nice photo sequence..
The Chilean guide who was in my raft was fantastic, and the group on my raft was able to follow instructions well, thus avoiding getting stuck places and making the experience all the more fun. (one raft had terrible time following basic instructions like ‘move left’ or ‘forward paddle’, quite amusingly to the rest of us) Several other things that didn’t happen in New Zealand, we went for swims at various places in the river (it not being cold), including jumping in of 5m high rocks and floating in the water through some minor white water, went through a couple rapids in more interesting than the usual ways (such as doing a 360 spin going through) and, at the end of one of the last rapids our raft flipped upside down dumping us out (this was premeditated by our guide). Being in the water was almost as much fun as being in the raft, for short periods anyway ;)
I now have 5 days left in Australia, the next 3 of them will by around Cape Tribulation in the rain forest, after that I have a day in Cairns to sort out anything I haven’t done yet before flying to Sydney for my last night here and my flight the morning after to Jo-burg.