Tri-Nations Tour (Part 1)

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When we pull up at the privately owned Buffalo Rock campsite in the southern region of Kruger National Park, we are greeted by a sweaty and flustered looking man with wide eyes and trembling fingers.
“G.g.g good afternoon” he stammers through the open window of our Landcruiser.
“I have just chased an elephant out of the camp for you and it is now safe to proceed. I do hope you have a comfortable stay. If there’s anything you need, please call the office as I wont be here. I quite”
His face twitches ever so slightly, and then he leaves. Jumps into his little office car and wheel spins out of there like a drag racer.

“I think he must be new to the job” chuckles my guide, Frank Carlisle “New, or else he’s from the city”

The camp; a little known gem situated close to Kruger’s Numbi Gate, is a shady affair tucked snugly into a grove of mature and leafy trees. It is unfenced but for a few sagging electrified strings, and as such, it is regularly visited by lions, hyaena and other things with teeth, horns and claws.
Military style dome-tents, each with their own cots, sit upon wooden decks that point inwards towards a central lapa and a canvas covered kitchen area. Bucket showers hang from trees. Hurricane lamps light the perimeter.
It’s a very rustic yet, very charming camp.

“No one has stayed here for a while by the looks of things” says Frank as we unpack our beer, beef and braai wood “That’s probably why the fence was switched off.”

The elephant which had just been shooed away, had likely trespassed, not to trash our tents or eat our candles, but because the camp is a pungent place of fallen marula fruit. Frank pops one of the tart tasting treats into his mouth and announces that we should choose our tents and then come drink beer around the fire before it gets dark.

“I have just chased an elephant out of the camp for you and it is now safe to proceed. I do hope you have a comfortable stay. If there’s anything you need, please call the office as I wont be here. I quit.”Office Manager
“There are predators around here so its best to get everything set up before nightfall”
I purposefully pick the tent closest to the marula tree in the hopes that, during the night, animals such as porcupines and genets would visit and afford me the opportunity of taking some interesting snaps.
It was also the closest to the fire.

The Buffalo Rock camp site, is the first overnight stop on what my travel companions (Frank and his team of guides from the Bhejane 4×4 Adventure Company) are calling their ‘Three Countries” or ‘Tri Nations’ tour; an 8 day 7 night 4×4 loop route through the Kruger, into Swaziland and then on to southern Mozambique.

That evening, around the campfire, we braai and dine with wine whilst recounting personal histories in the bush. Frank regales us with tales of close shaves with black rhinos from his days as a section ranger in Imfolozi . Malcolm (an old hat on the walking safari scene) tells us stories about special moments in nature.

It’s one of those lovely typical bush nights with the stars twinkling overhead and the sounds of frogs and crickets laying down a tempo for a chorus of lions and howling hyaenas. Distant lightning and thunder add to the atmosphere.

During the night, I am serenaded by the bush in such a way as to prevent any real sleep from occurring. A leopard periodically patrols the edges of the camp, announcing his ambivalence towards us by ‘sawing’ loudly from various angles. A baboon troop, asleep in nearby trees, take umbrage at his presence and they scream and bark in response.

There is the sound of cracking trees (elephants no doubt) and of snarling lions too , but more than this, a slight breeze begins at around one in the morning which sends marula fruit cascading down upon the canvas of my tent.
It feels like I’m camping on a driving range.

At around two, I hear something snuffling at the tent flap, but I am too tired and perhaps too nervous to investigate, and so I just lie there in the darkness, listening to what I assume is a mid sized animal gnawing away on a windfall of marula.

Its not until I emerge, at first light, bleary of eye and disheveled of hair, that I notice none of the amarula upon the ground have been eaten. The same cannot, however, be said of my shoes. I find one of them outside the fence line (mangled and slimy with spit). And the other has been half consumed, and is found floating in a muddy puddle next to the distinct spoor of a rather large hyena.

“Good nights rest sir?” asks Frank whilst supping at a cup of coffee at the camp fire.
“I hope my snoring didn’t disturb you”

Kruger 4×4

It’s February, wet season in Kruger and everything is as green as a cabbage. There is nothing dry or dusty here. Not at this time of year, and the wildlife looks sleek and healthy.

After a campfire breakfast we head out along a little known 4×4 loop called Madlabantu; a 42 kilometer management track in the Pretoriuskop area. It’s not really technical 4×4 territory, just a sandy track over relatively even ground, but there is a limit to six cars or one group booking a day, and this makes the trail special.

There are no crowds

It’s always hit and miss when it comes to wildlife sightings in any national park, and common wisdom will have you believe that the dryer months are better. Animals are parched and hungry and will congregate around existing water holes which makes them easier to spot, but if you want to see Kruger’s wildlife at its best, you must go during the wetter more vibrant months.

Almost everything has babies, coats are shiny, the land looks alive, flowers bloom, birds are nesting and plants are lush and leafy. It’s beautiful and wonderful (except for the mosquitoes)

The Madlabantu trail takes us roughly six hours to complete, but we are intentionally slow. After all, who wants to rush when there is so much to see.
Our first encounter of the day is with a cheetah who barely acknowledges us, so intent is he on a large herd of impala. His ears flatten and he makes a dash at them, but they are too wily and fast. They all escape, exploding this way and that like popcorn in a lidless pot.

A little known 4×4 loop called Madlabantu has a limit to six cars or one group booking a day, and this makes the trail special.Dale Morris
Next comes a herd of Nyala with their adorable young in tow. Their coats glisten with green season sheen, and their eyes shine like marbles.
We see two more cheetah after that, being mobbed by vociferous drongos, and then, much to my amazement, a leopard slinks past us through tall swaying grass.

Again, impala are on the menu but they are way too alert, and for now, the beautiful cat must go hungry.
Before we reach the trail’s end we see white rhinos and the usual menagerie of herbivores such as zebra, kudu, eles and giraffe, but it’s the wild dog encounter that’s the icing on the cake.

We find them lazing beneath trees, flicking away flies with their oversized ears.
Pups play with each other; clanging their teeth together and pulling the legs out from under their siblings.
We don’t encounter another human being all that day.

A second evening is spent at Buffalo Rock, but this time I move into the tent furthest from the marula tree and end up having a much better night’s sleep. The leopard is still around though and the baboons are even more noisy in response, but I am now getting used to the noises of nature, and the next morning I awake, refreshed and ready for the days adventure.

A Slow Drive to Swazi

We depart Kruger in an unhurried fashion that day, by traveling along the old voortrekker pad, a 31 km well maintained gravel road which traverses the south west part of the park. Along the way we spot yet more white rhino, and we all comment and lament the terrible poaching situation.

“Still, there are probably more rhinos here than anywhere else” says Frank with a positive tone to his voice
“They were extinct in Kruger for a long time, but in the late 1960s, dozens of them were brought in from other reserves and placed in bomas here in the Pretoriuskop region before being released into the park proper. Many of them have stayed close to home, and despite Kruger being a poacher’s hotspot, the Rhinos here are still doing comparatively well”

We intentionally crawl along at a snails speed, enjoying numerous bird sightings and game encounters whilst simultaneously feeling as if the whole park is there just for us. We’re in a quiet corner of Kruger, but when we reach the Afsaal picnic ground on the main tar road, we are greeted by scores of tourist busses disgorging swarms of Japanese holiday makers.

They bustle around, shoulder to shoulder, as if joined with Velcro, taking photos of everything. The birds, the picnic tables, the trees, the monkeys who steal their hotdogs. They even take a photograph of me for some unfathomable reason.
This encounter serves as a tangible reminder of how privileged we had just been to have a section of Kruger all to ourselves. Just us, and the rhinos, dogs, elephants, leopards and shoe eating hyenas.

Later, after 23kms of silky smooth tar, we exit southern Kruger at the Malelane Gate and head South on the R570 towards the Jeppes Reef border post in Swaziland. It’s roughly 45kms of tar roads and plain sailing, with the only points of interest being an abundance of tropical crops such as bananas, sugar cane, mangoes and lychees. The border formalities are a breeze.

“I wonder did they also wear lipstick and call themselves Caitlin?” Dale Morris
We then forge southwards into the misty highlands of Swaziland along the tarred and scenic MR1; a highway that straddles the region’s mountains.
There are plenty of things to see and do along this road, such as losing all you money in the Pigs Peak Casino, or taking a hike to the ‘fairly’ impressive Phoponyane falls.
But other than a quick sandwich stop at the pretty Maguga Dam, we plough on for 70 kms to our final destination; the Malolotja National Park.

I would like to paint you a pretty picture of the 18000 hectare Malolotja mountain park; I have seen photos of it in books and on the internet and it looks lovely. There are grassy hilltops with various dirt roads to explore and there are vistas galore. Swaziland’s tallest mountain, the 1829 meter Ngwenya peak, can be found here as well as the pretty Malolotja falls and a series of hiking trails and 4×4 tracks.

Have you seen Golden Gate National Park? The Maluti Mountains? Lesotho? That’ll give you an idea of what Malolotja looks like. Unfortunately for us though, a thick fog has descended and we can see bugger all. Blesbok and zebra fade in and out of the mists, and if I get out and walk, I can see that the environment is a grassy one, with plenty of fynbos flowers sprouting here and there.

“The campsite is beautiful” Martin tells me as we huddle beneath a thatched lapa “it has fantastic views out over the mountains. It’s such a shame you can’t see it”

The mist is still present on the following morn, but it soon clears once we leave the park and head for lower ground.
Our first port of call is an ancient iron mine which is 43000 years old.

“Prehistoric people used to extract Hematite” Frank tells me “which they used for warrior face painting. It made them glitter”
‘Imagine that’ I think to myself ‘A fearsome tribe of ancient Africans going into battle looking like a 1970s glam rock transvestite band’
“I wonder did they also wear lipstick and call themselves Caitlin?”
John gives me a sideways look.

The prehistoric mine, the oldest in the world, is little more than a shallow hollow carved out of a cliff but it has great archeological significance (and superb views of the surrounding mountains)

“There used to be three of these ancient mines” continues Frank, unfazed by my flippancy “But a modern mining company blasted two of them into oblivion.

Fortunately, the third (this one) survived and is now a protected ‘World Heritage Site’ with its own little museum.

The Glass is Always Cleaner

36 kms from Malolotja National Park along the MR1 and MR3 (both tarred roads) we stop off at the Ngwenya Glass factory for a quick tour of the facility.

It’s a fascinating place, and because Frank is an old buddy with the manager there, we are afforded a behind the scenes excursion. Inside the cavernous factory, its as hot as a Swedish swimwear model; too hot it would seem for the hordes of men wearing EFF overalls who move here and there, carrying globules of molten glass upon rods of tempered steel.

I watch them as they go about their business, tending to a white hot furnace, blowing sculptures and wine glasses, and sweeping up shards of glittering refuse from the floor.

Some of the men sit on chairs, deftly turning liquid glass into beautiful renditions of Africa’s Big . Others rush about the workspace, delivering fresh bulbs of red hot and gloopy lava. Beads of sweat form on my face, and I’ve only been there five minutes.

The workers look unperturbed by the heat though. I suppose they must be used to it

“Later we’ll go see one of the largest granite monoliths in the world. Sadly we can’t go there now. You would fall off the edge in this fog.”Frank
“All the products here are fashioned from recycled bottles” Frank tells me whilst I watch a carbon copy Julius Malema smartly convert a glowing blob of glass into a replica little rhino. There are no other glass blowing factories in Africa to my knowledge. And probably none in the whole world that specialize in using recycled materials”

The gift shop at the factory is full of unique and unusual sculptures and some very, very beautiful (and quite expensive) jewelry.
I buy something for my wife, and then we have lunch at the onsite restaurant, and drink beers served in bulbous glasses, freshly blown by the men in overalls back on the factory floor.

“When we launch the Three Country Tour, there will be plenty of additional things for our guests to do here in Swaziland” Frank tells me later when we are back at camp in the Malolotja National Park. The fog has cleared a little, and it is slightly easier to discern the blesbok herds that hang out behind the ablution block. It’s still a pea-souper though.

“We will explore the park properly, visit a river that vanishes beneath the ground and also go see one of the largest granite monoliths in the world. Sadly we can’t go there now. You would fall off the edge in this fog”

The next day, our expedition was due to take us through Swaziland and onto the sandy tracks and swampy roads of Southern Mozambique where we would try our hand at SCUBA diving, fishing, and sunbathing. But that is for the next installment of this story.


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