Posts Tagged ‘Hiking’

Climbing Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Tanzania – March & April 2017

Mount Kilimanjaro towers above the campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro lurks behind a gigantic boulder as seen from the Karanga Valley campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano in northern Tanzania, actually comprises three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira – and it’s the highest mountain in Africa, rising to 5,895 metres (19,341 feet) above sea level at its summit. The mountain and its shrinking glaciers are protected within the Kilimanjaro National Park, which generates over US $50 million per year in revenue, while trekkers create seasonal employment for an estimated 15,000+ mountain guides, porters and cooks.

Trekking routes on Mount Kilimanjaro

Official trekking routes on Mount Kilimanjaro

The first successful ascent of the mountain was achieved by Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller in 1889. Wishing to follow in their footsteps 128 years later, the senior management team of the Singita Grumeti Fund – www.singitagrumetifund.org – set off on 1st March 2017 with a shared desire to emulate their feat. We enlisted the services and skills of Shah Tours – http://www.shah-tours.com/treks/mt-kilimanjaro/ – in order to get our group to the summit of Uhuru Peak.

There are seven official trekking routes by which to ascend and/or descend Mount Kilimanjaro: Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, Mweka, Rongai, Shira, and Umbwe. After much research and careful consideration, we opted to climb Kilimanjaro via the scenic and less trammelled western flank approach, known as the Lemosho Route, using the Mweka Route for our decent.

SGF team

Happy teammates at the top of the Barranco Wall

Many experienced Kili climbers rate the wilder Lemosho approach as their favourite of all the routes on the mountain – and we would certainly have to agree. Our eight-day Lemosho trek, which began below Shira Ridge, afforded us a spectacular start to our climb as we walked through the pristine indigenous forest that blankets the lower western slopes of Kilimanjaro. Inside the cool forest, we were treated to regular sightings of troops of acrobatic black-and-white colobus as well as inquisitive blue monkeys. The primates thrived in this idyllic and undisturbed environment.

Exiting the trees, the trail then took in some stunning scenery and sensational views, while providing plenty of time for our weary climbing crew to acclimatize properly with a gradual ascent that included a highly memorable crossing of the wild Shira Plateau.

Dinner time

Refuelling in the mess tent after a solid day of hiking

Having traversed the plateau, we detoured to Shira Ridge and Cathedral Point, which marks the summit of Shira Peak. Standing atop the ridge and gazing at the route ahead, we were left under no illusion that the real ascent would kick off the following morning, as we continued our assault on the imposing summit of lofty Uhuru Peak via Barranco Wall, Karanga Valley, Barafu and Stella Point.

Because Lemosho is the longest route on Kili, you not only get to see and enjoy more of the mountain, but your body also gets the best opportunity to acclimatise and adapt to the altitude-induced challenges. Consequently, the Lemosho success rates for summiting Kilimanjaro is significantly higher than for pretty much every other Kili climbing route.

Karanga Valley Campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro bathed in silver by the moon with Karanga Valley Campsite in the foreground

It is worth clarifying that the Lemosho route ultimately merges with the Machame track on day four just below Lava Tower, and at this point the serenity and privacy of the preceding days gives way to a much busier and noisier trail. This loss of tranquility and eroding sense of wilderness continues all the way to the summit and for the duration of the decent on the popular Mweka trail too.

While our experience climbing Kilimanjaro was rewarding and enjoyable, galvanizing the team with every passing day until we all stood together atop the summit on day seven, there were two factors that detracted from the ‘Kilimanjaro experience’…

SGF team on the summit

Singita Grumeti Fund team celebrating on the summit

The first was TANAPA’s seeming complete lack of interest in cleaning up the abundant litter and squalid toilets that are a never-ending nightmare when trekking on Africa’s highest and most popular mountain. It is unfathomable to me that those entrusted with caring for the ‘crown jewel’ of Tanzanian natural heritage are not doing a better job of cleaning up and safeguarding this iconic natural asset for future generations to enjoy.

The second disappointment was the large groups of loud-mouthed foreign louts that were drawn to Kilimanjaro to tick ‘summiting Kili’ off some imaginary list of machismo.

The relentless decent and vistas from Stellar Point

The steep decent from Stella Point back to Barafu Camp

We experienced this phenomenon firsthand during the final stages of our trek when a large group of inconsiderate Welsh yobs – along with their grossly insensitive guides – wrecked all sense of natural serenity and destroyed the wilderness vibe with their late night singing, shouting and general hooligan behaviour. Sadly, there is currently no code of conduct to police and control these types on unwanted visitor who degrade Tanzania’s wild places.

Those two small gripes aside, the week we spent climbing Kili was a highly rewarding and extremely motivating experience that will undoubtedly stay with the entire SGF team for many years to come. I would go a step further and say that conquering Kilimanjaro is a worthy accomplishment that should be included on the bucket list of every Africa addict.

Summit in sight

Mount Meru pokes above a sea of clouds on the left, while Kilimanjaro casts its shadow to the right

Kicking back on La Digue and Mahé, Seychelles – March & April 2016

The warm Indian Ocean surrounding the Seychelles beaches

The warm Indian Ocean produces decent waves at Grand Anse on La Digue’s southern coast

You know life is treating you well when you get to spend an entire month with your family, enjoying the postcard-perfect beaches and azure seas of the idyllic Seychelles.

Villa Verte

The aptly named Villa Verte

As our Kenya Airways flight touched down at the quaint Mahé International Airport, I realised – with some surprise – that it had been 23 years since my last visit to these captivating islands!

The island nation of the Seychelles is spread of an enormous oceanic expanse. There are three main islands – Mahé, Praslin and La Digue – with the latter being the least developed and most alluring of the trio. The large and populous island of Mahé is the commercial and political capital of the Seychelles, but we had our hearts set on escaping to something smaller and quieter, so we boarded a ferry and set sail for La Digue.

Until recently there weren’t even any cars on La Digue and all transport was done courtesy of bicycles and ox carts. Sadly, this has all started to change and – in the name of development – the government has authorised 55 vehicles to operate on the island.

The ultimate way to see the island

Bicycles provide an easy way to explore the island

These buses, taxis, canter trucks and private vehicles have inevitably begun to change laid back La Digue from a sleepy island backwater into a more developed and mainstream tourist destination. And there is no mistaking that the number of small hotels, guesthouses and self-catering cottages has exploded on the island.

Despite these changes and the increased development, the island of La Digue remains an unbelievable family holiday destination. The island is small enough that it can be explored by bicycle with ‘pedal power’ enduring as the primary means of island transport. Every morning we would load our beach bags, along with our two little boys, onto the back of our bikes and head for the beach. Whether you are looking for a picture-perfect beach, such as Source d’Argent, or a quiet little cove of powdery white-sand, such as Anse Caiman, there is a beach to suit all tastes.

Source d'Argent beach

Picture-perfect Source d’Argent beach on La Digue

Can there be a better place for a one-year-old and a three-year-old to spend a month hanging out with mom and dad; I doubt it. The fact that some of our extended family joined us for the first and last weeks meant the boys had grandparents, aunties and cousins to add to their idyllic beach holiday mix. Charlie and Ollie thought they had died and gone to heaven.

Spending the first half of our vacation at the self-catering Villa Verte on the much more tranquil eastern side of the island was an amazing experience. Bimal and his lovely wife ensured that the house was always clean and that we had everything we needed. The ocean view from the front veranda was nothing short of sensational.

The view over Praslin from the Eagle's Nest

The view looking over Praslin from the Eagle’s Nest

When our extended family departed, it was with some reluctance that we relocated to Ylang Ylang (www.selfcateringylangylang.sc) on the western edge of La Passe. This move gave us easy access to a host of new beaches, such as Source d’Argent and the postcard bay of Garand Anse in the south. Although this part of the island was busier, we enjoyed the change of scenery, close proximity to restaurants and shops, and time together with just our family. I have many treasured memories and photos from this special time.

It wouldn’t be right to blog about La Digue without making mention of Chez Jules: a restaurant beyond compare. Tucked away towards the end of the road at Anse Banine on the far eastern side of the island, gregarious Jules serves fresh line-fish, a ‘to-die-for’ calamari salad and ice-cold Eku beers.

A family stroll along an empty stretch of beach on Isle Conception

Taking a family stroll along an empty stretch of sand on Isle Conception off the coast of Mahé

Seychelles beaches are perfect

All Seychelles’ beaches are stunningly beautiful

Mahé is not for everyone. It is the biggest and busiest Seychelles island by far, especially around the commercial hub of Victoria, but it does have some exquisite stretches of sand. My dad and stepmom, along with two of my sisters, flew out to join us for the final week at world-renowned Beau Vallon Bay on Mahé. We were accommodated in fine style, staying at the luxurious apartments of Sables d’Or (www.sables-dor.sc). Not only were the spacious apartments fully kitted out and tastefully decorated, but they also enjoyed an enviable location right on the beach.

Beau Vallon Bay is a busy beach, but it is one of the most idyllic beaches for young children: no rocks, no corral, just sand and a warm Indian ocean. Perfect for swimming, lounging about on a lilo, or paddling a sea kayak at sunset. A nearby marine park – easily reachable by boat – provides an opportunity to snorkel with an abundance of marine life hidden just below the surface.

Seychelles, rest assured, we will be back again soon!

Extended family enjoying playing in the warm water

Hanging out and catching up with the extended family in the warm shallow waters off Mahé

Rocky Mountains, Boulder and the Black Hills, USA – July & Aug 2015

Twins thrash the Yankees 11-1 on a balmy summer's evening in Minneapolis

Minnesota Twins thrash the New York Yankees 11-1 on a balmy summer’s evening in Minneapolis

July marked the start of a long-awaited and much-anticipated trip to America with the whole family. Twenty-nine hours of long haul flying with two kids under the age of two is enough to fill even the most hardened traveller with fear and trepidation, but in the end the flights turned out to be a breeze with both the little boys proving to be real troopers and incredibly accomplished young travellers.

All the little cousins enjoying an evening pontoon ride around Lotus Lake

An evening pontoon ride with the cousins on Lotus Lake

The twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul was the first stop on our six-week sojourn to explore the American mid-west. Minnesota summers are something special and staying with my sister- and brother-in-law on Lotus Lake in tranquil Chanhassen afforded us a delightfully relaxed start to our American adventures with morning runs, craft beer tasting, and evening boat cruises the order of the day.

After ten days catching up with family and getting into the swing of holiday life, it was time to get our road trip underway. A long drive south through Iowa and then west across Nebraska brought us to the sunshine state of Colorado – undoubtedly my favourite state in America. And where better to be based than Estes Park: gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. We stayed in the aptly named Hide-a-Way cabin at Brynwood on the River – www.brynwood.com – and this proved an excellent choice for our young family. We quickly settled into the rewarding routine of taking a decent morning hike to the picturesque lakes inside the national park, followed by afternoon siestas, and a stroll into the downtown area for some local brews and other tasty fare.

RMNP's Cub Lake hiking trail

RMNP’s Cub Lake hiking trail

With majestic mountains, tundra wildflowers, abundant wildlife (we saw elk, moose and deer), the highest paved road in the US, and over 350 miles of rustic hiking trails, Rocky Mountain National Park – http://rockymountainnationalpark.com – is the perfect playground for active nature lovers and adventurous families alike!

Driving slowly south through contorted canyons presided over by mesmerising mountains, we made our way down to the city of Boulder. With a population of one hundred thousand people, Boulder is big enough to have everything you might desire in a city, but also small enough that you can learn your way around the place in a couple of days. Nestling in the foothills of the Flat Irons, Boulder enjoys a picturesque setting with everything an outdoor enthusiast could hope for right on your doorstep. As a consequence, Boulder has become a magnet for sports fanatics and active nature loving families to the point where this idyllic Rocky Mountain city now boasts the highest density of trail runners and triathletes in the whole country! But it’s not only professional athletes that are taking advantage of Boulder’s mountain trails and bike routes, everyone living here is active, healthy and loving the outdoor lifestyle. If I were to ever relocate to America, then this is definitely were I would choose to be based.

A day trip to ride the Gondola at Vail

Riding the Gondola during a day trip exploration of Vail

Heading north from Boulder, we cut through Wyoming to the Black Hills National Forest – www.blackhillsbadlands.com – for a week of running, hiking, biking, golfing and South Dakota sightseeing with the extended family. Highlights of our time exploring the western reaches of the state included a rewarding four-mile hike up imposing Harney Peak – http://harneypeakinfo.com – to the stone fire tower on its summit. At 7,242 feet, Harney Peak stands sentinel as the highest point in South Dakota with magnificent mountain top views looking out onto the 1.25 million acre Black Hills National Forest wilderness area. Other memorable excursions included visiting Mount Rushmore – www.mtrushmore.net – to admire the gigantic presidential heads carved into the mountainside, and a surreal dive through the infamous South Dakota Badlands on our journey back to Minnesota.

 

Kidepo's Lion population is being adversely affected by a mysterious disease - possibly TB or feline AIDS

A mysterious disease – possibly tuberculosis or feline AIDS – is afflicting the king of the beasts in Kidepo

Back in Africa, I recently received some distressing news about the lions of Kidepo Valley National Park. These cats are especially close to my heart as this remote savannah wilderness in northeast Uganda is where Katherine and I first spent time working in the bush together. Anne-Marie Weeden of the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) – www.ugandacf.org – contacted me to say that the local lion population is sick. Veterinary work is currently underway to try and deduce the underlying cause of the mystery illness affecting the ailing lions, but the bottom line is that Kidepo’s lions are in trouble and urgently need effective monitoring and timely veterinary assistance. In order to accomplish this UCF has initiated a fundraising drive – https://campaign.justgiving.com/charity/ugandacf/KidepoLionProject – for the Kidepo Lion Project. Your support and any financial contributions to the project would be greatly appreciated.

Kidepo is home to the third largest - and only increasing - lion population in Uganda

Kidepo is home to the third largest – and only increasing – lion population in all of Uganda

Drakensberg family adventure, South Africa – Jan & Feb 2015

Enjoying a breakfast with a view at Lotheni Camp in the southern Drakensberg

Enjoying breakfast with a view from Lotheni camp in the southern KZN Drakensberg

With the South African component of my MBA behind me, the year began with a much-needed focus on family. Katherine was travelling regularly to East Africa with her job and, while this gave Charlie and me lots of boy’s time to bond, what we desperately needed was a fun-filled family adventure. So when a family-friendly 4×4 assignment came my way, I jumped at the opportunity to take the family and a new Subaru Outback on an exploration of the KZN Drakensberg.

Happy hikers at Giants Castle

Happy hikers heading out at Giants Castle

The Drakensberg Mountains comprise a jagged spine of dramatic rock formations punctuated by towering peaks, lofty basalt buttresses and tumbling waterfalls on a 1200 kilometres journey from the Eastern Cape to Mpumalanga. But nowhere is South Africa’s premier mountain chain more impressive and awe-inspiring than during its passage through Kwa-Zulu Natal where it forms one of Southern Africa’s premier adventure playgrounds for young and old alike. SA 4×4 magazine (http://sa4x4.co.za) provided me with a new Subaru Outback and an open-ended brief to explore the dusty back roads and scenic bypasses of this magnificent mountain region. I wasted no time in getting to Johannesburg where I picked up the vehicle and loaded up my wife, son and supplies before striking out on the quintessential outdoor adventure for a nature-loving family.

Injisuthi day hike

A spectacular Injisuthi day hike

Our Drakensberg quest involved exploring as many mountain bypasses and little known back roads as humanly possible during a weeklong soft-roader adventure. We made our way south, stopping for a delicious lunch at the Pig & Plough in the charming hamlet of Winterton, before eventually reaching off-the-beaten-track Lotheni: an incredibly scenic mountain retreat. Inconceivably, we had the place to ourselves! After a couple of days exploring the picturesque area on foot we made our way slowly north to the internationally renowned Giants Castle.

We had begun our mountainous sojourn with two of the Drakensberg’s finest retreats, but the empty wilderness and outdoor paradise that greeted us at Injisuthi was another revelation with some spectacularly scenic day hikes. Cathedral Peak and Champagne Castle followed. While the tall peaks and Drakensberg scenery remained as epic as ever, the scale of hotel and resort development here made this area the ‘grand central’ of Drakensberg exploration. But, the best was still to come as we had unknowingly saved one of the highlights – Thendele rest camp in Royal Natal National Park – for the final stop on our Drakensberg itinerary.

Didima rest camp at Cathedral Peak

Didima rest camp at Cathedral Peak

Enjoying the last two nights of our family escape in the shadow of the world famous Drakensberg amphitheatre was a real privilege. At five kilometres wide and in places close to a thousand vertical metres high, the sheer stone cliffs and flanking rock buttresses are nothing short of breath-taking.

A final family hike up to the distinctive Policeman’s Helmet rock formation was followed by a farewell braai. As the fire crackled to life, Charlie charged across the grassy lawns chasing guineafowl with the energy and exuberance of youth. Later, as we tucked into some tasty spare ribs under a star-strewn sky, Katherine and I agreed that this Drakensberg nature escape was without doubt the best family holiday that the three of us have enjoyed together to date.

The Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains boast a scenic outdoor playground and truly memorable destination for a family adventure in the shadow of towering rock giants.

A happy family poses below the giant amphitheatre of Royal Natal National Park and World Heritage Site

A happy family poses in front of the iconic rock amphitheatre of Royal Natal World Heritage Site

Beach Time in Arniston and Kogelberg Hiking – Nov & Dec 2014

Fellow Graduate School of Business students line up at the start of the Three Peaks Challenge

Fellow UCT Graduate School of Business students line up at the start of the Three Peaks Challenge

MBA completed

MBA done and dusted

With the exception of the scenic 24km Cape Point Nature Run (www.trailrunning.co.za), November was all work and no play. On top of completing my final MBA elective assignments and thesis, we also moved into our new home in Constantia. It was a brutally tough end to the year with the submission of my MBA dissertation on the 8th of December marking the end of one of the most challenging periods on my life to date.

Having now successfully completed the UCT portion of my MBA (www.gsb.uct.ac.za/mba), I am fortunate to have been selected to attend the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University next year on a tuition-free MBA exchange programme. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a leading academic institution in the USA will enable me to internationalise my MBA, while simultaneously focusing on elective courses in Leadership, Negotiation, Behavioural Economics and, most excitingly, a trans-disciplinary course on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Conservation.

This final exciting chapter of my MBA will take place in Durham, North Carolina from March to May 2015 followed by graduation back in Cape Town in June where I am currently on track to graduate cum laude, so fingers crossed that the thesis doesn’t trip me up at the final MBA hurdle!

Charlie sets off to explore Arniston beach

Charlie sets off on a solo mission to explore Arniston beach

After a truly hectic and energy-sapping year, we were all in need of a relaxing family holiday by mid-December. Katherine’s dad and step-mom flew out from America and, along with my entire family, we descended upon the quaint seaside settlement of Arniston in the Overberg.

Charlie and dad reconnect post-MBA

Charlie and dad reconnect post-MBA

Named after the 1815 ship wreck of the Arniston, the town is known interchangeably by its Afrikaans name Waenhuiskrans which comes from the huge wagon-sized cave just to the west of the seaside town. To the east lies a traditional white-washed and thatch fishing village, which – in an attempt to protect its traditional character and integrity – has been declared a National Monument in its entirety.

Renting a big, six-bedroom, family-friendly, self-catering house (www.felixunite.com/news/arniston_self_catering_house/1) just a short walk from the main beach enabled everyone to slowly unwind with morning runs, twice-daily beach visits and social evening braais: a perfect family getaway spot and much-needed opportunity to hang out and reconnect with siblings. Charlie and his cousin Dom were in their element with all the beach time not to mention a plethora of doting aunties and grandparents to spoil them 24/7.

From Arniston we travelled homewards along the coast – via the southern most tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas – and on to Cape Nature’s Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve (www.kogelbergbiospherereserve.co.za). Barely an hour out of Cape Town lies one of the Western Cape’s best-kept secrets: an area of such exquisite natural beauty and floral diversity as to be recognised by UNESCO as South Africa’s first Biosphere Reserve and arguably the world’s greatest biodiversity hot-spot.

View of the Palmiet River hike

The breath-taking view along the Palmiet River hike

Accommodation in this World Heritage Site reserve is limited to five eco-friendly cabins. The glass-fronted Oudebosch eco-cabins (www.capenature.co.za/reserves/kogelberg-nature-reserve/) blend seamlessly into the surrounding mountain fynbos, while affording visitors breath-taking 360-degree views of the mountainous reserve.

Each of the ultra-modern and intelligently designed cabins sleeps four people in two en-suite bedrooms along with a spacious kitchen, lounge and dining area. A private deck and outdoor braai place complete the attractive set up.

Hiking through the wild flowers on the trail

Hiking through wild flowers on the Leopard’s Gorge Trail

Activities centre on the reserve’s network of hiking trails and mountain bike-friendly old roads. We tackled two hikes while we were there. On Day 1 we walked along a scenic trail that traced the perennial Palmiet River before looping back towards Oudebosch. The following day we took on the more challenging – but extremely diverse and rewarding – Oudebosch-Leopard’s Gorge Trail that ultimately terminates in the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens in Betty’s Bay.

It’s worth noting that for those who (like me) arrive in Kogelberg sans mountain bike, the bike routes double up perfectly for a leisurely trail run in the company of Klipspringers.

After this much-needed escape to nature, we ended the year in fine style with a big Llandudno Christmas back in Cape Town with all the extended family before travelling across to the Angala Boutique Hotel (www.angala.co.za) on the slopes of Simonsberg Mountain. A final week of rejuvenating downtime culminated with a chilled New Year’s celebration in Franschhoek.  Looking towards 2015… It is my fervent wish that the coming year proves to be as rewarding, but considerably less exhausting and stressful, than what has been an incredible 2014.

Angla Boutique Hotel nestles beneath the trees at the top of Vrede and Lust wine farm

Angla Boutique Hotel nestles amongst the trees at the top of Vrede and Lust wine farm in Franschhoek

African X Trail Run & Karoo Nature Safari, South Africa – March & April 2014

The African X takes trail runners on a three-day adventure from Sir Lowry's Pass to Bot River

The African X takes trail runners on a three-day off-road adventure from Sir Lowry’s Pass to Bot River

In mid-March, the Groenlandberg Mountains – just outside of Cape Town – reverberated to the sound of more than a thousand feet pounding along pristine mountain tracks, as 275 two-runner teams went head to head during the three-day ProNutro African X Trail Run. While the vast majority of teams took part for the sheer pleasure of running wild along some of the Western Cape’s finest nature trails, the event also attracted the veritable who’s who of South African trail running and the battle for African X supremacy proved a tightly contested affair. When the dust finally settled, it was the unstoppable team of AJ Calitz and Bernie Rakudza that triumphed over defending champions Michael Bailey and Ben Brimble, who in turn relegated the Salomon pairing of Kane Reilly and Thabang Madiba to third spot on the podium.

Running through the Groenlandberg foothills

Running wild through the Groenlandberg foothills

It would be wrong to talk about the ProNutro African X event (www.africanx.co.za) without mentioning the dedicated Stillwater Sports team that organise and host this world-class event each year. Chatting to other runners out on the trail, everyone was in unanimous agreement that African X is considerably more than ‘just another trail race.’ Thumping tunes and tireless race announcers greeted us each time we trundled into one of the well-stocked replenishment stations strung out at regular intervals along the route. The logistics boggle the mind, yet the water tables were always staffed by a bevy of enthusiastic young volunteers who looked as genuinely thrilled as the rest of us to be out and about in the mountains.

With outstanding attention to detail, the African X experience is characterised by a professional, relaxed and friendly vibe. The facilities at Houw Hoek Inn (the event HQ) are excellent with a battery of hot showers, cold craft beers, professional sports massages, excellent medical support, top-notch security and absolutely delicious food. Exuding an intoxicating combination of challenge and fun, the African X is – in my humble opinion – hands down the most well-organised and exciting multi-stage trail race currently taking place in the wilds of South Africa.

Check out http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Do-It-Now-African-X-Trail-Run.pdf for the full feature article on this incredible event.

 

Exploring the self-guided Bossie Hiking Trail in the Karoo National Park

Exploring the self-guided Bossie Hiking Trail within the scenically spectacular Karoo National Park

After a demanding first term on the full-time MBA programme, it was with much excitement (and some relief) that we took a five-day family excursion up the N1 to explore the little known Karoo National Park near Beaufort West. The Great Karoo is a vast and unforgiving landscape with the Karoo National Park (http://www.sanparks.org.za/parks/karoo/) standing out as the crown jewel of this sprawling, semi-arid wilderness.

The endemic Cape Mountain Zebra

The endemic Cape Mountain Zebra

Dominated by the lofty Nuweveld Mountains and fringed by undulating plains, the park is home to a fascinating variety of specially adapted fauna and flora that is ideally suited to surviving in the Karoo’s harsh conditions. Wanting to restore the Karoo Park to its former glory, SANParks has re-introduced a number of locally extinct species to their former ranges, including lion, brown hyena, black rhino and Cape mountain zebra. Game drives and guided walks in the company of an armed and knowledgeable ranger were the order of the day for exploring the wide-open natural expanses of the reserve.

During our stay we made use of one of the park’s eight Cape Dutch style family units, comprising two en suite bedrooms (three beds in each), a fully equipped kitchen and dining room (although breakfast at the Salt & Pepper Restaurant is included) and a veranda with braai, comfy sofas and some incredible mountain views.

Each evening as the sun sank behind the hills and the light softened, setting the endless Karoo canvas ablaze with glorious hues of orange and crimson, we would light the braai fire and crack open a couple of Windhoek Draughts, toasting our good fortune at being able to recharge our city stressed souls amidst such stunning natural beauty. There’s no denying the picturesque Karoo National Park is a special place.

The Karoo Rest Camp nestles in a pretty mountain valley looking onto the cliffs and crags of the rocky Nuweveld Mountain Range

The Karoo Rest Camp nestles in a pretty mountain valley looking onto the rugged Nuweveld Mountains

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia – October 2013

Sunrise over the South Luangwa catches an breeding herd of elephants on the move

Sunrise over the South Luangwa catches a breeding herd of elephants on the move

October was dominated by a three-week assignment to Zambia’s flagship national park. The late dry season is an incredible time to be in the bush, especially a wildlife-rich place like the South Luangwa. The game viewing was outstanding; the people were friendly; and the conservation work was nothing short of inspirational.

Kindly assisted by Robin Pope Safaris (RPS), the trip focused on the outstanding work being done by the South Luangwa Conservation Society (SLCS) – www.slcszambia.org – to support the dysfunctional wildlife authority in managing this important African asset. Working hand-in-hand with SLCS is another laudable NGO: the dynamic Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP) – www.zambiacarnivores.org.

A ZCP research team fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

ZCP researchers fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

Headquartered in the South Luangwa, the ZCP is a non-profit research organisation dedicated to conserving Zambia’s large carnivore species as well as protecting the pristine ecosystems in which they reside. Under the leadership of the tireless Dr Matt Becker the organisation also focuses some of its seemingly inexhaustible energy on finding, training, mentoring and supporting promising Zambian wildlife professionals to attain internationally recognised graduate degrees based on their research data. The admirable long-term thinking being that competent, well-trained Zambians must take responsibility for their own wildlife heritage.

Zambia is an impressive country with relatively low population density and a rich wildlife heritage conserved within thousands of square kilometres of protected natural habitat. The country’s three most impressive national parks centre on its three greatest rivers – the Zambezi, Kafue and Luangwa – but it is the iconic South Luangwa that tops this list.

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

Sadly, however, things in paradise aren’t quite as perfect as they might seem at first glance. It didn’t take long to discover that the South Luangwa and its surrounding Game Management Areas (GMAs) are under ever-increasing pressure from hungry local communities and, more worryingly, the commercial bush-meat trade. Wire snaring is endemic and if current trends continue, this gruesome and indiscriminate form of poaching will ultimately finish Zambia’s wildlife.

I was fortunate enough to join a joint SLCS-ZCP team when they went out to locate and dart a snared lioness. It was a hectic experience to see a lioness so severely incapacitated by her deep neck wound; but also uplifting to see her resilience after the team had removed the wire snare and cleaned up her wounds. Rachel McRobb of SLCS estimated that this Chowo lioness was probably around the 300th animal they had successfully de-snared to date.

To address these challenges, real benefits and a dramatic mindset shift have to be achieved within the communities that surround the park. But considering the number of local people involved, it’s a monumentally difficult task. One shining light in this area is the donor-funded Chipembele Wildlife Education Centre – www.chipembele.org – which is actively educating secondary school kids in the Mfuwe area as to the value of wildlife and the importance of the wildlife-based economy to the region.

South Luangwa is home to some of the best wildlife viewing and animal encounters on the continent

South Luangwa is home to some of the best wildlife viewing and animal encounters on the continent

Fortunately, my South Luangwa assignment wasn’t all ‘work’ and no play… I was lucky enough to also sample a number of the Robin Pope Safaris – www.robinpopesafaris.net – lodges and bush camps.  After easing my way into the Luangwa lifestyle at Luangwa River Camp in the perennially popular Mfuwe area, I headed northeast and into the wilder Nsefu sector.  It was here that I sampled what I believe to be one of the finest African safari products currently available: Luangwa Bush Camping.

It's not just the 'big n hairies' that impress

South Luangwa is not just about the ‘big and hairies’

Restricted to a maximum of six guests and under the watchful eye of Kanga (our expert nature guide) and his team, I enjoyed a three-day walking safari from this mobile bush camp. We ate like kings and slept alongside the river in an unbelievably luxurious tented camp that moved site every day after we set out on foot. The animals were thick on the ground and aside from the ubiquitous hippos, crocodiles, puku, impala and baboons; we were treated to exciting encounters with elephant, lion and leopard almost every day. Luangwa Bush Camping was the highlight of my Luangwa safari and I would wholeheartedly recommend this (or one of RPS’s other mobile safari options) to any safari enthusiast who enjoys experiencing nature up close and personal on foot.

The RPS segment of my trip concluded with three nights at the newly renovated Tena Tena bush camp.  It was a great spot and the wildlife viewing was outstanding. Nothing more so than witnessing seven lions killing an adult male buffalo in an epic hour-long battle that saw the old dugga boy throwing lions off his muzzle and putting up a spirited fight. It was a never-to-be-fogotten sighting and a fitting way to end my assignment into one of Africa’s greatest game parks.

Survival of the fittest: he wilds of Africa are a harsh and unforgiving place

The wilds of Africa are a harsh and unforgiving place where only the strongest survive

Charlie Arrives and Swartberg 4×4, South Africa – September 2013

The new family preparing to leave Vincent Pallotti Hospital and head home

The new family is ready to leave the Vincent Pallotti hospital and embark on the adventure of a lifetime

The absolute highlight of late August was the birth of Charles Ethan Cunliffe.  After nine months and two days, Katherine and I were blessed with the arrival of a beautiful healthy little boy.

Baby Charlie on day one

Weighing in at  3.77kg at birth, the little guy was out of hospital in a couple of days and keen to prove to everyone that he’s destined to be an absolute legend. He is super-chilled and adventurous (just like his dad!) so it was no surprise that before he was even two-weeks old, he was already looking to head out and visit his first national park!

The flower-rich Postberg section of West Coast National Park (www.sanparks.org/parks/west_coast/default.php) is no more than a stone’s throw from Cape Town, making it the perfect day-trip destination for young Charlie to stretch his wings and get an early taste of nature; and although he slept soundly through much of the colourful wild flower spectacle, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy his first major outing with the eland, zebra and ostriches in flower-land!

It was a real privilege to share a sunny spring day picnic with my wife and son while appreciating the West Coast wild flowers and I have no doubt that there will be many more fun-filled family adventures in the great outdoors during the months and years to come…

The Postberg section of West Coast National Park boasts stunning wild flowers during Aug and Sept

The second half of September saw me take a VW Amarok – along with an old friend, Sancroft Damant – to tackle a rugged, overnight 4×4 trail through the seldom-explored Swartberg Mountains. Preserving an elongated 184 000ha tract of mountainous habitat, the sprawling Swartberg Nature Reserve lies in the Oudtshoorn district between the Great and Klein Karoo.

"Ram rock" exhales

“Ram rock” exhales at dawn

The access-restricted 4×4 trail began from the Swartberg Pass midway between Die Top and Ou Tol hut, roughly 19 km before the village of Prince Albert. From the gate we wound our way through deep ravines and over rocky necks as the trail traced a snaking route east across the high northern slopes of the impressive Swartberg range. These wild mountains form part of the contorted Cape Fold Mountain range and extreme local weather has sculpted many of the sandstone rocks into bizarre-looking geological formations that demanded we stop regularly to appreciate our picturesque surroundings.

As the scenic 4×4 route meandered its way through this largely unknown and rarely visited Cape Nature wilderness, we soon discovered that it was precisely the mountainous region’s isolation, potent wilderness vibe and limited visitor numbers that proved to be its greatest attractions.

With the Swartberg comprising a lengthy chain of largely undisturbed habitat, seemingly perfect for leopards, I caught up with the Cape Leopard Trust’s Gareth Mann to get a better understanding of the current situation regarding the leopard population in the area:

The VW Amarok dominated the trail

VW Amarok dominating the 4×4 trail

“The local leopard population has undoubtedly benefited from the safe haven provided by the rocky, mountainous terrain. I calculated an overall population density of approximately 0.75 leopards per 100 square kilometres for the Little Karoo, which gives you an idea of the minimum size of the Swartberg population, although the actual leopard population is probably a bit bigger than that.”

While the secretive cats eluded us, the ubiquitous klipspringer, grey rhebok, chacma baboon, large grey mongoose and rock hyrax were all out in full force during our daily forays into the mountains.

If it’s pristine wilderness and a rejuvenating nature escape that you’re after, then I can wholeheartedly recommend a multi-day hike or 4×4 adventure to explore the Swartberg range.

Check out the Swartberg link on www.capenature.co.za, email reservation.alert@capenature.com or call 021 483 0190 to find out more about the activities and attractions of the secluded Swartberg Nature Reserve.

The vista from Bushman's Nek over De Hoek towards the distant Outeniqua Mountains

The spectacular Swartberg vista from Bushman’s Nek towards the distant Outeniqua Mountains

 

The Darling ‘Baby Moon’, South Africa – August 2013

Yserfontein is a short fifteen minute drive from darling with serene beach walks and stunning views

Yserfontein is a short drive from Darling with its serene coastal walks and scenic Table Mountain views

Barely an hour’s drive from Cape Town, the West Coast village of Darling (www.darlingtourism.co.za) lies tucked away between rolling hills, sprawling vineyards, verdant olive farms, golden wheat fields and tracts of threatened Renosterveld carpeted with wild flowers. It was reassuring to find that in traditional Darling there are still almost as many churches as there are local residents, and the locals all seem to know one another. Thankfully, tourists still remain more of a novelty than a blight in Darling, making it a perfect long weekend getaway for two Capetonians looking for a final escape from the city before baby time!

Olive tasting is the perfect substitute for pregnant ladies

If wine tasting is not an option then try olive tasting!

With Katherine 8.5 months pregnant, we needed somewhere within striking distance of the Vincent Pallotti hospital. Somewhere that promised serenity, nature, wild flowers and culture. Known as ‘the Flower of the West Coast’, Darling proved to be the perfect spot for our much-anticipated ‘Baby Moon’ escape with the region’s wide array of locally brewed beers and picturesque wine farms only serving to augment its aforementioned charms!

Darling Lodge (www.darlinglodge.co.za) was our home-away-from-home, offering a harmonious blend of the old and the new that reflected the romantic nature of Darling. The original Victorian main house (where we stayed) had three individually decorated country style rooms, while the more modern garden annex consisted of three more generously appointed rooms with a grapevine covered patio overlooking a swimming pool.  The charming guesthouse and its kitchen were presided over by Stephan Moser, while the beautifully tended garden remained the domain of his partner – the green-fingered Oliver Studer. Their beautifully restored guesthouse was an oasis of peace and tranquillity in the middle of laid back Darling and undoubtedly the perfect base from which to explore the tiny town and its surrounding attractions.

Darling Brew beer tasting

Sampling the best of the Darling Brews

I think it’s fair to say that aside from the wide array of Darling dairy products available in our local supermarkets, nobody has done more to put Darling on the map than Pieter-Dirk Uys. His Sunday lunchtime theatre at Evita se Perron (www.evita.co.za) has become a Darling institution, and we were fortunate enough to attend his sell-out ‘Evita Praat Kaktus’ show during our stay.

Aside from culture and wild flowers, Darling and its surrounds boasts a superb array of world-class wine estates (including my personal favourite Groote Post), delicious Darling Brew beer tasting, mouth-watering country cooking (at Hilda’s Kitchen and Bistro 7) and much more. So next time you’re looking for a convenient weekend getaway from Cape Town, think Darling and I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Even in early August the West Coast is already starting to bloom

Even in early August the West Coast wild flowers are already starting to bloom

Cape Town and Table Mountain Hiking, South Africa – April 2013

The Sea Point Promenade view from our Three Anchor Bay apartment in Cape Town

In comparison to the start of 2013, April was a somewhat less hectic and travel-intensive month.  Rather than disappear on another trip, we decided to concentrate on enjoying the epic late summer weather in Cape Town.

Training at the 3.2km Llandudno Cold Water Swim

Another good reason for staying close to home was to enable me to train hard for our Robben Island swim, which is on the cards for early next month.  Along with five friends, I’ll be swimming the traditional 7.8km ocean crossing from the island to Blouberg. It’s an official swim under the watchful eye of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (www.capeswim.com) so that means no wetsuits allowed… Yikes!

The stunning weather at this time of year also got us back walking on the beautiful mountain that resides in our backyard with regular trips up Lions Head and couple of overnight hikes with friends and family to the delightfully rustic Hoerikwaggo Trail Tented Camps and luxurious Overseers Cottage on the back table. Everyone who lives in Cape Town should make a point of getting onto the mountain at least once a summer to sample these affordable weekend escapes that lie in easy striking distance within the city limits (www.sanparks.co.za/parks/table_mountain).

Two Oceans Trail Run finish

After an enforced five-month layoff from trail running thanks to a Wild Coast Wildrun induced knee injury, I finally got the all clear from the doc to start running again and celebrated my return to fitness by taking part in the Two Oceans Trail Run (www.twooceansmarathon.org.za/events/trail-run/general) on Good Friday. The knee held up well over the mountainous 22km course, the weather was great and the Devil’s Peak scenery spectacular … It was fantastic to be back running in the mountains again!

March was also a productive month on the magazine front with a number of exciting new stories hitting the shelves.  Africa Geographic ran a big feature on Khaudum, Namibia’s wildest national park, and its elephants, which you can check out at: www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Africa-Geographic-Khaudum.pdf

While on the trail running front, Explore South Africa published Transkei Trailblazing – the last in our series of epic mullti-day Southern African trail runs – and you can view the story here: www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-South-Africa-Wildcoast-Wildrun.pdf

The Overseers Cottage atop Table Mountain overlooks the hustle-and-bustle of the Southern Suburbs

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