Posts Tagged ‘Nature Conservation’

Orange River Canoe Safari, Namibia – Sept & Oct 2014

Orange River canoe safaris are synonymous with bright blue skies, bright sunshine and mesmerising scenery.

Orange River canoe safaris boast deep blue skies, rugged landscapes and mesmerising scenery.

September kicked off with a four-day canoe adventure on the Orange River with my MBA classmates. Beginning its 2000km+ journey in the Drakensberg Highlands of Lesotho, the Orange – recently renamed the Gariep – River is South Africa’s foremost waterway. In its lower reaches, the Orange traces the South Africa-Namibia border and our multi-day camp-out canoe safari focused on the stretch of water snaking through the heart of the Ai-Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park .

Sjambok Rapid action

A canoe aces the infamous Sjambok Rapid

Felix Unite (www.felixunite.com) – leaders in multi-day Orange River canoe safaris – put together our guided and fully catered trip: a stunning excursion deep inside the ruggedly beautiful Richtersveld and a much-needed escape from the GSB classroom! Drifting along the languid river, we passed through a geological wonderland of contorted red rock canyons. However, the episodic appearance of rocky rapids ensured we kept our paddles and life jackets close at hand, and it wasn’t long before the notorious Sjambok Rapid took its toll on our flotilla of glass-fibre boats. Only five of twelve canoes made it through unscathed, while everyone else enjoyed some mandatory ‘bonus’ swim time! The next hour was spent bailing out boats, collecting equipment bobbing in the eddies below the rapid and drying everything out.

Witches Mountain

Witches Hat Mountain in the Richtersveld

Having been fortunate enough to tackle the Orange on numerous previous occasions, I’ve also had the opportunity to write and publish a couple of magazine features on these popular and highly rewarding canoe safaris over the years…

http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Travel-Namibia-Orange-River-Safari-Final.pdf

http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-Namibia-Gariep-River-Canoeing.pdf

Regardless of how many times I get to experience this magical river, I never tire of spending quality time on the Orange. I would classify the rapids as ‘fluffy’ rather than terrifying, but it is – in my humble opinion – the extreme arid beauty and mesmerising star-strewn night skies that make this canoe safari so enjoyable and utterly addictive. Check out www.felixunite.com/river_trips/orange_river for further details or to make a booking.

The sensational arid wilderness settings for a memorable overnight camp

A sensational riverside setting ensures another memorable overnight camp alongside the Orange

 

Celebrating after Cape Town Ultra

Celebrating after the Cape Town Ultra

Despite the fairly heavy workload involved with finishing off my MBA, I still managed to find a smidgen of spare time to hit the Table Mountain trails. The highlight being taking part in the inaugural Cape Town Ultra Trail Run (www.ultratrailcapetown.com). Tackling the full ultra was way beyond my current levels of fitness and training, so I opted instead for the short course route above the City Bowl. Starting from the city centre, we initially ran through the Company Gardens and Greenmarket Square before ascending through Bo-Kaap to traverse the length of Signal Hill, circling around Lions Head and then up onto the lower contour of Table Mountain before a final bone-jarring descent back into the City Bowl. Surprising even myself, I somehow managed to clinch a rather flattering 7th place on this hybrid 20km urban-trail run!

West Coast sunset

West Coast sunset

September and October also necessitated a final big push with my thesis in order to overcome the final MBA hurdle. My topic involved conducting an actor network analysis of the various social and environmental networks operating in the Bergrivier Municipality (www.bergmun.org.za). The research portion of the study demanded I take regular data collection excursions up the West Coast. On one of these occasions I was fortunate to be accompanied by my wife and young son for a couple of days in Velddrif (www.velddriftourism.co.za).

With a stunning seaside location overlooking Laaiplek Beach, Sunset Villas (www.velddriftourism.co.za/content/sunset-villas) boasts ocean-view sunsets of the highest order. Our unit comprised two en-suite bedrooms, an open plan living room, dining room and kitchenette, as well as a balcony with braai and five-star sea view.

Late October also saw the long-awaited publication of the final instalment of the Central Kalahari adventure that I shared with my brother-in-law in Botswana late last year.  If you haven’t read our tale of breaking down deep within the CKGR with only lions and Cape cobras for company, then you can access the SA 4×4 feature covering this epic adventure here: http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/SA-4×4-CKGR-Cover-Feature-Proof.pdf

We had the West Coast's Laaiplek Beach all to ourselves when visiting Velddrif

We had the West Coast’s Laaiplek Beach all to ourselves when visiting Velddrif

Sensational Safari, RSA, Zimbabwe, Zambia & Botswana – July & Aug 2014

Phinda Game Reserve 022

Phinda Private Game Reserve boasts some of the finest cheetah viewing in all of Africa

During August I was fortunate enough to accompany the fabulous Traggio family from Connecticut on one of the best safaris of my life. After a disappointing stay at the sub-par Saxon boutique hotel (www.saxon.co.za), we said goodbye to the big smoke of Johannesburg and escaped to &Beyond’s Phinda Vlei Lodge: a highly rewarding safari destination in northern Kwazulu-Natal.

A suite at Phinda Vlei Lodge

One of the luxurious suites at Phinda’s Vlei Lodge

Overlooking a large, sweeping, dry (during August) vlei system on the 23 000 hectare Phinda private game reserve, this intimate ten-bed lodge (www.andbeyond.com/phinda-vlei-lodge/) boasts great game viewing from the comfort and safety of your own private veranda or plunge pool. I was thrilled by the night time visits from a friendly bull elephant that came to drink from my swimming pool by the light of a full moon. While during the day, we enjoyed some superb cheetah viewing, including watching a mother with three cubs bring down a nyala right before our very eyes!

But the ultimate highlight was undoubtedly taking a day trip to Sodwana Bay where we got to dive with whale sharks at close quarters, while watching humpback whales frolic nearby.  An incredible experience.

The elephants of Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in southeastern Zimbabwe

The elephant bulls of Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in southeastern Zimbabwe

Bidding farewell to friendly staff at Phinda, we flew to Zimbabwe to visit a perennial old favourite: Singita Pamushana Lodge (www.singita.com/pamushana-lodge/) on the scenically diverse Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve (see previous blog for a write up on this incredible place).

Pamushana bush dinner

Pamushana bush dinner below an ancient baobab

In the company of talented local guide Tengwe Siabanda, we enjoyed great sighting of lions feeding on an eland, a male roaring in the midst of our sundowner spot, mud bathing elephants, and an abundance of white rhinos and general game. The top experience, however, was wiling away the midday hours secreted away inside a hide overlooking the last remaining waterhole in the south of the reserve. From this unique vantage point we were treated to close up visuals of elephant toenails and a non-stop procession of wildlife – warthogs, impala, kudu, hartebeest, sable, zebra, buffalo and elephants – that would have made Noah blush.

Livingstone Island tour and swimming in the precariously located Angel's Pool

Livingstone Island tour and swimming in the precariously positioned Angel’s Pool

Next stop was Tongabezi’s Tangala House (www.tangala.com) on the outskirts of Livingstone in southern Zambia. This spacious family-style home located on the banks of the Upper Zambezi River – 15 km upstream from the magnificent Victoria Falls – looks across southern Africa’s premier waterway and into the Zambezi National Park in neighbouring Zimbabwe.  But, even more rewarding than a tasty lunch on an uninhabited island or surveying ‘the smoke that thunders’ from vantage points within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, was the indescribable feeling of swimming in the Angel’s Pool right on the lip of the falls with the river thundering past and spray raining down on us!

A pack of African wild dogs - Africa's second most endangered large carnivore - bond ahead of hunting

A pack of African wild dogs – Africa’s second most endangered large carnivore – bond before hunting

Our final two destinations were across the border in Botswana. After flying over the sprawling elephant and buffalo herds of Chobe, we touched down at Wilderness Safari’s 14-suite Vumbura Plains Camp (www.wilderness-safaris.com/camps/vumbura-plains) in the Okavango. Tucked beneath a canopy of leafy trees with magnificent vistas over the watery wilderness, Vumbra was an ideal base from which to access the delta’s prolific predators with some top quality wild dog sightings and prime leopard viewing topping the charts.

Uncharted Africa's San Camp sits alongside the Makgadikgadi salt pans of northern Botswana

Uncharted Africa’s San Camp sits on the edge of the Makgadikgadi salt pans of northern Botswana

The final stop on this incredible two-and-a-half week Passage to Africa itinerary was idyllic San Camp (www.unchartedafrica.com) perched on the edge of the ethereal Ntwetwe Pan in the midst of the sprawling Makgadikgadi saltpan complex. Although hampered by mediocre management and poor guiding, this stunning colonial-style camp of yesteryear does enjoy one of the finest locations of any safari lodge in Africa, sitting aside an arid, white wilderness like no other place on earth.

Brown hyena displaying

Brown hyena displaying

Despite being predominantly a scenic nature destination, Makgadikgadi is renowned as the place to visit for high quality sightings of less frequently encountered animals like brown hyena and aardvark. Our visit didn’t disappoint on this front when late one afternoon we bumped into a brown hyaena and spent the next half hour up close with the inquisitive creature, as it put on quite a show bristling a long shaggy coat to increase its size.

Habituated mobs of meerkats are another big attraction in this area. But, it was the chance to drive quad bikes out onto the great white openness of the pans on the final evening for an alfresco fireside dinner and sleep out under the stars that proved the proverbial ‘cherry on the top’ at the end an amazing Southern African safari with six really great people.

Enjoying sunrise out on Ntwetwe Pan after sleeping out under the stars

Enjoying sunrise out on Ntwetwe Pan after sleeping out under the stars

 

The birthday boy

The birthday boy

Aside from competing in Franschhoek’s Bastille Day Trail Run and tackling the brutally tough Hout Bay Trail Challenge, the only other big news to report for the past couple of months was that we have finally taken the plunge and bought our first home in Constantia. It’s a quaint four-bedroom house with a leafy garden, surrounded by greenbelts, and with easy access onto Table Mountain. We now patiently await transfer and look forward to moving in during November to begin the next exciting chapter of our life together as a young family.

And, finally, on a sunny Saturday in late August, we celebrated Charlie’s first birthday at Deer Park Café.  All his little mates, along with our close friends and family, attended the festivities and generously showering him with gifts and attention. Dressed in a little suit he charmed the socks off everyone during a wonderful celebration to mark the end of an incredible – and absolutely life-changing – year for both Katherine and me!

Celebrating Charlie's first birthday at Deer Park Cafe

Celebrating Charlie’s first birthday at Deer Park Cafe

Two of Singita’s Finest Safari Lodges, RSA & Zimbabwe – May & June 2014

The quintessential African sunset with baobab silhouette on Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in Zimbabwe

The quintessential African sunset with baobab silhouette on Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in Zimbabwe

The month of May got off to a rollicking start with a weeklong safari to two of Southern Africa’s top safari lodges.  Accompanied by fellow Passage to Africa private guide, Richard Coke, we led a Texan family on a highly enjoyable weeklong Singita safari.

The cliff-top view from Singita Pamushana Lodge

The cliff-top view from Singita Pamushana Lodge

The trip kicked off at Singita Pamushana (www.singita.com/pamushana-lodge/) on the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in Zimbabwe. Managed by the not-for-profit Malilangwe Trust, the wildlife-rich private reserve is an extraordinary wilderness area adjoining the Gonarezhou National Park in southeastern Zimbabwe. Amazingly, Singita Pamushana Lodge is currently the sole camp operating on this stunning 60 000 ha reserve. Like a collection of vulture nests perched along the rim of a giant rocky koppie, the lodge offers unbeatable bird’s eye views over a unique landscape peppered with rocky outcrops and a sprawling lake down below.

The wildlife viewing was top notch, especially considering it was early May and the bush was still pretty thick. Aside from plentiful elephants, white rhino and huge buffalo herds, we enjoyed memorable sightings of cheetah on the prowl and a pack of wild dog drinking from Banyan pan. Aside from game drives and a short walk tracking rhinos, there was some high quality fishing on offer in the lake below the lodge, and our team caught a few small tigers along with more tilapia than they knew what to do with!

Our private charter pilatus jets turned a few heads wherever we landed

Our private charter Pilatus PC-12’s made for easy travel and turned a few heads wherever we went

 

Giraffe chewing on a shoulder bone

Giraffe chewing on a shoulder bone

From Pamushana we flew back to South Africa and Singita’s flagship Lebombo Lodge (www.singita.com/lebombo-lodge/). This world-renowned safari lodge boasts fifteen loft-style suites on a 14 000 hectare, exclusive-use concession deep inside the Kruger National Park. Built above the N’wanetsi River in the east of the park, Singita Lebombo stares out across the stream and onto an undulating savannah-woodland landscape that stretches across the unfenced border and into neighbouring Mozambique.  Imaginative wood, steel and organic interiors – all encased in glass – provide a stylish and modern feel to the luxurious Lebombo suites, which make the most of their lofty positions overlooking the river.

The basalt plains to the north of the lodge are well-known for their lion concentrations and it wasn’t long before we came across a coalition of four males resting up after devouring a waterbuck. Mating lions the following morning and a visit to a rocky hyena den were other highlights, but nothing could match the grand finale of watching a female cheetah stalk and take down an impala on our last evening drive: a great end to a wonderful week in the African wilderness.

An alert female cheetah surveys her surrounds to make sure no other predators steal her kill

An alert female cheetah surveys her surrounds to ensure no other predators sneak in and steal her kill

 

During a very hectic and intense second term on the MBA, there was only limited time available for undertaking photojournalism assignments. In amongst all the schoolwork and exams, I managed to keep up a fairly gruelling trail running schedule in order to maintain my sanity! The beautiful and brutal Heldeberg Challenge was followed by a perennial favourite, the Old Fisherman’s Trail Challenge, but the highlight of June was undoubtedly snagging an entry to the fourth edition of the Grootvadersbosch Trail Challenge (www.quantumadventures.co.za/2013/09/12/grootvadersbosch-trail-run/).

Dad's biggest supporter

Dad’s biggest fan and trail running supporter

Taking place in the wonderfully wild and diverse Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve and adjoining Boosmansbos Conservancy, this magical two-day trail run is synonymous with everything genuine trail runners wish for: natural beauty, pristine wilderness, no other people, and lots of flowing single track. Located right on Cape Town’s doorstep, it is a virtually unknown tract of Western Cape wilderness that eclipsed even my wildest expectations.

But don’t just take my word for it, the fact that the organisers of both the Otter African Trail Run and African X – two of South Africa’s premier trail events – chose to come and run Grootvadersbosch this year should convince you that this is a truly special place. So if you live in the Cape and enjoy trail running, hiking or simply spending time in nature, then be sure to check out my latest Do It Now feature on this incredible World Heritage Site: http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/DIN-Grootvadersbos-Trail-Run-Final.pdf

Running wild on the mountainous trails of the scenically spectacular Grootvadersbosch World Heritage Site

Running wild on the mountainous trails of the spectacular Grootvadersbosch World Heritage Site

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

UCT Graduate School of Business MBA, South Africa – Jan & Feb 2014

Family photo at my little sister Michelle's 21st birthday celebration in Franschhoek

Family photo from my little sister Michelle’s Disney-themed 21st birthday celebration in Franschhoek

After bringing in the New Year with family at Angala Boutique Hotel (www.angala.co.za) in Franschhoek, we returned to Cape Town and started to gear up for a BIG 2014. After much deliberation, I decided to take the plunge and accepted my offer to study a full-time MBA at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (www.gsb.uct.ac.za). With UCT’s MBA programme moving up the Financial Times international rankings to an impressive 59th place, there is no denying the prestige attached to Africa’s premier MBA qualification. My interest is specifically in the sustainability stream that the Graduate School of Business offers as part of its MBA course electives bouquet.

Maria and Charlie

Maria and Charlie

The demands of this intensive year-long masters programme will no doubt necessitate big changes to my photojournalism assignments schedule as well as on the home front. After four months of maternity leave, Katherine has gone back to working half-days and is bravely keeping the family ship afloat, while Maria – Charlie’s devoted nanny – has quickly become part of the furniture and an indispensible member of the family. There is absolutely no way I could make this busy year work without the support of my fantastic wife as well as Maria’s help with caring for Charlie and keeping the apartment ship-shape.

It’s also been great to have my sister, Carolyn, brother-in-law, Jean-Marc, and nephew, Dom, back from the UK and staying in Cape Town for the summer. Their timely return to the fairest Cape has given Charlie an opportunity to get to know his older cousin during some fun-filled beach days and lazy picnics for the boys at Kirstenbosch.

Charlie – being the chilled-out little kid that he is – seems to adapt surprisingly easily to new situations, fitting in effortlessly with our adventurous lifestyle. Whether he’s dancing to Freshly Ground at a Kirstenbosch sunset concert or climbing Table Mountain with us, the little guy seems to really enjoy himself.  Not bad for someone who is just six months old!

Charlie with cousin Dom on Clifton beach

Charlie with his cousin Dom on Clifton beach

On the photojournalism side of things, I’ve had to scale back my magazine assignments quite dramatically to free up my schedule to accommodate a fairly hectic and heavy MBA workload. However, despite a mountain of school work, I’ve managed to squeeze in a couple of exciting short assignments…

The first is a three-day escape during mid-March to take part in and write about the African X trail run (www.africanx.co.za) that takes place in the mountains above Houw Hoek Inn just outside of Cape Town. This adventure sports assignment will be followed by a five-day family excursion to check out the Karoo National Park (www.sanparks.org.za/parks/karoo/) during late-April. At this stage my final assignment is lined up for the first week in May and it’s a Passage to Africa privately guided safari (www.passagetoafrica.com/privately_guided_safaris) to sample the top Singita lodges in South Africa’s Lowveld and across the border into Zimbabwe. This will be my first foray into privately guided safaris since joining the Passage team as a partner guide (www.passagetoafrica.com/team/stephen-cunliffe) late last year and I look forward to working more closely with them on both African and Asian safari itineraries in the future.

So with plenty to look forward to during a busy start to the year, watch this space for further updates on how things pan out over the course of an action-packed 2014…

Family photo from the Freshly Ground Kirstenbosch concert on sweltering hot Sunday evening

Cunliffe family photo taken at the Freshly Ground sunset concert on a summery Sunday evening

Khutse and Central Kalahari overland adventure, Botswana – Dec 2013

Lioness at Piper Pan

The Kalahari is synonymous with lions and Piper Pan dished out daily sightings of these iconic predators

The Kalahari, ‘land of thirst’, is a parched wilderness and primeval landscape of sand, stone, sparse grassland and thorn-scrub. Echoing every night with the primordial roars of the black-maned king of the African savannah, the wide-open spaces and big skies of central Botswana’s Khutse and Central Kalahari game reserves are like no other place on earth. My brother-in-law joined me for an overland exploration of this oft-overlooked wild corner of the sprawling Kalahari and we discovered the ultimate wilderness escape for any nature-loving 4×4 enthusiast.

Moreswe Campsite

Moreswe Campsite

The name Khutse, which means ‘where one kneels to drink’ in Sekwena (the local dialect of Setswana), reveals that the area was once part of Africa’s largest inland lake. Today, however, the sun-baked reserve experiences drought-like conditions for most of the year, giving rise to a distinctive terrain of low dunes, sparse grasslands, thorny scrub and the occasional scraggly tree, peppered with more than 60 shimmering saltpans.

Despite being one of the most arid regions in all of Southern Africa, we were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to witness the truly awesome spectacle of the first Kalahari rains breaking across the parched African savannah.

We heard the wind before we saw it. A dust cloud around three kilometres tall raced across the desert landscape engulfing everything in its path before unleashing the first drops of rain to pelt Khutse’s parched pans in nearly a year. An eerie orange light filtered through the dust and clouds painting the landscape otherworldly colours such as I’d never witnessed before.

With only a couple of giraffe for company, we watched double rainbows melt and reform across a brooding sky while big raindrops thumped into the thirsty earth. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle that brings me goosebumps just thinking about it.

The rains arive

The first Kalahari rains were accompanied by otherworldly skies that seemed better suited to Mars

Although the Kalahari is home to a plethora of wild animals, animal densities are low and game viewing can be highly variable in the desert. While this might not be the best places to view wildlife, the timeless Kalahari is a genuinely wild place of soulful solitude. Boasting the ultimate get-away-from-it-all vibe, the Central Kalahari boast a desert wilderness experience bar none. So, if remote desert wilderness, self-imposed isolation and the sound of lions roaring in the night are your thing, then – like me – Khutse and the Central Kalahari will probably become one of your favourite 4×4 destinations in all of Africa. Check out www.botswanatourism.co.bw for more.

toilet

An unwanted visitor in the long-drop toilet!

Amazingly, during the week we spent exploring Khutse, we never saw another person or vehicle; and during our six-day stay in the southern section of Central Kalahari we saw no more than a handful of adventurous souls. Unfortunately, our desert adventure came to an untimely end at Piper Pan deep in the Kalahari when our Chinese-made Steed 5 double-cab inexplicably gave up the ghost one morning and set in chain an unbelievable sequence of events. In the end our vehicle recovery saga turned into an even bigger adventure than our originally planned Khutse-Kalahari desert sojourn!

In the end – after a four-day wait – the Trans World Motors recovery team finally located us and – after an accident and six breakdowns of their towing vehicle – we finally reached Maun. Escaping the clutches of the Kalahari was an unbelievable ordeal. By the time we finally reached Maun’s Old Bridge Backpackers (www.maun-backpackers.com), I could have sworn that the first bitterly cold Saint Louis I cracked was the tastiest and most refreshing beer I’d ever gulped down!

Driving across Marushele Pan under a fiery sky after the first big rains

Driving across Mahurushele Pan under a fiery evening sky after the first big rains had hit Khutse

Africa Geographic goes bang and Angala getaway, South Africa – Nov 2013

The vista looking out from Angala Boutique Hotel  over Vrede en Lust wine estate

The stunning vista looking out from Angala Boutique Hotel over Vrede en Lust wine estate

The month of November kicked off with the sad news of the untimely demise of Africa Geographicwww.africageographic.com – after nearly 20 years in the care of the Borchert family. This world-class conservation and geographical magazine had been in financial trouble for some time, so the news was not totally unexpected. The liquidation of AFRIPUBLISH Printing (PTY) LTD and its successor Black Eagle Media (PTY) LTD did, however, leave a string of disgruntled creditors and contributors in its wake.

Africa Geographic - Nov issue

The final issue of Africa Geographic

Despite eleven different payment plans and umpteen promises of money from the editor, Sarah Borchert, it was 22 months since I last received any cash from the struggling magazine and they went bang still owing me in the region of R 43 000. Aside from the financial impact suffered by its freelance contributors, the magazine’s sudden departure from the newsstands has also robbed Africa (albeit temporarily) of its loudest and most respected voice in conservation and environmental matters. With the rhino genocide heading into overdrive and the slaughter of our continent’s elephants escalating almost daily, the termination of Africa Geographic at this crucial time is a terrible loss to wildlife and conservationists alike.

Thankfully, after its rocky start, the month improved with a much-needed family vacation to the recently upgraded Angala Boutique Hotel – www.angala.co.za – situated on the outskirts of Franschhoek. Formerly Cathbert Country Inn, rebranded Angala is a stunning retreat where luxury and opulence blend seamlessly with the pristine beauty of nature. With an enviable location on the verdant slopes of the magnificent Simonsberg Mountain in the heart of the Cape winelands, Angala is a destination of rejuvenation where you can revive your body, mind and soul. Although it’s a great base from which to explore the wineries of Franschhoek, Paarl and the Helshoogte Pass, it’s also a wonderful place to simply relax and do nothing at all, savouring the myriad amenities of this five-star guesthouse and its spacious suites. Wanting some downtime to recharge and catch up with the family, we opted for the latter and the idyllic weather ensured we had an incredible time and found it very hard to leave.

Supporting our Springboks against Scotland

Supporting our Springboks against Scotland

The end of the month sees Katherine brave two long-haul flights with an infant on the perennially poor KLM airline when she heads to America to see her family.  It has quite literally been years since we last experienced a drama-free flight on the hapless Dutch airline and Katherine is stealing herself for the almost inevitable challenges that lie in store.

[Postscript: After more than three hours of stress, tears and immense frustration at Cape Town International, Katherine was forced to buy Charlie a whole new ticket simply because KLM and Delta failed to communicate regarding his original reservation on the codeshare flights. The whole process was devoid of customer service with Maria, the KLM flight controller, being an especially unhelpful and unaccommodating old hag.]

While my wife and son are enjoying Thanksgiving in Minnesota, I’ll be taking a GWM Steed double-cab bakkie and my brother-in-law on a serious overland expedition through Khutse Game Reserve, Central Kalahari and the Makgadikgadi Pans for SA 4×4 magazine. Watch this space next month for more on this epic adventure…

The suites of Angala Boutique Hotel sit high on the slopes on Simonsberg with an impressive mountainous backdrop

The suites of Angala Boutique Hotel enjoy an enviable position high on the slopes of the Simonsberg

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

 

Exploring Maputaland in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – July 2013

KwaZulu-Natal's Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve remains South Africa's rhino stronghold

KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve remains South Africa’s premier rhino stronghold

Stretching from the Mozambique border to Sodwana Bay and inland to the Swazi frontier, the wild Maputaland region lies in the far northeast corner of KwaZulu-Natal (www.zulu.org.za). This beautiful and sparsely populated area is one of the most splendidly diverse and unspoilt landscapes in Southern Africa. Sprinkled with coastal lakes, freshwater pans and sluggish rivers, it’s home to a slew of pristine game reserves, wetland parks and marine protected areas: an alluring prospect for any nature enthusiast. During early July I had the opportunity to take the new RAV4 and a Toyota-fanatic friend, Tim Korving, on a circuitous route through Maputaland to explore the hidden reaches of this often under-rated South African outpost as part of an exciting SA 4×4 magazine assignment.

Northern KZN 003 (Tembe)

Sunset in Tembe Elephant Park

We kicked off our 4×4 exploration of the northern KZN game reserves in wildlife-rich Hluhluwe. Once the royal hunting ground of King Shaka, the towering grassland hills and low lying thornveld of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi have metamorphosed into a world-renowned Big 5 game reserve that is recognised as the pride of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s portfolio of protected areas (www.kznwildlife.com).

From Hluhluwe we moved on to Mkuze – another of Africa’s earliest game reserves that today constitutes the 40 000ha uMkhuze Section of the iSimangaliso Wetland World Heritage Site (www.isimangaliso.com). With Sand Forest giving way to gently undulating grasslands, peppered with flat-top acacias and fever tree-choked drainage lines, the park is well-known amongst ornithologists for its varied habitat and rich birdlife. Twitchers tend to concentrate their energies on Nsumo Pan and the neighbouring fig tree forests, while wildlife enthusiasts focus their energies on Kumasinga Hide: the most productive of Mkuze’s four recently refurbished game-viewing hides.

Situated deep inside Maputaland and abutting Mozambique, Ndumo Game Reserve centres on the Pongola and Usutu rivers. At 10 117ha it is a small reserve with a big reputation. Most people know Ndumo as one of the top birding destinations in Southern Africa and while this is beyond dispute (a staggering 430 species have been recorded in the park), this widely-acclaimed twitcher territory is by no means the exclusive domain of binocular-toting birders. Ndumo’s wilderness walks are another highly entertaining and informative activity available to park visitors.

The idyllic campsite at Ndumo Game Reserve

The idyllic campsite at Ndumo Game Reserve

The next stop on our Maputaland circuit was Tembe. Established in 1983 on Tribal Trust land, the 30 013ha Tembe Elephant Park (www.tembe.co.za) is dominated by sand forest and the game-rich Muzi Swamp in the east. It is home to an abundance of wildlife, including African wild dogs and a burgeoning lion population (over 40 at last count). While Tembe’s carnivores eluded us, the park’s elephants did not. Tembe has built its reputation on its gigantic tuskers. More than 200 of these gentle giants tramp the sandy paths of this pristine wilderness and we soon discovered that sightings are all but guaranteed from the hide overlooking Mahlasela waterhole as well as at nearby Mfungeni Pan. If you have time to visit just one game park in KwaZulu-Natal, I would unreservedly recommend it be the meandering sand tracks of the gloriously wild Tembe Game Reserve.

The RAV4 dominated deep sand, mud and water crossings

The RAV4 dominated sand, mud and water crossings

Having identified an exciting-looking 4×4 route down the exotically-named Elephant Coast of the gigantic iSimangaliso Wetland Park (www.isimangaliso.com) as the perfect grand finale of our Maputaland adventure, we set off along the scenic coastal route from Bhanga Nek to Sodwana. The deep sandy tracks took us first to scenic Dog Point, where we stopped to watch a couple of humpback whales breaching offshore, before continuing on past the breathtakingly beautiful beaches of Rocktail Bay in the Maputaland Marine Reserve and passing Lake Sibaya en route to Sodwana.

With our northern KwaZulu-Natal circuit complete and our great Maputaland adventure rapidly drawing to a close, we returned to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi for our final night, splashing out to stay at the secluded Nselweni Bush Camp overlooking the iMfolozi River. Much later that evening as I sat alone on the veranda savouring my last night in the wilderness, the rasping cough of a territorial leopard snapped me from my musings. A few seconds later the guttural roars of a distant lion pride joined the harmony. As I sat there in awe of the primordial melody resonating from the darkness, the melancholy whoop of a lone hyaena added its voice to the wilderness refrain. To me their bushveld chorus sounded grander than any orchestra or opera, but the real privilege was that the animals of Maputaland were bellowing their farewell song for an appreciative audience of one!

The pristine beach at Bhanga Nek in the Muputaland Marine Reserve

The pristine beach at Bhanga Nek in the Maputaland Marine Reserve of iSimangaliso Wetland Park

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