Posts Tagged ‘Nature Conservation’

In Search of Wine and Whales, South Africa – March 2013

The new hop-on-hop-off Franschhoek Wine Tram arriving at Rickety Bridge station

Franschhoek – an idyllic collection of vineyards ensconced by jagged mountains – is widely touted as one the most picturesque valleys in all of South Africa with world class wines to boot. The valley’s latest offering is the hop-on-hop-off Franschhoek Wine Tram tour: one of the best ways to discover the true essence of this magical valley’s sprawling vineyards, breath-taking scenery, unparalleled views, warm hospitality, world-class cuisine, fine wines and 300 year-old history.

Local transport to Grande Provence

With family visiting from America, we decided to climb aboard the newly launched tram and take a day to leisurely explore the Franschhoek Valley. Our journey through the rolling vineyards began in an open-air tram-bus that stopped in at some of South Africa’s oldest and most distinguished wine estates – Haute Cabriére, Dieu Donné and Chamonix (where we enjoyed a delicious tapas lunch).

A combination of tram and tram-bus transportation moved us around a pre-determined loop allowing us to hop-off at any of the stops and experience the activities on offer, whether it be a complimentary wine tasting, cellar tour, lunch or simply a stroll through the vineyards. With a tram passing by every 40 minutes we never have to wait long to hop back on and continue our boozy adventure.

The wine tram is a fabulous (and relatively inexpensive) way to explore the quintessential offerings of Franschhoek and, if our experience was anything to go by, then I would unreservedly recommend it to one-and-all.

The views from atop Potberg on the first day of the Whale Trail are nothing short of sensational

March culminated with a visit to De Hoop Nature Reserve – located close to Bredasdorp and Swellendam in the Overberg – to hike the popular Whale Trail. This outstanding slack-packing trail traverses one of the Western Cape’s most unique and diverse nature reserves, providing 12 privileged nature lovers with an unrivalled hiking experience and comfortable overnight accommodation at stunning locations within the nature reserve.

The Noetsie huts

The route stretches over 55 km from Potberg to Koppie Alleen and includes five overnight stops. En route hikers experience everything from the fragrance of fynbos on the Potberg Mountains to the salty sea air of the marine protected area. Rare birds abound and we ticked off the blue crane, Cape vulture and black oystercatcher to name but a few.

The trail varies in intensity and a moderate degree of fitness is definitely required. Day one is the most strenuous and covers 16km including a sweaty climb up the 611m fynbos-clad Potberg Mountain. In comparison, day three is less than 8km allowing walkers ample leisure time to explore the marine life in the numerous rock pools along the coast.

De Hoop is a world-renowned whale-watching spot, but not in March! These giant mammals arrive in their hundreds between June and November transforming De Hoop MPA into one of the world’s most important nursery areas for southern right whales. Although the whales weren’t in residence when we visited, an abundance of dolphins, porpoises and seals kept us suitably entertained during the coastal leg of our hike.

Somewhat strangely, reservations are limited to group bookings of either 6 or 12 people, while the cottages (which range from Arniston-style houses to A-framed thatched cottages with solar-powered lights and gas-heated showers) have been built with three 4-bed bedrooms! But, when picking a couple of decent roommates is the worst of your worries… then you know life is pretty good!

Each day the Whale Trail affords 12 privileged hikers the chance to savour pristine coastal views

On Safari in the Eastern Cape and Sabi Sands, South Africa – Feb 2013

Great Fish River Lodge exudes luxury and charm in the midst of scenically spectacular Kwandwe

The first week of February saw Katherine and me take family visiting from America on an Eastern Cape wildlife safari. Unbeknownst to many, the Eastern Cape is home to six of South Africa’s seven major biomes: a veritable botanic melting pot that supports a diverse spectrum of wildlife scattered across breathtakingly beautiful and historically rich landscapes. With the traditional Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) in residence and the great white shark and southern right whale frequenting its marine protected areas, the Eastern Cape can rightfully claim to be home to the Magnificent Seven, providing a grand finale to any journey down the Garden Route. From affordable Addo to exclusive Kwandwe, the Eastern Cape boasts a wealth of safari options to suit every wallet.

The belligerent black rhino bull

We kicked off our safari at Kwandwe (www.kwandwe.com) – the Eastern Cape’s premier private game reserve. The luxurious splendour of their flagship safari product – Great Fish River Lodge – was our home-away-from-home for the duration of our four-day stay. Our guiding duo of Doc and Siza were steadfastly dedicated to the task of hunting down the Big Five, but, for us, it was the top-quality rhino sightings that proved the game-viewing highlight of our Kwandwe safari experience. This well-protected rhino haven spoilt us with one crash of white rhino after another – many with young calves in tow – not to mention a big belligerent black rhino bull that took an instant disliking to our open-top game-viewer!

Add to this sightings of two lionesses with their four sub-adult cubs finishing off a black wildebeest kill while the satiated black-maned king slumbered in the shade nearby; a trio of ever-alert cheetah; a regal leopard patrolling his territory; a rare brown hyaena; a pair of bat-eared foxes with pups; an elephant family fording the Fish River; a huge herd of buffalo slaking their thirst and the full spectrum of general game… and you have a wildlife-viewing experience that stands tall alongside SA’s very best.

With five-star accommodations, elaborate menus, impeccable service and close up sighting of over 30 large mammal species in surprisingly scenic surrounds, there is no disputing that a Kwandwe safari has plenty to offer first-timers and old-hands alike.

An elephant bull grazes in the Colchester Section of Addo

Our next safari stop was the perennial favourite Addo…

While the constantly expanding Addo Elephant National Park (www.addoelephantpark.com) is home to the Magnificent Seven and synonymous with some of the best elephant-viewing in all of Africa, it offers considerably more to the discerning safari connoisseur. Whether you opt for self-drive or guided game drives, 4×4 adventuring, hiking, horse-back safaris, birding or whale-watching, Addo has something for everyone.

Accommodation options are just as varied, although in my opinion there is one option that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: the intimate 10-bed Spekboom Tented Camp that lies in the heart of Addo’s prime game-viewing section. Comprising five large permanent dome tents with real beds and fresh linens, it’s a simple, but comfortable, camp with 24hour access to a hide overlooking the local waterhole where a big bull elephant in musth provided some quality entertainment when he angrily chased kudu and warthogs from the water’s edge.

Each evening, as Orion chased Taurus across the night sky, a quartet of jackals serenaded us to sleep in our little camp at the end of yet another highly memorable day in this incredibly diverse national park. Before nodding off on the final evening, I relived the day’s highlights: a magical morning spent conquering the half-day Doringnek Hiking Trail in the Zuurberg section of the park, a rare caracal sighting on our game drive, not to mention an obligatory elephantine extravaganza of thirsty beasts swimming and drinking, and the unexpected bonus of a relaxed black rhino patrolling his territory in the recently opened Colchester section of the park.

Although it’s been labelled a ‘soft safari option’ by detractors in years gone by, I was impressed to discover that the Eastern Cape has metamorphosised into a genuine safari destination, boasting outstanding wildlife-viewing without the crowds. Get the full safari story at: www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-SA-Eastern-Cape-Safaris.pdf

Addo is home to some of the highest densities of elephants to be found anywhere in Africa

February was the month for safaris and after a short break back in Cape Town where we found time to walk the stunning Orangekloof section of the Hoerikwaggo Hiking Trail (www.hoerikwaggotrail.org), we flew to Nelspruit – gateway to the Sabi Sands – for a weeklong safari with friends.

An impala ram in his prime is still no match for a cheetah

Thanks to a generous invitation from our good friends Duncan and Kirsti Gutsche, we were staying at a cool private lodge on Buffelshoek game farm in the far northeast of the park. Cruise Camp, barely a frog’s hop from the unfenced Kruger boundary, is slap-bang in the midst of a highly productive game-viewing sector of the internationally acclaimed reserve.

The Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve (www.sabisand.co.za) garnered a deserved reputation as a stronghold for prolific and well-habituated wildlife. The result of this is unsurpassed game-viewing opportunities even in the height of the green season. In ten plus visits to the Sands I’ve never had a disappointing wildlife experience with each trip being a different degree of WOW and this one was no different.

The 'sundowner' is a time-honoured African tradition

From observing marula-loving elephants to lazy old duggaboys; from watching a male cheetah feeding on an impala to tracking a trio of male lions; from trailing a leopard with her two young cubs to some of the best-ever rhino sightings… this is a park that always delivers.

We made a point of taking our time to savour our sightings and in return we were rewarded with memorable encounters and opportunities to appreciate and interpret the animal behaviour on display. Throw in some ice-cold beers, delicious gin & tonics, tasty snacks, enthusiastic nature-loving friends and you have a perfect concoction for a action-packed, fun-filled safari that we all wished would go on at least another week!

In spite of the 'rhino genocide' currently ranging in neighbouring Kruger... the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve remains a bastion for the beleaguered species

Kruger National Park Wilderness Trails, South Africa – Jan 2013

The view over the Olifants River from Barry's Rocks ... The ultimate KNP sundowner spot

Following rumours that the wilderness ethic was making a strong comeback on the Kruger’s multi-day hiking trails, I set off on a two-week Wild magazine assignment to discover whether this ‘wilderness renaissance’ was fact or fiction.

Night shooting is an essential skill for KNP Backpack Trails Guides

Having been invited to attend the Kruger Backpack Trails Guides’ Annual Workshop and AGM from the 7th – 12th of January, I spent my first week in the company of some of Kruger’s most knowledgable and experienced Trails Guides. I listened to a useful talk on bush first aid, enjoyed a practical presentation on snakes and scorpions, a lecture on Anthrax, a talk on KNP’s anti-poaching, as well as participating on a two-day track and sign evaluation. The incredibly interesting and enlightening week finished up with Advanced Rifle Handling (ARH) assessments, which included jungle lane and night shooting exercises! There’s no doubt in my mind that Kruger’s backpack trails are led by some of Africa’s most well-trained and highly skilled Trails Guides.

Aside from all the ‘hard’ skills that were being taught and tested on the workshop, Kruger’s finest spent the evenings gathered around a modest campfire honing their ‘soft’ skills by sharing personal insights into what ‘wilderness’ meant for each of them. The evening hours whizzed by as these gurus of the bush debated how best to convey the spirit and majesty of the park’s pristine wilderness areas to their trail guests.

I found it an energising experience to be in the company of these like-minded and passionate walking guides. Certainly, if my weeklong workshop experience is anything to go by, I would unreservedly recommend signing up for a primitive backpack trail with out delay. The multi-day Olifants, Lonely Bull and Mphongolo self-supported trails await you…

Wilderness appreciation and reconnecting with nature is a vital element of any Kruger trails experience

Unfortunately, the first backpack trails of the year don’t start until early February (with the strenuous Olifants River Backpack Trail only getting underway in April after the rains and extreme heat have dissipated), so I signed up instead for a couple of the traditional ‘base-camp’ wilderness trails. With a choice of the Bushman’s, Metsi-Metsi, Nyalaland, Napi, Oliphants, Sweni and Wolhuter trails, I opted for the Olifants in the north followed by the Metsi-Metsi in the south. These fully catered, three-night trails operate from fixed eight-bed camps where a highly competent cook prepares all meals while participants accompany two extremely knowledgable and highly competent Trails Guides on twice-daily walks in the surrounding wilderness area. Find out more at: www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/tourism/activities/wilderness/default.php

Our trail was led by the experienced duo of Sean Pattrick and Aron Mokansi who, over the course of the next couple of days, treated us to… a lion tracking experience on foot; walked us into a large herd of elephants; showed us (an increasingly rare) white rhino cow and calf; and shared the epic scenery that surrounds their favourite Olifants wilderness area haunts.

The trail culminated with some rare ‘alone time’ deep in the wilderness… Aron checked the area was safe while Sean selected a well-positioned rock, overlooking a vast tract of pristine riverine wildland, for each of us. For the next half-hour we were left to reflect on the beauty of nature and imbibe the wilderness spirit on our own. I found the experience of being alone with my thoughts in the wilderness an incredibly powerful – near sacred – experience.

As we reminisced around the campfire later that evening, our small group of trailists enthusiastically relived the trail’s many memorable highlights. Inevitably elephants, rhinos and the previous day’s lion tracking dominated the early fireside exchanges but later the conversation evolved into a fascinating discussion on wilderness and its immeasurable value to society. With the fire reduced to embers, I finally tore myself away and headed for bed knowing without a shadow of a doubt that Kruger’s trails were in good hands and the wilderness ethic on backpack trails was alive and kicking

The Olifants River rose three metres overnight but the worst was still to come...

Later that night the heavens opened to unleash a thunderstorm more vicious than any I’ve encountered to date. It was impossible to sleep through the deafening thunder cracks, as rain bucketed down and lightening streaked across an angry night sky.

Rising at dawn, I was shocked to see the river had risen a couple of metres overnight, transforming the Olifants into an angry, muddy maelstrom churning past our trails camp.

A bird's eye view of the flooded Kruger

It’s just as well we’re headed home today I thought… any more rain and Kruger’s rivers might start to make life difficult for us.

Joining the other trailists and guides in the open-top game-viewer, we immediately set off for Letaba. We should be there in just over an hour I mused as we slid along the waterlogged track. Ten minutes later we rounded a corner and descended towards the first of three small tributaries we needed to cross. The trickle of the day before had been replaced by an angry torrent over 15 metres wide and three metres deep.

We were stranded with no way out until the water subsided. Our guides radioed a situation report into HQ and we retreated to camp to wait it out. I crawled into bed for a nap.

The Letaba high-water bridge underwater

The thud of rotor blades invaded my slumbering mind and snapped me back from dreamland. I looked at my watch; it was 2pm. Outside the sky was heavy and foreboding.  The sound grew steadily louder.

Sean popped his head in the door and said, “Come on; let go. There’s more rain on the way and they’re choppering us outa here before it hits.”

I didn’t need another invite; I had always dreamed of flying over the Kruger Park. Charles – our lively and entertaining Zimbo pilot – strapped us in and gave us headphones before lifting off. The SANParks’ chopper dipped over the ridge and flew low over the swollen Olifants. The scenes below were incredible with hippos huddled in eddies trying to escape the powerful torrent sweeping by. We cut across to the Letaba River where I noticed the low water bridge had already disappeared underwater. (What I didn’t realise was that in just 24 hours the high water bridge would follow suit below the runaway river.)

Landing at the Letaba helipad, after a scintillating 20 minute flight enjoying a vulture’s view of Kruger’s rapidly rising rivers, I appreciated how fortunate I had been. After all, there can be no better way to end a Kruger visit than a SANParks’ helicopter evacuation: the ultimate ‘grand finale’ to an entertaining and exciting KNP Wild assignment.

Sean Pattrick and Aron Mokansi in action on the Olifants Wilderness Trail

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Conservation Area, South Africa – Dec 2012

The stately gemsbok - also known as an oryx - is perfectly adapted to life in the waterless dunes

December picked up where November left off as we embarked on a 1076km road trip from Cape Town to the Kalahari (www.sanparks.org/parks/kgalagadi/) for Christmas. A visit to the red desert in the height of summer is not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christmas present, but there is no denying the Kgalagadi TFCA is a very special place and – for me – the prospect of watching gigantic thunderstorms build over the rolling dunes before unleashing their fury on the parched red sand was an intoxicating prospect.

Two springbok rams fight ferociously

The amalgamation of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana on the 12th of May 2000 gave birth to the 3,6 million hectare Kgalagadi TFCA: one of the largest protected wilderness areas in Africa.

Our trip concentrated on the South African side of this scenically spectacular Peace Park and rather than visit the traditional rest camps of Twee Rivieren, Mata-Mata and Nossob, we chose instead to spend our two weeks exploring the park’s smaller Wilderness Camps. These intimate and exclusive 8-bed camps are unfenced and boast comfortable, intelligently designed, self-catering accommodation where you can escape the 40°C summer heat!

A resident brown hyaena at Bitterpan

Passing through Upington on our way north, we traded our VW Polo for a Toyota Hilux double cab from Kalahari 4×4 Rental (www.walkersmidas.co.za/companies/upington-4×4-rental/), specifically to allow us to conquer the dunes and access the remote 4×4 Wilderness Camps of Gharagab (with its resident brown hyaena and jackals) and Bitterpan (with its extremely productive waterhole drawing lions, hyaena and jackal on a nightly basis). Add to this a couple of nights perched atop a red dune at Kieliekrankie followed by the honeymoon suite at Kalahari Tented Camp and you have an almost unbeatable Kgalagadi itinerary. The cherry on the top was spending our final three nights at !Xaus Lodge (www.xauslodge.co.za/): a 24-bed private concessionaire-run lodge on the ancestral lands of the traditional Mier and Khomani San communities in the west of the park, offering the only fully catered and guided safari experience available in the TFCA.

The arid Kgalagadi landscapes are absolutely mesmerising, but it was our epic wildlife encounters that stole the show. The dry Nossob and Auob riverbeds are the focal point for large herds of antelope and their ever-attendant predators; and we were privileged to encounter more brown hyaena and big black-maned lions than you could shake a stick at, not to mention a coalition of male cheetah on the hunt and a young leopard reclining in a shady camel thorn. Watching springbok rams spar viciously and a ewe give birth right in front of us augmented an already top-notch wildlife extravaganza in this family-friendly, retiree-friendly, everyone-friendly national park.

With our car battery having given up the ghost and smelly sulphurous fumes leaking into the cab, I started to feel bad about continually asking my pregnant wife to push-start the vehicle. So, when the novelty of begging a jump-start from passing motorists soon wore off, we reluctantly bid farewell to the Kalahari and its wild denizens … But the red desert is an addictive place and I know it won’t be too long before it calls us back for visit number eleven!

!Xaus Lodge enjoys an enviable dune-top position overlooking a giant salt pan

Chobe and the Okavango Delta, Botswana – Nov 2012

The outstanding &Beyond team stationed at Chobe Under Canvas mobile camp

The wildlife-viewing experience in Chobe during the late dry season is truly in a league all of its own and there’s no disputing that this is one of Africa’s greatest game parks. Despite Chobe being a veritable Mecca for elephant enthusiasts from around the globe, I’ve always had one small criticism of the place … Personally, I feel the nature experience associated with the park’s incredible wildlife densities – especially the vast herds of elephant, buffalo and their ever-attendant lion prides – is diluted by the vehicle congestion around the Sedudu Entrance Gate. The problem arises from the fact that there are no concessions inside the park, so a plethora of big lodges and hotels have sprung up around Kasane with everyone then forced to make use of the same gate and well-worn eastern sector of the reserve for their game drives. Exacerbated by the park’s ever-increasing popularity, this long-standing problem has finally been overcome with the launch of luxury mobile safaris in Chobe .

Botswana's national bird

Innovative &Beyond introduced their latest safari offering – ‘Chobe Under Canvas’ (www.andbeyondafrica.com) – a few years back with the temporary tented camp affording ten privileged guests a unique opportunity to enjoy the relaxing solitude of sleeping at a secluded wilderness campsite deep inside the game-rich Chobe National Park. And, although Chobe Under Canvas is marketed as a “rustic mobile camp”, I have to say that in my opinion the camp’s elegant simplicity, friendly atmosphere and ultra-comfortable en-suite tents would be far better described as “Botswana’s ultimate ‘glam-ping’ [glamour camping] experience!”

Over the course of five highly memorable days in the company of expert nature guide Stanza Molaodi, we were treated to an almost gluttonous wildlife extravaganza. The rains were late, which ensured a continuous procession of elephants, buffalo, zebra and the like trekking to and from the Chobe River on a daily basis. Lions lazing in the shade nearby kept an eye on the passing menu until the sinking sun finally galvanized them into action.

The sight and sound of a couple of powerful lionesses hungrily devouring a stately sable was an experience we certainly won’t forget in a hurry; a young leopard snoozing in the V of a tree was another Chobe highlight. But it wasn’t all about the predators… Katherine – like most ladies – was enamoured by all the young being dropped to coincide with the arrival of the first rains: tiny warthog piglets and gangly impala lambs being the most ubiquitous of the diminutive newcomers.

Sleeping under crisp linens and listening to the primordial roars of a distant pride filter through the canvas walls of our ‘Chobe Palace’ on the final night before we moved on to the Okavango, my wife and I were in total agreement that there is no better way to get up close-and-personal with Botswana’s wildlife than on an extremely rewarding &Beyond Under Canvas safari excursion.

A hyaena den located 15 minutes from Nxabega provides safari goers with hours of entertainment

Next stop was the Okavango Delta. Oft referred to as ‘the river that never finds the sea’, Botswana’s freshwater ocean is a watery wilderness teeming with wildlife deep within the arid Kalahari Desert. Boasting a picturesque palm-peppered landscape with exceptional game-viewing opportunities, our Okavango safari experience didn’t disappoint.

The silent hunter

Over the course of four action-packed days amongst the tree-covered islands, croc-infested crystal-clear channels and grassy floodplains of the jewel of the Kalahari, we enjoyed some sensational sightings in the care of Max; although two stood out above the rest… Dawn visits to an active hyaena den with three exuberant and inquisitive cubs became a daily ritual, but it was an elegant female leopard that stole the show. Katherine first spotted the graceful feline reclining in a shady Sausage Tree and, after an impressively agile descent, the stealthy cat proceeded to stalk a gang of banded mongoose before upgrading to impala shortly thereafter. The hours whizzed by as we spent a privileged afternoon in her regal company.

But our Delta experience wouldn’t be complete without mention of &Beyond Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp (www.nxabega.com). This permanent canvas lodge consists of nine exquisitely appointed safari tents nestled within a riverine forest overlooking the reeded channels and expansive lagoons of a private 7,000ha concession on the edge of the permanent swamp. Raised on wooden platforms with private viewing decks, the opulent tents provided weary nature enthusiasts – such as ourselves – with a tranquil abode in which to recuperate in style. Imaginative menus, delicious food and exemplary service completed a truly five-star Nxabega safari experience.

A stormy sunset over the palm-fringed Okavango Delta

Khaudum, Sisheke and Zambezi Whitewater, Namibia & Zambia – Aug 2012

Spotted hyaena feed on a kudu carcass while thousands of flamingoes look on at Nyae Nyae Pan

After a thoroughly enjoyable summer holiday in the USA, August was devoted to a long-awaited and much anticipated JavZam work trip to explore the Sisheke District in the northern sector of the KAZA TFCA (http://www.kavangozambezi.org/).

I departed Cape Town with three work colleagues on a drizzly winter’s morning for Namibia; first stop was seldom-visited Khaudum (http://www.met.gov.na/Documents/Khaudum%20National%20Park.pdf) in northeast Namibia. This arid park falls within the KAZA TFCA and is quite possibly Namibia’s wildest national park. Elephants are dime a dozen here and anyone with a soft spot for these giant pachyderms should make sure a trip to Khaudum features prominently on their safari bucket list.

Khaudum is wild tract of arid Namibian wilderness where elephant herds outnumber tourists 10:1

After 5 days exploring the wilds of Khaudum and its neighbouring flamingo-rich Nyae-Nyae Pans, we reluctantly bid farewell to the elephant herds and made our way through the Caprivi to try out the new Sioma Border Post north of Kongola.  A fancy new road terminated in the middle of nowhere and we were forced to backtrack 17km to find the Namibian ‘immigration table’ perched under a shady tree!  In contrast the Zambian side had some very fancy new immigration offices, but no road yet!  All this made for a great adventure as we eventually figured everything out.  Later, we learned that we were the first visitors to use this new KAZA tourist facility, which had only officially opened 5 weeks earlier.

The primary reason for our trip was to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the Sisheke District and Sioma Ngwezi National Park as these areas make up the core area for the exciting and ambitious Sisheke Conservation Project (http://www.sisheke.com/).

An inquisitive wild dog at Katuli Pools on the edge of Sioma Ngwezi NP

For the next two weeks we drove, boated and flew through out the 3,000,000ha Sisheke Conservation Area that was recently awarded to JavZam to manage and develop on behalf of the Barotse Royal Establishment for the benefit of the local people and wildlife alike.

In amongst clocking up many miles investigating this massive tract of wilderness, we also managed to catch a few tiger fish and find a pack of 16 wild dogs!  Sadly, we also saw the unsustainable practices of escalating elephant poaching, widespread logging and uncontrolled burning at every turn. The area has incredible potential but huge challenges as well.

After a couple of weeks deep in the bush, we headed for a well-earned break in Livingstone where the folks at Safari Par Excellence (http://www.safpar.com/) treated us to a great day of world-class whitewater on the mighty Zambezi.  After an adrenalin-charged morning of river boarding where it was hard not to feel like crocodile bait, we abandoned our little body boards in favour of a more sociable self-bailing raft for the afternoon session.  The rapid-infested Zambezi is a very special river and it’s hard to imagine there’s any better way to spend an action-packed day in the wilds of Africa.

Tackling the wet and wild Class V whitewater with SAFPAR on the mighty Zambezi River in Zambia

Royal Malewane and the Lowveld, South Africa – May 2012

It was a social start to the month of May when Mike Arbuthnot and Cath Salmon tied the knot and we celebrated in royal style at the indomitable Suikerbossie Restaurant (www.suikerbossie.co.za) above Hout Bay. This tried-and-tested venue was a sure-fire recipe for festive success and, with the photo booth working overtime, there were plenty of intriguing photo strips to help the more inebriated guests reconstruct the events of their wild evening on Sunday morning.

The biggest surprise of the month was a last minute request and invitation to fly up to Royal Malewane (www.royalmalewane.com) in the Greater Kruger National Park for four days. The reasons for my visit were twofold… Firstly, the lodge was desperately short of rangers so, with the post-Indaba influx of travel agents, I was asked to please come up and help them out as a freelance guide.  Secondly, the high density of well-travelled tour operators and agents afforded an excellent opportunity to promote the Sisheke Conservation Project (www.sisheke.com) and our dynamic Zambian conservation initiative.

It was a real treat to be back on Thornybush Game Reserve and I revelled in the opportunity to catch up with old friends and soak up the Lowveld atmosphere on this unexpected ‘bonus’ bush break. It was great fun to be back guiding again, although I did feel decidedly rusty and it took me a little while to get back into the swing of things. Trying to remember my way around the reserve, along with all the old road names, proved more than a little stressful and compounded my feelings of being thrown in the deep end. But, with the assistance of my experienced tracker, Shadrack, we managed to find some outstanding sightings, treating our guests to a royal bush experience.

The three top wildlife sightings of this stint were undoubtedly tracking and locating a big male black rhino as he emerged to drink from Ingwe Dam; watching a young male leopard intently stalk towards a small sounder of warthogs in broad daylight; and a late night leopard adventure of note.

Young male leopard on the prowl at Royal Malewane

Male leopard on the prowl at Malewane

While watching a female leopard and her two sub-adult cubs devour an impala, a loose wire caused a short on the battery and left us without power, lights or an operational radio. Sitting below a star-strewn sky with a leopard lying either side of the vehicle noisily devouring their respective impala legs, was an experience that none of us will forget anytime soon. A cell phone, one bar of signal and a much-appreciated push from another game-viewer eventually got us mobile again and brought to an end a sensational game drive that will stay with me and the rest of the crew for many years to come.

I’ll sign off this entry with the fantastic news that years of work and a nerve-wracking presentation to the Board and EXCO members of the Peace Parks Foundation last week, finally culminated in pen-on-paper with the signing of a ten-year Management Agreement between Javelin Capital and the Barotse Royal Establishment on Friday the 25th of May.  The contract gives Javelin Zambia the exclusive rights to manage and sustainably develop the ecotourism and other natural resources of the Sisheke Chiefdom in South West Zambia. This 1.5 million hectare tract of wilderness is an integral part of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) and the deal was supported and sanctioned by the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF).

So, the Sisheke Conservation Project has now taken its first steps down the long road to realising the huge potential of this valuable wilderness area on the Upper Zambezi River. You can read more about the Project and see pictures from the signing ceremony, which took place at  Birkenhead House in Hermanus, by following this link www.sisheke.com/blog/.

Exciting magazine assignments for June include a Wild assignment to put together an outdoorsy piece on the Wilderness section (www.sanparks.org/parks/garden_route/camps/wilderness/) of the Garden Route National Park. This SANParks story will be followed by a return trip to the Lowveld to watch tracker-extraordinaire Louis Liebenberg in action when I report on CyberTracker and his new tracking institute for the October issue of Africa Geographic.

The negotiations and signing of the Sisheke Management Agreement was attended by representatives of the BRE, Javelin and Peace Parks

The negotiations which culminated in the signing of the Sisheke Management Agreement were attended by representatives of the BRE, Javelin Capital and the Peace Parks Foundation

Hermanus, Plett and the Wildrun, Lesotho – April 2012

Perched high atop the Hermanus cliffs, overlooking Voelklip Beach and accommodating guests in the utmost luxury, the opulent Birkenhead House (www.birkenheadhouse.com) gazes out onto the whale watching paradise of Walker Bay. Katherine and I belatedly accepted an extremely generous wedding gift and spent three nights soaking up the luxurious, pampered splendour of Birkenhead House. After completing the Two Oceans Trail Run (www.twooceansmarathon.org.za/events/trail-run/general) on Friday morning, we savoured the delicious food, fine red wine and cosy atmosphere of this irresistible seaside lodge for the remainder of the wet Easter weekend. Situated barely an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Cape Town, Birkenhead House proved an idyllic spot to celebrate the second anniversary of our Franschhoek wedding festivities.

The Lesotho Wildrun (www.lesothowildrun.co.za) is an amazing 112km stage-race through the pristine, undulating landscapes of a remote mountain kingdom that lies right in South Africa’s backyard. An epic three-day wilderness journey takes runners through the magnificent and truly wild Ketane Ha Mothibi and Thaba Putsoa mountain ranges in the very heart of Lesotho. With the generous support of sponsor Adidas (www.adidas.co.za/running/), the folks at Wildrunner (www.wildrunner.co.za) pulled out all the stops to make sure everyone enjoyed an incredible, ‘never to be forgotten’ trail running experience.

I fell into step with the similarly paced Stephen Kriel (a seventh generation butcher from Darling) and Guy Jennings (an advertising executive from Joburg) to form a well-matched running trio that became known as ‘Team SSG’ by the race crew. Our triumvirate officially crossed the final finish line a couple of hours behind the overall winners in 17 hours 20 minutes and 27 seconds, but finishing times fade into relative insignificance when compared to the incredible mountain scenery, intriguing Basotho culture and camaraderie of newfound friends. These factors combined to ensure the Lesotho Wildrun was a truly memorable experience for everyone privileged enough to participate in this unique event. And whether you see yourself as a king of the mountains or a more social 33-hour finisher, this tough race has an appeal to trail runners of all ages, stages and abilities. Yes you need to be fit, but this is – above all – a rewarding wilderness journey with likeminded people: a life experience that you’ll find yourself savouring long after the race is done.

Our good friends from India, Bryony and Matt Greenwell, brought their six-month-old daughter Alice on her inaugural visit to South Africa. It was great to have them to stay for a few nights in Cape Town, but the highlight of our time together was undoubtedly the five-day long weekend we spent up the Garden Route. Located only a few kilometres from the bustling seaside resort of Plettenberg Bay, The Waves (www.thewavesatplettenbergbay.com) is situated right on the long white-sand expanse of picturesque Keurboomstrand. The luxuriously appointed contemporary villa, located a stone’s throw from the sea, was an incredible place to be based.  Generously loaned to us by Bryony’s former boss, we revelled in the villa’s comfort, Enrico’s seafood lunches, nightly braais and daily dolphin visits that dominated our stay at Keurboomstrand.

There is also some great news to share regarding the Zambian conservation initiative I’m working on … the Sisheke Conservation Project (www.sisheke.com) website went live this week, so take a moment to check out this link for an overview of what currently appears to be Africa’s most exciting and dynamic conservation and sustainable development venture, taking place within the KAZA TFCA.

Big Game Parks, Swaziland – March 2012

The highlight of March was definitely my assignment to cover the three reserves of Big Game Parks (www.biggameparks.org) in Swaziland for Wild magazine (www.wildcard.co.za/wild_magazine.htm). Mike Richardson and his team organised an action-packed itinerary for my weeklong whirlwind tour of Mlilwane, Hlane and Mkaya game reserves. With game drives, mountain biking, horseback safaris and exciting encounters with rhinos on foot, these wildlife parks offer the active nature lover a wide variety of opportunities to really immerse themselves in the bush.

The Unitrans Unite Against Poaching (www.uniteagainstpoaching.co.za) initiative kindly provided me with a very smart Audi Q7 for my Gauteng road trip to Swaziland. Unitrans is doing a commendable job raising funds for South Africa’s underfunded, underequipped and outgunned field rangers as they try to turn the tide in the latest Rhino War. Our beleaguered rhinos and their guardians need all the help they can get if they are going to successfully stem the needless slaughter. The statistics are horrific with 171 rhinos already lost in South Africa by mid-April of this year. These prehistoric-looking animals are being slaughtered in their hundreds to supply a seemingly insatiable demand for the curative power of rhino horn in Asia. Rhino poachers are primarily targeting the Kruger National Park where 103 rhinos have been killed during 2012 alone. Sadly, the future for rhinos looks extremely bleak right now.

Two other highlights during March included the scenically spectacular Cape of Good Hope Hiking Trail (www.tablemountainhikes.co.za/parks/table_mountain/tourism/overnight_hikes.php), which we walked with family visiting from abroad. The overnight hiking trail took us on a spectacular circuit as we trekked around Cape Point. We happened to be there on the Argus Cycle Tour weekend and this ensured we had the entire nature reserve pretty much to ourselves on the Sunday. It was a very unique and special experience to be standing at the Point without another soul in sight.

With Katherine returning from a work trip to America at the end of March, we finished off the month in style by taking a weekend jaunt with friends to enjoy a couple of nights stay in sleepy Churchhaven (www.sa-venues.com/attractionswc/churchhaven.php). The Western Cape’s best-kept secret is a real gem of a spot hidden deep inside the tranquil West Coast National park and it proved the perfect place to kick back and relax in the company of eland, kudu, ostriches and even the usually elusive caracal put in a surprise appearance one morning!

April sees Katherine jet off to Arusha in Tanzania with work and I’m headed to Lesotho to compete in the three-day 120km Lesotho Wildrun event. We will also be celebrating our SA wedding anniversary with three nights at the spectacular Birkenhead House in Hermanus, and taking a long weekend trip to Plettenberg Bay with friends visiting from India. There is plenty to look forward to during the month ahead…

The Sisheke Conservation Project, South Africa – Feb 2012

Six weeks into my new job at Javelin Capital Limited, I feel like I’m finally starting to strike the right balance between my work on the dynamic Sisheke Conservation Project (SCP) and my ongoing photojournalism assignments.

My magazine contributions for this month were dominated by multiple commissions from Explore South Africa (www.capemedia.co.za/explore-south-africa); I supplied the Cape Town-based trade and travel magazine with three stories for their March-May 2012 issue, covering Mokala National Park, Table Mountain hiking trails and canoeing the Orange River.  Thankfully, with only a couple of 4×4 articles and an Indian adventure sport feature lined up for March, the coming month is looking considerably more manageable and balanced.

Things are looking good with the SCP initiative in southwest Zambia and I’m now feeling much more settled in my new role than this time last month!  While Javelin steams ahead with progressing this exciting conservation initiative, the Peace Parks Foundation (www.peaceparks.org) and Mwandi Office of the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE) are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s ahead of the signing of the final Memorandum of Agreement between the parties.  With the ball squarely on their side of the court and not wanting to simply sit back and mark time, we decided to forge ahead with the new Project website this month.  I can report that – as of the end of Feb – we have reached the stage where the vast majority of content has been generated, images chosen, designs agreed upon and the site construction begun.  We are eagerly awaiting www.sisheke.com going live sometime during March.

I’m happy to say that while it was a hectically busy month on the work front, February certainly wasn’t all work and no play.  Katherine and I have found Cape Town and its idyllic lifestyle a perfect fit for us and we’re enjoying an active, outdoorsy and action-packed time rediscovering the many attractions of my hometown.  In keeping with the spirit of a leap year (the year when a woman can take the initiative and propose to a man!), Katherine organised a Valentine’s Day surprise this year.  I arrived home from work and was immediately whisked off by my lovely wife and up Table Mountain – via the very impressive Aerial Cableway (www.tablemountain.net).  On top we enjoyed a delicious picnic, sundowner beers and watched a magnificent sunset, before taking the revolving cable car back down to the ‘fairyland’ lights of Cape Town below.  What an awesome way to spend a Tuesday in our beautiful city!

Our Cape Town crowd of friends is dominated by some hardcore athletes, fitness fanatics and a large group of casual runners, so we too have embraced an active lifestyle.  The Sea Point Promenade (right in front of our apartment) is an incredible resource for keeping us sane, not to mention getting us fit.  As a result I ran my first-ever road marathon on Sunday 19th February.  The Cape Peninsula Marathon (www.topevents.co.za/index.php?sectionID=157) was a great experience and my race time of 3h26 definitely exceeded my expectations.  I did find, however, that the road took its toll on my weak knees and leg muscles, so my plan is to stick to half-marathons and trail running in the future.  So the Milkwood Half-Marathon (www.energyevents.co.za/events_detail.php?id=576&type=current) on Sunday 4th March will be the next exciting challenge.

March is shaping up to be another cracking month with running, overnight hiking, a trip with friends to Churchhaven, and lots of live rugby and cricket to keep me suitably entertained in amongst all the writing and interesting Sisheke Conservation Project work.

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