Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby Charlie on day one

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

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

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

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

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

"Ram rock" exhales

“Ram rock” exhales at dawn

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

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

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

The VW Amarok dominated the trail

VW Amarok dominating the 4×4 trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Olive tasting is the perfect substitute for pregnant ladies

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

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

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

Darling Brew beer tasting

Sampling the best of the Darling Brews

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

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

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

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

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

Robben Island Swim and the Kalahari, RSA & Namibia – May 2013

With Table Mountain looking on, the team prepares for the Robben Island-Blouberg swim crossing

The month kicked off with our long-awaited and much-anticipated Robben Island swim on Worker’s Day.  We had actually planned to do the 7.8km Robben Island-Blouberg crossing much later in the month, but work-travel commitments and a spell of good weather prompted a last minute rescheduling.

Arriving at Big Bay in Blouberg

On May 1st, the water temperate measured a balmy 14 degrees (much more pleasant than the South Easter-induced 9°C that we’d experienced on a couple of our training swims!) and the sea was flat.  Conditions were ideal except for a huge fog bank that rolled in overnight, reducing visibility to twenty metres at most.  Next morning our chief Safety Officer, Clem Gutsche, looked a little apprehensive, as did the six swimmers!  Derek Frazer of Big Bay Events was overseeing our official swim as a representative of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (www.capeswim.com) and he repeatedly delayed the start time in the hope that the fog would lift.

At 1pm, still buried in fog, we decided we couldn’t wait any longer and, hopping aboard our three rubber ducks, bounced across to the island.  About a mile offshore we broke out of the fog and encountered glorious, sunny conditions for the remainder of the journey to Robben Island.  The combination of blazing sunshine and flat sea made for an incredible swim… Well at least for the first 80% of the crossing!  Towards the end, while swimming through a total white-out, I was exceptionally grateful for GPS technology and the experience of our boat drivers and safety officer.

For two hours and twenty minutes I swam the crossing stroke-for-stroke with my brother Matt and it was a privilege to complete my first wetsuit-less Robben Island swim in the company of this experienced human polar bear!

The VW California Beach in action in the red Kalahari sands of southeast Namibia

After recovering from a sinus cold that I picked up during the swim, I set off on a ten-day magazine assignment to Namibia for SA 4×4. Inviting my sister Nicki – who was out visiting from New York – to accompany me as co-pilot, we took a four-wheel-drive camper van to explore one of the biggest blank spots left on the Southern African map. Although considered a ‘soft-roader’ by many, the VW California Beach did us proud as it dominated the loose gravel and rolling red dunes of southeast Namibia.

The strange-looking Quiver Tree

There were so many trip highlights that I actually found myself struggling to do justice to our adventure despite having an 18-page, 4000-word SA 4×4 cover feature to work with. Of all the great things we did, I would nominate quad-biking through the dunes with my sister in search of wildlife as the top experience on our Namibian sojourn. But even more entertaining than watching my quad-bikingly-challenged sister master her four-wheeler, I really enjoyed the people we encountered along the way.  Almost without exception, the folks we came across in Namibia’s remote southeast were amongst the friendliest, most welcoming, humorous and downright decent characters I’ve ever met anywhere.

Aside from the awesome people, we also discovered some absolute gems well-worth visiting next time you find yourself travelling through neighbouring Namibia.  Do yourself a favour and make sure you check out Mesosaurus Bush Camp along with Giel Steenkamp’s outstanding Mesosaurus Fossil Tour (www.mesosaurus.com); take a time out and spend at least two nights at Marianne Nell’s idyllic DuneSong Breathers chalets (www.dunesong.net); enjoy a braai-to-remember while camping at remote Red Dune Camp (www.reddunecamp.com) on Tranendal Farm or pop in to visit the Kalahari’s friendliest couple, Pieter and Hanlie Möller of Terra Rouge Guest Farm (terrarouge@iway.na), which lies a short springbok pronk from the Mata-Mata entrance gate to the Kgalagadi TFCA. All of these spots come highly recommended and I can vouch that they’re well-worth a visit…

The fully furnished and luxurious DuneSong chalets lie on a low red dune below star-strewn skies

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

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

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

Training at the 3.2km Llandudno Cold Water Swim

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

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

Two Oceans Trail Run finish

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

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

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

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

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

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