Posts Tagged ‘African Safaris’

The migration returns to Singita Grumeti, Tanzania – Sept & Oct 2016

Long columns of wildebeest plod steadily southwards into Singita Grumeti

Long columns of wildebeest returning from the Mara plod steadily southwards into Singita Grumeti

I strongly believe that 2016 will go down in the history books as one of the best years on record for viewing the migration at Singita Grumeti. After a spectacular May and June with dense concentrations and large columns of wildebeest heading north, July and August then delivered record zebra numbers across the concession area before the wildebeest returned again in September. The September/October migration window – as the wildebeest head back south to calve on the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti – has traditionally been far more variable and unreliable to the point where in some years the wildebeest bypass Singita Grumeti altogether on their return through the western corridor.

Regurgitating (9)

Wild dogs denning on the edge of Nyathi Plains

The year 2016 was, however, not one to disappoint. Not only did the wildebeest return in large numbers, they lingered far longer than previously. A few early season rain showers had greened up the concession nicely, ensuring water and plentiful grazing for the colossal columns of transient herbivores. When the clouds vanished the wildebeest loitered, waiting for more rain to drive them further south, but a very poor short rainy season this year has meant that the big thunderstorms didn’t arrive and the wildebeest hordes remained scattered across the Sasakwa, Sabora, Nyathi and Kawanga plains for months (instead of the usual weeks) with the migration only finally moving on again in November!

Celebrating World Rhino Day with a fun run on 22nd September

World Rhino Day Fun Run on 22nd September

While the unseasonably low rainfall experienced throughout the Serengeti in late 2016 ensured a spectacular and lingering second passage of the migration at Singita Grumeti, it does not bode well for the months ahead. A few more showers will see us through January 2017, but without meaningful rain in the coming months, we will be in for a very dry and challenging start to 2017. Not only will the wildlife populations suffer with limited food and water availability, but our neighbouring communities also are at risk: crops fail, human-wildlife conflict escalates, bush-meat poaching and snaring skyrocket… Everyone and every animal will have a tough time of it, so lets hope for some late season rains even though the forecast remains rather bleak.

Wildebeest scatter across the western plains in high densities

Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest returning from the Mara lie scattered across the western plains

MN Boundary Waters and North Carolina beaches, USA – July & Aug 2016

Giraffe are one of the many mammal species counted during the Singita Grumeti aerial survey in August

Giraffe are one of the mammal species counted during the Singita Grumeti Aerial Census in August

Every second year during the months of July and August, a Riparian Survey and Aerial Census is conducted across the 350,000 acre Singita Grumeti concession area. The counts are done from a helicopter with the Riparian Survey focusing on all the major drainage lines and river systems within the concession area. Species of key interest that are recorded during the survey include the black and white colobus monkey, vulture and marabou stork nests, bushbuck, lion and leopard.

Helicopter

Preparing to take off and begin the count

The Singita Grumeti Aerial Census follows directly after the Riparian Survey and follows a more conventional approach of flying transacts over the entire concession area in order to record all sightings of resident wildlife species to assess the overall population trends and health of the game reserve.

The results that emerged were encouraging overall with most wildlife species showing fairly stable or increasing populations. The elephant numbers were especially gratifying because this was the first count at Singita Grumeti to exceed 1,500 pachyderms and considering the way they have fared in the rest of Tanzania in recent years, these numbers provided irrefutable evidence of what a conservation anomaly and success story Singita Grumeti really is. The lion and leopard numbers were also the highest on record, suggesting a very healthy ecosystem.

Black and white colobus

Black and white colobus monkey on the move

A few species did reveal concerning trends that will require follow up research work in 2017. The number of marabou stork nests has collapsed for no obvious reason. We still see large numbers of these birds, so perhaps they have moved to new nesting sites outside of the concession or perhaps their nesting/breeding time has shifted slightly? Roan numbers also remain perilously low and a dedicated masters research study starting in 2017 should hopefully shed light on why these beautiful antelope are not faring too well. The populations of most other species surveyed remain healthy and robust.

Find out more at: http://www.singitagrumetifund.com/blog/conservation/counting-wildlife/

A handsome leopard spotted from the helicopter during the Singita Grumeti Riparian Survey

A handsome leopard spotted from the helicopter during the Singita Grumeti Riparian Survey

 

Boundary Waters and Figure Eight Island, USA – August 2016

We took our usual family holiday to America during the month of August. Undoubtedly, the two highlights here were spending a week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota and a family escape to a beach house on Figure Eight Island in North Carolina.

Paddling across a glassy lake at sunrise

Paddling across a glassy lake at sunrise

The Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area – www.bwca.com – encompasses over a million acres of protected lakes and river systems. The Boundary Waters is in fact part of a far larger wilderness area that extends into the wider Lake Superior National Forest and up into Canada’s Quetico National Park in Ontario. Once you have acquired an inexpensive permit, you can quite literally lose yourself in this magnificent North American aquatic wilderness for weeks or even months. Simple campsites on the edge of lakes have a pit latrine toilet and fireplace. You need to pack everything else in and back out with you. This provides the recipe for an active nature experience second to none.

Enjoying a classic Boundary Waters sunset

Enjoying a classic Boundary Waters sunset

We left the boys with their grandparents in Saint Peter and Katherine and I escaped into this canoe wilderness for a week. It was our fourth foray into the Boundary Waters and it didn’t disappoint… Paddling on glassy lakes and rivers, off-the-beaten-track wilderness camping, a real chance to reconnect with my wife, spectacular sunsets and lots of downtime to catch up on sleep!!

I would unreservedly recommend the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area to any and every nature enthusiast who enjoys active multi-day excursions into expansive wilderness areas and camping in the great outdoors.

The final stop on our American sojourn for 2016 was a weeklong trip down to the spectacular and exclusive Figure Eight Island – www.figure8island.com – near Wilmington on the coast of North Carolina. We spent a weekend catching up with the Penry family and then stayed on for the week at their idyllic beach house. It was quality family time for the four of us with a typical day seeing us go for a run around the island first thing in the morning, followed by a swim and a morning beach session, then lunch at the pool and naps followed by the afternoon beach session and ice creams before finishing off in the evening with a braai and few cold local beers. It was heavenly.

Quality family beach time playing in the tidal pools of Figure Eight Island

Quality family beach time hanging out and playing in the tidal pools of Figure Eight Island

Rampaging through the Richtersveld, RSA & Namibia – May & June 2016

Within the space of less than two weeks Wildebeest numbers swelled to around 400,000 on the Singita Grumeti concessions

In two short weeks wildebeest numbers swelled to over 400,000 on the Singita Grumeti concessions

The world renowned wildebeest migration in the Serenegtei-Mara ecosystem is a spectacle like no other that rightly takes pride of place on many an avid African safari goers’ bucket list.

Wildebeest as far as the eye can see

Wildebeest stretch as far as the eye can see

Colossal columns of ungainly wildebeest invaded Singita Grumeti in mid-May on their annual pilgrimage north to the Mara. Within a matter of days our verdant 350,000 acre concession was overrun by hundreds of thousands of hungry wildebeest. After a good rainy season, the huge herds thrived on the nutritious green grass blanketing the wide-open plains. The cacophony generated by these massive aggregations is almost more spectacular than the sight of this surging mass of hungry herbivores. Almost. But not quite.

By all accounts May 2016 saw one of the densest concentrations of wildebeest to grace Grumeti in the past decade. And to sit atop a rocky koppie and watch this epic spectacle unfolding – as far the eye can see – in every direction around you must be one of the greatest safari experiences in all of Africa.

 

The Rishtersveld Wildrun averages a marathon a day for five days across inhospitable desert terrain

The Rishtersveld Wildrun averages a marathon a day for five days across inhospitable desert terrain

June marked a rather less glamorous milestone for me personally, as I entered my fifth decade on this planet. It’s not everyone’s birthday wish to spend five days running 200km across the stark and often inhospitable desert terrain of the Richtersveld, but I nonetheless chose this challenge as a memorable way to celebrate the milestone of my fortieth year… But in hindsight perhaps it was more of an attempt to prove to myself that I wasn’t getting old just yet!

Running wild in the Richtersveld

Running wild in the Richtersveld

The arid Richtersveld is unquestionably one of the most elemental landscapes on the planet. Few landscapes on earth can rival the Richtersveld for arid beauty, big skies, sizzling sunshine and absolute desolation. Hauntingly beautiful and scorched by an unrelenting sun, the screaming silence of the Springbok Vlakte and gargantuan boulders of the Tatasberg Mountains are the holy grail of trail running for true wildrunners.

Richtersveld Wildrunners are best described as a diverse and determined cohort of modern day adventurers and I was fortunate enough to spend five days getting to know this intrepid group of desert duellers. Accompanied our Richtersveld Tours support staff, fifty determined trail runners took on the new transfrontier route: a two country desert extravaganza that was designed to expose competitors to the very best the Richtersveld has to offer – on both sides of the border – with deep canyons, rocky ravines, boulder-strewn mountains and stony desert plains.

So, if exploring off-the-beaten-track desert wilderness and shooting the breeze with fellow adventurous souls around a campfire under star-studded night skies sounds appealing to you, then I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending you don your running shoes for the Richtersveld run of a lifetime in June 2017.

For further info on the Richterveld as well as this incredible annual event, check out the magazine story links below:

https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Wild-Richtersveld-TFCA-Final.pdf

https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/SA-4×4-Richtersveld-Wildrun.pdf

https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Sawubona-Richtersveld-TF-Wildrun.pdf

Running across the parched desert landscapes of the ancient Richtersveld desert is a primordial experience

Running across the parched desert landscapes of the ancient Richtersveld is a primordial experience

Black rhino revival and Christmas in CPT, Tanzania & RSA – Nov & Dec 2015

Grumeti has witnessed an incredible recovery in the buffalo population of over 900% in the past 12 years

Grumeti’s buffalo population has witnessed a remarkable recovery of over 900% in the past 12 years

The first few months on the ground at Grumeti have been the proverbial baptism of fire. Arriving at the end of the dry season and with the migration returning south, it was all action from the word go. Poaching spiked with the unexpected return of the wildebeest herds. Our challenges were compounded by the fact that much of the game reserve’s grazing had burnt due to runaway wild fires and arson fires. The late arrival of the rains didn’t help matters. The shortage of food forced the wildebeest to move further west into the communal village lands as they went on a fruitless search for grass.

The wildebeest herds in search of grazing

Constantly on the move in search of fresh grazing

Local villagers – who consider the animals arriving in their backyard as free meat – butchered the hungry herbivores day and night. This caused a major law enforcement dilemma for our Grumeti Fund game scouts, as their authority and mandate to engage poachers officially ends at the boundary of the game reserve. By seconding police and conducting joint ops with government anti-poaching unit officers from KDU Bunda, we were able to engage and arrest a number of these bush meat poachers. The fact that a number of key management posts within the Grumeti Fund stood vacant added to the sleepless nights of those who remained to carry the workload. It was a very tough couple of months, but the experience immersed me into Grumeti Fund operations and will no doubt stand me in good stead for the future. It was also highly instructive in informing and developing my restructure plans for the Grumeti Fund, which will be enacted in 2017.

John is an old rhino at 38 years old

At the age of 37 John can be considered old for a rhino

But it certainly was not all poaching doom and gloom at the end of 2015, there were also a number of successes to celebrate. Undoubtedly the highlight of this period was the arrival of John the rhino. After years of negotiation, painstaking bureaucracy and never-ending red tape, Grumeti was finally rewarded with the translocation of a big bull rhino of the East African michaeli subspecies from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to our rhino intensive protection zone (IPZ) at Grumeti. After spending the first few days in a holding bona for observation purposes, John was released into a larger paddock where he will settle in and acclimatise to his new home before being released into the heavily guarded rhino sanctuary where we hope to see him mating with the young adult female, known as Laikipia.

Despite John’s advanced age, we remain cautiously optimistic that we will see some mating behaviour and breeding success upon his release. With East Africa’s wild black rhino population down to the hundreds – most of which reside in Kenya – this small satellite population and its breeding success are integral to the long-term survival of the michaeli sub-species of black rhino in the Serengeti ecosystem, Tanzania and East Africa.

With only an estimated 800 East African black rhino remaining the michaeli sub-species is considered critically endangered

With a mere 740 East African black rhino remaining the michaeli sub-species is critically endangered

 

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

After an intense first three months, we were due for leave in December. All senior staff working at Grumeti are employed on a three months on (working seven days a week) and one month off rotation. This 3-1 system is fantastic in that it provides large chunks of time off in which to travel to see family in South Africa or America, or to go exploring.

For our two little boys the main attraction of being back in South Africa in the middle of summer was the beach. Sandcastle building and bashing, swimming, and running through the shallow tidal pools on the beautiful beaches of Cape Town were the order of the day.  We then traveled a couple of hours up the coast to spend a week holidaying in the quaint seaside village of Arniston where we rented a huge beach house for the whole extended family and thoroughly enjoyed catching up, braaing and beaching with my siblings and their partners. On the way back to Cape Town we detoured into the Hemel en Aarde valley above Hermanus where we shared a cottage with friends, although our combined contingent of four small kids seriously cramped our wine tasting style!

December is a very hectic – but also a very special – time to be home with family converging on Cape Town from London, the Serengeti and Johannesburg to celebrate Christmas all together, as well as to enable all the young cousins to get to know and play with one another. Special family times indeed.

From London to Tanzania, Christams in Cape Town gathers the family together from

Celebrating Christmas in Cape Town is a good excuse to gather the family from from far and wide

Gonarezhou and relocating to Grumeti, Zim & Tanzania – Sept & Oct 2015

The Hilux made short work of crossing the Runde

Sunrise is a very special time to be crossing the mirror calm Runde River in northern Gonarezhou

September was a month characterised by dramatic change. With my MBA completed and our family holiday in the USA done and dusted, it was time to return to gainful employment. With a couple of exciting SA4x4 photojournalism assignments on the cards, my old friend Duncan Gutsche agreed to accompany me on a three country mission to test drive the new Toyota Hilux. What followed was an action-packed two week adventure through northern Kruger, into Mozambique at Pafuri, before entering Gonarezhou National Park via the Sango border post.

Spotted hyena

Predator numbers are resurgent in Gonarezou NP

Rather than tackle the stereotypical northern Gonarezhou safari circuit to see the Chilojo Cliffs and Runde-Save confluence, we opted instead for more adventure and set out to explore the whole of this enigmatic park that I had last visited 19 years previously. The wildlife in the central region was sparse and skittish, but so were the vehicles, giving us the feeling of being properly immersed in a genuinely wild tract of African wilderness. There is no denying that the less visited south-central region of Gonarezhou provides an ideal landscape for true 4×4 exploration.It is the perfect place for anyone who enjoys their overlanding to be wild and soulful.

The view from the top of the Chilojo Cliffs is unsurpassed

The view from atop the Chilojo Cliffs is unsurpassed

Gonarezhou National Park is a scenically stunning protected area and – under the guidance of Frankfurt Zoological Society project manager Hugo Van der Westhuizen – the park’s infrastructure and wildlife have both experienced a dramatic resurgence. With FZS looking to sign a co-management agreement with park authorities during the months ahead, the potential for Gonarezhou to reclaim its mantle as one of the foremost protected areas in Africa is no longer a pipedream. For the sake of its rebounding wildlife, re-energised ZPWMA conservation staff, wilderness-loving 4×4 enthusiasts and safari aficionados from around the globe, lets hope this far-sighted agreement is signed without delay to unlock increased funding and technical expertise for more effective management of this amazing national park. Find out more about the park and our overland adventures at:

https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SA-4×4-Gonarezhou-Final.pdf

Hilux

The new Toyota Hilux on the charge

After a week of self-guided Gonarezhou exploration and top quality camping at the sole-use wilderness sites of Chumulavati, Chilojo and Runde Gorge, we existed the park through the main northern gate at Chapinda Pools, traversed the wildlife-rich Malilangwe private game reserve and braved an inordinate number of police roadblocks and shakedowns en route to the relatively untrammelled eastern reaches of Botswana. Most people know very little about this unpublicised region of Botswana so – for anyone interested to learn more – the link below will educate you about a tourist-free destination of lush green gorges, large vulture colonies, great day hikes to San rock art sites, and so much more. There are a lot more reasons than Northern Tuli Game Reserve to venture into Botswana’s oft ignored eastern reaches, and this SA 4×4 cover feature is sure to enlighten and delight you in equal measure:

https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SA-4×4-Eastern-Botswana-Final.pdf

This tightly bunched herd of elephants speaks to the increased poaching pressure that Africa's pachyderms are encountering throughout the continent

A tightly bunched herd with trunks raised speaks to the poaching threat confronting Africa’s pachyderms

 

The Grumeti Fund is responsible for a

Responsible for 350 000 acres of the Serengeti

October marked the start of a very exciting new chapter in my life when I accepted a position with the renowned Singita Grumeti Reserves. After attending the annual Singita management conference in Cape Town, Katherine and I packed up and rented out our house before boarding an aeroplane and relocating with our two little boys to Tanzania. Sasakwa Hill in the western corridor of the world famous Serengeti ecosystem is where we will be based for the foreseeable future. I will be managing the Grumeti Fund: a dedicated conservation and community non-profit that oversees all conservation, law enforcement, community outreach, research and monitoring, and stakeholder engagement activities for the 350 000 acre Singita Grumeti Reserves concessions.

Community upliftment projects are an integral part of the strategy

Community upliftment projects are integral to success

Grumeti – one of the standout conservation success stories of the 21st century – is the brainchild of eco-philanthropist and US hedge fund owner Paul Tudor Jones. Having committed the next three years of my life to building upon the successes and hard work of my predecessors, I hope to see Grumeti continue to evolve and develop into one of the most widely recognised and respected conservation projects on the continent. The model of eco-philanthropy in combination with delegated reserve management – a form of conservation outsourcing if you like – to a well-resourced private sector partner may well be the saving grace and future of protected area management. It’s a model that offers a viable solution and ray of sunshine in the face of the relentless poaching onslaught currently confronting cash-strapped African governments that are woefully unprepared for dealing with it.

There are no shortage of challenges operating a complex conservation project of this nature, but being right at the coalface with an unequivocal mandate and  the necessary resources to truly make a difference is a very exciting place to be, so watch this space for further details as the Grumeti conservation story continues to unfold.

Singita Grumeti Fund 079 (Manchira)

An elite Grumeti Fund game scout team from the Special Operations Group conducts a training drill

Ollie’s Arrival and Brilliant Botswana, RSA & Botswana – May & June 2015

A female leopard crests a termite mound as the sun sets on Selinda Reserve in Botswana

A female leopard crests a termite mound as the sun sets on Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana

 

IMG_4543

Ollie and a very proud dad!

The arrival of Charlie’s little brother

The undisputed highlight of the month of May was the safe arrival of Oliver William Cunliffe on the final day of the month. Thankfully his birth was complication free, and both Katherine and Ollie are doing fantastically well. I am one very proud husband and the fortunate father of two perfect little boys who reassuringly have both inherited their mom’s good looks! A month in, Ollie has also already proved himself to be one of the easiest and most relaxed babies imaginable. We feel so blessed and fortunate to have him in our lives.

 

On safari in Botswana and Zambia

Ollie was no more than a couple of weeks old when my Passage to Africa private guiding work – www.passagetoafrica.com/team/stephen-cunliffe – stole me away for another safari. My mother-in-law very kindly agreed to move in and help Katherine take care of our two energetic little boys, thereby enabling me to accompany the Penry family from North Carolina on an incredible three-week Southern Africa safari. Their bespoke Botswana itinerary focused on a handful of exclusive lodges and associated mind-blowing safari experiences within three of the country’s premier wildlife and wilderness areas.

One-eyed lioness on the prowl

One-eyed lioness on the prowl at Chitabe Lediba

First stop on the Botswana programme was Wilderness Safari’s Chitabe Lediba Camp – www.wilderness-safaris.com/camps/chitabe-lediba-camp – in the Okavango Delta. Small and secluded, Chitabe Lediba overlooks a buffalo-frequented shallow lagoon within a private concession adjoining the Moremi Game Reserve in the southeast region of the delta. Excellent habitat diversity throughout the concession area ensures high wildlife densities and a high incidence of amazing wildlife sightings. Our visit was no exception. Under the expert guidance of local guide Ebs, we were treated to some high quality wildlife viewing: lions roaring and eating a buffalo; a female cheetah stalking red lechwe; a pack of wild dogs on the prowl; and even a couple of daylight sightings of relaxed leopards during our four-day stay.  It was an incredible start to any safari!

San Camp 023

High jump hi-jinx in the Makgadikgadi

Next stop was Uncharted Africa’s San Camp – www.unchartedafrica.com – which perches right on the fringe of the vast and mysterious Makgadikgadi saltpan complex: the remains of an ancient super-lake that once covered almost all of Botswana. Each of San Camp’s stunning white safari tents stands under a gaggle of palm trees on the shoreline of this enormous sea of salt. After five days of hardcore game viewing in the delta, having the freedom to be able to safely walk and run around was most welcome, as was the opportunity to interact with habituated mobs of meerkats and learn from a tribe of local bushmen. But riding a fleet of ATVs out onto the great white expanses of the pan for a night under the stars was the unanimous highlight of our stay at San Camp: a soulful experience that certainly won’t be forgotten anytime soon!

Full moon bush dinner at Zarafa

Full moon bush dinner at Zarafa

A five night stay at the decadently luxurious Zarafa Camp – www.greatplainsconservation.com/zarafa-camp/ – awaited us after our saltpan odyssey. Overlooking Zibadianja Lagoon, source of the Savute Channel, Zarafa is a small, intimate and very impressive safari lodge. The food was world class with service to match. And while the standard of the Zarafa guiding was a touch disappointing, the quality of the wildlife sightings we enjoyed on Selinda Reserve were certainly nothing short of exceptional. A huge lion pride squabbling over a red lechwe kill; wild dogs every day; a leopard with a young cub; plenty of spotted hyenas skulking about; and so much more…

After two action-packed weeks exploring the wilds of Botswana, the tranquillity of the Zambezi River and fury of the thundering Victoria Falls provided a welcome change of scenery and pace. Our Zambian home-away-from-home was child-friendly Tangala House – www.tongabezi.com/tangala_house.php: a beautiful family home located 15km upstream of the Victoria Falls on the Zambian bank of the mighty Zambezi River.

The house boasts four en-suite bedrooms, a large private swimming pool, and a big trampoline – perfect for energetic children needing to burn off some energy after all the game drives. Stylishly designed and functionally furnished, the Tongabezi owned and operated abode comes with its own private vehicle, boat, chef, waiter and house staff. While the Tangala staff are all fabulous, special mention must be made of the culinary king, Kenny, and the mouth-watering meals he consistently produces from his little kitchen.

The Victoria Falls in all its glory

The Victoria Falls in all its glory

The falls were an impressive sight to behold in late June with plenty of water thundering over the mile-wide chasm, but nothing can top the experience of an afternoon exploring Livingstone Island and swimming in the frothy Angels Pool. To be bobbing around in your own private ‘Zambezi jaccuzzi’ mere metres from the lip of a thunderous waterfall is a pulse-racing experience second to none!

The final week of our sensational southern Africa safari was spent in Cape Town at the Cape Grace followed by some well-deserved R&R and whale-watching in Hermanus. We based ourselves at the opulent Birkenhead Villas – www.birkenheadhouse.com – with its picturesque cliff-top position overlooking the angry winter waves of Walker Bay: an extraordinary seaside location and stunning place to end a memorable safari with the wonderful and welcoming Penry family.

San Camp overlooks the sprawling Makgadikgadi salt pans with its endless processions of wildebeest and zebra trekking past in search of water

San Camp overlooks the sprawling Makgadikgadi salt pans and its endless processions of wildebeest

 

Drakensberg family adventure, South Africa – Jan & Feb 2015

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

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

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

Happy hikers at Giants Castle

Happy hikers heading out at Giants Castle

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

Injisuthi day hike

A spectacular Injisuthi day hike

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

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

Didima rest camp at Cathedral Peak

Didima rest camp at Cathedral Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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…

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

https://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: https://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: https://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

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