Posts Tagged ‘African Safaris’

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

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

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

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

Running through the Groenlandberg foothills

Running wild through the Groenlandberg foothills

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The endemic Cape Mountain Zebra

The endemic Cape Mountain Zebra

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

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

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

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

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

Khutse and Central Kalahari overland adventure, Botswana – Dec 2013

Lioness at Piper Pan

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

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

Moreswe Campsite

Moreswe Campsite

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

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

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

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

The rains arive

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

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

toilet

An unwanted visitor in the long-drop toilet!

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

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

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

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

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia – October 2013

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

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

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

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

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

ZCP researchers fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

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

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

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby Charlie on day one

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

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

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

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

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

"Ram rock" exhales

“Ram rock” exhales at dawn

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

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

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

The VW Amarok dominated the trail

VW Amarok dominating the 4×4 trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Northern KZN 003 (Tembe)

Sunset in Tembe Elephant Park

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

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

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

The idyllic campsite at Ndumo Game Reserve

The idyllic campsite at Ndumo Game Reserve

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

The RAV4 dominated deep sand, mud and water crossings

The RAV4 dominated sand, mud and water crossings

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

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

The pristine beach at Bhanga Nek in the Muputaland Marine Reserve

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

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

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

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Conservation Area, South Africa – Dec 2012

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

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

Two springbok rams fight ferociously

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

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

A resident brown hyaena at Bitterpan

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

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

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

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

Chobe and the Okavango Delta, Botswana – Nov 2012

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

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

Botswana's national bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

The silent hunter

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

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

A stormy sunset over the palm-fringed Okavango Delta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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