Posts Tagged ‘National Parks’

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

Catching Up with Faraway Family, USA & UK – June 2013

A thunderous five-minute hail storm turns the Sea Point Promenade snow-white

A thunderous five-minute hail storm turns Beach Road and the Sea Point Promenade snow-white

The month of June got off to a promising start with a couple of cover features hitting the shelves in SA 4×4 (https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/SA-4×4-Southeast-Namibia-Final.pdf) and Wild magazine (https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Wild-Addo-Final.pdf). Initial feedback has been very pleasing.

Catching up with Dom in London

Catching up with Dom in London

With Cape Town experiencing some unseasonably brutal early winter weather – not to mention freak hailstorms – it was with some relief that I climbed aboard my American Airlines flight to Minneapolis to join my wife and in-laws for a ten-day getaway in the USA.  This year’s visit was a whirlwind tour that included an exciting Minnesota Twins vs Chicago White Sox baseball game, an informative and boozy Summit micro-brewery tour, my first bluegrass music concert at the zoo, regular Mississippi cycling excursions and a long weekend away boating on the idyllic lakes around Brainerd.  Summertime in Minnesota really is unbeatable.

From America, we headed to the UK to visit my sisters and brother-in-laws in London.  But it was the newest addition to the family – my nephew Dominic – that was the underlying catalyst for our Southfields visit.  He’s a classic little guy with a big smile and plenty of energy.  It was great to meet Dom and catch up with the family, but the other highlight of our London stopover was taking my wife and sisters on a tour of my old school. We spent a fun-filled Sunday walking around Harrow-on-the-Hill, exploring my old stomping grounds at Harrow School before finishing off with a tasty lunch at the Doll’s House tea garden.

So, after taking much of June off to visit my far-flung family, July sees me heading ‘back to the grindstone’ with a couple of exciting-sounding assignments on the cards – foremost among these is a 4×4 adventure to explore the full complement of Maputaland game reserves in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Bring it on…

A sizable family gathering in London with young Dom proving the main attraction!

A fun-filled family gathering in the UK with my young nephew proving that he can really pull a crowd

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

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

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

Training at the 3.2km Llandudno Cold Water Swim

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

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

Two Oceans Trail Run finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local transport to Grande Provence

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

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

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

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

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

The Noetsie huts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The belligerent black rhino bull

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

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

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

An elephant bull grazes in the Colchester Section of Addo

Our next safari stop was the perennial favourite Addo…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 'sundowner' is a time-honoured African tradition

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

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

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

Kruger National Park Wilderness Trails, South Africa – Jan 2013

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

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

Night shooting is an essential skill for KNP Backpack Trails Guides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bird's eye view of the flooded Kruger

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

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

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

The Letaba high-water bridge underwater

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overnight Hiking on Table Mountain, South Africa – Oct 2012

The idyllically located Overseers Cottage boasts unrivalled views over the Peninsula and False Bay

After six months of training, October was supposed to be a hardcore trail running month with media invitations to take part in three big races. The Chappies Challenge (http://www.energyevents.co.za/) was a 21km warm up for the main events: the inaugural Retto Edition of the 42km Otter African Trail Run (http://theotter.co.za/) along the mountainous coastline of the Tsitsikamma National Park followed by the epic 250km Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (http://www.extrememarathons.com/). Unfortunately, acute patellar tendonitis in my left knee – courtesy of all the beach running in last month’s Wild Coast Wildrun – forced me to withdraw from all three events and instead embark on a six-week rehab and strengthening programme at the Sports Science Institute in Newlands.

To pull out of the Otter and KAEM was absolutely gutting, but at least the doc encouraged me to do lots of walking and hiking as part of the recovery process.  This provided the catalyst for a month of regular table mountain hiking excursions with one particular weekend of multi-day hiking standing out above the rest…

Friday the 19th of October saw our group of 11 friends hire out the 12-bed Orangekloof Tented Camp (http://www.sanparks.org/gallery/index.php/parks/table_mountain/ht_orange_kloof/).  Located barely a hop, skip and a jump from Constantia Neck, this eco-friendly and thoughtfully-designed bush camp is one of the four Hoerikwaggo trail’s camps scattered across the mountain chain. All camps offer bathrooms with hot water showers, comfortable beds, fireplaces, fully equipped communal kitchens and self-catering dining areas. Guests need only provide their own bedding, towels and food.

Spring flowers bloom on Table Mountain

Orange Kloof Tented camp lies tucked away within an ancient restricted-access Afromontane forest that was until recently closed to the public. The result is an old-worldly forest and tranquil setting that combine to ensure a superbly relaxing wilderness getaway right in the very heart of Cape Town!

After a rather damp Friday night braai, Saturday dawned bright and clear with deep blue skies overhead as we set off to tackle the hike up the restricted Disa River Gorge. Despite having grown up in neighbouring Hout Bay and nearby Llandudno, this was the first time any of us had ventured up this magical mountain trail.  The scenic route traces the river into a steep sided gorge all the way to the base of Hely-Hutchinson dam wall and then continues across to above Kirstenbosch before arriving at the idyllic Overseers Hut perched on the edge of the Mountain.

The beautifully furnished and ultra-comfortable Overseers Cottage provided an incredible opportunity to enjoy a night atop one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World.  Accommodating up to 16 people, it was a real privilege for us to settle into this stylishly renovated old stone cottage. Comfy couches, a big fireplace, gas-heated hot showers and big soft beds with crisp linens ensured we slept like babies even as thick mist enveloped the mountain outside.

Sleeping high above the city proved a truly memorable and highly recommended experience.  To find out more about hiking trails and overnight accommodation on Table Mountain, click on the following link:  https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-SA-Table-Mountain1.pdf

Katherine and I will be headed to Botswana next month on an incredible sounding 8-night &Beyond itinerary to experience Chobe Under Canvas and Nxabega Okavango Camp – two of the finest luxury tented camps in all of northern Botswana.  More on this exciting assignment in next month’s blog update…

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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