Posts Tagged ‘Wilderness’

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

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

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

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

Baby Charlie on day one

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

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

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

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

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

"Ram rock" exhales

“Ram rock” exhales at dawn

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

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

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

The VW Amarok dominated the trail

VW Amarok dominating the 4×4 trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Olive tasting is the perfect substitute for pregnant ladies

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

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

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

Darling Brew beer tasting

Sampling the best of the Darling Brews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern KZN 003 (Tembe)

Sunset in Tembe Elephant Park

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

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

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

The idyllic campsite at Ndumo Game Reserve

The idyllic campsite at Ndumo Game Reserve

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

The RAV4 dominated deep sand, mud and water crossings

The RAV4 dominated sand, mud and water crossings

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

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

The pristine beach at Bhanga Nek in the Muputaland Marine Reserve

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

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

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

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

Arriving at Big Bay in Blouberg

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

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

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

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

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

The strange-looking Quiver Tree

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

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

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

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

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…

Lake Kariba and Wild Coast Wildrun, Zimbabwe & South Africa – Sept 2012

Day 1 of the 114km Wild Coast Wildrun along the Transkei seashore (Photo courtesy of Nick Muzik)

After four weeks exploring some of the remotest and least visited corners of Namibia and Zambia, it was time to head across the border to Zimbabwe. It had been ten years since my last visit and I was shocked to see how far Zimbabwe had regressed during its ‘lost decade’.

However, thankfully, there were a couple of things that remained largely unchanged… Vic Falls was one of them. The town of Victoria Falls is to Zim what Hong Kong is to China: an economic powerhouse and enclave of prosperity in a country beset by challenges.  The local people were the other.  I can unreservedly say that Zimbabweans remain amongst the very nicest and most genuinely friendly people in all of Africa; and it was a real privilege to explore their beautiful country again. Zim might be a pale shadow of its former glory days, but I still thoroughly enjoyed being back and interacting with its wonderful people.

The quintessential African sunset over Lake Kariba

After some quality R&R in Vic Falls and neighbouring Zambezi National Park, we set off to investigate a defunct safari lodge concession on Elephant Island in Lake Kariba. Sadly, the camp structures were in disrepair and much of the wildlife appeared to have been poached and eaten by hungry villagers in the tribal areas we visited, but the giant inland sea of Kariba remained just as impressive as I remembered it.

After just a week back in the office, I jumped on a plane and flew to East London to take part in the Wild Coast Wildrun courtesy of adidas (http://www.adidas.co.za/).   My ART teammates Duncan Gutsche and Michael Arbuthnot joined me to tackle the long trail across windswept beaches, tidal estuaries and rolling grassy hills as we sampled the highs and lows of the 2012 Wildrun firsthand.

The Wild Coast Wildrun is arguably South Africa’s premier multi-day trail running event and over the course of three unforgettable days, we joined 77 other fortunate competitors as we ran, rambled and rolled our way north along South Africa’s most remote and captivating stretch of wilderness coastline.

After nearly 13 hours and 114 km on our feet, we hauled ourselves over the finish line at Hole in the Wall exhausted but elated.  Race Director, Owen Middleton, summed up this year’s race experience and its hardships brilliantly in his excellent blog posting: http://www.wildrun.co.za/2012/09/wildcoast-wildrun-2012-–-wild-conditions-hamper-race-record-attempts/.

The desolate windswept beaches on Wild Coast Wildrun (Picture courtesy of Nick Muzik Photography)

With a fearsome reputation for gusty and unpredictable weather, the ocean-ravaged Wild Coast is both insanely beautiful and unforgivingly brutal.

Starting at the Great Kei River, roughly 80 km north of East London, the Wild Coast Wildrun traces the former Transkei coastline northwards all the way to Hole in the Wall: one of our country’s most picturesque and iconic natural wonders. The Wildrun route is unmarked bar the start and finish of each stage, and runners need only stick close to the seashore keeping the ocean on their right to attain the finish line each day. For most people winning is the furthest thing from their mind; they come instead to immerse themselves in some of the most incredible coastal scenery and rugged running terrain to be found anywhere on our planet. Entries open on 17 January 2013 at midday; go to http://www.wildrun.co.za for further details.

Coming up next month is Africa’s greatest trail run: the 42km Otter African Trail Run.  Check out https://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-SA-Otter-African-Trail-Run.pdf for more on the first-ever west to east running of the Grail of Trail.

ART teammates Michael Arbuthnot, Steve Cunliffe and Duncan Gutsche at Hole-in-the-Wall

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