Posts Tagged With: Travel

XVII: Kruger National Park Part II & Sabie

Sabie, South Africa from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Giraffe

Giraffe

Ground Squirrel

Ground Squirrel

Brown-Hooded Kingfisher

Brown-Hooded Kingfisher

June 27th 2012:

We got up at 5 a.m. less excited then the previous morning but still managed to get things together and make it to the gate as it opened at 6 a.m.  We seemed to be off to another flying start as we came upon a group of large male elephants having an early morning snack in the trees on the side of the road.  After the initial sighting things dried up as we had a couple hours of nothing but a few impala, and birds here and there.  Around 10 a.m. things finally picked up a little as we found a hippo and a small croc with their noses just above the water.  From there we headed back towards lunch/toilets, and when you have to go to the bathroom you seem to run into everything.  First a herd of elephants about 15-20 strong, with a slightly aggressive male who made us keep our distance, since there were a number of young ones weaving there way in and out between the adults legs.  As we continued back a strange sight we hadn’t encountered yet appeared.  An initial group of 15-20 vultures, and other birds of prey were perched in two trees side by side.  The longer we waited the more the group swelled.  Up until about 50-60 birds, with 3 different species of vultures, and a handful of other birds of prey in the trees and circling above. It was a sight to be seen that was difficult to capture in the car.

Marabou Stork

Marabou Stork

Tree of Vultures

Tree of Vultures

In Flight

In Flight

Landing

Landing

White-Backed Vulture

White-Backed Vulture

After lunch, full, and still a bit tired from the day before, and with no intentions of being even remotely close to being late we perched ourselves at a watering hole and waited for the show to come to us.  It came in the form of a hippo, an elephant, a fish eagle, wooly storks, and a giraffe, which had two tiny hooves of a baby giraffe poking out the back end of her.  We watched and waited intently hoping we would witness a giraffe giving birth.  She stuck around and we watched for about 2 hours of which no progress was made.  The giraffe a relatively young female, didn’t seem to be giving any heed to the body parts hanging out of her.  She kept on grazing and we eventually lost sight of her as she disappeared into the trees.

Pearl-Spotted Owlet

Pearl-Spotted Owlet

Personal Treehouse Hide

Personal Treehouse Hide

South Africa 2012

South Africa 2012

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XVI: Kruger National Park Part I

Kruger National Park, South Africa from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Stripe-Bellied Sand Snake

Stripe-Bellied Sand Snake

Red-Billed Hornbill

Red-Billed Hornbill

Burchell's Zebra (Photo by Sarah)

Burchell’s Zebra (Photo by Sarah)

June 25th 2012
We headed out from Pigg’s Peak north, to the Jeppe’s Reef border crossingto get back into South Africa. I could not have had an easier border crossing, we simply pulled up, got our books stamped and drive through, no questions asked, no search of the vehicle, just a friendly “hello”, and “safe travels” to bid us farewell. We were finally on our way to Kruger National Park, a place I has stored away in my memory as a child as a seemingly endless Eden filled with every African animal one could imagine. We were unfortunately coinciding with the winter break holiday of South African schools and everything in the park was booked solid. I knew the park was popular, but with it being the size of the country of Wales I had figured there would’ve been at least a few options in one of the many camps scattered throughout the park. Sarah came to the rescue though. Her travel coordinator for her field camp, Nicole, was South African, and her mom had just purchased a place in Marloth Park just outside of Kruger to rent out as a bush lodge. Nicole’s mom gave us a more then generous discount, which we were extremely grateful for, and allowed us to be their very first guests. We got there and lifted our jaws back up into our mouths as we parked our car under the stilts that held up the huge house. Everything was brand new and immaculate, thatched roof, hardwood floors, and beds for atleast sleeping 10 people. To cap it off it was only a short drive to the Southern gates of Kruger. The deck stood out from the house to make a little stilted hide with a bed and a hammock that overlooked the private lion sanctuary of Marloth Park. The first night of our four-night stay we spent curled up in the bed outside listening to the roar of lions out in the distance somewhere in the dark.

Hyena in the Sunrise

Hyena in the Sunrise

Buffalo and Egret

Buffalo and Egret

Wildebeest

Wildebeest

June 26th 2012
We both hardly slept at least I know I hardly slept, with the anticipation of our first day at Kruger. We were up early around 5:30 a.m. and made some lunch for the day and got to the gate around 6:30 a.m., a half hour after it opened. We were off to a flying start, seeing a hyena not 10 minutes into the drive, followed by a herd of buffalo, three white rhinos; a small herd of elephants, and an all but too brief glimpse of a lion almost all within the first 2-3 hours. The bird life, and small mammals seemed to fill in the gaps; Eagle owls, Lilac Breasted Rollers, Magpies, Coucals, Kingfishers, Warthogs, Impala, Steenbok, Kudu, and much, much more. The mornings are by far the best times to see things. By the mid-afternoon heat your best bet is to find a watering hole and stake out and have some lunch. We ended at a nice spot, a little crowded with people on holiday setting up their afternoon braai areas, but it was a good view of hippos in the water, and waterbucks on the shore.

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Glossy Starling

Glossy Starling

Steenbok

Steenbok

After lunch we continued along and found a group of about 8-10 giraffes that we kept company with for a while. We continued on, spurred on by another hot tip from a passing motorist about possible lions further up the road. Without hesitating we ventured further on eventually finding a young male lion. He almost perfectly blended in with the scenery with the exception of an ear poking up out of the grass to give him away. He was just lounging on the ground not more then 25 feet from us taking in the setting sun. It was quite surreal and we seemed to be lost in the moment as the lion would occasionally turn his head towards us and look with disinterest.
We had failed to notice the time of day and our distance to the gate. It was 4:50 p.m. and the gate closed at 5:30 p.m. and we were much more than 40 minutes away. The gate policy is quite strict since driving in the dark is quite the hazard for people and animals alike. There is also been an increase of Rhino poaching so unauthorized activity after the gates closed probably looks suspicious. We cruised a little bit over the suggested speed limit hoping there might be a grace period or a sympathetic ranger who would let us through since it was our first day at the park. As the light faded our drive seemed to take forever and we finally made it to the gate at 5:50 p.m. to locked gates and a ranger standing there with a flashlight. I am sure we hadn’t been the first late arrival they had had in their history. The ranger opened the gate for us and gave us the phone number of the head ranger, Neels, to whom I would have to call to explain why I was late and the consequences. After a bit of talking I managed to dissuade him from applying the 1500R fine, and instead getting a very very stern warning. They took our license plate number to be sure it didn’t happen again. I will have to apologize in advance to the next person who rents the car and takes it to Kruger. I used their one freebie. We made the drive back, exhausted; we ate, and passed out so we could be fresh for tomorrow.

Lion (Photo by Sarah)

Lion (Photo by Sarah)

Lion in the Sunset

Lion in the Sunset

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XV: Swaziland

Swaziland from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

June 22nd 2012

We were up early for one last foray down to the short boardwalk trail at sunrise to try and catch a glimpse of the hippos for one last time.  We were once again fortunate enough to find a group of about 10 in the water seemingly just waking as well.  We enjoyed not only their company but also the company of some Vervet Monkeys, and a whole gang or marauding Banded Mongoose.  We left after breakfast from St. Lucia and headed west to Mtubatuba to meet up with the N2 which we would take north to Piet Retief.  After Piet Retief our maps were a bit muddled when it came to the roads leading to Swaziland.  We had a rough direction in mind for getting to the crossing point we wanted, but little else.  Instead of finding the crossing we wanted, we ended up on a gravel road and finding our way to one of the much less frequented crossing point of Bothashoop/Gege.  It consisted of two small derelict buildings with a lady on a small seat manning the boom gates.  The three South African officials seemed surprised to see us, and proceeded to ask a lot of questions more out of boredom and curiosity then a purpose of national security.  We were the only people there and it didn’t seem like they were expecting more any time soon so things went pretty smoothly and quickly.

After the formalities at the South African post they lifted the boom and we drove a few hundred feet of no mans land to stop at the boom gate for the entrance to Swaziland.  The Swazi officials seemed equally befuddled by our presence, but were nice and eager to help us on our way across the border.  They even gave us directions, which as vague as they seemed when we listened to them they turned out to be very helpful.  He said “Go straight for about 5km and turn left at the big Gum Tree and then go straight again until it looks like you should turn right, and then stay on that road until you hit Mbabane.”  As I followed his directions it became pretty apparent as to just how difficult it is to get lost in a country the size of Swaziland.  If you drive 30 minutes to 1 hours in almost any direction your almost bound to come to a border crossing.  We continued on passing through the capital city Mbabane to Malolotja Nature Reserve about 35-40km northwest of Mbabane.  We camped in the park and fell asleep to the sounds of the prowling nocturnal animals.

Good Morning Swaziland

Good Morning Swaziland

Malolotja Nature Reserve

Malolotja Nature Reserve

June 23rd 2012

We were up early and prepared to hike.  The information I had about the park had been slightly misleading, its not that there weren’t over 200km of fantastic hiking trails, because there was, it was just the fact that only 2-3 trails were accessible in a 2 wheel drive vehicle.  It seems like this would have been an important piece of information.  It didn’t take away from the great landscape though as I am sure I could’ve spent a week backpacking through the park had I known what was in store.  We decided to cut our stay to only 1 full day in the park because of the lack of access and Sarah had been feeling well under the weather and wasn’t too keen on hiking all day.  She decided to tough it out and make the short few km hike to Malolotja Falls.  We drove there with the heat on and left with the A/C on.  The mornings were chilly, but once the clouds cleared the sun hit with full force.  It was quite brutal with the shady spots few and far between.  The trail did provide us with some great views of the mountains as well as a few Elands, Grey Rheboks, and a massive amount of Blesbok.  With one step in front of the other we trudged back to the car.

The two wheel drive roads they did have in the park could easily be classified as 4×4 roads anywhere else and I had to do a good bit of dodging and weaving to save the rental car.  On the drive back to our campsite we came across a bunch of soapstone.  Sarah was quick to spot it, which is one of the benefits of having a geologist with me.  Soapstone is easily carved and when wet it is like slicing butter, so we decided to try our hand at it, and make our own souvenirs.  For dinner we got a nice fire going and with some dried up shrubs and what little sticks we could find and roasted up some impromptu grilled cheese over the coals.

Malolotja Nature Reserve Boulders

Malolotja Nature Reserve Boulders

Young Blesbok

Young Blesbok

June 24th 2012

Sundays seem especially slow in Swaziland.  Most things are pretty deserted on Sundays in South Africa as the vast majorities are in church, but Swaziland seemed even emptier.  We made just a short drive, as you can only make a short drive if you want to remain in Swaziland, to Pigg’s Peak just north of Malolotja Nature Reserve.  We intended on going to Phophoyane falls and nature reserve just north of town but were greeted with an empty office and a locked gate.  The majority of the rest of the town was shut down, but we managed to find a nice guest house just out of town for a very reasonable price.  Malolotja was the last of our camping for the trip and the end of 8 days in a row in a tent.  The nice soft bed felt glorious and having a little yard allowed us the space we needed to air things out, clean them and re-pack for our remaining weeks in South Africa.  Upon further exploration around our little yard I found a couple avocado trees, and passion fruit vines, and with Sarah’s homemade avocado picker, consisting of two trekking poles, and some rope we were able to do some free grocery shopping.

Nonconformist Blesbok

Nonconformist Blesbok

Blesboks

Blesboks

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XIV: St. Lucia & iSimangaliso Wetlands

St. Lucia and iSimangaliso Wetlands from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Banded Mongoose

Banded Mongoose

Processionary Caterpillars

Processionary Caterpillars

Gorging ourselves on wild passion fruit (photo by Sarah)

Gorging ourselves on wild passion fruit (photo by Sarah)

Setting up camp in St. Lucia (Photo by Sarah)

Setting up camp in St. Lucia (Photo by Sarah)

June 20th:

We packed up the tent and made the short trek to St. Lucia to unpack and reset the tent.  The area surrounding St. Lucia is part of the iSimangaliso wetlands national park and contains some of the most beautiful coastlines of South Africa.  We took it easy for the day and strolled around the empty town.  It was the middle of the off-season and many businesses were closed or being renovated for the masses that flock here in their summer.  We also took a short 1.5 km hike that bordered a small chunk of the wetlands that are home to huge number of bird species, as well as hippos and crocodiles.  The potential of having a hippo or a crocodile in our path kept us on our toes through the whole hike.  Hippos here are known to occasionally walk right through town unfazed by people or cars.  Unfortunately the trail was devoid of both large animals, but we did manage to stumble upon some tiny gems equally as interesting and far less dangerous.  The first and most delicious accident was finding wild passion fruit growing along the trail.  After a few minutes of foraging I walked away with sticky hands, a sticky beard and a smile on my face.  The fruit was ripe, sweet, delectable, and satisfying.  After gorging our bellies on passion fruit Sarah and I came across something we had never seen nor thought we might ever see in our lives.  An epic march on the microcosmic level, Processionary Caterpillars forming a line over 6ft. long with each ones head following the rear of the one in front to create a giant snake like line across the ground.  We sat and watched in disbelief as the procession slowly worked its way on towards the next feeding grounds.

Hippo

Hippo

Burchell's Coucal

Burchell’s Coucal

Spider at the Mafanaza Hide

Spider at the Mafanaza Hide

Kudu (Photo by Sarah)

Kudu (Photo by Sarah)

After our short hike we walked the boardwalk to the dunes on the coast along the Indian Ocean.  We were once again spoiled with wildlife and saw a group of about 15-20 hippos in the river from the boardwalk with their eyes and nostrils peeking out above the water.  We eventually made it to the beach to take in the sunset with the Sandpipers, Pelicans, and Gulls to put and end to another eventful day.

Red Duiker

Red Duiker

Crocodile

Crocodile

Malochite Kingfisher

Malochite Kingfisher

June 21st:

We were up at 6 a.m. to the always unpleasant sound of pouring rain on a tent, which squashed our plan for a sunrise walk to were we had seen the hippos the previous evening.  At the first break in the storm we left, opting for a drive up through the wetlands and dunes in the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park.  Shortly after we began driving the rains once again commenced which greatly decreased our visibility range when it came to looking out the windows for wildlife.   The first pan, (a swampy, shallow depression that fills with water) we stopped at did not disappoint and gave us high hopes for the rest of the rainy day.  There were two hippos swimming in the middle, with just eyes and nostrils showing, and a small group of Waterbuck on the far side.  The rain slowly subsided as we made our way to Mission Rocks, which lies about halfway between St. Lucia and Cape Vidal.  Mission rocks contain a large number of very cool tidal pools, with little crabs scurrying all over the rocks.  With the weather now turning in our favor we took a snack of Nik Naks, and rusks with us and headed to Mafanaza hide, which is located in the park and is a very creatively designed hide that overlooks a huge wetlands area.  The hide is designed to look like a giant bird nest with branches and logs intertwined throughout the whole structure.  Sarah spotted the first Crocodile soaking up what little sun was poking through the clouds and I spotted the second about and hour later slowly swimming looking like a drifting log.  The hide was a great view over the hotbed of activity in the wetlands; from the Crocodiles, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Kudu, and Warthogs to a huge number of species of birds.

4 Waterbucks or a 4 headed mythical creature

4 Waterbucks or a 4 headed mythical creature?

Samango Monkey

Samango Monkey

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey

After a long stint in the hide we decided to stop up in Cape Vidal to hang out at the beach for a bit.  On the drive up we spotted a huge animal on the hillside.  At first we thought might be a hippo traveling one of the many paths between watering holes, but as we got closer we could slowly make out the shape of a Rhino.  I could hardly believe my eyes at first, a Black Rhino.  We sat and watched it graze and slowly disappear over the hill.  Cape Vidal itself wasn’t anything special, but it did have a really nice beach, which would’ve been great for swimming had the weather been in our favor.   The pines along the coast were filled with curious Vervet Monkeys.  The area is also home to the much less frequently seen Samango Monkeys who showed there face all to briefly when we saw one up in a tree.  Tired but not wanting fritter away our precious time on the coast we opted to take the grasslands road on the way back to St. Lucia instead of the quicker paved main road.  This is a decision we would soon be very grateful for.  About 3km into the drive we found ourselves in an all to familiar situation face to face with a Rhino.  This time though it was two Black Rhinos and their little one.  I had unknowingly driven into what could possibly become a very hairy situation.  We were on a one-way road, with swampy wetlands on either side, not enough room to turn around even if we needed to.  We approached very slowly and held our distance at around 300-400 ft. and just watched and waited for the Rhinos to give us a hint of their intentions.  At first they seemed very wary of us, and stared for a good long time while keeping their calf close between them.  We sat hearts pounding with trepidation and excitement as they slowly went back to grazing and meandered to the west giving us a view most people can only see on nature shows of two rhinos and their calf.

Black Rhinoceros Roadblock

Black Rhinoceros Roadblock

Black Rhino and Calf

Black Rhino and Calf

Black Rhino

Black Rhino

Vervet Monkey in the pines (Photo by Sarah)

Vervet Monkey in the pines (Photo by Sarah)

The herds of Zebra, Wildebeest, and Buffalo on the way back paled in comparison, but only added to capping off another solid day.  We arrived back in town and bought a pineapple, a bag of about 20 passion fruits, and 4 avocados for 30R ($4.25) and called it a night while we planned the next days excursion into Swaziland.

Zebra and the red sand dunes (Photo by Sarah)

Zebra and the red sand dunes (Photo by Sarah)

Taking a page from Mowgli and the Jungle Book (Photo by Sarah)

Taking a page from Mowgli and the Jungle Book (Photo by Sarah)

Sarah and the Processionary Caterpillars longer then her

Sarah and the Processionary Caterpillars longer then her

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XIII: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Bushbaby Bonus Video at Insinkwe Bush Lodge from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Brown Hooded Kingfisher

Brown Hooded Kingfisher

Impala (Photo by Sarah)

Impala (Photo by Sarah)

Giraffe Legs (Photo By Sarah)

Giraffe Legs (Photo By Sarah)

June 18th:

We headed off early to make the 6 hour drive from around Bergville, and headed southeast along R74 to connect with the N2, which would take us north along the coast to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve.  The drive took us down out of the highlands of the Drakensbergs to the more tropical coastline passing sugarcane farms, banana trees, and countless Zulu villages.  The warm air was a nice change and the humidity was very tolerable since it was their wintertime.  We stayed at the Insinkwe Bush Lodge & Backpackers that had an excellent location and facilities.  They also had some resident Bushbabies that crept around the grounds in the darkness.  On occasion they leave a few bits of banana out for them.  Only enough for them to “have a quick snack” so it doesn’t disturb their natural feeding habits.  It provided me a glimpse of an extraordinary animal I probably would never have gotten to see on my own.  The Bushbaby relies  on its stealth, and excellent hearing to avoid predators and the shutter of a camera was enough to make it flinch.

Zebra in the brush (Photo by Sarah)

Zebra in the brush (Photo by Sarah)

Sneezing Giraffe

Sneezing Giraffe

Buffalo Crossing the Black Mfolozi River (Photo by Sarah)

Buffalo Crossing the Black Mfolozi River (Photo by Sarah)

June 19th:

We got up bright and early at 5:15 A.M. and left in the dark along the sandy pothole filled road in order to make it to the gate of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi when it opened at 6:00 A.M.  We crept in the gate as the first light came over the hills, eager to find a Rhinoceros.  The park is a well known rhino sanctuary and might be our best bet to spot either a White or Black Rhino.  The biggest difference between the two is the shape of the mouth.  White Rhinos have a broader flatter lip for grazing on grasses while Black Rhinos have a much more pointed lip for eating foliage.  The first 2 hours of the morning we followed the banks of the Hluhluwe River in the eastern portion of the park with little to show for our effort except a few interesting birds and a couple shy little Red Duikers.  Just as things were beginning to look bleak we decided to check out one of the viewpoints overlooking the river.  Two turns in the short road Sarah spotted it from the car, while I, in disbelief, was slow to react.  I put it in reverse and pulled ever slowly backwards to see in a small clearing a absolutely massive male White Rhinoceros with a 2-3’ long horn to match just laying down.  Knowing how unpredictable Rhinos can be at times we were both a bit nervous.  We were about 300ft away or so, a distance that he could easily cover in seconds.  Rhinos can run up to about 45 mph over short distances despite their lumbering appearance.  We sat and stared in disbelief until the initial shock and nervousness dissipated and we could sit and enjoy his presence.  The rhino was clearly not threatened by our appearance as he remained on the ground, leisurely enjoying his morning while each exhaling breath out of his huge nostrils kicked up clouds of dust from the dirt he was in.  He finally rose, and ambled farther into the bush like a miniature tank until he disappeared from view.  It was only about 9:30 A.M. and our day had been made already.

Impala Profile (Photo by Sarah)

Impala Profile (Photo by Sarah)

Zebra foraging the burn (Photo by Sarah)

Zebra foraging the burn (Photo by Sarah)

Brown Hooded Kingfisher with worm

Brown Hooded Kingfisher with worm

We left full of anticipation for what else was to come and more then satisfied for what we had just witnessed.  As we continued along more and more animals seemed to come out of the woodwork: Nyala, Impala, Warthogs, and Buffalo.  Little did we know we were just getting our feet wet.  Being winter, and the dry season parts of the park were being burned to mitigate large wildfires spreading through the tall grass, so large patches of land were freshly black and charred.  It was coming up a hill through one of these patches that I spotted a head just above the crest of the hill even with the treetops.  A lone male Giraffe was just casually standing in the burnt landscape taking in the hot African sun.  Standing head to shoulders above the landscape, he wasn’t going to hide anytime soon.  This was one animal for which having a zoom lens was more detrimental then helpful, for if he were any closer I would have struggled to fit him in the frame.  Two Red-Billed Oxpeckers casually hopped up and down his long neck picking off insects as they went.  Sometimes even venturing to the top of the Giraffes head until they were shaken off.  The giraffe stood at least 15-20’ tall.  Our luck just never seemed to run out as we continued on, past another Giraffe, and own into a small valley that was a veritable feast of wildlife.  Impala, Wildebeest, Warthogs, Baboons, Zebra, and a large male Elephant all grazing in roughly the same area.  Needless to say we found a good spot and put the car in park and took it in.  During this time a passing car shared a hot tip on some lions they saw about an hour ago.  Before we could follow on the trail of the lion another White Rhino emerged out of the bush making the Baboons scatter, and the Impala shuffle over.  We couldn’t leave now, and got sucked into watching this rare sight.

Giraffe Tongue

Giraffe Tongue

Giraffe above the trees

Giraffe above the trees

Zebra roadblock

Zebra roadblock

The day was slowly beginning to close and we decided to use the last remaining time we had to get to where the passing car had spotted lions in hope that the napping cats hadn’t awoken and left.  We got to the viewpoint as the sun was just beginning to set and an absolutely massive herd of buffalo about 60 strong crossing the Black Mfolozi River.  It was not until the buffalo passed that I saw the two Lions, curled up on a little sandy island in the middle of the river not 300ft from where the herd had just crossed.  One young male lion and a female lion were lying partially hidden in the reeds.  One could not wish for a more perfect end to a day, the sun setting on a pair of lions sleeping on a sand bar island in the middle of the Black Mfolozi River.  I could have stayed all night but we had to leave the park by 6:00 P.M.  before the gates closed.  The drive back to the gate was far from ordinary though.  As I was coming around a bend in the gravel road I soon found myself face to face with another huge male White Rhino in the middle of the road.  Luckily he was just as startled as me and made a hasty retreat into the bush.  It did not end there.  We continued toward the gate and spotted another group of 3 more White Rhinos curled up together in another small clearing.   I wish I could’ve stayed, but was now under a bit of a time crunch with all the extracurricular activity.  It would have been a great note to end on but there always has to be one more.  We saw the last, and 7th rhino of our day in some tall grass no more than 200ft from our car near the banks of the river to finally cap off our thrilling day at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.

White Rhino sleeping in brush

White Rhino sleeping in brush

Lions on the Black Mfolozi River

Lions on the Black Mfolozi River

White Rhino in the dusk

White Rhino in the dusk

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XI: The Southern Drakensberg

Southern Drakensberg from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

The Southern Drakensberg From Underberg Village

The Southern Drakensberg From Underberg Village

June 13th:

Another travel day.  We were leaving the cape for the last time, catching a domestic flight to Durban.  We flew for a pretty reasonable price with Mango Airlines, and got our new rental car, a little red Nissan Micra.  We didn’t spend anytime in Durban and hustled out onto the road towards the southern tip of the Drakensberg mountain range near the town of Underberg.

Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park

Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park

June 14th:

With revised plans we only decided to stay two nights in Underberg, as our plans to take horses up into Lesotho fell through.  We took full advantage of our time there and went hiking.  As the first light came over the hills we drove to the Bushman’s Nek border post, which is the entry point for those coming on foot or on horseback from Lesotho.  We would be hiking in Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park up to Thomatu Cave, an early San cave dwelling.  The trail is in the no man’s land between South Africa and Lesotho, so to begin the trail you have to walk through the South African border post.  The trail was about 14km round trip with huge rolling slopes and weathered boulder fields.  The early morning fog gave way to a strange haze from the controlled burns for fire mitigation in the surrounding areas.  The hike itself was quite spectacular with the caves being a pleasant addition.  The Thomatu cave, as well as the landscape was very reminiscent of the Ancestral Pueblo people of Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado.  Although the Thomatu cave lacked the craftsmanship found in Mesa Verde.  We headed back around 1:30pm and made good time until a large troop of baboons sidetracked me.  We continued down to the bottom of the trail that took us back to the border post.

Looking Towards the Lesotho

Looking Towards the Lesotho

Thomatu Cave

Thomatu Cave

The little that is left of the shelter (Photo by Sarah)

The little that is left of the shelter (Photo by Sarah)

To our surprise, and immediate shock the border gate was closed and locked.  We were now face to face with a seemingly endless border fence about 10 feet tall and covered with barbed wire, locked out of South Africa.  It was 4:15pm and the border post closed, as the extremely faded, and poorly placed sign on the fence stated, at 4pm.  The ranger that we spoke to previous to leaving for the hike had given us a map and told us the gates lock at 6pm.  Apparently everyone was not on the same page as far as gate times go.  The locked gate did not give me a very promising outlook for the evening that was approaching.  We decided to try and find another way across the border.  We opted to follow the fence south towards the river in hopes that the fence would be crossable in the river.  As we headed through the trees towards the river we noticed another door in the fence.  With not many option we decided to see if it was unlocked.

Looking toward South Africa (Photo by Sarah)

Looking toward South Africa (Photo by Sarah)

Sarah under the rock wave

Sarah under the rock wave

Patrolling Baboon

Patrolling Baboon

To our surprise and relief it was unlocked!  It felt a bit strange crossing back through this secret door in the woods.  We were not crossing into South Africa illegally since we never officially got stamped for exiting South Africa, and we never crossed into Lesotho.  Even though we could justify the legality of our crossing we were still nervous as we made our covert crossing of the fence.  We passed through another stand of trees, which opened up, into the backside of the border post and the housing for the border guards, which was seemingly abandoned now at the days end.  We walked as casually and confidently as we could between the empty buildings just waiting nervously for someone to appear and question our form of entry.  No one appeared and we made it back to our car with a big sigh of relief.  We were well worn out, and hungry, and after a quick dinner we slept like logs.

Long-Creasted Eagle

Long-Creasted Eagle

Southern Drakensbergs

Southern Drakensbergs

While staying at Khotso Trails just outside of Underberg we had the fortune of meeting a family staying in the room next door, who had been traveling the world in their 1928 Graham-Paige for the last 12 years.  It began with a road trip from Argentina to Alaska, and they just kept going, and going, having 4 kids along the way.  They have written a book called “Spark Your Dream”, a bestseller in Argentina, and currently in its 8th edition.  They had only just begun their African excursion, arriving in Durban from India, when we met them and they were an inspiration for continuing to travel in our life, and we wished them the best of luck on their adventures.

http://www.argentinaalaska.com

Spark Your Dream! 1928 Graham-Paige (Photo by Sarah)

Spark Your Dream! 1928 Graham-Paige (Photo by Sarah)

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X: Simon’s Town Penguins, and Swimming With Sharks

Simon’s Town from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Doting African Penguins

Doting African Penguins

African Penguin Colony

African Penguin Colony

African Penguin

African Penguin

June 11th:

Sarah said her final goodbyes to the remaining people from her field camp and we walked to the train station to catch a ride down to Simon’s Town.  Things got off to a rough start as we were either given the wrong tickets, accidently boarded the wrong train car, or just ran into a grumpy overzealous train official.  During the ride they checked our tickets, and told us we were not in the right place, and that we would now have to pay a 40 rand ($5) each.  After a good deal of confused looks, and questions we settled on a 20 rand ($2.50) per person fine instead of being taken down to the station for an 80 rand ($10) fine, which is what seemed to be the threat.  After this debacle we arrived in Simon’s Town.  The day would not be spoiled though and we spent the remainder of the afternoon at the local penguin colony.  The south part of town is home to a colony of African Penguins, known locally as Jackass Penguins because their calls are similar to the bray of a donkey.  The penguins strut their stuff on the beach and nest in the dense underbrush on the dunes.  It was in the brush I found a mother with her young chick in their dugout nest.

A Penguin With Big Dreams of Flying

A Penguin With Big Dreams of Flying

Penguin Hug

Penguin Hug

Simon's Town Harbor Colorful Boats

Simon’s Town Harbor Colorful Boats

June 12th:

Sarah and I hardly slept, and were up around 5:45 a.m. practically running down to the wharf in excitement to catch our boat at 6:45 a.m.  We were on our way to look for sharks in False Bay.  It is the only known place where sharks breach the water when attacking their prey, predominantly seals.  We were riding with Chris Fallows, co-owner of Apex Predators, a company dedicated to sharks.  Chris has worked with BBC’s Planet Earth, as well as Animal Planet, The Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.  He is also a naturalist, and the trips provide funding and ample opportunities to collect data on sightings along the way.  The aim is to educate people not only about Great White Sharks but als about the whole ecosystem they lives in.

“Apex Shark Expeditions endeavours to respect the guidelines and regulations in place for your safety and that of the Sharks. Our ethical commitment toward the Sharks and their conservation determine our every decision, and we will not in anyway jeopardize the wildlife and ecosystem. Our mission through our educational encounters is to change people’s mindset and attitudes towards Sharks. This change in the public’s perception is vital to establish an appreciation of, and thus conservation of this amazing species.”

-Statement of shark conservation and ethics on their website:

www.apexpredators.com

-Scientific Research Papers from Apex Predators:

http://www.apexpredators.com/shark-information/scientific-research-papers.html

Simon's Town Harbor (Photo by: Sarah)

Simon’s Town Harbor (Photo by: Sarah)

False Bay Mountains

False Bay Mountains

We left the harbor in the dark, and were soon greeted by silhouetted dolphins leaping out of the water at the boat’s side.  We continued on for about 40 minutes towards Seal Island in the middle of the bay, which is home to a huge colony of Cape Fur Seals, and is frequented by sharks.  The sharks are most active in the morning and often go after small groups or solo seals heading back to the island after feeding out in the open ocean.  We stopped the boat and watched incoming seals and waited for a possible shark attack.  The most vulnerable seal is the one just weaned off their mother’s milk that is learning the ropes of swimming to and from the island.

It was a dream start to the morning, at least from the sharks, and people’s point of view, although not so much for the seal.  In the blink of an eye the shark breached the water and got completely airborne snatching the seal clean out of the water in one fell swoop.  It was over before my brain could comprehend what my eyes just saw, and I felt lucky just to catch a glimpse of such a spectacle.  The second predation was less spectacular but just as quick.  Things calmed down for a while as the boat towed a seal decoy made of carpet to no avail.  I had already gotten my moneys worth and hadn’t even gotten in the water yet.  I was as surprised as everyone else by the third predation that occurred from a distance while we were stopped and reeling in the decoy seal.  This attack was quite the battle.  It was eventually and undoubtedly won by the shark as the splashing water turned from white foam to a deep dark crimson red.  It was now time to drop in the shark cage and the real waiting game began.  The cold water, about 40ºF, had narrowed down the volunteer divers from 8 people to 4 people, with Sarah and I in the first group of three to go in.

False Bay (Photo by: Sarah)

False Bay (Photo by: Sarah)

Seal Island and 3 Uncertain Penguins (Photo by: Sarah)

Seal Island and 3 Uncertain Penguins (Photo by: Sarah)

The cage was lowered into the water, the decoy seal thrown in, and the crew went about in a chorus of tapping the boat and slapping the water to make high frequency noises to attract a curious shark.  We slipped into our wetsuits and eagerly waited.  The wait continued and our anticipation and energy level dropped until we found ourselves snacking and feeling slightly nauseous from the constant undulating waves.  It seemed our luck had run dry, and we moved the boat to try one more time.  Again we waited, fearing that perhaps today may not be our day for diving.  We were mid snack when the shouts erupted, and before I knew it I was standing on the deck with people handing me goggles, strapping on a weight belt, and directing me towards the cage without a chance to think about the illogicality of hearing the word shark and jumping into the water.  By the time I did I was mid-air headed through the hole in the top of the shark cage.  Everything seemed to be backwards to what one would imagine being in the water with a shark.  When I was above the water looking level with the ocean it was chaotic, people shouting and pointing telling you the every movement of the shark.  With a deep breath I took a dive under into the cage, and there was not a sound to be heard, and it was extremely calming and peaceful being able to see the magnificent shark materialize out of the blue-green backdrop and swim gracefully under and around the cage.

It was such a fantastic experience I often had to remind myself that I needed to come up to breath.  I am sure the cage had a large part to play in making the situation so relaxing as I probably would’ve been panicked and terror-stricken without it.  Overall the cage did little to take away from the majestic presence of the Great White.  The shark was about 10-12 feet in length and made two very close passes to the cage, giving me the opportunity to actually be face to face with the shark.  In about 20 minutes it was all over, the shark lost interest, and bad weather was blowing in.  It was truly one of the most interesting and fantastic things to see up close, on the shark’s level, and on the shark’s terms.

Getting Ready For a Swim

Getting Ready For a Swim

Shark Cage (Photo by: Sarah)

Shark Cage (Photo by: Sarah)

Post Swim (Photo by Sarah)

Post Swim (Photo by: Sarah)

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IX: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens & A Return To Cape Town

June 8th:

I woke up feeling better but not a hundred percent.  Heavy rains provided me with the ideal day to reassess my situation.  My wound had healed pretty well, but I could tell it needed more attention.  I took a shower, and then again sanitized my knife, and tweezers to clean the last little bit of the infection out.  I spent the morning reading, finding solace in the book by Riaan Manser as he battled dysentery, and cycled through civil war in Liberia to continue his ride around Africa.  By early afternoon I was feeling much more sprightly and decided to walk around the area I was staying in.  I wanted to explore the neighborhood, but also to look for a doctor’s office to enquire about the cost of a visit.  I was soon sidetracked and I found myself in a little music store.  It contained a great deal of interesting music, and some immaculately hand-made instruments.  If my pockets were deep enough and my bags big enough I would’ve been able to supply a small orchestra.  The most impressive by far was the functioning hand-made electric guitar with its body made from an old gas can.  I then made a couple block detour towards the mosque and the Muslim neighborhood to grab a lunch of samosas.  I finally found my way to a travel clinic that in turn pointed me the way to a general practitioner.  It was only going to cost me 250R($30) to see the doctor, and he was available immediately.  Wanting to put my mind at ease, I jumped at the chance for a relatively inexpensive doctor visit.  I went in and he asked me what was wrong and the details surrounding how I had acquired the bite.  I proceeded to give him my self-diagnosis.  I had thought I had probably gotten the bite somewhere around Graaf-Reinet, and that it looked like a normal mosquito bite for a few days before swelling up, turning black, and killing my skin.  I also told him I hadn’t been feeling great, but nothing too terrible, and I thought it might be an African Tick bite, and I had treated myself with Azithromycin as a precaution.  It seemed I had been one of the easiest patients he had in awhile.  He agreed with basically everything I said, and gave validity to Sarah’s diagnosis of African Tick bite fever.  He also said the antibiotics were the right thing to take and that it should clear up in the next 10 days or so.  The doctor also told me I had made the right decision to come to him for a second opinion and gave me a 50R discount for diagnosing myself.  I left, thankful for the discount, and at ease with the news I would be healthy again soon.  I phoned Sarah for the deserved “I told you so” and took it easy the rest of the day.

Pincushion Protea Close Up

Pincushion Protea Close Up

Protea Bud

Protea Bud

Aloe

Aloe

Common Shuttlecock Sugarbush

Common Shuttlecock Sugarbush

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

June 9th:

The antibiotics were really kicking in and I was feeling great again.  Unfortunately the early morning weather did not agree with my bright and sunny disposition.  I was able to pick up my laundry and get some more reading done until a break in the clouds just after noon.  I decided to give it a shot, and caught the bus to Kirstenbosch Gardens, one of the last places I really wanted to see before leaving Cape Town.  It is one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens and is home to over 9,000 different species of indigenous plants of South Africa.  It is perfectly positioned, butted up against Table Mountain with the lower portion of the garden landscaped, and the upper portion left to the native plants of Table Mountain.  It also has a vast network of walkways, footpaths, and trails that give you access to almost anywhere, and you never feel over-crowded with people.  My original plan was to continue up from the gardens through Skeleton Gourge, but the late start to the day put a damper on that.  I was however more than happy wandering around the huge gardens.

June10th:

I repeated the walk, train, and minibus taxi ride down to Tokai to meet Sarah.  It was her last day of field camp and the place she was staying was kind enough to give me a free nights stay since some of the other students left a day early and I could fill their room for the night.  It was great to finally meet up with Sarah again.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird on Bird of Paradise Flower

Southern Double-collared Sunbird on Bird of Paradise Flower

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Feeding

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Feeding

Helmeted Guineafowl

Helmeted Guineafowl

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Tongue Out

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Tongue Out

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Ready To Fly

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Ready To Fly

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

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VIII: Cape St. Francis, Tsitsikamma, Knysna, and Stellenbosch

June 2nd:
I woke up a bit tired, and sore, but no worse for wear. I was now beginning the final leg of my route back to Cape Town and had 5 days left before the car had to be back. I left Graaf-Reinet and headed south on R75 towards Port Elizabeth, and then caught the N2 west about 20km to the town of Humansdorp. Thanks to Matt, and Mike, friends from back in the states, I would have a place to stay with their friend, Sarah, who was living in the coastal town of Cape St. Francis. I phoned her when I arrived in Humansdorp to get better directions, and was delighted to hear she had just gotten off of work and was currently in Humansdorp as well, so I could follow her from there. We stopped by the grocery store to pick up some food for the braai she was having that evening, the South African equivalent to a barbecue; when she got a call from her work. Sarah is a veterinarian and was on call all weekend and had just gotten word that she had to see a man about a cow. I was offered to tag along if I wanted, and jumped at the chance. I followed in my car to a farm, which was home to a couple farmers she knew quite well. Rob and James, both lawyers, who happen to have a passion for cows, and run a cattle farm on the weekends. When we arrived they were just finishing up artificially inseminating the last half of the heifers. They were bringing in genes from a well-known Canadian bull. Sarah’s friend Izolda also stopped by, she had 5 cows herself and was keen to see others. Rob and James treated us grandly and drove us all over their farm to look at their cows and would not take no for an answer when it came to treating us to lunch and beers. After this unexpected detour I finally followed Sarah to her place. A few more friends came by for the braai, all of whom seemed to be farmers or work with farms. It was nice to relax and sit by a fire with good company and I was very thankful for the place to rest my head.

June 3rd:
The most relaxing day by far. The morning and early afternoon was spent walking along the coast with Joe and Tonks, Sarah’s two dogs who were keen to tag along. The ocean was chilly but not unbearable, much like a spring dip in Lake Michigan. I waded in and was soon engulfed in the waves, enjoying a refreshing and salty swim. The Indian Ocean had now become the first ocean in which I had swum on both the eastern and western shore. My last dip had been in Palolem, India in 2006. The rest of the afternoon was spent doing what needed to be done, re-organizing. The last night I had spent camping I had woken up to everything blanketed in frost so I had just thrown it in my backseat. Having a small yard to use made it the perfect time to air out and dry my camping gear before continuing on.

June 4th:
I woke around a quarter to seven and bid farewell to Sarah and her two pups, extremely thankful for the hospitality. I was now headed to Knysna for the next two nights. On my way I stopped at Big Tree, which is part of Tsitsikamma National Park, and is home to a stand of old growth forest, the “Big Tree”, and the Ratel Trail. The “Big Tree” is a 1000-year-old yellowwood tree that stands around 36m tall. It is a huge tree, but much different then the redwoods, and sequoias of the U.S.A. The Ratel Trail is about 5km of boardwalk and trails that winds its way through the dense forest. There is a great deal of birdlife, although they always seem one step in front of me as I walk and they stick to the thick canopy that keeps the forest floor in constant shade. It was perfect conditions for mushrooms, of which I came across many; the most interesting had a burnt orange cap. As its mycelium colonized the decaying wood it turned the core of the wood an unreal bright orange color as if someone had dyed it.
I picked up the road again and pulled into a backpackers in Knysna around 1 pm and took a walk around town. I had surprisingly not run into anyone playing soccer for the whole of my trip thus far, but finally saw a few people at a field not far from where I was staying. I had passed plenty of empty fields, and it made me happy to come across this group of high school kids in Knysna. They all played for the high school team and I played some small-sided games with them until they had to go home.

Cormorants

Cormorants

Tidal Pools in Knysna

Tidal Pools in Knysna

June 5th:

For the first time on my trip I woke up to overcast skies, and it seemed it was going to put a damper on my day.  I made the short drive down to The Heads, two towering cliffs that act as a giant gateway into the port of Knysna.  It is proclaimed to be one of the most dangerous port entrances for ships in the world.  The coast here is also home to many strandloper caves.  Strandloper is Afrikaans for beach-walker, which refers to the hunter-gatherer peoples that first inhabited the coastal areas living off what the sea brought in.    The caves that dot the shores were their only shelter.  The only remnants left are the blackened ceilings from the fires kept inside.  It was a harsh existence that was truly dictated by the ebb and flow of the ocean tides.  It is also the ebb and flow that brings the food to all the hungry creatures trapped in the low tide pools that form in the craggy shoreline.  I spent my afternoon hopping from pool to pool finding all sorts of urchins, sea anemones, starfish, and little fish while catching the salty spray of the crashing waves.  The rocky islands on the shoreline are also home to large groups of cormorants that take turns diving into the ocean in search of fish.  The scenery allowed my over active imagination to envision pirate ships entering the foreboding port to hide their booty in the craggy sea swept caves.

June 6th:

Today was my last long day of driving before the next 6 days in the cape peninsula.  It was about 5-6 hours from Knysna to Stellenbosch were I would be spending the night.  Stellenbosch is in the heart of the wine lands and is also a bit of a college town.  I was feeling a bit out of sorts, and after a long day on the road I wanted nothing more then a leisurely night to make sure everything was in order before I got back to Cape Town.  I stayed at the aptly named Stumble Inn, which was a backpackers that also gave tours of vineyards.  My first priority was to take care of an unknown bite/wound on my leg.  It started out small enough, looking like a typical mosquito bite, but had grown in the last few days to about 1-2” in diameter and was looking far from normal.  The outer edge was swollen, and red with the inside forming almost a bulls-eye with a dark purple, and black ring around the center which had turned white.  It was quite apparent I had some sort of infection.  I got out my first aid kit for the first time on the trip and grabbed my Swiss army knife.  I cleaned and sanitized the knife before using it to scrap out all the dead skin, puss, and infected areas of the now open wound.  I liberally applied antiseptic, and antibiotic cream, and hoped it would look better in the morning.  After my mini operation I made a large dinner and curled up by the fire with some of the local cabernet sauvignon, and read a book.

June 7th:

It was an inauspicious start to the day as I left Stellenbosch in a heavy downpour.  I wasn’t feeling quite right, not sick, but not normal.  I journeyed forth to take part in the daily commute of start and stop traffic that slowly inched towards the heart of Cape Town.  I eventually found the car rental place, less by address, and more by the memory of the streets I walked about 4 weeks ago.  To my surprise and delight they said the car looked good, and I wasn’t one to complain about the less than thorough inspection.  The rain helped as well, washing away the last of the dust that clung to the car.  The guy at the rental place was kind enough to offer me a lift to a place to stay so I didn’t have to haul all my gear through the torrential downpour.  I quickly got settled and figured out how to get myself down to visit Sarah.  She had the day off from field camp and I was eager to see her after my 4 weeks out and about.  After a 20 minute walk, a 40-minute train ride, and a 10-minute minibus taxi ride I made it.  Wet and haggard looking, with probably a bit of funk to my odor, I think Sarah was the only one who looked pleased to see me as I stumbled through the doors of the guesthouse everyone in the field camp was staying at.  I unfortunately was only able to stay a few hours because I had to repeat the taxi, train, and walk before the darkness came.  We were able to take care of some necessary planning for our leg of the journey together, which would begin in two days time.  I was also able to get a second opinion about the mystery wound on my leg.  Although her lack of medical training, I was able to gauge by Sarah’s reaction to my leg that more research needed to be done to identify the problem.  Sarah researched things on the computer while I ventured back into Cape Town.  She later called with her diagnosis from her research that it could very well be an African Tick bite.  It was not the news I wanted to hear but it was helpful.  I decided to prescribe myself the course of antibiotics I had with me before things got any worse.  I had a less than pleasant sleep with dreams of all sort of parasites consuming my leg.

African Tick bite healing after cleaning out the infection

African Tick bite healing after cleaning out the infection

Tsitsikamma/Knysna from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

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VII: Graaf-Reinet & Camdeboo National Park

May 31st: Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park

Packing up a frozen frost covered tent is never fun.  Winter has seemed to set in a bit earlier here.  I again had a short drive of about 140km (86 miles) to the town of Graaf-Reinet.  The town itself is set inside Camdeboo National Park, and is one of the oldest European settlements in South Africa.  It is filled with tons of old colonial Dutch buildings.  It is a town I would call quaint, despite its population of over 30,000 people; it often seems more like a town of a few thousand.  I got settled in at an equally quaint home turned guesthouse called El Jardin.  An extremely nice old Afrikaaner couple, Terrence and Nita, ran it.  The rest of the day was spent running errands to the post office, grocery store, permit office, and bookshop, where I found a cheap used copy of a Drakensberg hiking book for later adventures.  The book I was looking for, and subsequently purchased was recommended to me by one of the guys in the Eastern Cape Hiking Club I met in Lesotho titled Around Africa on My Bicycle.  Riaan Manser of South Africa wrote it about his amazing adventure circumnavigating the entire continent of Africa on his bicycle by himself.  The book made an excellent companion on the many lonely nights of camping, and I highly recommend reading it.  I also took the time in town to stop by a couple museums as the town has a good bit of history, both recent and ancient.  I first went to Die Ou Biblioteek (The Old Library) museum.  Half of this museum is home to a nice sized fossil collection of dinosaur bones found in the area.  The other half features exhibits on Robert Sobukwe, a native of Graaf-Reinet, and one of the founding members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).  The second museum I stopped by was Die Ou Residensie (The Old Residency) museum.  This was basically a large collection of old photographs, old cameras, and also a rather huge collection of old guns.  My interests lay in the photographs but I enjoyed the rest as well.  When I came back to the guesthouse Nita told me Terrence had gone to the boys club and would be home at 6:30 and that she would have tea and homemade rusks for me in the morning before I left to go hiking for the day.  Nita was also kind enough to pass along the recipe before the end of my stay, so I thought I would share it with everyone.

Nita’s Delicious Homemade All-bran Buttermilk Rusks

Melt 500g (17.5 oz.) Margarine.

 Add 2 cups of brown sugar; 2 cups buttermilk; 2 eggs beaten;

1kg.(2.2 lbs.) self rising flour; 1 dessertspoon (2tsp.) of baking powder;

 5 cups all-bran.

Mix well.

Place in greased baking pan.

Bake 1 hour at 150°C (302°F).

Cool.

Cut into squares.

Dry out in oven at 60°C (140°F) for 1 hour

Graaf-Reinet

Graaf-Reinet

Top: Ancient Elephant Femur, Middle: Modern Elephant Femur, Lower: Modern Horse Femur

Top: Ancient Elephant Femur, Middle: Modern Elephant Femur, Lower: Modern Horse Femur

June 1st:  Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park

After a quick cup of rooibos tea, a few rusks, and an orange I was off to the trailhead on the south end of town.  The first part of the Eerstefontein Trail, just over 2½ km, takes you between the north ridge of Spandaukop and the south ridge of the Valley of Desolation.  From there I would head in a huge loop of about 9½ km skirting my way along the edge of the Valley of Desolation, and then through the open plains of the Karoo, and back between the two ridges.  I set off from the trailhead about a quarter to eight at a brisk pace to warm myself up in the chilly morning air, taking in all the splendid scenery.  It often felt as if the dinosaurs had left, but all the plants remained.  I had just wound my way between the two ridges and had followed the trail down into the thicker, denser foliage when I first heard the odd noises up ahead.  The sound was a mix between a grunt and a bark, similar to the sound of a choking dog about to vomit.  I was perplexed, a bit tense, and excited.  There are no large predators that could eat me here, but the park is home to a plethora of other animals, one of which I was determined to find out about very soon.

I proceeded slowly unsure of what I might find around the next bend.  To my surprise it was three large Kudu, and to their surprise, a human, which caused them to go crashing through the shrubs next to me.  The distinctive calls soon became commonplace as they were always one step ahead of me for the first half of the trail.  It was a whole new experience getting to encounter the African wildlife on foot, I got a small taste in Dwesa, but here in Camdeboo I felt much more at ease with the lack of big predators, and the wide open spaces.  The animals were much more skittish when approached on foot and my only glimpses tended to be their rear ends while in flight of the unknown intruder, me.  The only creature I managed to sneak up on was a roosting owl that seemed just as startled as I as I unknowingly approached him.  On foot you get a much better sense of scale as well, not only with the kudu, ostrich, zebra, and steenbok, but of the landscape as well.

Giant Aloe Plants of The Karoo

Giant Aloe Plants of The Karoo

Spandaukop

Spandaukop

At around the halfway point the signage became less frequent and the trail began to thin.  I kept following it until it was just a whisper of a line in the tall grass. From the right angle it appeared to be a trail, but as I soon found out these were often more deceptive than informative.  The signs were also poorly thought out from the beginning, using green signs on a green pole that was roughly the height of the surrounding green grass.  The hike soon turned into a huge game of I, Spy.  The game began easy enough in the open rocks and grass where I could easily climb atop a large rock and pick out the next sign or cairn telling me where to go.  I would then bushwhack a few hundred feet, and repeat, until I made it to the sign.  The trail ebbed and flowed with a few hundred feet of good trail that either ended abruptly or split into four or five other games trails.  I continued with this way finding for about 2km or so until I hit the bottom of the valley I was in.  The next 2-3km was crossing the flat arid valley floor.  The signs seemed to all but disappear, and there were no more rocks to get a good view.  I was fortunately not lost at all, as I could clearly see the two ridges I needed to get back between; it was just a matter of getting there.  I was able to pick a sign out here and there with the help of my camera lens and binoculars, but in the in-between I went with the good old fashion walkabout.  These misadventures often led me to find interesting animals and places, with the most notable being stumbling upon a past nesting area of an ostrich.  The ground was littered with bits of ostrich eggshell, which were astonishingly hard and thick.  I finally came across a dried up riverbed as I was nearing the ridge I needed to cross.  Remembering my previous crossing of the same dried up riverbed on the way in led me back to the trail I need to be on, so I could get out easily.  I carried on through the heat of the midday sun the remaining 2½km back to the car feeling quite beat as I added plenty of time and distance to the original mapped trail with all my extracurricular activities to find my way.

The previous night Nita had also tipped me off about the basaar happening at the large Dutch reform church at the center of town were a bunch of people bring homemade food to sell to raise money for the church.  I had worked up a mighty appetite and hadn’t had a good home-cooked meal in a few weeks.  Nita had recommended the pancakes.  I left the trail with pancakes on the mind and made the short drive to the church.  It was packed with people but I managed to spot the sign that read pankoek and bee lined it to the stand.  It turned out their pancakes are more or less crepes, regardless I wolfed down three of them and a can of ginger beer, which provided me with the energy I needed to finish off my day.  From there I soldiered on, driving up the road to the top of the Valley of Desolation to stumble my way through another 1½km of much better marked trail to get to the overlook point of both the entire town of Graaf-Reinet and the Valley of Desolations huge dolomite pillars.  I then made my way back to the guesthouse feeling accomplished after hiking somewhere between 17-20km.  I was in desperate need of a soak and found relief in the tub as I washed away the day of hiking from my skin.  As I scrubbed away with soap I could taste the salt in the bathwater from my sweat and I felt more like an olive in brine then a man in a tub.

Giant Grasshopper

Giant Grasshopper

Valley of Desolation

Valley of Desolation

Mountain Zebra National Park/ Camdeboo National Park from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

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Gianaclis Caldwell

Cheese, Cheesemaking, and Small Dairy

Around the world with Weston & Dana

One big adventure around the world!

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