Johannesburg to Kruger, South Africa

Let the adventure begin, our grand tour of South Africa.  The first leg, Johannesburg to Kruger, South Africa.

We flew from Terminal 1 where  I had my obligatory glass of prosecco and a veggie breakfast.  Dave with his usual pint and a full English!!  We were flying to South Africa via Dubai, the cheapest route to get to SA but took a little longer!! The first flight to Dubai took 7 hours with a 4 hours layover, the second flight to Jo’burg was 8 hours.   We flew with Emirates (first time) fabulous airline, great service, food and the best red wine! Dubai airport was like a huge hanger! Emirates provide a free meal for any layovers more than 4 hours.  The options weren’t great, pizza which was bloody dreadful. We found the nearest bar, comfy couch and wifi to let our friends know our first leg was done.  The second flight was quick, as we slept the whole way.  I think the red wine from the first flight worked, bingo!!

Having made our way through the airport to the arrivals hall we were met by our guide and taken to our transfer bus. We had an interesting drive from the airport though central Jo’burg.  A typical city with stupid traffic, our hotel was located north of Jo’burg in Sandton.

Our hotel Quartermain Hotel, a lovely small boutique hotel with very tight security ranked 11 out of 48 on TripAdvisor. We only stayed one night as we were heading north to Kruger early the next day.  We spent the first day relaxing by the pool sampling some of the local beers. After an afternoon siesta we got ready and headed down to the bar to try out some of the local red wine. It didn’t disappoint and nor did the food!  We ordered the most amazing fillet steak which set the tone for the rest of the trip, this is where we learned how cheap it was to eat and drink in SA!!

The following morning we headed down to breakfast in anticipation for our first full day in SA. We chatted to a lady at breakfast, she was from Jo’burg (central Jo’burg) and was on a girly weekend.  She was complaining how ridiculously expensive the hotel was – really!!!  We were gob-smacked, she said we would pay less than half anywhere else, whoop whoop!!

Land of the Rising Sun

Our 7am collection from the hotel took us north to the Land of the Rising Sun, Mpumalanga via the magnificent Panorama Route.  We got on our 10 seater mini bus where our host welcomed us on-board and we had the absolute honour of meeting Walter!  Walter was a remarkable, pleasant, knowledgeable, sweet man. He was our host for the next 7 days and would be taking us all the way to Durban.  We were very lucky to have a great bunch of people travel with us, Manju and Ram from Delhi now living in Glasgow, Ed & Mary who used to live in Altrincham (small world) and Mike & Sally from Surrey!

The high levels of security are the first thing that many visitors to the country notice and I certainly was intrigued so asked Walter.  Walter explained that most of the security measures in place are a result of the apartheid (racial segregation) being lifted in 1994 and isn’t a true reflection of South Africa’s current status.  Walter described how he went into exile after the apartheid ended and also described his personal liberation.  Freeing him and his family from the trauma and oppression of the apartheid.

Can you believe this system only ended in our generation.  I still cannot get my head around the fact that in only 1994 the white law of restricting the movements of blacks and other ethnic groups were lifted. White only beaches, restaurants, shopping areas, whole towns!! Black people had to carry special papers or have permission to enter certain areas including Table Mountain!! I felt a little ignorant but I really had no idea this was so recent!

Our journey time today was 4 hours via the the most spectacular stretch of the Panorama Route.  Our first stop was the Blyde River Canyon,  the third largest canyon in the world and one of South Africa’s scenic wonders.  Words or pictures cannot describe the stunning views, it was our first real taste of South Africa and all I can say is wow and it was our first stop!!  Absolutely beautiful.

From the canyon we went eastwards, stopping at many of the vantage points to view the  33km long gorge which starts at Bourke’s Luck Potholes and  ends at the Three Rondavels or Three Sisters, three massive spirals of dolomite that rise from the far wall of the canyon.

THe Mpumalanga Nature Reserve

The Mpumalanga nature reserve stretches for 60km from just north of a little historic town called Graskop, up to the Abel Erasmus pass. Breathtaking views from all the legendary viewpoints above along with God’s Window, where on a clear day, you can see as far as Kruger Park and Mozambique.  When we arrived at God’s window it was a little misty as it was the last stop of the day.  A fabulous first day, such a beautiful start to our trip that truly warranted the thousands of kilometres we travelled to see it.

We arrived at our hotel for 2 nights, Perrys Bridge Hollow.  A gorgeous little boutique hotel in Hazyview, a small farming town just a few kilometres outside the Kruger National Park.  Hazyview is a  famous for it’s banana industry,  the best climate in the world to grow bananas.  This was evident from the hundreds of rows of bananas and plantations which dominated the landscape.

Sampling another amazing meal, more steak and fabulous red wine at Kuka Cocktail Lounge – you will spot a trend!  The food is amazing, the wine even better and the hospitality of the African people could teach us all a thing or two!

Hazyview and Kruger were the red zone for malaria .  We were a little nervous to begin with, first night we were clothed head to toe despite, it being ridiculously hot.  I think we hadenough mossie spray on to take on the entire population of the pesky things!  Rest assured we didn’t get bitten:  Sal & Dave 1, Mossies 0 – for now!

The malaria tablets made us feel slightly nauseous but nothing we couldn’t handle.  Which I was relived about as I’d heard all sorts of horror stories of malaria tablets ruining holidays because they can make you so sick!

I would highly recommend Perry’s Bridge, the suites were fantastic with options to shower outdoors, the rooms were very colonial, stunning setting with huge beds!

Kruger

Safari day!!  We were so excited, this was the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most as we were safari virgins!  It was a very early start, 5:30am pick up, alarm was set for 5am!  We were given breakfast bags the evening before to take with us so we didn’t need to head down for breakfast so early.

Morning Game Drive

A morning game drive in Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa and the best as it is voted Africa’s flagship national park!  Kruger is twice the size of Wales and home to the big 5, the big 5 are the top 5 most dangerous animals in the jungle: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino.

The park stretches for over 350 kilometres from north to south along the Mozambique border with endless wildlife in between!

We arrived and was transferred into an open, off-road vehicle and introduced to our ranger who we were going to explore with.  He had only 2 rules: listen to your ranger and to keep limbs in the vehicle at all times!!  eeeek!

The morning game drives are scheduled early as the animals hunt overnight and around dawn as they use the darkness and cooler temperatures as an advantage.  As we drove into the park, no more than 400 meters we were met with a pack of African wild dogs!  I wasn’t aware but they are extremely rare and endangered, their population declining dramatically.  Official numbers currently estimated at between 3000 to 5500 remaining across the entire African continent!!  The ranger was so excited, he has been working at the park for 4 years and this was his first sighting!  An amazing start to hopefully a lucky game drive!

After the excitement of the wild dogs, we drove a little further and to our amazement were met with a pride of lions feeding on a buffalo carcass.  We were slightly sceptical; why on the road so near the entrance but the ranger confirmed the park would be closed if they ever interfered with the animals! Apparently the lions love to sleep on the warm tar and usually move as cars start to arrive, but not this time as they were having their breakfast!  Because of the the lion kill, we were also met with Hyena’s, come on really!  This was already amazing and we were only half an hour in of a 5 hour drive!

Our luck continued, it is  common to see maybe 2 or 3 of the big 5 but to see all 5 is again rare.  However, I do have to confess we only saw the leopard’s tail and paw through binoculars.  We aksi saw his his kill, an Impala, a medium-sized African antelope, that he dragged up his tree to protect from other predictors!

We had a stand-off with an elephant bull, who did a typical dummy charge to warn us to back off.  I was petrified at this point, these animals are huge and very intimidating.  The rangers are so experienced, he switched the engine on, they turn the engine off when watching animals.  No rifles on-board, only pellets!  He gently moved towards the elephant, his family had already moved back into the bush so he followed albeit, very slowly!  Just incredible, I cannot describe the feeling of seeing these amazing animals in their own habitat, it was more amazing than I had ever imagined!

We saw so many animals, the Springbok (Africa’s national animal), crocodiles and hippo’s in abundance.  Various antelope species, especially the Impala, Kudu, Zebra, Giraffe, Wildebeest, Waterbuck, Warthog, Serval, Reedbuck, Tsessebe, Eland and the dung beetle!!!! The dung beetle that I horrifically learned acutally fly… I was taking a picture and it flew directly at me with the most horrible buzzing noise and at an incredible speed!  Not cool, I screamed and almost flew out the side of the vehicle!

I think my favourite part of safari is not knowing what is next, what is around the next dirt track.  The unpredictability and endless wilderness searching for wildlife, that is the true quality and experience of Africa I personally will never forget. The picturesque landscape, hills not mountains that allowed you to see for miles.

Our morning drive came to an end, we headed back to the hotel to chill before our evening safari. Temperatures reached over 30 degrees today, so we sat in the shade and messaged our lovely friend Susan who is from South Africa, with a picture of the local beer (she was in the office) her response was hilarious but nothing I can write on here!

Evening Game Drive

Picked up at 4pm for our evening safari, so we only had a couple of beers otherwise I’d be out trying to stroke the cats!! I was a little apprehensive about the evening tour after experiencing the endless wilderness during the day.  You feel incredibly small and remote, the darkness would bring a scary edge!  We set off and it was still light, there was only one reason I was back in the reserve that night and that was for the sunset!  We were so lucky with the day safari that there wasn’t left much to see or so I thought!!

Africa is known for its incredibly beautiful golden sunsets and I was about to experience it with my own eyes in Kruger National Park!  Could it really get any better!! As we drove along the dirt tracks, the dust enveloping the vehicle which seemed much thicker than during the day.  The warm golden glow slowly stretched over the open landscape like a forest fire!  We stopped to take in the full view, wow just wow!  Probably the best location sunset I’d ever seen. Night safari is completely different, darkness like I’ve never experienced before, not a flicker of light for as far as the eye can see. The vehicle headlights and 2 handheld spot lights were all we had! The spot lights were held by volunteers in the group to search the bushes as we passed.  The eerie glow of animal’s eyes caught in the lights spooked me!  The rangers could identify the animal just by their eyes!

I got closer and closer to Dave in the back of the vehicle to the point I was almost sat on his knee, I have to be honest I was terrified.  Fascinated but terrified!  As we drove along the vehicle and lights were turned off… it was silent for a moment and then you heard grunting and growling.  The ranger put the lights on and there was a lioness with her cub lay in the middle of the road.  They like the warmth of the tar, as I mentioned earlier!  The spot light moved through the bushes, another lion, another lion, another lion, oh my god!! They were only feet away, you could hear them but you couldn’t see them!  Dave got an amazing picture of the lioness and her cub, I have to say I was quite relieved when the engine was turned back on.  Aazing, exhilarating experience, one I will never ever forget but terrifying too.  (See feature picture).

We came across a female hippo and her calf, they were out of the water feeding.  Hippos have no sweat glands so need to stay in the water during the day to regulate their body temperature.

We saw lots of the evening creatures too, owl’s, badgers, rabbits, mice who all come out to feed at night shielded by the darkness!  As we headed back to the entrance, we had time to reflect on probably one of my favourite tours to-date.  Safari – TICK!! We were so very lucky!

The African wild is exciting and unique, beautiful and unpredictable, intimidating yet peaceful!  A million pictures, a million memories – Africa has already stolen my heart.

A couple of me and Dave capturing our amazing day!

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