Just before leaving Africa we needed to finish up some leave, and booked a trip to Southern Africa. We flew to Johannesburg where we met up with Rob, Ursie, India, Juliet, Kira and Kanga (the lovely young dog) for dinner and a leisurely breakfast. It was great to catch up even though it felt way too short.
From there we drove in our two-wheel drive rental car to Blyde Canyon, briefly popping in at the Mac Mac Pools on the way. We enjoyed the view and had a fantastic meal in the local restaurant, but the next day we decided to head straight to Kruger NP as heavy morning fog had obscured the view and there was no point in travelling to God’s Window and other lookouts.
Arriving at Kruger NP we were in for a surprise. We had brought our tent, thinking we could just rock up and camp (which is possible everywhere in East Africa), forgetting that camping is the national hobby of most South Africans and so we found the entire Kruger NP campsites fully booked. Luckily we managed to get the last bungalow in Satara and the last hut in Pretoriuskopje. We wanted to stay in Satara, so that was perfect, but not being able to stay in Lower Sabie (our preferred location for the next night) meant we had to drive quite a large distance on our second day just to get to camp. But, at least we could get in and spend the nights (otherwise you have to explore as a day-visitor, unless that is full too!).
We enjoyed Kruger NP. It is very similar to Tsavo East NP in Kenya, but a lot more developed and busy. Tarmac roads crisscross the park, and many well-maintained dirt roads zigzag between them, giving you plenty of options to explore, all in a 2WD. At Satara we did a nice night drive in a massive truck with 21 others. Jude spotted most animals, including several genets, a white-faced scops owl and an African wild cat. Our guide found a sleepy flapnecked chameleon and a Wahlberg’s eagle, also sleeping. The encounter with the three powerful looking male lions was also nice.
But despite the fact that honey badgers in camp are supposed to be a nuisance, we couldn’t find any. We did see some elephants come close to the fence (all camp areas are completely fenced in Kruger) during dinner. On our last day, on our way out, we hit the jackpot in one small valley. We saw 9 white rhinos and a pack of wild dogs. The rhinos completed our Big 5 for the park, having already spotted several lions, two leopards, herds of buffalo and many, many elephants before. We even managed to add six new birds to our list, pretty impressive actually.
Next up was our brief stint into Mozambique where Jude wanted to go diving. Unfortunately we experienced a bit of ‘African efficiency’ at the border when the lady issuing visas for Mozambique just disappeared for over an hour after giving us the forms to fill in. The explanation after she came back was that the big boss had come to give a speech…
The drive down to Ponta do Ouro was smooth on a new tarmac toll road and from Maputo it only took one and a half hour to get there. Unfortunately in exchange for building the road, the Chinese have been given fishing rights for five years… so once they have finished fishing the seas empty there might be no reason left to head down to the coast (which is where most of the tourists go as the marine life in Mozambique is incredible).
It was a little tricky to find the house we were staying at in the dark, but in the end it was very close to the dive shop where we would meet the next morning. We had parked our rental car further away as the road we were now living on was sandy and 4wd only. We just walked to Back to Basics Adventures in the morning and Jude met her fellow divers, including her buddy for the day Rupert (one of the owners, as well as an excellent skipper and nudi spotter extraordinaire).
Once kitted up with a 5mm wetsuit as well as a 5mm chicken vest plus hoody (the water temperature is a frigid 22-23 degrees!), we all jumped onto the boat. The tractor towed us to the beach, down the main street and through the campground, where we had to push the boat around to face the waves. It was an exciting ride through the breakers to our first dive site – Atlantis.
Atlantis is a reef located around 40m below the surface, we were doing a deep dive. As the allowed bottom time at such depths is so short, our diveleader informed us we would be adding 2 minutes deco time, pushing it to 13 minutes. The dive was over in 25 min, including the safety stops. But it was an incredible 13 minutes of actual bottom time, nice black corals, some big fish, and of course a few cool nudis were the reward for going this deep. Jude wished she could head down a lot more times to this place.
After an hour of surface time on the beach with some tea and fresh coconut it was time to head to the second dive site – Doodles. This site is not deep, maximum here was around 16m. But it packed a lovely punch. Again lots of fish, including big ones and a red frog fish, and heaps of eels, including two enormous honeycomb eels hanging out in one hole. There were also several rays cruising by, and Jude spotted two diamond eagle rays hiding in the sand. They are enormous and can apparently only be seen there during winter, no one knows where they go the rest of the year. But of course no dive is complete without looking for nudis and flatworms, and this site didn’t disappoint. Rupert pointed out some amazing ones for Jude, and she found several herself too and was thoroughly enjoying herself. This dive was a bit longer, we came up after 69 min, the last ones to hop back on to the boat.
Jon in the meantime had also been out on a boat, snorkeling and playing with dolphins. He was lucky as the dolphins really interacted with the 5 snorkellers, and had a great time. We arrived back at the beach at the same time.
Back at the dive shop Rupert and Jenny unfortunately had to leave, but we chatted for a long time with Amelie, the instructor living there too who is planning her overland trip with Ruan next year. She invited us over for a bbq, and after a relaxed walk and lunch at a beach bar, we returned to the dive shop to join them. Amelie is also a vegetarian, and Ruan a South African who knows how to braai, so we both really enjoyed this special treat. We talked for hours, well past our bedtime, and discussed many random things, including of course their upcoming trip.
The next morning we left Mozambique, wishing we could stay longer. The border crossing this time was a lot smoother and around 3pm we arrived at the gate of Mkhaya Game Reserve in eSwatini. eSwatini is a tiny country in between South Africa and Mozambique that used to be called Swaziland. We would be picked up at the gate at 4pm, so, as it is run like a precision machine, we enjoyed an hour of reading until they arrived at 4pm sharp.
Once we were in the safari vehicle, we enjoyed seeing the rhinos they have, as well as loads of other animals. Just driving in our own vehicle we had already spotted roan antelope. The drives were short, too short we felt, but we were lucky to see a black rhino on our way to Stone Camp. She wasn’t happy to see us though and charged. We left her in peace and went for drinks and dinner by the fire. The cottages are gorgeous, a shame we won’t spend much time in them. After dinner there was dancing and singing, before we went for a little walk to the hide with our torches. We spotted a beautiful genet strolling around and then went to bed with nyalas all around us.
The nyalas were still there in the morning, almost inside our open cottage. We were off on our game drive, spotting birds and several more rhino, but no black ones. Back in camp we had a relaxed breakfast before packing up our bags and heading out for a final game drive back to the gate. It had been short but sweet.
Our next stop in eSwatini was the Ngwenya glass workshop. Unfortunately the workshop is closed on weekends, but they have a great shop, many other artists’ shops, as well as an excellent café where we enjoyed a good, albeit late, lunch. They served the best chocolate milkshake we had ever tasted.
Not far from Ngwenya was our next destination, Malolotja Nature Reserve. We would finally make use of our tent and camp, but first we went on a walk. There are no predators here so you can walk anywhere, and we wanted to walk to the waterfall. The track was not very well signposted and we started off wrong, but planned to cut through to reconnect. Later we discovered the track was actually closed because the bald ibis is breeding in the area, we had been lucky enough to see some fly overhead.
We had pre-booked our dinner and ate it, sitting outside whilst watching the sunset. In the dark we pitched our tent at one of the amazing campsites, each site has its own picnic table and flattened grassy zone. Communally there was a toilet and shower block with excellent hot showers. Incredible.
The next morning we awoke early, enjoyed our breakfast watching the rock hyraxes soak up the sun, and then it was time to leave. We still had one final border to cross and drive all the way to Johannesburg to catch our flight home…