South Africa Part I – Mud and Monkeys

February 21, 2009

28th January – 6th February

Shamefully, almost the first thing we did in South Africa was head for the mall.  The Riverside Mall in Nelspruit seemed huge and shiny after Mozambique’s limited shopping opportunities.  I quivered with temptation in such a temple to consumerism, and if I had a viable credit future I could have had some serious fun.  However, I don’t and I didn’t!   Leaving the Mall we had our first encounter with the South African Police when we got pulled over by the narcotics squad – could they have been acting on a tip off?

Before we left Nelspruit we had to get a new windscreen for Elsie as a crack which we noticed yesterday has spread with remarkable rapidity.  We called in at the local Glasfit and they booked us in and fitted a new one for about £50!  We also finally found a shop, ‘Camp & Gas’, to fill our recalcitrant gas cylinders, so we’re fully tooled up again.

Gratuitous arms length shot of us having a nice time

Gratuitous arms length shot of us having a nice time

Our reason for being in SA at this stage was to visit Katie whom we’d met with her sister, Sarah, in Tanga, Tanzania.  Katie is living Sean’s dream life and with her boyfriend Joe manages the Askari Wilderness Conservation programme which is located on Pidwa Wilderness in Limpopo Province. She had very kindly invited us to come and stay for a few days, and offered Sean the opportunity to get his hands dirty (she extended the offer to me too but I’ve got selective hearing and just heard ‘stay’ and ‘private game reserve’).   The logical route to get to Katie, for us anyway, was through Kruger so we headed for Berg en Dal camp on our first night in the camp & enjoyed hearing a lion roaring as we ate sarnies in the rain.

A Frican Elephant - geddit Victoria??

A Frican Elephant - geddit Victoria??

Contrary to popular belief the initials ‘SF’ actually stand for ‘Safari Fascist’ and if anything the regime intensified over the next 3 days, the nadir actually being hauled from the Hotel du Van at 4.30am.

It’s ridiculously easy to see game in the Kruger, so we saw lots of DTAs (Deer-y Type Arrangements), elephant, some rhino, but no leopards gosh darnit!  We also had fun driving over/through the Oliphant River and when we looked at it a day later it was impassable.

We drove through there yesterday!

We drove through there yesterday!

On our last full day in Kruger a highlight (and some compensation for SF’s alarm going off at 4.10) was seeing a whole family of hyena playing outside their den.  This one liked Elsie and chewed off a bit.

Mmm, wheel trim.....

Mmm, wheel trim.....

Once out of the Kruger we stayed overnight in Phalaborwa before heading on to Pidwa Wilderness.

South Africans have a taste for the twee, and call their towns, houses and tourist accommodation some truly mind bogglingly ghastly confections.  ‘Cosy Nook’s are everywhere, ‘Hideaway’s abound, but without doubt the worst I spotted on the road was ‘Granny Dot’s Country Spot.’  Make of that what you will.

On the morning of the 5th Feb we received a text from Katie warning us that they’d had 13cm of rain overnight and we might find a few roads flooded.  In spite of this we got there fine, found the place fine, and then I said “I’m sure Katie said to turn left at the barn”  She didn’t.

And then I got stuck

And then I got stuck

Talk about making an entrance.

Katie came to rescue us with Colin the resident vervet monkey to help, but unfortunately Elsie defied all of Sean and Katie’s efforts to dig and tow her out.  Joe bought the volunteers Kath, Cath and Angela down to have a laugh and eventually we gave up and went up to the house.

Yes, that is a monkey attached to my leg

Yes, that is a monkey attached to my leg

It happened to be Katie’s birthday and the volunteers had made a birthday dinner with cake and everything!  We had also bought Katie a cake, but Colin had first dibs on it while we were looking the other way.

The next morning we were put to task and helped clear a couple of patches of an invasive alien plant.  Datura is used as a (highly dangerous) hallucinogen by the locals and spreads really quickly.  Pulling it up was easy and gratifyingly work, the ground was soft due to all the rain and it was also quick to see the results of our labour.  The afternoon was a bit tougher.  Brush packing involves firstly using machetes to cut down Sickle Bush which is very thorny, then taking the branches to an eroded site where we broke the ground with pick axes before using the cut brush to cover the ground.  This keeps the game off long enough for the grasses to regenerate.  Apart from getting covered in super-itchy tiny caterpillars Sean loved all the physical exertion, I loved the brush clearing, but found the pickaxe part seriously exhausting.  The volunteers showed me up for the total wuss that I am as they just got completely stuck into it.  They were nearly at the end of their month’s stay and were super-fit and muscly from the work.

Over lunch Katie & Joe enlisted Tommy and his tractor and Elsie was once again hauled out of the mud.  That night we spoke to my gorgeous nephew, wished him a happy 6th birthday and then collapsed into bed exhausted.

The following morning Sean got to live out another childhood fantasy as we went on an Anti-Poaching patrol.  Like all reserves Pidwa has a poaching problem, and we went to look at an area that hadn’t been covered since Christmas when a lot of snares were recovered.  Fortunately for Pidwa and the animals we didn’t find any snares but  Sean found a kudu skeleton which Joe thought must have been poached a while ago.  I really enjoyed the walk through the bush and we encountered hundreds of stunning Golden Orb spiders, their webs are beautiful and incredibly strong – apparently there are tests being carried out to see if it can be used like Kevlar.

Anyone arachnaphobic?

Anyone arachnaphobic?

At lunchtime, after peeling off all the spider web attached to our clothes we said our goodbyes and struck out for Botswana. We were sorry that our stay was so short, but can’t shake the feeling that time is running out on us.  Katie and Joe were kind and generous hosts, and we enjoyed our stay very much.  They are super dedicated and run a really good programme. Katie is also one of the few people I’ve met who decide what they want to do as a child (on safari with her family) and stick at it until they get there. Thanks for having us!

Joe, Katie and 'Colin's Angels'

Joe, Katie and 'Colin's Angels'

As a footnote to all this Sean developed a severe allergic reaction to the caterpillars from yesterday and his neck, back and torso came up in hyper-itchy red welts, so we stopped in Tzaneen to see a pharmacist who recommended powerful antihystamines. Now he knows how I felt after my DEET inhalation experience in Egypt.

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