So its New Year again and we find ourselves in Gauteng with friends and family for a Christmas of mind boggling generosity. It may be hard to believe but this is the first year we have had Christmas and New Year off together for perhaps 30 years, maybe longer bearing in mind we have both been on call since we were in our early 20's. So it was with a sense of anticipation we looked to see how to celebrate this remarkable occurrence, gifted by our new life choice.
It was not difficult to locate a destination for New Year. Kruger Park is the poster boy for South African wildlife and, so far at least, a rare destination for us. Well allowing for the peak tourism season and the intense heat with a broken air conditioner it promised to be an interesting experience. We had managed to secure the last 3 nights available in the whole of Kruger which explains why the accommodation was at the extremes of the park. Unfortunately circumstances intervened and left us with just one night in Punta Maria in the far north which we needed to reach in a single days drive from Lydenberg. From Punta we had one day to exit at Hazyview and to those in the know this means we planned to cover almost the length of the park each day. Possible? yes, practical? not really, good idea? definitely not.
First impressions of Kruger were of such a beautiful sweeping wilderness, truly magnificent despite the crowds and tar roads. The vistas across the river beds crisscrossing the park are breathtaking and , on our journey at least, there were fantastic elephant herds, an abundance of buffalo and buck of all types as well as phenomenal birding. This after all is the birders time of year. The down side was the evidence of persistent and extreme drought with clear signs of stress in the animals and over grazing in the veld. We missed out on the iconic cats but caught a leopard up a tree on a later day trip.
Did we do it justice? Certainly not but we were tantalised by the prospect of a longer more leisurely trip at a later date maybe when the crowds and heat disperse a little.
As Hazyview was our base for New Years we found ourselves in the heart of the most amazing scenery where the low veld meets the high veld in an explosion of canyons, river valleys and escarpments and we set off to find some landscapes. Oxymoron, we were actually already in the landscape.
First stop was The Pinnacle with a view across the escarpment and then a short way along the road Gods Window with rather well constructed walkways to view points up the ridge. We were late in the morning by this time and so had to tackle most of these photographically in harsh and less than optimal light. It was still breathtaking.
Lastly we pulled into a series of view points over the iconic Blyde River Canyon. Even with less than the ideal light it is a fantastic view. We are used to admiring the work of Des Erasmus a photographer and tour operator in this region who rates Blythe River Canyon as one of his favourite places. it is easy to see why.
As the sun dipped and the colours were eclipsed by shadow we turned for home, marvelling once again at the beauty that South Africa contains. if we have any complaints it is the amount of land (and water) dedicated to forestry rather than indigenous bush.
Pilgrims Rest is a famous spot, a living museum to the gold rush of the early 20 th century and , although a little run down, well worth an hour or two. When surrounded by the tin roofed architecture it is easy to imagine life on the edge of civilisation, Africa's version of the wild west perhaps. Apparently a trip to Potchestrom would take 4 days. Why go to Potchestrom? I hear you ask. Well I cannot honestly answer that but clearly it must have been worth it for all that effort
In the old Central Garage there are all the old vehicles including a restored Ford T , the first car able to climb the pass into Pilgrims Rest without a team of oxen. Also the story of the garage owner in lower town who set up shop there when he was released from prison after robbing the gold coach over robbers pass, the route west out of Pilgrims Rest. Those were the days when a criminal record did not prevent you from making a success of future commercial ventures it seems.
Life in Pilgrims Rest, for all the hardship, seems to have been peaceful and relatively amicable, in contrast with the poor conditions on the reef.
Kaapsehoop is another hidden mining relic of Mpumalanga, a sleepy little hollow with just a handful of houses, lovingly restored from the old mine accommodation In contrast to the still gritty atmosphere of Pilgrims Rest, this old mining town has been turned into a quaint and tourist friendly spot where there are numerous picturesque places to stay and plenty of home made food and crafts. It is a long time since there was active gold mining here although some of the mines have been reopened to process the tailings. Frankly it reminded me of a South African Brigadoon, cut off from the real world and frozen in time.
Apart from its tourist appeal Kaapsehoop has 2 other claims to fame, the wild horses and the endangered blue swallow are found here. Well the wild horses were easy to find. in fact one stuck his head in the car window before trying to eat the charcoal bag off the bonnet. A happy bunch to be sure. Apparantly they have been ferrel since the boer war, or possibly since the police station changed to motorised transport (no one is quite sure to be honest). Anyway everyone seems to view them as communal pets and they roam the hillsides and the village happily munching away.
The blue swallow is less of a success story and has not been seen for 5 years or so. it is a migrant from Kenya and Uganda but is near threatened now because of the loss of habitat. In the case of Kaapsehoop this can be laid firmly at the door of forestry, As far as the eye can see the gum trees and pines are thickly planted on the peaks and valleys. Disgruntled we went on our way.
The availability of guano in a particular location depends on the presence of guano- producing seabirds such as gannets, cormorants and penguins. Their geographical location is inextricably linked with a phenomenon called upwelling. Upwelling is caused by the interaction of coastal winds, marine erosion of the ocean floor and the topography of the coastline. During this process, dead plant and animal matter sink to the bottom of the sea where they start decaying to form a very rich layer of compost. This rich compost on the seabed can only be utilised once it has reached the water’s surface. This upwelling only occurs in certain wind conditions, most specifically prevailing south-easterly winds which brings the compost material to the surface.
It is used by fish species such as anchovy, pilchard, round herring and horse mackerel, which in turn serve as essential food for other fish, mammals such as whales, and seabirds like gannets, penguins and cormorants.
During the breeding season in summer, vast numbers of birds congregate to lay their eggs and to roost their chicks on the offshore islands of locations where upwelling occur. At the end of the breeding season they leave behind islands encrusted in guano. Bird island is one such spot. Deposits may be several meters deep
When I booked the accommodation at Hazyview I had no idea what we were getting, just that it was close to the Kruger park and recommended by someone we had stayed with before. We were a little disconcerted to say the least when we arrived to a fancy golf estate in the middle of town. Not our usual venue and definitely not roughing it!
Anyway we prepared for a rather sterile environment. Expectations were however thoroughly exceeded and I apologise for judging golf estates lightly and unfavourably. I will not make that mistake again The presence of multiple small wetland areas brought two bounties, magnificent bird life and frogs, lots and lots of frogs.
Frogging has always been a much loved activity but this year, in Mtunzini , we have been deprived of the pleasure by the dry conditions. Well this seems to be where the frogs moved to because they were out in force with a deafening cacophony of sound. The painted reed frog and the tinker frog were everywhere, even indulging in an orgy of mating in celebration of our 34 th wedding anniversary. Arguably appropriate. Unfortunately for us we were already a bottle to the wind and when we had our cameras at the ready the next night all romantic interest had waned. Still there was plenty of subject matter including the sleeping dragonflies and butterflies so difficult to capture in the light of day. Bonus!