We’re at LHR Terminal 5, about to enter the maze of endless left-right-left-right queue barriers that will eventually lead to the check-in. Pushing the trolley, I execute what I feel is a perfect 180-degree turn. An airport official smiles and says ‘nice turn!’, and I know that this is going to be a good holiday.
And we’re off
It starts as we board the Club World section (thanks, Avios!) of the lower deck of a British Airways A380. We play with all the buttons and drink all the drinks, watch movies in instalments between dinner courses, then eventually sleep and wake up 11 hours later in a cool but sunny Johannesburg.
They drive on the left in South Africa, which at least makes that part of our exit from the airport less problematic. After picking up our Toyota we go round in a few circles and at one point find ourselves heading back into the long-stay car park. But soon enough we’re on a motorway heading north-east in the general direction of Kruger National Park.
Every other vehicle seems to be an enormous, hopper-style coal transporter. Mining is big in South Africa, as is hitchhiking, going by the number of outstretched arms we pass. We heed the advice of every single guide book and drive on.
Four hours later we stop for coffee at a service station. It’s not until we visit the restrooms that we notice the place backs on to an enormous fenced-in paddock in which graze zebra, eland, buffalo and even a rhinoceros. You don’t get that at Scratchwood, where all the wild animals are generally found inside etc etc.
During the early afternoon we arrive at our first African lodgings in a place called Hazyview, a town whose name has surely been lifted from a children’s TV programme. The welcome book of the Rissington Inn is written in a, shall we say, idiosyncratic style. Referring to the pets who live on the premises, it says ‘If you are Korean, please do not eat the dogs.’ Hmm. Elsewhere it points out that hippos are occasionally seen in the grounds of the hotel. ‘Do not approach,’ it warns unnecessarily. We’re super tired and go to bed at about 8.30pm, sleeping right through to 8.00am the next morning.
Total distance covered: 9,475 km
Modes of transport: Airbus A380, Toyota Corolla
Dangerous encounters with wild predators: 0
Our Rissington room. Not too shabby
We chose the Rissington Inn for its proximity to the Panorama Route, a scenic, attraction-packed drive around one side of Kruger National Park.
It takes in natural splendours such as God’s Window. They say that on a clear day you can see a lot further than you can when it’s hazy, like it is today. Hence Hazyview, I guess. But it’s still pretty amazing. Then there’s the Pinnacle (immense pillar of rock jutting upwards from the gorge), Bourke’s Luck Potholes (giant, swirling-water-formed holes in beautifully coloured rock, named after a Tom Bourke who mistook the colouring for gold), the Three Rondawels (three pointy mountains) and the Blyde River Canyon (second largest in Africa and a view that’s almost too much to take in).
Almost as impressive is the road itself. Big, sweeping curves, forests of conifers stretching for miles on either side of the road and blue hills shimmering in the far distance. Aside from alarming but well-signposted trenches in the road surface, it’s the perfect – all right then, the only – way to explore the countryside. People drive considerately, too, pulling over whenever another vehicle approaches from behind. Which isn’t very often – other cars were a bit of a rarity on our 180km round trip. And for the benefit of those who’ve heard horror stories about driving in South Africa, I can confirm that we weren’t robbed at gunpoint once.
Total distance covered: 9,655km
Days 4 – 7
We bid au revoir to Rissington Inn and say ‘adieu’ to Hazyview, actually doing neither of those things, and drive towards our next stop, a lodge within Kruger National Park.
Did I mention we’re in a Toyota Corolla? It’s the world’s most popular car with more than 40 million sold worldwide. It’s compact, comfortable and completely unsuitable to the journey we’re undertaking. Why the hell didn’t we hire a proper off-roader? Instead, we crawl along in first or second gear, tyres occasionally spinning or the whole car sliding about on the soft sand. When we pass a sturdy 4 x 4 going in the opposite direction, its occupants look down on us with a mixture of pity and amusement. There’s about twenty kilometres of this until we reach Nottens Bush Camp where we’re greeted by a smiling lady with a clipboard.
“Mills, you say?” We nod and say yes.
She looks down. “I have no record of a Mills here.”
“But we booked MONTHS ago!”
“Of course!” she says, and bursts into laughter. “I was only joking with you! Ha ha!”
We have to join in. It’s impossible not to. Can you imagine the girl on reception pulling a trick like that at a Hhhilton Hhhonors? No. It’s our first taste of the sense of fun that we’ll encounter everywhere over the next three weeks.
Notten’s Bush Camp is totally gorgeous. The bar and restaurant are on a huge veranda overlooking a watering hole, and in the few minutes it takes us to exchange greetings and down a welcoming drink, we see impala, warthogs, kudu and more. We’re shown to our room, a vast suite with a choice of indoor or outdoor showers. (It’s outdoors for us from now on.) You can recharge phones and cameras but there’s no electric lighting. Any minor inconvenience of having to use head-torches is easily, er, outshone by the effect the candles and oil lamps have on the lodge at night time, easily sending its gorgeous quotient into the stratosphere.
Our bush camp from the watering hole
Desperate to buy some of these Deitz lanterns for our garden
So magical at night. Let’s not mention the carbon footprint
Our room for the next four nights
Hunt, eat, read, eat, hunt, drink, eat, sleep and repeat.
The next few days fall into a pattern. A quick coffee is followed by the early-morning game drive with our driver Thulani and his tracker, Kenneth. Back to the lodge for breakfast, reading or mooching around until lunch, perhaps a snooze in the afternoon before yet more food in the form of high tea (which turns out to be more like a hot supper than the tea and cake I was hoping for) followed by the afternoon game drive at about 3.30, stopping for sundowners at dusk before returning to the lodge at around 6.45pm. Then – guess what? – a hearty, meat-heavy dinner enjoyed under the glow of paraffin lanterns and log fires, comparing safari notes with other adventurers from around the world.
Here’s a few highlights and observations from our stay at Nottens.
The beast of the bush
The vehicle of choice for most safari operators these days is the Toyota Landcruiser. British manufacturer Land Rover has virtually given up on the market and to be honest it’s difficult to see how the classic Defender could compete with this beast of a car, even it was still in production and was brought up to date. The Landcruiser is built like a tank and sometimes acts like one, as Thulani goes off road in pursuit of lion, leopard or wild dog. The three-tonne monster effortlessly pushes trees under its chassis (most spring up again as we pass over) and maintains a firm grip in the softest sand. It’s exciting even if we don’t always catch up with our prey.
They don’t have windshields or roofs but do boast a well-stocked fridge. Sometimes a rifle rack, too. I’d love to drive one down St Martin’s Lane.
Carol poses by the beast
The tracker’s seat
“Looks like an elephant. Maybe a horse. I dunno.”
Kenneth & Thulani prepare the sundowners
Always scanning. It’s what she does.
We see a Black Something Lapwing
On our first drive, Thulani stops and points out a small bird. “White helmeted shrike,” he says. I write the name down in my book. I have no idea why I do this. The moment I get home I’ll have zero interest in the names of the many birds we see. I’m just not a birdy person. But once I start, I feel obliged to carry on. If I were to stop our driver will think I no longer appreciate the information he’s giving us. So I continue getting the book out and jotting down the names of the birds, even though Thulani’s accent and my hearing sometimes make my record partial at best. ‘Shelley something’, I write. ‘Black something lapwing’, reads another entry. At one point I write ‘writing something’. Yes, I feel bad about this. My biggest dread is someone else in our group leaning over and asking “what did he say it was?”
A red-headed, er, small bird
A fish eagle? I think so
Ah, this I thought was BRILLIANT AND RARE but it’s a common hornbill. Dime a dozen
Not entirely sure
We see no egrets. No tears goodbye. I don’t want you back. We’d only cry again.
Spotting the unspottable
We are on the early evening game drive. The light is fading fast. Kenneth, our tracker, waves a hand-held spotlight from side to side. We follow the beam, seeing nearby trees, further away trees and occasionally the eyes of startled impalas*. But one time he sees something different and signals the driver to stop.
“Ah,” says Thulani, “a chameleon!”
We peer at the part of the tree illuminated by the spotlight. All we see is tree.
“There,” he points. “See?” We don’t. Is this the set-up for some sort of chameleon joke? He gets out of the vehicle and pulls a branch away. “See it now?”
No, dammit! He sighs, grabs another branch, snaps it off and holds it towards us. “Now. See it?”
At last we do. The one green thing on the branch that isn’t a green leaf is indeed a chameleon. It’s placed on my hand and I feel its tiny claws dig in. I have a sense of wonder. Not that I’m holding a chameleon, but that Kenneth managed to spot a small, motionless lizard, at night, in a vehicle bouncing along at 15km/h, with just one sweep of a battery-powered tungsten spotlight; moreover, a creature well known for its ability to match the colour of its surroundings. These guys are amazing.
We know a song about this, don’t we?
*They’re probably not that startled. I just liked the phrase. I suspect an impala has an extremely limited repertoire of facial expressions. His ‘startled’ look is probably indistinguishable from his ‘terrified’ look, which is just the same as his ‘boy-this-grass-is-tasty’ look. I don’t suppose even seasoned bushmen can glean anything about an impala’s state of mind just by staring at its face.
Notten’s Bush Camp isn’t fully booked right now, so on a number of game drives, Carol and I are the only passengers on the Landcruiser. This makes the experience all the more special and personal, and gives Thulani the opportunity to have a bit of fun.
Like when our tracker spots the paw prints of a leopard. We slowly follow them until we find their owner, a young adult who adopts a variety of positions but rarely one in which he’s facing us. I take a few instantly-deletable shots of the back of its head.
“Know why he has his back to you?” asks Thulani.
“Is it because he’s more comfortable that way?”
“No,” says our Canon-wielding driver, “it’s because you use a Nikon.”
The leopard almost turns to look at us
A leopard deprived of its kill
We were a bit late to the party. A leopard had killed an impala, but the leopard was too young and weak to drag its kill up a tree as they normally do. So he tucked in there and then. With no time to lose, the leopard went for the tastiest part first, which is evidently the impala’s stomach. This released a foul stench – who’d have thought? – that was picked up by a nearby hyena.
Uh-ho, as the Disney voiceover would say, here comes trouble! The hyena is bigger and fiercer than the leopard, and quickly deprives it of its kill. This is when we rock up, to find one not-so-big cat sitting forlornly in some undergrowth while, a few metres away, a striped hyena is tucking into its ill-gotten gains. But wait! Here comes another hyena! Will this bring about a change of fortune for our luckless leopard? No. The second hyena is bigger still, and chases off both the leopard and the first hyena. I tell you, it’s a jungle out there.
Some random leopard shots that don’t support the above narrative one iota:
I alone save all our lives. Me.
If you’ve ever been on an African safari you’ll know how competitive it can get. The desperate need to be the first to spot something can make that blackened tree stump convince you that it’s actually a lion crouching in the shade. “Lion!” you shout. The car brakes. “Hang on. It’s a tree. But for a moment…” Then you think you see a baby elephant. “Elephants! Oh…no, it’s just a termite mound.”
But this one time I called it right. And there was no doubt about it. We’d been watching a large rhinoceros as it first took a mighty dump and then started kicking its poo around. The hell? Thulani explained that the dominant male rhino would do this to leave his scent everywhere. We observed this bizarre spectacle for a while and when the rhino had finished and walked off, we drove a little way in the opposite direction to watch some baboons. Ah, baboons. Look at the little young ones playing! Cop a load of those big red arses! That amazing prehensile tail!
I don’t know why, but I glance back for a moment. And see the rhinoceros running at full pelt towards us. I yell “rhino!”, Thulani fires up the engine and off we bounce. The animal sees us taking flight and eases off. The Landcruiser weighs three tonnes, like I said, but with its horn positioned in the right place an adult rhino could easily topple it over.
So I potentially saved us all from certain death. Yes.
Phew. He’s stopped chasing us. I’ve stopped shaking.
Total distance covered: 9,816 km
Modes of transport: Toyota Landcruiser
Dangerous encounters with wild animals: 1
A few more shots from the Kruger:
Next week: Cape Town and the coast.