Travels

Magic of Africa: Adventure of Strangers in South Africa

African safari

Last weekend, as part of my weekly “guilty pleasure” program, I watched ‘Blended’ (a nice movie, by the way). It reminded me of our trip to South Africa (SA), which happened almost 12 years ago. However, I still remember that adventure as if it happened yesterday. It was absolutely unforgettable.

We travelled with children, seven strangers in total, a good team. The average age of our children was eleven, which is not the best age for this type of travel as it involves a lot of movement and dangers. On the other hand, they were mature enough to take care of themselves.

Before to get into details of our adventure, here is our itinerary: Johannesburg – Kruger Park – Blyde River Canyon and surroundings – Kosi Bay – St Lucia and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park – Johannesburg.

#1 Johannesburg

We started our journey from Johannesburg, the third-largest city in SA. I am ashamed to admit it, but the fact that South Africa has three capitals and Johannesburg is not one of them surprised me. According to statistics for 2020, Cape Town is the largest city in terms of population. It is also the legislative capital of South Africa.

The administrative capital is Pretoria, and the judicial capital is Bloemfontein. If you want to know more about the political/urban/physical geography of South Africa, you can take a look, for example, here or here.

Johannesburg city centre
Johannesburg city centre
A little history of Johannesburg

For those who are interested in the history of Johannesburg, here are a few facts. In 1886, the Australian gold digger George Harrison found gold in the area of what is now Johannesburg. The gold-diggers who followed him began to build houses there. At first, they were chaotic buildings. Eventually, the buildings grew so much that it was decided to build a city.

The city was named after two officials: Christiaan Johannes Joubert and Johannes Rissik, who both worked in land surveying and mapping. The two men combined the name they shared, adding ‘burg’, the archaic Afrikaans word for ‘fortified city.’

According to another version, in 1886 president Paul Kruger named the new and rapidly expanding city around the gold mines – Johannesburg, using the name Johannes, which he always used when referring to Jan Gerritze Bantjes, his colleague, confidant and mentor. So, who knows which version is trustworthy?

This is pretty much all I can say about Johannesburg. We didn’t plan to stay there longer than a couple of hours, because people go to Africa not to see the city sights. They go there to enjoy the pristine nature, to observe amazing animals in the wild, get to know the ancestral tribes and get a dose of adrenaline.

So, upon arrival in Johannesburg, we made an hour trip around the city and headed to one of the lodges, which is located next to the main national park of South Africa – Kruger Park.

#2 Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park is the oldest and most famous nature reserve in SA, one of the largest national parks in the world. Along with Pilanesberg and Table Mountain, it is South Africa’s most visited national park.

The park amazes with the variety of fauna. It is home to about one hundred and fifty species of mammals, which is more than in any other African reserve. It is noteworthy that there you can find all the animals of the Big Five, which are considered the most dangerous species for the hunter – lions, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and leopards.

Chasing lions in Kruger park
Chasing lions in Kruger park

We were fortunate enough to meet all the Big Five animals. It was incredible. I had never been to wild parks before. I used to watch poor animals in zoos and it was terribly sad. In Kruger Park, my feelings were different.

Even though we looked at the animals from the car and they looked completely peaceful, there was an atmosphere of freedom and threat at the same time. We sensed this danger, and the adrenaline rush rose in our veins. And it was astonishing!

Safari in the Kruger National Park
Safari in Kruger National Park

Worth knowing that being outside the vehicle can be fatal. Our guide told us a few stories about how the inhabitants of Mozambique periodically cross the border under cover of night and accidentally fall into the clutches of some hungry predator.

That is why, in order not to tempt fate, you can get out of the car only in strictly established places, and walks are allowed only when accompanied by a local armed huntsman. Fair enough, but it’s hard to resist the urge to snuggle up to some harmless animal like antelope or giraffe. They are so cute.

Baby giraffe in Kruger park
Baby giraffe in Kruger park
A little history of Kruger Park

The first gold seeker who came to this territory was Dutchman Francois de Cooper. The myth of the fabulous wealth of the African continent has seduced thousands of Europeans obsessed with the gold rush. However, the newly arrived began to “hunt” not only for gold. President Paul Kruger, worried about declining animal populations due to hides and ivory hunters, declared the area a National Park in 1902. I think it’s clear who the park was named after.

The continued existence and development of the Kruger National Park is largely due to James Stevenson-Hamilton who was the first warden and protector of the park. He was involved in the welfare of his animal charges to such an extent that he remained there for over 44 years until his retirement in 1946. He is a real legend.

South Africa opened up more and more new facets for us. So, after spending three days doing safari and exploring surroundings, we hit the road again. Ahead of us was the Blyde River Canyon and other natural wonders.

#3 Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve

The Blyde River Canyon is located in the Drakensberg escarpment in the eastern part of Mpumalanga province. It is the third-largest canyon in South Africa and leads the largest green river gorges. Therefore, unlike many other canyons, it is rich in flora and fauna. Because of this, it is considered the pearl of SA and is a must-see for all guests of the country.

Blyde River Canyon in South Africa
Blyde River Canyon in South Africa

It is 26 kilometres long and 1400 meters deep. At the same time, along its entire length, it has many very interesting geological formations and is covered from top to bottom with impenetrable tropical forests.

Bourke’s Luck Potholes

Acquaintance with the canyon usually begins at the intersection of the Bryde River and its tributary – Treur. It was here that powerful whirlpools and waterfalls literally knocked out huge cylindrical pits in the sandstone, which are called the Bourke’s Luck Potholes.

Bourke's Luck Potholes
Bourke’s Luck Potholes

Ironically, these potholes got the prefix “luck” thanks to the unfortunate gold digger Tom Bourke. In the late 1880s, he discovered traces of placer gold in the canyon, quickly made a bid and began digging. However, he was unable to find piles of gold, while to the south of this place hundreds of other gold diggers found their wealth.

Even though Bourke’s Luck Potholes gold mine turned out to be completely unlucky, not everyone knows about it and continues to throw coins into the potholes, “wishing for luck.” Well, you get it, don’t do it.

Three Rondavels

Another amazing place in the Canyon is Three Rondavels. Outside, these three prominent mountain peaks resemble and are named after the traditional local hive huts.

Three Rondavels in SA
Three Rondavels

The alternative name for this mountain formation is “The Chief and his Three Wives.” Someone believes that it was the original name of this place in the first place. The mountains were so named in honour of the legendary leader Maripi Mashile, who managed to protect his tribe from the invasion of enemies – the Swazi army – and won a grand battle nearby.

The flat-topped peak was named after him – Mapjaneng – and three other peaks were named after his wives – Magabolie, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto. This story reminded me of the Three Sisters rock formation in the Australian Blue Mountains. You can read this amazing story here.

God’s Window

An equally interesting place in the Canyon, which has become incredibly popular thanks to the movie “The Gods must be crazy” (1980), is the observation deck God’s Window. This is a hill at the very edge of the mountains that offers a truly endless view of the plain in front of it.

In good weather, visibility is up to 120 kilometres from here. You can even see the Lebombo Mountains of the Kruger National Park. Such a distant view prompted the main character of the mentioned movie to think that this is the end of the world.

Along the Blyde River Canyon
Along the Blyde River Canyon

We didn’t want to leave a place with such powerful energy, but at the same time, we were looking forward to finally plunge into the gentle waves of the Indian Ocean.

#4 Kosi Bay

So, our next destination was Kosi Bay, a place known for its fantastic ecosystem of four large lakes connected by narrow channels and the ocean. We also were intrigued by the fact that in Kosi Bay you can even encounter sharks, crocodiles and hippos, poisonous stonefish and scorpionfish.

With such inspiration, we arrived in an area full of coral reefs, pristine beaches, clean lakes, sandy forests, marshy lowlands and densely scrubbed plains. Our house was located in a real jungle, which could only be reached by a 4D jeep with really huge wheels.

Kosi Bay Jungle
Kosi Bay Jungle

Our excitement didn’t disappear, even when we realised that instead of the lodges we should live in shanties. Moreover, our shacks were located in the forest where the monkeys happily jumped from tree to tree, making disturbing sounds. They were so big that I wouldn’t be surprised if they grabbed our children and dragged them into the jungle.

In addition, on one side of the camp, we were surrounded by a lake teeming with hippos. On the other side, there was a river with crocodiles. And also, the only place where our mobile phones worked, was exactly where the lake, river and jungle, with all the creatures living in them, converged to one point. I’m not kidding.

Lake in Kosi Bay
Lake in Kosi Bay
Our “Luxury” Accommodation

However, our excitement vanished when we realised that there were not a single decent toilet and bathroom, no kitchen, and we were going to spend a New Year’s Eve sitting around the fire alone, I mean only our two families. I am not saying that it’s boring, on the contrary, it’s always fun, especially after we start drinking, but we definitely didn’t plan it that way.

New Year's Eve in Kosi Bay
New Year’s Eve in Kosi Bay

According to our tour program, it was supposed to be a trendy place with restaurants or at least cafes (we even brought our fancy outfits for New Year’s Eve). However, there was only fire for cooking and a sheltered place, something like a dining room. But anyway…

Going forward, I will note that at that time it seemed to us that this is the most terrible place that could only be chosen to celebrate the New Year. However, now, when we recall our trip to Africa, we remember this place as the best thing that happened to us. In other words, it was the most unforgettable experience.

This place was especially memorable for me because a rather dangerous incident happened to me there. Early one morning when my husband and his friend went fishing, I couldn’t sleep. I was tossing and turning in our uncomfortable bed, trying to fall asleep, and suddenly something fell on the bed where I was lying.

My New Roomie

When I opened my eyes, I was shocked to see a pretty large snake lying next to me and looking straight at me. You guessed my reaction, I jumped out of bed like crazy. It all happened in the blink of an eye, that I didn’t even notice how I was at the door calling for help.

Luckily, our guide helped me find the snake in our place. He said that the snake was not poisonous (I still don’t believe him), but for me, nevertheless, it was the very moment when your whole life rushes through your head.

Our "penthouse" in Kosi Bay
Our “penthouse” in Kosi Bay

The rest of our getaway at Kosi Bay was fabulous. Far from civilisation, we touched pristine nature; enjoyed the singing of birds, of which, by the way, there are more than 400 species; swam in the warm ocean; walked along the sand dunes and relaxed on virgin beaches. In short, we rejuvenated, improved our health and recharged ourselves with the incredible energy of the wild!

#5 St Lucia

Our next stop was St Lucia, where several interesting places are located, including the Research Center and their crocodile farm. They study and breed Nile crocodiles. When we were there, at first it seemed to us that the crocodiles were sleepy and lazy. But, as it turned out, they are just very delicate and nervous creatures.

Crocodile Farm

Interestingly, the gender of a crocodile baby depends on the temperature at which the eggs are stored until the babies hatch. Usually, crocodiles produce female embryos, which can become males under certain environmental conditions. When a sufficiently high temperature is reached, the embryo begins to produce androgenic hormones that cause the development of male genital organs. To be honest, I didn’t know it.

Welcome to Wendy's Paradise
Welcome to Wendy’s Paradise

I can’t fail to mention the place where we stayed in St Lucia. After the shanties in Kosi Bay, Wendy’s Country Lodge really impressed us with its comfortable guest houses with colonial-style interior decoration, equipped with all modern facilities and friendly people, including Wendy herself. It was Wendy’s true tropical paradise.

My friend on the left, Wendy in the centre and me
My friend on the left, Wendy in the centre, and me
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve

Our hotel was located next to another wild park – Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve. We, of course, didn’t deprive ourselves of the pleasure of going on a safari. Although this park is not as big as Kruger Park, there are many animals there, including the Big Five. This means that the concentration of animals in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is much higher than in Kruger Park.

We spent the last day at the beach. It was one of the virgin beaches of St. Lucia, where my friend and I basked in the sun, our men fished, and the children splashed in the waves of the warm Indian Ocean.

St Lucia Beach
St Lucia Beach

Everything was perfect, except that we were all terribly burned out in the sun and our bodies looked like living meat. And the next day we had a long flight back… But that’s another story.

Sum Up

South Africa has definitely conquered our hearts with its mountain peaks buried in clouds, cozy valleys, endless desert savannas, stunning sunrises and sunsets (which I forgot to mention). To date, the trip to Africa was definitely the brightest journey, full of interesting discoveries, new impressions, vivid emotions and an adrenaline rush.

That trip allowed us to get in touch with wildlife, felt the breath of Africa, enjoyed the beauty of exotic flora and fauna, amazing beaches and experienced an indescribable sense of danger, from which the blood boils in your veins and gives an incredible boost of energy.

In the movie ‘Blended’ (2014) that I mentioned at the beginning of the article, one character kept repeating: “What happens in Africa stays in Africa”. I would like to rephrase it this way: “What happens in Africa stays in your heart forever”.

I’m not sure if it’s time to go to Africa (basically, to anywhere). However, I’m absolutely sure that when this coronavirus nightmare disappears, you should not deprive yourself of the pleasure of travelling to Africa. So, it’s time to started planning your future trip. Go for it!

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