Sunday, 18 September 2016

Steenbok Day Trail: Meander through the daisies

It's an annual event - the explosion of daisies that flower for a few short weeks in the West Coast National Park about 90 minutes drive from Cape Town, and more particularly the Postberg section, which is only open to the public in August and September during the southern hemisphere spring.
You can see endangered Cape mountain zebras and bontebok on foot in Postberg.
It is possible to enjoy this spectacle from a car, but if you really want to experience the beauty without the crowds, then a hike is a must. 

The Steenbok Day Trail is a 14km hike through relatively easy terrain starting with beautiful lagoon views at the outset and circling back along a more dramatic Atlantic coastline on the way back. We did it in September 2016 under perfect Goldilocks conditions (not too hot and not too cold and with enough sun for the flowers to come out). But you'll have to wait until next spring if you want to give it a bash because by now it's almost all over. That's spring for you: always reminding us to seize the day!

The trail starts at the Tsaarsbank gate, the entrance to the Postberg, where you sign indemnity forms before setting off. 
Only 20 people a day are allowed to walk this trail which takes around five to six hours, depending on how much you linger. You must carry your own water, wear a hat, good boots and take a packed lunch with you. Park authorities also ask that you be at the starting point by 9am so if you're driving out from Cape Town be sure to set off in good time.

The hike starts at the gate to Postberg and heads towards Konstabelkop. At the outset the terrain is flat, allowing you to warm up gently.
Just follow the steenbok sign to find your way.
After a few kilometres you climb up Konstabelkop which gives you a view back towards the lagoon and Kraal Bay with its houseboats in the West Coast National Park.
These evocative rock formations are at the top of the second hill, the Postberg which was once a lookout point for postal ships coming into the natural harbour.
On route, we saw gulls and yellow-billed kites hawking for termites which had started to emerge from their burrows and take flight.

Push on to this rocky outcrop  overlooking an unspoilt Atlantic beach and the perfect spot to eat your sandwiches.

An iris among the daisies.
Be sure to pause for the traditional flower picture...
The latter half of the hike is arguably the most scenic as you circle back along the Atlantic coastline to the starting point.

Flamingos and Hartlaub gulls on the Langebaan lagoon.
TIP This trail is very popular over weekends so if you want to secure a slot you have to phone on the first working day in June when bookings open for the season (call +27 22 707 9902/3). There are several other trails within the West Coast National Park which are not season dependent, so consider those too.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Glamping in the Little Karoo: Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

Halfway between the towns of Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn off the popular R62 is a delightful provincial nature reserve called GamkabergHere you can experience the drama of the Cape fold mountains, an ancient geological process caused by the uplift of the earth's crust millions of years ago which has left behind deep kloofs carving their way into the mountains that flank the Little Karoo in South Africa.
Solar power is the order of the day
Gamkaberg has excellent facilities in the form of tented camps where you can do a bit of "glamping", a style of camping where all work has been done for you. You sleep between real sheets, but under canvas, close to the stars and where you can hear the owl calling at night and the Cape robin chat at dawn, without any sweat or arguments over putting up a tent. And because each of these tented camps is small, you can book one as a group for the weekend and it will be just you and your friends enjoying the outdoors together.

Tent at Fossil Ridge
We stayed at Fossil Ridge Eco Lodge which has two comfortably appointed tents, a separate ablution facility with two bathrooms, including a shower and composting or "dry" toilet (because this is a water scarce area). The fully equipped kitchen hut with outdoor braai area is where we spent our evenings around the fire. There was meant to be an eco pool but it wasn't ready yet (and in fact we were told that technically our camp wasn't open to the public because of it). The other camps in the reserve (Tierkloof and Soetdoring) had beautiful eco pools which looked very inviting, although it was still a bit too chilly in early August for swimming. In summer, though, the pool might just be the place where you spend most of your day and possibly part of the night.
Eco pool at Tierkloof. This camp sleeps eight and is right at the mouth of the kloof making for a dramatic setting. The reeds to the right cleanse the water which gets pumped back through the main pool area.
Close up of the rocky cliffs from inside the kloof.
The real reason for visiting this reserve is to delight in nature's detail: the rich fynbos, the birdlife and the striking views you can enjoy on one of many well signposted trails, one of which takes you deep into the kloof.

Exploring the ridge behind Fossil Ridge and Soetdoring camps
A commanding and precipitous view towards Calitzdorp on the way up the mountain

The road into the reserve is strictly 4x4
Iris flowering

A deceptively steep pass takes you up and down the mountain into the reserve proper
A labyrinth for those who have things to work out
TIP Double check with CapeNature that Fossil Ridge Eco Lodge is open when you make a booking. Even though we had booked, we were told upon our arrival that this camp was closed because there was still some outstanding work to be done on the eco pool. Fortunately, aside from the pool, it was all set up so we were allowed to stay on or else our 400km drive from Cape Town might have ended in disappointment. Tierkloof, closer to the mouth of the kloof, is also a delightful camp but takes eight people so we'll make up a larger group and test its facilities next time we visit. 
The road back to camp

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Madi a Thavha Mountain Lodge: Butterflies and birdsong

At the turnoff to Madi a Thavha Mountain Lodge, a woman and her small boy were waiting for a lift - and we obliged. It turned out that they were heading the same way we were, up a slightly bumpy gravel road to this little retreat in the foothills of the Soutpansberg Mountains.
Vervet monkeys play on the stoep of the Fundudzi suite at Madi a Thavha
"I'm Confidence," said our hitchiker. "And this is Odwa." 
I liked that: Confidence Mudau, whom it turned out would be our housekeeper, introducing herself with confidence. It was a mark too of the place we were going to stay, one that is a Fair Trade tourism lodge actively engaged in bringing work and dignity to the local community.
Madi a Thavha means "water from the mountain". Another word might simply be "oasis"!
The lodge lies 10km west off Makhado (formerly Louis Trichardt), on the southern slopes of this northernmost mountain range in South Africa and about a four-hour drive from Gauteng.
View of the Soutpansberg from the lawn at Madi a Thavha
We were on route to the northern part of the Kruger National Park and wanted a self-catering place where we could chill out for a few days. I'd camped before in the Soutpansberg and was keen to return to this beautiful area.
I'd chosen Madi a Thavha purely on the recommendation of TripAdvisor, and because the website said they had an on-site gallery called the Dancing Fish featuring local Venda and Tsonga arts and crafts.If you were heading up to Beit Bridge on route to Zimbabwe, it would make an excellent stop. For those living in Gauteng, it would be a good hideout for a long weekend.
We stayed in Nwanedi, a suite which had its own little stoep looking out on the mountain slope. I'd wanted to book Fundudzi,  which has a more elevated stoep with an even better view but it was occupied.
Nwanedi's comfortable stoep and a place to make a fire.

Bedroom mural in the Nwanedi suite
The best thing about Madi a Thavha, however, is its sense of tranquility. We had two nights there and so ample time to explore the mountainside where you can take a relatively easy walk to see a baobab or scramble up to a waterfall (it was just a trickle when we were there, no doubt due to the protracted drought that has affected most of South Africa). 
Spot the embedded horseshoe
On our forest walks, we caught a glimpse of a couple of bushpigs, saw a buck creep across the path and I heard countless bird calls. Although forest birds are notoriously hard to spot, I identified the call of the black-headed oriole, the purple-crested turaco, the black-collared barbet, among others. In the distance, a pair of Verreaux's eagles soared along a ridge.
The baobab was impressive.
And rather magically, although the birds were being elusive, the forest was filled with many, many butterflies, few of which stopped in one place long enough to be photographed.

One of the many butterflies we saw
If you plan to visit, I'd recommend you take along a good book, a couple of bottles of good wine and stop in at Ackermans butchery on Rissik Street in Makhado to buy a steak or two to sling on the coals. Then you'd be all set!
Paperbark acacia in the foreground, mountains beyond...

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Walking on the wild side: Nyalaland Wilderness Trail

I think we all have a primeval need to put ourselves in harm's way sometimes just to feel that little bit more alive. Why else would one choose to go walking in the Kruger National Park? And then keep going back again and again...

The view from the fly camp on the Luvuvhu River

This was my fourth trail in the park and the second time doing the Nyalaland Wilderness Trail in the far north. Not that any trail is really the same twice even though the drill is roughly the same. You spend three nights in the bush with two rangers looking after you and a cook who keeps you well fed. You sleep in tents or huts in proper beds with sheets and blankets. Ablutions might be basic but you'll get a hot shower after your exertions. 

Our tent was between an appleleaf and leadwood tree.
Each morning, you set off early for a walk of several hours (in this instance we were out for about five hours at a time) but the rangers spend a lot of time talking to you about what you're seeing and hearing. 

There is a chance of encountering dangerous animals, but for the most part it's about the little things - the birds, the bugs, the bush. We learnt about the intricacies of dung beetles, termite mounds and what a civet's midden looks like, among other things.

The previous time I'd been on the Nyalaland Trail, the camp was located away from the river around a giant baobab. A few years ago, this camp was flooded and so the present camp is a fly camp on the bank of the Luvuvhu River, west of Punda Maria. You know it's awesome when everyone on the back of the game vehicle bursts into spontaneous applause as you arrive at your destination. And for that extra little frisson, this camp was unfenced.

Our first night out we were treated to a display of fireflies flitting over the river. One even landed on my arm as we ate our dinner.

Leopard spoor was a regular sighting.
Our guides, Christopher Muthathi and David Nemukula, warned us that we shouldn't stray too far - they created an imaginary fence for us, pointing out a couple of bushes. Beyond that, we were not allowed to walk, nor were we to go down to the river unaccompanied, although some among our party swam in the rapids to cool off after the morning walk, under Christopher's watchful eye. That we had nocturnal visitors nearby was evidenced by the spoor we found in the mornings, the whooping calls of the hyenas at night and the telltale sawing of wood that is the leopard's bark.

One of our party quickly rustled up a water colour of the view from our camp.

On one evening walk, we were lucky enough to observe a herd of buffalo coming down to the river to drink.
The buffalo were on the far side of the river but nevertheless pretty nervous of us and soon pushed off in a cloud of dust.
One of our sundowners was from a view site high above the river. We could see the hippos below getting ready to leave the water to go grazing for the night. Some of the hippos had large fish nibbling around them.
In the afternoon, you go out again, but usually for a shorter outing with a sundowner. Here Christopher urged us to observe a moment of silence at sunset, just like our brethren the baboons would, I guess.
We were served a hearty brunches and even heartier suppers by Winston Hlungwani, son of the late Thomas Hlungwani who was the chef when I last did the Nyalaland trail.
Because you are on a wilderness trail, your rangers can take you on roads that are otherwise not open to the public. The Punda Maria area is known for its spectacular trees.
Among the magnificent trees of the area are many baobabs.
Early morning, and Christopher rallies us around. The idea is you walk in silence and you whistle if you want to stop to ask a question. While one ranger talks, the other goes ahead to scout for animals.
A golden orb spider with her elaborate larder was another opportunity to learn about the intricacies of nature.
And perhaps the most dangerous encounter of all, a puffadder quietly shared our picnic spot with us one morning - and was only discovered as we were packing up to leave. Fortunately, it chose to keep its peace, but it was a salutory reminder that we were truly in the wild and help was not immediately to hand.

Book a trail

There are eight wilderness trails in the Kruger, each as different as the next, and some more popular than others. Nyalaland is in a really scenic part of the park but is not known for its lions. This is rather elephant and buffalo country. For more information on the trails, visit the Kruger's activity link on the SANParks website.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Beach hideaway at the southern tip of Africa

A little house by the sea
There are some places that one should not write about because, after all, there are only 365 days in the year, 52 weekends in a year, and so many, many people in the world all after the same thing: a bit of seclusion. I recently spent a weekend at this beach hideaway on a farm close to the southern tip of Africa on an isolated stretch of coast. Where is it? You'll have to scroll down to the end to find out. But just in case you're thinking of visiting, let me list the 'negatives'.

1. There are some very sheer cliffs above the cottage so it's a steep walk down.

Sandstone cliffs
2. The cottage overlooks the southern ocean (next stop Antarctica) so you can expect to find all manner of things washed up on the beach and you might feel compelled to make something out of them.

Driftwood art
 3. Part of the beach is made up of these pebbles which can be hard on the feet. 

Nature's artwork
4. The accommodation isn't exactly luxury. There are three double rooms to the right with a long drop (far right). To the left of the long building is a kitchen and bathroom. The cottage to the far left also has a double bed.

Beach shack 
5. The owners don't like you making fires out of driftwood in the braai area because it cracks the brickwork, so you'll have to make your bonfire on the beach.

A beach bonfire in the making
6. Dogs are allowed. You might not like dogs.

Dog freedom
 7. The beach is endless and deserted. You might get lonely.

Dog and her man
 8. The only available reading matter is a bit damp and dog-eared.

Appropriate choice

9. It can be misty in the early mornings so you'll have to wait for the sun to peek its head above the horizon and you'll only have this view from your bed....

Low tide.
10. There's no internet or cellphone reception so you might have to play chess.

Chess game on the go.
11. And for those South Africans who remember, it kind of reminded me of this Laurika Rauch song (a bit retro, I know). 

So where is it? I guess I should say: It's a place called the Beach Shack on a farm called Koensrust on the southern Cape coast. Kind of a hop and a skip away from Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa. Don't tell anyone I told you.