Belgium was never particularly high on my list. I’ve always loved the relaxed passion of the Mediterranean nations, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Southern France; the language and ‘joy de vivre’ of France and I was naturally intrigued by the Afrikaans heritage from the Netherlands. To my layman’s understanding of Belgium and Luxembourg they were sort of the mix that wondered whether they were French, Dutch or German, not excelling at one of them, yet thriving on their political stance as home base of the EU. Last year’s trip, (see Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’) to Flanders was the beginning of my enlightenment, but having spent a magnificent six days over Easter in the Belgian Ardenne, opened my eyes and made me realise that Belgium was a full longed and proper travel destination where you need time to meander, read, listen and just sit around to observe. It is rich in history (not all of it is good though), culture, engineering and finesse. Belgium is sort of my new Number One – sorry Jacob.
We were based in a gîte just outside of Bastogne called Savy555 (find Christine on Booking.com – I recommend that) with a cosy fireplace for the relaxed evenings, a nice ‘stoep’ outside with stunning views over the spacious lawns towards the duck pond end. To perfect the amenities, there is a small braai for the good weather dinners I prepared.
Braai ≠ barbeque nor grill, but for clarity’s sake, let’s use those synonyms if you’re not South African
It is one of those songs, which I cannot read the words without singing the tune. I still have the record (LP) ‘Come along and sing along’ with Charles Berman and company
which I’ve listened uncountable times as a kid growing up in Yellowwood Park, Durban. In my head this Em’rald Isle they mentioned was some exotic sunny island with coconut palms, white sandy beaches and hours of leisure in the sun. I simply had to one day visit it! It was with a big ‘Ahh, they talk about Ireland’ that I later learned what the Em’rald Island actually was, but it never tempered my curiosity to one-day travel over this island.
Nowadays the musical reference to Ireland is probably more Ed’s Galway Girl, and that too is a great song, rather than Kelly.
If I still had a slight expectation of sunny beaches and leisurely hours enjoying those sunny beaches in my head in anticipation of our 10 day Ireland trip, I was rudely jerked into reality when we received the message from Ryan Air about 36 hours before our flight informing us our flight was cancelled! Not delayed, sommer completely cancelled, gone, finish ‘en klaar’. Europe was caught in a week of serious snow and bad weather and Dublin airport was closed for a few days. After frantically phoning around and surfing around (the web kind, not the anticipated sunny waves kind of surfing), Cara was able to get us a 22:00 flight, for the Sunday evening! We were supposed to fly Thursday but had to wait until Sunday night. Before you think of my Ugly Story post and that infamous Lufthansa flight LH572, this was different and we accepted it as such, while keeping our eyes peeled to weather forecasts and news bulletins of the European weather scene. Oh, by the way, after 22 months, Lufthansa refunded us a few euros per ticket, of which the lawyers took nearly half.
We landed in Dublin at 23:30 Sunday night, picked up our rental car, grabbed a serious coffee or two or six, and headed into the snowy, misty darkness of the M4 and the 215km I had to drive to get to our Galway accommodation.
It was a good call to drive through to Galway that night, because we woke the next morning at our destination, with a view across the bay, and a little grocery store stocking real bacon, eggs and cheddar among a few other necessities just around the corner. English breakfasts instead of continental in itself is sufficient reason for visiting Ireland.
‘On day four, it was time to move on. Francois and Talitha said their goodbyes and headed back to Wildernis, while we headed north-west, towards Mata Mata and its border post. We still had 10 days ahead to explore the vast distances and rugged beauty of the Namib and Etosha. Distance for today was 774km of dirt road; pure ‘lekkerte!’’
Mata Mata is one of the three conventional camps in the Kgalagadi and lies on the eastern border of Namibia with the convenience of a border post. One can enter and exit Namibia at this post if you stay in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for two nights, preventing the park becoming a transit route, which is obviously a good rule. Namibia has vast distances and travellers more often than not underestimate the travel distances and times. I too made that mistake. Not so much in my planning, but more so in my execution. Enjoying the goodbyes with Francois and Talitha, the showers in Twee Rivieren and the game drive from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata too much, meant that we exited South Africa about three hours later than initially planned. We still had 570km to cover from Mata Mata to Sesriem, and it was already after lunchtime. Of the 570km 90% was dirt roads, which translates to at least 8 hours of driving. Its normally not a problem, but this being wild country with plenty of wild animals, its not wise to travel after sunset. That clichéd quote ‘its better to travel hopeful than to arrive’ really rang true that evening, with frequent encounters with oryx, zebra, kudu and other large animals roaming the roads in the dark. Fortunately, we travelled well and arrived safely at Sossus Oasis Camp Site, Sesriem.
Namibia must be one of the best-kept secrets and I actually don’t want to promote it too much through my blog, as I’m afraid of more people traveling there and spoiling it for us selfish ones. It is pristine, wild, mostly dry, tranquil but rough and expansive. And why I have a very selfish stance on trying my little best to keep it that way is because people spoil things. Sitting and enjoying our campfire late afternoon the next day, sipping a Pinotage from Tulbach and not speaking much, the serenity was abruptly ended by an Englishman and a German entering a particularly abusive shout-fest over their camping spot and access to the electricity. Right there and then, Europe spoiled a perfect African setting for the better part of an hour. But the rough beauty of the place convinced me to ignore them and enjoy the splendour of God’s creation.
Though Lufthansa may be at risk, due to their lack of customer service (see my previous post Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story), we eventually did arrive in South Africa, and we did enjoy all the promised ‘braais’, ‘kuiers’ and catch-up with all and sundry; exactly the things Expats do when returning home for a visit. It was fortunately not ‘allesverloren’!
A truly special place is the Kgalagadi. Its one of those places which I truly wish I could show off to everybody I meet in Europe. It’s a pristine wilderness in the dry western parts of South Africa and Botswana as God intended and where wild beasts roam freely. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the most pristine conservation areas on earth, and that was the first destination of our two week Kgalagadi and Namibian safari.
Special places require special equipment. Though the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has normal dirt roads and its theoretically accessible with a sedan, its not advisable. Even when the roads are well maintained, you are still confronted with high sand walls next to most of the roads, which means while we are scanning the wide plains for Oryx, Springbuck, Lions et al from the raised elevation of the Land Rover, the sedan driver scans a meter high sand wall for ants, grouse and desert rats! To fully enjoy the Kgalagadi, one needs to have a bakkie, kombi or similar high, big tyres vehicle.
Blasé it may sound, and rightfully so. I have seen and travelled to stunning cities through Europe in the past 18 months and have enjoyed every one of them. However, you reach them all on tarred roads! Some times you need back to basics, back to dirt roads, under stars and in nature; wild nature where beasts roam free and spaces are open and wide. I was hungry for the kind of basics that doesn’t exist in city streets and built-up rural Europe.
‘I had a dream, a dream of bushveld braais, game viewing, friendship en early mornings in the veld’
I organised such a trip with family and friends and headed off to South Africa for a three-week holiday recently. When living abroad, you cannot just pitch-up at OR Tambo and announce you’re here. It’s important to plan seriously what should happen when, simply because there are so many people to see and chat to, it gets hectic. Vacation planning to neither me, nor Heleen comes naturally. In our minds a good holiday is setting up location and then having nothing specifically to do, and having the whole day to do it in. But we have learned the value of planning visits back home by now, to get the most out of our time, and to get the most out of friends and family. We also have the enthusiasm and help of a sister-in-law to make it happen which proved invaluable when more than 20 people festively showed up at her place for ‘our’ Sunday welcoming (okay, I must probably admit that there also was a 60th and some other birthday which added as motivation for all to attend) ‘braai’, even a little rugby, plenty sunshine but no Chevrolet. To my few European readers, let me repeat, ‘plenty of sunshine’. Two pairs of grand parents and a wide spectrum of friendship complimented a perfect Sunday braai where all were simply dressed in shorts, t-shirts and bare feet, because they could. It has been a long cold winter in the north. But I’m sentimentally digressing.
Balule (named after the Tsonga word for Olifants river) is very close to heaven (at 24°03’12,79”S, 31°43’59,83”E). Balule is very centrally located north of Satara and lies on the banks of the Olifants River, in the true bushveld savannah of the big five sanctuary in the Kruger National Park. It has very basic facilities, no electricity and a lowish, thinnish fence, which means you really get the best of that wild exposure only Africa can provide with hyena and hippo frequenting the fence. This was to be our base for the week from where we would recce every little dirt road, every little river loop and every picnic site within a day’s travel from Balule. And we did.
To speak about Balule and not sharing the Kruger National Park info to provide context (again for the few European readers, and to be read in conjunction with the ‘sunshine’ remark earlier) will simply not do justice to this world class, nearly 2 million hectare tourism destination.
The Kruger National Park was established in 1898 to protect the wildlife from us! And unfortunately, we are still struggling to protect them as the 618 rhino’s that were killed in 2012 and 203 in 2013 (up to 3 April only) show.
The Kruger is home to an impressive number of species (http://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/), which includes 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals. Also included are bushman rock paintings and two majestic archaeological sites, Masorini and Thulamela. So, its obvious that from a conservation point of view the Kruger is setting the pace. I’m proud though, to also say that from a tourist point of view, it must be one of the best destinations in the world where one can get back to nature without having to fork out hundreds of rands, euros, dollars, pounds or zillions of Zim dollars. For a campsite you will pay a mere R210 for the first two persons on that site; that’s a mere €17.6830192 for two persons per night!
Enter at Orpen Gate in the Timbavati region and you immediately recognise that you are now in the real deal. In 115 years there were no cattle grazing, no ploughs and tractors or any other civilized activity on this beautiful bush landscape, except for establishing the excellent infrastructure to allow us to enjoy the bush. This is where God’s original creation is still intact and driving at 30km/h with windows down with birdsong and bush scenes engulfing you, I confirmed to myself, ‘it indeed was time for Africa’.
The bush, and nature as a whole, is not predictable and this is not a zoo where you can simply stare through cage barriers to tick off your list animal sightings. Man is the foreigner here and you should find the sights for yourself, not as the Aussie tourist I met around the campfire in Lower Sabie many years ago unwittingly suggested, ‘its too difficult to find lions. They should have a few cages at each camp where they keep the important animals for people to see them easier’. Duh!
However, we were extremely lucky this time around not only with the big five ticked off successfully (and I’ll let the few photos and video-clip confirm that) but also a few gems such as honey badger, jackal, civet and close to 80 bird species positively identified. The highlight though was the stunning leopard sighting near Timbavati as well as the 12 lions that killed a giraffe 2 km’s from our camp’s gate. We were provided with ample photographic opportunity and by the end of the week even the stench of the decomposing carcass to fulfil all the senses of the brutal reality of the African bush.
Purpose number one of the Kruger Park is obviously nature conservation with educational, natural and travel enjoyment a definite second on the list. A huge part of the tourism aspect is the opportunity to share experiences, share time and share anecdotes, jokes and simply ‘saamwees’ (togetherness) with close friends and family.
Sometimes not all can make every trip, and that was unfortunate that a few friends and family members could, due to personal circumstances, not make this trip. We rented two-way radios to enhance the experience and communication, as we were a group of 26 in 8 vehicles and this proved to be a great success. We were able to chat the whole day while driving, share sights and annoy those who forgot the coffee flask at Balule. I truly believe every person in the world should at least once enjoy the African bush in all its glory. It is here where people still take the time to slow you down, look you in the eye when you hastily order a Cadac ‘skottelbraai’ for your ‘urgent’ breakfast, and calmly say ‘Hello, I am Joel. How are you?’ before delivering on your blunt request, making you realise you have ample time, stop rushing.
All is not always well, though. The Kruger Park is located in a malaria area, and it is always strongly advised to take malaria medication as precaution.
As all medical advice will say without exception, ‘there is no debate, take the precaution and be safe’. I stopped at The Moot Hospital in Pretoria to get a prescription to buy the malaria tablets. We are a family of four and the verdict at this hospital was, just for the doctor to write the prescription each person will be charged the R700 consultation fee! Fortunately we made the call to walk away from these money clowns and stop at our old service provider, Intercare in Southdowns where the doctor did not hesitate to give us the prescription for free for all four, ‘since the medication is already very expensive’. Thank goodness for common sense.
I was, after the bushveld fortunate enough to also have a few days with my parents in the Eastern Free State’s sandstone haven around the Sterkfontein dam and Golden Gate National Park. This, as opposed to the warm savannah bushveld where I spent the previous week is the grasslands and sandstone Maluti mountain area of exceptional natural beauty. This is where one can find the bearded vulture (which unfortunately still evades me) and breath-taking rock-face and flowing hill scenery. A vary valuable lesson I’ve learned when travelling is to enjoy the moment, that Carpe Diem cliché, and this surely paid off. Again set in awe inspiring natural beauty and in the company of my appreciative parents I toned down on pace, stopped frequently to take pictures and share with them the beauty, enjoyed ‘roosterkoek’ in Clarens and chatted nostalgically about so many things we hardly get time for in our hasted everyday life.
Two world-class natural and tourist destinations, and add to that the friendliness of Pretoria and the passion and clinical athleticism displayed at the two rugby venues, LC de Villiers and Loftus Versfeld which I attended during my South African visit made me realise again what a great place South Africa is. If only those in power would realise the potential of the assets they already have in their hands, and positively optimise that.
For the sake of future enjoyment, I have drafted the following list of things to do when planning a similar trip:
If you plan to attend the Varsity cup semi-final (and this proved true for the final too), support Tuks
Buy your meat at Toits butchery
Rent a strong diesel powered microbus if you plan to tow your off-road trailer. Hyundai’s H1 bus is ideal, but their 2l petrol engine might just add a day to your travel time!
Have your beers very cold when you pitch camp in 38° Lowveld sunshine
Ensure your iPod interfaces with the vehicle
Take anti-malaria medication, but choose wise where to go
Choose wise who joins you on a trip such as this. Basic camping always is hard work. My friends and family comes with high recommendation, contact me if you want to ‘lend them’