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22 June 2015

South Africa - National Parks - Road Trip

Warthog Addo Elephant Park

This Road Trip will take us into the interior of South Africa before heading back to the coast.
We are exploring the National Parks on this journey, choosing country air, quiet roads, stunning scenery, animal sightings and interesting folk.

The N1 takes us away from hectic city life and into the countryside. With very misty vistas hiding the normally spectacular mountain ranges as we approached Worcester, it remained rather chilly. But weather in South Africa always makes us smile and by the time we reached the Hex River Valley it was time to start reducing the winter clothing layers.

Hex River Valley

The Hex River Valley is all about farming and a photographers dream. The vines still have their autumn coat and the blend of reds, oranges, and slightly brown leaves are a sight that leaves one wanting just one more photo - Please? Stop and enjoy this beautiful valley, it's a feast for the eyes.

Matjiesfontein is a famous hamlet in the middle of nowhere! Founded in 1884 by James Logan, the trains still pass through the station here and we just missed one going through without stopping. 
Do pop in and browse the museum on the platform. Shades of yesteryear!
The Lord Milner Hotel is well known but we were nor impressed by their service in the Laird's Pub. The barman totally ignored us for so long that we headed to the Coffee House. Most probably  this is part and parcel of the hotel but at least we had friendly, efficient service! And a tasty Vetkoek with Curry Mince.


The architecture is Victorian and very interesting. Definitely worth a pit stop. Just make sure you have enough fuel to get you to the next town!

Our final destination for the day was Laingsberg - a town devastated by the huge flood of 1981. This massive wall of water swept away everything in its path as it rushed down the Buffels River. 104 people lost their lives and only 21 houses survived this 6 meter wall of water. I could not believe the Flood Level - it's just unimaginable. Unfortunately, the Flood Museum was closed despite us being well within their opening hours. This was a great disappointment as the flood was just about beyond imagination in the height of the waters and resulted in so much tragedy.

The Flood Level at Laingsberg 1981

 Stellenbosch University Art students created suspended driftwood mobiles - 104 pieces - one for every loss of life. These hang in the entrance hall of the "locked" (in our case!!) Flood Museum. Quietly swaying, it creates a calm atmosphere and makes one remember those many lives suddenly and sadly lost.

Our overnight stay was at the Laingsberg Country Hotel which was built in 1959 by Ted &Theresa Hart. It is still owned by a 3rd generation of this family and displays beautiful antiques plus gorgeous yellowood & blackwood furniture. The garden is tranquil and we even spotted a frog!
If you manage to grab the table next to Percy Hart, the 24 year old African Grey parrot, please do give him a scratch and tickle - he will be most appreciative and perhaps give you a whistle afterwards!
Service in the restaurant was friendly and we enjoyed our food whilst talking to Percy!

Karoo National Park
Our next leg is to explore the Karoo National Park. This is not a park for loads of game but beautiful scenery and landscapes will keep your eyes glued towards the hills and mountains. We did see ostriches, gemsbok, baboons, zebra far away and friendly workmen on the road! Klipspringer Pass is an absolute must with incredible views. Even if you spot no game, the views are certainly worth every penny. And the cottages look very inviting for an overnight stay.

The Fossil Trail is close to the chalets and has some interesting exhibits with fascinating insights to life of yesteryear. The Karoo National Park has majestic dolerite cliffs, wide open spaces and offers peace and tranquillity.

From Beaufort West we headed towards Graaff Reinet. A long, lonely road that disappears into the distance with only the odd sheep or windmill to break the monotony. Windmills are a feature of the Karoo - we love them! Scrub and more scrub as far as the eye can see tells you that you are now in the endless plains and valleys of the Karoo! It's very desolate and very unique. Lonely! I pity the farmers here - they cannot enjoy an easy life trying to make money out of nothing but sheep!
One thing that you have to try is Karoo Lamb - as they feed on the bushes of the "veld" the taste is very distinctive and much loved by all South Africans.

Windmills of the Karoo

As the road is so long and so straight the authorities have initiated a " Driver Alert" in various places. This consists of a set of rumble strips to wake you up if you have dozed off. It's a great idea given that there are so many trucks plying the N1 daily.

The road from Graaff Reinet to Nieu Bethesda is simply a must drive. The vistas looking towards the Sneeuberge are so lovely and peaceful that the non- existent artist in me wishes I was able to capture this on canvas.

Nieu Bethesda is a tiny hamlet, famous for the Owl House. Make sure you bring cash as their credit card machine is not working! So we did not get to see this.
However, we enjoyed a breakfast at Ibis Restaurant. Apparently the owner is away so the lady was a temp. The food took forever to arrive but we were entertained by a gent from the Little Karoo (no names!) who was very willing to disclose all of his 5 marriages and the fact that he loved all of his many wives! Apparently, the "artist" in him looks for beauty always! So, as the ladies wrinkle, it transpires that perhaps their self-esteem takes a knock and they no longer feel beautiful enough!
One has to wonder if this is the gents perspective?? Or if maybe his money no longer does the trick?
The story kept us entertained anyway.

Local Traders selling Stone Owls

We wandered around the town and I have to wonder what makes anybody want to live in Nieu Bethesda?  The only activity appears to happen in the coffee shops and accommodation establishments - there are approx.49 B&B s or Self-Catering places in this tiny hamlet. It's insane, but a way to generate income for the people living there  And, of course, the "cash only" Owl House.

However, it is a great spot to have breakfast, lunch or a pint or two. The locals also offer a donkey ride around town for those who would like to savour a piece of history.

 We did find a small brewery currently being run by a young couple from Holland. What a breath of fresh air this lady exudes - she is so passionate about her travels to Uruguay, Morocco and currently in South Africa. It is so refreshing to find somebody eager to explore the world and happy to work her way around. And the beer was very good too! We enjoyed the Honey Ale. They do also serve platters but we were not hungry at that stage.

The graveyard was most interesting with many gravestones from the 1800s and the surrounding trees in their autumn colours were whispering their tales of personalities long ago! 

On the Road to Nieu Bethesda
On our way out we spotted a bridge over the river - unfortunately the plaque is worn so it was not easy to read.
And that is life is Nieu Bethesda - slow, peaceful but maybe not for me! It seems that artistic people are drawn to these tiny villages where nothing much happens? Perhaps that is good for the creative talent to emerge and blossom? Each to his own and the town appears to be thriving despite the fact that they have no access to fuel, a bank or ATM. So do remember to fill up with both petrol and cash before heading to Nieu Bethesda.

Camdeboo National Park surrounds the town of Graaff Reinet and is 19,405 hectares in extent. Whilst the animals may be elusive sometimes, the Valley of Desolation is an absolute must. Take this narrow road up and up - again stunning vistas down below and then you park and walk over a rather wobbly rocky path to the viewing point. These magnificent formations were apparently known as the " Cathedral in the Mountains" . The afternoon sun catching these huge pillars of rock are a sight to behold and an absolute must see.
Views in Camdeboo National Park

Heading out of the park you can view the huge expanse of the Nqweba Dam which is the meeting place of 3 rivers - the Sundays, Gats and Pienaar.
A glorious day of winter sunshine  and much beauty. Incredible SouthAfrica! 

The road from Graaff Reinet to Cradock is straight for much of the way and it was very quiet. We had a forced stop for roadworks in the middle of nowhere but their friendly smiles waved us on after about 5 minutes. The road is being resurfaced.  One strange thing we suddenly came across were many termite hills, all with entrance holes as if something had either decided to set up home in them or had eaten all the termites! Perhaps an aardvark? But I don't really know!

The entrance to the Mountain Zebra National Park is just 12 km before Cradock. Our first sighting was a regal Secretary Bird  - they do look so haughty as they stride along!
We had a quick buffet lunch at the restaurant - very reasonable.
Secretary Bird in Mountain Zebra National Park

Then we headed off on the Kranskop Loop and lo and behold, some buffalo. Great sighting! The main feature of this loop is the landscape - beautiful hills and mountains as the road winds up and up. We did spot some zebra but our eyes were feasting on the views rather than looking for game on this must do drive.

Apparently, during the Anglo BoerWar, British soldiers created a chessboard on the Saltpeterskop koppie in order to play chess with their fellow soldiers in Cradock! The moves were transmitted via a mirror. A farmer picked up the signals and started playing from his stoep. A wonderful story which shows ingenuity prior to our advanced technology today. 

The plains around the Rooiplat Loop gave us sightings of buffalo, zebra, ostriches, kudu and gemsbok. The huge horns of the gemsbok can be fatal as we found out when reporting a dead animal. Apparently there was a fight and the one succumbed to the injury and died.
Staying in the park for a night or two would be ideal as there are cheetah trackings and guided walks to be enjoyed.

The Zebra in the Mountain Zebra National Park

Heading back towards Graaff Reinet we decided to take the "road less travelled" - very much less travelled! R337. Do not attempt this road unless you have a good car and are experienced on gravel roads.
Again some awesome scenery, lonely windmills, isolated farms, fluffy mohair sheep who look like dogs, the odd man on a bicycle plus two 4×4's that passed us. Our new Mazda CX 5 decided suddenly that the tyres required more air so a beeping noise emerged which caused us great consternation. 

Thankfully, all seemed ok despite the continual beeping and we eventually emerged from the gravel road after an hour and a half!
At the intersection with Pearson, we were able to hit tarred road on the R63 and back to Graaff Reinet! With a spectacular sunset to see us home.
The R337 - not for the feint-hearted!!

Graaff Reinet is full of architectural gems and we chose to visit Reinet House. This Dutch Reformed Parsonage  became the home of Rev Andrew Murray from Aberdeenshire in Scotland. When Andrew died in 1866 his son Charles occupied the house until 1904.
This house is a wonderful example of life in years gone by with incredible collections of furniture and clothing.
The grape vine at the back of Reinet House was planted by Rev. Charles Murray and was thought to be one of the largest vines in the world. It still bears fruit today. It's name should be "Tenacity" but it is actually a Black Acorn vine from France.

Reinet House, Graaff Reinet

The residents of this town were not all goody two shoes as the "Withond" white brandy was famous here during the 18th and 19th centuries. At 44% proof this drink must have produced a few really bad headaches!
One has to marvel at the courage of these early settlers who travelled by wagon all the way to Cape Town at times. Ouch! Just thinking about that makes my own bones rattle.

We returned again to Camdeboo National Park to drive around the plains. We had some good animal sightings but all far off  from the road. Then up to the Valley of Desolation again to soak up the silence and awesome rock formations. These huge rocks look as if they are going to cracked and tumble at the next storm but one supposes that they have stood the test of time? I wonder for how much longer. To be still and only hear the birds and the faint whisper of the wind, is to feel at one with nature. We bid this special place good-bye and hope that everybody enjoys these incredible formations as much as we have.
Camdeboo Mational Park

Addo Elephant Park is our next destination so we headed out of Graaff Reinet on the R63/R75/R366 towards Kirkwood. The road is straight with monkeys and windmills breaking the monotony. There have been so many monkeys on this trip in Eastern Cape - sitting or walking on the telephone wires or game fences. Cute as buttons!

The Sundays River Valley was suddenly upon us with citrus groves stretching for miles and miles. There are many packing sheds, tractors on the road and activity as the oranges are ready for picking. After the barren landscape of the Karoo with its signature windmills, this sudden fertile pocket of land comes as a huge surprise. Apparently, this area is now the biggest citrus producing region in South Africa.

We have crossed the Sundays River a number of times on this trip as it originates in the Sneeuberge near Bethesda and meanders down to reach the Indian Ocean about 30 km south of Addo.

Our first foray into Addo Elephant Park was fairly successful with sightings of 2 elephant, warthog, zebra, various buck and beautiful birds. Any sighting of a wild animal is special! The bush is currently very thick and green so spotting animals is not so easy! Sharp eyes are required!

Travelling in any of the National Parks of South Africa require patience. Animals have vast areas of park to roam at will and the juicy bits may well be away away from the roads. Therefore sightings are always special. Addo is very lush now after the rains so game spotting is a tad more tricky.
We spotted 2 black-backed jackal trotting up the road - for sure, they had an important lunch date somewhere as they did not hesitate when our car stopped.
A buffalo was briefly visible before he vanished into the bush. Seconds can mean the difference between a sighting and absolute nothing!
A herd of zebras were peacefully grazing and the foal caught my eye. He trotted across the road to his mother and started suckling while she stood dead still. When he had drunk his fill, he started grazing again. Special!
For that adrenalin rush, find an elephant!

Addo Elephant Park

We rounded a corner and there he was - a massive bull peacefully chomping away. These gentle giants are so big that they tower over the car! We reversed slowly so as to give him enough room but eventually had to pass. As we came level, he suddenly turned and looked as if he wanted to chase us! Hopefully this was only curiosity but we were not going to wait and see even if it meant losing that special " up close and personal " photo. So the photo above is of another ellie who was, thankfully, a little further away!
Black Backed Jackal - Addo Elephant Park

For me, our next sighting was very special - a black - backed jackal trying to drag an old bone away. He struggled with it while looking up at us every now and again. Unfortunately another car approached and he ran off. Although we waited awhile he did not return. It looked like an old kill so perhaps was not worth returning for?

And then the rain came down.....muddy roads and a low fuel tank made us head out of the park. Only to return a little later!
Whilst the rain continued we spotted another black-backed jackal with the remains of some kill. We watched him for ages and he would not allow another jacket anywhere near. Very special to see nature working it's magic. 

An early supper was called for so we stopped at Hazels Organic Country Kitchen. Although we were the only diners, the host, Randy was most interesting to chat to and the food was delicious. What could be better than freshly picked veggies? Apparently, bookings are essential during the summer months but winter is much quieter so individual attention is guaranteed!The exterior of the building does not look very fancy but this place is certainly worth a stop. The owners are also into permaculture and run courses for locals. Hazel is involved in transplanting areas that are being turned into citrus groves - according to Randy, Hazel has the most amazing "green" fingers.

Our last foray into Addo dawned bright and sunny. Even the birds are happy with their calls throughout the park. Yesterday saw them all very wet and bedraggled. And what did we spot? Not an elephant but a mouse! One wonders how long he will escape from all the hungry predators?
Another great sighting was a meerkat - watching him was incredible.  They are so alert and keep looking to see if there is anybody lurking close by.

We did see many, many warthog today - they were all munching away much better at the new fresh grass and they appear to be very family orientated. I could watch them for hours - such funny creatures with lovable faces!!

Sadly, our trip in Addo is completed for this trip. Whilst we did not see the other 495 elephants who were maybe sulking somewhere deep in the bush, our game spotting was always a pleasure even if it was only a mouse! During the summer months, you are more likely to see more elephants as they frequent the water holes. And so out of the National Parks for awhile and back to City life, albeit, the slower pace of Port Elizabeth....

Port Elizabeth
If you enjoy walking along the seafront then PE will provide you with some exercise! Kings Beach can be enjoyed all the way to the harbour wall at low tide, there is a wide boulevard heading towards Summerstrand in the opposite direction and further on another boardwalk along the beach with views of the rocky coastline. 

The wonderful walks along the Port Elizabeth Beach front
In the city centre there are some architectural gems such as the City Hall built between 1858 and 1862. The clock tower was added in 1883.
The Library is Victorian Gothic with a statue of Queen Victoria  at the entrance. This Sicilian marble statue has been shrouded due to protests by locals. A shame when it depicts early history and is a work of art.

Donkin Reserve is a public open space and offers views over PE. Boasting the largest flag in South Africa at 45 m tall, the flag spans a huge 12m X 8m and can be seen for miles.
The pyramid monument near to the lighthouse was erected by Sir Rufane Donkin in memory of his late wife, Elizabeth. The plaque is now rather worn but the words are very moving.
Route 67 is an Arts Cultural Heritage route which depicts Nelson Mandela's 67 years of dedication to the fight for freedom. The voting line of steel figures are symbolic of the 1994 election. There are many more art works and a number of quotes. We did most of the walk and found it very interesting.

If you carry on along Marine Drive you will eventually reach Schoenmakerskop where there is a cannon memorial to the ship wrecked sailors of the Sacremento in 1647 - 72 survivors set out to walk 1300 km to Mozambique. 9 eventually made it in 1648. What an incredible feat. We can learn many lessons from those brave early adventurers!

Our last National Park for this trip is the Bontebok National Park just outside of Swellendam.
This is the smallest park in South Africa and features the endangered Bontebok.
The park borders the Breede River so it's ideal for overnight visitors who would like to do the hiking trails/canoe or swim in the river plus enjoy a 20 km self-game drive. The flora is part of the beauty of this park - however, a large, recent fire has caused some devastation, with large tracts of burnt bush.
Funnily enough, we saw most of the buck in this area as they chomped on the new, succulent green growth rising from the ashes. A really great time to visit this park is spring when all the flowers bloom - it is a gem for indigenous flora. The gravel roads are not the best, as we discovered, on the "self-drive" game drive. And very narrow! But we made it through all the puddles ......

Until next time!

For more photos, please see the following Albums on Flickr
Hex River Valley, Matjiesfontein & Laingsburg, Karoo National Park, Open Road Karoo, Windmills,
Graaff Reinet, Camdeboo National Park, Nieu Bethesda, Mountain Zebra National Park, R337 from Cradock, Addo, Port Elizabeth, Outeniqua Transport Museum, George Botanical Garden.

© Judelle Drake

                For Accommodation Cape Town, South Africa

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