"I like to travel, but I am not an adventurous person...."
I came across this remark somewhere and found it fitting for me too. In spite of warnings for Johannesburg's rampant criminality, I considered South Africa the most attractive country to visit in Africa and I was not disappointed.

For several reasons we selected April as a good month to visit South Africa and we had a pleasant direct flight with KLM by Boeing 747-400 from Amsterdam to Johannesburg; it was a long flight, 10 hours, but there was no time difference and as a result did not suffer any jetlag.
Air travel holds no appeal to me: one feels himself regarded by airport authorities as a potential criminal and airline staff are handicapped by airline cutbacks and ever growing checks and procedures by governmental instructions. The week before our departure we enjoyed airtravel by easyJet to London and found it sheer torture, at least KL591 was restful and pleasant (probably also having to do with the fact that we had an unoccupied seat between us).
Our returnflight with Iberia, to Madrid onboard an Airbus A340, must have been the worst intercontinental flight I ever had to suffer.


Our morning departure from Amsterdam resulted in some fine scenery of the Sahara Desert, which we found of surprising variety.
As soon as we approached wooded country, the clouds started building up and the view was lost in darkness.

 


For those who know me it won't come as a surprise that airplanes played a major part during the first few days of this holiday...
Around Johannesburg there are several small airports (e.g. Johannesburg-Rand and Lanseria) with vintage airliners catering to the nostalgia flights and some are even still in commercial use, flying passengers and cargo to regional destinations. Fortunately for Ada, these airports have excellent restaurants, so waiting proved to be not much of a hardship.
I found driving (on the wrong side of the road, with a steering wheel on the wrong side of the car and left-handed shifting gears) in itself not much of a problem (excellent roads everywhere), but directions hard to follow without Ada as a navigator next to me. So she stayed with me and in return I tried not to hang about on the ramp for too long.


A rather fitting mural was found on a hangardoor at the museum at Swartkop Air Force Base.

As we arrived on a Friday, I tried to visit the airfields during the weekend but found that South Africa comes to a grinding halt during the weekend, especially on a Sunday. Even the aviation museum was closed that Sunday. Having travelled much throughout the United States, with its 24 hour economy, this was an unexpected change for me and I had to retrace most of my steps on the Monday and Tuesday.

We had excellent weather during our 2 weeks stay, in fact we had choosen April as summer in January and February can be very hot here.


On Tuesday we concluded my business around Johannesburg and Pretoria and checked out of the Balalaika-Sandton Hotel, where we had enjoyed an excellent stay. Leaving Johannesburg, driving to Polokwane (a.k.a. Pietersburg), we asked ourselves if we were leaving civilization too...?
Buit the excellent roads did not stop (though we found the toll plazas confusing: we never knew if we had payed for the part we had travelled or for the part we were going to travel) and shared the road with many BMW's and Mercedes cars.

About Polokwane I have mixed feelings... We arrived at 6 pm without hotelreservations and found all hotels fully booked. While darkness set in we managed to find accommodation with great difficulty, at one point I thought I would spend the night in my car...
At the airport I experienced no cooperation whatsoever from the airport authorities to practice my aviation interest, in contrast to other airports I had visited. Even while this airport is dull and lies languid in the heat (with a rather poor little restaurant), I saw no airplane moving in the hours that I struggled with the authorities. I left empty handed and frustrated.
We did enjoy our first game drive, in the Polokwane Game Reserve.


At first we took a wrong turn and drove a service road along the fence but after 30mins we found the small road that winds through the Game Reserve and we could look for wildlife in earnest. The giraffe was the first "Big Game" we spotted and we admired its stature and grace.

We drove for over two hours and saw wildebeest, antilopes, birds and warthogs. The Rhinoceros proved to be elusive. We also enjoyed the quietness of the surrounding area and found that the second part of this holiday had truly begun.


We drove from Pietersburg to Hoedspruit via the Maboegaskloof (kloof = canyon), where the many tea plantations reach as far as the eye can see. The winding road was a very pleasant drive and we could smell the tea, even while driving the car.
Further along we stopped to enjoy the view and found this man selling his few products and playing his 3-string guitar to his 2-man crowd...
In spite of the many warnings (we followed up on all good and sensible advise) we never felt uneasy and found the less fortunate quite active in their struggle to improve their lifestyle.


Having made reservations from Johannesburg in the Gomo Gomo ("Little Hills") Lodge, I intended to stay in Hoedspruit for 1 night. To make sure I was able to reach my destination in time the next day. Again from experiences in the USA I had assumed ("to assume is to make an ass out of you and me") that hotel accommodation in this gateway to the Timbavati Game Reserve would be plenty available but I was proven wrong... There are lodges in the area, but their prices vary little from the one I had booked. Fortunately the Lodge could accommodate us 1 day earlier (I phoned ahead, it is a long drive into the park) and we were just in time to make it for the 16:00 gamedrive.
We were accommodated in Tentcabin no.4, at the far end, near the hippopool and blessed with a nice view. More about this later.


This is the best thing... The Timbavati is a private game reserve and lodges lease their area for their business. The prices for staying in these lodges vary quite a bit and I was shocked by some. I choose Gomo Gomo Lodge because it was affordable, but also because it concentrated on the game drives and less on the pampering of guests. And Timbavati Game Reserve, lying next to the Krugerpark, offers the "Big Five" !
The game drives are conducted in open landrovers, driving across winding roads through the park, while the Ranger (Joachim a.k.a. "Joggie") at the wheel keeps a sharp eye out for wildlife and offers explanations and tales to the guests seated behind him. The tracker (Oscar is seen on the back) is also in a position to look for tracks on the road we were driving. The sight of these guys to spot animals is uncanny !
Notice the rifle next to the Ranger...


The first gamedrive proved to be an immediate success: lions !
 
The worst draught in 88 years in this area had driven many animals elsewhere, to the Krugerpark. A pride of lions had difficulty in sustaining itself and had split up in smaller groups. These two young lionesses found it difficult to catch game and were dining on a tortoise when we found (or heard) them.
The landrover is able to approach wildlife closely as they have no associations with them, considering the people and the car as 1 object. No threat and no food. The Rangers are careful not to hinder the animals in any way and passengers are instructed not to stand up in the landrover, as the lion could recognise that person as a single object and as prey...
More Lions...


Not only big game: we came across some big spiders too !

Some of them spin their webs, when darkness falls, across the roads. Fortunaly our tracker took good care of them when we drove under darkness: not a pleasant thought to get one of these in ones face !


There are of coure many antelopes around: Common Waterbuck, Common Reedbuck (seen here, I think, but I am confused as a lot look alike to me), Bushbuck, Impala, Common Duiker, Steenbok, Grysbok...
Their large groups form a endearing sight, but while looking upon them with affection we also knew that predators could be around and actually hoped for some stealthy action !


 

The zebra we did not see in large herds, something I had expected from my last safari (in Kenya, 20 years ago !), probably also to do with the draught. But while we visited Timbavati, the river had filled and it was expected that many animals would return over the next few months.
The Burchell Zebra is a horse-like herbivore and lives in family units of several mares and their offspring. We learned from the Ranger that when a zebra young is born, it will split from the group with its mother so as to able to learn and distinguish its mother's pattern from the other mares.


 

Wildebeest and zebra are often seen together, as the zebra likes to eat the top of the grass while the wildebeest prefers to graze the short grass. Information like this is continuously offered by the Ranger and that is what we liked about these game drives, much more appealing than a self-drive through the Krugerpark.
The wildebeest is an antelope, with weak hindquarters and strong forequarters and both sexes have horns.


The Common Waterbuck is a large antelope and not at all that common in these parts. The coat of long hair is grey-brown and only males possess horns. They are preyed upon by all larger carnivores, particularly by lions.


A Spotted Hyena kept an eye on us while it slowly moved away in de bush.
Considering how quickly animals manage to vanish from sight in these bushes, it is a wonder we came across some of them at all !


 
A word about our accommodation. Not at all a primitive tent as you can see... Behind the door in the back is a building consisting of brick walls: our bathroom. The hot shower provided lukewarm water at best and I had to deport a small frog, otherwise it was quite sufficient. The tent is even better protected against unwanted guests.
This lodge offered 4 tented cabins and 5 chalets and we preferrred the tents. During darkness it is not allowed to raom around the camp as hyena's, leopards and hippo's walk around too... A Ranger provides escort to and from the tent during darkness. The rest of the staff was equally helpful to make our stay very pleasant and the food was excellent. It really could not have been better.


A good view of the landrover set up, with Oscar, our tracker, in plain view.
Our landrover could accommodate 10 passengers, but most times we were with 6 onboard. The Gomo Gomo Lodge was able to bring 3 landrovers into the field, but there were guests for only 2. We had selected the low-season for this purpose too, much less crowded and excellent weather nevertheless (at least by European standards, locals complained about the cold and wore sweathers).
The roads in the park vary in quality, some are rocky and very bumpy. But the Ranger drove his landrover expertly and negotiated rivers and streams with great confidence. When there was occasion to leave the roads, the landrovers conquered all and everything, it seemed only to be limited by the comfort of its passengers.
During the drives communication by radio was kept open with drivers of other lodges too, sharing the sightings. Some 6-8 units were in the field during most gamedrives.


Our only exercise: the Bushwalk. The early morning gamedrive started at 06:00 and was followed by breakfast, around 08:30. Breakfast was followed by a cup of coffee and watching the Nhlaralumi river flow by and animals (antilope, baboons) on the other side.
At 10:00 volunteers left with the Ranger (with rifle) for a bushwalk. During the walk he explained tracks, animal droppings and behaviour, answered questions and kept an ever vigilant eye on the surrounding area and tale-telling tracks.
After the 45mins walk we were allowed to rest until 14:30 (lunch) and the gamedrive at 16:00 (lasting until 19:30+, with a stop at 18:00 to watch the sunset with a gin-tonic). Dinnertime depended on the time of our arrival (sometimes sightings brought us a long way from the lodge and return was past 20:00) and was enjoyed in the boma, around the campfire.


Hippo's !

Funny animals these: the Hippopotamus. But they are responsible for the most human casualties in Africa, not lions or equally impressive predators, but hippo's. They are fiercely territorial, noisy and agressive. Their snorting in the river was heard throughout the night and the clapping on the water I had heard was explained to me: they distribute their excrement by clapping their short tail on the water to confirm their territory. And I thought I had heard beavers or otters during the night !
The hippo's remain in the water during the day as they easily suffer sunburn. During darkness they come onto land and eat grass. During a bushwalk we came across feces spread out upwards onto a tree and this was done by a hippo, claiming its territory. Quite unnerving characters !


An airstrip ! There are several primitive airstrips in Timbavati Game Reserve and what a coincidence, for me as an aviation enthusiast, that we saw the most action at this airstrip... Well, that was during the night, when we saw a leopard sneaking on a group of impala's.
The open area is attractive for impala's, zebra's and wildebeest as they have a clear view of their surrounding area.


The afternoon gamedrive started at 16:00 and at around 18:00 a break was made on a safe spot where everybody was allowed to descend from the landrover. A gin-tonic, glass of wine or a soda was enjoyed, while we watched the sunset. Shortly thereafter we tried to determine which stars were where, being quite different from our Northern Hemisphere. The Ranger had profound knowledge of this subject too.
 
After this 30mins break we continued our gamedrive, while our tracker had equipped himself with a portable and powerful searchlight. The Spotted Eagle Owl and the baby Croc were some of the animals we came across.


We came across a large selection of birds too. Some of the eagles we saw were pointed out by our Ranger as: American Fish Eagles, Tawny Eagles, Snake Eagles, Kites and Buzzards. Could this be a Martial Eagle, it has the white breast and fine brown spots that identify these eagles.

 

More Birds...


No safari would be complete without sightings of the impressive African Elephant ! Males usually keep to themselves, alone or in small bachelor groups. This one was feeding on grass, bark and leaves without loosing sight of us, without any alarm by the way. Again our Ranger had approached the animal with care, but the elephant considered us with the same indifference as all the other animals.
No other animals seem to prey on elephants but their age is determined by their teeth... They change their molars 6 times during their lifetime and after that they will weaken and become prey... or fall over ?


Another impressive animal is the Buffalo, especially when you get as close as we did and look them straight in the eye...
They are non-territorial and roam around in large herds, feeding on grass, trying to remain in the shade of the small trees and bushes. There is a contant feeling of overcrowdedness when 40 of these buffalo's move around between the thick undergrowth. Herds can be as large as hundreds of them.
The lion prey on them but the herd affords good security and protection. The Ranger estimated the young in this herd to be about 1 month old.
More Buffalo...



While the Rhinoceros remained elusive, we did see 3 different Leopards ! Considered the most elusive of cats, we considered ourselves very lucky.
Female leopards have overlapping home-ranges, while the males have larger ranges incorporating several females. They are elusive and very nocturnal. Impressive to see this cat upclose.

More Leopards...


We liked our stay at the Gomo Gomo Lodge very much and decided to cancel our plans to visit the Krugerpark and extended our stay to a total of 5 days. A visit to the Krugerpark will have to wait for a revisit to South Africa, something I certainly intend to do. We drove a scenic route along the Blyde River Canyon and visited Pilgrim's Rest. While we enjoyed the drive, we were not impressed by this replica of a goldrush town, I have seen too many originals in the USA probably.
While driving through the mountainous terrain the weather deteriorated somewhat and clouds skimmed the top of the hills.


Along this route are of course the inevitable souvenir shops and we found the owners eager to sell their wares, allowing for some haggling.
The atmosphere was quite relaxed, no shouting or pressure, no hawkers, just some relaxed browsing and good-natured bargaining.


During our 2 day drive in this area we enjoyed the scenery and sights, but overall we had a feeling that we had left the climax of this holiday when we left Timbavati. We returned to Johannesburg for our eveningflight home.
As a first visit to this country we were very pleased, finding similarities with European- and North American lifestyles but with plenty of African ingredients to typify it as a different culture from ours. And while we kept to the issued advise about security and protection, we never felt threatened by anything or anybody.
We found South Africa a pleasure to visit.


http://timbavati.krugerpark.co.za/
Timbavati map
Krugerpark privat lodges - 'Siyabona Africa'