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South Africa 1999 (SA1)

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South Africa Adventure Tour  (3-26 September 1999)


"Run!" the command came fast and sharp amidst the stillness of the African bushveld. Before we know it, everyone was running at a speed most of us have little inkling that we were capable of.  However, in less than 5 seconds, it was all over with our ranger guide shouting "Okay, all can stop".


We were on a 24 days' adventure tour in South Africa (SA) last September that our group had a chance encounter with two black rhinos in Mkhaya Nature Reserve in Swaziland. The black rhino is one of the Big Five animals on everyone's safari list and the most endangered and difficult to spot, as compared to its cousins the white rhinos. Having just heard from our guide of the dangers of crossing the paths of these bad tempered giants, we were only too glad to bolt upon our ranger guide's command. It was certainly the funniest incident in our trip as we later figured that most of us had run more than 25m while the rhinos had chased for only 5m. But this is Africa's adventure at its wildest!


We started our Safari adventure at the famous KrugerNational Park, not only the largest and oldest but also the best-managed wildlife park in South Africa. Covering over 20,000 sq. km in Mpumalanga, Kruger has the greatest animal diversity in Africa, including the "Big Five" - Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Buffalo and Rhino. The southern section is by far the most popular and is accessible from Johannesburg some 478km away (or equivalent to the distance from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur). Spotting the games in Safaris takes skill and experience. It's easier that you mistake a rhino for a large boulder or to miss the king of the beasts in the tall and earth-coloured grass as African game is after all designed with camouflage in mind. During our 3 days sojourn at Kruger, we were lucky to spot all the big five! That was sheer elements of luck and patience as we learnt that there were some locals who visited Kruger year after year but could only spot all five in every one out of 6-8 visits. These may be exactly what make game spotting so "additive" for some. A few of us might have entertained little excitement of visiting a safari or game reserve which was thought to be nothing but a bigger version of our Singapore's Zoo. But by the end of the safari adventure, we were totally converted. All of us were so addicted to the art of game spotting and got so excited each time we spotted a major game that our guide had to remind us many times to keep our voices down to avoid scaring the animals. For such a change, we must give credit to our guide who is an amazing walking encyclopedia on the African flora and fauna.  We were totally awed by his eagle-sharpness of eyesight as he pointed out minute details of animals (even gender!) so far away that we even had problems making out using our binoculars and long telephoto lenses!  Nevertheless, we have learnt the most fundamental of Safaris, that is, the best times of day for game-viewing are the cooler early morning when the gates are just opened and the late afternoon when the temperature starts dropping.


Our SA adventure was more than just a Safari. Immediately after flying into Johannesburg, we were driven to the 3rd largest canyon in the world, BlydeRiverCanyon where we explored the natural wonders of Africa. We had some thrill walking moments on the top of the several waterfalls, Lisbon and Berlin falls, where we took a downward heart-stopping peek down the cascades, and at Bourke's Luck Potholes featuring strange but smoothly scooped formations carved into the rocks by water-driven pebbles at the confluence of the Treur and Blyde rivers. The best view of all could well be the Three Rondavels set against the Blyde river dam. It was there that we carpe diem to take at least one dramatic solo photo standing by the edge of an overhanging rock for that "top of the world, possibly drop to the bottom" kind of feeling.


Next, we proceeded to Swaziland, a hilly kingdom within eastern SA, for a glimpse of traditional African crafts. Colourful baskets and mats made from traditional grass weaving, wooden crafts, Swazi candles and crystal-clear glass craftworks of all shapes and sizes are displayed in the widespread "Curios" markets or centers. Living up to our reputation as avid shoppers, most of us did not waste the opportunity of buying back a few pieces home for our friends and relatives.


After the taste of Swazi culture and the excitement of game viewing in the Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve on foot and in the Mkhaya Game Reserve on 4 WD  (the memorable encounter with the two black rhinos!), we took a slow drive to St Lucia where we cruised on Lake St Lucia. We were supposed to sight the largest South African population of hippos wallowing and snorting in the shallow water (1.5m) and the rich bird life but we were pretty unlucky with the rain. Ill-prepared in our shorts and sports sandals, the "cold exposure" to an unrelenting wind was just another great experience. For that moment, we were only too glad to get on shore and back to the coziness of our lodge, never mind the ecological wonder of the place.


At the African heartland of Zululand where Zulu indigenous crafts and customs are rich, we had an overnight stay in the traditional Zulu huts. There, we were treated to a night of Zulu hospitality of dance and dinner and told of its tales - the rise of Zulu nation under the rule of King Shaka and its fall to the British imperial force, all under the warm of the glittering South African stars. A township stay with the Basothos and the Zulus families in Harrismith was yet another great opportunity to truly feel the tune of Africa.


The relatively undeveloped high mountain kingdom of Lesotho, "The Roof of Africa", beckoned next with plenty of rolling undulating highland scenery. We were driven on a 4WD vehicle over the adventurous SaniPass. It may possibly be a nerve-wrecking experience for the faint-hearted with its innumerous narrow and winding turns, but a thrilling one with its dramatic gain of elevation with every loop. Lesotho was also where our serious trekking adventure actually began.  Despite the pretty cold temperature of between 8-10oC, it was worth all the efforts for the beautiful sight when we reached the highest points of the pass, Hodgeson Peak at about 3200m, where we could see the surrounding gigantic valleys and lowlands a hundred kilometres away. 


Back to SA, we continued to the soaring DrakensbergMountains, the highest in Southern Africa, where we camped and trekked for the next few days. Being the "Dragon Mountains" or the Zulus call the mountains Quathlamba (or "Barrier of Spears") in awe of its many high peaks and pinnacles divided by deep ravines and chasms, it is a hikers' paradise which offers great hiking and horse-riding in winding trails through the spectacular mountain scenery. One of our best treks might be to the top of Mike's Pass where we captured a panorama of the range of the CathedralPeak. Though we failed to reach the Cathedral Circuit as we got lost amidst the well-posted trail signs, we completed a 22.5 km Tugela Gorge hike, undoubtedly the most popular walk in the region. We were disappointed again as we saw the Tugela Falls, reputedly the 2nd highest in the world at 850m, in the "dried out" state due to the dry winter condition. Nevertheless, we had some fun climbing a 10 m high ladder chain and were happy with the great mountain scenery that were bestowed upon us. Drakensberg is also renowned for its rich and finest San rock arts in the world. Invariably found high up either under rock overhangs or deep caves that required some physical efforts in getting there, we took the opportunity to hike for 3 hours under the blazing sun just to be notably impressed by them. But we were left wondering how some of these rock arts managed to survive for so long with the kind of primitive ink, made of animal blood, charcoal and other colouring materials, that were used.


Travelling southwards was our coastal wilderness adventure along the Garden Route, which is a romantic garden of rich colourful vistas. While camping at the rugged coastline of TsitsikammaNational Park, we took a short hike on one of the most famous walks in SA - the Otter Trail.  The short hike was just the first day of the 41-km 5-day trail that takes the hiker along the rugged coastline, across ravines, through thick forests and along golden beaches. Tsitsikamma is just the place to laze around to appreciate the full symphony of pounding surf, quaking seagulls and a wonderful sea breeze against one of the most rugged African coastline. We even managed to catch glimpses of dolphins racing near the shorelines.


More leisure times followed as we arrived at the arid savannah town of Oudtshoorn - the Ostrich capital of the world beside Australia. Out of the several major ostrich farms, we took an organised tour to the Cango Ostrict Farm. A few of us were game enough to ride an ostrich, and that turned out to be far harder than it looked. We also visited the Cango Wildlife Park where some took the chance to touch a cheetah. Finally, our tour of Oudtshoorn ended with a caving adventure in the CangoCaves sighting some 200,000 years old stalactites and stalagmites. A great adventure when we needed to squeeze in-between some tight passages along the way, certainly something that requires more effort out of a bigger person.  


Leaving Oudtshoorn, we took on a hair-raising mountain bike trip down the winding Swartberg mountain pass.  It was really a test of brake control and we were shown the possible danger of a miscontrol as one crazy New Zealander hurled down the pass in a fury and a straight shortcut down hillside. Miraculously he survived the adrenaline plunge with just a few cuts to his limbs and a nasty knock to his brain. We wondered if he was wiser after this hard knock.


Along our drive to Cape Town, we stopped by one of the SA's unsung attractions offering the best shore-based whalewatching in the world - the WhaleCoast.  At the small seaside town of Hermanus, we sighted the Southern Right whales performing "headstand" only about 100 metres away from the shore.  Our timing was just right as the best time for sightings is between May and November. It was certainly one of the most leisure activities of our entire tour but required the most of our patience.


Finally we arrived at Cape Town, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world with backdrop of the "TableMountain". At noon, we headed straight for the Mountain where the majority of us opted to take the hike straight up (via Platteklip Gorge) instead of taking the cable car. The hike made our experience on the mountain all the more memorable as the view from atop the mountain of the Atlantic Ocean was simply beautiful in the setting sun.  The horizon was the last we could see before we unwillingly made our way down the mountain, this time on the cable car to get the best of both worlds. Dinner was good and cheap in the restaurants at the Waterfront, about 50% of the cost of a similar meal in Singapore.


On our 2nd last day in SA, we sailed to the Seal Island from Hout Bay to view the fur seals, and drove along the Chapman's Peak Drive which is one of the world most stunning scenic drives.  After "brunch" at BoulderBeach, we sighted the most elegant African Penguins, nesting, sunning, and swimming along the shores in close proximity. Lastly, we visited the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve at the most southerly tip of the Peninsula, Cape Point. On the wild coast where the reputed legend of the Flying Dutchman remains, we experienced particularly strong wind that threatened to blow us off our feet.  Such was indeed a fitting end to an adventure tour as we reluctantly fly back home in the early morning the next day after 22 days in South Africa.



A journey to Africa is a journey to the soul- an ancient voice stirs deep within us, reconnecting us to the very essence of our being, for it was here, in Africa, that our ancestors became man.

- Jonathan Scott




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South Africa 1999 (SA1)

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