Thursday, April 23, 2009

Road -Trip: Round II

As promised, here is the run-down on our exciting road-trip through Kruger National Park, South Africa, and into Mozambique. We traveled with another couple, each with our own fully-equipped 4x4 and spent 10 days driving from one terrain to the next, through mountains, bush, jungle, and beach!

Day 1:
The trip started hours before sunrise the morning of April 10th. We met our travel companions at the border, swapped Ziplocs of brownies and lemon bars (my latest trademark) and hit the road. Despite the late-night prep and multiple checklists, it was only a matter of hours before realizing we’d forgotten some key essentials: our beloved LP guidebook, towels (travel or otherwise), and pillows for camping. Darn!

Despite the small hiccup, we continued on our way. We headed northeast from Lesotho and made our way through Free State’s ever-exciting flatlands and maize fields, finally reaching the gorgeous, curvy mountain roads that mark the start of Blyde River Canyon, in Mpumalanga province, South Africa. Blyde River Canyon forms the northern part of the Drankensberg escarpment and is considered by some measures to be the third largest canyon in the world, after Grand Canyon and Fish River Canyon in Namibia! We set up camp at a quaint backpackers located in a charming town called Graskop (which I still can’t pronounce) and headed out for an amazing meal at a Mozambican restaurant (couldn’t wait the extra few days!) to celebrate the start of what we knew would be an amazing trip.

Day 2:
We awoke early and a bit damp after a slightly stormy night and spent the morning enjoying a lovely pancake breakfast and a quick provision restock (yay for cheap pillows!) before hitting the road again. This day turned out to be, by far, the most scenic of our driving days—as we wound our way in and out of the canyon’s view. Most of the canyon consists or red sandstone, but at the same time it is completely lush, full of pine forests and subtropical foliage, making the mountains look like green velvet from far away. We stopped at about 4 different viewpoints along the way for amazing photo ops. Here are some of my favorites:

Possibly the best view was the "Three Rondavels" viewpoint—huge, round rocks, which resemble the huts of the indigenous people, known as rondavels.

After a full day of driving, we reached a lovely B&B just outside the Phalaborwha gate entrance to Kruger National Park, which, at 18,989 square km (7,332 sq mi) is the largest game reserve in South Africa. (The park itself is the same size as Israel!).

Day 3:
This was another early morning for us (I never said it would be a relaxing vacation) as we joined the queue of cars lined up at the gate, eager to enter the park. We spent all day (and I mean all day, from 6am until almost 5pm) self-driving through the huge park. I’m proud to say I did all the driving on this day, which was pretty exciting considering our close encounters with elephants, giraffes, buffalo, zebra, and one lone female lion. Here are a few pictures of the biggest elephant I've ever seen! You can't really tell from the photo, but he is much bigger than our 4x4 truck. (Look- he takes up more than 1/2 the road!)

Tired, dusty, and hungry after a long day of driving, we headed into the Punda Maria camp located inside the park (of course fenced off from the wildlife!). After a refreshing dip in the camp’s swimming pool and fabulous home-made braii, the four of us headed out for a night-time guided safari drive. Unfortunately the sleep deprivation and early mornings hit us as soon as we sat down and we all spent most of the two-hour drive dozing in and out of sleep and fantasizing about the sleeping bags (and pillows) that awaited us in our tents.

Day 4:
This was a tough one. We made our official border crossing into Mozambique this morning through the often overlooked Pafuri post. I cannot even describe the vast difference in everything around us—from people, to roads and infrastructure—as soon as we crossed the border. As we left behind the well-maintained and developed South African side, full of people, facilities, clear signage, and development, we entered the more isolated and overgrown post-war Mozambican side. Little did I know that the small paved square around the scattered customs buildings would be the last patch of pavement we’d drive on for two days!

As soon as we pulled away from the border, we found ourselves driving through overgrown jungle, in and out of scattered villages, passing immense baobab trees on our way to the infamous Limpopo River, which we hoped and prayed was low enough for us to cross in our vehicles. A low river would mean a straight path (through wild formerly mined bush, mind you!) to Vilankulo Beach, on the coast of Mozambique, known for its close access to the pristine Bazaruto Archipelago. If the river was too high, it would mean turning around and backtracking through bush and the newly established Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park---kind of like Mozambique’s Kruger, but very, very different!! This route would also mean swapping Vilankulo for another beach further south around Inhambane Province. So, did we make it through the river? I’ll let the photo of the Limpopo River speak for itself.

So, back south it is!! Within a couple of hours, we reached the unattended gate entrance to the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a 35,000 km² peace park that is in the process of being formed. A “peace park” spans across boundaries of multiple countries, where the political borders closed within its area are abolished, allowing free migration of animals and humans within the area. Peace parks encourage goodwill between neighboring countries—which is a particularly good thing for Mozambique considering its violent, war-torn past.

So, we helped ourselves into the park and drove along rough 4x4 “trails” for hours upon hours, without another person or animal in sight. Apparently, fences between the parks have started to come down allowing the animals to take up their old migratory routes that were blocked before due to political boundaries. And supposedly in 2001, the first 40 of a planned 1000 elephants were translocated from the over-populated Kruger National Park to the war-ravaged Limpopo National Park… but the only form of wildlife I saw were a few birds, one bok, and a domesticated cat that hung around our campsite! Speaking of our campsite, you can imagine our surprise when—in the middle of nowhere—after barely seeing another person (we did eventually pass a few indigenous villages, hours into the park), we came upon a man who showed us to a beautifully maintained campground, complete with thatch shower and bathroom area and braii pit! I had imagined us clearing the bush, digging a latrine, and praying for no lions in the middle of nowhere! We enjoyed a lovely dinner of vegetarian chili and skillet cornbread before calling it a night.

Days 5-7:
After a futile attempt to wipe the accumulated dust from the inside of our car, we packed up and got back on the bumpy road leading us out of the park. Once out, the roads (slightly) improved and we spent a full day driving through Mozambique, making our way to the coast, enjoying the lively scenery outside. I was so amazed at how different Mozambique feels from Lesotho. It somehow seems more alive, colorful, bustling, energetic. Maybe it’s the Latin/Portuguese influence, or the proximity to the coast… I’m not sure, but I was loving it. I was especially interested in looking at the vastly different style of traditional houses and huts (especially in my line of work!) and was amazed to see rustic man-made houses constructed with woven rows of sticks, bamboo, and thatch. The houses looked nice but they seemed like they could fall down with one gust of wind. (reminded me of ‘The Three Little Pigs! ..and the big bad wolf huffed, and he puffed, and he blew that house down!” or something like that…) Anyway, we eventually made our way to the coast.

Without our trusty guidebook, it was tough to decide which beach to stop at, but a few of our friends highly recommended Tofo Beach so, despite passing other options along the way, we pressed on after sunset to Tofo. That was definitely the right decision. Tofo is a beautiful spot with a few tasteful lodges (we opted for a beachfront hut made of thatch and natural materials) right along the beach, a small marketplace, some restaurants and bars, and most importantly, amazing access to the gorgeous, crystal clear water and white, squeaky sand. We gladly hid our car keys and spent 3 full days lounging at the beach, eating great seafood, and soaking in the warm sunshine. It is true that after almost a week of early wake-up calls, camping, full days of driving, and bumpy roads, I would have been happy at any beach… but Tofo really exceeded my expectations. Why don’t you see for yourself…

Day 8:
After 3 days of relaxing, reading, and eating well, I had to be peeled away from the beach as we started our journey towards Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. After another long day of driving, we reached the outskirts of Maputo by around 4pm and spent the next hour or two inching our way through traffic and chaos. Maputo is a really interesting city- full of Portuguese, African, and even Soviet-era influences. The main avenue is very wide and lined with vendors and stalls selling everything from live chickens, ice cream, and rum, to furniture, clothing, and handbags. We decided to ‘splash out’ for a change and stayed at the beautiful and posh Southern Sun Hotel right on the beach in a great part of the city. We enjoyed a great seafood dinner that was tasty but required the use of bibs.

Day 9:
This was our last full day of driving and our goal was to make it to Harrismith, where we would find lots of B&B and restaurant options, and would also leave us with an easy, relaxed drive back to Lesotho the next day. Also, back on South African soil (and covered with insurance again), I took over the wheel for most of the day and enjoyed driving through the changing scenery—from big city, to mountain roads, and back to the familiar flatlands of Free State.

We reached Harrismith after dark and almost had to camp out in our cars because most B&Bs had no vacancies. We finally stumbled upon the perfect little B&B and immediately dropped out bags to grab dinner at a fine, truly-Afrikaaner establishment called ‘Spur.’ Now, for those of you who haven’t had the privilege of eating at a Spur, it is perhaps the South African equivalent of a TGI Fridays, with an overdose of beef and ribs, and minus the salad options and 'flair.' It is not uncommon to find many a barefoot child running through a Spur, in addition to disgruntled teenagers forced into family dinners, and groups of friends and couples out for a ‘Big Night’ on the town. In case you didn’t catch my sarcasm, it’s not a place I would ever choose to eat at when offered other options, but desperate times call for desperate measures and man were we hungry after 10 hours on the road! I ordered one of the most reasonable-sized meals I could find: a guacamole and bacon cheeseburger with onion rings AND a baked potato on the side (ugh- I feel sick just thinking of it) and made a small dent in it before feeling way too full. I guess it’s not a holiday unless there’s a bit of indulgence and maybe some gluttony, right?

Day 10:
At last, time to head home. I definitely felt ready to be home by Day 10 and was thankful that our final drive was only about 3 hours. There is nothing better than reaching home after a long trip and having a full day to relax, unpack, catch up with life, and prepare to re-enter reality. Sigh.

So, another successful roadtrip in Southern Africa. I think by now, we’ve covered most of this region and I’m looking forward to exploring someplace new next time around. Maybe Ethiopia? Rwanda? Timbuktu?

…but not for a while!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

On the road again...

Hi there.

Tomorrow, before the sun rises, I will once again pack up the 4x4 and hit the open road for my next adventure. For 10 days, four of us will travel through South Africa’s Kruger National Park, then into the bush and beaches of Mozambique. We’ve stocked up on essential supplies, emergency kits, food, drinks, and everything else you could imagine…

My bag is packed, my book’s picked out and I am definitely ready to see something new and take my mind as far away from work, worries, and winter as possible! I am most looking forward to potential lion-sightings in South Africa and maybe getting the chance to snorkel off the islands around Villanculous, Mozambique!

I can’t wait! I promise a longer post with photos when I return.

Until then...