Sunday, 19 May 2013

South Africa

a fitting quotation to start this blog post

Although I first travelled to South Africa in 1995 I only visited the Western Cape at the time, and didn't know eastern South Africa at all. With this trip it was time to make amends. 

central Johannesburg

We began our trip in Johannesburg where our first stop was the must-see Apartheid Museum, which charts the rise and fall of South Africa's era of racial segregation.

the museum had a temporary exhibition about Mandela's life

The museum is very useful in understanding the tensions and inequalities that still exist in South Africa today.

a display at the Apartheid Museum

Afterwards we drove through nearby Soweto (the SOuth WEst TOwnships) which has a population of 2.5 million, and is infused with the history of the struggle against apartheid.

Orlando Towers, a former power station now used for bungee jumping

modern art in Soweto

The next day we went to the outskirts of Jo'burg where we had breakfast at Heia Safari Ranch - our first glimpse of African wildlife on African soil! 

zonkey, Heia Safari Ranch

giraffe, Heia Safari Ranch

After breakfast we headed to the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site, which stretches over an area of about 470 km2 and is one of the world's most important palaeontological areas, dotted with about 300 caves. There we visited Sterkfontein Caves, a significant archaeological site which has produced some of the most famous hominid fossils in the world, together with a range of plant and animal fossils. Sterkfontein has the highest concentration of fossils in the Cradle of Humankind, and the latter has produced more fossils of early hominids than any other site on Earth. The most famous are "Mrs Ples", a skull which is more than 2 million years old, and "Little Foot", a skeleton which is between 3 and 4 million years old.

in Sterkfontein caves

Sterkfontein has also yielded stone artefacts that are 1.7 million years old, and are the oldest dated stone tools in Southern Africa. At Swartkrans near Sterkfontein a collection of about 270 burnt bones tells us that our ancestors could manage fire more than 1 million years ago.

in Sterkfontein caves

The following day we travelled to the nation's administrative capital, Pretoria. At the heart of the city is Church Square, which is surrounded by imposing public buildings such as the Palace of Justice, where the Rivonia trial that sentenced Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment was held in 1963-64.

Palace of Justice, Church Square, Pretoria

Café Riche bistro, Church Square, Pretoria

In the middle of the square is a statue of Paul Kruger (1825-1904), a Boer leader and 5th president of the South African Republic (1883-1900).

statue of Paul Kruger, Church Square, Pretoria

We then headed to the nearby Union buildings, the sweeping sandstone government headquarters and home to the presidential offices. You can't visit the buildings, but you can appreciate the lovely gardens, which are used for public celebrations such as Mandela's inauguration in 1994.

Union buildings, Pretoria, seen from the gardens

After over-nighting in Tzaneen, in Limpopo Province, our next stop was the famous Kruger Park, named after the President I mentioned above.

seen en route for Kruger Park

Although we only spent one night in the Park we saw an amazing amount of wildlife, as you can see from the photos below.

Southern yellow-billed hornbill

Shaped liked a long, narrow wedge, Kruger Park is 380km long and roughly 60 km wide. It covers ≈20 000km2 and has 20 different ecozones.


unidentified animal skull, Kruger Park

Buffaloes are one of the 'Big Five'; the others are elephant, rhino, lion and leopard. The term originates from big-game hunters and referred to the five most difficult and dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot.




The night we spent in the Park was at Olifants Camp, which overlooks the beautiful Olifants River.

Olifants River, evening

Olifants river with the morning mist

South Africa has more than 800 species of birds, including the world's largest bird - the ostrich - and the smallest raptor - the pygmy falcon.

Dark-capped bulbul

Elephants, white rhinos and hippos are the world's three largest land mammals.

Bull? Elephant

White-headed vulture

Roller birds, like the lilac-breasted one pictured below, get their name from their tendency to 'roll' from side to side during flight to show off their plumage.

Lilac-breasted roller

Rhinos aren't actually named for their colour, but for their lip shape: 'white' come comes wijde ('wide'), the Boers term for the fatter-lipped white rhino.

White rhino

Hippopotamuses can weigh from 500 to 3000 kg and be 3-4 metres long. They spend their time in or near water, chewing on aquatic plants.

a hippo's yawn


The Kori bustard is considered to be the heaviest flying bird in the world.

Kori bustard

On leaving the Park we drove alongside the Drakensberg Escarpment and then headed south for Graskop via Blyde River Canyon.

part of the Drakensberg Escarpment

part of the Drakensberg Escarpment

Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world (after Fish River Canyon in Namibia and the USA's Grand Canyon), and is one of South Africa's most outstanding sights. It is 26 km in length and on average is around 762 m deep. One of the best views in the whole Canyon is of the "Three Rondavels", huge, round rocks, thought to be reminiscent of indigenous huts known as 'rondavels'.

Three Rondavels, Blyde River Canyon

For another fabulous view we headed to God's Window, where cliffs plunge 700 m down to the lowveld landscape below. 

view from God's Window

Red agave flowers, God's Window

We also stopped briefly at nearby Pilgrim's Rest, a late-19th century gold rush town that has been preserved more or less in its original state.

main street, Pilgrim's Rest

Next we headed to Swaziland, where we spent a night near Manzini and stopped the next day at Nisela Safaris, a small private reserve near Swaziland's southern border.

a spiral-horned male nyala

There we saw warthogs and nyala antelopes, and admired the traditional Swazi 'beehive' accommodation.

Swazi beehive hut

road sign, Swaziland

On leaving Swaziland we headed for the coast, where we were going to spend two nights at Sodwana Bay in order to go scuba-diving.

note "Beware of hippos and crocodiles" as well as sharks!

Sodwana Bay is recognised as one of South Africa's best dive sites,  and is the only tropical dive site in the country. The 50 km reef complex (believed to be the most southerly coral reefs in the world) boasts around 95 species of hard and soft coral, sponges, other invertebrates and around 1200 fish species. It attracts 35 000 scuba divers every year. 700m deep valleys,  and underwater canyons, are spread over a distance of 2km.

our dive club's set-up on Sodwana Bay Beach

Rare coelacanths were sighted here in 2000 (for more about coelacanths see my blog post here). Sodwana Bay is part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which stretches for 220km south from the Mozambique border.

because of the surf boats have to be launched using tractors

I was somewhat apprehensive about the water temperature, but at 23-24°C the sea was warmer than the air temperature of 20-21°C!

looking out to sea, Sodwana Bay

The majority of the reefs are named after their distance from the launch area, and we did two drift dives on 2 Mile Reef at 'Bikini' and on Southern 2 Mile at 'Caves & Overhangs'. 

map of 2 Mile Reef dive spots

Bikini has an average depth of 18 metres and is considered an advanced dive site. It's an important cleaning station on the reef complex, but bigger visitors (sharks, dolphins, whales, mantas) can also be seen on occasion, although we didn't spot any on our dives.

We saw a potato bass, crocodile fish, leaf fish and moray eels as well as nudibranchs. 

Caves and Overhangs has an average depth of 13 m, and a maximum possible of 17 m. We saw a hawksbill turtle, a blue-spotted stingray, triggerfish and scorpionfish, amongst other things.

traditional village, Kwazulu-Natal 

Leaving the coast we drove inland through Kwazulu-Natal to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Although one-twentieth of the size of Kruger Park, Hluhluwe has plenty of wildlife, and its size makes it somewhat more accessible. It's renowned for its rhinos, and we certainly saw plenty of them!

white rhinos


The area was once the royal hunting grounds of King Shaka and the Zulu kingdom, but was established as a modern-day park in 1895.

male warthog

Our accommodation was at the unfenced Mpila Camp in a safari tent.

safari tent, Mpila camp, Hulhluwe

night sky, seen from Mpila Camp, Hluhluwe

As the camp is unfenced the Park's animals can wander around, and several hyenas came to see us that night - I had never realised how big they are!

hyena, Mpila Camp, Hluhluwe

African wild dog

One of the best sightings of our whole trip was on our last day in South Africa, on leaving Hluhluwe the next morning, when we saw a female cheetah and two cubs walking by the side of the road!

female cheetah, Hluhluwe Park

If you enjoyed this post you might also like:

Suggested reading:

  • Disgrace: A Novel by JM Coetzee explores the downfall of one man and dramatizes with unforgettable, almost unbearable vividness the plight of South Africa - a country caught in the chaotic aftermath of the overthrow of Apartheid.

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