South Africa

72,982 BC

There’s a place in the north-east of South Africa that is the size of Wales, or Belgium if you prefer waffles over a rarebit. Covering an area of over 7500 square miles, Kruger National Park is one of the largest national parks in the world, and undoubtedly the most famous. Named after Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal from 1883 to 1900, not that guy with the burned face who lives a few doors down on Elm Street. The Kruger is a must see on any trip to South Africa.

Kruger spans over five different eco systems, attracting many different types of animals and birdlife, depending on the vegetation and climate. The park is so popular it does come with its negatives. It was Christmas, all the accommodation and game drives were booked months ago by South Africans. So driving for over an hour to get to the park, then waiting for another hour to get inside meant the best animal activity was over by the time we got inside. Driving around staring into the bushveld for hours on end, was a tedious and tiring experience. We did see plenty of the ‘less exiting’ animals and plenty of birdlife though.

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Southern Red-Billed Hornbill

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Grey ‘Go-Away’ Bird

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Spotted Hyena

After two days of driving looking for predators in vain, we finally struck lucky on the way out at the coolest time of the day. Seeing a wild pride of lions is great, but when they’re surrounded by cars the experience does lose some of its allure. Unfortunately the only way you’re going to get exclusivity in the Kruger is by paying £9000 a night at the private game reserve next door, then you only need to share the experience with Elton John and his boyfriend while you drive around on an air conditioned truck, nibbling caviar and sipping on champagne.

The Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world. It forms part of the Drakensberg escarpment and was created over millions of years of the Blyde river gushing through the red sandstone cliffs. ‘Blyde’ means happy in Dutch, and the canyons breathtaking views will make you feel just that.

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The Three Rondivals

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Pinnacles

Where the Treur River meets the Blyde Canyon it creates a series of swirling whirlpools, which over countless eons has grinded a number of cylindrical holes known as Bourke’s Luck Potholes. Interesting stuff, but not as interesting as listening to a stereotypical American Dad punish his son in the queue by removing his ‘privileges’.

A strange American space cadet in Swaziland told me about a mysterious megalithic structure in the Mpumalanga province, that goes by the name of Adam’s Calendar. This was something I needed to check out myself. Adam’s Calendar was discovered in 2003 when a pilot crashed his aircraft into the surrounding mountains. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than a load of rocks. Accurate measurements have been taken and calculations made, proving that this is in fact a stone calendar thought to be approximately 75,000 years old, making Adam’s Calendar the oldest man-made structure in the world.

These boulders weigh up to five tonnes and were brought from a site far away, near the river bed. The larger, central monolith casts shadows over the surrounding rocks, which amazingly still work accurately as a functioning calendar. They even perfectly line up during equinox and solstices. This place really questions how advanced ‘people’ were 75,000 ago. Some believe it’s the birthplace of mankind, some a portal to another dimension. In the distance a few kilometres away, there are three structures known as Adam’s Pyramids, which are on exact same line of longitude as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Coincidence?

There are so many unanswered questions and many theories, some silly, some realistic they’re scary. This mind boggling place certainly makes you think, the most crazy and unexplained thing of all is that when you walk through the central monolith of the holy site with a compass, the needle goes haywire and spins around in a wayward manner. Even the compass on a phone governed by satellites freaks out and I’m pretty sure that whoever built this, didn’t have Facebook location services in mind. Could this have something to do with why the plane crashed in the first place? Did someone, or something, want this place to be found?

It sounds very similar to the TV series ‘Lost’ and was a great way to spend New Year in a spectacular setting. I’m not ready to step through that portal and say ‘see you in another life’ just yet, but I will play Auld Lang Syne on these mysterious singing rocks, pull out my 2018 cute cats calendar and say Happy New Year!

Further reading on Adam’s Calendar can be found here

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The Lord Of Afrikaan Things

Cape Town has many stunning suburban beaches. One that I wanted to visit was the obscure Macassar beach which was home to a holiday resort and water park. The resort was closed and abandoned after financial problems, now the moving sand dunes have engulfed the pavilion, changing rooms and water slides leaving it a weird and eerie place. We’d just got out of the car when a local fisherman pulled over to warn us not to walk around as it ‘wasn’t safe at all’. Now the deserted pavilion is a haunt for druggies who would happily mug you for a few rand. After googling ‘Macasser Beach Crime’ I read that only last year an angler was murdered for his car battery. I guess there’s a reason this place isn’t listed in the guidebooks, time to move on.

Great White Sharks are an apex predator of a marine ecosystem. It’s scientifically proven that if the Great White was removed from the ocean it would lead to an imbalanced food chain, which in turn would result in excess growth of algae, effectively suffocating the ocean. Shark cage diving, isn’t actually diving, it’s just floating on the surface then holding your breath and ducking under when a shark comes near. Even then the shark had to practically touch the cage to be able to see it through the freezing cold murky water, I actually got more exited by the floating tuna head they used as bait. Paying just shy of £100 each for this wasn’t exactly good value. They did throw in some cold calamari rings though to enhance the severe seasickness.

Oudtshoorn is undoubtedly the ostrich capital of the world. The Highgate Ostrich Show Farm is the best place to go on a tour for all things ostrich. Here you can see the local ladies making ostrich feather boas, feed the forever hungry birds and learn all about their breeding habits.

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Ostrich chicks

Four ostrich facts:-

1 – An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.

2 – One ostrich egg is the size of 24 chicken eggs.

3 – A male ostrich’s tail feathers look like Donald Trump’s hair.

4 – Holding on to a running ostrich is absolutely solid.

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“They’re all just losers”

In Tsitsikamma National Park you can do the world’s highest commercial bungee jump, or you can save the money and just watch someone do it, which was enough for me to say “I’d rather bathe in ostrich shit”. I opted to do the easy and tame walk to Storm’s River Mouth over the 77 metre suspension bridge. ‘Tsitsikamma’ is a Khoe-San word meaning ‘many water’. That might explain why it hardly stopped raining while we were there.

In Addo Elephant Park there is almost 600 elephants, so seeing a big hoard of them is almost guaranteed. You can self drive most national parks in South Africa, meaning you can have some really nice animal encounters. It’s ironic that in South Africa elephants won’t damage the vehicle or interfere with human things, but if you left your car unattended in a supermarket car park, there’s a good change you’d return to a smashed window and a missing radio.

It’s funny how sometimes a place seems to find a connection with something famous, and then jumps on the bandwagon. That’s exactly what happened with the mountain village of Hogsback. JRR Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein but moved to England when he was three. Some claim that after visiting the town as an infant, the area inspired him to write his 1200 page epic novel. Although the beautiful scenery does look like middle-earth, I think this is extremely unlikely. That didn’t stop the town playing on the ‘fairy dreamworld’ theme making artists, crystal healers and many more pretentious hippies flocking here. I guess if Kate from Berkshire gets sucked in by the magical vibe and wants to walk around with no shoes on before she returns to her day job as the plaster technician, each to their own.

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Hogsback is magical. And magic mushrooms are widely available.

Named after the three ‘hogsback’ bristly looking hills that overlook the town, it is certainly an amazing area, great for walks around the indigenous forest where I spotted the localised Knysna Turaco and the resident Cape Parrots. You can hear them before you see them at around dawn when they return home to roost.

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The indigenous forest

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Madonna and Child Falls

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38 steps falls

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The Three Hog Mountains

There’s speculation that Tolkien’s nanny was from Hogsback and told him mysterious Xhosa tales of her home at the foot of the hogs mountain, where the hobbits and fairies reside. Believe it or not, the most magical thing for me in Hogsback was being able to take a bath for the first time in three months, and what a way to do it!

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Cape Crusader

Cape Town, the Mother city of South Africa. The Dutch East India Company set up a base here in the mid nineteen hundreds. The locals didn’t like it and shunned them. The Dutch imported slaves from elsewhere in Africa, India, Malaysia and Indonesia to help with their labour shortage and also for the colonists to have sex with, creating a whole new race of people who are nowadays referred to as ‘coloured’. Hence, Cape Town has a rich multicultural history. They don’t call South Africa the rainbow nation for nothing.

District six was a thriving area of Cape Town which housed mainly coloured Muslims but also Xhosa speaking blacks and white Afrikaans. The apartheid regime ripped district six down as their philosophy stated that interracial interaction bred conflict. The district six museum gives moving insight into life during the apartheid.

The colourful neighbourhood of Bo-Kaap is the Malay quarter of Cape Town. This former township was originally used to house freed slaves. Now the streets resemble last season’s Ikea showroom.

The Company’s Garden originally started out as a vegetable patch for the Dutch East India Company. Now it’s a beautiful city garden with many trees, small animals and birds. It is also a place where hoards of Cape Town’s homeless and drug addicts come to try and make money with one scam or another. Ranging from selling stodgy muffins to pay for a child’s education or collecting donations for a make believe syringe clean up program, I heard it all. The best one had to be if I’d like to invest into a man’s ingenious idea ‘the homeless suitcase’. Acting as a suitcase through the day his blueprint explained how it converts into a bed at night – I’m in!

Robben island means ‘seal island’ in Dutch and it’s where Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his incarceration. After a 45 minute boat ride which smelt like pickled onion space raiders, you’re ushered into a coach and driven around the island to look at some rather dull sights, but can’t leave the bus. You’re then shown around the prison block by a former inmate. He doesn’t tell you much interesting information, just bangs on about freedom and how great Nelson Mandela is. It’s a very a touristic experience, but almost essential for any visit to Cape Town. The highlight was looking into Mandela’s cell, which is identical the all the others. I really hope his feet weren’t too bad when he was locked in there with no access to his chiropodist.

Boulders beach Penguin colony is the permanent home to thousands of cute African penguins. It started when a breeding pair rocked up here in the 80’s, the perfect bay sheltered them from the wind and the surrounding seas offering the perfect penguin diet, so they had no reason to leave.

Table Mountain is the most iconic landmark in Cape Town and can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. Unfortunately going to the peak was the one thing I didn’t do. It looked far too cloudy at the top, it will be a cold day in hell you’ll catch me paying £20 to go up a cable car to look at the clouds. Instead I got a decent view of the city from the slopes of signal hill next the noon canon which is fired everyday at 12 noon, great view and the best thing about it? It was free.

Duiker island is the real Seal island of Cape Town, set on the opposite side of the cape to False Bay. After spending half an hour on a yacht with dozens of seasick Chinese tourists I was expecting too see the man himself performing such hits as ‘crazy’ and ‘kiss from a rose’. Instead all I got was a giant rock covered in some big barking water dogs. False Bay? False advertising more like.

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Next Stop Soweto

In 1904 an outbreak of the bubonic plague was used as an excuse by the Johannesburg city council to ship over 2000 blacks and Indians to a settlement 18km from the city centre. By the 1930’s Orlando was built and as Jobergs population continued to grow, by the 1950’s 20 other suburbs had been built around Orlando. The area was officially named South Western Townships, abbreviated to Soweto in 1963. Today Soweto plays an important part in the history of South Africa.

A basic house in Vilakazi street, almost identical to 1000’s of other single floor dwellings in Soweto, is where Nelson Mandela lived with his wife Winnie and their children. Winnie stayed with Nelson for the whole 27 years he was behind bars, but when he was released in 1991 she bin bagged him within a year.

We know Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter, but he was also a boxer during his younger years. The WBC World Heavyweight Championship belt, which was held by Sugar Ray Leonard at the time, was gifted to him by the man himself shortly after his realise from prison.

Only a few doors down on the same street is the house of South Africa Anglican cleric Desmond Tutu, thus making Vilakazi street the only street in the world where two Nobel laureates have lived. Just over the road the chiropodist of both men lives, defeet is not so….

Hector Pietersen was a 13 year old black boy who was killed when the police opened fire on protesting students during the Soweto uprising of 1976. The peaceful protest was against the introduction of Afrikaans as means of instruction in all secondary schools, regardless of the locally-spoken language, some exams were also written in Afrikaans. That’s like telling a load of year 8 comprehensive kids they have to sit their SATS in Mandarin. The Hector Pietersen memorial stands near the place where he was shot in Orlando.

The Orlando Stadium is home to the Orlando Pirates, the third biggest club in South Africa, after Manchester United and Arsenal.

The Orlando Towers used to act as the cooling towers for the power station which fuelled Johannesburg for over 50 years. Now they contain the largest mural paintings and advertisements in South Africa and are used as a bungee jumping centre which included a rowdy bar to build up that Afrikaan courage.

Most visitors who come to Soweto take a tour around the townships on a bus or a bicycle. I much preferred walking around on my own and felt rather safe as I don’t like the idea of people watching in a human zoo. Instead I opted to go on a bird tour with Raymond Rampolongkeng aka ‘The Birdman of Soweto’.

The tour started out around the dirty marshland around the Orlando Towers, where an extremely knowledgable Raymond told me about his life in Soweto and how he became a bird guide. It wasn’t the most picturesque spot, but I could see past the plastic bags and shopping trollies to spot some Cape Longclaws and Red Bishops.

We moved up to the Enoch Sontonga hills, named after the composer who wrote the South African national anthem up here under the Sowetan Skies. Here some of the locals still practice traditional African beliefs and use the hills as a place of worship to be closer to the gods. Here is a good place to spot numerous mousebirds, a species which gets their name from their similar appearance and movement to mice.

Coming to Soweto was a good idea as I feel like I’ve got to experience the real side of Joberg, away from the crime and heavy security of the centre. One things for sure, wind, rain or African hailstone, you can always get a decent grilled chicken in Soweto!

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