Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 13, 2009 - Blyde River Canyon

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We were very lucky to get accommodation in Kruger at the rest camps that we wanted this time of year at such short notice. Over five days we traveled from the southwest corner of the park, east towards the border with Mozambique, and north towards the center of the park. As we worked our way north from Lower Sabie, through Satara, up to Olifants, the game became more sparse, but the vistas more vast. This is truly gorgeous country and we are lucky to have spent the past few days out here in the bush.

Last night was the final night of lodging that we had booked in the park. As we sat on the stoep (verandah/balcony) of our rondavel (round hut), looking out over the river, we tried to figure out what to do next. There still isn't any kind of decent weather window available for taking the boat south. So we might as well keep driving around. For a while we debated going to one of the private game parks.

Although we've seen a ton of game in Kruger, the experience of staying in the camp accommodations has been a bit rough. The sheets on the beds are threadbare and scratchy. Our bungalows have had faulty lights and dripping airconditioning units (right on Sten's forehead one night). The rondavel at Olifants reeked so badly of bat urine that it kept me up half the night.

That is either one very brave or very stupid bird

Self-catering has been challenging. None of our accommodations had a way to heat up water for coffee in the morning (and when heading out at 4:30 in the morning to look for game, a cup of coffee is a necessity). Occasionally, we could find an instant hot water source somewhere in a campground to fill our french press, but most of the time not.

This one's for Ben - It was such a treat to spot hippos out of the water

Every place we stayed had a grill out front and one was supposed to have a hotplate, but it was missing. However, none of our accommodations or the communal cooking facilities in the campgrounds were stocked with pots and pans. After a long day of driving around, we didn't always want to fire up the braai and wait for the coals to come to the right temperature for grilling. Several nights we had bread and dukka or cheese and crackers for dinner. If we came to Kruger again, I'd definitely pack some instant noodles. Of course, if we'd given ourselves more time to research this adventure, rather than planning it all in the three hours before we hit the road, we would have been much better prepared (probably).

As we looked out over the river we talked about going to a private park for a bit of luxury; but, after five days of sitting in a car looking for game, we were ready to stretch our legs. We decided to head back to the Drakensberg mountains, but were undecided about what to do or see between here and there. So we texted our South African friends George and Colleen and asked what else we should see while we were up in this corner of the country. Within a few hours they had texted us back with a load of suggestions and detailed routing instructions. What rockstars!

In the middle of the day we left the park and headed west through the lowveld. We drove through acres of citrus and mango groves as we approached the Escarpment. After lunch in a garden in Hoedspruit we drove up through a mountain pass into the Blyde River Canyon. As we entered the canyon, it began to mist. Through the grey we could see steep dropoffs on either side of the road. At every pulloff and viewpoint there were curio stalls and fruit sellers. Litchis are in season here. All along the road there were people standing, holding out a lone bag of fruit at the end of an outstretched arm. How tired their arms must get.

We arrived at the Three Rondavels, 3 huge circular pillars jutting hundreds of meters up out of the Blyde River, during a break in the rain. Our guidebook claims "No photograph does justice to the sheer enormity of the view, punctuated by one series of cliffs after another buttressing into the valley." That is true. Particularly on a misty afternoon.

From the Three Rondavals, we continued south towards Bourke's Luck Potholes. At the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers the water has carved marvelous shapes out of the rock. It is such a beautiful spot that not even the school holiday crowds swarming the pathways and scrambling all over the rocks could detract from the experience.

Around dusk we rolled into the small town of Graskop, near the south end of the canyon. We weren't expecting to find much to write home about in terms of accommodation, but from the moment we arrived we were delighted with the Graskop Hotel. The main building houses a modern art gallery, comfortable lounge and a dining room (where the next morning we would be served wonderful, warm flaky scones). Our room was in a wing set in a peaceful garden. Our bed was covered with acres of crisp white linens. We were in heaven.

After a long day of driving, Sten grabbed a beer, his book (the 3rd volume in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series), and a chair out into the garden to unwind. I strolled off and wandered through the art gallery and around town. After being within 18 inches of each other pretty much constantly for the past six days as we have been practically living in the car, it was awfully nice for us each to have some time apart.

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