So you thought a trip to Kruger, Swaziland and Mozambique in the rainy season boiled down to no game, mosquitoes and impassible roads? Dale Morris is bowled over by the landscapes, the wildlife and the silence with his very own tri-nations experience…
February and March are a wet time for Kruger and everything is as fresh as a good Caesar’s salad. The air is humid, the skies are peppered with nimbus clouds and the sides of our 4×4 are caked in mud. “It’s off season,” says John van den Berg, turning to me from the driver’s seat. “Off for the tourists but on as far as the animals are concerned. See.” He points out the window for the umpteenth time. “Another leopard.”
John and his buddies, Douwe Vlok and Frank Carlisle (all safari guides with Bhejane 4×4 Adventures) are out and about, scouting some lesser-known routes and camps in Kruger for an upcoming eight-night, seven-day, self-drive safari they will be leading called The Three Countries Tour.
“We start off in Kruger,” John tells me while we gaze at a pair of cheetahs lounging beneath a shrub. “Then we move in to Swaziland for a few days before heading off to southern Mozambique to the tropical beaches. Finally, we return to South Africa and finish off our tour at Jozini Dam.” I had been invited along for the ride.
That evening, we bed down in the barely fenced and little-known Buffalo Rock tented camp in the Kruger National Park, near Numbi Gate (a place of frequent ellie invasions). The camp is ours exclusively, as is the meandering Madlabantu 4×4 trail, which we’re up and tackling at first light.
“We want to give our guests something new from Kruger,” says John as we park off next to a pack of beautiful painted dogs. “Something away from the crowds, and this 42km circular management track will likely do.”
The track, a two-spoor park road, commences at Pretoriuskop and skirts the Nsikazi River, looping past the Mtshawu Dam before coming full circle close to the beautiful Shabeni Koppie. It’s serious Big Five territory. We spend roughly six hours in the car, not because the road is technically challenging or rough, but because John, Frank and Douwe can’t drive more than 500 metres without seeing something cool.
Back at Buffalo Rock, I am serenaded to sleep by the sounds of untamed Kruger. A leopard slinks past on its way to terrorise a nearby troop of baboons. An elephant, intent on some marula, steps over the camp’s single line of defence (an ineffectual electric wire). A hyena eats the shoe I left outside.
It’s a busy neighbourhood but only for the animals. In the two days we spend exploring the back roads of Kruger’s Pretoriuskop region, we encounter all of the Big Five (several times) and just about every other animal you could hope to see. Humans, I happily admit, are rarer than hen’s teeth.
On our way out of Kruger along the Old Voortrekker Road, we stop at the Afsaal picnic site and are greeted by buses disgorging swarms of Japanese tourists. The visitors shuffle around in perfect formation, snapping shots and running about in abject terror of the monkeys and birds. When a curious elephant shows up, they flee for their buses, screaming, and we are once again left to a silent Kruger.
“Very few people explore the Madlabantu road, and even fewer get to stay at Buffalo Rock,” says John. “It’s quite a shock when you bump into the crowds again, isn’t it?”
Later that day, we leave via Kruger’s southern Malelane Gate before crossing into Swaziland at Jeppes Reef. It’s then a scenic drive south through impressive mountains until we reach the 18 000ha Malolotja National Park, where we are met by vistas of grassy mountains alive with large herds of blesbok, zebra and hartebeest.
It’s one of Southern Africa’s most beautiful highland parks, famous for undulating scenery, prolific birds and stunning wildflowers. When we pull in, it’s as green as can be, with hills and valleys mown by the wildlife into a semblance of well-grazed pasture. In places I am reminded of scenery in Lesotho and the Golden Gate National Park in the Free State.
Malolotja is a small park actually but it feels like an endless wilderness thanks to the rolling mountains and open spaces. Here there are more than 200km of hiking trails, the most exciting a hard-core slog to the top of Ngwenya peak (at 1 829m the second-highest mountain in Swaziland), where you can find an extraordinary cycad forest. I also happily amble around on a few of the shorter trails, enjoying the dramatic scenery while hobnobbing with herds of chilled-out blesbok. Waterfalls abound, and there are wildflowers, sunbirds, sugarbirds and stunning landscapes no matter which way you look.
“Fancy an adrenalin rush?” asks John on my return to the park’s chalets. “There’s a zip-line canyon swingy thingy just down the road.” So we take the Malolotja Canopy Tour, where sightings of rare birds are almost a given, if you can keep your eyes open. I’m afraid I cannot see how this is possible. I am too busy screaming in fear or ecstasy as I fly through a forested gorge at the speed of a Joberg taxi driver.
“There’s a side trip to a river that vanishes into a cave in the ground,” John tells me as we prepare some pasta in the kitchen of one of the park’s wooden, self -catering chalets. “And the highest bald granite dome in the world is not too far away.”
It’s certainly already quite an agenda for the day but we manage to check out the world-famous Ngwenya Glass, where it’s as hot as a Swedish swimwear model. But the workers seem unphased as they bustle about gathering molten, recycled glass from the furnace and deftly turning it into mini-renditions of the Big Five. I watch a Julius Malema lookalike bedecked in bright red EFF overalls smartly convert a glowing blob into a little rhino.
At Bomvu Ridge near the glass factory is Ngwenya Mine, at 43 000 years the oldest mine in the world. It is barely a scrape carved out of a cliff, and you could walk past and not know it was there. “The hematite is now used for smelting iron-ore,” explains John. “In the Middle Ages the glittery stuff was used for face painting.”
‘Imagine that,’ I think to myself. ‘A fearsome tribe of ancient Africans going into battle looking like a 1970s glam-rock band.’
“There used to be three of these ancient mines,” John continues. “But a modern mining company blasted two of them into oblivion. Fortunately, the third [this one] survived and is now a protected World Heritage Site with its own little museum.”
That night, we spend another evening among the flowers and mountain blesbok of Malolotja before heading for the Mozambique border post of Goba, in the Lebombo Mountains. The Swazi side of our journey is mostly tar, but once through to the Mozambique side things deteriorate rapidly. Sand and dirt roads have been converted into rivers of sludge by the recent rains, and it takes us all day to crawl through a few hundred kilometres of the stuff to Ponta Mamoli on the coast. But, please, I’m not complaining. It was high adventure not knowing if the road would suddenly suck us into oblivion and, what’s more, there wasn’t a tourist in sight.
“Try coming here in high season,” says John that evening, over cold beers on the deck of the Wakene Beach Estate. The sea in front of us is the blue of dreams and the endless strip of caramel beach is empty but for a few ghost crabs.
“It can be packed to the hilt with South Africans,” he says, but I find it hard to imagine this serene and peaceful tropical paradise congested with brandy-slugging fishermen and their 4x4s, quad bikes and rugby speak. Just as it was in Kruger, the southern beaches of Mozambique are deserted once the year-end holidays are done with.
Here the landscape has thickly forested dunes and open grassland dotted with lakes. Purple-headed Turacos scamper through the branches, competing with samango monkeys for bunches of figs. Ponto Malongane, a popular tourist spot on the coast, is dead when we pass through it the following day. A few listless wood carvers sit next to their souvenir stalls, smoking joints and listening to Bob Marley, but the numerous open-fronted sandy-floored bars and restaurants, which no doubt heave in high season, are completely empty. Such is bliss.
Even the dive shack at Parque de Malongane near the South African border is pretty much devoid of people. I don my fins and flippers, leaving John and the boys behind at a bar polishing off some prawns, to explore a near-shore reef with the dive-shop owner.
The water is like glass and in just forty minutes we encounter rays and eels and an ugly old potato cod as big as Jacob Zuma. A pod of dolphins skirts us, filling the water with clicks and buzzes before they vanish into the blue.
“The lucky ones get to see whale sharks here,” the boat captain tells me as we head back to the beach but, sadly for me, there are none around. “A big one can be 12 metres long and weigh 15 000 kilograms. That’s twice as heavy as two bull elephants.”
We spend two days on the Mozambique beaches, strolling, eating seafood, drinking cold beer, scuba diving, birdwatching and wallowing in the peace. Then it’s time to turn the steering wheel south for our last night at Kosi Bay. And a splendid boat trip on Jozini Dam, what with the wet-season greens and the fluffy clouds in such a bright blue sky. Again, deserted but for the hippos.