Wednesday, 18 October 2017

South Africa – The road to Oudtshoorn and its ostriches

October 15-17

Hello everyone!

South Africa is quite big – 3 times larger than Germany – so getting to a small, specific place can be quite tricky and time-consuming. The upshot is that the journey can be often as wonderful as the destination, bringing you closer to things you wouldn’t normally see.




Hannah’s friend, Nerina, lives near Mossel Bay, which is said to be one of the jewels of the Garden Route: South Africa’s well-known and frequently-visited southern coastline.



A beach at Mossel Bay
  
Getting to Mossel Bay from Malawi involves two flights (with three take-offs as the first plane collects passengers from Blantyre) and a long drive east from Cape Town.

Day 1: fly from Lilongwe to Cape Town via Jo'burg...

Day 2: drive from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn along Route 62
  
The route taken is a popular and stunning drive called ‘Route 62’, which takes your car up, down, through and around beautiful and diverse landscapes. We were driving to Oudtshoorn, a large provincial town, before heading to Mossel Bay.

A peak in Haweqwa Catchment Reserve, near the Winelands

A tunnel in Hawequas Mountain Area

A couple of stops were necessary to savour the beauty of the backdrops surrounding us. We parked at a wine reserve and café atop a hill near the village of Nuy. It seemed packed considering it was half past ten in the morning on a Sunday; I got the impression that places like this are the equivalent of village pubs in the United Kingdom, where families get together and spend a lazy morning or afternoon.

The view from Nuy Wine Reserve

French Twist, complete with bacon, cheese and fruit

Later down the stretch was a village called Barrydale, which was essentially a community of bed and breakfasts and cheap eats. One place full of character, not to mention calories, was an Americana joint called Diesel ‘n’ Crème. Sickeningly sweet and sumptuous shakes.

Could be Route 62, could be Route 66...

The Cruella de Ville: Belgian chocolate and
strawberry compote

 The sugar helped maintain alertness for the remainder of the drive to Oudtshoorn, though the soaring peaks of the cliffs and snaking roads through towering passes were worth staying awake for.

Mountains in the Klein Karoo

Coming down from the mountains towards Oudtshoorn

Oudsthoorn itself is unspectacular aside from hosting a massive amount of feathered friends.

The largest and fastest bird in the world

Ostriches only have two toes - one to hold
them upright, and one for balance
  
There are quite a few ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn. Through friends of friends of friends, we were able to get a complimentary tour of the Safari Farm, which has three types of ostriches and a collection of emus from Australia.

This is the Kenyan Red ostrich, the most aggressive of the
three types

Emus are slightly smaller than ostriches

 Initially we walked around an enclosed section of the farm, which allowed us to balance on some infertile eggs and feed some of the hungrier birds.

These infertile eggs weigh about 1.5kg and
can hold over 200kg when horizontal

         
video


Later on we piled into a tractor and drove alongside the ostriches, whose curiosity brought them up close and personal with us.

video


That big toe can do a lot of damage

Finally, we were taken to a room where they showed us how they use the ostriches which they breed.

Ostrich leather is the second strongest around, after kangaroo
                
1kg of ostrich feathers used to be worth more than 1kg of gold
  
Most interestingly, we found that the males do a strange dance as a mating ritual.

video


As with many places in South Africa, Oudtshoorn’s ostriches were a pleasant surprise. The journey to find them, along the twists and turns of Route 62, was just as enjoyable and highly recommended.







Love you all


Matt

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Malawi – Whiling time away in lovely Nkhata Bay

September 21-24

Hello everyone!

Malawi has many national holidays. None fall in September but, in exchange for sacrificing a weekend for a workshop, our school gave everybody a Friday off towards the end of the month. After 11 consecutive school days, we needed a bit of rest and relaxation, which meant heading to the northern shore of Lake Malawi.

Nkhata Bay: a paddleboarding paradise, if that's your thing

The view from the toilet

We were specifically aiming for a place called Nkhata (un-KA-tuh) Bay, which is about six hours away from Lilongwe. It’s the length of journey which is a bit pointless to do on a regular weekend but becomes more feasible with an extra day. Even so, we stopped in a village called Mzimba for the night on route, resting in a strange, seemingly half-built hotel complex. Most places were full, which seemed bizarre on a Thursday night with no public holiday following.

Don't be fooled by Google - just getting to Mzimba took five hours

Our rest stop in Mzimba

The Bradt guidebook describes Nkhata Bay as ‘one of the best-kept secrets on the African backpackers trail’, and it’s easy to see why. It is in a lovely spot, with the lake water being much clearer and pleasant to swim in than in many other areas of Lake Malawi. A combination of sandy beaches and rocky shorelines line the bay.

The rocky entrance to the water at Mayoka Village, where we stayed
Chilawe beach

The water is also quite tranquil in the bay, allowing you to explore using a variety of water sports gear. Owing to an ongoing ear infection, I needed to keep my head out of water. This didn’t work so well when our canoe rolled two of us into the water as soon as we left the bay’s calm waters. Twice. I did say quite tranquil…

Kayaking early in the morning
A picture from our canoe, taken before we started falling in!

Time seems to move slowly in Nkhata Bay, as if the air has been infiltrated by lethargy. When your main aim is to relax, it makes for a perfectly chilled atmosphere, though it does reduce your desire to explore and see much of the area beyond your backpacker lodge. We drove through the town, seeing its small fish market, on our way in and out. I’m telling myself that I will explore more of the land when I return, though part of me is happy to admit that lethargy will probably take a beautiful stranglehold over me once more.

An internet image of Nkhata Bay's town centre

Even four-leggeds buy into the relaxed vibe

One upshot of our accommodation, Mayoka, being situated slightly from the town was that the number of hawkers and sellers was minimal: a massive contrast with other places on the lake such as Cape Maclear. It was generally quite quiet, allowing us to wind down and enjoy the beautiful blue.

An afternoon view of Nkhata Bay

One of many colourful geckos which inhabit the area
Part of Nkhata Bay’s charm is probably its location. Being far away from Lilongwe and Blantyre, Malawi’s two largest cities by some distance, limits the number of people who visit.

Many more boats would be visible in a more touristy area

Throwing a Nerf Vortex with locals on the beach

Probably my favourite location on Lake Malawi thus far, Nkhata Bay was definitely worth the long, arduous drives to and from Lilongwe. It will always be a welcome destination for a long weekend, or perhaps even longer. None of us wanted to get back to school after slowing down along the still shoreline of Nkhata Bay.

Paddle boarding in the sunshine

The sun setting on our time in Nkhata Bay
Love you all


Matt

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Zimbabwe – Charge!

July 17

This latest trip has allowed me to get within touching distance of wildlife which I’d only seen in pictures or zoos before venturing to Africa. When it’s intentional, getting this close is a thrill. When it’s not, to say it’s hair-raising would be a massive understatement.

The zoom wasn't that high at this point...
I’ll come to the elephant story later, as it’s probably in the top three of times when I’ve questioned whether I’m going to escape with my life. Other close encounters which have made my heart leap have happened recently, most notably with a baboon in Matopos National Park.

This baboon was larger than the average male

Baboons are fierce, with canines larger than a lion, and are particularly fond of food. In the seconds after our ranger said, “A baboon can rip you apart”, the male charged at full pace for our lunch area. Unmoved by our ranger trying to hit him away with whatever utensils he could grab, the baboon nicked the bag of bread rolls and sped off, before tucking in with us watching in shock.

The baboon tucking in after stealing our food

From here we moved north to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest and in the top 10 parks in Africa in terms of area.

Hwange covers almost 15,000 square kilometres of land

It has many animals, though the density of the bush makes it very difficult to spot anything. Once again, no honey badger or leopard could be found. We did see a few spring hares when driving around at night – they’re known as the ‘African Kangaroo’.

The main pan was hosting many animals, including these zebras

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The night drive was incredible, mainly due to the unpredictability of our driver, Jordan. At one point he killed the engine and lights, allowing the car to roll a bit down the hill, before asking us if we could hear a buzzing noise. Muscles tensed up, breath intake sharpened, and then…he lit the spotlight to show us electricity pylons. He said that sometimes baboons are at the top of them; they get scared by the spotlight and touch the live wires on the way down, turning into ‘exploding light bulbs’. I don’t condone killing wild animals but could understand his glee at this after our baboon experience the previous day.

An internet picture of a baboon
on an electricity pylon

Another time he did this trick, the difference being that there were animals on the left. With your eyesight restricted, other senses need to be used. We could hear heavy movement through the bush, allowing us to work out that an elephant was closing in – slowly – on our car. When the light was turned in that direction, we were pleased to see an elephant; more concerned at seeing a lone buffalo darting short distances in various directions. A lone buffalo is generally an older male, and has to be aggressive to survive: dangerous.

Who knows what you'll see in the dark?

This paled in comparison with our experience that afternoon when driving through Hwange with Jordan in an open 4x4. Hwange is renowned in Africa for its elephant population, numbering between 30,000 and 40,000 across the 14,000km2 area. It started nicely enough, with us seeing a lone bull (young male) elephant putting some mud on himself with his trunk as a form of sun protection and body cooling.

A lone elephant loving the mud at Hwange

Elephants cover themselves in mud to cool down
and protect their skin from the Sun

We then drove past a pan (water hole) which had a herd of elephants drinking. The young calves were about two years old.

Calves drinking from the pan

There were in excess on ten elephants at the pan

Whilst this was happening, we noticed that another group of elephants, one without tusks, was slowly plodding its way up the road towards us. Jordan mentioned at this point that elephants without tusks are generally more aggressive.

Here comes Mr Tuskless...

Most of the elephants disappeared into the bush, heading for the pan. Not Mr Tuskless, though. He quickened his step towards the car.

...closer...

It’s important to note two things at this point: firstly, you never run from an elephant; secondly, the aggression is normally shown towards the car, not the people inside it. This was vital to remember as the elephant got to ten metres…then five…then two….

...closer...

I’m sure you’ll understand that I didn’t start snapping pictures at this point. It was at this point that the flapping of the ears became more pronounced and the noises started to sound louder and more threatening. The elephant was practically touching the car. It could have reached over with its trunk and changed gear for us if it felt that way inclined. At this point, Jordan decided that this was close enough and said so to the elephant. That’s right, he started talking to the elephant.

...closer...

It worked, in a way. He backed off briefly, before exploring the front left of the car (this is the video below). Being sat on the left side of the open vehicle, this was when it was probably within two metres of me. Just short of a trunk length from slapping me. He stalked the front part of the car, turned, moved into the bush…then mock charged. Not for more than a metre, thankfully.

video


Keeping still when all of this is happening is vital and incredibly difficult, particularly when you can feel your heart thumping rapidly in your chest. Jordan later said, “I don’t know how you all kept your composure, I was terrified,” suggesting that this kind of close encounter isn’t experienced every day.

Jordan driving, using his left foot on the accelerator, and
looking for fauna

The reward was being able to watch the whole herd play at the pan. This made elephants seem endearing and cute once more, as the baby elephant moved from mother to father and back whilst they blissfully ignored it and sloshed mud over themselves.

A herd of all ages: a beautiful sight, once we'd stopped shaking!

video


At one point, the baby tried to climb on another elephant which had decided to lie down. It failed and fell down. Too cute, and funny, for words.

Young calves playing around in the mud

video


Abruptly, the whole herd upped sticks and ran away from the pan (I don’t think we’d have survived if they’d ran our way). Dumbstruck at first, we soon realised that the bull we had passed much earlier was heading to the pan. Jordan explained that he may have been exiled from the herd so confrontation could have occurred if the main group hadn’t vacated.

video


With heart rates returning below dangerous, we drove forward, only to soon spot a young male charging towards at an alarming speed. Jordan once again turned off the engine and pulled us to a halt, allowing the elephant to close in. It’s sensible as you don’t want to be chased, but also seems inexplicable at the time.

video


As you can see from the video above, he slowed and stopped within seven or eight metres, before trumpeting in annoyance and passing harmlessly around the car. Initially he just seemed like a moody teenager but we soon realised the problem when spotting the original herd on the other side of the car. The young lad had obviously been left behind when the herd ran from the bull elephant and we were now blocking his path to his mother. This was the reason that I was charged in Zambia.

The young elephant who we accidentally
separated from its mother

Trying to justify this as being a positive experience, I was explaining to the rest of the group that whilst the first couple of safaris are amazing just because you are seeing the animals with your own eyes, with more experience you want to see more action. Ideally that action won’t happen on the front of your car, but seeing events is what can make each safari or game drive unique and special. My heart won’t thank me for it but this was certainly both.

A lilac-breasted roller, who had a great view
of the elephant action

video



Love you all


Matt