Our African Adventure – Tsitsikamma National Park

I took a few days away from blogging to compete in the New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding.  My team finished a respectable 25th in a field of almost 60 birding teams and, most importantly, had a great time.    Now, though, I would like to return you to our African Adventure. 

Our next stop was Tsitsikamma National Park, a stunning coastal park found on South Africa’s Garden Route .  We arrived in the early afternoon and, lottery style, picked our room keys out of a brown paper bag.  This was the view we enjoyed from our cabin!

The coast at Tsitsikamma was very rugged and consisted primarilyof large rock outcrops.  This created some spectacular waves, as the Indian Ocean battered against the coast.  If you look closely, you can see two people exploring on the rocks – gives you a sense of how large the waves are that came crashing against the shore.

This was the view as we relaxed and enjoyed a few drinks at an outdoor bar.  We hoped to take a boat ride up the river, but rides were canceled due to troubles with the boat’s engine.  So, we sat and enjoyed the view.

The next morning we were surprised to find baboons walking around our cabin.  They were exploring garbage cans, trying to break into cars, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.  A group of rangers came along in a truck and attempted to run the baboon back into the woods, with only limited success.  This young fellow watched the fun from a safe perch.

Later than morning we took a hike to the river’s mouth.  We had heard that there were suspension bridges that gave amazing views of the river and ocean.  This was our first view as the trail emerged from the bush.

There were three bridges all together, suspended across the river and along the rocky shore.  We spent an hour or so exploring and hiking along the shore before heading back to our cabin.

We encountered this fellow on our way back through the bush.  This is a Rock Hydrax, a close cousin to the elephant.  These little fellows were usually found in large packs, appeared to be very social with each other, and would stare (unblinking) at us as we walked by.

After our morning hike, a group of us headed out for some lunch and shopping.  We picked a small outdoor cafe and enjoyed our first taste of ginger beer.  This homemade drink was cold and refreshing – really hit the spot.  We wandered from shop to shop and eventually ended up back at our cabin, tired and happy from our wonderful day at Tsitsikamma.

Our African Adventure – On the Road to Lesotho

Fully rested and (mostly) recovered from our baboon encounter of the previous day, we prepared for the drive to Lesotho.   We were touring with Intreprid Travel, an Australian company that specializes in small group tours that “get off the beaten path”.  Our tour leader, Emma, and driver, Alfred, were simply amazing.  Their extensive knowledge of South Africa, careful planning, and concern for our safety and comfort could not be surpassed.  We were traveling in the 12-passenger bus shown here – our home away from home for nearly two weeks.

The baboons were there to see us off.  We said goodbye to Cavern Resort and began our trip to the border crossing at Maseru, Lesotho.

We passed through Golden Gate Highlands National Park on our way to Lesotho.  Named for the eroded sandstone cliffs which take on a deep golden hue at sunset, the Park offered picturesque views of sandstone formations and wildlife.  While I wasn’t able to capture a photo, we saw Secretarybirds soaring above and at least one standing in tall grass.  Amazing!

We were greeted by a chaotic scene at the border crossing, but things actually went quite smoothly.  After several minutes on line, we were stamped out of South Africa and had walked approximately 20 meters to Lesotho.  We filled out forms, stood on line, and then delivered the forms to officials who barely glanced at us as they stamped our passports.   A quick vehicle inspection and we were in Lesotho.

Our destination, the Malealea Lodge, was accessible  through the “Gateway of Paradise” pass.  Named by Mervyn Smith, who founded the Malealea trading post in the early 1900’s, the pass offered a breathtaking view of our route.

The Gateway of Paradise Pass in early afternoon light was a sight to behold.  This pass was at the beginning of 7 kilometers of, shall we say, some of the most challenging roadway we were to experience on the entire trip.

The road to Malealea was little more than a muddy pathway hugging the hillside.  Alfred did a masterful job simply keeping our bus on the road.  It was slow traveling from here.

Before we continued on our trip, we found ourselves surrounded by children.  I have no idea where they came from, but they appeared in an instant from all directions.   Some of them simply smiled and waved, but most shouted “Give Me Sweets!”, in nearly perfect English, for the entire time we were stopped.

After a long day on the road, we finally arrived at Malealea Lodge.  This was our private lodge – a Rondavel en-suite built to resemble a traditional Basotho dwelling.   

Our thatch-roofed Rondavel was rustic but comfortable, offering all the comforts of home.  We tossed our bags inside and headed off for dinner of mutton, vegetables,  and papa, a Lesotho staple made by boiling corn meal until it becomes thick. 

After dinner we sat around an open fire and talked into the night.  Our trip leader, Emma, outlined the various activities offered by the Lodge as well as opportunities to explore the village of Malealea and interact with people who lived there.  A generator was used to provide electricity to the Lodge and, because of the high cost of fuel, it was turned off promptly at 10PM.  In total darkness, we settled in for the night.

Our African Adventure – Hiking, A Silent Woman, and Baboons

There are two boulders hidden deep in a Drakensberg forest which tell a near-Shakespearean tale of obsession, genius, and revenge.  Completely unsign-posted, they feature magnificent, life-size sculptures of the same nude, full-breasted woman, painstakingly carved by her lover 50 years ago.  The story begins when Willie Chalmers, a wandering artist with a wildly unkempt beard, came to the area from the Kalahari in the 1930’s to learn more about Bushman paintings from a farmer’s daughter, Doreen Coventry.  He fell in love with her and spent 14 months carving her likeness into a flat sandstone rock on her farm, adding a halo and the face of a child alongside.  He called it Spirit of the Woods. 

But some of his younger in-laws saw him as a con man and a parasite at the family homestead, and at the height of the row, Coventry’s nephew hiked up to the sculpture in a rage and smashed off the nose.  So, some say, Chalmers began a second Spirit of the Woods, this time in a secret location almost completely enclosed by other boulders, sometimes working for weeks without a break.

             – Rowan Philp, Rediscovering South Africa: A Wayward Guide

As part of our stay at the Cavern Resort, we were invited to participate in a short hike to see a stone sculpture hidden away in the Drakensberg, the Silent Woman.  The hike was described as an easy 90 minute round trip – tea and biscuits served mid-hike.

Fern Forest

We began with an ascent through the Fern Forest.  I am really not sure how it got the name – there were no ferns that I recognized.  Still, it was a beautiful walk through the woods and we listened as robin-chats called from the trees.  We soon emerged into a high grassland with incredible views of the surrounding mountains.

On the Trail

 

On the Trail
 
 
Majestic views in every direction – and the hike was much, much longer than anticipated.  It took us nearly 1 1/2 hours to arrive at our destination. 
As described earlier, the Silent Woman is a life-size stone sculpture of a nude woman carved into a large sandstone boulder near a wonderful small stream.  We snapped a few photos, rested in the coolness provided by shade and the stream, and then started back.  The hiking group started back in small groups instead of all at once and, admittedly, we were lagging behind.   I looked farther down the trail and noticed some movement in the tall grasses on both sides.
 
There was a family group of baboons foraging along both sides of the trail.  Fortunately, our trip leader was walking with our group.  I was asking her what we should expect when a loud barking/growling noise emerged from the bush.  The dominate male baboon had decided we were too close to his group and was giving us fair warning to “come no closer”. 
 
We stopped.  And waited.  Every now and again, the male would remind us of his presence.  After some time, a couple of young guides (who were part of the resort staff) happened by and, stones in hand, we were able to pass through the foraging baboons.  Apparently, the added number of humans had convinced the male to give way and allow us to pass.  We hiked the remainder of the way to the resort, tired and thirsty, but with a great story for our fellow travelers.