Monday, 19 October 2009

First Frost At Last

It seems to have been pretty late this year down south, but the first frost of the year has crisped the vegetation at last.

The sun soon warmed us all up, mind you, and it was the perfect morning to begin collecting sloes for this year's batch of Sloe Gin (traditionally you should wait until the first frost before picking these fruits of the blackthorn bush).

I do enjoy this time of year, especially the early mornings. There are some wonderful cloud formations, misty hollows and micro climates to be found.

Myxomatosis is rife amond the warrens again once more and we are finding fresh dead rabbits everywhere. The local predators are having a field day, and I have dispatched several coneys brought back to me by the dog.

After a quick tramp around, that morning cuppa tastes so much better, and my head is clearer for work.

A great way to start the day.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Safari Part II

Our first game drive was at 3.30pm to beat the heat of the day.

We clambered aboard the all-terrain Land Rovers which are open topped and one sided, with tiered seats for a great all-round view. Our tracker is Collen, from the local Shangaan tribe. He speaks little English, but doesn't miss a thing.

We encountered plenty within minutes of leaving the camp gates; hornbills, impala and a male Nyala (a type of antelope).

After about an hour of ogling at everything, Collen gave a low whistle and the jeep came to a sudden halt. There, in the baked mud of a former watering hole, pcok-marked by the huge footprints of elephant, lay a young female leopard. We had all looked straight at her and not seen a thing.

We manouvred closer as we all clamoured for cameras and binoculars. She was nervous at first, and scuttled into some low bushes nearby. But after a while, when we stopped and cut off the diesel engine, she calmed and lay quietly in full view almost 10 yards away.

Kipling couldn't do her justice.

A creature of immense elegance and grace, with markings no architect could hope to recreate. When she looked directly at me and I gazed into those pale green eyes, I was quite overcome with emotion. It literally brought a tear to my eye.

We stayed there for the best part of an hour, and she even got up and came closer, lying in the dappled evening sunlight looking for all the world like a domestic cat.

She blinked her eyes, rolled on her back and washed herself languidly for the cameras. An extraordinary creature.

We moved off and as dusk fell across the vast landscape, we found an almost stereotypically good granite outcrop in the middle of the bush.

We climbed its smooth sides to a plateau around 30 feet up, feeling the warmth of the day reflected on its ancient surface. And there, with Rory and Collen and our two game drive companions, Dennis and Christina, enjoyed a gin and tonic sundowner as the massive sky blushed and darkened above.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Trip of a lifetime...

I stumbled across one of my old travel diaries yesterday while clearing out the attic ready for the tender ministrations of the loft insulators. It details a luxury safari a mate and I undertook in South Africa many moons ago.
With a cup of appropriate Rooibos tea (a favourite out there, and still a favourite with me) I read it quietly for half an hour. What memories it brought back.

I've decided to include a couple of extracts here which might make interesting reading for anyone thinking of going on safari. I would not have written in the same style and manner these days, but have resisted the temptation to change or embellish any of it. I hope you enjoy it.

Part One

London Heathrow - Johannesburg

Jo'burg - Skukuza

Skukuza - Phinda

Richards Bay - Jo'burg

Jo'burg - London Heathrow

The flight and travelling time is tedious more than anything else.

South African Airways are an impressive outfit; seemingly everything in this amazing country has been carefully thought out.

Jo'burg International Airport was much like any other I have experienced; not threatening, just busy. Skukuza, an hour's drive from Mala Mala where we are to stay, on the other hand, is a comically tin-pot affair, with the feel of the cowboy west.
We arrived at around 9.30am, tired and dusty, to find that our luggage was not on the plane with us! Apparently, this is not uncommon. Fortunately, it was coming on the next plane, a couple of hours later, so it was not a major problem.

The hour's drive to camp gave us our first glimpse of the terrain. How can anything survive here? The place is parched, tinder dry acacias, thorny scrub, strawlike grass and Africa's pervading dust.

Apparently, there has been an unusually long dry spell; The Sand River, upon which Harry's Camp is based, is barely a trickle.

What a place Harry's is. Superbly practical, but aesthetic buildings, perched atop the meandering river. The chalets are nothing short of magnificent. The standard of a five star hotel, our room includes a secluded balcony overlooking the river and surrounding bush, two basins, a bath superbly situated so you can sit in it and look over the river through a huge window (which opens), shower, toilet and wardrobe with built-in safe etc. Each are totally self sufficient and totally secluded. The silence is incredible. There are currently only 14 of us in camp.

It's a shame the river isn't in full spate, apparently it attracts hippos and elephants. But there's enough water to still hopefully draw some of the animals in.

Our guide and host is Rory, an amicable chap from Cape Town. Young, tanned and a gifted naturalist, he speaks softly and with authority on plant, animal and bird life. He has a degree in Zoology.

The staff are very efficient and courteous. This is a truly class act.

Already from our room, we've seen startling birdlife, including iridescent kingfishers and hummingbirds sipping nectar from the flowers outside the chalet.

Wake up call is at 6.30am when Rory rings up. At 7am it's breakfast - anything you want from fry up to fruit. This morning I had cereal followed by bacon, poached egg, sausage and Welsh rarebit!

Monday, 5 October 2009

Mists and mellow fruitfulness...

A cold, creeping mist roiled in front of the dog and I this morning as we descended into the valley on our early morning walk.

The hilltops around were bathed in sunlight but this eerie, dank fug hung around the hollows, enveloping the lower reaches of our walk in a different world entirely.

The temperature dropped by several degrees down there, and the air was still; my ears were ringing in that crystal way I have only ever before noticed during snow.

Spider webs hung draped across the scarlet hawthorn berries and I realised that soon the first frost would be upon us; time for picking the abundance of sloes that festoon the hedgerows like little plums.

I'll be making some sloe gin that will warm me by the fire come Christmas time. And these thoughts prompted me to start collecting firewood on my walks. It's surprising how much you can collect over a couple of weeks, and free fuel is not to be sniffed at in these hard economic times.

I lit the first fire at home this weekend, with great reverence and ceremony, the family gathered round. The children have inherited my love of a good log fire, and stories sitting on the hearth rug are tradition already.

It is starting to feel like the shooting season now.