A couple of weeks ago we went to South Africa for a break. Living with lots of other people in what is essentially a sandpit has its ups and downs. After ten weeks of mainly noticing the ups, we were beginning to notice more of the downs. So it was time to get away for a few days and enjoy simple pleasures like adequately functioning showers and good food.
The border crossing probably deserves a post on its own – but suffice to say that it is invariably stressful. Once across the border, the contrast in landscapes is startling. On the Mozambican side, there are just miles and miles of flat, empty scrubland, dotted with little cement-block houses and huts made of reeds. There is no obvious wildlife, though you might see a few birds and perhaps a goat or two. On the South African side, there are mountains, banana plantations and lush fields full of sugar cane. There is a lake of shimmering water, where you might see half-submerged hippos. The road borders game parks, and so there’s a chance of seeing baboons, monkeys, zebra and giraffe, all at the side of the road. It could not be more evident that you are in another country.
We followed the road to Malelane, one of the gateways to the Kruger Park, and stopped just by the Park’s entrance. There is a big bridge over the Crocodile River and always lots to see. This time our list included pied kingfishers, cormorants, herons and cranes, bee-eaters, Egyptian geese and a solitary, grazing hippo.
We drove on towards Nelspruit, a favourite haunt for Mozambique-dwellers in search of shops, restaurants and places to unwind. Although we did plenty of shopping, eating and unwinding over the next few days, we made sure to spend some time at the Botanical Gardens.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of the words “Botanical Gardens” I imagine regimented arrays of plants, but these gardens have a definite sense of wilderness about them. They are planted on both sides of the Crocodile River, which flows through a steep gorge at this point. So you can choose to follow easy paths beside lawns and flowerbeds or you can clamber down a rocky path to see the river. Obviously, we chose to do both: this was the nearest thing to a proper walk I’d had in ages.
A sign by the path warned us to let the person on the entrance gate know, if we wanted to take the riverside trail. We felt this was unnecessary, as we had done the walk many times before. Still, the trail seemed even rockier and more hazard-ridden than we remembered. It is quite challenging finding your footing over slippery rocks while also trying to avoid low hanging branches, and keeping your eyes open for snakes and stinging things. A second threatening sign warned us not to go right down to the river because of crocodiles. Yet another advised that the path should not be undertaken after 3.30 pm because of roving hippos. You will be pleased to know that we saw neither crocodiles nor hippos. Our sole encounters were with beetles, grasshoppers, a millipede, a turtle, a mongoose and lots of lizards – like this one, chomping on a freshly killed wasp.
While walking, my mind partly attending to the season and the fact that this all felt absolutely NOTHING like an English November, I was struck by the trees: specifically, how they almost seemed to be preparing for Christmas. Fanciful, I know, but their branches were laden with blossoms, fruit and seed pods and it all looked very festive.
The path eventually led away from the river and steeply back up to the manicured lawns, where you could almost forget you were in Africa if it weren’t for the ibises, stabbing at the grass with their curved beaks.
Back at the guesthouse, we saw more “Christmas trees”. This sunbird perched as though it were a tree-top angel…
… and here is my African version of a Partridge in a Pear tree.
Our South African trip was perfected by spotting two birds I’ve wanted to photograph for a long time: the Purple crested turaco and Cape white-eye. An early Christmas present!