Yet another new country’s stamp in our passports! We arrived in Underberg, a small farming town in the foothills of the the southern Drakensberg mountains. One night here and then off up the Sani Pass into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
Underberg could not have been more different from our previous destination of Umhlanga Rocks. Umhlanga Rocks is the upmarket seaside resort near Durban, has a wonderful beach and is jam-packed with nice restaurants, luxury hotels and designer shops – it seemed very popular with the more affluent South Africans.
Underberg, on the other hand seems to exist to service the needs of the agricultural community in the region. The upmarket shops are replaces by markets, the posh restaurants by street stalls selling some amazing (and very cheap) food. Our drive here drove through what seemed like some quite deprived and poor areas – South Africa is indeed a land of contrasts!
Three wonderful days in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park is not nearly enough. It was a 90 min drive from St Lucia to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and we arrived at Hilltop Camp minutes before the kick off for the England v South Africa Rugby World Cup Final. The bar was jam-packed with dozens of enthusiastic and very vocal, South Africa supporters, plus me and a woman and her son from London. Slightly outnumbered, it was probably as well we lost! Oh well, there is always four years from now and the game viewing this afternoon!
The Hilltop Camp is, unsurprisingly, set on top of a hill. The views over the valleys and mountains are breathtaking and even though the river beds are dry, all seems very green, almost lush. There is game here in abundance. Just driving the 25 km from the Memorial Gate to the camp, we spot several white rhinos, herds of antelope and several “sounders” of warthog (I am reliably informed that sounders is the collective noun for a group of warthogs – who knew?)
After witnessing our crashing defeat in the rugby, we drive the short distance to our chalet. A pleasant surprise – spacious lounge, kitchen and bedroom all await us with the unexpected bonus of a balcony complete with braii. Soon we are visited by our neighbours, a family of monkeys and a baboon suckling her newborn on the rails of our balcony.
Whilst the park offers ranger-led game drives three times a day, we chose the DIY approach and set off on our own in search of the wildlife. A first for us, it is a terrific experience. We rarely saw another vehicle but did see lots of game.
This particular park is noted for its work in saving the white rhino from the brink of extinction. On our first afternoon alone, we saw six of these magnificent beasts. Best of all was stumbling across a mother and baby playing in a riverbed in the late afternoon sun.
Late one afternoon, we were driving along one of the more isolated tracks and came face to face with a huge bull elephant wandering along towards us. What a magnificent beast! Easy to imagine what could happen if he took exception to our presence even in the perceived security of our car!
The next day we came across a family of elephants taking a mud bath in one of the water holes, under the watchful eye of the bull from the day before.
We have yet to come across any of the lions or cheetahs which inhabit this park but have seen lots of other species from the comical warthogs playing in the bush, to tortoises ambling gently across the tracks to the very elegant giraffes wandering gracefully through the bush nibbling the foliage on the trees as they go.
The range of antelope is incredible. Not entirely sure of the species yet, but we saw sable, springbok and waterbucks to name but a few, and zebras are everywhere.
Very impressed with Kwazulu Natal so far. The National Parks of iSimangaliso, Cape Vidal and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi have all been incredible. These are places in which we could easily have stayed longer and to which we would love to return one day- always a good sign..
On our final afternoon at Hilltop, some excitement. We drive out from the camp to a small track which loops off of one of the main tracks. We have heard that there are a lot of elephants to be found in this area.
It was a closed loop with only one way in and one way out. We see plenty of game but no elephant. Finally, as dusk approaches we start to head back and then we see him! A huge bull elephant, grazing on the leaves of a fallen tree. We drive slowly forward approach for a closer and we realise that the large tree he is chomping on, he has just uprooted and entirely blocked our only way out!
There is no way we can drive around the tree in our small 2WD saloon car. So we wait, already contemplating that we may be spending the night in the car. A few minutes later a game drive from one of the other lodges came from the other direction so we waved frantically at them from the other side of the tree. The driver first comment was ” I don’t know what to do – the wardens have all gone for the weekend” – helpful! He tell us to stay put in the car – no argument from me as I didn’t plan on getting out to interact with a huge bull elephant!
Eventually another car pulls up behind us. The driver is an off duty South African game park warden on his hols. His first words were f*****g elephants! Again, he warns us not to get out of the car. Again, not a problem!
Between him, the driver and a huge machete, they managed to chop enough branches from the fallen tree for us all to squeeze through the undergrowth.
After 30 mins or so we were on our way, relieved that we weren’t spending the night in the car. So lucky they came along.
Driving out of the gates of Hilltop to our next destination, we had one final treat in store. Literally right outside of the gates there were two pairs of elephants. We switched off the engined, waited and watched. Unperturbed by the audience, within minutes, both pairs of elephants started to mate – an elephant orgy! We felt very privileged to have witnessed this but not sure how long this would go on, we left them to it and set off for our next destination.
Where we stayed
This was our first experience of a Restcamp in a South African National Park. The location of Hilltop Camp, atop a hill cannot be faulted. Book early as we struggled to find availability months in advance (odd as the place was nowhere near full?).
The chalets are spacious and well equipped, even a TV. They are quiet apart from the attention of baboons and monkeys at certain times. Breakfast was included, which we didn’t expect, was buffet style and pretty good.
Don’t expect too much from the reception staff at the camp. They seemed neither engaged nor enthusiastic and seemed reluctant to answer any question re the best places to spot wildlife. Quite sad really, a bit more engagement would enhance the guest experience immensely.
Tips and hints
Do drive yourself around the park. The driving is easy, the wildlife abundant and easy to spot
Game drives with the rangers in open sided vehicles are not that expensive but the vehicles did get very crowded.
Early morning and late afternoon seemed to be the best time for wildlife spotting.
Bring your own supplies. There is a shop at the camp but it has very little for sale in terms of food and drink.
Buy a cool box and bring your own meat and veg for the Braii – don’t forget the charcoal!
Take your time. No point in speeding as it only scares the animals. Take it slow and spot more. We were usually out for 3 hours at a time. Sit and wait and it is surprising how many animals will come wandering by
“Try everything, it’s all good” said the affable driver as we sped away from airport. Then, with a wink of the eye he revealed that the eyes are the best bit and marked a spot on the map where we should ‘head to’ get the best Boiled Cows Head! It’s a traditional Zulu delicacy.
I feel lucky to have quite a collection of “Insiders Tips for Durban” gathered mostly from friends of friends. Knowing that the city has an average of 300 sunny days a year and expecting no jet lag (from the UK), our long weekend is going to be busy.
Getting Around the City
Preferring local interaction and a more fluid itinerary, the local bus company PeopleMover was ideal for a spot of sightseeing. The city circle line is one of three routes which take in all the spots we wanted to see including the crazy Warwick markets area. The all day hop-on-hop-off ticket cost less than $1/£1 at ZAR 16 and as walking is not safe in some downtown city areas it was a really great way to get around.
Self Guided Food Tour of Durban
We never waited longer than 2 minutes for a (very cheap) evening Uber ride to the restaurants.
Many of the recommendations have been where to find the best steaks, biltong, BBQs and butchers, and of course, Durban’s signature dish of Bunny Chow, or just ‘Bunny’- A loaf of bread, halved and hollowed and filled with curry.
The gastro guide to Durban started off looking like a meat feast. However with the largest Indian population outside of India, there were so many wonderful vegetarian Indian dishes available. (See links at the bottom of this post). The fresh fruit juices everywhere are amazing.
Shopping and Markets in Durban
As South Africa’s 3rd largest city, Durban is probably the best place to browse the markets for variety, quality and value. Look out for jewellery, art and handmade crafted items. There are hundreds Zulu and Indian vendors with some interesting spices and spice mixes (MotherInLaw Exterminator being one popular blend) Our favourite markets were those recommended to us – in the Warwick Triangle area, 9 markets, all crazy chaotic and probably best done with one of the market tour guides. For quality shopping the Wonder Market in Umhlanga on the last Sunday of the month is a nice place to wander.
Staying in Durban
Morningside is a safe residential neighbourhood with some great restaurants. An unexpected bonus of our Morningside guesthouse is that it’s on a hillside so we had fantastic views of the Diwali fireworks over the iconic city stadium.
Driving out of Durban
A man with a shopping trolley walking towards in our lane of the motorway as we headed out of Durban was a bit of a surprise. Apart from the obvious safety tips, the most useful tip here was to watch out for people and animals on the road. We managed to miss hitting the people, cows, goats, monkeys etc – but as I write this, we have only driven for an hour!
Inspired by an article in Wanderlust magazine about Kwazulu Natal, a less visited part of South Africa than the famous Kruger, we decided that it was about time we returned to Africa, a continent we hadn’t visited since our time in Sierra Leone 12 years ago.
If you want to see Italy as it was in the 15th century, you just might be captivated by the cobbled streets of Saluzzo.
Perched on a hilltop in the Cuneo region of Piedmonte, it’s an intriguing place. Less than an hours drive from the picturesque and renowned wine villages of Barolo, the town is still very much a hidden gem in Italy. We saw no foreign tourists, just a handful of Italian visitors who were enthralled by their guide as they too roamed the cobbles of this corner of undiscovered Italy.
Cobbles, as it turned out are a feature of the old town. It’s just as it was in the 15th century. The maze of cobbled lanes, steep steps and paths through archways are authentically preserved, perfect for an idle wander.
The elegant palaces and piazzas are easily found. Right at the top of the hill sits a castle, which became a prison and is now a museum. You can certainly see past reminders of its past in the architecture.
Wandering around, we were captivated by the street names. The original display niches alongside the names are reminders that “Street Art” is not a new concept.
Down every alley there are magical views just waiting to be discovered.
You may have noticed that we often search out the quirky. Here the quirky caught us unawares – in a church of all places. There’s a cathedral in town – quite spectacular actually – but this little church was tucked down a cobbled side street. Quite plain from the outside, the Chiesa di San Giovanni was built in 1330. One of the older buildings in the old town, the inside of this Dominican church was such a surprise. All quite dark and atmospheric.
Suddenly, from the darkness we stepped into the sunlight. This lovely courtyard linked the church to the convent many years ago. Delighted and surprised to find the convent is now a very swish small hotel, with the Dominican art still installed.
If art or history fascinate you, Saluzzo will certainly keep you busy. The ‘newer’ part of town at the bottom of the hill (where buildings are only a few hundred years old) is where art is more vibrant, more modern, just like the people of Saluzzo.
Quirky fact …..
Saluzzo is the setting for Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.