So what was the highlight of my week in South Africa?
There was the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. There was looking at elephants in the wild so close that you could almost pat them. (I didn't.) There was standing on the top of mountains where thousands lost their lives during the formation of this beautiful country. There was the terror of white water rafting, the fun of quad biking, the helicopter flying metres from cliffs on the Drakensberg Mountains.
Or was the highlight sleeping in a tent in the bush and meeting a kudu at my outdoor shower? Or the views from the balconies over the mountain and plains of Kwa Zula-Natal?
There was also the apple and ginger soup, the Kingklip fish...
I packed a lot into my week in KwaZula-Natal, a province of South Africa. First I did the Berg (mountain), next the Bush - and yes, I did see the Big Five. Up close.
Driving from Durban to the Drakensberg Mountains you soon see teenagers selling sugar cane at the side of the road. The rolling green landscape and lush trees are broken by the orange flowers of the coral tree. Our first stop was the picture postcard Howick Falls and then a few more miles on, we stopped at a big highlight.
In 1962 Nelson Mandela was captured at a roadblock. He was posing as a chauffeur and gave his name as David Molsany. To the police he had a different name. It was Accused Number One. That day he began 27 years in prison.
At the spot there is now a very informative small museum - and one of the most amazing sculptures I have ever seen. There are 50 vertical pieces of metal, one for every years since his capture. As you walk towards them they gradually turn into the famous Mandela profile. A breathtaking piece of public art.
We stopped at the Fordoun Hotel & Spa for lunch. This former farm has been turned into a high quality hotel, conference centre and spa where you can get away form it all. Luxury and calm abounds and lunch is superb. Birdlife is plentiful and the hadeda in particular makes a racket, sounding like he is laughing at us.
We reached the Drakensburg Sun, a hotel with a very family feel. The child on the hoverboard in reception was normal. A group of about 30 local teenagers put on a dancing display with thundering drums, singing, and an amazing display of rhythm and athleticism.
The next day, at 7am we were over the Dragon's Teeth mountain in a Bell Long Ranger helicopter with a pilot who cracked jokes and loved the Irish rugby team. This year he has been seeing leopards again. We saw some eland. We landed on a plain on Champagne Mountain at 9,000 ft and had a glass of, you've guessed it.
Next on the agenda was a visit to Four Rivers Rafting and Adventures. The guide tells us his surname is "help". For 14km we screamed occasionally and on the quiet bits saw amazing birdlife including the widow bird with the extraordinary long tail, the weavers with their nests hanging from the trees, and for the first time in my life, an owl. We also saw a man bathing stark naked but he wasn't bothered. The scenery was spectacular and this was a fantastic way to see it.
We were still soaked when we arrived for a wine tasting and late lunch at Cathedral Peak wine estate, a young vineyard making a name for itself. I looked over the vines to a glassy lake with a rosé that was as good as any from Provence, eating smoked chicken while my pulse rate returned to normal.
The fun continued the next morning with quad biking on a tough rain-damaged track. Our guide followed us on a dirt bike and he was as good as Charley Boorman.
For lunch we visited a mine of information called Ray Heron at Spion Kop Lodge. Spion Kop (or Lookout Hill) is the site of a Boer War battle. The defeated British took the name and applied it to the newly built stands at UK football grounds - most famously at Liverpool. And Liverpool fans meet here every April to commorate Hillsborough.
Ray told us about the famous, bloody and futile 1900 battle of Spion Kop. Many of the main players are buried in a small cemetery on this land and Ray took us to see them as we looked across at Spion Kop which was so important in the history of South Africa. In that famous battle three of the people on the scene were Lieutenant Winston Churchill, stretcher-bearer Mahatma Gandhi, and General Louis Botha who later became the first prime minister. Over 700 soldiers died in one day on that hill.
When Ray first came to the area in 1986 he met bandleader and musical prodigy Joseph Shabalala. However, Joseph's band had nowhere to rehearse. He rented the top floor of a building and the beginnings of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were in place. The rest is history of a different kind.
We continued through Ladysmith which was teeming with people and roadside stalls. The road got worse and the plains extended as far as we could see. We arrived at the scenically situated Isandlwana Lodge. A dassie, or rock rabbit, ran across the path. Looking up into the rocks there were lots of them.
Five local teenagers put on a dance display on the terrace. I now realise that if you cannot kick your feet about a foot higher than your head you do not rate!
Later that evening we learned that they pour big glasses of wine here. "We give Zulu portions my love," explained Ros, the charming owner.
And no chance of a lie-in either as the birds work me up at five in the morning. I sat on the terrace reading, soon hearing children singing on their way to school. We spent the day walking around the sites of the 1879 battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift.
The mountain called Isandlwana gave its name to a famous battle and was said by the British soldiers who had been resoundingly defeated there to look like the Sphinx. The 11 hours fighting were gruesome and vicious, so bad that a Zulu was reported as saying that "the sun will fall and be picked up by chickens. Our Zulu guide told us "the British gave us a bloody nose". But it put Zulus on the map in world terms.
While looking around the site I saw a tourist in a Union Jack coat. Many people have links to this piece of earth that they keep alive.
Next morning were on our way to two safari days at Thanda Safari and Tented camp, 15,000 hectares where wild animals roam free. I took four trips on its long-base open Landcruiser. I didn't mind the open top because I thought we would be looking at the animals in the distance.
Fifteen minutes in we stopped a few metres from a lion eating a warthog.
The guides knew how not to annoy these wild animals. We saw all of the Big Five up close (though the leopard was hard to see in the dark) plus lots of giraffes, zebra, impala, nyalas and kudus.
We were close enough to the elephants to hear the purring sound they make. Every now and again our guide, Sabelo, would stop and let us listen to birdsong or explain the trees and plants to us. I loved the Yellow Fever Tree and saw an eagle and another owl.
We followed a lioness on her way to drink at the water hole. She watched us as she drank. To be fair I didn't take my eyes off her either.
Then a crackle on the walkie talkie and Sabelo was off driving like Lewis Hamilton on dirt road to see a cheetah. We got there in time to watch this beautiful animal relaxing after lunch. We saw rhino without horns too. The wildlife manager, Lorraine, told us of the real danger of extinction for these massive animals as poachers kill them for tusks.
Just remember that anyone who buys any product from a rhino horn is a moron who may as well eat, or snort, finger clippings.
Great times have to come to an end though. We began a four-hour drive to Durban airport with the Indian Ocean soon visible on our left. We stopped for lunch overlooking the ocean in Al Pescato in the rapidly-growing Ballito Beach.
Was anyone delighted to be going home? I suspect all would have been happy with a few more weeks.
I am not taking South Africa off my list.
The Big Five
The big five in Africa are the lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. They were the most difficult to hunt. Gladly we were not hunting at Thanda Game Reserve. We saw all five and have the pics to prove it.
The British were defeated by the Boers (above) at the battle of Spion Kop in 1900. Sharply banked stands at football grounds took the name from the shape of the hill - and it stuck.
* John was hosted by South African Tourism who arranged this varied itinerary. People talk of visiting KwaZula-Natal to do a Beach (Durban), Berg (The Drakensberg mountains), and Bush holiday.
* Tours can be viewed and booked on www.trailfinders.ie. One such example is Durban, Berg & Bush eight nights from €2,199 per person.
* Flights with British Airways from Dublin (via Heathrow and Jo'burg) to Durban, two nights at The Capital Pearls with breakfast, and seven days SUV car hire. Followed by two nights at The Drakensberg Sun with half board, two nights at Isandlwana Lodge with full board, and two nights at Thanda Tented Camp with all inclusive board and game drives.
* Based on two people sharing and priced for May & June 2020 departures.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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