Episode 32: Sanur/Jakarta/Hong Kong/Johannesburg/Nelspruit/Kruger National Park/Graskop/Drakensburg Mountains, Indonesia/Hong Kong/South Africa
Skin colour (Tom): Will Smith
Skin colour (Jane): Will Self
Location: Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa
Date: 29th November 2010.
Joining an ever-growing list of average/inadequate vehicles we’ve used on our travels, we picked up our car for 27 days in South Africa on arrival at Johannesburg airport last week.
It’s a Chevrolet Spark, it’s the cheapest vehicle that money can hire, and it has a mighty 1.3 litre engine and about 1.3 horsepower. Don’t send in name suggestions – it’s called Sparky (by Jane) and Stally (by me).
In all my years of driving (including learning to drive), I haven’t stalled as many times in total as I’ve stalled this tiny metal box-on-wheels in the first few days behind the wheel.I put it down to a couple of factors:
- driving an automatic on our travels hitherto means I neglect to change down through the gears when braking; and
- the mouse-like power transferred from accelerator pedal to clunky engine bits, means you have to floor it to make it move – anything less and you’ll stall. Don’t even think about going on an uphill incline (or even on the flat sometimes) in any gear higher than first.
We’ve been in the Kruger National Park for a week in our toy car and I swear to you that I’ve seen some of the bigger, shinier and wholly better-suited cars, utes, vans and trucks laughing.
We came to the Kruger from Sanur in Indonesia by way of:
- an overnight stay in Jakarta (where the airport hotel wanted to charge us more when we informed them that the half chicken we’d ordered was actually just a very small leg – they eventually brought a small extra piece when Jane made them read the menu and pointed at the paltry offering on the plate);
- a whole day layover in the enormous Hong Kong International airport, which was actually OK. Many things were as airports should be (free WiFi throughout, spotlessly clean, announcements clear and concise and loungers to pass the day on), although we were disgusted with the lack of Western fast-food outlets. No KFC, no Burger King, but teasingly a McDonalds sign, which when you got closer revealed itself as an “Opening Soon” sign. Bah! Sometimes (usually in airports), you build yourself up to eat some greasy Western muck and the disappointment of not finding any can be crushing;
- a night in an airport apart-hotel in Johannesburg, which we’d booked for the WiFi (we had some Kruger planning to do) and kitchen facilities (Jane was keen to start self-catering again) and which had neither;
- a day of wandering the malls on the outskirts of Johannesburg, spending a small fortune on camping equipment (there are two advantages to this: 1. By the time we leave South Africa it should have paid for itself in the money we’re saving on accommodation; and 2. It means I’ll be in a strong bargaining position to buy a car when we get back to the UK – “We’ve got all that camping kit going to waste if we don’t get a car”. OK, it’s not a strong bargaining position at all but Jane seems strangely taken in by it.); and
- our first night of camping just outside Nelspruit, where we erected the new tent with no mishaps and only minor frustration.
And so, to Kruger, where we entered at the south end of the park and had 6 nights’ camping booked at 4 different camps, plus three organised activities (a morning walk, a night drive and a sunset drive).
A quick note on the camping – the rest camps were well set up, with good info and clean facilities, but with rock solid, tent-peg-bending ground and with no thought for those with little equipment, so: very basic cooking facilities; no shaded areas in the camps; and no seating.
This meant that during the time we weren’t driving around looking for wildlife, we were either standing up outside the tent, or sweating profusely inside it.
Our days took on a strange routine. At around 4 or 4.30 in the morning, people would start up their huge vehicles and start packing up their equipment, meaning there was no lie-in option. (One morning I was woken by a single rifle shot and some animal groans – imagine an orgasmic Chewbacca – I suspect a large beast had tried to get a bit too close to one of the rangers)
The early morning wake-ups were not the end of the world, since we were here for the wildlife, and it’s most active in the morning and evening.
We would do a couple of long drives, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, before revelling in our finds over a couple of cold ones, and tucking into some meat from one of the creatures we’d been eyeballing hours before.
Now, most people will tell you that the “Big 5” consists of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. I can tell you from speaking to people on the ground that they feel the leopard an inferior creature to the mighty millipede, and so lion, millipede, elephant, rhino and buffalo make up the true “Big 5”. We completed the set.
The highlights of our wildlife spotting, in no particular order, are detailed below:
– On our first day, whilst driving from the gate to our first camp, we rounded a corner to be faced with a white rhino in the road, not 10 metres from the front of Stally (who was massively outweighed and outpaced should it have come to a fight). Fumbling for reverse, we kept our eyes on the huge creature as it eyed us up and then went about its business. It was quite an introduction to the park.
– The next day we were told of a pride of lions close-by, so we high-tailed it there in the hope of catching a glimpse. A glimpse is all we got at first, since the road was like a car-park, and we had to take our place at the back of the queue. However, after sitting there for only a few minutes, the pride decided to up and leave the gawping masses, with all seven of them (4 females and 3 males) making their way slowly past our car.
As Jane quickly wound up her window (Stally doesn’t have electric windows of course), they all passed within about 3 metres of her side of the car, the last of them she could have actually stroked had her window been down. I’m not sure lions can open car doors but Jane locked hers all the same. She did fantastically with the photos, since she was shaking like a greyhound taking a crap.
(I’m taking this back on reflection, because I’ve since found out that Jane has inadvertently deleted a whole day’s worth of photos, including all our shots of hyenas and good photos of elephant and rhino young. She’s been stripped of her photo backing-up duties as a result, and is hanging her head in shame for the next few days.)
– As we approached our third camp, we saw a gathering of cars around a tree. Looking up, we saw a whole warthog slung over a branch, like a heavy coat over the back of a sofa. It had obviously been dragged up there by a leopard (OK, the leopard is in the “Big 5” really), which considering their relative weights must have been quite a struggle.
As the tree was only a kilometre or so from our camp, we visited it 9(!) times over the next couple of days, hoping for a glimpse of the elusive big cat. Sadly though, all we saw was less and less warthog, and on our final visit it was little more than a rib cage with legs.
– On our morning walk, we were out in the bush (thankfully with two guys with rifles) tracking rhino. We managed to get to within about 20 metres of a sleeping group, which was pretty cool.
The wildlife is everywhere (apart from the bloody leopards, which, along with the lack of a cheetah sighting, were our only disappointments). We saw troops of baboon with young, we saw huge herds of buffalo and elephant, we saw frolicking hippos (and had a staring contest with one next to the road), we saw slathering hyenas, and we saw a heck of lot more to boot.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words, so here are some of the shots we took of the beasts of Kruger.
I’m sure you’ll want some interesting facts about this wildlife and I’d be remiss as a correspondent if I didn’t provide some, so here you go:
- Lions only usually roar early in the morning or late at night, since the hotter air during the day would rise, carrying the sound upwards and reducing the distance it travels;
- Hippos don’t have sweat glands, which is why they spend all day in water doing nothing (if they weren’t vegetarian, I’d want to be reincarnated as one);
- White rhinos aren’t really white, their name is a corruption of “wide”, a description of their lips (black rhinos, which we saw on our night drive, have more of a hooked lip and run around like girls when startled (though I wouldn’t say this to their hook-lipped face));
- Elephants have dextrous penises – we actually saw one big lad tapping his stomach with his schlong. I’m not joking;
- Warthogs run with their tails up, so that their young can see where they are in the long grass. They are unable to sing, contrary to the popular Disney movie, although “pumba” is what they’re called in Afrikaans;
- Leopards are actually invisible;
- Seeing a lion have a poo is not something I’d recommend; and
- Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their neck as humans (7). Jane tells me that EVERYONE knows this and I should be ashamed of myself for not knowing.
Without wishing to put the Javanese curse on South Africa, everyone we’ve met so far has been charming. The only exception was the massive Afrikaner on the night drive who forcibly took the spotlight off Jane about three minutes into the trip.
There’s a certain technique to using the spotlight and Jane was taking instruction from the people behind. He was not for waiting, however, as he shouted for the vehicle to stop and asked to swap places (he’d actually tried to take the spotlight when we’d first got on, but it was strictly two spotlights per side and he was on the other side).
In hindsight we should have told him to sling his hook, but we were a little taken aback, especially since he looked like he’d eaten a bear, and taken on many of its attributes – aggression, girth, hairiness, presumably torchmanship (if this isn’t a word, it should be).
He had a voice like Augustus Gloop – you know, one of those that sounds like they have half a cheeseburger lodged in their throat – the kind reserved for only the truly corpulent.
I’m ashamed to say that after swapping places and having recovered herself, Jane called him the rudest word possible, which went down well with the rest of people on the bus, but had me worrying for the rest of the trip about my bones being turned into tooth-picks on our return to camp. Jane was supremely unbothered.
Gratifyingly, the rude man-mountain found next to nothing (a scarpering porcupine and a small cat), while the side that we had been swapped to had great views of the group of black rhino, a black mamba, and half a warthog up a tree amongst other things. Every loser wins but Jane still wanted him to tumble overboard.
The Kruger was fabulous – we already want to go back – and doing camping and self-drive means it’s actually not too expensive (although the flight prices from the UK would make us think twice). It really was yet another experience of a lifetime.
If we do come back though, we’ll hire a Toyota Hilux, then we won’t have to crane our necks to see over the grass verges.
Since the Kruger we’ve had a few days enjoying the fabulous scenery to the west of the park. Then yesterday, we (I) drove over 600km in one 10 hour stint behind Sparky’s wheel. I’m not sure whether the laughable vehicle or I was making the more worrying noises on arrival.
The drivers in South Africa rival those of New Zealand. Not for their lack of skills, more for their total disregard for any laws of the road – overtaking lines, speed limits etc. If the limit is 60km/h, you’ll see cars flying past you at at least twice that speed – maybe the penalties for speeding are that you have to tell a boring story (a simple task for most South Africans (apart from those I know of course, who are all erudite, witty and charming!)).
The one rule they religiously follow is the monumentally idiotic “four-way stop sign”, where you arrive at a crossroads and all look at each other, before I lose my cool and bolt forwards, usually because no other bugger looks like going (it’s supposed to be the first one to the crossroads goes first, but this generally doesn’t happen).
Another annoyance is that we appear to have found ourselves at a party camp, where last night the music blared until 3.30am, and there were puddles of vomit around camp and fag ends in the pool this morning.
We ignored the mayhem and took ourselves off for a gentle hike in the Drakensburg mountains today, which really are impressive.
We’re going for another hike tomorrow before we set off south again, to Port Elizabeth and the start of the Garden Route, where I’m sure Stally will really come into his own.