This past weekend saw us, accompanied by good friends and close family, heading to our local Rietvlei Nature Reserve to celebrate Joubert’s tenth birthday. The highlight of the day for Joubert and his mates was a tour to Rietvlei’s lions, with the birthday boy getting the seat of honour next to the very knowledgeable ranger-guide.
There’s always a sense of anticipation when we approach a waterhole in any of South Africa’s wild places, and especially so in the vast expanses of the Kruger National Park. Being literal fountains of life, the Kruger’s waterholes attract streams of wildlife to quench their thirst as the dry season drags on, causing the many ephemeral pans that followed the rains to disappear and forcing the animals to congregate around the shrinking pools in the streams and rivers.
Sitting idly waiting by a waterhole, even if it appears deserted at first, is often handsomely rewarded with the most memorable wildlife encounters, as anything from fish to elephants may make an appearance in the grand show.
But as with so much in life there’s also two sides to the story of the waterhole. It isn’t only life-sustaining; sometimes it’s a death-trap as predators know that a waterhole is a like a magnet to their prey…
Given so much danger around, this Green-winged Pytilia drinking from a leaking hosepipe at Babalala Picnic Spot instead of taking his chances at the nearby waterhole is probably very clever!
Just two days after we returned from Shingwedzi in the Kruger National Park (which we’ll be telling you all about soon, promise!), we headed back to Giant’s Castle in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park to pick up where we left off when we had to cut our trip in March short due to illness.
Part of the planning for our original trip was to spend a day visiting the crafters and speciality shops in the KZN Midlands between Mooi River and Howick along the R103-road, particularly to stock up on a variety of cheeses and other delights to enjoy in the evenings in front of the fireplace. With check-in at Giants Castle being only from 14:00 onwards, we decided for this return visit to then get the “shopping” out of the way first before heading to the reserve. An early (04:00am) start out of Pretoria allowed us to visit all the nice stalls and shops we wanted to, discover a few new ones and do some birdwatching along the Lower Loteni and Kamberg roads on the way before arriving at Giant’s Castle just after 16:00 in the evening (dusk comes really early in the ‘Berg in winter!).
We were allocated Chalet 26 for our 4 night stay, a 2-bedroom unit which is very privately situated and offers a spectacular view of the slumbering Giant that looms over the reserve named after it below.
In a scenically grand environment like you’ll find at Giant’s Castle there’s beautiful landscapes all around, making hiking an absolute joy and the reason why we spent so much time on the different trails (thankfully we had really good weather during our visit)
Of course, being one of South Africa’s oldest protected environments there’s no shortage of wildlife to be found at Giant’s Castle, even if it can often be easily overlooked in the grand environs they inhabit!
Horses and ponies are an invaluable tool to rangers in mountainous areas, and while they’re not indigenous these beautiful animals look very much at home in their highland abode.
The Drakensberg may not boast the richest variety of birdlife in South Africa, especially in winter, but we still had a great time bird-watching while out and about, and often the birds came to visit us while we were relaxing at the chalet.
We had a wonderful time at Giant’s Castle, and are incredibly grateful that we could return so soon. Along the most direct route, Giant’s Castle lies about 500km from our home in Pretoria, but with our four days in the mountains flying past unbelievably quickly we decided to prolong our return journey by taking a more scenic road over Oliviershoek Pass and through Golden Gate Highlands National Park (where our Autumn Highlands Holidays kicked off in March 2019).
If you thought we were a bit quiet over the Easter Weekend you’d be right, as we disappeared into the Marakele National Park in the Waterberg Mountains of the Limpopo Province, celebrating the cornerstone of our Chrisitian faith with good friends and family surrounded by awesome scenery and beautiful wildlife.
Marakele’s such a treasure chest of diverse wildlife that it is hard to decide what to show and what to leave out. Let’s start then with a few of the “creepy crawlies” that we encountered while exploring the Park.
WIth Autumn now in full swing in South Africa most of the summer visiting migrant birds have departed for warmer environs already, but bird watching at Marakele over Easter was still a special treat!
What would a National Park be without some charismatic large mammals? Marakele certainly didn’t disappoint on that score, even though the lush vegetation following the rainy season did make game-viewing a bit trickier than usual.
Altogether we spent 4 nights in Marakele on this trip, arriving late on the 18th and departing again on the morning of the 22nd of April 2019. When visiting Marakele in a big group there’s no better option than to stay at the Thutong Environmental Education Centre (as we did) in a remote corner of the Park.
We’ve covered Marakele extensively in previous posts on de Wets Wild, so why not have a read through all of them if you are interested to learn more about this magical piece of our country.
After kicking off at Glen Reenen in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, the next destination on our Autumn Highlands Holidays itinerary was the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in Kwazulu-Natal Province – we planned to spend five nights at Thendele in the Royal Natal National Park followed by five nights at the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve.
The Drakensberg is a favourite destination for many South Africans (like us!) and international visitors alike – with such magnificent scenery and diverse activities on offer to enjoy the great outdoors it is easy to understand why! We’ve already shown off the beauty of the Amphitheatre and the Cascades but the Drakensberg has so much more to see – just look:!
One would expect that any plants occurring in the often difficult climatic conditions of the Drakensberg would be very tough and hardy – and they are, but that doesn’t mean the plants found here are any less pretty than those found in more tropical climes! We’ll be showcasing a few of them in more detail in the coming weeks.
The number of invertebrates that find a home in these harsh highland habitats always astounds me – there are interesting insects and spiders to be found almost everywhere you look! You can look forward to new posts featuring a few of these in the coming weeks as well!
Do you still remember the great fun Joubert had photographing the guineafowls in Thendele? They’re just one of 83 species of birds we managed to identify during our time in “The ‘Berg” – here’s a few more of the feathered inhabitants of the Royal Natal section of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and some of them will soon feature in their own posts here at de Wets Wild.
We’ve already shown you some of the amphibians we found at Mahai, but Royal Natal is also home to many other kinds of four-footed creatures, both cold- and warm blooded.
Thendele is the only accommodation option in the Royal Natal National Park (campers can set up their caravans and tents at Mahai or Rugged Glen) and is built in two sections – the older Lower Camp and the newer Upper Camp. All units have lovely views of the Amphitheatre, but those units in the Upper Camp are more spacious and has more privacy. On this trip however we stayed in unit 12, a 2-bedroomed chalet in the Lower Camp, for 5 nights, and had no reason for complaint – everything was in good working order and it was a very comfortable place to rest after a day exploring the scenic splendour on offer at Royal Natal.
From Thendele we departed for Giant’s Castle, further south into the Drakensberg range, on the 26th of March. We were booked to stay at Giant’s Castle for 5 nights as well, but due to me feeling quite unwell we opted to return to Pretoria after just one night there. Unfortunately this meant that we left Giant’s Castle with very few photographs, but that’s a good excuse to return soon we think!
The Royal Natal National Park and Giant’s Castle Game Reserve are our two favourite destinations in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park. Both of these places can be booked through Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
We recently started nurturing more than a passing interest in South Africa’s different kinds of amphibians, adding another fascinating facet to our enjoyment of our natural heritage. When we visited the Royal Natal National Park in March the trout dam at Mahai proved an excellent spot to go looking for frogs and toads, and other aquatic life, as soon as darkness fell.
By day, the dam at Mahai is a favourite spot for a quiet picnic. We also saw a few trout fisherman achieving success with their rods.
While the Amphitheatre, which we showed you a few days ago, certainly is Royal Natal’s most awe-inspiring feature, there’s another spot in the Park that few visitors do not spend some time at, and that is The Cascades – a beautiful stretch of the Mahai stream where the water drops over, around and even through some large rocky barriers, just a few minutes walk from the camping area. The rock pools are a delight for people old and young to cool of weary feet and bodies after a tough day’s hiking.