Thursday, 29 September 2016

Africa - Part 3 – Panorama Route and Manyaleti

Day 3 of our tour saw us getting up rather early again and embarking on pretty much a whole day in the minibus to get to our evening accommodation at Shalati Adventure Lodge.  Shalati is right on the edge of Manyaleti Game Reserve, a private reserve bordering Kruger, which we would get the chance to explore on two game drives the following day.

Luckily, our plan was to take in the beautiful “Panorama Route” which meant lots of stopping to take photos of incredible scenery and a more manageable journey, with frequent breaks and opportunities to stretch our legs. This was lucky, as on this first long bus stint Stu and I had scored the “sitting over the wheel arch with no leg room” seats. Lol indeed.

One of the first stops of the day was actually at a motorway services which bizarrely had a game reserve type area out the back. We could see zebra and ostrich from the terrace section and the view from the bathrooms was incredible – in fact I would go as far as to say they were the most enjoyable service station toilets I have ever encountered(!), if also being the weirdest. We bought snacks and water and carried on our way, soon reaching the more rural section of our route and some amazing views of rolling hills and greenery.

One of the viewpoints along the Panorama Route

For lunch we stopped at a little town and Stu and I indulged in a Wimpy which was almost exciting in a childhood-nostalgia kind of way. In the UK Wimpy is a deceased brand of fast food from the 80s, in South Africa it is still a chain of successful restaurants (go figure!?) What was most interesting was that inside there was a contained smoking area (quite busy) – which would of course be illegal in the UK (and Australia) as it was inside a public building. I had a fairly unremarkable burger and felt smug because there was free wifi (#winning).

A few hours later we passed through a strange little village called Pilgrims Rest which is now almost a ghost town but is a quaint nod to the mining glories of the past when this was a thriving community. I haggled with a local market stall holder to buy a (quite frankly) ridiculous hat as I was becoming conscious that I really should be protecting my head and face from the sun (which was stronger and more continuous than I had imagined for the time of year).

In the afternoon we passed by Bourke’s Luck Potholes and the Roundavales – both of these are recommended stop points on the Panorama route and offer impressive views as well as a chance to get your feet wet at the potholes and some great gorge/waterfall photo opportunities. 

Me at the Potholes

Bourke's Luck Potholes

The Roundavales (Stu's photo)

At the potholes, Sam got mobbed by school children who seriously took him to their hearts and demanded heaps of photographs, the funniest thing was that we then ran into the same group at the next few viewpoints and each time they greeted him like a celebrity and I have to say he handled it with wonderful grace and warmth, qualities which sum up this lovely man so well.

Eventually, after quite a long day, we made it to Shalati and our very cool (in every way) safari tent/cabins which were essentially a tent on a wooden platform with an outside bathroom attached at the back. 

Our safari tent at Shalati 

We had a great evening meal of buffet style cooked meats and salads and potatoes around a fire pit under the stars. It started to get rather chilly as the night descended and we donned jackets and moved our chairs closer to the fire. “Shorty”, on the bar, did a fabulous job of keeping track of a number of mobile devices and cameras that she was charging behind the bar for people, and of keeping us all in wine and beer.

Due to the fact we were going on our first game drive at 6am the next morning, people turned in fairly early. I went to bed in pyjamas, a hoodie and socks and slept under a massive duvet and a fleecy blanket – fully expecting to wake up boiling hot within the hour. I did not. I was, in fact, wearing just the right amount of clothing for a night in South Africa in winter. It is unbelievable how cold it gets when it has been so very warm during the day. Getting out of bed at 5.30am was a bit of an ordeal and I could see my breath as I got changed into lots of layers. I think Niki won the award for most layers, donning 9 for the morning safari drive!

And so….we split into two groups (led by Peter and Rex) and headed out for our first ever safari game drive in Manyaleti. This is a private game reserve which directly borders Kruger – however, there are no fences so whatever wildlife is in Kruger can wander in and out of the Manyaleti area as it pleases. At the moment the whole Kruger area is so very dry and in serious drought which means that there is no layer of grass on the ground – whilst being dreadful for the animals, this makes it very easy to spot wildlife and also means the remaining watering holes are a safe bet for sightings.

Within the first five minutes we encountered this guy, just sprawled having a nap at the side of the road….

I can’t tell you the emotions that went through me as we watched him eye us up, stretch and slowly decide we were nothing of interest. I had my burst of lion king music ready but did not, as it turned out, have the balls to play it when we saw this incredible beast – it did raise some laughs at breakfast a few hours later though….

The first 20 seconds of this is what I had primed for our first cat sighting...

The 3 hours passed in what felt like 10 minutes as we followed buffalo, spotted zebra, rhino and boks aplenty, got totally bored of impala and then had a magical encounter with this large bull elephant. My mind was well and truly blown.

We were back at our lodge for a late breakfast and it is fair to say conversation was pretty much entirely about the experience we had just had, everybody was completely psyched and looking forward to round two in the afternoon. The nice thing was returning from the morning game drive around 9am meant there was a solid few hours in which to sleep, eat, shower and rest before the 4pm drive started. That is pretty much what we did before reconvening and heading back out.

Our evening game drive took us up on to an abandoned hilltop farm to watch the sunset and enjoy a drink. It was slightly surreal being able to get out of the vehicle and see 360 degree views of the reserve, spotting giraffe, zebra and elephant through the trees and knowing quite how much wildlife was all around us. Again, on this game drive, we saw rhinos and then on the way back to the lodge we saw a massive maternal herd of elephants, it was pretty special.

The second night was a bit of a TIA kerfuffle back at the lodge.

Basically, everyone needed to settle their bills (game drives and drinks) before going to bed as we would be leaving very early the next morning. There was also scheduled to be African singing/dancing going on round the campfire during dinner – but the dancers had had some logistical issues and arrived late, just as most of our group headed off to the office to pay bills. The dancers duly hung around waiting for people to come back but it seemed the paying was taking an inordinate amount of time…those of us sitting round the fire were starting to feel very sorry for them.

One by one, members of the group started arriving back and recounting the hilarity of paying bills, Africa style, which involved separate queues for separate elements of the bill (?) and a card machine which only worked once every 3 transactions. I decided, therefore, to wait until everyone was back before I braved it to go and pay ours. Sadly, I misjudged this and when I headed over they had locked up the office and switched everything off. You can imagine how overjoyed they were to have to switch it all back on again for me to pay my bill. Seemingly they had not noticed one invoice was outstanding and I do wonder if we might have got away without paying if I had not been so honest.

When I got back to the campfire, Sherry and Al were donning some traditional costumes to join in with the dancing, this was highly amusing and the perfect end to a fabulous experience at Shalati. 

Sherry and Al pulling some shapes....

After roundly applauding the entertainment we headed off to bed, conscious that the next day we would be entering the Kruger proper and spending the day within it's boundaries as we travelled up towards Letaba Rest Lodge, beyond Oliphant’s River, and towards a truly magical encounter with some leopards. 

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