Animal encounters in KwaZulu-Natal

During our holiday in South Africa in March, we organised a one week trip to KwaZulu-Natal province (KZN). The idea was to do some hiking in the Drakensberg and see some animals in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi national park. They say KZN is the wild province, but we had even more adventures in store for us that we had imagined…I’ll do separate posts about the hiking, but in this post I’ll focus on our animal adventures!

Day 1: The lion doesn’t sleep tonight (and neither do I).

We flew to Durban from Cape Town, picked up our rental car, and headed through emerald green countryside dotted with Zulu villages to the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi game reserve. Of course my husband leapt out of the car at the first opportunity to buy tropical fruit – this is the sub-tropical region of South Africa, so you can get fresh bananas, mangoes and pineapples. We also passed a lot of sugercane fields.

Mpila camp in the the uMfolozi section of the Hluhluwe-uMfolozi reserve is an ungated camp. This means that although there are some electrified high wires to prevent elephants wandering in (you don’t want elephants wandering through your camp, trust me), all the smaller animals can come and go as they please – and that includes the big cats. Which as their name implies, are not so small. After finding this out, I read every single of the ± 200 reviews of the camp on Trip Advisor to see whether people had had any run-ins with dangerous animals in the camp. Almost all the reviews mentioned a hyena that steals your food right off the braai (BBQ), but none mentioned lions or leopards, which relieved me. Then I did a Google search and found one couple had been surrounded by lions while sitting outside on the porch steps after dark and had had to hurry into their tent. This sounded petrifying. But this was a 1 in 200 review, so the odds of seeing lions were slim then, I thought. We’ll be fine. As long as we go into our tents before the camp lights go out and don’t lounge around outside in the dark.

We arrived at the park in the early evening, checked in at the reception, and drove to Mpila camp. The safari tent exceeded our expectations: it had a huge wooden deck, on top of which was an outdoor area with chairs and tables, a kitchen with a special gate to keep monkeys out, and the main tent area with a bedroom and bathroom. As we knew it was lights out at 10, we aimed to be in our tents at 9:30 and so after settling in we started immediately with our braai (BBQ). The braai grill was under a tree, just next to the safari tent. We kept a lookout for the hyena, but it didn’t appear. Everything was pretty quiet. After eating and cleaning up, we retreated into the tent to get ready for bed.

As the sun goes down…

Braaing in the dark.

Literally less than a minute after we went into our tent and zipped it closed, we heard lion sounds. It’s funny, but although I don’t hear lions everyday, every fibre of my being immediately had no doubt as to what was making those sounds. My blood ran cold. I had to hush my husband, who didn’t seem phased and even wanted to unzip the tent and look out, which was when I started threatening him with divorce and other dire things should he even take a step in the direction of the entrance. For a long moment we froze, and listened. Then we decided that the only option was to very quietly and very carefully go to bed. Going to brush teeth was scary because although the bathroom was part of the tent structure, I had read that monkeys can get in which made me wonder where they come in and if the lion would smell me through the gaps.

The safari tent had twin beds. Getting back to the main part of the tent, I wrapped the mosquito net over my bed, climbed in and hid under the covers, which ridiculously made me feel more protected (because lions don’t eat mosquito nets?…or…if I can’t see it, it won’t see me?).

Hiding from lions

Miraculously, I fell asleep, but I had lion nightmares all night, probably because the lion was still grunting outside. I woke up once in the night and heard my husband snoring and the lion complaining. Leaning out of my mosquito net, I stretched out my arm and poked him, hissing between gritted teeth: “Stop snoring! The lion doesn’t like it!” He stopped and I retreated back inside my mosquito net.

Tent bathroom – would the lion break in to stop my husband’s snoring?

The next morning, stepping outside the tent I was like a hyper-alert, ultra-skittish deer, jumping at every noise and looking around all the time, ready to bolt. We didn’t see or hear the lion though. We went to the reception at the camp to check-in at the camp itself, and I mentioned to the lady at reception that there had been a lion in the camp in the night. She said she knew, as other guests had called her, saying that their was a lion outside their tent and asking if someone could chase it away. “What should I do?” she said. “I’m also scared of lions!” She told them to stay inside their tent.

Tent bedroom

Tent kitchen

Just as she’d finished telling us this, those guests themselves appeared at the reception, and continued the story. They said people from two tents had been eating at one of the tents, and when the occupants of the one tent wanted to go back to theirs, they found that a lion was lying right in between the tents (28 and 29). They did as advised and waited in the tent until it moved off in the direction of our tent, then the two of them hurried back to their tent. (I can’t imagine doing that – I think I wouldn’t have ventured out until morning!) I suppose that is when we started hearing the lion. They said that the presence of the lion explained why it had been so quiet in this area of the camp that evening. Now we understood why the hyena hadn’t made its customary appearance. Everything was quiet, they said, even the birds and insects, and the buck that normally grazed in the camp were nowhere to be seen. When you hear that eery silence, they said, there is most likely a predator around…

I spent the rest of the trip on high alert. Now I understand better how buck must feel, always looking over their shoulders. Or do they get used to it?

Day 2: A hyena stole our garlic bread

After exchanging lion stories with the other guests at the reception, we headed to our cars to do some self-drive safari. For those who have never been on safari: you don’t necessarily have to take the guides game drives in the safari vehicles: many game reserves allow you to drive around in your own vehicle, according to certain rules of course. Map at the ready, we set off to explore the park, aiming to drive around uMfolozi in the morning and Hluhluwe in the afternoon. A funny moment came just as we were on our way out of the camp – a car had stopped with its front door open, as the driver was busy in the boot. We saw a monkey run over and climb into the car, without the driver even noticing, and then come running back out of the car with a bag of some sort of food in its hand. We were too far away and too gob-smacked to say anything. When the driver went back to the front seat, she noticed immediately that something was missing, and looked around, even looking at us as if considering whether we might have taken it. Meanwhile the naughty monkey was up a tree with her bag!

Not this one…but this is how they look

The bush pigs at the camp were pretty friendly and easier to photograph than escaping monkeys.

It’s thrilling driving around game parks. Every day is different, and you never know what you might see. It was a relatively quiet morning, and apart from some buck, the most interesting thing we saw for the first few hours was a whole lot of vultures circling something in the bush. Unfortunately as of course you cannot see all of the park, only the pieces next to the road, we never found out what they were circling. Presumably it was a kill – hopefully not a poaching. We also came across various other birds while we were driving around, many of which swooped and dove down in front of the car then flew along in front of us, as if guiding us on our way.

Vultures in a tree

Another interesting bird

After while of not seeing much, suddenly we were in for a treat. An entire family of elephants decided to cross the road right in front of us! They even had a tiny baby with them.

Soon afterwards, we arrived at a wooden structure called a hide. It was a fairly long path between two wooden walls (however, open above) which you could walk down. The sign warned to go into it at your own risk. After our lion experience of the night before, we weren’t feeling very brave. We stopped, switched off the car engine, and then sat in silence. My husband decided to go in while I waited in the car. He came back pretty quickly. “Nothing there,” he announced, getting back into the car.

There was a bathroom shed there too, but neither of us was keen to leave the car. We were about to leave when a car with some rangers or park staff members turned up. The one man got out and went into the hide. Feeling braver now that he was there, I said I would go and look too, and my husband came back with me. Soon after we entered the hide, we heard noises. To our amazement, an entire family of elephants appeared next to the hide and proceeded to have a grand time splashing around in the watering hole. It was quite a sight and even the ranger stopped working to have a look and take a photo. The three of us watched in awe for a while, until the elephants had all had a muddy splash and wandered off again. They were so close I could even hear their stomachs rumbling (a form of communication – you can read more about it in The Elephant Whisperer by the late Lawrence Anthony).

When we left the hide, the elephants were still in the area. However, they didn’t seem bothered by us. Feeling that hopefully the elephants or the car full of park staff members would alert me to big cats if any would appear, I now felt brave enough to use the bathroom shed. Then we headed on our way, but didn’t see much for a while. Then we came up to a car which was driving extremely slowly. We soon saw the reason:  a  large, lone elephant was walking along right in the middle of the road. As he moved slowly on, our two cars inched slowly forwards, keeping a respectful distance. Then he would stop again and stand there for a while, right in the middle of the road. Now and then he would stop to graze on some leaves. Every few feet he would exasperatingly stop and just stand there, looking at a nearby tree or bush, turning as though he might wander off, and then stood there again for ages. It was almost like he was doing it on purpose. It was quite funny in a way,  but it took us literally an hour until he decided to move off slightly to the bush and we could drive past!

We saw quite a few more elephants that day, as well as a few rhinos. At first we were a bit wary of the rhinos, which looked like they could flatten your car, but then we got used to them – from a safe distance away they seemed calm (though get too close and I hear they will charge you!). They are beautiful animals, severely endangered due to cruel poaching aimed at gathering their horns, falsely believed to have medicinal properties. I hope one day this rhino horn craze will fade, before we have lost these amazing creatures forever.

At lunch time we stopped back at Mpila camp to fetch some braai leftovers for lunch (we’d grilled some sandwiches) and buy an ice-creams at the shop. I still had my eyes peeled for lions every time we got out of the car. After the break, we drove towards the Hluhluwe game reserve. A very relaxed zebra welcoming committee welcomed us to the reserve. We also noticed a lot of babies on our day’s drive: baby zebra, baby buffalo, baby giraffes and baby elephant. There were no big cat sightings, apart from the one that has scared us the previous night. To be honest I didn’t mind – I’d had enough of lions for a while!

In the evening we had another braai. While my husband braaied under the tree, I sat at the table and chairs on the deck, keeping watch armed with a pot and pan to bash in case a lion made an appearance (they don’t like loud noises). To our excitement, this time the infamous hyena did make an appearance (as well as a bush pig). I was so glad to see the hyena, as I assumed that meant the lion was probably gone.

We kept a beady eye on him, as he stood in the shadows and watched our braai. However, somehow in the one moment we took our eyes off him while eating the first cooked food, he managed to rob us. My husband saw a movement, went to check the braai, and our garlic bread was gone! I was amazed how fast he was – I was facing in his direction and I saw nothing. I’d really been looking forward to that garlic bread! Not long afterwards he robbed our neighbours too, as I heard someone exclaiming from a nearby safari tent that their gemsbok steak had disappeared. Still, if I had to pick between visiting lions and visiting hyenas, I’d pick a hyena any day!

Lurking in the darkness

Day 3: A eagle stole my sandwich

The next day, we reluctantly packed up to leave the park. It was beautiful there, and there is no greater feeling than being in the wild with so many fantastic animals, but it was time to head towards the Drakensberg mountains.

Breakfast on the balcony

Instead of heading directly there, we decided to visit the iSimangaliso Wetland park for the day. We’d read a lot about the hippos and crocodiles there, but surprisingly we didn’t see a single one of either. We got the impression that at the time we were there, it was a rather dry wetlands. Maybe you have to do the boat tour to see more water animals.

This looks like perfect hippo territory, but the hippos were hiding

Despite the lack of hippos and crocs, what we did see was some great jungle scenery and a lot of monkeys. And monkeys are hilarious to watch. And while you are watching them because they’re super cute, they are watching you back, looking for food to steal. Never let the monkeys near your bags, or leave your car doors open! And be careful with food around them, they may snatch it away. We were standing in the shade underneath a tree eating ice-creams, when we suddenly noticed we were being watched: looking up we saw that two monkeys had appeared above us. We moved away from the tree and finished our ice-creams. After we’d thrown the sticks and wrappers in the dustbin, one of the monkeys immediately ran over to take a look inside. She didn’t find anything worth taking, but we saw another one run past later with a torn-apart bag of chips. There were a lot of signs “Don’t Feed the Animals”, but it seems like they do a pretty good job of feeding themselves.

Beautiful jungle

There is a great beach at iSimangaliso Wetland park, Cape Vidal, on the warm Indian ocean. It was a very hot day, but sadly I hadn’t put on my swimsuit, so while my husband ran off to play in the waves, I sat on the beach and opened the braaied sandwiches I’d packed for a picnic. Here in the middle of the beach there were no monkeys, so I should be safe to eat it…or so I thought.

Tidal pool

I took out one cheese and tomato sandwich and sat there munching on it while I watched my husband in the ocean. Wham! Suddenly a massive force hit my sandwich, sending it flying out of my hand and onto the sand. I thought I caught a glimpse of a brown bird face whooshing by. Shocked, I leapt up to grab the sandy remnants of my sandwich and quickly hid it under my towel. A short while later, the bird swooped back down for a piece of tomato that it had knocked out of the sandwich the first time, with amazing precision. My husband came out of the ocean at that point and was walking towards me, laughing himself sick. “Did you see that seagull try to steal my sandwich?” I asked him. “That wasn’t a seagull!” he laughed, “That was an eagle!”

Ehm…what?

I looked up, and sure enough, there were two brown birds of prey circling above me. What astounded me most was the accuracy of the bird, and its eyesight. It had so accurately hit my sandwich and not my hand, and from a great height it had successfully targeted a small piece of tomato on the beach. We sat for a while discussing the birds, and I went for a brief paddle in the sea. My husband changed out of his swimming suit using a towel, and we decided it was time to pack up and move on. “We might as well throw the sandwich away, it’s covered in sand,” I told my husband. “Where is it?” he asked, wanting to see it. I handed it to him while I packed up the rest of the things, and as he took it, the bird swooped back down again. In a few seconds the sandwich was gone out of my husband’s hand. At that point the other bird got over excited, swooped down and tried to grab my husband’s wet swimming costume out of my hands. For a brief moment I was in a struggle with an eagle for my husband’s swimsuit! But it let it go. At that point we decided to grab the stuff and leave the beach as fast as possible. As we gathered our things, the birds dive-bombed the beach around us, all looking for food. We ran off the beach to a safe distance away, and watched them in amazement – there were about four of them by now. I’d expected theft from monkeys, but not birds!

The birds dive-bombing the beach

We asked a one of the park staff later what kind of bird it was, and he said maybe it was a hawk. There is also a bird known as a southern banded snake eagle that looked pretty similar to our photos, but I am not sure. Later I googled to see if this had happened to anyone else, and I couldn’t find anything online, but later in the week I met another tourist who reported the same thing. So be warned people – don’t eat your sandwiches on Cape Vidal beach!

I took a photo of this signboard with the hopes of identifying the amazingly precise bird

Three days and lots of animal experiences. We spent some more time driving through the park, seeing some buck and zebras and enjoying the scenery, before heading to the Drakensberg. We spent the night in a charming cottage in Himeville (Arbuckle house), and grabbed a late night bite to eat at The Grind Cafe, which had great pizza. I so miss bacon, feta and avocado pizza, which you can get all over in South Africa but not in Berlin where I am staying at the moment!

Arbuckle house

Now that we were in a different part of KZN, I thought we had had the last of our animal adventures – but I was wrong.

Day 4: Sani pass and the Mountain kingdom

The following morning after a delicious English breakfast at Arbuckle house, we headed off to Sani Lodge Backpackers, where our tour up Sani pass to the Lesotho highlands would begin. You can read more about that trip here.

After the day trip, we had a relaxed dinner in the lodge restaurant. I was very happy with our stay there. You can do a variety of tours and they also offer hiking maps. Their shop also has a good selection of local books.

View from the restaurant at the lodge

Day 5: An unexpected thunderstorm and an encounter with a snake

Our plan for the day was to do a hike in the area, and drive to our next stop in the evening. After going through the list of hikes recommended by the Sani Lodge Backpackers , we decided to do the Gxalingenwa trail. You can buy a permit for the national park at the lodge, and also rent a map and route description.

The hike heads up and around to a cave and waterfall, intersecting with the Giant’s cup trail near the beautiful Ngenwa pool, part of the Gxalingenwa river. Then you walk back down along the river, which we’d read you have to cross at several points. We knew that in summer, there can be afternoon storms in the Drakensberg. We reckoned that “afternoon” meant at about 4pm or so, so we chose a hike that was 4-5 hours long so that we could finish before any storm started. At one point we did consider a detour to another peak that looked interesting, but there was one rather large cloud above us, so we decided to play it safe.

When we reached the Ngenwa pool, we bumped into three of the people who had been on the Sani pass tour with us the previous day. They were already swimming and we stopped to hang out with them for a while at the natural pool. I didn’t have my swimsuit again (and the water was chilly anyway), but my husband went ahead and jumped in in his underpants. His cold-shocked expression made me glad I hadn’t jumped in, but I enjoyed sitting with my feet in a mini-waterfall as the cold water was very refreshing.

The others left before us, having dried off and put their shoes on sooner. We had also just finished putting our shoes on when it turned out that the only way to continue the trail was through the river (or climb over some large boulders . Cue to take shoes off again. And then back on again, after crossing the river. Ratherly gingerly, because I had a slight blister. We set off down the river, enjoying the beautiful views of the river from above and the sunny weather.

The path became relatively tricky – it was a very narrow path on a steep, grassy slope. We had to walk carefully. Every now and then we saw the others up ahead. We saw them go down the slope at some point, but the path sort of petered out, and we were not sure exactly where to head down. We headed down as best we could. I took one photo just before heading down – and that was my last photo of the hike, because that’s when all hell broke loose.

We had just reached the bottom and were looking for the continuation of the trail, when there was a deep rumbling on thunder. It was only 1pm – the storm was here already? It made us very uneasy. Lightning strikes are relatively common in the Drakensberg, and I’ve always had a fear of lightning. Although we were not on a ridge, where there is the highest chance of getting struck by lightning, there was not much shelter around either. We also knew that more river crossings lay ahead and we still had quite a way to go. Not knowing where the path continued added to our discomfort. We looked all around, and eventually I spotted a path which would have led us to where we were now, meaning that we should go back up a bit. It’s not fun to be up in a storm. We rushed along on the narrow path on the grassy slope, constant rumblings of thunder around us, and the occasional lightning lighting up the sky. The grass was long, and there were a few rocks to move past. In my hurry to escape the storm, I was not paying very much attention to where I was putting my hands. I just know that suddenly there was a “sssss”, and it felt like someone had stapled my finger, partly hitting the nail.

I pulled my finger away with lightning reflexes and ran after my husband. “I think a snake bit me!” I said to him incredulously. He poured water from the water bottle over it. My finger throbbed and there was a round dot that looked like a fang mark on the tip of my finger near the nail and a faint ring around it on the side of the finger. But at that stage I was more worried about the lightning, and getting off the mountain. There are venomous snakes in the mountains, such as the Puff adder, Berg adder and Rinkhals, but we’d heard the previous day that you normally had a fair amount of time after they’d bitten you and that usually it wasn’t fatal. Being stuck by lightning on the other hand could easily be fatal. We continued rushing down as fast as we could go, and my adrenalin levels were through the roof.

Gonzo: “This is no time to panic!” Kermit: “This is the perfect time to panic!” (The Muppets)

When we came to the first water crossing, we had to take our shoes off to walk across. I felt even more freaked out that the lightning would strike the water and kill us both, but the first crossing was ok. We put our shoes on again, but later came to another crossing. Off with the shoes again. This time there were some hard pebbles in the river, and I slipped and got wet up to about my waist. My shoes were sodden. At that point I put my camera into my backpack. I didn’t even bother putting my socks back on when I put my shoes back on, because we needed to hurry. Then came the third river crossing. More hard pebbles and trying to rush, I fell in completely. Sitting in a river in a lightning storm, soaked and with a snakebite – it was not my best day!

Just after we made the last river crossing, we came across some tourists (a father and kids)  inexplicably setting out for a hike for the day. We warned the father about the thunderstorm, but he just shrugged, said it wasn’t a problem, and carried on. My incredulousness that anyone would head up when there was a storm overrode my terror to some degree, and we chatted about this as we carried on. Soon we reached a forested part, where we felt slightly safer among the trees (yes, you should not stand under a tree in lightning storm, but at least we were no longer the tallest thing around). The rumblings were also dying down. The path popped out on the road, and we had to follow the road back to the lodge. Just as we felt relaxed because the thunder had died away, a new rumbling started up and our adrenaline rose again, as once again we were the tallest thing in an exposed area. We run-walked back to the lodge, and it was with great relief as we arrived. Just as we arrived, it started belting down with rain. I was wet already from the river, so it didn’t make much difference. I also had blisters from walking in wet shoes without socks.

Despite how it may sound, I really did enjoy this hike! (until the storm)

We went to change into some dry clothes in the bathroom. Then we sat in the car, reading about snakebites. My husband looked up what to do when someone is bitten: first, keep them calm and still. We thought about how I’d run panicking down the mountain and laughed at the irony. It had been about two hours since I’d potentially been bitten, and the hand was not swollen, nor did I feel strange in any way. We read that the venomous snakes present in these mountains (puff adder, berg adder, ringkhals and night adder) in the area had bites that are either neurotoxic or cytotoxic. If it were a cytotoxic bite, it should swell up a lot, and if it were neurotoxic, I should be feeling nauseous and dizzy. Then we read that you can also get dry bites, in which no venom is injected. Snakes do not like to waste their venom, and they usually only bite if feeling very threatened (or to catch prey). I did not even know this before. We figured that since I had no symptoms, it was likely to be a dry bite or a bite from a non-venomous snake, and there was no point in doing much except keeping an eye open for symptoms in case any developed later. In that case, we could always go to the hospital. Fortunately this was not necessary – the bite was slightly swollen and sore for a few days, but nothing more. Eventually the bite mark went black, then made a scab and finally disappeared. A week or so later when I looked up some photos of snakebites, I learnt that the typical two dotted pattern of bite is from a venomous snake – the non-venomous snakes do not have the fangs, as far as I understood it. Sometimes only one fang mark is present (I did have the feeling the bite hit my nail). It seems then, that I got a dry bite. Probably the snake was just as freaked out as me by the storm and my sudden appearance, and just gave a warning nip to show his presence.

A storm can come out of the blue

That evening we were staying in another part of the Drakensberg, near Monk’s Cowl, and we headed there in the car. The storm continued in the background. When we arrived in the area of Winterton, we could see thick bolts of lightning striking the mountain range continuously. We decided to eat at a Portuguese restaurant near Winterton before heading to our accommodation (Inkosana lodge). We sat outside (the tables were under a roof) and watched the massive thunderstorm over the mountains. Rain poured down all around us: it was a deluge. I couldn’t even imagine how it would be to find oneself in the midst of such a tempest on top of the mountains. We ate, and as the storm grew more violent, went inside to wait it out with a cup of tea. Eventually the rain abated a little, and we drove to Inkosana lodge. To our surprise, the owner hadn’t received our email confirming our booking, but luckily he had a rondavel free. As the rain continued to trickle lightly down, we put our bags in the rondavel and discussed plans for the next day over a drink before heading to bed.

Day 6: Another snake in the path

The next day dawned sunny. We emerged from our rondavel to find ourselves in a beautiful garden full of flowers, with stunning views of Cathkin Peak and Champagne Castle in the distance. It’s always great arriving at places when it’s dark and being pleasantly surprised the next day by beautiful views!

We had an excellent breakfast at the lodge: oat porridge, fresh tropical fruit, homemade yoghurt, and toast from freshly baked bread with cheese. After breakfast, the owner of the lodge sat down with us to give us some tips for a good day hike. As we were headed to the monk’s cowl station, he suggested we hike to Breakfast stream or Blind man’s corner. I asked what he thought about the chances of thunderstorms, and he said they are so unpredictable in the Drakensberg that there’s no point trying to plan your hike based on a thunderstorm predictions. He did say though that usually after such a huge storm, the next day was less likely to have a storm.

We drove to the Monk’s cowl parking lot. Upon seeing a group of hikers all clad in hats, I realized I’d forgotten my hat behind, and it was a blazing hot day. Luckily there was a shop next to the car park selling Zulu craft work, and the man there showed me his selection of hats. I chose a white one that served me well throughout the day. In case you are ever there, you’d be well advised to pop into the small building, as it is jam-packed full of beautiful Zulu craft work, mostly finely woven dishes and baskets in many colours. Two ladies were busy weaving them outside while we were there, so you can even see how they are made.

We started our hike. The path first took us uphill through forest, then opened up to great views of the surrounding mountains. We arrived relatively quickly at the Sphinx and continued on our way up the mountain. It was a really nice path and I felt full of energy for climbing mountains. then suddenly my husband jumped and came running back to me. “There’s a snake!” he said. “Let’s go back.”

“What?” I said, dismayed.  “We can just wait till it leaves and then go past.” He’d whizzed back past me by this point and was already heading back down down the mountain. I tried to convince him that snakes don’t want to harm you, that if you make a noise they usually leave, that if you let them know you’re there by stomping your feet (from a safe distance away) and then give them enough time to slither away it’s fine.

But he was hearing none of it. From a safe distance away he stood there, arms folded.

“But it’s such a nice hike!” I said.

“No!”

You’d think I would have been the one scared of snakes after the previous day, but somehow I felt less scared of them. Eventually I managed to persuade him that we could wait for somebody else to come along, tell them about the snake and see what they thought. They could go past the snake first. This idea he was ok with.

So we waited, and the first people that came along were a Dutch couple. We told them about the snake and showed them where we’d spotted it. Nonplussed, they went ahead, only to also jump and retreat when the snake reappeared. However, we watched it slither away to the side and then they went past without incident, so my husband and I followed.

It wasn’t long to the Breakfast stream, where several people were hanging out, eating and resting. We carried on, getting to a sort of wide open meadow. It was very scenic, but we did feel a bit exposed, and there were some dark clouds that looked a bit threatening…because of this, we weren’t sure how much further to go. There was a very scenic peak ahead, but it was surrounded by ominous-looking clouds. Around Blind Man’s corner, we asked a passing guide what he thought, and he said that the clouds did look threatening. After watching yesterday’s violent storm, we decided to play it on the safe side and head down, taking a different route to the one we’d come up. We headed down a scenic gorge.

As there were also lots of good places for snakes to hide, this time I kept my hands close to my chest as I walked. We’d considered going to Nandi’s waterfall, but the sky was even darker by the time we got down the gorge, so instead we headed back. it was a pity, because we were done with hiking relatively early in the day, and in the end the ever-threatening storm never came, so we could have headed much further into the mountains.

Instead we ended up going for a late lunch somewhere near the lodge and then for a beer tasting. We also did a little drive on a very pot-holed country road, which I enjoyed because we kept coming across locals herding cows, and among the reeds on the side of the road we spotted very bright red birds. In the evening, we heard that another couple staying there had done the same hike as us, but continued a bit further. I think next time we will go back to the Drakensberg at a different time of year when thunderstorms and snakes are not such an ever-present issue.

Day 7: A crow with a rubber fetish ate our car antenna (or was it a baboon?)

So many mountains, so little time. On our last day, we decided to visit the Giant’s castle nature reserve, as we had heard that it’s possible to see rock art there as well as hike. The country road to Giant’s castle was an adventure in itself, with a fair amount of potholes and a lot of cows blocking the way. At first it was strangely flat considering we were so near to the mountains, but eventually we started to see Giant’s castle looming in the distance.

We drove into the reserve and looked for parking. That was when we saw this sign.

We looked around carefully but didn’t see the crow, and this seemed to be the parking spot, so we parked. We were barely a few metres from the car when some baboons came over to investigate. The one was a mother with a baby on her back, which was riding her like a horse. They went over to look at the dustbin, while another baboon came and sat on our car. My husband didn’t like this, but I figured it wouldn’t do anything, and didn’t want to make it angry by trying to shoo it away.

We walked to the shop and tickets office and bought a permit to visit the Main Cave museum, which is a guided tour of a cave with San/Bushman rock art that takes place about a 30 minutes walk away from the shop. The Drakensberg used to be inhabited by the San, indigenous people of southern Africa who were hunter-gatherers. Interestingly, genetic studies have indicated that ancestors of today’s San peoples were at the root of the human family tree from which we all descend, with many branches forming over the ages. We all started off as hunter-gatherers before the age of agriculture started, which led to the development of towns and cities. As our guide in the cave showed, some of the more recent rock art showed the meeting of the San with other African tribes and Europeans who had come to the Drakensberg, and included some battle scenes. The cave was used over many generations and the rock paintings there range from 50 000 years old to 150 years old. I found it quite sad that the last paintings were of the arrival of new peoples, some battles, and then…nothing. There are now no San in the Drakensberg, and also very few San communities left in South Africa. Some were killed in battles and some became integrated and absorbed into other communities.

 

While we were doing our tour in the cave, it unexpectedly started raining. I was pretty glad to be in a cave at that time. I could imagine the San doing the same thing on rainy days, sheltering in a cave, perhaps doing some rock paintings…

When the tour came to an end, it was time to move on from the cave. Our original plan had been to do a hike, but with thunder now rolling over the hills and the rain getting heavier, we decided to head back. It was yet another dash in a thunderstorm, but this time the rain got us and we were completely soaked by the time we reached the reception again, literally down to the underwear. We spent some time browsing in the shop, which had some nice books, and then made a second dash to the car. When we arrived, we found to our horror that the antenna of our rental car was broken in half! Who was to blame, the crow with a rubber fetish or the baboon who had been sitting there when we left? Since we never saw the crow, my money is on the baboon.

Soaked!

Exploring Giant’s Castle would have to wait for another day

 

It was time to head back to the city. We spent the evening in Umhlanga, taking a quick walk on the beach before heading to an Indian restaurant for dinner (there is a big Indian community in the east coast of SA, so we took the opportunity to try the local curries). The next morning we drove to the airport. When we returned the car and reported the damages to the attendant, he didn’t seem surprised at all.  “Just write on the form that the bird broke your antenna,” he said casually. So I’m guessing we are not the first ones who had this problem!

Umhlanga

Never a dull moment in KZN! We look forward to returning one day.

And back to a very dry Cape Town

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Animal encounters in KwaZulu-Natal

  1. Oh boy. what a scary encountered. We were in KwaZulu Natal a couple years back but I put my food down and asked my hubby to book a bungalow instead of a tent since there were no gates at all and I was soo scared. I can imagine your experience with the lions laying next to the tent,. Good post anyway.

    • nn says:

      It was pretty scary! The safari tents are lovely though. But yes, at the time I would have loved solid bungalow walls! I think next time I’ll go for a safari tent in a gated camp.

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