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The amazing thing as you fly into Hoedspruit from Jo’burg is seeing the walls of the canyon from the air, and how the ‘highveld’ drops horizontally more than 1000 metres into a vast, flat expanse known as the ‘lowveld.’
As we drove from the airport to the Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve, we saw how the flatness of the ‘bush’ was framed by the huge red cliff walls of the canyon. The Reserve is at the bottom of the canyon, right by its mouth. The house was surrounded by a natural ampitheatre made of the beautiful rock faces of the canyon walls. It really is a majestic and amazing place. Wherever you look, you always have a choice of beautiful mountains to look at. Right in the reserve, stands a conical mountain called Modimule. It is a strangely pointed, stand-alone mountain at the mouth of the canyon, surrounded by all the enormous cliffs. The local people have always believed Modimule is the origin of the world and modern science has proved it has the oldest rocks anywhere in the planet other than Australia.
The Blyde River Canyon is the third biggest canyon in the world and it is truly imposing. The natural reserve has all types of animals and happily for us since we always walked to and from the lodge for lunches and dinners, no predators. So the animals seemed more curious about us and it was possible to have close encounters with them.
My first sight when we arrived was of beautiful zebras standing by the shade of the walls to avoid the hot sun. On the first morning, as we had breakfast outside, looking at the mountains, a plethora of birds came to say hello and entertained us with their melodies.
On the second day, as we had lunch in the lodge, we saw a bunch of baboons moroding and trying to break into a house and steal food. They were so funny, walking one after the other in a straight line - oblivious to us. We also learnt that they can be pretty destructive if they get into a house, as it happened to our neighbours. She described it as being the worse scenario you could ever imagine, as she entered her home and found that the baboons had paid a visit through an opened window and gone around destroying, playing and marking territory all around the house.
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The monkeys on the other hand, were infinitely more gracious and funny. Playing and jumping around with their angelical faces. We also walked up to a herd of Wildebeasts that were huffing, we werent too sure if they were curious or were trying to warn us not to get too close (we were only 4 metres away). The baby zebra seemed to be the most curious and would, little by little, get closer and closer to one. What a joy! Right below our paddling pool, we saw quite a few impalas, kudus and bushbacks. The impalas are the most elegant of animals and we saw them also running joyfully in the fields. Even though it was supposedly the beginning of the dry season, the rains had come late and everything was incredibly green and luscious. The sunsets illuminated the rock of the cliffs every evening and highlighted their colour so that the rock seemed in flames.
The reserve is in many ways a closed neighbourhood, albeit it one with strict conservation regulations. It was interesting in that whilst all the workers were black, the owners were mostly all afrikaners and a few Americans. The Limpopo area, once the old independent ZAR (South African Republic) is where most of the hard-line Afrikaner farmers still live. We went to Acoernhook, the local ‘township’ which was a world apart. We went to see the women weavers of the Mapusha cooperative. 30 years ago, a german catholic priest in the local church got these women spinning and weaving machines and started a cooperative. He then left and the women continued their labor, albeit with little success. They were excellent weavers but did not have the means to sell their products nor the knowledge of which designs would attract customers and sell. In their words, they prayed for years for somebody to come and help them.
Judy is an American friend of Tom’s who was with him in a trip they made to SA in 1998. She then developed cancer and after surviving it, decided that she wanted to do something different with her life and moved to help these women as she had a degree in textile design that she had never put to use.
Thus, the moribund cooperative was revitalised and soon the original weavers’ daughters started to join and become apprentices too. Our visit there was wonderful. These women were so lovely and kind that you wanted to take them back with you, the room was full of laughter and their work incredibly beautiful. Full of spirit, joy and happiness, they taught us a lesson. We bought a rug and some bags but we felt that we were leaving with much more than what we were leaving behind in cash. We also met Cindeleh, hopefully the face of new South Africa. A 22 year old with enormous zest for life and seemingly unending optimism. She told us she had great plans for Mapusha and that she was joining business school by correspondence (Judy has great ideas for design and good contacts but she is not really plugged to the business side of things). I wonder how many other similar stories abound in South Africa (and the rest of the third world) where women have the skills or the capacity but always lack the means or the contacts or the capital to put these small enterprises into action and thus help themselves. And on top of that they are so happy with the little they have, what a lesson to our abundant societies where we always complain!
There is a big private game reserve near the Blyde River Canyon called Kapama and they are one of the few who do elephant-back safaris. They have a young elephant called Jabalani who is extremely sweet and friendly and who, inspite of being the youngest in the group, apparently likes to lead the safaris and goes at the front.
The ride on the elephants was surprisingly smooth and comfortable. We did not sea any animals, except for an ostrich, but I did learn a bit about the elephants and how wonderful they are. They live to be quite old and they also have a special presence, like being in front of a wise, ancient species. Zoologists are discovering new things about them all the time and they always tend to point to fairly evolved intelligence and complex social systems within the herds.
For example, they have different systems of communicating and many are through very low sounds that are inaudible to humans yet travel through miles. They also know when the atmospheric conditions are given so that the sound travels best. They also have amazing memories and they will remember a scent and type for years. This is why if an elefant has seen how humans kill another elefant, it will be extremely angry and menacing to other humans or run away at their sight.
In Zimbabwe, they have studied how, when they start culling elephants in an enclosed area, within 30 minutes, the elephants at the other side of the park, 40 kilometres away, start getting really angry and run away in desperation.
Grown-up elephants ‘educate’ the younger ones over a long period of time and at times when they have culled the older ones, the young ones have become completely uncontrolable and, lacking authority, created ‘gangs’ just as abandoned street kids have done in South LA. Anyway, I was impressed with my elephant and enjoyed the safari very much. They apparently have very bad digestive systems so they have to eat a lot since apparently they process only 30% of what they eat. The result is that whilst they walk, they munch at every tasty tree and bush in site, at times, they even fall a complete bush!
We drove from Blyde for about 2 hours to get to Timbavati Game reserve. It linders with the Kruger National Park and a few years ago, the fences came down, meaning that the animals have a bigger space where to roam and migrate to when they want. Timbavati used to be a hunting reserve many years ago and thus some of the animals still have memories of white people hunting them and thus are not always very approachable or friendly.
We encountered some friendly elephants and a jiraffe but also others who run away immediately or seemed quite angry at our site. Motswari was wonderful, an unfenced camp built on the river bank surrounded by the bush and luscious green pastures on the other side. As soon as we arrived and were taken to our great african-style rondavels, two elephants came to the river to cool down and drink. There were also cheeky monkeys all around the camp with their young. One came to the window of the room and peered in exactly the same way I would have done, by putting my hand over my eyes to guard against the reflection! It was funny.
The system in the camp is perfect and extremely enjoyable. There is a wake up call at 5.30 with coffe and biscuits and then you go on a 3 hour game drive with your ranger. Somewhere in the middle of the drive, he stops for picnic breakfast. There is then a big brunch at 10.30 when you come back and you have the afternoon to relax, read and swim or go for a walk. There is then a high tea at 3.30 and you leave for another game drive until dinner. So you catch the sunrise and sunset, which is when you see the most animals as well as do a night drive, good to see leopards hunting, which happened on our first night.
Our ranger spotted a scared herd of impala, waiting to see who would be sacrificed that evening, and soon enough, a leopard who was moroding around. It was dark and the ranger had a potent light, whith which he illuminated the unperturbed leopard who was totally concentrated on his prey. The leopard ran a couple of times towards the impalas direction and we were able to see the chase but we then lost them, when they moved into an area where we could not follow with the jeep, it was however quite exciting. That was the end of a drive when we had seen first a lonely lost young lion calling for his mates and then we encountered him again, happily lying with one other of his friends, seemingly having already eaten. We had had sundowners on a dry river bed, seen lots of wonderful birds and animals and learnt much from our excellent ranger. To our amazement, they had prepared a surprise barbecue dinner in the middle of the bush, so we arrived to a clearing which had been surrounded with candles and where they had set lovely tables and everything else needed for a stunning dinner under the stars! That night, I could hear a hippo grazing just outside our room and it was great.
We were not that lucky with our morning game drive but we saw a lovely sunrise and the destruction caused the previous night by an elephant. The evening drive was much more momentous, with a wonderful incident when an elephant who was munching away became very curious and turned towards us, came close and looked at us for instants that seemed quite long at the time. Leslie extended her arm and the elephant responded with its for what constituted a wonderful moment. Sadly, the driver got nervous and accelerated, leaving the friendly elephant behind.