Friday, 29 June 2012

Our Journey through Limpopo Province, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe June 2012. The Tuli Block, The Makgadikadi Pans and Gweta.

11th June 2012 -13th June 2012.
Mashatu gave us the option of a morning game drive, then Brunch with a check out at 11.00. But knowing that we had over 450 Miles to cover today we opted to have breakfast at 08.30 and check out at 09.00. Mashatu were fantastic and prepared just the two of us the full Brunch that would be served at 11.00.  Kaiser then drove us back to the Airstrip to collect our car and gave us full instructions to find our way to the town of Bobonong. 
Limpopo Valley Airfield

Air Botswana Office at LVA.
This first 39 Km was dirt and sand roads and we soon hit a ‘Veterinary Check Point’, I do not know the purpose of these stops but think it must be to do with preventing the spread of animal diseases. We had to get out of the car and walk on a cloth impregnated with chemicals, then drive the car through a dip of chemicals.

Once clean we were allowed to proceed driving towards the towns of Sefophe and Selebi Phinkwe. This was on a very good tar road, that looked new and I think it has been built to help with the building of a new Dikgatlhong Dam that is under construction on the Lower Shashe River. Just down-stream of the Shashe/ Tati confluence and approximately 55 kilometres north-east of Selebi Phikwe by the Botswana’s Department of Water Affairs. Even though the roads were good, it took us a long time to get from Mashatu to Serule. Once on the A1 we made good time to Francistown arriving at around 14.00. Unfortunately, the signposting for the road to Nata in Francistown is very poor! And we ended up heading to Bulawayo and loosing precious time! Once rectified and on the correct A3 it was 17.00 when we got to Nata. Now the dilemma do we carry on and risk driving at night, the sun was setting very fast, or stay in Nata? We decided to stay in Nata and choose the Northgate Lodge in Nata.
The check in at the Northgate Lodge was fast and efficient and we were shown to a double room. The room was large, and very clean with a comfortable King size bed, a full bathroom with bath, the room also had a TV, fridge and a small outside sitting area. I think the use of the term ‘Lodge’ is a bit misleading as it is more of a Motel / Truck stop place, but the grounds are pleasant with a swimming pool, bar area and a restaurant. The photos on their web site are an accurate reflection of the Motel.

We had a power cut soon after arriving but fortunately the kitchen is gas powered so still got to have the very good value 3 course meal from the menu. The owners were really nice and chatty, and gave us a map of the area with directions as to how to find birds and hippos in the river if we wanted. The main A3 road is next to the Motel and woke us up early, so we got off, going in the direction of Gweta.
Again the road from Nata to Gweta was tar, straight and virtually empty, and after a one hour’s drive we saw the giant Aardvark that denotes the Hotel called ‘Planet Baobab’ that is just outside Gweta. We went on a few more Km into Gweta village and booked into The Gweta Lodge. Our reason for stopping in this area was a desire to visit The Makgadikadi Pans. 

 Our reason for stopping in this area was a desire to visit The Makgadikadi Pans. As far as value for money goes Gweta Lodge should be your first choice. Accommodation is limited on The Pans and other camps such as Jacks Camp are very exclusive and very expensive, you can get the same experience at Gweta Lodge for a fraction of the cost.
Gweta lodge is located in the small village of Gweta and was a delightfull place. It has a variety of accommodation options from twin rooms located in round buildings to family rooms. We had a large room with twin beds and a bathroom. There were small outside sitting areas dotted around the grounds as well as a large bar and sitting area, swimming pool, boma, BBQ area, TV lounge and dining area. The room we had was very clean and had Mosquito nets over the beds. The lodge also offers many activities, such as Quad biking & horse riding to the Makgadikadi Pans, sleeping out on the pans. Despite the fact that it was early, we were given a family room, a delicious breakfast and a guide who would take us out onto the pans in our own vehicle.

The Makgadikgadi Salt Pans are all that remains of a prehistoric super lake, that were fed by great rivers from the North. The inland lake was said to be the biggest in Africa. When the lake last held water is uncertain, what is known is that the water levels fluctuated; this can be seen by the varying ancient shoreline at places like Kubu Island, now a rugged outcrop of granite with fossil beaches and shells on its ‘beach’. The Pans cover a large; over 12000km2 area, and are flat and almost featureless. I wanted to see the Pans, but to also visit Chapman’s Baobab. With our guide we drove on a sand road South of Gweta through Mopani bush that was dotted with small cattle Kraals. We drove out onto the vast white pans heading to Kubu Island, but turned back onto land to find the famous Baobab. 

Chapman’s Baobab, also called ‘The Seven Sisters’ was magnificent and it is said that it was used by explorers such as Livingstone to navigate their way across the pans. We were also told that the inside of the tree had been used as a post office. There are many names carved on the tree, but despite all the folk law attached to it I thought just the presence of such a large tree was just exceptional and I am glad we took a day out to relax and see The Pans.  
Chapman's Baobab, Gweta, Botswana.

We look like ants on the tree.
We had a comfortable and relaxing evening at Gweta Lodge and enjoyed a few drinks in the bar and a filling supper from a set menu.
The next day we were up early and left Gweta at 07.00 as we had to get to Kasane and the Chobe River for 12.30.

Room at Gweta Lodge.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Our Journey through Limpopo Province, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe June 2012. Polokwane, South Africa to The Tuli Block, Botswana.

7th June 2012 to 11th June 2012.
Polokwane is set out like many South African cities, on a grid system. This makes it easy to find things like a Bank. First National Bank in this case where English Pounds were converted into South African Rand, at a far better rate then offered in the UK, and a Telecoms shop to purchase (yet another) dongle for the PC. 
Polokwane was a Host Town for the Football World Cup in 2010, so we went to have a look at the new sports grounds and stadium that were built for the occasion....very impressive.
Football Stadium, Polokwane.
 Then it was time to hit the R521 leaving Polokwane and heading North towards the town of Alldays. Then, on a further 60 KM to the Pont Drift Boarder crossing where we were scheduled to meet with the staff from Mashatu Game Lodge at 13.00. It was a distance of 206 Km and took almost 2 hours from Polokwane to Pont Drift.
Pont Drift Boarder Crossing. (I was not allowed to take photos from the South African side of the boarder looking towards Botswana.)
The Pont Drift Boarder Post is located on the Limpopo River, this is the border with South Africa and Botswana. It is open from 08.00 to 16.00. In order to use this crossing you need a 4x4 vehicle as there is no bridge or pontoon to use and even in a 4x4, you cannot cross if the river is in flood.
If the Limpopo this river is in flood you cannot cross in ANY vehicle, in this situation only foot passengers can cross useing the cable car, this will cost Pula 30 per passenger.

Point Drift Cable Car used to cross The Limpopo River.
If like today, the river is dry, then you can cross in a 4X4 vehicle. I was almost disappointed as we drove through the dry river bed and the Limpopo looked like a small muddy puddle as opposed to Rudyard Kiplings description in The Elephants Child. 'Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees'.


If you are hiring a Car and then want to cross a boarder out of South Africa, you will have to organise this with the hire car company BEFORE YOU TRY TO CROSS as you will have to show the customs officer the following;
  • A letter of confirmation from the hire car company, with your name on it, allowing you to cross boarders.  
  • The Certificate of Registration in respect of the vehicle you have hired, make sure you check that it is the certificate for the car you have hired and has the correct Registration number, engine number ect on it BEFORE you leave the car hire office! 
  •  A letter of Authority from the bank / financial services if the vehicle is still under finance.
For visitors from the UK, there are no Visa fees when you enter Botswana, if you are bringing a vehicle in this is a little different.
At the Botswana Border we had to pay;
  • RTP Road Permit, Pula 40.00 
  • Road Safety Levy, Pula 20.00 
  • Insurance, Pula 50.00 
We did not have any Pula, so paid in US $ at a very poor exchange rate!

Pont Drift Boarder Crossing, into Botswana.

We left the car at the Limpopo Valley Airstrip...its a real airport!
The arrangement with Mashatu was to meet at Point Drift and if the Limpopo was in flood, leave the car in a secure no man’s land and cross the river by cable car or if the river was dry, cross in the Mashatu Landover. Our Guides were at the boarder post waiting for us and on hearing that our next stop was Nata, and that we were in a 4x4, our guides advised us to follow them across the almost dry river bed and leave the car at the Tuli Block airstrip or Limpopo Valley Airfield. So this is what we did. The Northern Tuli Game Reserve or Tuli Block is located North of the Limpopo river, but West of Zimbabwe. It is in Botswana. The Tuli Block is generally referred to as ‘hardveld’, consisting of rocky outcrops and network of dry river beds. Much of the area is occupied by private game reserves and game farms. The Tuli Game Reserve is not open to self drivers, so to fully enjoy the area you have to book into one of the private game lodges, Mashatu, Botswana is one of these. Mashatu Game Reserve, bills its self as ‘Land of Giants’. It is an area at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, its landscape changes from savannah, riverine forest, marshland, plains and sandstone outcrops. 
Mashatu Landscape, Botswana.
Mashatu takes its name from the locally revered Mashatu tree. It is the largest privately owned game reserve in Southern Africa at 33 000 ha. Elephant, Giraffe, Eland, Ostrich, Kudu, Impala as well as all the Cats are just some of the species found here.
The entrance to The Main Camp at Mashatu is built of local stones and the camp style is rustic, but don’t be fooled, it is luxury rustic. It is very comfortable. The rooms are extremely large, can accommodate 3 and have a day bed. An en suite bathroom with bath, a separate second toilet and a large walk in wardrobe.   
Room, Outside.
We had been greeted at the boarder by our guide, Kaiser. Upon arrival he showed us to our house and informed us that high tea was to be served at 15.00, following this we went out for our first game drive, meeting our tracker, Morgan.
The land was dry and dusty, it is the second year the summer rains have failed and the drought conditions are obvious. A strong wind was blowing causing thick dust storms.
Elephant and Dust.
Once back into camp at 19.00, we had a short time to wash the dust off and get ready for supper. Kaiser was our host during our stay and met us in the Gin Trap Bar prior to taking us into The Boma for a fine supper complete with South African wine.  This set the pattern for our three night stay at this high end, luxury lodge. The game viewing was spectacular and despite the dry conditions we saw many species. A family of six Cheetah, eating a scrub hair on day one. With a young Kudu and a Steenbok on day two. Then finally devouring fully grown impala male on day three!
Other highlights were tracking  Leopard through the bush in the safari vehicle. The skillfull driving of the Toyota Land Cruiser by Kaiser was like a live lesson in 4x4 driving and at times outstripped any Roller Coaster Ride you may go on, and Morgan’s tracking skills were outstanding, leading us each time to Cats hidden away in the bush. Such as a Lioness with an adult Kudu kill all to herself.
The best Guides and Hoast in Mashatu, Kaiser & Morgan.
At Mashatu you can also go on game walks, ride mountain bikes and horse riding through the reserve. All in all it is a perfect place to get away from it all and chill out. It is about a 5 ½ hour drive from Johannesburg airport make it all the more attractive.
With the exception of Lesotho and Swaziland. The countries that make up Southern Africa are large. At 600,373 km2, Botswana is a big place.
The roads of Southern Africa are generally good. this makes self driving in the region easy.  In South Africa the roads they are very good, be the roads tar, or graded dirt roads.  
The road from JoBurgh to Polokwane.
Cows on the road, Botswana.
In Botswana it varies from good tar roads to impassable sand tracks that require experienced 4x4 drivers, in a convoy to tackle them. The other problem with the Botswana roads are animals; both livestock and wild game roam onto the roads this is dangerous in the day, but good visibility gives you time to spot the offender and react appropriately, but at night, without street lights, cats eyes or road markings this is a different matter. Driving in Botswana at night is very dangerous and you are warned by all and sundry not to drive at night.
Road from Babanong to Nata. Botswana.
Road block in Botswana.
There is another issue with road signs, or rather lack of them as we found out when we left the Tuli Block and drove to the Salt Pans of the Makgadikgad, and that will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Our Journey through Limpopo Province, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe June 2012. Manchester to Polokwane

After months of planning, dreaming, research and saving it was time to visit Southern Africa. I have put a lot of detail into the information to assist anyone planning an independent self drive holiday to the Southern African here goes!

6th June 2012, Air Emirates flight EK 18 left a very grey, dull and wet Manchester at British Summer Time 14.40. This was 30 minutes late as its scheduled time was 14.10. On the lower, economy deck, the A380 was almost full. The seats we had been allocated; row 81, seat A and 81C were a disappointment. The window seat was Ok’ish.......the leg room was good, as there is not a seat in front of you, but the seat back TV is stored at the side of the seat and in this case it did not work. Seat C, the aisle seat, has very little leg room, and is very close to the busy galley. The journey was made bearable by the fact that the B seat was free, but when booking an Economy class ticket on Emirates A380, my advice would be to avoid these seats if you can.
On landing in Dubai, the airport was extremely busy for the first hour of our arrival, then the crowds slowly dissipated as the various long haul flights departed. We found some of the lounger style seats in the departure lounge to be vacant and managed to have a sleep during our 3 ½ hour wait.
Soon it was time to take on the second leg of our journey, this time from Dubai to Johannesburg. Flight EK761 was scheduled to be an A380 when I booked the flights, but due to the ongoing ‘cracks in the wings’ saga,;postID=5945445597879539696 the aircraft had been changed to a Boeing 777-300 and I have to say I am pleased about this change as I prefer the 777 to the A380. On this leg I was in seat 40 A. The flight was only ½ full in Economy and I had the row to myself...Bliss. We took off just prior to dawn at 04.50. The aircraft flew out over the artificial island representing ‘The World’, then turned back over Dubai, I had a good view of the Sheik Zayed Road and The Burj Khalifa – The tallest building in the world- before we reached cruising level. I asked for some eye shades, stuck my ‘Do Not Disturb’ sticker on my seat, stretched out across the row and slept. I awoke when we were over Lake Malawi, and what a magnificent sight that was.
A very tasty breakfast menu of Arabic Cold Breakfast; Edam cheese, minted labneh balls, olive and crudités. Fresh Fruit Salad. A choice of either Plain Omelette with lamb sausage, sautéed potatoes with onions and herbs, mushrooms and tomato or Scrambled egg, turkey bacon, hash brown potatoes and mushrooms. Croissant and Tea or Coffee was served. As soon as this service was cleared it was time to commence the decent into the City of Gold, Johannesburg.
7 June 2012 @ 10,55. Clearing customs and baggage was very fast at Johannesburg airport and we made our way into the airport arrivals hall, searching the line of meter and greeters for our name from the many pieces of paper held up as you exited into the large circular arrivals hall at Oliver Tambo Airport.
We were expecting a pick up from the company we had hired a 4X4 from, ‘Bushlore Africa’. Bushlore specialise in 4 x 4 vehicle hire, fully equipped vehicles come with Rooftents, fridges and full camping equipment. As we were not camping on this holiday we had opted for an unequipped vehicle. Bushlore have offices in JoBurg and Cape Town, and depots in Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. On arrival at the airport the rep was not in attendance, so we went and changed some money, still no Bushlore? I asked the very helpful man at the information desk if he would phone the company for me, and he tried for a long time on his own mobile, but did not get through. I asked why he did not use the desk phone and it was because the telephone provided by his employers was for internal calls only! He did not have the credit on his own phone to place the call for me, but was too shy to say so! I thanked him for his efforts and went to the telephone box in the airport, very soon after contacting the Bushlore office the rep appeared at the Information desk looking for me.
The Bushlore Africa HQ in Johannesburg.
The New Toyota

With Rooftent

Bushlore Africa Office
We left Bushlore at around 14.00 and our goal was the town of Polokwane, a distance of 320 Km. Polokwane is the capital town of the Limpopo Province and was once known as Pietersburg. It took a long time to negotiate ourselves out of the metropolitan area of Pretoria as we got lost! Somehow ending up on the R101? But once back on the N1 Toll road the kilometres started to flash past. The landscape was flat and orange, interrupted but the occasional Kopije and lots of Toll Booths! The Tolls were small amounts such as 31.00 Rand, but so frequent that the final sum was 102 Rand, the AA of South Africa has good information about Toll fees on its web site. The road was also FULL of speeding traps..............

The sun was setting very quickly and it was getting dark when 4 hours later we drove into Polokwane so we did not have a lot of time to find accommodation. The choice of the Pietersburg Lodge turned out to be a good one, located just off the N 1 as you enter the town, for Rand 65.00 we had a room with 2 double beds, fridge, tea making facilities, TV, ensuite bathroom. The decor was a tad dated, but it was very clean and comfortable. The facilities included a bar and restaurant but we chose to go out to eat. In Polokwane town centre there was a plethora of fast food outlets, from fish & chips, pizza, chicken to a take away steak house called Steers. But we wanted at sit down meal, after asking a local man to recommend us a restaurant, he directed us to Savannah Mall, a shopping Mall located on the outskirts of the town and here we enjoyed a meal prior to a much needed night’s sleep.
Rooms at Pietersburg Lodge in Polokwane
Pietersburg Lodge as seen from the road.
When I had booked the Car hire, it was an additional 60 Rand to have the airport transfer included, now as we settled back to be chauffeured the 45 minutes it took to get to the main office I felt this was very good value for money and essential if you are going to use this company.
On arrival at Bushlores depot, in a suburb on Johannesburg called Randburgh, we filled in all the relevant paper work. Receiving the documents we needed to take the vehicle out of South African and into Botswana and Zimbabwe. We then were shown round a Bran spanking new, out the box, Toyota Hilux.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Africa is calling me again, and soon I must go. Till then this will have to keep me going.

I am an African by Wayne Vissler.

I am an African
Not because I was born there
But because my heart beats with Africa’s
I am an African
Not because my skin is black
But because my mind is engaged by Africa
I am an African
Not because I live on its soil
But because my soul is at home in Africa
When Africa weeps for her children
My cheeks are stained with tears
When Africa honours her elders
My head is bowed in respect
When Africa mourns for her victims
My hands are joined in prayer
When Africa celebrates her triumphs
My feet are alive with dancing
I am an African
For her blue skies take my breath away
And my hope for the future is bright
I am an African
For her people greet me as family
And teach me the meaning of community
I am an African
For her wildness quenches my spirit
And brings me closer to the source of life
When the music of Africa beats in the wind
My blood pulses to its rhythm
And I become the essence of sound
When the colours of Africa dazzle in the sun
My senses drink in its rainbow
And I become the palette of nature
When the stories of Africa echo round the fire
My feet walk in its pathways
And I become the footprints of history
I am an African
Because she is the cradle of our birth
And nurtures an ancient wisdom
I am an African
Because she lives in the world’s shadow
And bursts with a radiant luminosity
I am an African
Because she is the land of tomorrow
And I recognise her gifts as sacred