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A ride on the wild side

By Melissa Andrews

Pictures by Christopher List

Timbavati, Limpopo - We’d been driving in the bush for nearly an hour before we heard a tawny eagle screeching in warning. Suddenly one of the guests shouted that he’d seen a cat. As this was the guy who was so desperate to see a leopard that he’d been on every game drive for the past two weeks, we were still mocking him when we saw that it was not a rock, as we’d been jesting, but was in fact a leopard cub, peering out at us from the bushes.

The sound of our shutters clicking like a group of paparazzi was drowned out by the relentless screech of the tawny eagle, now darting in the air as if attacking something.

A squawk of astonishment from the youngest guest at the back of the game vehicle had us looking to the rear where we saw her. A beautiful female leopard ambled out of the bush, the only incentive the cub needed to join her. Completely unperturbed by our presence, the two leopards rubbed against each other with deep affection, sat back to back as if posing for a photo-shoot before slipping into the bushes some awe-struck minutes later.

A herd of 300 buffaloes lazing on the river, giraffe, impalas and zebras in a tightly-knit group that clearly believed in safety in numbers, and about 29 wild dogs (Africa’s most endangered carnivore) only seconds after a hunt were just some of many special sights, though it was disconcerting to see a wild dog trotting past carrying the untouched head of a baby impala, while others fought for scraps.

We even saw three sleepy lions (though not the white variety that Timbavati is famous for), a herd of elephants, numerous white rhino and a red-crested khorhaan dive-bombing in an impressive territorial display.

Home to the Big Five, it should be no surprise that Limpopo was where we’d seen this incredible display of wildlife. We were staying at Umlani, a bush camp in Timbavati Nature Reserve that forms part of the Greater Kruger (and three million hectares of free-roaming wildlife). With no light other than oil lamps, no signal and no fences (apart from a solar-powered electric one), and the opportunity to sleep in a treetop hide, Umlani (“place of rest”) was like an overdose of magic.

It was hard to see how anything could top our experiences, but the sight of two rhinos clumsily attempting to procreate, in a considerable effort that did not bear fruit, was reward enough for the 15km of badly corrugated and thick-sand roads (the two worst conditions for our scooters) that we’d faced to get to Wild Ivory Eco Lodge in Welgevonden Nature Reserve. A tented camp, Wild Ivory is off the grid with a state-of-the-art solar system, biodegradable products and a strong commitment to conservation. In one of the poorest provinces in the country it was great to see eco-tourism benefiting the people of Limpopo.

Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge, located in an indigenous forest near Magoebaskloof, was built from local materials using local labour, toiletries (made from baobab oils) are sourced from local empowerment projects, while the lodge supports local schools and crèches through donations and a greening project that has seen hundreds of trees planted and local kids being educated about conservation.

Fair Trade-certified Madi a Thava in the Soutpansberg also supports responsible tourism, with an arts and crafts gallery, Dancing Fish, that displays the work of 24 local Tsonga and Venda artists, much of which is sold from the farmhouse.

The Pula-Madibogo food garden project is located in a poverty-stricken pocket of Limpopo characterised by high unemployment, HIV/AIDS and orphaned and vulnerable children. Sponsored by Food & Trees for Africa and Pioneer Foods, the award-winning permaculture school now mentors more than 30 other schools. Fresh, organic herbs and vegetables support the feeding scheme, are sold to the community and donated to needy homes.

Though Mpumalanga is translated from siSwati as as “The Land of the Rising Sun”, by the time we’d reached the province it was more the place of the setting sun. We’d ridden through seemingly endless plantations to reach the forestry town of Sabie, stopping only at Sabie Falls and the 65m high Mac Mac Falls, once a stream that was blasted with dynamite in an attempt to plunder the rich gold-bearing reef over which it plunges. With phenomenal views over the Klein Drakensberg, we stopped at the Pinnacle, a dramatic outcrop of quartz, and God’s Window, a vantage point on craggy cliffs that plunge more than 700m down to the endless green sea of lowveld that forms part of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. Just north, the Wonder viewpoint, whose name pays mere lipservice to its magnitude, offers 360 degree views, displaying the lowveld like an open treasure chest.

Last in our gluttony of sightseeing was Bourke’s Potholes, carved into the bedrock by water-borne sand and rock at the confluence of the Blyde (“river of joy”) and Treur River (“river of sorrow”). It was here that gold-digger Tom Bourke predicted the presence of gold, but despite others’ striking it rich, he never found any. The potholes have been called “nature’s wishing well” and many a tourist has dropped coins in, hoping for the luck that Bourke never had. - Cape Times

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