Yesterday, (edit: so I wrote this one several days ago) my four-day Kruger epic came to an end. As I drove out of Orpen Gate right at closing time, I reflected on just how joyous the trip had been. Downright joyous. But Kruger wasn’t done with me yet. The road that leads away from Orpen borders Timbavati Game Reserve. With the fading light, came one last leopard sighting. And while I didn’t actually spot the leopard (I never do), I did see a game drive vehicle in the sighting from Ngala Lodge in Timbavati. That hit home. If a crow was to fly (why do we say that??)… Nevermind, if a White Headed Vulture was to fly from that point, the vulture would be home in a very short time indeed. Especially because cultures fly really, really fast. But I’m not a vulture and a quick check of Google Maps told me that to get home from Orpen Gate would take 2 hours and more than 100 kilometers. No way!
And that changed everything.
I wasn’t ready to let it all go just yet.
Me: What if I stayed out, just one more day?
Brain: You can’t. School holidays. Remember? There’s nowhere to stay. And you can’t justify staying somewhere that’s so close to home. So close to your bed that you don’t have to pay for.
Me: Hmmm… Where to stay?
Brain: Go home!
Me: I wonder if there’s space at that nice little backpackers by Blyde River Canyon?
Brain: There isn’t! It’s school holidays.
Me: Let’s just try…
I headed out from Orpen Gate to Mariepskop View Lodge, a place I’ve stayed before and really loved.
This is what it looks like the morning after a glorious sleep that contrasted in every way to the terrible place I’d stayed at the three nights previously.
Yeah, it’s like really really pretty…
This is a place I wholeheartedly recommend. The ‘backpackers’ accomodation is actually a handful of beautiful little cottages – basic, but beautiful – that cost backpacker prices. You can also camp or stay in one of the more fancy cottages. It’s clean and charming and beautiful nestled up next to Mariepskop Mountain. Love it…
So I’d like to write a little about what to do with those ‘free days’ you get on holiday and in between safaris, in the ultimate place to spend ‘free days’ – Blyde River Canyon. Just beyond Kruger’s boundary. Just beyond the wall. I’m reading a lot of Game of Thrones again.
Getting there is easy enough. Exit Kruger from Orpen Gate and boom. You’re there. Pretty much.
Safaris are wonderful and wild and yummy but it’s also nice to see what else is out there. And that’s how I ended up spending the day as a tourist in my own little backyard.
That morning, started by looking at the travel advice literally plastered to the back of my door at the backpackers lodge for inspiration.
‘Have breakfast next door at Anne’s Cafe and then go to **** ***** ****** ****** before spending the afternoon at Blyde River Canyon.’
**** ***** **** ***** isn’t the actual name of this particular tourist destination place thingy. But a few years ago I had the misfortune of working in said unsaid place and I won’t even repeat the name here. Let’s rather not get into trouble too. But If I can’t bear to even type the name of the place, you can bet I wasn’t prepared to spend my morning there (and you shouldn’t too), so I skipped that one, and everything to do with it…
And headed to Anne’s Cotton Club Cafe for breakfast. What I didn’t expect was for it to be nestled in amongst a crazy awesome collection of boutique craft shops and spas and motorcycle showrooms. It was very random. In the best possible way. The place is called ’24 South.’ Go there! It’s super cute. And it was super empty that morning which was depressing. A place like this deserves to be PACKED!
When it came to Anne’s Cafe (which has got amazing reviews for its food), I was impressed by my delicious breakfast and probably ate the best chicken mayo sandwich I’ve ever had and I’ve had a lot of chicken mayo sandwiches. The place was let down by very sad service and a women who kept barking orders at two upset looking waitresses. Why do that in front of customers? Actually why do that at all? Kindness. The way forward. And unfortunately it kind of put a little raincloud over the experience. I don’t know if I’d go back now which is sad because the food – wow – so good.
But 24 South as a whole was lovely. And it’s totally in the middle of nowhere, which is the biggest surprise. If you’re looking for crafts and goodies, the offerings at this hidden market are actually better than those in Hoedspruit, the nearest town.
From 24 South I headed to the area’s biggest draw – the Blyde River Canyon. I figured I needed to see it once in my life, at least. And I see those mountains every day – why not touch them?
I paid the modest R20 entry fee (I expected much, much more – like how much does it cost to visit the Grand Canyon? Probably not a dollar and fifty cents…), and carried on up to the derelict visitor center. It was only here as I took photos, that I realized I’ve been here before! When, how and with who, I don’t know. But I’d definitely stood in that place before. My memory (the crazy lack of it) scares me.
It doesn’t actually matter though because you can go here 300 times and it’ll never get old. Looky!
From the dam, I went back down to a place marked ‘waterfall trail.’ Sounds good…
And yep, I had a great time on this trail. The forest vegetation is WILD! Totally unlike anything nearby. And when I reached the waterfall, I was overwhelmed by the urge to just strip off and dive in. This is despite it being winter and freezing. I just wanted to be there. So much so that I stood in the water up to my knees debating with myself for about forty five minutes whether I should get naked or not. If I do, surely someone will come down the path right away? If I don’t, surely I will regret it forever. And I super-want to swim. But people will come. But I’ll regret not doing it. But I could have done it by now and been dressed and halfway back to the car. But…
Yeah, that’s how my brain works.
On the way back to the car, I went into ‘birding mode.’ Never easy in any forest, where you really have to hear the birds because you’re so unlikely to see them up in such a dense canopy.
My luck wasn’t great. Actually, I saw nothing. I heard something that sounded like a woodpecker who’d inhaled some helium, but I was stumped.
Towards the end of the trail, a branch rustled above me and I looked up. Straight into the backside of a Narina Trogon! Wait, that’s not enough exclamation marks. A Narina Trogon!!!!!!!!! Better.
Over the years I’ve seen these rare birds just four times and all in Kwa Zulu Natal, never here in the Lowveld. And for that to be the only bird I saw during my entire Blyde River Canyon trip? Not bad y’all. It’s the pangolin of the bird world. And pangolins are the platypuses of Africa and platypuses are straight up awesome. So are Narina Trogons.
See the red blotch? Trogon bum.
High on the vibe you can only get from special birds, I decided that next, I was going to visit Jessica the Hippo.
Jessica. The hippo.
I didnt know much about Jessica. Still don’t. I do know that over the years, my work as a safari guide has brought me countless guests who rave about Jessica the Hippo. I googled Jessica and found out I could visit her at 2:30. Sweet. That left me some time to kill. At the giant Baobab!
I have a guidebook that tells me there’s a baobab tree just south of Hoedspruit, so big that there’s a pub – INSIDE THE BAOBAB! I needed to drink an ice cold savanna. IN A BAOBAB.
“Anna, so where’d you have lunch today?”
“Oh you know, just inside a tree.”
Epic. It had to be done.
GPS took me to a big, open field with an average sized baobab standing in the middle. Even an average sized baobab is mind blowingly awesome, but this one clearly didn’t have a pub inside it. The mangled remains of a baobab on the other side of the field probably had a pub in it. About 15 years ago. Seriously, guide book?
What I did find was a family friendly restaurant next to the sad tree ruins with nothing but pancakes on the menu which is totally my kind of restaurant.
I ordered a cinnamon sugar pancake and asked for a spare lemon wedge instead of syrup – seriously, syrup on a sugar pancake is too much, even for me. I tried to order wine, even pointing to it in the menu for the waitress to see, but she acted like she’d never heard of the stuff, so I did a Savanna instead.
I ended up with two whole lemons squashed up at the bottom of my Savanna glass and a pancake with syrup, and no lemon. Thanks to this happy accident, I’ll never be able to drink Savanna again without at least one whole lemon shredded up inside it. And syrup on sugar pancakes is actually awesome. Why not throw some ice cream and sprinkles on it too? Winning.
When I saw the above wifi note in my favorite cafe in Hluhluwe, I thought it was cute and original. This illusion is now shattered. Like this baobab:
This one is still okay, but it’ll be about 800 more years until it’s big enough to host a pub:
Then finally, on to Jessica the Hippo. A sign at the start of the dusty, corrugated track she lives down told me that it would be a very ‘worthwhile 8 kilometers.’
At the end of the road, I passed through a gate and joined about 40 other people – couples, families, tiny children, tour guides with guests – all milling around a small enclosure with a small hippo in it. The only staff member seemed to be a confused gardener who tried to explain in broken Afrikaans that the ‘boss is missing’ and he knows he had a ‘hippo show’ to do at 2:30.
Some people left. Some hung around. Some just walked straight down the path the to water like they owned the place. They were determined to see Jessica. I sort of tagged along with them. I caught a brief glimpse of Jessica in the water and… that was it really. I wandered back up the stairs, told the mystery tiny hippo to break out of its enclosure – which could be easily done – and then I left.
I might have been inclined to return one day to see Jessica if it wasn’t for the mystery tiny hippo in the swimming pool. What is this hippo? There was no information anywhere and no one to explain anything. I didn’t know much about Jessica before going but had been assured she ‘lived wild’ and chose to stay in that place, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. But tiny hippo? Nope, sorry. There’s actually no excuse for that. Break free little hippo!
The experience had been weird and confusing. Have any of you done the ‘Jessica thing’ before? If so, I’d really like to know what the deal is.
And with that, the day was done. A day of the wonderful and the wild and the slightly confusing. It did prove that it’s not impossible to spend a whole day doing cheap or free activities as an aside to your Kruger Park safari.
Here’s how the day ended… back in Kruger Park.
Now do it:
Mariepskop View Lodge can be found at http://www.mariepskopview.co.za. Their lovely rondavels cost R800 for the night, with backpackers costing R200 and camping just R100.
**** **** **** **** costs R145 to enter, which is how much it would cost to go to Blyde River Canyon for 7 days straight at R20 a day. Way better value at the Canyon…
24 Degrees South is free to enter, which we love.
Anne’s Cotton Club Cafe isn’t cheap, but the food is delicious. Or you could consider doing lunch at the Upside Down Restaurant at the broken baobab. Great value and cute venue.
Jessica the Hippo is supposed to cost R50, but I wouldn’t know because there was no one there to pay.
Stuff I didn’t do, but really really wanted to do:
There’s also Kinyonga Reptile Center in the area but I missed out on it because it was too pricy at about R100, and this day was all about the super cheap things to do in the area.
I did try to get on a boat trip across the dam at Blyde River Canyon. Unfortunately on the day, it was fully booked, but I’ll definitely be trying this one out! It was only R150.
That’s all, y’all. Thoughts? Have you been to these places? Anything to add?