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South Africa: The long road to freedom

A self-drive trip from Swaziland through the wild province of kwaZulu-Natal reveals what can be discovered when things don't exactly go to plan

Published 19 Feb 2018, 16:52 GMT, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 16:49 BST
Various driving loops branch off from the main R712, giving you quick access to the Golden ...

Various driving loops branch off from the main R712, giving you quick access to the Golden Gate’s spectacular landscape.

Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe

The querulous call comes from the temporary custodian of the laptop sitting next to me in the passenger seat. "You know when we leave Swaziland to get to Kosi Bay, which border crossing are we using?"

This should be obvious: the one on the nice, long eastern border.

"Because there aren't any crossings on that eastern border," my wife adds.

And with this, an essential ingredient of any good road trip — the howling planning error — has been stumbled upon. It follows several other ingredients: panic because the satnav isn't working for the first five minutes while driving out of Johannesburg airport; hapless misreading of said satnav leading to a tetchy wild goose chase down a country lane; a dreadful fast food lunch after driving past a lovely looking cafe because "there's bound to be something similar" in the next town.

Freedom is undoubtedly the most alluring component of a road trip, but it also encompasses the freedom to make mistakes.

Swaziland is far from a mistake, however. Swaziland — chosen because it's more or less on our route from Johannesburg to KwaZulu-Natal — is wonderfully attractive. From the predictably chaotic border post near the capital, Mbabane, in the north west, it provides a rich series of panoramas that teeter on that dividing line between pleasant and spectacular. Categorising the rocky green lumps stretching across the horizon on the way to the Ezulwini Valley as either a hill or a mountain is a tricky call. And the small towns passed through as we head to the southern border town of Lavumisa seem to have a different vibe to those encountered on the road from Johannesburg. Everything is more shambly and unhurried, the sense of urgency dialled down to an absolute minimum. Ridge-top craft stalls have no sense of hard sell, the staff at the Swaziland National Museum, in Lobamba, seem genuinely delighted that someone might want to have a look round, and the lack of things that might eat you is seen as a key selling point of the nature reserves.

Chronically misjudging the driving time, along with where the border crossings are located, resulting in having to leave Swaziland a day early? That's a mistake. But a hastily arranged journey-breaker stop, at the Ghost Mountain Inn in Mkuze, leads to a serendipitous afternoon bumping along dirt tracks. From here, the shortcut road to the uMkhuze Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal seems like another wrong turn. It is shambolically potholed, not signposted and feels like a glimpse into a village life that's usually kept behind the curtains. Goats amble through the roadside puddles, children gleefully splash in watering holes, donkeys act as free-spirited roadblocks and thatched-roof rondavels show that traditional Zulu architecture is a long way from being wiped out.

Once inside the reserve, the road doesn't get any smoother, but the wildlife ramps up a few extra notches on the exoticism scale. It only takes a couple of hundred metres for the amateurish cry of "What sort of antelope is that?" to go up. It might be an impala. It might be a springbok. But, more importantly, those things on the other side of the road are most definitely zebras.

Here lies the attraction in a South African road trip — the wide-open spaces, the steepling mountain roads and the wind-through-the-hair sense of epic. But you also never have to go too far before you're furtively trundling around at 10mph looking for the sort of animals that were the staples of children's picture books when you were growing up.

The concept of safari has been buffed and mythologised into being something that has to be outrageously expensive and guided. But the reality is that it costs a mere £10 or so to enter a vast park and drive around, giddily trying to spot big cats in the long grass and sidling up to rhinos.

Hazards ahead

"Giraffe! Giraffe, giraffe, giraffe, giraffe, giraffe!" There are few sensations in the world that compare to the first sighting of a Properly Good Animal. And, while a giraffe may not be the trickiest of creatures to pick out from the surrounding acacia trees, the elation felt when it comes into eyeshot is a darned fabulous drug.

But if there's one beast that's the true mascot of Zululand, it's the cow. Outside of the game reserves, it's a staple roadside hazard. It's also the milk supply, often the main source of income, and the currency of dowry payments. Cows lumber at will, an ever-present warning not to drift into a mental cruise control. When combined with the speed bumps, which frequently pop up unannounced, unpainted and brutally unrounded at the edges, the final stretch to Kosi Bay Nature Reserve requires a fair bit more concentration than anticipated.

Tucked just under the Mozambique border and part of the sprawling iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kosi Bay is bewilderingly misnamed. Surrounded by mangroves and various bands of forest, it consists of four lakes and a series of interconnecting channels that drain, via a sandy estuary, into the Indian Ocean. The Kosi Forest Lodge — all swaying hammocks, raffia palm leaf furnishings and poolside sunset views over one the lakes — perches on its edge and runs both canoe and boat trips into the languid semi-wilderness.

The latter kicks off with a satisfying squelch along a muddy forest track amid a racket of birdsong. One sounds like a submarine sonar, another like a squeaky gate, another like an old lady tutting, but the chansonnieres stay out of sight. At the rudimentary jetty, Phaqa, the boatman, starts rattling through the unwieldy official names of the lakes, before admitting everyone refers to them as "the first lake, second lake, third lake and fourth lake". They're connected by narrow channels, and crisscrossed by local fishermen punting themselves on square wooden rafts.

The fishing is done using an age-old method. Phaqa pulls up alongside what looks like a half-subsumed fence. But it's more complex than that — it's a fish kraal, designed to funnel fish towards a narrow gateway as they're brought seawards with the tide. A one-way mechanism is built into that gateway, trapping the fish in a small, circular holding pen. They can live there for days, making for a ready source of fresh fish. "You can get 7kg of kingfish in here," says Phaqa, almost licking his lips. "And you can also go to the market, ask what people want, then come back and spear it."

Weighing in considerably heavier than prized kingfish are the other, much grumpier residents of the lake. The hippos pop their heads out, but as they can't sweat, they submerge their bodies underwater for the vast majority of the day to keep cool. Phaqa, quite understandably, doesn't want to get too close to them. "They're the most dangerous animals in Africa," he says, parroting every tour guide on the continent who comes into regular contact with them. Hippos are extremely aggressive, highly territorial and instinctively inclined to fight rather than flight. They're also creatures of habit, which makes the town of St Lucia, at the bottom end of iSimangaliso, rather unconventional.

Every evening, the hippos here leave the water to go to their grazing grounds, instinctively following the same pathway. Unfortunately, in St Lucia, that pathway goes straight through the town. So, an otherwise classic holiday resort has a touch of the wild: monkeys on street corners, boks and mongooses in back gardens, and grouchy, hungry hippos trudging through after the sun goes down.

Shoreline Boat and Walking Safaris skipper Stacey gives a pretty damning assessment of the hippos' temperament, as she sidles up next to them. "It's not just the boats they despise," she explains. "They despise pretty much everything."

The three families in the estuary are, by hippo standards, relatively tolerant of human gawpers. But jump in, and they'll kill you without waiting to hear mitigating evidence. The crocodiles and the sharks that share the waters keep a safe distance, not wanting to cause any trouble. Hippos are nature's equivalent of the steroid-abusing meathead who'll start a fight with anyone who accidentally nudges him on the way to the bar.

They unleash great honking grunts, they attack family members who accidentally tread on their feet, and they peer out of the water with looks of furious contempt for the world at large. They're the bastards of the shallows, and utterly magnificent.

A beast of a drive

Hippos aren't South Africa's biggest beast, though; that title belongs to the African elephant. And judging by the deposits left on the dirt road as we drive through the Hluhluwe-imfolozi Park, one or two have been through relatively recently. Hluhluwe is KwaZulu-Natal's wildlife megastar, and the slickly designed Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge sits on a hillside looking down on its epic hills and watering holes. A major part of its appeal is the game drives run for guests every morning and afternoon, with guides who know what to look for and where.

But there's no such professional guidance as we make our way there. The initial drive through the park is one of glorious amateurism, peppered with half-remembered insights from old wildlife documentaries. "This looks like the sort of place leopards live"; "If there aren't any antelopes around, there's probably a big pussy cat nearby"; "Giraffes and zebras usually hang out together, don't they?"

Such speculation stops with sightings, though. Buffalo sloshing in a muddy pool, hairy-necked nyalas looking like the tramps of the antelope family, scampering warthogs somehow managing to seem adorable, despite, objectively, being grotesquely ugly.

And then comes the involuntary intake of breath. "Elephant!"


"Behind the tree."

"Which tree?"

"That one. The one over there."

There's one thing more frustrating than not being able to see an animal that someone else can see, and that is trying to point said animal out to the person who can't see it.

"Oh. It's gone now…."

A few hundred metres down the track, though, and the miraculous invisible elephant's pals are not so elusive. The big patch of grey in the bushes ambles into the road, and it has company. Suddenly, a whole herd is crossing, and there's little to do but sit still and enjoy. There's an extra level of spellbinding about elephants. They somehow manage to lumber with supreme grace. Their joints move with a slow, oddly seductive rhythm, their footsteps are eerily silent and their sheer heft bestows upon them an irrevocable majesty. Other creatures inspire admiration, but with elephants, it's awe.

Then comes the baby, a giddiness-inducing bundle of cuteness, with a relatively jaunty skip. Mum is close by, and turns to look at us, just to let us know that she won't hesitate to protect her little one if push comes to shove.

It's hard to overstate how much of a privilege this feels. This isn't the sort of thing that should happen when pootling along unescorted in a hire car. But with the joys come the responsibilities. The next elephant encounter is of a different kind — an adolescent male, right next to the car and looking quite willing to sit on it. At such junctures, regrets over lack of advanced research kick in. The car hire company may have explained which side the petrol cap is on, but it offered shamefully little advice on what to do in a standoff with a bull elephant.

If we slowly reverse, will it give chase? If we stay still, will it just crush us? And, after a good five minutes of staying still with it showing no inclination to move, can we just hit the accelerator and drive off? Doing the latter, it seems, just spooks it enough for us to make our escape. Sorry, mister.

The emotions are summed up on the game drive from Rhino Ridge the next day, when our guide has no hesitation when asked which creatures he's most afraid of. "The elephants," he says in a heartbeat.

And which cause the most trouble? "The elephants."

And which do you love the most? "The elephants."

The Drakensberg dassie

Take the wildlife spotting away, and the character of the drive changes. Soon, the road trip morphs from 10mph furtive shuffling in the hope of spotting a lion to steady ground-eating through the self-consciously artsy towns of the Midlands towards the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains. The pleasure now comes from the wide-open space, from inventing silly games to pass the time while cups, cans and chocolate bar wrappers get thrown onto an ever-more disgraceful pile on the back seat.

It's doubtful that there's a mountain range in the world with a better name than the Drakensberg. They butt up against Lesotho like teeth — some stumpy, some sharp, and flossed through by the most terrifyingly vertiginous of mountain passes. The Drakensberg curves round into the Free State, where they're renamed as the Maluti Mountains and the Golden Gate Highlands National Park threads through. It's here that one of the most underrated aspects of a road trip blossoms. When driving long distances between a series of star attractions, it's inevitable that there'll be the odd night of hunkering down somewhere less exciting, as a journey-breaker. And these zero-expectation fillers can sometimes bring pleasant surprises.

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park isn't what people come to South Africa for. The Big Five don't roam here. But it is what people go to the American West for. The road through it is flanked by dramatic, sandstone cliffs and bulging outcrops. The scenery feels huge. Instead of rushing through to the hotel, a unilateral driver decision is made to pull over and go for a stroll, staring down at the valley below.

"Are you sure nothing dangerous lives out here?" the more leopard-conscious member of the party queries.

At that moment, something scurries across the rocks. It's brown, and furry, like a giant, portly hamster, and it stops to pose. If ever a creature sums up unexpected South Africa, it's the rock hyrax — known in these parts as a dassie. It's probably fair to say that most visitors have never heard of a dassie before they see one, but they're inquisitive little delights that punch above their weight in the fight for memory space. Astonishingly, their closest living relatives are the elephants cooed over a few days back.

This is the counterweight to the inevitable great road trip planning error — the gorgeous moment when plans are torn up simply because something better has come along. And freedom means nothing if it doesn't include the freedom to sit giggling at animals you never knew existed.


Getting there & around
Virgin Atlantic, South African Airways and British Airways have direct flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg; the latter two offer connecting internal flights to Durban, if required.
Average flight time: 11h 30m.
All major car hire firms have offices at Johannesburg and Durban airports (ask for a letter of permission if heading to Swaziland).

When to go
With a temperate, subtropical climate, KwaZulu-Natal is a year-round destination, with hot, humid summers reaching 32C from October to April and mild winters averaging 20C between May and September.

Where to stay
Mantenga Lodge.
Ghost Mountain Inn.
Kosi Forest Lodge.
Serene-estate Boutique Guesthouse.
Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge.
Malachite Manor.
Golden Gate Hotel.

More info

How to do it
Africa Collection has 14-day self-drive itineraries in KwaZulu-Natal, including three nights around Hluhluwe and St Lucia, and three in the Drakensberg. Prices start at £2,250 per person, including flights, accommodation and car hire.

Follow @mrdavidwhitley

Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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