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We leave the Garden Route to road trip through the Northern Cape, where wallet-friendly safaris and white-water rafting await - Words ADAM EDWARDS

A streak of gold fur rustles in the warm evening air. “Cheetah,” mouths our guide, gesticulating at the object slinking in the long grass just a matter of yards from our vehicle. A ripple of hushed anticipation grips the jeep, as half a dozen cameras are unzipped from their cases.

I’m on a sundowner safari in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – a vast game reserve in the semi-desert Kalahari region that straddles South Africa’s border with Botswana.

My friend Myrna and I are visiting the park on a road trip from Cape Town, hoping to discover a wilder, more rugged – and cheaper – alternative to the country’s other, well-trodden tourist trails. We’d contemplated a trip along the Garden Route – the tourist mecca leading east from the city – but we’re lured north instead by the promise of sleepy fishing villages, tourist-free vineyards, and the pièce de résistance: a four-day rafting trip along the Orange River, sleeping on the riverbank each evening with just the star-dappled sky for a duvet.

“I think she’s going to try for a springbok,” whispers Boy, our guide, pointing at the herd of antelopes blissfully grazing a stone’s throw from the crouching feline.

Suddenly, the cheetah pounces, sending a cloud of dust into the air. The springboks scatter and I half-turn towards my friend Myrna to pronounce that the big cat has “fluffed it”, but before I can get the words out, another cheetah appears from nowhere, careering towards the herd.

“Whoa!” I exclaim in unison with the other passengers – it’s rare to see one cheetah hunting, never mind two.

“There’s more of them,” interjects Boy, excitedly, as yet more golden streaks whizz past our vehicle, racing towards the action.

“Are there four or five of them?” I ask, barely able to keep up with the break-neck speed of developments.

“I think there’s four,” replies Myrna, waving her camera around wildly, trying to film the chase.

In the commotion, one of the springboks gets separated from the herd; my heart rises to my throat as I watch the animal zip from left to right, desperately trying to give its hungry pursuers the slip.

It doubles back on itself, hurtling past our open-sided jeep, mother and three fully grown cubs in hot pursuit, before losing its footing while scrambling up the hillside.

“At least it was quick,” I say, relieved that the antelope didn’t seem to suffer. Exhilarated, we leave the big cats to their dinner and head out in search of other game.

Despite receiving only 200mm of rainfall a year, the park is surprisingly plentiful in both animals and birds. “Cape eagle-owl … goshawk … lanner falcon …” Boy rattles off a dozen different birds of prey in just a matter of minutes: the warm Kalahari thermals are more congested than the approach to Heathrow. And it’s not just birds of prey: the park’s seemingly arid plains crawl with wildebeests, oryxes and springboks; a natural larder that feeds 450 lions, 200 cheetahs, 1000 hyenas, 150 leopards and a population of rare African wild dogs.

We eye one of the park’s 200-odd lionesses lazing under a tree, before moving on to tick off caracal, genet, meerkats ... the list goes on and on.

The next day, Myrna and I book ourselves on to a walking safari with Kgalagadi’s head field guide, Jan Kriel, who collects us from our thatched chalet, rifle slung casually over his shoulder. It’s not long before Jan picks up on the scent of something. “Lion,” he says, drawing an outline around the telltale paw prints. “It’s fresh, too.”

A couple of nerve-racking minutes pass. Every rock looks like a lioness waiting to pounce, but the trail eventually peters out. We’re not out of the danger zone, though, as Jan finds yet more spoor leading off from where the lion prints vanished – this time hyena.

“Have you noticed there’s no antelope around?” Jan asks, sending my heart racing. “Something’s spooked them.”

Unfortunately – or perhaps not – we never do discover exactly what this may have been.

The following day, after being rudely awoken in the night – let’s just say there was an incident involving bat poo and my eye – Myrna and I set out on the next stage of our road trip, travelling through the American Midwest, the South of France and the moon – or so it seems, thanks to the ever-changing landscape – on our way to the rafting base camp.

“What’s that in the road?!” shrieks Myrna, an hour into our journey, forcing me to slam on the brakes. I undo my seatbelt to kick what looks like a piece of wood off the road, but before I can get out of the door, it suddenly moves, spinning wide-eyed to face us.

We both jump, and for a split second I have no idea what’s happening, until Myrna starts laughing. “It’s a meerkat,” she breathes. I don’t know who is more shocked: Myrna, me, or what looks just like the pesky insurance salesman.

Thankfully, the rest of the journey proves incident-free, and we arrive in time to sink a few beers before dinner with our new rafting buddies. We have a real mixed group – a pair of thirtysomethings from Norway, a Glaswegian and his Northern Irish wife, a couple from Cape Town with their three grown-up daughters, and three incredibly chilled-out 20-odd-year-old guides.

That evening, after exchanging stories of our travels so far, we hunker down for our first night on the moonlit riverbank, the sound of crickets and the swirling waters lulling us to sleep. Alan, the Glaswegian, finds it harder than the rest of us to drop off – it’s only the next morning that he discovers an otter had been just yards from his pillow crunching on shellfish all night.

After rolling about laughing at Alan’s expense, Myrna and I load our kit on to our two-man inflatable raft and strike out, somewhat shakily, on the Orange River.

Find out what happened when Adam went white-water rafting...


Northern Cape South Africa: Budget safari and white-water rafting
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