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…
“Go left!” cries Myrna, as we veer towards the Namibian bank – the river marks South Africa’s northern frontier. “Right, Adam, right!” comes the next order, as we zigzag back over to the South African shore.
A few minutes of spinning around in circles and snaking backwards and forwards passes before we get to grips with the situation, ready to tackle the forebodingly named Dead Man’s Rapids.
To a novice like me, this first stretch of white-water looks every bit as terrifying as it’s name suggests. In reality, it’s just a “baby slope” – a mere grade-one rapid.
We’re dodging rocks left, right and centre, turning quickly, and narrowly avoiding everything the river has to throw at us. “Wow,” I say to Myrna, adrenalin pumping, “I can’t believe we didn’t get stuck.” But before I can get the final syllable out of my smug mouth, we come juddering to a standstill, marooned on top of a low-lying rock, rapids churning around us.
Luckily, I‘ve plenty of time to perfect my technique: we’ll cover 40 miles (65km) over the four days and tackle about a dozen stretches of the white water– that is when we’re not swimming, lazing in our rafts, or floating down the rapids with our lifejackets around our bums.
The mercury edges close to 50°C, but it feels pleasantly mild – we’re constantly soaked from all the paddling and swimming.
The tempo ratchets up a gear on day two, as we brave our first grade-three rapid, a great swirling monster of white foamy swells.
Amazingly, Myrna and I traverse its slalom of rocks like a couple of pros. “Again, again!” we whoop. The whole group’s buzzing.
We tackle a couple more grade-twos later that day, before setting up camp beside a rocky inlet separated from the main channel by a bed of reeds. I feel like I’ve booked into a posh spa as I take a bath in the balmy grass-fringed pool, shoals of tiny fish nibbling at my toes.
The scenery along the route is absolutely stunning: magenta-hued cliffs; grass-choked tributaries; rainbow-coloured kingfishers skimming along the water. It’s a real back-to-nature experience – no phone signal, no emails, no annoying Facebook updates – just us and a solitary goat herder for 50 miles. Pure bliss.
Come day three, Myrna and I are starting to feel pretty confident about this rafting lark, paddling in unison as if we were born to do it. One of the guides even compliments us on how slick we look – although I suspect we’re not the only ones whose egos he’s massaged this way. Feeling cocky, we float down a particularly dicey rapid backwards – admittedly, it may have been by accident – but I like to think we pulled it off.
“Thanks for this,” a rather contented Myrna turns to say on our last night sitting around the campfire, as we watch the full moon rise from behind the mountains, fireflies dancing across the cobalt sky. “It’s been the perfect escape.”
See next page for some South Africa travel dates for your diary…
South Africa’s wild wonders
SEE THE DESERT IN BLOOM
WHEN: July to September
WHAT: The arrival of the spring rains each year sees the Kansas-like plains of Namaqualand erupt in a sea of technicolour. Millions of seedlings lying dormant beneath the tinder-dry plains burst to life, carpeting the semi-desert region – which stretches south from the Orange River towards Cape Town – in never-ending horizons of purples, yellows and reds.
GO KAYAKING WITH WHALES
WHEN: Mid-June to October
WHAT: The world and its dog may head to Hermanus (east of Cape Town) to see the southern right whales return from their summer feeding grounds in Antarctica, but if you venture north of the city, you can find everything from southern rights, humpbacks and killer whales to seals and dolphins just off the shore. Book on to a guided kayak-safari in Paternoster and come within an oar’s length of these marine mammals as you paddle to a nearby penguin colony. Kayak-safari costs £12.
BE DEAFENED BY SOUTH AFRICA’S NIAGARA
WHEN: October to January
WHAT: In 1988, when the Orange River was last in full, terrifying flood, four times as much water went thundering over the 56-metre-tall Augrabies Falls than its North American cousin – that’s a staggering 7.8 million litres of water every single second. This may have been a once-in-a-lifetime surge, but if you’re planning a visit to the “Great Noise”, as the ancient Khoikhoi people christened the falls, you’d better take earplugs.
See next page for South Africa flights, currency and accommodation…
Northern Cape, South Africa: Flights, accommodation
WHEN TO GO: The Northern Cape is warm year-round. The most pleasant weather is during the dry season, which is between October and March.
CURRENCY: £1 = ZAR12.2 (South African Rand).
ACCOMMODATION: A two-night stay in a family chalet at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park starts from £40pp, based on two sharing. Camping from £5pppn (sanparks.org/parks/kgalagadi). On the Orange River rafting tour, camping is included in the tour price. (orangeriverrafting.com).
GETTING THERE: Fly direct from London to Cape Town with British Airways from £740 return (britishairways.com). KLM offers indirect flights from £550 return (klm.com).
Umkulu’s four-day Orange River rafting trips start from £260pp, including food. Excludes drinks and transfers orangeriverrafting.com
A two-night stay in a family chalet at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park starts from £40pp, based on two sharing. Camping starts from £5pppn. Guided walking safaris cost £20, while game drives start from £13. sanparks.org/parks/kgalagadi
See next page for our insider’s guide to travelling in the northern Cape, South Africa…
The Insider’s Guide: South Africa
Ben Burger, who works for Cape Town-based tour operator AAA Travel, reveals his top tips for the perfect South African adventure.
What is South Africa’s best-kept secret?
The Mapungubwe National Park near the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe is a stunning place, dotted with thousands of huge baobab trees, and home to some incredible wildlife. But despite being a Unesco World Heritage Site – the park was once the site of an ancient civilisation – few tourists have heard of it.
What is your top tip for anyone travelling to South Africa?
Give yourself plenty of time – you discover so many hidden gems on your journey that sometimes you just have to throw the schedule out the window.
Where’s good for chilling out?
I love the tiny village of Hogsback in the Amatole Mountains, said to have inspired Tolkien to write The Lord Of The Rings. It’s a magical place surrounded by indigenous forests, clear waterfalls and swirling mists. You can imagine fairies or goblins might live there.
Where’s good for an adventure?
The Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape has some stunning 4×4 trails and mountain bike routes, which hardly anyone knows about. The area is also a popular eco-tourism destination, with rugged mountains, natural pools, rare wildlife, and excellent hiking and kayaking.
Where’s good to party?
Cape Town has the top nightlife. The bars in Long Street are best for R’n’B and rock, while Fez Club in the city centre plays great house music. If retro is more your thing, though, don’t miss DecoDance in Sea Point.