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Exploring the gateway to Kruger

by

Simon Espley

Friday, 26th August 2016

Hoedspruit is my favourite safari gateway town to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. With several private Big 5 game reserves neighbouring the town and the spectacular Blyde River Canyon nearby, it is located in a fantastic stretch of paradise, known as Kruger to Canyons. This is a wonderfully diverse safari destination for those who prefer to mix up their game viewing with cultural and adventure activities. During my recent week in the area, I sampled some of the many activities and lodges available – and I left already planning my next visit!

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The beautiful Blyde Canyon is a photographer’s dream ©Des Jacobs
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Get a different perspective of the Kruger to Canyons biosphere in a hot air balloon ©Villiers Steyn

Watch this short video of Simon’s week in Kruger to Canyons

Mountain bike migration

The main reason for this particular trip to the area was to participate in the second edition of the K2C Cycle Tour – an annual 95-kilometre mountain bike fundraising tour from the Kruger National Park to the Blyde River Canyon, passing through various private game reserves on the way.

Eighty lucky cyclists of all levels undertook this epic journey for the soul, split into five groups, each accompanied by two armed cyclist guards and a backup vehicle. For safety reasons, this isn’t a race, which means that the pace is slow and the attitude laid-back – we frequently had to stop and gently navigate our way past herds of elephants, buffalos and even the odd snorting rhino!

Rotary Hoedspruit organised the event superbly, and the many tables in rest areas along the way groaned under the weight of delicious snacks, water and energy drinks. The tables were staffed by sponsors who cheered us on and encouraged even the most lethargic to keep going. I highly recommend this superb event and encourage anyone interested to contact the organisers soon about the next edition.

A group effort on the K2C cycle tour ©Simon Espley
A group effort on the K2C cycle tour ©Simon Espley
Kruger to Canyons
Spot Simon on the sand in the yellow shorts ©Simon Peloton

On safari in Kruger to Canyons

Once the cycle tour had ended, there were still plenty of other fantastic reasons to stick around in the Kruger to Canyons area for a few days, and I didn’t need any convincing. I happily headed back into the bushveld – on four wheels this time – and was blessed by the gods of safari luck on a three-hour game drive that would impress even the most seasoned safari-goer. Back at the lodge afterwards, beverage in hand, I explained to the wide-eyed American couple that the last three hours did not constitute a typical game drive, which can sometimes consist of nothing but the odd impala and turtle dove. But I fear my advice fell on deaf ears, as the next two days produced regular Big Five encounters and plenty of action!

Following elephants on safari in a private game reserve ©Villiers Steyn
Following elephants on safari in a private game reserve ©Villiers Steyn

Rather than attempting to re-hash my three days in the bush, here is an extract from my travel diary:
Makanyi Lodge, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. Guide: Warren ‘Woza’ Jacobs

18 July 2016, 17h30
A herd of elephants surrounds us, very relaxed, then a young female just a few metres away gives us horns for no reason – ear-clapping and a big attitude before she changes gear and wanders off as if nothing happened. My companions giggle nervously and breathe out, and we are on our way again.

18h30
Damside sundowner drinks – surrounded by 11 rotund lions as they relax, satiated after gorging on a two-day-old buffalo carcass. Three rhinos trot by to slake their thirst before snorting off into the fading light. A massive herd of buffalos on the far bank drinking and kicking up dust – must be a thousand-plus thirsty bovines. Lions not interested – #FlatCats. Then a buffalo bellows in the dark distance and hyenas cackle excitedly. The largest male lion is up and running, very focused. So are we, engine gunning and flashlight darting, searching. Ten minutes later and the bellowing and whooping are intense – then we smell blood. Up ahead, we see hyenas mauling a buffalo, tearing chunks off the struggling bovine. But hold on, what’s that? With her back to us and watching the ruckus intently, is a leopard – also drawn by the noise and promise of a meal. Then all hell breaks loose – the lion arrives, full of piss and brandy, and the leopard bolts, as do the hyenas after the largest collects a smack from the boss cat. Lion slaps the buffalo around before clamping down on its throat, ends the suffering. A second male lion arrives, chases off the lingering hyenas and settles down to feed – fat belly and all.

19 July 2016, 07h00
Three lions from a rival pride – we watch as the two big blonde boys take turns mating with the lady, while she switches from flirty and coy to angry slapping and guttural growling after each session.
Klaserie Sands River Camp, Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. Guide: Andre ‘AK’ Kruger

19 July 2016, 16h30
Surrounded by 18 lions near a buffalo carcass – another large pride! Some are crunching the last few ribs. Most are feral-looking young males – pushed out by the dominant males further north? We drive a few kilometres away for sundowners, displacing a large male leopard chillaxing on the same riverside rocks.

20 July 2016, 11h15
A herd of 30 elephants drinking at the waterhole in front of the lodge deck. Downing my last lime and soda, I tear myself away, load up the rental car and head out – only to spend 30 minutes waiting in the shade of a mopane grove for the same herd to move off the road. A few enormous bulls surround me and linger, tossing ear-claps in my direction now and then and kicking up dust – they seem to enjoy keeping me waiting. I don’t fancy my chances if these six-tonne behemoths pull rank on my tin can car. No worries, no rush. Eventually, they move off, and so do I, on to the next adventure.

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A buffalo feast fit for a king in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve ©Simon Espley
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Simon watches elephants paying a visit to Klaserie Sands River Camp ©Simon Espley

Make your visit count

As enticing as the wilderness can be, no matter where my travels take me, I always try to connect with local people as they go about their daily lives. I enjoy visiting people in their villages and homes – obviously with their permission. And so, on my Kruger to Canyons safari, I spent time with Prince Nkuma, the manager of Shik Shack. This organisation arranges community tours and Nourish, an upliftment project with a strong wildlife focus for community children.

Prince is a gem, and his fascinating insight into how the local folk relate to wildlife and poaching had me captivated for hours as we strolled around Sigagula, his hometown on the Orpen Road approach to Kruger. We even hired a donkey cart to visit local homes to taste homemade peanut butter, umqombothi (local beer made from maize), and to visit a sangoma (traditional medicine man) who threw bones to look into my soul. We also visited a home to attend a short dance and eat a humble meal consisting of fried chicken, morogo (wild spinach), roasted groundnuts and pap (a soft starch dish made from corn/maize). Dancing was performed by young girls who were all smiles in pursuing this passion.

If you’re ever in the area, I encourage you to support this and similar causes with your patronage and donations. The Kruger to Canyons area is dotted with cultural villages, farms, curio markets and community-run restaurants that are well worth your support.

Kruger to Canyons
Prince Nkuma and Simon take a selfie ©Simon Espley
Kruger to Canyons
A traditional meal (top left), dancers get their groove on (top middle), a heart mosaic at Shik Shack (top right), homegrown lettuce (centre left), soul reading (bottom left), hitching a donkey ride (bottom right) ©Simon Espley

Birding and Blyde

The Kruger to Canyons Biosphere houses three significant biomes, which means that it’s not only the bushveld that attracts animals and tourists to the area, but the forests and mountainous regions found around Hoedspruit are also well worth exploring. On my final days in the area, I went up Mariepskop – one of the highest peaks in the northern Drakensberg – with a community guide to go birding, but we had thick mist, so I only took a few pictures and some video footage.

Marieskop is unique in that it is home to over 2,000 plant species and, with the Kruger to Canyons region holding up to 75% of all terrestrial bird species and 80% of all raptor species found in South Africa, it is one of the best places in the world for twitchers. I also flew like a bird myself in a microlight flight with Leading Edge Flight School over the canyon and took in the spectacular views of a place that earns its name as the Panorama Route.

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Birding in Mariepskop with Abednigo ‘Bedneck’ Maibela ©Simon Espley
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Soaring high above Kruger to Canyons in a microlight ©Simon Espley
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The stunning view over Blyde Canyon ©Des Jacobs

A few weeks later Africa Geographic’s general manager (at the time), Janine Avery, also explored the rKruger to Canyons area. Here is an extract from her travel diary from her day out in paradise.

Panorama Route. Guide: Hans Swart

10 August 2016
Gazing out onto the natural formation of the three rondavels, named so because of their hut-like appearance, I can’t think of a better place to spend my birthday. The world’s third-largest canyon falls at my feet and, despite a simmering haze and the harsh drought that has ripped the colour from the landscape, I still feel a sense of awe. A boat putters along the Blyde River below me as my enthusiastic guide regales us with tales of adventures, discovery, gold miners, pilgrims and a small town that had electricity before the streets of London – a town that I am promised serves the best Mampoer milkshakes and to which I look forward to indulging in later. Off to my left a Google’s Street View Trekker with a unique contraption on his back, which resembles a soccer ball housing multiple cameras, dances alongside a villager selling curios. Her deep and bellowing “Shap, Shap” is echoed by his American accented version and his clumsy footing as he attempts a bootie wiggle that can’t compete with hers. Their fun-loving antics tear my attention away from the majestic views as I stroll over to add yet another culture to the mix…

Kruger to Canyons
Try a Mamphoer milkshake in the small town of Pilgrim’s Rest ©Anthea Smith
Kruger to Canyons
Africa Geographic’s general manager at the time, Janine Avery, takes in the view of the Three Rondavels from Blyde Canyon ©Ryan Avery
Kruger to Canyons
A close-up of Bourke’s Potholes ©Anthea Smith

Simon continues…

Where to stay in the Kruger to Canyons area

Makanyi Lodge, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve

Makanyi Lodge is an extremely luxurious lodge set in south Timbavati, with excellent game viewing throughout the year. Every attention to detail has been considered, and every comfort provided. The outside shower is probably the best of many I have enjoyed, thanks to its views over the nearby waterhole. I departed knowing that I needed to bring my wife here on my next visit, as she is very inclined towards safari chic.
Food and service were top drawer, as was the guiding. I shared game drives with a mad bunch who had adopted our guide Warren Jacobs, renaming him Woza, and the hilarious banter blended with the unparalleled wildlife viewing!

Relaxed pool deck vibes at Makanyi Lodge ©Simon Espley
Relaxed pool deck vibes at Makanyi Lodge ©Simon Espley
Kruger to Canyons
A touch of class at Makanyi Lodge ©Simon Espley

Tanda Tula, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve

Tanda Tula consists of an exclusive lodge and a seasonal tented camp in the heart of the Timbavati Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger.  Spending a night in a starbed rising your safari – sleeping high up on a wooden platform while being serenaded by lions, hyenas, Verreaux’s eagle owls and ground hornbills – features high on my list of incredible experiences that I have had in Africa. Their field camp is also one of the unique experiences found in the Greater Kruger area – an authentic glamping experience.

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Light up your life at Tanda Tula’s Field Camp ©Tanda Tula
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Make the most of the Timbavati at Tanda Tula’s Safari Camp ©Tanda Tula

Umlani Bushcamp, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve

Umlani Bushcamp is another Timbavati classic. Your safari in a rustic rondavel at Umlani will feel like a family affair, thanks to hearty communal meals served under the African sky. This down-to-earth safari camp runs mainly on solar power, and you’ll be made to feel at home in no time at all.

Kruger to Canyons
A cosy rondavel at Umlani Bushcamp ©Kelly Winkler

Outside the Greater Kruger?

Many people choose accommodation outside the Greater Kruger boundary and enter the park each day for game drives, either in their own vehicle or with a guide. I was lucky enough to spend a night at some of these lodgings.

Wild Olive Tree Camp

Wild Olive Tree Camp is a rustic and affordable community-owned tented camp a few kilometres from Kruger’s Orpen Gate and a few hundred metres from the gate to Manyeleti Game Reserve. It’s a basic but charming camp for independent travellers. The Wild Olive team arrange game drives into the park or reserve if you don’t have your own wheels. The camp runs on solar power and gas showers, with battery charging at reception. The tents will probably get very hot during the day in the summer months (when you would probably be out and about), but during my visit in mid-winter, they were just right. Meals are served in a communal dining tent, and service was excellent, and the smiles wide. This new community endeavour is well worth supporting.

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Enjoy the down-to-earth feel of Wild Olive Tree Camp ©Simon Espley

Blyde Canyon, a Forever Resort

Blyde Canyon, a Forever Resort, is one of the only accommodation offerings in the canyon itself, and its views of the Three Rondavels are even better than at the main tourist viewpoints. The resort is the ideal overnight stop for guests exploring the Panorama Route before venturing into Hoedspruit and heading towards Kruger. The accommodation offerings are also expansive, with camping and caravan options and large self-catering units that appeal to families. With a putt-putt course, trampolines and a large pool on site, the little ones will be entertained while you try to protect your braai from the cavorting troupes of vervet monkeys.

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The view from the deck at Blyde Canyon ©Janine Avery
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Saddle up for a stunning ride at Blyde Canyon ©Blyde Canyon, a Forever Resort

Unembeza Boutique Lodge

This popular lodge is located within the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate – a stunning location that places you on the doorstep to the town and its variety of exquisite eateries, while still providing the feeling that you are in the bush with resident warthogs, kudus and bushbucks running around. Unembeza provides the perfect base from which to explore the surrounding area. The lodge management is always around to offer advice and assistance with your day’s plans without intruding to the privacy and peace of quiet the lodge offers. The affordable rooms are a breath of fresh bush air, and each suite is decorated with class and simplicity.

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Enjoy the sleek setting of Unembeza Boutique Lodge ©Unembeza Boutique Lodge
Go on a two-wheeled safari at Unembeza Boutique Lodge in the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate ©Unembeza Boutique Lodge
Go on a two-wheeled safari at Unembeza Boutique Lodge in the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate ©Unembeza Boutique Lodge

About the author

simon-espleySimon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic.
He is a seasoned African traveller – walking, driving, boating, cycling, horse riding and flying his way in pursuit of true wilderness and elusive birds.

Simon’s love of mountain biking meant he was off up to Hoedspruit to participate in the annual Kruger2Canyons mountain bike tour, so it made sense for him to explore this region on his own two feet and on two wheels.

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