“Shhhh!” I whispered to Jane, “I think there is a baboon on the roof”.
“Oh no! What if it’s at the bikes?” she replied quietly as my insurance excess flashed before my eyes. The thought of a baboon sitting on a BMW GS and going “vroom vroom” set us off giggling……”shhhh! It will hear us!”
The sun was coming up over a chalet hut in Golden Gate safari park high up in the mountains on the Lesotho border with South Africa. Our party had spent the previous day riding out from Johannesburg on rented GS 750 motorbikes with our guide, Alex Jackson of Kaapstad Motorcycle Adventure Tours.
On the first day of our tour, we had already seen zebras, and many impala and several ostriches, but rather excitingly, we also saw a cobra! While riding along a dual-carriageway there were often people walking along the verges, going about their business. All of a sudden, a lad leapt six feet in the air and dashed out in front of Alex. He executed a perfect swerve avoidance and missed the lad by inches but as we rode past, we all got a wonderful view of a bluey-green cobra rearing up out of the grass. The lad obviously fancied his chances on a 120kph dual-carriageway rather than with the cobra. Thus was our introduction to riding in South Africa.
There were three of us on the trip. My friend Jane, another lady called Liz, and myself. We are all members of the Curvy Riders and Liz and I have both passed IAM Advanced test. Alex was our guide for the duration of the tour. He was blissfully unaware of what the next ten days would hold for him accompanying three lady riders.
Golden Gate was well named, set amongst golden rocks and mountains and numerous little golden birds had amused us in the evening as night fell and the stars came out. The African night was very noisy with frogs and baboons but the night sky was glorious with a rising moon and millions of stars. The Milky Way streaked across the sky and we were awe struck by the beauty revealed by the lack of light pollution which sadly exists in the UK.
The camp had several warnings about the dangers of the baboons, so we secured the chalet for the night and fell asleep to the cacophony of night sounds.
After our rude awakening by the baboon, who thankfully had not been impressed by our motorbikes, we set off for our days’ ride. The route today would take us to Rourke’s Drift, the site of the 1879 Zulu battle.
We were riding BMW GS 750 motorbikes. They were fairly basic rented bikes but they were more than adequate for the purpose and were very nippy when needed. Although not fast performance bikes they were perfectly suited for us to maintain a steady pace to take in the scenery and they were very comfortable to ride for long periods. I was surprised by the number of speed cameras and traffic cops patrolling the roads and we strictly adhered to the speed limits. The roads were generally in good condition, certainly better than in Edinburgh! Later in the week we encountered some poorly maintained roads but this morning’s roads were well maintained and engineered. Alex was riding an impressive KTM 1290 Adventure S which was ideal for his mileage and style of riding.
Our route took us down through the mountains of Golden Gate. Drifting smoke from bush fires hung in the air and sometimes obscured our vision but we enjoyed the sweeping bends whilst keeping a watch out for wildlife at the roadside. The temperature rose throughout the day reaching 39 degrees and we had a welcome stop in Ladysmith for iced drinks after passing through the towns of Dundee and Glencoe. We saw signs for Newcastle and almost felt at home …39 degrees in the UK! Wow!
At lunch, Alex briefed us about the afternoon ride to Rorke’s Drift. We would have our first ride on dirt roads and he advised us to stop and change the bikes into ‘enduro’ mode. The road was a typical rutted, stony hard-baked gravel road but the bikes coped well. Liz hit a patch of sand and had a buttock clenching wobble but recovered well and stayed upright.
Now, they say that you learn something every day. On this day I learned that if you are riding on dusty African dirt roads that you must keep your visor firmly shut. If you don’t, your companions will laugh, point and take photos BEFORE they offer you a wet wipe to clean your dirty, dusty face.
Rorke’s Drift was eerie and ghostly and whilst walking around the small museum I reflected on the futility of war and man’s inhumanity to man. We were walking on the deathbeds of hundreds of Zulu warriors and tens of British red coats. We paused at the beautiful monument to the Zulus which was a statue of a majestic leopard guarding their souls. The battlefield visit left us in rather a sombre mood as we left and continued on the dirt road to our hotel on the banks of the Buffalo River where the massacre started.
After dinner, Alex led us onto the hotel balcony to look at the stars again. He pointed out some constellations and showed us how to identify the Southern Cross. The darkness of the night highlighted the stars and again we gazed at the millions of stars not normally visible and the soft cloud of the Milky Way. Soon, the temperature plunged and shivering, we had to make our way indoors.
The frogs had begun making their nightly racket so Jane and I retired to bed but were promptly wakened again by Liz, who had managed to lock herself out on her balcony. She bravely climbed over the balcony onto some snake and lizard infested rocks, then had to climb back onto the balcony with the hotel owner like some modern day Romeo and Juliet with a screw-driver to release the door.
The next morning, Alex just shook his head in despair when we told him about Liz’s mishap. He was beginning to understand that looking after three Curvy Riders was going to be more fun than he imagined.
Alex sprayed the bike chains in an effort to clean some of the dust but he was losing the battle. The bikes and ourselves were gradually turning into a dull beige dust colour and my lovely pale grey Rev’it jacket turned muddy brown. Not to worry, it was all part of the adventure.
We carried on along more dirt roads sometimes with very poor visibility. The local trucks sped along, stirring up clouds of swirling dust which blanked my vision. I rode blindly through, trusting to the god of motorcycling that I would come safely out the other side. Emerging onto a tarmac road, we stopped for a minute to clean visors, to drink away the dust and to change the bikes back to ‘road’ mode.
Alex informed us of the day’s ride. The ride would take us into Swaziland along a disputed road. He explained that the locals wanted a new road so in order to protest about the existing carriageway, they would block the way with trees and dig it up into pot-holes. To affect repairs, the pot holes were uselessly filled with sand which then blew and spread across the road. We spent an enjoyable (not) hour playing ‘dodge the pot-hole’.
The Swaziland border was a short checkpoint where we had to present our passports and pay a small ‘road tax’ fee in order to ride our bikes in Swaziland. Crossing the border took us into some beautiful green mountain scenery and the difference was immediately noticeable between the two countries. Swaziland seemed better cared for and more prosperous but shortly afterwards we were stopped by the police for a roadside check. They simply looked over our documents and we were soon on our way again.
That evening, we rode into Mlilwane, the first of the big safari parks on our itinerary. This was so exciting! Maybe we would see the big 5! Dating to the time of the big game hunters, ‘the big 5’ nowadays refers to the sighting (not shooting thankfully) of lions, buffalo, elephants, rhinoceros and leopards.
The accommodation at Mlilwane consisted of little compounds of thatched grass huts. They were fascinating in their construction and astonishingly cool inside after the heat of the day. Warthogs grunted and roamed around and some of the animals wandered into the compounds, unafraid of the humans. Warning notices implored us to
‘Beware of hippos, stay on lit paths’
Next day was a day off the bikes and we had the option to go for a horse ride instead. The other two ladies were both accomplished riders but me? Give me a motorbike going at 70mph any day! Horses have teeth and a mind of their own, and no brakes or gears. How do you control it?! Against my better judgement I was persuaded to give it a go, and just like my first day doing a CBT, I relaxed and began to enjoy it.
My gentle horse was called Vicky and because the wild animals were not scared of the horses we could ride very close to the wildlife. Vicky and I were so close to the zebra I could have stroked them. We were soon notching up the sightings of the animals. We saw impala and kudu, wildebeest and monkeys, little guinea fowl skittered away from the hooves. We saw a huge crocodile basking on the banks of the lake but we didn’t see any of the big 5.
In the afternoon we visited a local traditional village where we were entertained by traditional singing and dancing. We three women were simultaneously amused and horrified by the defence strategy employed by the villagers. The first hut inside the stockade which invading enemies would encounter, would be the hut where the young girls of age 6-16 would live. Their job was to delay the invaders until the village defences could be activated by the big burly adult men. Umm…I don’t know what to say really! Interesting cultural differences.
That evening, we sat out watching the stars as was becoming our nightly ritual but finally the mosquitoes and din of the frogs drove us inside.
Next day was to be one of the highlights of the trip! We were to be riding into Kruger Park! We were only the sixth party of motorbikes ever to be allowed into the park and later that day we would find out exactly why the bikes are generally not allowed. In the meantime, we had several hundred kilometres of riding through the highlands of Swaziland. We stopped for a cool drink at the impressive Maguga dam hydro electric scheme and saw two fish eagles wheeling above the dam, but we couldn’t tarry long, we still had many miles to go.
There are two aspects of motorcycling which are the same the world over. First, there is ‘small boy syndrome’. All small boys love motorbikes and the Swazi boys were no exception. They loved to wave to us and give the thumbs up as we sped past. The other syndrome is ‘target fixation’, a familiar concept to us all; if you look at something, you will ride straight at it!
Unfortunately for one of our number, both phenomenon co-incided. She was waving at a crowd of small boys and simultaneously target fixated on them. The bike careered off the road straight towards the wee boys who scattered like peas and gave her a cheer as she rode up the ditch and back onto the road. Impressive off-roading sister! Needless to say, we ribbed her mercilessly at the next stop but thankfully no-one was hurt. Alex just shook his head in despair again.
Next stop Kruger! I could barely contain my excitement.
Alex has many skills. As well as being an expert biker and businessman, he is also a qualified tracker trained in wildlife conservation. He stopped us just before the entrance to the park and explained that there was an elephant trail crossing the road just inside the gates. He would enter the park first and ensure the way was clear for us. We would follow at his signal, coasting down towards the river. We did exactly as directed and sure enough, as we drew up beside him, a huge elephant crossed the road twenty yards in front of us.
We sat amazed as the elephant plodded past. Just as we were about to start our engines and ride on, the elephant suddenly wheeled around and started trumpeting, flapping its ears and “mock charging” towards us! Alex mouthed that well-known bikers prayer, “Oh f**k”, whilst I sat contemplating how quickly I could learn to do a u-turn and wondering if my death notice would say, ‘trampled to death by an elephant on a motorbike’.
Alex drew his bike in front of us three women and was getting ready to make lots of noise when just as suddenly; the elephant lost interest in us, turned and ambled away. Alex apologised for swearing but we assured him that under the circumstances it was acceptable.
Shaking, we rode over the rickety bridge over Crocodile River. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘survived the elephant, just to fall off into a crocodile infested river’.
We were buzzing with adrenalin as we checked into our thatched huts for the day and chalked up the elephants as our first sighting of the big 5.
I spent the rest of the afternoon watching hippos snorting and wallowing in the river then as evening fell, we joined an organised game drive. The sun was setting over the savannah creating a low dusk light which was the best time to see the wildlife. The animal sightings came fast. We saw impala, antelope, wildebeest and the most beautiful-tailed genet. We saw little mongooses (mongeese?) civet and vultures. And we saw lions, we saw a big-maned male lion and we saw a whole pride of lionesses with their cubs. But the greatest excitement came when we saw a leopard! They are very elusive and even the park ranger was excited to see the big cat silently glide away into the bush. I wondered how anyone could look at all these beautiful creatures and think, ‘yes, I’d like to shoot that and put its stuffed head on my wall’.
Now we had chalked up three of the big 5, just buffalo and rhinos to go!
Our evening continued with a barbecue out in the bush, listening to the night sounds of the animals stealthily moving around and watching bats flit around the starry African sky.
Next day I rose early and watched the elephants and hippos at the water’s edge, then we packed up and rode on to our next stop at Moholoholo. This is a privately owned nature reserve and much smaller and less commercialised than Kruger. We rode into Moholoholo on another dirt road and were met near our accommodation by Jason, one of the wardens. He motioned Jane and me into our parking space under a shady canopy.
Eeek! Too late, I realised I had just ridden into soft sand and hadn’t had time to warn Jane who rode up beside me. We were both stuck! We couldn’t get off the bikes, we couldn’t paddle them back and we were slowly sinking into the sand. Fits of giggles overcame us again as I plaintively shouted to Jason, “Help! HELP!” I squawked.
Fortunately he heard us and came to our rescue by placing a big stone under each of the side stands to allow us to dismount. Alex arrived to see what the commotion was about and gave us another of his despairing shakes of the head as we laughed at our predicament.
Mololoholo was a lovely friendly place and we enjoyed a home-cooked meal that evening whilst chatting to Jason and the other staff. But after many days of heat and riding, exhaustion was creeping up on us all and Jane and I left to have an early night. The best laid plans o’ mice and men aft gang awry….or in this case, it was a bush squirrel, in our chalet. There ensued a comedy sketch as we were under the beds with torches, (‘squeak’ said the squirrel), up amongst the thatch, (squeak!), we peered down between the floorboards (squeak!). Finally the squirrel won the battle and we collapsed laughing and exhausted into our beds and left the wee critter to its own devices hoping it wouldn’t poop in our panniers.
In the morning, I wandered out onto the veranda to have a coffee when all of a sudden; the birds started sounding an alarm call. I looked round the side of the chalet and there was a huge giraffe peering back at me! I shot back into the chalet and shook Jane awake. “Look! Look!” I spluttered as she blearily wakened up. Jane sat bolt upright as I pointed out the window and we both simultaneously breathed “Wow!”
The giraffe was standing ten feet from our window and was having a good old look at us as we gazed back at him. He was completely unperturbed and just stood there watching us. What an amazing experience!
Later in the day, we saw the fourth of our big 5 sightings as we were driven in a safari truck by Jason past the park’s buffalo herd. But no rhinoceros. The last of the big 5 was proving elusive.
We left Moholoholo rather sadly as that was our last visit to a big game park and in keeping with the mood, the weather changed for the worse. Riding up into the mountains, we entered into the clouds. It was freezing! The clouds were so dense, we were soon soaked through. We were riding in close convoy with numerous other vehicles and riding with hazard flashers on. Visibility reduced to a few yards and Alex gave us hi-vis vests to wear for safety. Almost like riding in Scotland really.
The last night on the road was spent in the town of Dullstroom which is the highest town in South Africa. We had a pleasant enough evening but the mood was lowering towards the end of the holiday and we still hadn’t seen any rhinos.
The next day was to be a rather boring motorway push back to Johannesburg so with heavy hearts we packed the panniers for the last time and loaded the bikes for Joburg and set off down the motorway.
After a couple of hours of steady motorway riding, Alex slowed to pull us into a motorway service area. I was just thinking how much I had seen, that I had seen the best of South Africa but still no rhinos, when Alex started gesticulating wildly to the left! Rhinos! A whole herd of rhinos!
We parked up in the motorway service area and ran up to watch the rhinos. They started ambling towards a small lake near the cafe to take a drink. There was a tiny little baby one which was feeding from its mum and a herd of adults. Oh! The excitement! We had seen the big five! Ten days without seeing a single rhino and nine come along at once!
On the very last day of our vacation, at a motorway service station, we finally saw rhinoceros. What a fabulous end to our South African safari.
Now that is a sight you don’t see at Southwaite!