Call of the wild

Ian Birrell takes his son on a voyage of discovery to South Africa and the beaches of Mozambique
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The Independent Travel

She was like a ghostly grey giant as she loomed up out of the night and, with a slow nod of her imperious head, warned us to move aside. Craig obeyed immediately, sliding the Land Rover into the long grass. Hardly daring to breathe, we watched as the elderly matriarch marched slowly past. Her trunk swished from side to side, then she shot us one last warning look before allowing the rest of the 30-strong herd to follow her along the track.

First a young mother, her one-year old son trotting alongside; then two adolescents pushing and joshing each other, a one-tusked elder following on wearily behind them. Most of the elephants plodded along the path where we had been parked moments before, although one or two could be heard crashing through the undergrowth nearby. It was a magnificent sight, the sort that we had flown more than 5,000 miles to witness.

The trip was intended to provide Hamish, my 12 year-old son, with an introduction to Africa. We were staying at the spectacular Royal Malewane, on the edge of the Kruger, the flagship of South Africa's national parks. Outside our suite, kudu grazed by the plunge pool and golden orb spiders span their yellow webs with threads stronger than kevlar, while vervet monkeys could be heard scrambling around on the thatched roof overhead.

It was a glorious setting in which to while away the time between the dusk and dawn trips into the bush. There was a fridge packed with beer, a freezer full of ice cream and a deck to doze on under the acacia trees. Perfection, especially after rising so early to join the animals for their breakfast.

Craig, our ginger-haired guide, had an encyclopedic knowledge of his native land and was able to discuss anything from the structure of termite mounds to the breeding habits of hornbills. He told me that his great-grandfather had helped set up the Kruger at the end of the 19th century, and that he was the fourth generation of his family to work with wildlife in the area. Rooted as he was in his native land, I was surprised to meet his wife, a stunning Colombian who had joined him in the bush after the briefest of holiday romances.

Craig chatted away about the flora and fauna as we bumped around the 150 square mile park in our Land Rover, armed tracker perched on the bonnet. We had several encounters with a bolshie young white rhino who introduced himself to us by putting his head down and charging at the metallic interloper on his territory. We watched, entranced, as a leggy young male lion, his mane still growing, drank from a waterhole just yards away. We stumbled upon a posse of Cape and hooded vultures as they picked clean the skeleton of a kudu, several tearing off one last morsel before abandoning their feast and lifting their heavy bodies into the sky.

At night, after a round of drinks searching for the Southern Cross under the emerging stars, we came across four lionesses hunting, spread out in a line, bodies pressed to the ground, ears flattened. Best of all, strangely, were the warthogs, the comedians of the bush with their jaunty steps and bodies seemingly made out of spare parts from other animals. Wedged into holes at night, just the head of the lead animal sticking out from the ground with a slightly embarrassed look on its face, one dreaded to think what it was like to be last in the line of five warthogs packed into a hole in the ground.

Returning to camp, it seemed almost cruel to be offered ostrich and antelope freshly slaughtered, grilled on the braai and served up with salad. Hamish stuck to the sausages.

But for all the luxury of the camp, the friendliness of the staff, the splendour of the scenery and the wealth of wildlife, there was something missing. Watching the animals in their natural environment was mesmerising, especially with such attentive experts on hand. And yet, in truth, I found my first taste of the South African safari experience less rugged, less wild than I had expected. Everything was almost too well ordered, the animals almost too well marshalled. It was not Whipsnade, but nor did it feel like the untamed majesty of Africa found on the plains of Tanzania or Kenya.

The border fences, however, are coming down between the Kruger, the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, to allow animals to move about more freely across an area the size of Holland. And it's not just animals: one tracker told us how he had fled civil war in Mozambique through the jungle, praying that he would evade the lions. Others are less lucky, as evidenced by the bloodied rags occasionally found on the ground.

The laudable aim is, eventually, to create a pan-African park linking Tanzania with South Africa. But elsewhere, the fences remain firmly in place. There are, reportedly, nearly 6,000 private game reserves in the country, with "For Sale" signs along the roads in the bush testifying to their commercial worth. The animals, inevitably, have to be managed, with intensive programmes for breeding, game capture and stock transfer. It is little wonder that the guides are almost on first-name terms with many of the bigger mammals in their parks.

Although we saw four of the Big Five, I was secretly rather relieved that a leopard we spent two days tracking managed to evade us. Craig was disappointed by his failure, but it proved that humans didn't yet have total control of the bush. He was still apologising as we said our goodbyes.

Our next port of call in the area proved to be a disaster, an unwanted flashback into old South Africa. After a highly unpleasant night with too much racism, drink and guns, we left early and decided to head to Johannesburg. Upon arrival, our spirits were quickly lifted by Reyneck, a dreadlocked taxi driver who told a fascinated Hamish about his experiences in the Sowetan school boycotts of 1976 before going on to demonstrate his mastery of 15 languages.

Later that day, in a shopping mall beside our hotel, we bumped into Russell Savadier, one of South Africa's best-known actors whom we had met at the Royal Melawane. After telling him of our previous night's trauma, he insisted that we join him and his wife for dinner. They took us to Moyo, a buzzing restaurant on five floors in Melrose Arch where stunning waitresses with painted faces served dishes from across the continent. I ignored the lure of impala carpaccio and went instead for Sarnaki Kuvu, an exquisite East African fish curry with coconut milk, chillis and sun-dried mango.

A guitarist played as Johannesburg's beautiful people chatted, laughed and flirted. There was a festive feel to the city amid celebrations to mark the tenth anniversary since the end of apartheid, and the evening gave us an engaging glimpse into the modern, emerging nation. Anthony Sampson has written that tourists, spending their time behind the protective barriers of hotels and lodges, often leave South Africa believing that the rainbow nation is an illusion. It was good to see the pot of gold at the end of the struggle.

Indeed, for all the endless discussion of crime, the barricades around the homes and the lurid warnings of armed response teams on their walls (which all seemed to have web addresses like www.weshoottokill.co.za and www.dontmesswithusoryouaredead.com), I rather warmed to the much-maligned city during our three flying visits. It seemed to have a vibrancy and to be more at ease with itself than other parts of the country that we visited.

After a brief diversion for an idyllic day's riding at Magaliesberg, one hour north of Johannesburg, we headed off to Mozambique - an increasingly popular add-on to a trip to South Africa that offers a bit of exotic R&R on the beach. If ever a country has suffered from bad press this must be it. As our Pelican Air turboprop circled the runway at Vilanculos, an exquisite blue sea shimmering beside the sparsely-populated port beneath us, I realised how little I knew about it - and that everything I did know was bad: a Portuguese colony that in its 30 years of independence had suffered a long and brutal civil war which left the infrastructure wrecked and the landscape littered with mines, followed by famine and flooding.

The reality was strikingly different: a 1,500-mile coastline so spectacular that even Bob Dylan was moved to sing its praises, and a young, industrious population desperate to prove that the times they are a changin' in Mozambique, as they are in so many other parts of Africa

An hour after landing we were getting drenched by spray as our boat chugged over to the archipelago of Bazaruto, five islands described by Lonely Planet as among the most beautiful places in Africa. The dense foliage, rolling sand dunes and swampy lakes are home to a rich array of wildlife, including freshwater crocodiles, flamingos and fish eagles. However, the real wealth is found in the protected waters, with a handful of dugong, schools of dolphins, rare species of shark and an unusual abundance of turtles.

During the civil war, many refugees fled to these islands from the mainland. Today, the visitors tend to be sybarites fleeing the rat race temporarily in search of world-class diving, deep-sea fishing or simply some peace and quiet, away from televisions, computers and mobile phones. And there can be few better places to get away from it all than these oases. We stayed at Benguerra Lodge, on Benguerra Island, a collection of 11 thatched chalets built on stilts in a milkwood forest beside a perfect white beach. The style was hippy chic, the mood relaxed, the food terrific. An upturned dhow on the beach turned out to be the main bar, and dinner the first night - spicy calamari, crab salad and barbequed fish - was at tables lit by torches stuck in the sand. One honeymooning couple opted to have their romantic candle-lit dinner further down the beach.

The lodge boasted of a wide range of activities, such as visiting local schools, markets or crocodiles, but every time we tried half-heartedly to arrange something, either the Jeep was broken or there was no boat available. This meant that there was nothing else for it but to spend the mornings diving with perhaps a brief stop somewhere like Pansy Island, home to the rare patterned shells used to decorate the hotel, and afternoons roasting on the deserted beach. As dusk fell there was time for a stroll along the beach while local women hitched up their skirts to dig for razor clams, followed by a beer at the bar watching the dhows go by. Then it was dinner and early to bed. Pure bliss.

After three days of this tough regime, we decided there was only one thing to do: extend our stay. Sadly, Pelican Air couldn't squeeze us on their turboprops later that week, so there was no alternative but to head back to Johannesburg, vowing to return to spend more time exploring the unexpected delights of Mozambique.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled as a guest of Tim Best Travel (020-7591 0300; www.timbesttravel.com) which can organise similar trips from around £3,775 per person. This includes all flights, transfers and one night's bed and breakfast accommodation at the Grace Hotel, three nights' full-board accommodation at the Royal Malewane and four nights' full-board at the Benguerra Lodge.

Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin.com/atlantic), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com) offer flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg from London Heathrow.

There are no direct flights between the UK and Mozambique, however South African Airways offers flights to the capital Maputo from London connecting in Johannesburg. TAP Air Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.tap-airportugal.co.uk) flies from Gatwick or Heathrow to Maputo via Lisbon.

STAYING THERE

The Royal Malewane (00 27 15 793 0150; www.royalmalewane.com), Hoedspruit, South Africa, has doubles from R5450 (£460) per night, full-board. The Grace Hotel (00 27 11 280 7200; www.grace.co.za), Rosebank, South Africa, has doubles from R2700 (£230) per night.

Benguerra Lodge (00 27 11 452 0641; www.benguerra.co.za), Edenglen, Mozambique, has doubles from $340 (£200) per night.

EATING THERE

The writer ate at Moyo (00 27 11 684 1477; www.moyo.co.za), 5 Melrose Square, Johannesburg.

Mozambique cooking combines African, Indian and Portuguese influences and is usually spicy. Specialities include cassava leaves with prawns and peanut sauce.

RED TAPE

British passport holders do not require a visa to visit South Africa, but a visa is required for Mozambique. These are obtainable from the Mozambique High Commission. Send a self-addressed envelope to 21 Fitzroy Square, London W1T 6EL and a form will be sent out to you. Completed forms take three working days to process and cost £40.

The Foreign Office website (www.fco.gov.uk) advises "There is no recent history of terrorism in Mozambique. However, like other countries in Africa, there is an increased general threat from terrorism to visibly British institutions." Also "armed robbery is prevalent on the streets of Maputo, and is on the increase in other towns. There have been several incidents of bag-snatching from tourists in bus stations."

The Foreign Office also advises "If you are thinking of driving to South Africa, you should be aware of the incidence of violence, robberies and hijackings on the approach roads to the Kruger Park."

Visitors to South African National Parks must pay a daily conservation fee (usually included in tour packages), which varies according to park. Fees range from R10 (90p) to R120 (£10). For information contact South African National Parks (00 27 12 428 9111; www.parks-sa.co.za).

FURTHER INFORMATION

South African Tourist Board (0870 155 0044; www.southafrica.net).

The Mozambique High Commission (020-7383 3800; www.mozambique.mz).

Sophie Lam

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