South Africa - Round The World Tour 2003 Day 5

Lataba (Kruger National Park)

Monday 17th March

This morning we bid Helen and Wim, and the idyllic setting of Kosmos, a sad farewell. We could not have hoped for much of a better start to our grand journey than that which they had given us. We may see them again in the latter half of April or the beginning of May when we reach Botswana, Zambia and Victoria Falls, but we won’t know for sure until closer the time. Helen has been contemplating a much-needed back operation and may be unable to travel at that time as a result. I hope we see them again and would dearly love to somehow repay them for their kind hospitality.

Since Wim was heading in the same direction as us for his commute to a business meeting, we followed along in tow for about 30 minutes before departing to a different route. And off we went in the direction of the Kruger National Park. All the guidebooks agree that this is the one must see attraction that should be on every South Africa visitor’s to-do list. We had a long 7-hour drive ahead of us so we left at around eight o’clock in the morning.

We decided to stop at one of the many service stations along the route for fuel and sustenance. We also took the opportunity to withdraw some ready cash from an ATM. It has been rarely necessary for us to use cash so far (with the obvious exception of small change for tips) but we decided to keep some cash with us anyway just in case. It was a good decision too as today we really burned through the cash at an alarming rate. First to hit us was the completely unexpected tollbooths every half an hour or so. At 15-25 rand a go, this was starting ramp up our daily average for our outgoings. We passed some spectacular scenery on the way, including a tea plantation and some banana orchards.

After being on the road for several hours, we decided to stop off for lunch and in studying the road atlas that we had purchased at the previous service station, we decided we would stop off at a town called Petersburg. It was directly in our path and marked the half way point for our sojourn to Kruger. I rarely use the term shit-hole when describing a place but after our experience there I will make an exception this time. Since we had the boot of the car full of all our gear, we drove around the town looking for a place to stop that we felt comfortable with but never really found anything so we decided to continue our journey instead. As we were navigating our way back towards the direction in which we came, a police officer suddenly appeared ahead of us and flagged us down. We had fallen foul to a speed strap. After pulling over as directed, we waited as a different officer approached us and cheerfully explained that we had been clocked doing 72km/h in a 60km/h zone. He produced a laminated chart depicting the various fines for various categories of vehicle at various speeds and informed us that we had to pay a fine of 200 rand (about $20). Things happened very quickly and I was eager to hand over two 100 rand notes as the officer filled in a form whilst standing next to my window. Right at that moment, my only thought was to get the thing over with and leave immediately. I was very polite and accommodating and the whole experience was quite humbling. The officer didn’t want to ‘delay us’ by having us go to the police station to fill out the necessary paperwork, and I certainly didn’t want to do that either, and sent us on our way. I was very glad to get out of that situation and left quickly but in examining the events subsequently, it hit me that we had been had – well and truly. At the time, I was so nervous that I would have given that man almost any amount of cash that he had asked for. Now, thinking back, and playing over in my mind exactly what was said, it was clear that this was a shake down and, had I ‘played the game’, I would have come out of the situation with far less of a dent to my wallet. In fact, I seriously doubt that I was even speeding to begin with. During the research that I have done over the past year and a half to prepare for this trip, I have read about numerous anecdotes of where this type of thing happens but I never saw it coming until it was all over. The experience has left its mark, definitely, but in some ways this was a good thing for us. We left the womb-like environment of Kosmos perhaps with a certain naïve, false sense of security. This experience has wizened me up a bit and will keep me on my toes from now on. It has been a seriously needed lesson from the university of life. It’s perhaps much better that we loose a couple of hundred rand to a smiling police officer than my whole wallet to a thug with a knife.

With the excitement of our shake down with the local police being slowly suppressed by the anticipation of what was to come in Kruger, we continued our journey through the mountains. We stopped off at a lovely restaurant about half way down a mountain with a veranda view overlooking the valley below that was unsurpassed even by the stunning views in Kosmos. We enjoyed a fabulous lunch and, for a while, we even forgot about our problems from earlier.

Whilst traversing the second leg of our trip to Kruger, we reached a point where we were not too sure of which direction to take at a T-junction and so stopped at the side of the road to consult the map. Within seconds, two cars had stopped to ask us if we needed help. The second of which not only gave as a thorough explanation of what direction to take to reach our destination but also lead us on for a mile or two to ensure that we made the correct turning. He even told us to check our fuel levels due to the lack of service stations for the next 80 kilometres or so. I mention this, as this typifies our experience with South African people in general (with the odd, obvious exception). They are extremely warm and friendly people and always willing to lend assistance.

We finally reached the park entrance and paid the requisite fee to bring our car inside. Since Helen had already helped us pre-book the accommodation, all we needed to do was to enter the park and head for our lodge. During the 45 minute or so journey along the 50-km/h speed limit, asphalted road, we saw some Giraffe, an Elephant, Zebras, Impalas and several other small deer-like animals that I could not recognise. Eager to make it to the lodge before they closed the gates, we stopped just briefly to take a few snaps before continuing farther. After settling in to our round hut, complete with thatched roof, air-conditioning and the all-important mosquito screens on every door and window, we headed straight to the restaurant to grab some supper. The restaurant veranda peers out over a crescent shaped section of river where various animals had already gathered to drink. The view was impressive and I doubt that I will get tired of saying so.

Upon entering the park and signing in at reception, we decided to take immediate advantage of one of the safari game drives that they offered and booked ourselves onto the eight o’clock truck. This would be a night-time safari and was sure to be interesting. In the event, it turned out to be just a little bit disappointing as during the two hour drive around our section of the park, we saw less than we had seen in passing during our trip from the main entrance to the lodge. I remember thinking that we would have plenty of time to see the animals during the many safari trips that were would undoubtedly make. In retrospect, however, I now wish I had taken more time to enjoy what we saw to begin with. But still, tomorrow is another day.