Saturday, February 11, 2017

Amakhala Game Reserve - Eastern Cape - South Africa

We made good time on the remainder of the journey from Thesen Island to Amakhala Game Reserve after our Skydive at Plettenberg bay to breakup the trip somewhat.

Although it was a little rushed, we were really happy to hear that we had arrived at our accommodation, Woodbury Tented Camp, in time for the afternoon game drive departing at 4pm.  We were given welcome drinks and escorted to our 'tents' which I must say, were a lot less tent-like than we were expecting.  I think we both expected to be roughing it in the outskirts of the South African wilderness, I think it's fair to say that we didn't have a great idea about what South African safari would entail.  In my visions, it was going for days in the bush without as much as a shower and perhaps a single native bushman pinning down electric wires to deter lions from joining you in your sleeping bag.  As time went on however, I also found it suspicious that the majority of our fellow tourists as a whole in South Africa were, for want of a better expression... getting on a bit and no doubt appreciated their comforts.

Inside the tent at Woodbury Tented Camp, Amakhala
The tents were actually very large and included a en suite shower and sink with a private toilet 'outhouse' next door, but everything was easily of a standard you would find in a hotel.  We couldn't believe it! Not only that but we could see into the park from our small patio area.  The communal dining/ rest area also had a balcony overlooking a broad section of the park where on occasion it was possible to see animals.

Animal spotting from the balcony at Woodbury Tented Camp
On our very first game drive we headed out, in total there were nine of us and because we were the last to get on the jeep we unfortunately couldn't sit together.  The rest of the party were a group of Norwegians who had come on a family trip and we'd be getting to know over the coming days, with the exception of one guy who was the brother of our guide, Ryan.

Taken on our last game drive with Ryan after his brother left
The first game drive funnily enough also turned out to be the best.   I actually couldn't believe how easy it was for us to spot the game, which we more or less saw all of on that first drive with the exception of the lions.  Our first sighting was a solitary ostrich, followed by a solitary bull elephant.  It was great to see him there relaxing and casually feeding from the long grass and the scrub.

Solitary bull elephant in Amakhala Game Reserve
We later saw a mother white rhino and her offspring following close behind, which was something I didn't expect to see.  The white rhino is in increasing danger from poachers, and they weren't even allowed to tell us exactly how many there were in the park.  We were also informed that 25% of our fee would be going towards the protection of these animals as there is an armed guard with an attack dog providing 24 hour protection for these wonderful creatures.  They spend the majority of their time drawing them away from the fence when they get too close so that opportunists don't drive past and see them and then return later to take their horns.

Mother and baby White Rhino at Amakhala Game Reserve
Around half way through the drive, we stopped for a drinks break.  However, we weren't alone.  We had tracked some giraffes as they were just approaching a watering hole and as they gathered around it we turned the jeep engine off and all had a drink ourselves.  I was surprised that were allowed to get out of the jeep in order to have these, but the guides seemed to know what they were doing! The giraffes weren't too afraid of us, but they were quite jumpy and alert.  They spread their legs in order to lower their bodies enough to reach the water, but wouldn't drink for a very long time and would shoot up their heads again at any unexpected sound.  As the sun set the giraffes quenched their thirst and Kate and I enjoyed a glass of wine in these amazing surroundings which these fantastic creatures, what an experience!

Giraffes enjoying the watering hole at Amakhala

Kate and Paul taking a stop at the Amakhala Game Reserve
Later in the drive, we even saw the cheetah which was apparently no small feat as there was one male in the park, one female too but she was looking after three cubs and would have been near impossible to spot.  He was originally relaxing in the long grass and all we could see were his ears.  After a little roll around he decided to get up and stretch.  The cheetah was very unperturbed by our presence and casually strolled past our vehicle towards what Ryan described as his favourite milkwood tree.  He must have made a kill fairly recently as his belly was so jutting that he could have been mistaken for being pregnant! He scratched his claws on the tree and made a few territorial sprays before heading to the tree, just as Ryan had said.

Cheetah at Amakhala Game Reserve, South Africa
Dinner took place at 6.00pm in the communal restaurant with the other people who took part in the safari.  They took our orders before the afternoon drive and it was served to us by the friendly and accommodating staff.  In addition, all drinks were complimentary throughout our stay and every time we went back to the tent it had been prepared with tea and biscuits, the bed made, and the tent open or shut for us depending on what time of the day it was.  All we had to worry about during our stay is what time we had to be in the main area for drives/food!

Sunset at Amakhala Game Reserve, South Africa
It wasn't a total breeze though, for the morning game drives we awoke at 5.00am and set off at around 5.30 after some much needed coffee.  On our first morning drive we happened to find a Lion and soon after, the three females he was stalking.   It was amazing to see them roaming free and without a care in the world.  From what we had seen to date, there were plenty of antelope and warthogs for them to feed on when they were hungry!  Just like the other animals seen to date, they paid us little attention and went about their lion business without paying us much regard.  This was apparently because they get used to the cars and don't see them as a threat, it would however, not be a great idea to step out of the vehicle whilst they were around.

Male and female lion at Amakhala Game Reserve
The reserve itself is quite big, and I found it interesting how we were able to keep finding the animals.  It turns out that this is a combination of cooperation between guides, all of whom are driving at the same time and making others aware of what they have seen on the radio and where, so that we may adjust our route and later head there with a better chance of seeing something than just going solo.  Secondly, our guide has been at the park for a long time, and informed us that many patterns of behaviour, even from wild animals, is somewhat predictable (i.e. the cheetah with his favourite tree).  Of course there was never any guarantee and we weren't always able to see what we wanted, but more often than not if there was a desire to see a particular animal there was a chance that another guide would have already spotted it and we could make our way towards them.

Amakhala Game Reserve spans around 7,500 hectares
On the second drive, we also saw a family of elephants as well as even more white rhino!  They were there grazing away and making their ways across the reserve in all their glory.  It was such a touching experience to see these animals with the freedom to roam in such a great expanse of land, and really brings home just how important it is to protect these animals.

On the second evening we were cooked a braai, the South African BBQ that is incredibly popular here.  It was delicious and a very social way to cook, we all had our drinks around the fire then the food was presented inside, buffet style.  After some perfect weather, we also had a lightning storm that evening which was actually a very cool experience.  However there was a rain spider inside the tent waiting for us!

Preparing the braai

Our resident rain spider... eeek
Below are a collection of some of the photographs and videos we took during our 3 nights of safari.  It was as incredible as I had hoped and I can't think of a better way for us to have finished our honeymoon.   As we sipped on our wine, reminiscing about the animals we had seen and the preciousness and fragility of our environment, Kate and I toasted to the complex and amazing country that is South Africa.  May all of its treasures be realised for just how precious they are and carefully protected so that future generations may too have the fortune to discover them for themselves.  May its cultures be not only be understood but also embraced by those who are living as part of them.  A special thanks to Meldon Kruz of Kruz Africa who helped us arrange this trip of a lifetime.

Plettenberg Bay Skydive - Eastern Cape - South Africa

We regretfully left Thesen Island in Knysna after having a packed schedule and wonderful dining experience.  On our way to Amkhala Game Reserve, where we would be staying in accommodation called Woodbury Tented Camp, we had arranged to do our first skydive!  Arranged via Skydive Plettenberg Bay, we packed our stuff into the back of the car and headed to the small airport where the company is based.

Inside the plane shortly after takeoff, Plettenberg Bay
There were a small group of girls who had recently completed their skydive chatting about how exciting and care free it was, though I must admit, Kate and I were a little nervous.  We had heard that it was much easier when compared with bungee jumping, which while it was a great rush, it feels  as close as it can to committing suicide without actually committing the act at the time!  We weren't too sure what to expect, but the guides Mike and Jeff were very friendly and explained everything to us whilst we put on the harness and got ready to board the plane.  We were running a little behind schedule and whilst I wasn't really nervous leading up to the jump, now we were waiting for the plane to refuel I was running the experience through my mind including how it could go wrong!

Kate and Mike waiting on the landing strip for take off
Soon we were boarding the small Cessna 182 propeller plane, which didn't have anything in the way of a door.  Kate and Mike got in first and Jeff sat behind me where the door would have normally been.  We took off and I got a full view of the terrain below as we climbed to 10,000ft during the slightly turbulent ascent.  Whilst it didn't feel like I was going to fall out at any time, I could have easily stuck an arm or leg or more outside the aircraft and my main view was the sky and the ground below.  It was actually a very scenic ascent, which did something to calm the nerves.  We could even see Knysna lagoon and the Heads where we had cruised in the John Benn the night before.

Plettenberg Bay Skydive, scenic view during the ascent!
The aircraft was loud, it was difficult to talk.  After what seemed like a long time although was allegedly only around 20 minutes or so, it was time to depart.  Jeff suddenly got a bit active and asked me to put my legs on the outside of the plane.  Next thing I know the wind is hitting my face and we're dropping through the air like a bomb.  Again the freefall was supposedly around 30 seconds but I don't remember much other than the parachute opening and being able to relax a bit for the first time in a while as I was suspended in front of Jeff like a big daddy and baby!

Seconds before jump, Plettenberg Bay Skydive, South Africa
The company actually lets you fly the parachute, although I was feeling quite sick by this point, a feeling similar to sea sickness so I was more than happy to let Jeff glide us slowly back to earth.  Even so I thought I'd have a go and with Jeff's instruction was able to steer a little and he even showed me my first experience of zero gravity, we built up some speed with a spinning motion before he pulled back hard and there was an amazing feeling of weightlessness.  Jeff then took back the reigns and guided us back down to earth with expert precision.

Freefalling in Plettenberg Bay South Africa
As I was going down I could see Kate a little way above us also doing some spinning and things. We waited a little while for Kate to land then we embraced, happy to have our feet back on land but buzzing from the experience.  We needed to take a half our or so whilst the video was being prepared, but this would have been needed regardless prior to getting back into the car and making the rest of the four and a half hour car ride to Amakhala!

Happy but relieved to have feet back on the soil!

Thesen Island - Knysna - Eastern Cape - South Africa

On Friday 3rd Feb, after our canoe and hike we were back on the road headed to Thesen Island in Knysna. The 45 minute drive wasn't so eventful and we arrived at the small, modern and upmarket Thesen Island not long after midday.  We picked up our keys from Thesen Harbour Town Office (TH1) and made our way to our self-catering apartment TH5.  It was a lovely looking room and well placed in terms of getting to the local restaurants and attractions.

Self-catering apartment at TH5, Harbourtown, Thesen Island 
That evening we visited the nearby Tapas and Oysters restaurant.  It was the liveliest place we had been to to date, full of locals and live music to accompany great food at the best value we had seen to date.  The portions were large and the hardest thing was deciding what to choose.  They had a great selection of beers and all in all the place had a 'younger' vibe in comparison to a lot of the other restaurants we had visited. There wasn't much more we wanted to do that evening, as we were having a relatively early start the next morning to visit the Wild Oaks Community Farmers Market (7.30-12.00 noon).

Ribs and onion rings at Tapas and Oysters, Thesen Island
On Saturday the 4th Feb we headed to Wilds Oaks which is a Saturday market in a small nearby town called Sedgefield, during our stay in the area.  We wanted to experience as much of the local produce as possible and whilst we had been eating our fill in the unprecedented number of quality restaurants around Cape Town and along the Garden Route, this was a great chance to indulge and get a feel for the variety of produce on offer.  We also needed to do some souvenir shopping and we were getting towards the end of our trip, and there were other markets serving this purpose next to the farmer's market so the timing and logistics were absolutely perfect.  Whilst we had seen a lot of trinkets on our travels, we wanted to try our best to find something authentic and ideally locally produced.

Me buying some Ostrich Pate at Wild Oaks Farmer's Market

Home-made chocolate at Wild Oaks Farmer's Market
Wild Oaks is a fairly large but easily manageable setup with everything you need to get you started in the morning with various stalls offering breakfast options.  There were businesses selling coffee, traditional cooked breakfasts as well as wraps, hot dogs with local sausages, Cape-Malay cuisine, pitas, many gluten free options etc. We opted to start the day with oysters and a glass of wine, naturally.  Then it came to stocking up, small businesses were selling local cheeses, biltong, honey, chocolate and cakes, dried fruit, fresh fish, pates, breads and more, most of which you could try before you bought.  There were also other products like soaps and fresh produce where many locals were doing their weekly shop.  Street entertainers were playing music, including a minstrel band and there was even a human statue near the entrance.

After having our fill, we walked over to the souvenir style Mosaic Market to check out their wares.  There were lots of items on offer such as the wooden handmade bowls, woven table cloths, artwork along with smaller handmade ornaments and keyrings.  We spent the whole morning eating and shopping, one of the highlights was meeting the owners of a local clothes business called Collywobbles who design and produce their own clothing line.  We had a good chat with them about their fun and funky designs and picked up a couple of T-shirts each.  Other things we took home from the day were an African Salad Bowl with tongs, a wire-bead cockerel and snake and some souvenir keyrings, some food items and full bellies.  There was a girls school choir singing traditional songs which we stopped and listened to for a bit before dropping some money in the donation box for them.

That evening we went back to Knysna and dined in a seafood restaurant called 34 South, which really exceeded expectations.  Whilst my dad told me it was never a good idea to order seafood on a pizza, I would lapse into doing this every year or so only to be disappointed.  This time however proved to be the exception!  The standout food however was the sushi, which again was great value and used fresh ingredients all washed down with a bottle of wine of course.

34 South, Knysna, South Africa
Sunday 5th Feb was our 'Animal Insurance' day.  That is, we were due to visit a game reserve in the upcoming days and we wanted to make sure that we saw some of the local animals with more certainty, just in case we weren't able do during our game drives.  First stop was Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, which was a hour's drive away and actually closer to Plettenberg Bay.  It was kind of like a mini nature reserve, providing a home for rescued and sick monkeys.  They run tours every half and hour and you have an opportunity to be among them in their own environment rather than looking at them through cages.  The monkeys are able to roam free and the guides spread seeds, fruit and nuts throughout the sanctuary to encourage the monkeys to pursue their natural foraging behaviour.  The tours are around 45 minutes long, but the monkeys are never to far away and we were able to see local vervets as well as foreign species such as gibbons as well as lemurs.

Ring-tailed lemur at Monkeyland, Plettenberg Bay

Gibbon at Monkeyland, Plettenberg Bay
The company also has a bird next door called 'Birds of Eden', the largest free flight bird aviary in the world, as well as Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary which is home to some of the big cats, both endemic and rescued from other parts of the world.  As we were short on time, we opted to visit the latter.  Because it was close to midday, many of the animals were quite lethargic and the 'pens' they were in were more or less small enough so that you could see most animals, even if it was just a leg stuck out from behind the tree.  Again, you are partnered with a guide for a tour around the facility and it's great to have somebody explaining the plight of each animal as well as information about where they are native to and how they came to be in the sanctuary.  Whilst it still felt a little small, they were definitely doing their best to ensure that the animals they had were being looked after and it was all in all a positive experience.

Lions at Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary
Our final 'Animal insurance' visit was to Knysna Elephant Park where it is also tour based.  We opted to purchase 'feeding buckets' for the elephants at a small extra cost.  After a short video introduction, we boarded the all-terrain-vehicle for the short drive to where the elephants were roaming freely.  The elephants were conditioned to know that the truck contains people with tasty snacks, so they casually wondered over to the feeding area where the guides gave us some more information about how to feed them as well as do's and don'ts for safety.  Within seconds, the elephants were lined up against a railing in an orderly fashion, trunks at the ready to receive food.  With the utmost delicacy, upon presenting the food they would gratefully take it off us with their trunks and bring it to their mouths to chomp down on.  Kate had the alpha female of the group who was quite forthcoming with the food and patted the trunk of my elephant out the way to get to my food as well.  As much as I tried to make sure only my elephant got the food destined for her, she was persistent and on a couple of occasions her trunk came out of nowhere to snatch the squash, carrot or apple that was destined for another!

Feed me! Knysna Elephant Sanctuary
The food was gone in no time, and when the elephants realised this they wandered off and continued to graze in their usual format of wrapping the long grass in their trunks and tearing it out of the ground, often with the help of using a foot as a level, then bringing it to their mouths to eat.  We were able to casually follow them around in groups of four, each with a guide who would answer questions about the elephant as we patted them or just simply observed them going about their business.  Overall it was an excellent experience in a great setting, the elephants seemed happy and healthy.  There is even a lodge that you can stay in with a communal area that overlooks an indoor heated area for the elephants to watch them sleep at night!

Kate patting an elephant at Knysna Elephant Sanctuary
Our day wasn't over yet though, we were scheduled to take part in a sunset tour of the Knysna lagoon and Knysna Heads on the John Benn.  The boat also serves as a restaurant and shortly after we boarded we ordered (as you probably guessed), some oysters although this time with a bottle of sparkling wine!  This is a great way to experience the lagoon and there is some well-placed (i.e. not overbearing) audio commentary at various points in the cruise.  There is a small outside area where you can experience the elements if you so wish, but all in all it's great to just relax and soak up the scenery as you negotiate the lagoon and get close to the heads.  It's a good idea to get there early as we did in order to make sure that you get a table next to the window, or if it's a mild evening, out on deck.

Oysters and bubbles on the John Benn

The Knysna Heads seen from aboard the John Benn
That evening was our last evening in Thesen Island, so we celebrated by dining on some moules-frites at Siroccos restaurant which was full to the brim with locals enjoying the seafood, great steaks and other delicious food on offer.

We went to bed after a long and satisfying day and got some much needed rest as we would be doing a four and half hour drive the following day to Amkhala Game reserve for our very first safari, but not before doing our very first skydive!

Wilderness - Garden Route - Southern Cape - South Africa

So we were finally departing the Western Cape we had loved so much to discover our next stop on our tour booked via Kruz Africa, a small town called Wilderness in the Southern Cape which is famous for beautiful beaches and nice restaurants.  We broke up the drive from Jan Harmsgat with a visit to The Blue Shed Coffee Roastery in Mossel Bay.  It was a fine cup of coffee in a rather ramshackle setting, just about ramshackle enough to fulfill the hipster vibe but any more ramshackley and it would have been just that little bit too rustic.  Mossel Bay isn't the most pleasant of views with the refinery that was built to deal with offshore gas that was discovered in the area in the 1960's, but this made for a pleasant stop and we bought some of their coffee to take away.

Blue Shed Coffee Roastery, Mossel Bay, South Africa
We arrived at our accommodation, Whale's Way Ocean Retreat and were greeted with the view of people paragliding, using the thermals to navigate the wonderful coastline.  Whale's Way has a great sea view from the balcony, from where we also had our breakfast. I'm sure that there are many whales to be spotted from here in the right season!   Leonie, the proprietor, is friendly and welcoming and always more than ready to help with advice for the many activities in the local area.  Instead we enjoyed watching the paragliders drifting by and even saw somebody setting off right in front of us, once the wind was in his 'sail' he just hopped off the cliff! When they're up there it looks very relaxing and almost effortless.  Not sure if we'll be trying it out this time though...

Whales Way Ocean Retreat, Wilderness, South Africa
After the luxury of Jan Harmsgat, we fancied a more casual dining experience that evening so booked into a cafe/restaurant called Flava.  The standout thing for me about the restaurant is the funny and friendly staff with whom you can have some good banter with throughout the evening.  They even provide a shuttle service to take you to and from your hotel which is great if you want a drink so you can leave the car.

Steak at Flava, Wilderness, South Africa
On the 1st of Feb we had a leisurely morning and spent the afternoon inspecting the local beach which, true to its 'number 1 activity to do in Wilderness' status on Trip Advisor, was absolutely brilliant.  Just down from Whale's way there are some flat rocks onto which the waves crash and there are alive with mussels and oysters.  Locals can be seen fishing off these attempting to catch the fish that feed from the attached mollusks.

Wilderness Beach, South Africa
There were a family on one of these rocks where the father had donned his wet-suit and was chipping the harder to reach oysters from the rocks, large ones at that and filled three large hessian bags with his catch.   The mussels were definitely large enough to be harvested, however this wouldn't be allowed without a permit (and we don't have any cooking facilities where we are staying anyway).

Mussels on Wilderness Beach, Wilderness, South Africa
The dramatic coastline stretches on and on and we really enjoyed soaking up the sights and poking around in the rockpools which dent the landscape.  It is really beautiful here at every time of day.

Landscape at Wilderness Beach, South Africa
That evening we had a reservation at The Girls Restaurant.  We treated ourselves to two bottles of excellent wine and really enjoyed our dinner of yet another seafood platter, though this time cooked, which included two portions of locally line-caught fish of the day (hake and my not so favourite kingklip, though I did give it another try), along with prawns in three different styles (The Girls sauce is especially delicious) and squid.  We didn't leave hungry and yet again were on the receiving end of some unbelievable service, if not the best to date.  The waiters were very clued up on their wines and dishes and described them to the customers in such good detail that you wonder why more restaurants don't provide this.

Seafood at The Girls restaurant, Wilderness, South Africa
After dinner, Manchester United were playing Hull city, so we found a sports bar/restaurant near by called Bongos which whilst, it didn't have the best reviews, has since undergone new management.  The staff there couldn't have been more accommodating, they persuaded us to stay for a few drinks before the game started and we met a group of Norwegians on a golf trip after a game of pool.  The match didn't go to plan, a 0-0 draw, but it was great having that down to earth old fashioned pub vibe which hasn't been present in many of our upmarket destinations.  After the two bottles of wine in the restaurant and a few more Namibian beers, which are great by the way, (or G&Ts in Kate's case), we were delightfully sloshed and not too sure on how to get home.   We were pretty sure the restaurant shuttle we took into town was no longer operating.  No problem, the bar staff were more than happy to drop us to our door, unbelievable hospitality!

On the 2nd Feb we had another nice breakfast and relaxing morning and then took the car out to visit Oysters R Us, where we would indulge in an oyster eating frenzy.  In a humble but also edgy and cool setting, the friendly staff again go above and beyond to make sure you enjoy the experience.  They have their oyster tanks which sustain the locally caught shellfish, but not only this, there is also a well stocked fridge willed with tapenades, pates, condiments and more.  You grab what you want and they'll add it up on the till.  Once you're sat with your nibbles you can order your bubbles, wine or beer and they'll also take your oyster order.  We naively went with four each, and later got another four.  The oysters were large and plump and even had a delightful creamy taste which is apparently the case during the summer season.  During winter they are more briny and salty but they are available all year round.  The oysters come with a fine selection of condiments including lemon wedges, black pepper, Tabasco, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce (and picked ginger), French onion vinaigrette, horse radish and tartar sauce so you just need to decide which style you would prefer.   It's an absolute must for any oyster lover if you visit here.

Shucking Oysters at Oysters R Us, Wilderness, South Africa
That evening we ate at a great little steakhouse called Joplins where the menu offers a very simple selection of different steak cuts, all coming as standard with egg and chips.  Again, the meat here is very good value in a homely and comfortable atmosphere with the steaks being cooked on the charcoal grill outside.  I couldn't resist filling my boots with the T-Bone and Kate had the rib-eye, the bill came to less than 700 Rand or around 30GBP and that included a bottle of wine!

On Friday 3rd Feb we packed up and headed to the Eden Adventures office to rent a canoe.   We paddled for 40 mins or so along the Kaaimans River with just the sounds of birdsong and the lapping of the ripples against the boat (plus whatever noise we made when we were paddling of course).  We saw various birdlife, especially Kingfishers that could be quite loud when they wanted to be!

Canoeing along the Kaaimans River, Wilderness, South Africa
After this we beached the canoe at a small stony landing point and took a hiking trail to a waterfall, which also took about 40 minutes to get to.  The trail was easy and the majority of it with a boardwalk and the shade from the trees provided a welcome relief from the hot African sun which was doing its best to cook us in the canoe.  Once we reached the waterfall, there was a higher 'platform' up a relatively steep rockface that we climbed in order to get to the second tier of the waterfall with a more easily accessible swimming area.  There were a few other tourists there picnicking and swimming and we jumped in, cooling down in these lush surroundings having exerted ourselves, probably for the first time on this trip!

Waterfall in Wilderness, South Africa
We hiked back to the canoe and on the paddle back to drop the canoe off at the Eden Adventures office we saw a Boomslang snake swimming across the river just in front of us! These snakes have quite potent venom, but we weren't too worried as he seemed to be trying his best to get out of our way.  Again, we saw many birds such as the common guineafowl, kingfishers and ducks.  It is definitely one of the highlights of the trip to date, and seeing this beautiful area, alive with wildlife from the peace and tranquility of a canoe was awe inspiring.

Guinea Fowl along the waterfall hiking trail, South Africa
We then drove to Knysna, or more specifically Thesen Island where we would be staying in self-catering accommodation.  Good times, but going far too quickly for my liking!