Patch Walker had been my pal for almost 20 years, but as we passed a sign for the town of Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, I couldn’t help wonder if our friendship was going to come to an end. The town is synonymous with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose best songs sound elemental and ancient and have sold by the million. By contrast, Patch’s singing sounded more like the screeching ramblings of a shell-shocked soldier trying to communicate with distant wolves.
As the sign to Ladysmith flashed past our camper van, I fantasised about trading my friend for one of those South African artists. However, if that counted as a low-point then it was one of very few during our 10 days with a motorhome in South Africa's Eastern Cape. Earlier that week, we had picked up a two-berth Iveco Discoverer-4 from the Bobo Campers depot in Johannesburg and immediately left to get out into the country's considerable wilderness.
We’d decided to follow a truncated version of Worldwide Motorhoming’s Kruger and the Battlefields itinerary which, before swinging south towards Ladysmith and ultimately Lesotho, took us north east towards the Drakensberg Escarpment.
Our first stop was scheduled to be near the Blyde River Canyon, but owing to several distractions along the way, including the strangely Alpine town of Dullstroom, we arrived far later than we’d planned. An armed guard opened the gate for us in his pyjamas and the darkness by that stage was absolute.
Above us, the Milky Way wheeled overhead in what should have been a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere; should have been because we decided to walk to the centre of the camp to shower, a short distance, but one that passed several signs warning of belligerent hippos.
To the uninitiated, that may sound like a potentially jolly encounter, but those tubby beasts are remarkably ornery for vegetarians. To meet one in the deep dark of night would not likely result in a happy story – we may or may not have decided to run most of the way, torches lighting the way as we giggled nervously.
The following morning we awoke to an alien landscape: giant red cliffs and mountains which had been invisible in the dark, now seemed to sneak up on us. Our reason for being in this part of the country was primarily the staggering Blyde River Canyon, and this ochre landscape provided a great taster for what was to come.
Later that day we hiked down to the Dientje Falls at the base of the canyon, then climbed back up to its rim to watch a sensational sunset illuminate the Three Rondavels, a trio of strangely rounded outcrops that look like traditional huts. We watched them changing colours in the dying light, and wondered why we'd never heard of these parts of the country before.
While the global economy has been in tumult for a decade, the financial problems in South Africa have never been anything other than biting. This makes life for local people there incredibly difficult, but visitors on largely self-sufficient trips such as ours find their money goes a long way. We decided to save any fine-dining for a few extra days in Cape Town at the end and so self-cater for most of our trip.
We first bought ostrich steaks before entering Kruger National Park as a sort of novelty – it felt like the most South African thing we could buy in the supermarket. But once we'd cooked them on the individual barbecues (or braais), assigned to each plot in the park's designated campsites, we vowed to eat those massive birds almost every night.
Despite its immense popularity, Kruger remains one of the world's very best safari experiences, teeming with wildlife and what feels like National Geographic photographic opportunities. That's all very well, but despite the fencing around the Berg-en-Dal Restcamp, I couldn't help but wonder how saliva-inducing the smell of our sizzling ostrich must have been to any prides of lion or cackles of hyena outside the boundary.
We spent almost three days inside Kruger, getting up for sunrise each day to explore some of the park's colossal 19,500 square metres. Lions were just about the only animal we didn't see, but we felt well-compensated with the surprisingly skittish rhino, the giraffe, less graceful than a pantomime horse, and the oafish water buffalo with its armoured plate smeared across its skull like greasy hair. Outside of Kruger and other protected areas, it was remarkable just how much wildlife we weren't seeing. After a time it felt like the huge, parched expanses of the Eastern Cape were an ocean between these animal-rich islands.
Much more consistent – and perhaps a bigger surprise – were the mountains. Of the many things I had expected from this trip, over 20 hours of trekking was not on the list. It was impossible to do in Kruger (during daylight in 99 per cent of the park you aren’t allowed to leave your vehicle at all) but elsewhere, Patch and I strapped on the hiking boots and headed out to follow trails. We were virtually the only ones who chose to do so. We trekked in Blyde Canyon and again in Swaziland, and at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, and for a final time in Lesotho.
I’m not sure how much elevation we gained and lost over our trip, nor do I know what our kilometre total was, but I do know that we were in the minority. Only once did we meet any other hikers – the rest of the time, it felt like we had the African wilderness to ourselves.
We packed lunches in the camper van, filled our water bottles, and set off each time unsure of what we’d find along the way. If we’d felt any apprehension about any element of our trip – about the driving, or the border crossings, or safety generally – it had dissipated within the first 24 hours. By the time we got to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, we felt entirely relaxed about heading out in the late afternoon to tackle the Wodehouse Trail while our vehicle was empty.
We’d driven for seven hours to get there from our camp in Swaziland, and while I was ready to hook up the camper van to the power supply and read a book, my travelling companion was not to be deterred from the trek. The best decision I made during the whole trip was to agree to join him.
The trail took around three hours, with the most challenging section coming at the very start. There were 45 minutes of relentless ascent to reach the top of a mighty ridge, but once there, the views were absolutely breathtaking. From that unhindered vantage point, a colossal valley was gilded in the sunset – the reason the park has its name.
We could see where water had sculpted the land, and got a sense of just how old this part of the world is. In the distance, a herd of antelopes dashed across a plain, their long shadows dancing in the grass. I briefly thought it was the sort of scene that should be committed to song, but then I looked at my dear friend, and thought best not to mention it.