In July we set off on the first ever Afrishots road trip. We spent months trying to finalize our destinations and in the end, plans were still changing once we’d set off.
Day 1 was supposed to be Johannesburg to Aliwal North. Once on the road and both excited and daunted by the 2,300km round trip ahead of us, we hit our first snag on the N1 just outside Kroonstad. Something sharp and rather unfriendly decided to have its way with our back right tyre.
Having recently installed the Caska system in the Amarok, the tyre pressure monitoring system immediately started screaming at us. We pulled over and spent the next hour and a bit trying to get back on the road. We’d never changed a tyre in this vehicle so we had to find where everything was hiding and fiddle with the chain in order to get Ed (that’s the Amarok) to let go of the spare tyre. He was holding on tight!
Eventually we got that off and then had to tackle the obstacle of being stopped on a slope, which meant we couldn’t jack Ed up high enough to get the spare wheel on.
With the help of a good Samaritan, we were eventually on the road again at the cost of a six pack.
We’d been next to the road for over an hour, it was now after sunrise and the temperature was -3°C!
We pulled into Tiger Wheel & Tyre in Bloemfontein to have the puncture repaired which also took a fair bit of time but they had piping hot coffee so we didn’t complain.
Back on the road after a very long morning we started planning the rest of the day. We were booked into Mountain Zebra National Park for the following night and didn’t really want to spend the night in Aliwal North. While trying to navigate the Stop & Gos south of Bloemfontein, Jenece was on the phone and what a nightmare that turned out to be. Firstly, the road works in that part of the country are insane! One day in the not-too-near future, I’m sure those roads are going to be a tremendous pleasure to drive, but for now, they’re a nightmare.
Add the stress of that to the frustrations of getting no answer on both phone lines at Mountain Zebra and one can imagine, the situation in the car was getting a little tense.
It turns out, if you are trying to book into a park on the day of arrival, like we were, you can’t do this through central reservations; you need to speak to the park directly. This doesn’t help when the phone lines for the park are down. Jenece tried many times to explain to the central reservations people (she spoke to many of them) that she could not get hold of the park directly and asked for alternate numbers or a Plan B. A very long story short: she was put through to a supervisor who gave us a cellphone number for the park.
Yay, success! We got through and made our reservation. Unfortunately, with all the time it took to get hold of the park, the Mountain Hut we wanted to stay in had been booked out, so we had to stay in the main rest camp chalets, but more on that later.
Aliwal North & Molteno
With everything sorted out, we pulled into Aliwal North and stopped for lunch and to fill the fuel tank. We had enough left, however, with our detour we were about to take and all the road works, it was best not to chance it.
We pulled into The Stables for lunch, one of the places we’d originally considered spending the night at. What a quaint little restaurant. The meal was excellent, and the shop itself was filled with old farming memorabilia that had been restored and put up for sale. Their honey and mustard mayo sauce that we got for our fries made such an impression, we bought a bottle from them and are still using it today!
My mother grew up in Molteno, a few hours drive from Aliwal North and a slight detour for us on our way to Cradock. We were now starting to run a little late as we had the extra distance to travel but made the detour to pay my respects to my grandparents at the Molteno cemetary and I got to show Jenece a very small bit of where we used to spend our school holidays.
Then it was the last stretch to Cradock and Mt Zebra NP. The rest of the drive was uneventful but I must say, my dad mentioned how desolate that area was and he was spot on. There were very few signs of life out there. A lot of the farms had been abandoned and become derelict, and others were just so far apart that you could drive for ages without seeing a single building.
Mountain Zebra National Park
We got to Mt Zebra about 4:30pm which was enough time to drive the 12km to get to reception and the chalet before the gates closed at 6pm. The gentleman at the gate was incredibly friendly and helpful. He gave us the map as well as directions to get to reception, and was full of smiles as we signed into the park.
The drive in was very comfortable, both tar and dirt roads were very well maintained. We got to see the animal after which the park was named, the Mountain Zebra, and we were both immediately taken by the contrast of these creatures compared to the Burchell’s Zebra. After less than 15 minutes we’d also seen an Aardwolf and what was so disappointing (and taught us a very valuable lesson) was that this was the only time we have ever entered a park without first getting the camera equipment ready. All we had to take a photo of this little guy was the iPad and he was very far away.
Reception was very neat and welcoming. We quickly booked in and made our way to the chalet as the sun was setting and it was getting cold quickly. We’d brought a lot of hardwood with us, literally a couple hundred kilograms worth, specifically for our stay in the mountain hut the following night, but we had enough to spare getting a fire going for the first evening. As it was hard wood and we needed to braai our dinner, I also bought a bag of softwood from the curio shop. This was a disaster as it was soaking wet and I ended up using charcoal to cook the dinner and get the hardwood going.
The chalet was beautiful and spacious. They’d designed them in such a way that even though they were all next to each other, unless your neighbours were noisy (like the gentlemen from Addo a few chalets down) you wouldn’t know they were there.
Our biggest fault with the chalet was, lack of warmth! I’m not joking when I say it was freezing at night and the unit had no air conditioner, no hot water bottles nor electric blankets. I don’t need all those things, by any means, but in the middle of winter, a fire going in the next room is not enough to keep the chill off.
We had two beautiful fires going that night, one in the fireplace inside and one in the braai outside, had a bath to warm up and hit the sack.
Next morning we used the 2,5km walk and set of early as we wanted to hit the 4×4 trails and had to be out of the chalet by 10:00. Be warned, this is a hike up a mountain or two, not a casual stroll. It was beautiful and loads of fun, but it was a lot more strenuous than we both expected. Funny considering the giant mountain right next to the chalet!
After the walk we quickly packed up, checked out and hit the road. What a disappointment to find all the 4×4 trails we wanted to use were closed! We knew they had been closed the week before due to snow falls in the area, but the SANParks website said they’d be open again the previous Friday. There was one trail open and we had tremendous fun using it. I don’t care what people have to say about the Amarok, it handled the trail with no problems at all, and that was still with close to a ton in the back.
We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring the park and taking pictures of things we dont get to see much of, nor very often. Ground Squirrels running around next to the car, a mongoose who wasn’t bothered by us at all, Gemsbok (Oryx) that didn’t run off at the first sight of a vehicle.
We got our keys for the mountain hut about 2pm and made our way to the picnic spot for our skottle “breakfast” which we were supposed to stop for in the morning. Hey, 4pm isn’t too late for breakfast!
We needed a high terrain clearance vehicle to get to the mountain hut and we had good fun driving the road to get there. Nestled in the back of a valley not far from a small waterfall, it was absolutely beautiful. I think the hut can sleep ten people, and is used as a hikers stop over too. We were the only people there and were very impressed. The ablutions were separate and very cold inside! The unit itself has no electricity and warm water for the shower comes via a solar powered geyser.
Inside there was a large gas burner and a massive fireplace! We unpacked the vehicle and I got to work building a fire that would keep us warm. Funny enough, the mountain hut, as remote as it is, had hot water bottles for us!
We had a quick dinner of leftovers from the night before and spent the evening watching the fire, and darting outside every now and then to check the cameras as they were busy with star photography and time lapse.
The beds were by no means comfortable, but they were just what we needed after a long day!
In the next post I’ll discuss the drive from Mountain Zebra NP to Kichaka Private Game Lodge, our second stop for the trip.