Enjoy a captivating peek into Southern Africa's ancient cultural history along with a rewarding Kruger Park safari.
Guests are met and welcomed at a location of their choice in Johannesburg by their private African Sky guide. After taking care of a few formalities, your tour departs the city and travels north along South Africa’s national N1 route. En route, the first stop of your tour will be at Makapansgat near Mokopane (previously Potgietersrus), an archaeological location within the Makapansgat and Zwartkrans valleys. These valleys are important paleontological sites, with the local limeworks containing Australopithecus-bearing deposits dating back to between 3 and 2.6 million years BP. The entire Makapan Valley is declared a South African Heritage Site. Later, we’ll continue north to Mapungubwe in the Limpopo Valley, with an en route stop for lunch included. The remainder of your day may be spent at leisure.
Today you’ll enjoy various activities in the region. The Mapungubwe National Park landscape is an open, expansive savanna at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Mapungubwe developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century. What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites, the entire settlement area dependent upon them, and two earlier capital sites, together presenting a fascinating picture of the development of social and political structures over some four hundred years. After Mapungubwe’s decline, it is believed that the people moved northwards and established Great Zimbabwe in the present-day district of Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo in Zimbabwe. When Great Zimbabwe was abandoned some three hundred years later, possibly due to political breakdown, several groups moved south across the Limpopo River into the northeastern areas of South Africa and established new, smaller chiefdoms, such as Thulamela, which we visit later on in your tour. Mopane Bush Lodge also offers guided excursions to various rock shelters within their reserve to view their existing rock art panels.
From Mapungubwe, your tour travels in a general easterly direction, passing through the large tribal district of Thohoyandou before entering the northern Kruger National Park at Punda Maria gate. After your guide completes a few formalities, you’ll enjoy your first afternoon game drive en route to your overnight accommodation at Punda Maria rest camp. While in Kruger, you’ll enjoy daily drives in various regions of the park. The finer details, such as departure times, length of drives and the direction they’ll take - as well as when and where meals are taken - will be communicated to you by your private guide once in the park.
Your guide will keep track of animal activity through sightings boards and use their extensive knowledge of the park to ensure maximum wildlife sightings. In addition to your included game drives, you may also book an optional sunset drive with a park ranger, which will stay out after dark. Guided bush walks, ‘bush braais’ - a dinner in the bush - are also possibilities. Note that some activities require a minimum number before they are confirmed. Your guide will gladly assist with these arrangements.
The size of Kruger facilitates a great diversity of eco-systems, each of which is the preferred habitat of many, many species of animals. In the north, we find moderate to dense bush savanna, covering mountainous regions and vast open plains, with stands of fever trees along river courses that are also lined with massive specimens of leadwood and African ebony (jackalberry). The baobab, the largest tree in Africa outside of tropical forests, dots the northern Kruger landscape. Here, animals such as nyala are common. Along river courses like the Luvuvhu, spotting Pel’s fishing owl – considered a specialty sighting by birders - is always a possibility. The northern region of the park also contains several archaeological sites, including Thulamela, a late iron age settlement forming part of what is now referred to as the Zimbabwe Culture (along with Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe). A guided visit to Thulamela, conducted by a park ranger, is included.
In the north-central region, the open plains are covered with Mopane, as well as red bushwillow and leadwood in places. An abundance of elephant occurs here and sightings of herds of several hundred animals are not uncommon. In no other reserve in South Africa will you see elephants in such large numbers. Permanent rivers, like the Letaba, are home to hippo and croc, and form a lifeline in an often dry and harsh environment for many animals. Leopards enjoy the safety of the large trees growing along its banks. Further south, we find dense to moderately dense bush savanna in places, with open grassland plains in other areas. Vast herds of animals such as zebra, wildebeest and buffalo frequent these areas, as well as the ever-present impala. Giraffes are also common here, as the Acacia woodland is their preferred habitat. The region between the Olifants and Sabie rivers holds the largest lion populations in the park, and the now-famous mega-pride - as many as 35 animals – makes the Singita concession to the east of Satara its home. Just recently, several white lions have been spotted in the Singita concession - a very rare occurrence in the wild, and only ever recorded in the central Kruger and adjacent Timbavati Private Game Reserve.
NOTE: On occasion, the Thulamela site might be temporarily closed.
After breakfast, you’ll enjoy your last game drive as you exit the Kruger National Park and head south to Hoedspruit. After passing the town, we’ll pay a visit to the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center, where you’ll enjoy a guided tour of the facility. After establishing the Kapama Private Game Reserve in the late 1980’s, owner Lente Roode’s passion for cheetahs led to the establishment of a cheetah breeding project on the reserve. The facility was tasked with the conservation and breeding of cheetahs for possible release into the wild, as well as providing research opportunities to scientists in zoological and veterinary fields. The project gained momentum when Lente contacted Des Varaday, a well-known cheetah breeder, in the hope of acquiring a few of his cats. Des surprisingly requested that Lente take custody of all thirty-five of his cheetahs. She agreed, and with the aid of the then Department of Nature Conservation, the animals were transported from Varaday to Kapama. It took a further year for the animals to settle in before it was decided to open the center’s doors to the public in 1990. Subsequently, African wild cats, ground hornbills and bald ibises were also transferred to the center. African wild dogs (captured as ‘problem animals’ by conservation authorities) were also brought in.
After your tour of the HESC and lunch, we’ll also visit the Moholoholo Animal Rehab Centre. Injured or ill animals are brought here and, once healthy, are reintroduced again into their natural environments. Those not fortunate enough to recover fully are cared for by the center and are used to educate visitors to Moholoholo. Their honey badger, Stoffel, is something of a celebrity. After your visit to Moholoholo, you’ll retire to your nearby accommodations for the evening.
After an early breakfast, your tour travels west and climbs the commanding Drakensberg Mountains. After ascending the pass, we’ll make our first stop at the ‘Three Rondavels’ overlooking the Blyderivierpoort Dam. The Rondavels - or ‘round houses’ - are so named as they remind one of a group of traditional round African huts with thatched roofs. After enjoying the spectacular view, we’ll continue along the Blyde River Canyon escarpment and visit God’s Window, where we’ll take a short walk to the mountaintop to appreciate the view. Later, we’ll descend the mountain again and make our way to Hazyview for the highlight of your day’s activities. At Elephant Whispers, just outside Hazyview, you’ll enjoy their Ultimate Elephant Experience, starting at 12H00 sharp.
Elephant Whispers started back in 1988 when ex-Zimbabwean Rory Hensman took on two orphaned elephants, Jumbo and Miss Ellie. Rory and his wife Lindie trained their elephants to carry out certain farm chores, such as rounding up their cattle for dipping. The Hensmans gradually acquired more elephants and then started training them for the first elephant-back safari operation in Zimbabwe. Subsequently they were involved in the taming and training of over eighty elephants, and as their unique training methods were recognized and applauded, earned Rory the esteemed ‘Elephant Whisperer’ title. After political upheaval in Zimbabwe in 2002, the Hensmans were forced to leave Zimbabwe and had no choice but to sell most of their elephants. They relocated to South Africa and, with the help of Howard Blight and Philé Van Zyl, created a new company, Elephants for Africa Forever (EFAF). Your activity at Elephant Whispers includes an elephant ride or walk (your choice) and delicious picnic, including a South African sparkling wine. Later, you’ll sit nearby and watch as the elephants enjoy a water and mud bath. The activity will last approximately two hours, after which you’ll travel to your overnight accommodations for the evening.
Traveling south and passing Mpumalanga’s largest city, Nelspruit, we’ll then turn due east for a distance along the national N4 route before heading south again in the direction of Jeppe’s Reef. Located right at the border with South Africa and the tiny kingdom of Swaziland – the last absolute monarchy in Africa - Matsamo Cultural Village was established as a community effort to showcase Swazi customs, tradition and language. Participants from surrounding villages, all part of the Shongwe clan, offer visitors the opportunity of experiencing a touch of their ancestry, first by enjoying a guided tour of the working village and later ending with a truly impressive traditional dancing display as their drums echo throughout the valley. In fact, their dancing has proved so popular that in previous years the team has toured Europe with great success and applause. After clearing customs and immigration, your tour then traverses the scenic Komati River pass, making a stop at the country’s main water catchment supply, the Maguga Dam, before reaching Mbabane and your overnight accommodations. Reilly’s Rock is set in a renovated colonial house built on a ‘koppie’ in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, from where sweeping views of the Ezulwini Valley may be enjoyed.
The lodge grounds themselves are a haven to a number of tiny antelope, including suni and blue duiker, and there are a number of established hiking trails in the surrounding hills which you might consider if you wish to stretch your legs.
Today is dedicated to various cultural pursuits. First on the agenda is a visit to the King Sobhuza Memorial Park in Lobamba. The memorial was established as a tribute to the late King Sobhuza II, who led Swaziland to independence in 1968. Later, we’ll visit the Mantenga Cultural Village and Nature Reserve. Our visit includes a guided tour of the reserve’s cultural village with authentic beehive huts, a cultural and dancing display, and a visit to Mantenga Falls. The possibility exists that you might also see the Southern Bald Ibis at Mantenga, an endangered bird of the region. A mid-afternoon stop is made at a popular local candle factory. Here you’ll see a great variety of unusual candles of all shapes, sizes and scents, as well as the folks who manufacture them. Alternatively, you might also consider taking the two-hour hike from Mbabane to Silebe Rock, the largest granite rock in the world from where excellent views over the mountains are possible. Later a visit may be made to a local curio market before returning to your accommodations for the evening.
After breakfast your tour heads off in a westerly direction towards Johannesburg. Before exiting Swaziland, we’ll make a stop at Ngwenya Glass. Set in a beautiful garden, this local glass factory has been making glassware in all shapes and forms from recycled glass since 1987. Their range of products includes glasses, African animals, bowls and decanters, jugs and paperweights, and various other glass products. After exiting Swaziland at Oshoek your tour continues to Badplaas and Machadodorp, where you’ll join the national N4 route to Johannesburg, bringing to an end a comprehensive cultural safari tour of northern South Africa.
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