Thursday, October 1, 2020

A seven-day wonder through dune fields, beaches and a zebra with duiker horns

April 4 2010: Ask about the price of property when you are in Colchester, and your enquiry is likely to meet with a combination of wonderment and pride.

The sleepy holiday village on the banks of the Sundays River ÔÇô just a shouting distance from Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape ÔÇô is part of the scenic stretch of coast known as the Garden route.
After a breathtaking boat cruise along the Sundays River, it dawned on me why our tour guides glazed over when I quizzed them about the possibility of buying property here: eyeballs tended to roll upwards in that universal gesture of delight.

“I get sea sick merely from taking a bath, but this boat does not make me sea sick,” joked the elderly man at the steering wheel of the cruise boat. With that began my most memorable boat ride ever.

By the time we anchored, I had lost count of the number of times Mmegi Editor, Gideon Nkala, had used the phrase “malwelwe”, and it was a wonder that he was still breathing. Malwelwe is Gideonese for breath-taking.

The one hour cruise was full of such gushing exclamations in French, Portuguese and Shangaan as the passengers, made up of Batswana, Angolans, Mozambicans and Congolese, let out a cacophony of exclamations each time the boat glided past another “malwelwe” house on the banks on the Sundays River. Then there was the occasional motor boat roaring past with a water skier on tow or a family dipping fishing lines on the river bank.

In fact, I saw most of Colchester on my feet and through the lenses of a digital camera. The tour group saddled me with their cameras as they scrambled for vantage points in the boat to pose against the picturesque background of mansions lining the river bank.
At some stage I had an armful of four digital cameras and many “say cheese” faces posing on either sides of the boat.

Our guide explained that birders include Colchester in their itinerary, and river cruises along the Sundays River revealed a wide variety of waders, heron, duck, colonies of Cape and masked weavers, and different types of kingfisher. The Colchester salt pans are home to the greater and lesser flamingo, African pied avocet, the blue crane and a number of other waders.
The group had just piled up against the boat railings caught up in the excitement of trying to locate African pied avocets hiding behind a thicket of bushes when, suddenly, a massive mound of sand erupted into view. It is here that the split personality of Garden route began to reveal itself.

All the evidence so far had marked out Colchester as a dream destination for beach buffs, but the appearance of dunes suggested a desert. The sand has piled up into soft dunes, and then falls away in sharp drops, creating curves and galleys for exploring.
The dune fields are a dull white colour, and blown pristine smooth by a gentle wind.
This is part of the famous Alexandria Dune Field, one of the largest coastal dunes in the world. The area is ideal for swimming, hiking, sand boarding and picnicking.

A few steps up the first sand dune convinced me that hiking and sand boarding in Alexandria should come with a health warning: “smokers and couch potatoes climb at own risk”.
One of the group members who is asthmatic had barely huffed and puffed her way to the top of the first dune when she started confessing that she regrets ever smoking: “It’s just a bad habit that I have to kick,” she said as she gasped for air and fumbled into her hand bag for an asthma inhaler.
However, when friends ask me about the highlight of our seven day South African tour, I do not talk about the sand boarding in Alexandria dunes or the boat cruise across the post card picture Colchester. It is Zebula Country Club in Limpopo province that I can’t stop talking about.
Zebula Country Club – the only five star game lodge in Africa – is an established bushveld estate, just 20 minutes outside Bella-Bella. The reserve, which sprawls under the shadow of the majestic Waterberg Mountains, is an ideal sanctuary for guests who want a private breakaway from the city hustle and bustle, but do now want to forego the creature comforts.

It offers visitors a Peter Matkovich designed golf course, a spectacular game reserve, an equestrian centre, the Zebu Health Spa and game viewing in an adjacent Big 5 game reserve.
Within minutes of arriving, Gideon Nkala from Mmegi, Nchidze Smarts from Botswana Gazette and I were darting around our suite like excited children, gawping at our carved wooden beds, the beautiful swathes of linen, the elegant wooden furniture, and pointing out the family swimming pool on the porch.

The next morning, spent sampling what the lodge offered, surrendered a colourful procession of diverse characters: a local cheetah handler who when asked by a group of worried guests waiting to be led into the Cheetahs cage, if the cheetahs had been fed, responded: “No they have not been fed, you are their breakfast.”

Then there was the no nonsense guide who led the long line of quad bikers on a game viewing expedition. Before jumping astride the huge bike, I hesitate momentarily. A huge and foreboding wilderness spread out ahead of me with only a scar of dirt road and eight quad bikers to turn to if anything went wrong.

I try to calm my nerves by convincing myself that I am sitting on a motorbike with stabilizers. How difficult can it be? Even 12 year olds ride quads. The no-nonsense guide seems to be chomping at the bit to blaze a trail across the field.

The giant quads have been set on automatic to make it easy for some of us who have never driven them before. Though the automatic gears do take some of the fun out of driving, particularly on a slippery incline where the gears play a major part in control, the automatic allows you to turn the throttle and get up to speed more quickly. The engine responds beautifully and, throwing caution to the breeze, we went full speed across the wilderness.

Any faster and I knew that hitting a tree stump or a large rock would result in one of those accidents which guide seemed so keen for us to avoid.

We drove along the bumpy road churning up a wake of dust and slowing down once in a while to look at a Kudu grazing, wildebeests shuffling, warthogs emitting low bleats, springboks frolicking and sometimes breaking out into sprints as they took fright at the sight of our huge bikes. We would ride over long stretches of gentle sandy tracks, and at times the track would suddenly change into deep galleys and the track would be cut across by an exposed tap root.

By the time we came to the end of the track, all caked in dust, we already had the hang of it and could stand off the saddle or ride through a depression without slowing down. After conquering the big four wheeled bikes, we gathered at the reception under the gaze of the Zebu (a Zebra with buck horns that gave the Zebula its name. It is a creation of some imaginative taxidermist), before peeling off to the bar where I rewarded myself with an ice cold Black Label beer.

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