Normally we think big when we think about the dangerous animals of the African bush. However, not only lion, elephant, hippo and hyena are dangerous; small arachnids and insects like ticks and flies can also pose a serious threat to traveller’s health.
For that reason it is always best to wear thick long-sleeved shirts, long pants, shoes or boots and a hat when you are out in the veld.
Tick-bite fever is a bacterial infection transmitted in the saliva of infected hard (Ixodidae) ticks when they bite humans. The arachnids that are able to harbour the Rickettsial family of bacteria that cause tick-bite fever belong to either the Amblyomma, Dermacentor or Rhipicephalus family of ticks.
Since it is not possible to determine the infectious status of a tick, it’s best to take preventative measures. Firstly wear protective clothing, then also inspect yourself and your clothing for ticks at the end of each day as the prompt removal of ticks may prevent infection.
No vaccine is presently licensed for public use and tick-bite fever can only be treated with specific antibiotics. We were in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana six weeks ago when I discovered and removed a tick from my scalp while we were having lunch under an Acacia tree! Fortunately I still haven’t shown any symptoms of infection.
Tick-bite fever is characterised by a primary sore at the site of the bite (often having a blackish centre), swollen lymph nodes and, in most cases, intermittent fever lasting 10 to 14 days. The incubation period for this disease is about seven days. There is a sudden onset with significant malaise, deep muscle pain, severe headache and conjunctivitis. A rash, first appearing on the palms and soles on about the third day, rapidly spreads to most of the body. Bleeding underneath the skin is common. Blood tests may frequently be negative in the early stages and the diagnosis may be missed if tests are not repeated! The rash on the palms and soles is always a hot clue.
Tsetse flies aren’t nice. Apart from their bites being unpleasant, infected flies can also transmit a parasitic disease, African trypanosomiasis, generally known as sleeping sickness.
Tsetse flies come into contact with people, cattle, and wild animals who all act as reservoirs for the Trypanosoma parasite. The infection attacks the human central nervous system, causing severe neurological disorders and without treatment the disease is fatal to humans.
Sleeping sickness is endemic in some rural areas of 36 sub-Saharan African countries and it is said to kill more than 40 000 Africans per year. Sustained control efforts have reduced the number of new cases in recent years. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 89% of the 6 314 new cases reported in 2013 were in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Further good news is that the WHO reported in March 2016 that fewer than 3 000 new cases were recorded in 2015, the lowest level since the start of systematic global data collection 75 years ago. Therefore there is hope that sleeping sickness will be eliminated by 2020, if progress is sustained.
The risk for most travellers is low as, even in areas where the disease occurs, only a small percentage of flies are generally infected. However, you can protect yourself from tsetse fly bites by covering up with the right clothing. Also carry insect repellent with you and spray around your vehicle when you stop as the motion and dust from vehicles attract tsetse flies which will descend voraciously on you when you alight.
Early symptoms include:
painful chancre (small ulcer) at the site of the infected tsetse fly bite
severe headache and muscle aches
If you visited an area where sleeping sickness occurs and you develop any of the above symptoms within a few weeks, consult your healthcare practitioner.
(Text by Bradley Dennis and photos by Jody Bloomer)
Doom and gloom usually make up the news headlines, but it is so nice to hear a ‘feel-good’ story every now and then! One such is news of the birth of a female white rhino in a breeding program which is part of the ongoing fight against the extinction of the rhino. Each rhino birth is exciting as the numbers of these icons of the African bush are under huge threat.
The baby was born in July on Samara Private Game Reserve, located in the Great Karoo region of South Africa. Samara is one of the many game reserves which participate in the conservation and protection of rhinos. She is a healthy and energetic little animal who enjoys spending her time playing in the veld, suckling her patient mother, Moyo, and ever-so-often collapsing exhausted into a heap for a well-deserved nap.
Close to extinction
According to Save the Rhino there were approximately one million rhinos at the turn of the 19th century. In 1970, there were around 70 000 and today there are only around 28 000 rhinos surviving in the wild. The Southern white rhino was once on the brink of extinction with only around 50 individuals left in the wild! Currently 75% of the world’s rhinos live in South Africa and it is estimated that there are only 21 000 White rhino adults and less than 5 500 Black rhinos remaining in the wild.
Threats to rhinos include the loss of habitat, population fragmentation, civil unrest and poaching for their horn, which is believed by some to have medicinal benefit. In some cultures rhino horn has also become a symbol of status and wealth; the per kilo black market value being greater than that of gold, diamond or cocaine. Poaching of rhino peaked in 2014 with 1 215 rhino being killed in one single year and this horrendous activity has claimed 25% of South Africa’s rhino population since 2007.
However, thanks to desperate measures in conservation circles, statistics show that poaching has slowed in recent years. A drop in this rate in the Kruger National Park is certainly cause for celebration and indicates that measures to reduce poaching are gaining traction there. However, certain experts worry that this has been offset by increases in the Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal, as well as other parts of Africa.
One of the primary reasons for South Africa’s success in conservation has been the strong alliance between private and public sector players. Some 20-25% of rhino populations in South Africa are now privately owned, a much larger margin than in the past.
The private management of this endangered animal allows for more focused care and security. The greater funds available at these private reserves help to further accommodate species conservation and safe-keeping. South African citizens and private owners are developing innovative strategies to deter poachers, which includes dehorning and introducing dye or even poison into rhino horns.
Rhinos usually only breed once every three years, and a pregnancy lasts around 18 months.
There are five rhinoceros species in the world of which the White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) and the Black Rhino (Diceros Bicornis) are found on the African continent.
The White rhino is the second largest land mammal in Africa after the African Elephant. It can weigh between 1800kg and 3000kg and stand at around 1.5m – 1.8m high. The White rhino can live up to 50 years into the wild.
South Africa is viewed as the primary custodian of Africa’s rhinos. With its approximately 93% and 40% respectively of total White and Black rhino populations.
How to get involved
You can get involved by helping to create awareness of the threat to rhinos by sharing this post, and others like it, on social media.
Show an interest in conservation and inspire others to do the same.
There are many volunteer programmes, if you want to get hands-on. Speak to your closest game reserve or park.
Today we are still very lucky to be able to see rhino in the wild. We can all contribute to prevent what would be a sad day when we can only show photos of an extinct species to our children.
With the current 16.10 map release, all at Tracks4Africa are celebrating the sale of our GPS maps in the retail market for a full decade! The new release will be available in major outdoor retail shops and from our online shop from mid October.
We received 555 data submissions from loyal users to create this version which not only means more roads and points of interest on the map, but also corrections to the existing map and data. The overall quality of the map has once again improved significantly.
We now cover:
1 117 780km of fully navigable roads, covering the whole of Africa
3 845 campsites (the most complete camping data base in Africa)
156 753 points of interest
1 452 protected areas such as national parks and game reserves
13 397 accommodation listings
10 562 fuel stops
6 141 places to eat or drink
The overall road coverage has increased by 7.35% from the previous 16.05 version whilst the accommodation listings have increased by 9%, places to eat and drink by 4% and points of interest by 7.26%.
We have also made many improvements to urban street coverage in South Africa, which was initiated in the previous map version. Now all suburbs in South Africa have been added as searchable points.
Our team also worked hard on including missing link roads for countries such as Nigeria, Algeria and Sudan for which we do not receive many data submissions. Major roads and cities of significance in these countries are now included on the map.
Also included in this version are:
Various 4×4 trails: Doornrivier and Ga-Lekhothoane in South Africa and trails in the dunes north of Lüderitz.
All Angolan major and minor roads as well as rivers.
Updates to the roads in Ethiopia (including in the Omo National Park).
As always the map is preloaded on a micro SD card with adapter, ready to plug into your GPS and start navigating. The SD Card can be used on most map capable Garmin units. The SD card also contains installation files for PC and Mac users who want to install the maps on their computers for trip planning or for transferring maps to older Garmin units such as the 276c, 76csx, eTrex, etc.
Note that this map is not compatible with Tom Tom GPS’s, iGO in-car navigation systems, Android or iOS devices. However, you can buy the T4A Overland Navigator App for Apple devices from iTunes and for Android devices from the Google Play Store.
If you are interested in how we make our maps, look at this article and in another article you can read how T4A came about.
If you want to travel the Kalahari, you have to be totally self-reliant. There is no water in most of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, no firewood, no fuel, no cell phone reception and no shops. One thing in abundance is deep sand that makes for slow driving…
The narrow sandy tracks often have small humps which are difficult to detect and which can energise to put the vehicle into a series of ever increasing bounces. They also have high ‘middelmannetjies’ and it is dangerous to get off the road for oncoming vehicles, because of the dry grass. We passed three burnt-out vehicles that caught fire, almost certainly from stopping over the dry grass. During and after the rainy season some stretches around the pans would be quite muddy; now they were deep, hard mud tracks.
Each campsite has a bucket shower (for which you have to provide the water), a long drop toilet and a fire place but no other facilities. You also have to dispose of your own garbage; best being to burn what you can in your campfire and carry tins and bottles out.
The Kalahari is one of those photogenic places where the light is supernaturally beautiful. The golden yellow grass of the dry season shades in nicely with the grey sandy tracks and contrasts with the soft blue-grey sky. Red sunsets takes your breath away while the soft colours of the sunrises and the bright starry night sky, together with its remoteness, makes a visit to the Kalahari a soul cleansing experience.
The birdlife is prolific. Rare bird species that you will see plenty of in the Kalahari include the small but bright Crimson-breasted shrike, Korhaan and Kori Bustard. It is also nice to see wild ostrich roaming the pans and small animals like ground squirrels ‘scoffling’ in the sand. I have never seen as many silverback jackal and bat-eared foxes in any other park.
Deception, Sunday and Leopard Pan
From Francistown we followed the deep sandy track to Matswere gate. Normally there is drinking water available here, but now the borehole had run dry. Fortunately we had two full 70 litre water tanks on board, but, on doing the arithmetic, we realised that stretched over 5 days and 4 people, this meant an allowance of only 7 litres per person per day.
Our plan was to traverse the whole Central Kalahari Game Reserve, from the north-east down towards the west of the park, then back towards the centre, there turning south to exit at the adjacent Khutse Game Reserve. However, we were warned by the park officials at the Matswere Gate that this was an ambitious venture. They were surprised that we planned this route and advised us that the 233km drive from Deception Camp to Xaka Camp would be too long to do in one day. He kindly made some phone calls and changed our booking to Xade Camp, which turned out to be excellent advice.
We spent the first night at Deception Camp and did a loop to Sunday Pan and Leopard Pan the next day, spending the second night also at Deception. On this loop we stopped to lend a hand to two German women who had a flat tyre. As it was late in the afternoon they were very relieved to get assistance.
In early September the Kalahari was dry and the only water available to the animals was at the manmade waterholes fed by solar powered boreholes. Such was the one at Sunday Pan where oryx, springbok and jackal congregated and we spent hours enjoying the wildlife.
On seeing springbok digging for bulbs to eat, one gets new respect for the bushmen who used similar tactics to survive in the Kalahari. The whole southern Africa region was suffering from drought and during our visit before the rainy season, the pans were bone dry. However, the striking copses of green trees on the open yellow grassed pans showed the presence of underground moisture and made it easy to spot the animals.
One such sighting was a cheetah with her three cubs close to Leopard pan. When this family had finished their feast, vultures moved in until three jackals chased them away. Once the jackals had had their meal, the vultures returned and were joined by some crows to squabble over the scraps.
The next day we passed Piper Pan en route to Xade. This massive pan was also bone dry, but still had plenty of game roaming the short grass. Many animals congregated at the Piper Pan waterhole and, for the first time in this park, we saw Kudu, exquisite with their regal horns.
It turned out to be a lengthy day with long stretches of deep sand. We did not expect to get water at Xade Camp near the west of the park and were thus pleasantly surprised when we found drinking water and ablutions with showers and flush toilets at the entrance gate. As we had already prepared ourselves for another bush shower, we didn’t mind the fact that the shower water was cold as elephants had damaged the pipes of the solar heating system.
The elephants had also damaged the water pipes leading to the nearby waterhole which was almost dry when we got there. However, having wondered at the absence of these giants thus far, we managed to get a brief elephant sighting near the hole.
From Xade to Xaka the going was extremely rough! Deep, rutted and bumpy sand meant first and second gear driving; just about the worst we have encountered on any of our African trips and we wondered how any broken down vehicle would be pulled out!
About halfway to Xade we stopped to pump our air suspension but made an alarming discovery. It appeared that our water tanks were leaking! We did not know how much had leaked and if just one or both water tanks were affected. With four of us in the vehicle, and knowing that there was no water on the very long and very slow journey to Xaka and then to Khutse, we felt we had no choice but to return to Xade.
There we topped up both tanks to see how much water we had lost and realised with relief that one of the filler pipes had fallen down and it was just the overflow from that that had caused the leak. However, by this time it was after midday and we realised that we would not make Xaka before night fall, having gained new respect for the distances involved in those very difficult driving conditions.
Quite disappointed we overnighted at Xade again and, since our advance booking for Khutse had gone awry and there was no game to be seen on that route, we changed our route plan to exit at Xade and travel to McCarthy’s Rest border post via Kang and Tsabong.
More Kalahari deep sand
After the difficult sandy driving we enjoyed being on the excellent Trans-Kalahari highway. However, this pleasure was short-lived as we had inadvertently left the GPS on shortest distance which prematurely routed us onto more deep sand on the cutline towards Mabuasehube. We thought this was our intended shortcut south on a gravel road before Sekoma, only realising our mistake too late! Fortunately we met some locals who showed us a sandy shortcut east to Inegalago which was not yet on the T4A map and after about 3 hours of this unproductive detour we got back on track.
McCarthy’s Rest turned out to be the nicest border post that we have yet encountered. It is small and very neat and the officials were friendly, displaying a sense of wry political humour following our inquiry as to what had changed in South Africa since our departure! It was good to be back and rounded off a pleasant visit to Botswana.
How to book
You can book camping at Matswere gate, Deception Pan, Sunday Pan, Leopard Pan, Xade Camp and Xaka Camp by contacting the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) at email@example.com.
Travellers who have been to magical places like Mana Pools, Gonarezhou and Kariba will always return to Zimbabwe. However, currently there is uncertainty about what to expect from the numerous police roadblocks and the cash crisis in the country.
Zimbabwe, with its political turmoil of many years, is still facing a huge economic crisis and has become expensive if you don’t come from a dollar based economy. Due to these factors the once flourishing tourist industry of Zimbabwe has dwindled to add just a few drops in the state revenue bucket.
In spite of all the negative factors, we are some of those Zim lovers who will always return, no matter what. Shortly before our visit at end August 2016, we were quite concerned about the cash crisis and reports of harassment by the Zim traffic police. However, I am glad to report that we enjoyed Zim as much as ever, even though it was sad to see the decline in the overall state of this magnificent country.
We opted to travel through the Kruger NP, exit South Africa in the north of the park at Pafuri and drive 61km on the backroads of Mozambique to enter Zimbabwe at the small but efficient Sango border post. We chose this route as we wanted to bypass the notorious Beitbridge entry point and also because we had heard that the traffic police roadblocks were particularly bad on the Beitbridge – Harare main road.
For us this turned out to be a wise and very pleasant option as we really enjoyed Kruger NP and found the short Mozambique stretch very interesting. I would advise against doing this route during or shortly after the rainy season as you have to drive across both the Limpopo and Nuanetsi River beds. We had an easy border crossing at Sango and thoroughly enjoyed the magical ambiance of Mabalauta camp in the south of Gonarezhou NP before we continued north. The friendly immigration officer at Sango informed us that this quiet border post only gets about six vehicles per day during the peak season! The Australian passport holders in our party managed to obtain Zimbabwean visas at this small post.
Current cash situation
The Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned as the official currency in 2009 in favour of the American dollar. Bond coins have been in use for some time now and are used for giving change of less than one dollar, but seem to be regarded as a bit of a joke by most local people. The Zimbabwe Reserve Bank reputedly plans to release bond notes in October this year, but nobody we spoke to was happy about it as they don’t have any trust in a local currency after the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar. It remains to be seen if government will indeed print the bond notes.
At the moment there is a shortage of US dollars and banks have limited the amount of cash that can be withdrawn per day. For this reason the South African rand is accepted everywhere (except by informal stall holders) even though you might not always get the most favourable exchange rate. It is possible to pay by credit card in most formal stores.
Travellers would be wise to bring sufficient cash (US dollars or SA rand) for the holiday expenses that they cannot pay by credit card. Currently there is no restriction on the importation of currency in Zimbabwe, however, keep in mind that you have to declare an excess of USD 1 000, Euro 1 000 or ZAR 20 000 when you enter or exit the country.
Take enough one dollar notes with you, as most consumables in Zimbabwe (from a pen to a loaf of bread!) nowadays cost one dollar.
The shops in Zimbabwe are well-stocked but anything more than the basics is more expensive than in South Africa. Fuel is readily available (although you don’t always get 50ppm diesel) but it is also more expensive than in SA.
Current police roadblock situation
During our visit people in Harare protested as they were sick and tired of the constant traffic fines. Apparently they could not leave their homes for work, school or shopping without getting a daily 20 dollar fine!
According to hearsay the police officers had not been paid for the last six months; hence their concentration on road blocks and fining citizens and tourists alike for even the slightest offence. This week the Finance Minister of Zimbabwe admitted publicly that government is battling to pay civil servants.
Shortly before our arrival it was reported on Facebook that there was a huge improvement on road blocks between Harare and Bulawayo, and Bulawayo and Vic Falls. People were mostly waved through at roadblocks and no lengthy harassment was reported on these roads.
We did not traverse any of these routes, but we travelled on the main road from Masvingo to Bulawayo and on to Plumtree and did indeed encounter many police roadblocks.
At one road block a police officer threatened to fine us USD 5 per log for the firewood that we carried on our roofrack. According to him we needed to show a receipt or a permit for the wood as chopping trees for firewood was, according to him, not allowed in Zimbabwe. As we had bought the wood from the roadside we didn’t have either a receipt or a permit and the officer would not accept our assurance that we did not cut the firewood.
We knew that the police were just out to fine us, so we refused to pay and did not offer a bribe either, offering instead to be arrested and charged. When Pete, my travel partner, indicated that they would have to jail him for the ‘offence’ the officer let us go with a warning to take note of our ‘offence’ for future reference.
Other than this incident between Masvingo and Bulawayo, we were waved through six more road blocks on this stretch and at one stop asked for the vehicle’s Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and Pete’s driver’s license. Between Bulawayo and Plumtree we were stopped once and were just greeted and waved through by the friendly police officers.
In spite of us reading up on all vehicle requirements and doing our best to adhere to them all, our vehicle wasn’t checked once. Even our homemade front number plate (which we made whilst staying over in the Save Conservancy since we lost ours in Kruger NP) passed the test!
Current legal vehicle requirements:
You must carry a driver’s license at all times. Domestic driver licenses issued in Malawi, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland are valid in Zimbabwe. All other visitors must have an international driver’s license.
Foreigners should always carry a passport.
All foreign registered vehicles require a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) which can be obtained free of charge from the customs official at the border post.
It is required to have two warning triangles (plus two more if you tow a trailer or caravan), a 1 kg serviceable fire extinguisher, serviceable spare wheel, working jack and wheel spanner.
All foreign registered vehicles must display their international license plate country code (bold block letters in uppercase on a small white oval plate or sticker) near the number plate on the rear of the vehicle.
It is required to have tape reflectors on each corner of the vehicle: white on the front and red at the rear.
Trailers and caravans must display reflective T-signs on a black background: a white T-sign must be placed on the extreme right on the front of the trailer/caravan whilst two red T-signs must be placed on each side of the rear of the trailer/caravan.
If the combined length of your vehicle and trailer is more than 8m, you must have a continuous yellow reflector strip down the sides of both the vehicle and the trailer.
Pick-ups, twin cabs and light trailers must have a continuous red reflector strip to within not less than 40cm of the outer edges at the rear.
Pick-ups and twin cabs are classified as commercial vehicles and must therefore display Gross Vehicular Mass (GVM) and Nett Vehicular Mass (NVM) figures on the left side.
Note that all reflectors must be of honeycomb or diamond grade.
A reflective emergency jacket is recommended.
In addition to headlamps vehicles are not allowed to have more than two pass-lamps, fog-lamps or spotlights.
Your vehicle’s number plates, windscreen, headlights or the driver’s window may not be obscured by mud or dust. A windscreen with a crack that obscures clear vision is also illegal.
We did the last of our last shopping in Malelane, a town with good facilities, before we entered Kruger at Crocodile Bridge in the south-east of the park. We were heading for Pafuri in the far north of the park and opted to stay at smaller rustic camps where possible.
Our first stop, Crocodile Bridge Restcamp, is a quaint, well-shaded medium-sized camp with excellent facilities. It offers camping with neat ablutions and lodging in pre-erected tents or self-catering rondavels. Facilities include a fuel station, well-stocked shop, ATM, coffee shop and indigenous nursery.
Heading north on the main road we had a coffee stop at Nkumbe viewpoint, situated on top of a koppie overlooking the Nkelenga River and faraway plains.
Tshokwane would be a good lunch stop as this popular, well-shaded picnic site also has toilets. However, as we had shortly before had a coffee stop, we opted to pull in under one of the majestic trees at Satara Restcamp and make lunch. Travellers who like eating out would enjoy lunching at the Mug & Bean or Debonairs Pizza restaurant. Satara is one of the main camps of the park and has a full range of facilities.
Driving north we experienced beautiful animal sightings; the two most special being a gigantic python curled around a tree trunk a few metres up from the ground, and two young male lions who dragged their kill into a bush. Also interesting to observe was the behaviour of the different elephant herds; at one stop we saw two young males mock fighting and at another the whole herd was taking a mud bath – an activity which they clearly enjoyed.
Apart from it being the dry season, the veld was extra dry due to the current drought in Southern Africa. This led the elephant to congregate around the few functional waterholes and enjoy mud baths.
Balule is a small, rustic camp with no electricity. Lamps are lit at night in the ablutions and water is heated by gas. The campsites are set out in a circle around a grassed and shaded island which also has a lapa with excellent wash-up facilities and an urn with boiling water on tap.
From Balule we diverted east from the main tar road that heads north through the park to the Letaba River via Olifants Restcamp, situated on the Olifants River.
Just as we were heading for the Olifants River viewpoint, set high on a koppie with a magnificent view of the river, we were spoilt as we saw a leopard crossing the road right in front of us. Within the first day and half in the park, we were lucky enough to have seen all of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo)!
On our second day we pulled into Letaba Restcamp to have lunch and a midday break and that evening we particularly enjoyed Tsendze Rustic Camp, as the spacious campsites were set under big Mopane trees. The neat ablution and wash-up facilities provide hot water via gas as the camp has no electricity. Being more rustic it doesn’t have a shop, restaurant or the manicured look of the other camps. For the first time in the Kruger Park it felt like we were camping in the bush…
On our third day in the park we saw big herds of buffalo and, in amongst the dry grass and low Mopane trees, a busy honey badger scurrying about its business in the bush. This resilient little animal will take on any enemy and is beautiful with its sleek posture and black-and-white fur. Quite a unique sighting! Another delightful sight was a family of seven giraffe which included young.
One of the most interesting sightings was in a dry section of the Shingwedzi River. Elephants had dug a hole in the dry sand and as we arrived at the viewpoint, one had his trunk down the hole, quenching his thirst. There was a small, muddy pool close-by which they used for bathing. We observed how the elephant would first drink from the clean hole and then bath in the nearby mudhole. We sat enchanted, watching two more behemoths cautiously descending the steep embankment a few metres from us and follow suit. With each new arrival the elephant that was drinking would make way for the newcomer at the drinking hole and go and have a bath. It seemed that the drinking and bathing were tiring, as these beasts would take a break after a while, resting their trunks on their tusks.
Shingwedzi is a reasonably big camp and since it was unseasonably the hottest day of our trip thus far, we were grateful to cool our feet in the swimming pool. Set on the Shingwedzi River, this is a beautiful camp with excellent facilities. It was almost totally rebuilt after the 2013 flood – and so high was the flood level mark that it was difficult to fathom that the dry bushveld around us could have been so inundated just three years before.
We had an early start the next morning as we had to head for the Pafuri border and were spoilt with a brief sighting of three lionesses with six cubs.
Looking back on our drive through the park, we specifically enjoyed the drives next to the Olifants, Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers.
It was also interesting to see the variation in the vegetation, from wooded and open grassland savannah in the south to mixed thornveld and woodlands in the centre of the park and then to open savannah grassland with stunted Mopane in the north.
The area south of Satara, with its greater rainfall, is known to have a high density of game which attracts many predators and we have indeed seen most game in the southern section of the park. However, we saw plenty of elephant, hippo, antelope, buffalo, crocodile and birds along the Shingwedzi River. At Kanniedood pan we counted 14 crocodile from one viewpoint!
If one takes into account the standard of the facilities and the number and variety of animals you see in this national park, which is the size of Wales, it is no wonder that it is still regarded as South Africa’s prime park.
Initially we saw this visit to Kruger as a route to get to Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe without having to use the notorious Beitbridge border crossing. However, we gained new respect for this magnificent park, with its excellent facilities and prolific game.
Briefly traversing Mozambique
The border crossing at Pafuri in the far north of the park was quick and easy, as was the entrance to Mozambique. We were quite surprised when the Mozambican immigration official informed us that it was possible for those of us requiring visas to get them at this small post, even though we didn’t need it as the three Australian passport holders in our party had already obtained theirs in Cape Town.
At first the gravel road north up the borderline with Zimbabwe was mostly deep sand, but also had a few rough patches due to dry mud. It was clear that this road would be less than ideal during the rainy season, especially since one has to cross both the Limpopo and Nuanetsi Rivers, neither with a bridge.
During our coffee stop in a well wooded area just after we crossed the Nuanetsi, we realised that we had lost our front number plate, most probably in Kruger. When we passed a Spaza shop in a little village, we bought a peace of cardboard, taken from one of the boxes of the stall holder, with the intention to make a temporary license plate.
We found the 61km drive through this remote part of Mozambique pleasant and interesting. As we progressed the sandy track changed to good gravel, with patches of orange, yellow and green leafed Mopane trees lining the narrow track.
We had a long but productive day, leaving Shingwedzi camp at 06:00, just as the gate opened. Then we managed two border crossings (SA to Mozambique at Pafuri and Mozambique to Zimbabwe at Chicualacuala/Sango), quibble with the Mozambican border police at Chicualacuala about our missing number plate, report it to the border police as we entered Zimbabwe, have a coffee as well as a lunch stop and yet arrive at Mabalaute Camp in the south of Gonarezhou at 17:00! We found this route to be a good option for travellers heading for Mozambique or Zimbabwe.
As we were heading for the Kruger National Park from the Golden Gate NP in the Free State, we had the choice of either sticking to the beaten track or driving through Swaziland. I was quite keen to explore the latter route since I was curious to get a feel for the smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere.
We entered Swaziland in the south-east at the Lavumisa border post near Pongola. It’s a big and reasonably busy, but nevertheless efficient border post. We spent most of the hour it took to declare our electronic equipment at the Customs counter as we exited South Africa, as we have learnt that it is best to do this when you leave SA in order to avoid paying import duty upon your return. The competent and friendly official was meticulous in describing all the equipment, with values and serial numbers, on the computer system.
For the first time we were provided with a comprehensive printout on a SARS (South African Revenue Service) letterhead which we could keep for future use when we enter or exit SA. It is nice to know that SARS is at last so technologically advanced that we no longer have to declare all our valuables each time we cross a border.
Entering Swaziland was reasonably painless and the only fee we had to pay was R50 for a Temporary Import Permit for the vehicle. Even though the official who searched the vehicle indicated that we needed a permit to import meat into Swaziland, she said that she would ‘this time’ let us through.
To be honest, I didn’t really expect much of this kingdom and was therefore pleasantly surprised to see the extent of agriculture amongst the dry bushveld thorn. We passed big bright green fields of sugar cane and colourful bougainvilleas lining the MR8 main road going north. Sugar cane seems to comprise most of the agriculture in the south-east of Swaziland; we passed many of these irrigated fields, a distillery making cane spirit and a sugar mill.
We found that it is possible to pay with South African rand everywhere and that this currency is at parity to the local currency, the emalangeni. You can pay for fuel by credit card, but not all fuel stations have facilities for electronic payment. Also, 50ppm diesel is not available everywhere.
The Swazi people seem to have an entrepreneurial spirit. There are numerous road stalls selling consumables like fire wood, wood for building purposes, fruit and vegetables. We were quite curious when we passed stalls with plastic buckets that had cords and electric plugs hanging from them. We stopped to inquire and learnt that electric elements were fitted to the buckets for heating water. A very ingenious African innovation…
Although the condition of the tarred road was good, the going was slow. The speed limit in Swaziland can rise to 120kph but is generally 60 or 80km/h, with ferocious speed humps being used frequently to slow vehicles.
Sondzela Backpackers got raving reviews on Tripadvisor and so we intended to camp there. Shortly before we reached that destination, we stopped at Malandelas, a Bed and Breakfast/Restaurant and a tourist hub which also offers an internet café and tourist information. The whole complex has an arty feel to it and the tables of the restaurant are set under large shady trees.
The friendly gate guard at Sondzela referred us to the nearby Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary as no vehicles were allowed on the Sondzela grounds, which meant that we would not be able to use our beloved rooftop tent.
We arrived at Mlilwane in the late afternoon and were greeted by a warm and welcoming Swazi lady. The entry fee to the sanctuary, which was proclaimed in 1964 and is under patronage of King Mswati III, is only R40 per day and, with camping at R105 per person per night, it is extremely reasonable. Mlilwane, which is Swaziland’s oldest game reserve, is owned and managed by a non-profit making trust for the benefit of nature conservation and the benefit of the people of Swaziland.
As it is not home to the Big Five, visitors can bike, walk or ride on horseback close to zebra, wildebeest, antelope, hippos and crocodile. I am not big fan of canned game viewing like this, but must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the nyala walking through our camp and particularly the warthog family that lay snuggled up around the communal camp fire at night.
With the excellent facilities (it also offers accommodation in Swazi grass beehive huts and a restaurant), activities like tribal dancing and the game experience it is no wonder it is so popular among foreign tourist groups.
Although the campsite was a bit too busy to our preference, we thoroughly enjoyed our well shaded stay.
Swaziland seems to be more developed and in touch with the outside world than Lesotho, and this was also evidenced by the Convention Centre and 5 Star Hotel that is going up at Ezulwini, not far from the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary.
As we needed to make up some travel time, we preferred to use the MR3 highway to bypass the Mbababane city centre and found it to be in excellent condition. We were advised that the route through Piggs Peak and Matsamo/Jeppes Reef border post is the most scenic and we indeed enjoyed the scenery. As we neared Piggs Peak, the landscape reminded me of Mpumalanga in South Africa. It was green, hilly and forested with hectares of gum and pine tree plantations. Unfortunately the Phophonyane Falls were non-existing due to the prevailing drought.
As we neared the border, we were surprised by large citrus orchards and banana plantations around Ngonini. I was pleased by the little I had seen of Swaziland and traversing this little kingdom was definitely worthwhile. From there we were only a short way from the Kruger National Park.
This October we are celebrating 10 years of selling GPS maps in the retail market. We actually started with our first commercial maps back in 2005 but it was only until 2006 that we launched the first maps on a CD and then later migrated to SD card.
While designing the new cover I thought about the last decade and how things have changed. At the heart of T4A maps is community mapping but the technology made it possible to do so much more than what we used to ten years ago.
The basic idea
Tracks4Africa started out by sharing tracks and waypoints and from this data we later started building a map which grows organically as people travel and contribute data or comment on aspects of the maps which needs to be updated.
Most people do not realize that we build maps from community sourced data, however there is a strong base of people who contribute whenever they travel. Some people even map their home towns and send us all this data.
The basic idea remains that travellers who visit places knows best what should go onto the map and it is actually just the way in which they communicate this to us that is changing.
GPS tracks and waypoints
The basic way of contributing to the map is by recording tracks and waypoints with your GPS. This data is then downloaded to the computer and the file containing the data is mailed to us. Today this still represents a large percentage of the data we receive. Our mapping team will then start working on the data and depending on the nature of the data they may communicate with you to get clarity or request more information.
At this point in time this is still a very prominent part of our map building process and we have trained staff with domain knowledge to process each data contribution (for which we are very grateful). However we know that today, better ways exist to collect data and where many people still prefer to record data with their GPS there is potentially a much bigger source of data if one look to different ways of using GPS technology.
Satellite imagery became common place and this is a great aid to our mapping team to check data we receive. You can identify roads, buildings and other features which enhances the map. As an example, if someone stopped somewhere for a while we can see this from the GPS track and if no waypoint was created we can turn to satellite imagery to see if there are any infrastructure at that position. This could lead to further investigation or they could mail you to ask if you remember what this place was.
If I have to say, I think the availability of aerial photography and satellite imagery is one of our biggest aids in the office, however with it comes a very tempting trap. So many other map makers simply trace data from satellite imagery and some even have sweat shops where cheap labour is used to churn out thousands of kilometers every day. There are some areas on the map where this can be done, however if your aim is to build a map for remote travel then this approach will quickly get you into trouble.
We use imagery as a backdrop against which we can check GPS data. We will also fill in gaps where it is very obvious that a road continues. We also use it to verify the position of a place. Many lodge owners will send you their GPS coordinates and we need to check if these are in the correct position before adding it to the map.
Vehicle tracking systems
Vehicle tracking systems are used all over Southern Africa and while the primary aim of these systems are to facilitate vehicle recovery in the event of theft or fleet management, these systems are also a good source of new track data. Tracks4Africa acquired a stake in one such company, a small one compared to industry standards but a very innovative and flexible one at that. We integrated our systems with the vehicle tracking system to offer various services, but anonymously we can collect data on where vehicles travel.
Some of our most complex innovations are centered around this source of data. There are many aspects of the road network that can be derived from a live source of tracking data. Most people would be familiar with traffic services offered by the likes of Waze. We look at this data in a slightly different manner:
New roads are identified automatically and flagged for inspection by our mapping team. New property developments are always cropping up and just a single track through such a network of streets can raise the flag to map out the new neighbourhood.
The average speed at which vehicles travel can be updated from such data, very similar to live traffic but more static in our case as we focus on remote areas. With each new map we run a set of calculations to identify where road speeds have changed. For example, a bad gravel road may have been upgraded and now the average travel speed increased and this route might become a more viable option.
Different vehicles travel at different speeds. A big truck vs a sedan vehicle will yield different average travel times and by identifying vehicle types (where the data is not anonymous), we can extract what we need for different vehicle classes. While our focus is on travel we envisage that separate routable road networks may surface as this data grows. One example of such a vehicle group is of a 4WD vehicle rental company whose vehicles are used by travellers all the time. This data is ring-fenced for more in-depth analysis.
From track data one can identify stops and overnight places without having to source specific waypoints from these travellers. We create overnight stops from this track data which is entered into our point of interest research team. We can also easily compare these stops to our current POI data and start building up a record of popular places.
One of the most irritating aspects of travelling during school holidays is the delays experienced at border posts and other popular places. While this is a work in progress our algorithms are being developed to identify places where seasonal delays are experienced which could lead to handy travel information for future trip planning.
Tracks data can also show when last a road or more specifically bridges and ferries were used. If certain infrastructure start showing signs of falling out of use we are now able to flag these for inspection. Sometimes a ferry is replaced by a new bridge or a bridge has simply been damaged by floods which could affect your trip planning.
Capacity building and spatial capability
When we started out building a geographical information system (GIS) of travel information the GIS technology was adequate for our purposes, but it has progressed extensively over the years. A few years back we found ourselves in a position where we had to grow our GIS capacity. We worked in silo’s and often work was lost.
So we made the massive jump from working on separate GIS files to an online GIS data repository. We built a system to our needs where we can house all the tracking data and use it when working on the map. Now we have several GIS technicians working on a single data base.
With this development we also enabled our teams to work with SQL scripts to automate mundane tasks. As an example, we have an algorithm stepping through raw GPS data to extract average travel speed per road segment. This was a task that was done manually just five years ago and took endless hours to complete. Now we simply run a script to do the work in the background and anomalies are flagged for inspection.
We also integrated our point of interest research with our GIS data base. This means that our data researchers can insert and edit new points directly to our GIS without having to have any GIS skills per se. We have also enabled our teams to work remotely to an online repository which means that some of our researchers can work from home, remote locations or while on the road.
Our customers would not see these changes and investments however we have increased our capacity to such an extend that we can now tackle very large projects without having to worry about the underlying infrastructure.
During 2015 our mapping team took on the daunting task of integrating all the suburban streets of South Africa into our map. I thought that this would have been an enormous task, taking tears to complete. However I was pleasantly surprised when the team came just six months later to report that the job was done. Now we are on the lookout for places we have missed and where new developments are pooping up. So next time you look at the T4A map in your (South African) town you will notice that the streets are complete. If not we would appreciate a heads up!
Another big project which we could not have handled without this infrastructure is the integration of large point of interest data sets. Our maps are for travellers and the number one question asked by travellers is: “Where do we sleep tonight?” So we started to look at integrating the data sets of booking engines. It is in their interest to get as many of their listings on various platforms and we signed up. What we quickly noticed is that the location data from these sources are not that great and our researchers must verify the location of each new listing entered onto the map. This is aided by a custom web page which brings up all the supporting information required to verify a listing and it is all done online.
There are plenty of room for improvement in the way we allow regular travellers to contribute to the map. Be it new places, updates to existing places, adding photos or reporting errors on roads.
We have launched our Guide App last year and this app is destined to become a data collector as well. The idea is to allow users of the app to easily report errors or new data. This data will be uploaded to our data base and entered as data submissions. This will allow travellers to report problems right there on the spot when you most irritated with it!
We are also looking at ways in which we can allow users of the website map to report problems. We are currently building our new Southern Africa Atlas (a book format). The cartography for this atlas will be published on an internal website for various people to peruse the map and report issues before we finalise the production version for proof reading. The same technology is destined to be used on our web map.
If you read this far, thanks for your interest in the way we work. As you can see there is a lot happening in the background and we are constantly investing in our technology to improve the way we work and ultimately create reliable and up to date travel information.
We left Himeville at the foot of the Drakensberg after a peaceful night’s camping at Goxhill Trout Lodge, situated on a working dairy farm close-by. We were heading for the famous Sani Pass and then Lesotho. I was particularly excited as it would be my first visit to either and we were hoping to see the remains of snow that had fallen three weeks prior…
It was quick and easy to exit South Africa at the border control at the bottom of the 8km pass. The dry brown grass clad smooth, rounded foothills of the mountains and wooded valleys were spectacular as we ascended, more so because they contrasted with their white snow covered tops.
Signs at the bottom and the top of the pass indicate that only 4WD vehicles are allowed access, and one can imagine that it must be challenging even for these when it is wet or snowy. Indeed travellers have become snow bound as bad weather has suddenly encroached, only to recover their vehicles weeks later – so one should enter prepared with sufficient spares, food, water and warm clothing. Now the pass was dry, rough, rocky and slow, but not difficult to drive.
The views were, however, absolutely breathtaking both looking up the pass and back down to the valleys below.
Even though I’ve heard a lot about Sani Pass, it took me totally by surprise. As we ascended, there were patches of snow next to the road and we passed by an impressive frozen waterfall, where snow melt flowing over rocks by day, froze again at night.
The Lesotho border control is at the top end of the pass where immigration was surprisingly easy. We were stamped in without having to fill in any forms and only had to pay a R30 vehicle fee, without showing any vehicle registration papers.
Very exciting for me, the top of Sani Pass was almost completely covered in snow and the wind that swept over the highest pub in Africa (at 2 874m) was icy cold.
In recent years, Chinese construction firms have tarred a network of roads across this mountain kingdom and as we headed north-west on one of these, the newly completed A1, we could see traditional thatched roofed stone huts and their hardy herdsmen wrapped in blankets on horseback.
It was good to make our way slowly up and down the soaring slopes with their sweeping bends, where the snow gave way to golden brown grasses as we temporarily descended from the high ground around the Sani Pass. This part of Lesotho is rural, undeveloped and, apart from the snow, very dry at this time of year.
Next, as we approached the Maluti Mountains, with the road rising to heights of around 3 200m, the landscape turned into a white fairy tale world and at times one lane was still deeply covered in snow. We saw half frozen streams and frozen waterfalls next to the road as we headed for New Oxbow Lodge. This was the one night on our trip that we were not going to camp!
On the way we passed the Afriski Mountain Resort, one of the few such resorts in Africa, and we could see skiers gliding down the single, straight track. This run, which must seem quite simple to experienced overseas skiers, used to European and US ski resorts, still provided lots of fun for locals.
The next morning we descended Moteng Pass to lower ground where we saw more signs of agricultural activity, although all the crops were harvested. The landscape which is dry and brown at this time of year, was dotted with houses amongst the beautiful sandstone rock formations.
We left Lesotho at the Caledonspoort border post, in drive-through ‘McDonalds’ style. Without even exiting the vehicle, we had our passports stamped from inside a little window at the side of the border control gate. In spite of what I had read about rather extensive Lesotho border regulations, these were the easiest border crossings I have ever been through in Africa.
With 7 000km to cover in our five week trip, we only skirted the eastern side of Lesotho, but our two day visit was well worth it. Next time I’d like to experience more of the natural beauty and culture of this little kingdom. If you look at the Lesotho tourism website, you will realise that it has a lot more to offer!
Having a valid passport and the necessary visas are two of the foremost requirements for any traveller. Apart from the annoyance of applying for visas, it can also be costly and hence African overlanders will be happy to hear that an African Union passport which will give them access to 54 countries is under way.
The dream of having one passport that will allow African citizens to travel the continent visa-free is one step closer to realisation with the new electronic African Union passport that was presented to the incoming chairperson of the AU and the Rwandan president at the African Union (AU) Assembly held in Kigali in July 2016.
The aim of the AU is to allow African citizens visa-free travel within their own continent by 2020, which is in line with the African Development Bank’s (ADB) plans to abolish visa requirements for all Africans by 2018 – a move which would aid business and overall travel on the African continent.
However, travellers should not get too excited as this passport, which will have inscriptions in five languages (English, French, Arabic, Portuguese, and Swahili) is still a long way from being accessible to Joe Public.
Although the passport is currently exclusive to government heads and diplomats, the AU says it is here to stay. Non-dignitaries will have to be patient, however, and it remains to be seen if this idea comes to fruition.
Interim actions to ease travel regulations
The long term aim of the African Union is to promote a self-reliant continent and countries such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Ghana have taken the lead in easing their visa requirements.
Apparently Kenya is also in the process of easing visa regulations for most travellers, to enhance tourism in the country. The country also launched e-visas for UK and Irish travellers in July last year and discussions regarding regulations between Kenya and SA officials took place in July this year. One of the decisions taken to ease travel regulations was to issue three year multiple entry visas for frequent travellers. Visa service fees have also been decreased by more than R300.
The East Africa visa which is valid in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda is another good initiative to open up Africa but some have found that it is not that practical, as it isn’t available at all border posts.
Free movement of people on the continent can indeed create a “strong, prosperous and integrated Africa”, but it also may have disadvantages. Increasing terrorism is a real issue and the absence of strict immigration rules may aid the migration of terrorists across the continent. Also, there is the fear that non-nationals will take jobs that could have gone to local citizens, apart from the loss of government revenue from visa applications. However, for the overland traveller, any efforts to reduce visa red tape and promote friendly and welcoming immigration officials will be welcomed.