Take walk on the wild side by sampling rich rewards of South Africa's far north
Easier to get to than ever, there's much to explore in South Africa, whether it's wildlife or beaches you're after. Sean Sheehan spurns the well-worn tourist trails to sample both
TRAVEL to South Africa can have a narrow focus: laid-back lounging in the Western Cape – the Winelands, Cape Town – and safaris in the vast savannahs of Kruger National Park. But the country’s tourist landscape enjoys a far broader and varied sweep.
What used to be called Northern Province is now Limpopo, named after the river which forms South Africa’s borders with Zimbabwe and Botswana. It’s a relatively remote and niche region for thrill-seeking souls wishing to go off-piste.
Limpopo is bisected by the N1 highway, shooting northwards from Johannesburg, but it’s easier to fly to Polokwane and collect a car rental at the airport. Polokwane was founded by Boer colonists who migrated in this direction during the Great Trek, seeking to escape British rule in the Cape. They called the town Pietersburg and it became one of the first places in the country to change its name after the fall of apartheid.
Polokwane has good mid-range accommodation and an attractive restaurant, Ambiance, with a catholic menu and outdoor tables under jacaranda trees. It also boasts a municipal wildlife reserve, providing a low-key introduction to South African wildlife for safari rookies.
The Soutpansberg mountains dominate Limpopo and as you travel further north the diverse flora makes its presence felt: impressive, long-living baobab trees are everywhere and baboons truffle for their fallen fruit by the roadside. Avocado, citrus and macadamia orchards are common sights and the scenery feels far from stereotypically African.
With over 600 of South Africa’s 900 bird species to be found here, packing binoculars and a bird guidebook is no bad idea. In the course of a one-night stay at the H12 Leshiba reserve, an African paradise flycatcher conveniently perched itself on a branch, thoroughly vindicating its name; identifying common species like this and the crimson-breasted shrike, astonishingly vivid with its scarlet colouring, is an easy pleasure.
On an evening game drive, there should be no problem, either, spotting some of the half dozen rhinos that inhabit H12 Leshiba’s 2,500 hectares of land. From a table on the terrace under an olive tree, you look across at a distant watering hole; signposted walking paths bring sightings of wildebeest, zebras, warthogs and giraffes.
The border crossing with Zimbabwe, which the N1 road leads to, is a mundane affair compared to viewing the point where the three countries of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe all meet. The place is the confluence of the Limpopo and Shasi rivers and from a observation site in Mapungubwe National Park you can look across to Zimbabwe and Botswana. Neither river is a raging torrent but the scene evokes Rider Haggard and 19th-century tales of daring exploration.
From Polokwane it is possible to fly south in half a day to an altogether different face of the country: Zululand. With a rented car at either Richard Bay or Durban airport you are straight on to the N2 and heading up the coast and through rolling green hills into countryside that has yet to benefit from the prosperity that remains so unequally divided across South Africa.
It takes about two hours to reach Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, a huge area of land covering nearly 100,000 hectares. There is more than one entrance but Nyalazi Gate is the one from the south and, once inside the park, there are signposts to the various places to stay.
Hilltop Camp, with various accommodation options, has been a favourite base for many visitors but it’s in need of refurbishment. Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge is more upmarket and staying here one night is tempting. Its elevated position guarantees stirring views of the surrounding hills from the from the chalets’ wooden decks and the platform that stretches the length of the main building.
Game drives are a standard feature wherever you stay in the park but for a full-on wildlife encounter your own two feet take you into the bush looking for white rhinoceros.
Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge has guided safari walks and this this means setting off at 05.30 in the company of a barefooted, dreadlocked guide and two armed companions.
No rhino has ever been shot on these walks but safety is a factor; the reward for two hours of creeping around following tracks is an adrenalin high from getting within 10 metres of – after elephants – the world’s biggest land mammal. Weighing in around 2,000kg and standing 1.8m at the shoulder, the rhinos have brought poachers into Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and your car boot will be searched on leaving the park.
Durban’s high-rise seafront is the big draw with party-minded South Africans but more sedate spots can be found between the city and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
Convenient for the grandly named King Shaka International Airport (15 minutes away), there is accommodation with its own eye-catching name: Beverly Hills Hotel.
The chutzpah in the hotel’s name partly redeems itself when a car jockey whisks away your vehicle. It’s not Los Angeles but the hotel does face an ocean, the beach is on your doorstep and a pool is on the premises; outdoor breakfast on the terrace invites contemplation of the Indian Ocean.
The hotel’s restaurant makes a fitting end to an adventurous holiday that explores Limpopo and the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. Classical music plays in the background, starters include local oysters in Champagne sauce, while at your table prawns are flambéed in cognac and cream. A three-course meal will cost under £30 and a decent bottle of South African wine around £12.
:: London-Johannesburg, non-stop with South African Airways is from £725; daily flights connect Johannesburg with Polokwane (£133 with Airlink); Polokwane to Richards Bay is via Johannesburg (£218 with Airlink and Express); Durban to Johannesburg is £91 with South African Airways. Car hire costs around the same as it would back home.
:: Two people sharing at H12 Leshiba (leshiba.co.za), full board and including a game activity, is £360; at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge (rhinoridge.co.za), full board and game activities (guided safari walks are extra; home stays can also be arranged), £350. Beverly Hills Hotel (tsogosun.com/beverly-hills) from £260.
:: Some travellers prefer tour packages but your own web research should lead to an itinerary that suits different budgets and interests; helpful is Rough Guide’s new edition of their South Africa guide.
:: For more information visit southafrica.net