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South Africa – 2016

Sunday evening, we arrived at the Virgin check-in two hours ahead with the kid’s birth certificates, a new SA requirement. Williams was an abridged version which didn’t have his parents’ names on and this we were told was unacceptable. So Mary and Katy swiftly jumped in a minicab and headed for home. I stayed with the luggage and a bewildered William, trying to be calm and collected, they had only an hour to get home find the full birth certificate and get back to check in the luggage. The minicab could only collect from the car park and took 15-20 mins to get to the tunnel. Once at home they couldn’t find it, so we had to call off flying that night. It then took an hour or so to negotiate an alternative with Virgin on the assumption we would find the certificate. I was rather uncomfortable as Kingston Council was not open until Tuesday and it seemed to take two days from order to delivery, gulp! There was no space the following night to Jo’burg or for the onward flight to Cape Town, so we waited and waited for Virgin to come up with an option, I kept quiet not daring to let on I was a travel agent or had worked for an airline, we find it’s often better to let them get you out the problem.

While we waited I stood loitering near the supervisor’s desk while William used many of the Nigerians and their vast baggage as Islands in his imaginative slalom race, too and from the toilets. It could have ended in disaster but didn’t. Thankfully having emptied every drawer and box in the house, Mary did find the original birth certificate, which meant a sigh of relief, at least we knew we were going at some point. I was told they had 5 others that day denied boarding, one had come from America.

We were left with no alternative but to be booked on Tuesday night’s flight and then have a long layover from 1000 to 1600 hrs, in Johannesburg, arriving Wednesday evening in Cape Town. Thankfully no cost to change. William and I then played a small Christmas present card game. Mary and Katy collected us and we were back at about 2230 hrs, with a swift supermarket sweep to get milk n bread, I managed to blag my way into the closed shop based on the sob story.

We had planned three full days in Cape Town before heading along the coast, with one day as a buffer to get from Cape Town to Hermanous, it’s only 1.5 hrs, and we could decide then if we went in the morning or afternoon. We’ll now have a full day to go around the Cape and see the penguins on Boulder Beach, with the New Year’s Eve picnic concert that night. We will then still have the rest of the next day for a Table Mountain or other things before heading east along the coast late afternoon. We, therefore, have lost only one full day, which made it all palatable.

I have found a water park just 11 miles from Jo’burg airport, so should have from 1100 until 1400 hrs for a splash around, which the kids are very thrilled with, quite a positive angle. We had a very relaxed day back in Kingston in the sunshine, and are looking forward to the trip still.

Katy drove her new car again down to Ham and we all went for a muddy walk along the towpath to Richmond. The only sadness is we ate all the turkey leftovers a few days ago. Late afternoon we shuttled the luggage down to near the bus station in the Bongo and then trundled them towards the 285 with trepidation. Thankfully the sales shoppers were few and far between, so there was no problem with getting the bags on the bus, my concern. Having spent a lot on mini cabs, in the end it was a good saving. All was well at check-in this time and we had a nice meal prior to boarding. Unfortunately, once on board, the calm was shattered by a lady having a right old argument in the back rows, screaming “don’t talk to me like that”. In the end, she stomped off jumping into any available seat, which in most cases had the genuine owners turn up at some point, so in the Engels crew intervened her darting around the cabin.

I was a bit groggy so made the point of not livening myself up with a film or plastic food, I managed to get a decent amount of sleep, in contrast to the other three curled up together, in their marathon fidget. On arrival, we checked in the luggage for the onward flight and took clearly now a very overpriced cab to what turned out to be the end of the runway, for the waterpark. It was no Wet n Wild, quite a low-key park, a bit like Hampton pool with undulating lawns, packed full with locals, camped out with wonky leaning over gazebos and BBQs, there was hardly a free inch of grass. Despite the freezing water, it was a charming place to spend an hour and a half. We had a brief swim, a good paddle and plenty of plane spotting, a huge 1970s glass-nosed Russian transport was the highlight for me. The others getting their first taste of Africa’s inability to organise the simplest hamburger stall it seemed to take them half an hour and the Lind wasn’t that long.

Back in time plenty of time. The domestic flight had us separated, but a spot of negotiation by Mary had some passengers swapping seats to get the kids together. Mary was in front of me and snoozed her way across SA, I had an elderly widow who kept tapping my arm to me tell me her family history. I should have got my earphones out before getting on board.

Hertz kept us waiting about an hour, they didn’t have the car we ordered and having tried to squeeze our luggage into a flash Merc, we gave up and were given a loaner minibus, not dissimilar to the Bongo, the plan is to swap it the next day for an SUV. We have left a few messages for them and are happy with it, I am not sure they will get their finger out and actually make the swap. William likes to sit way back in the third row and seems way off.

Pleasantly surprised with the hotel and delighted to find Nelson Mandela had opened it in 1998. I expect he liked the big buffet breakfast too. We had an evening meal here outside, a bit chilly and then to bed.

Despite the reluctant crew, off we went to drink in some scenery, the kids were impressed with Camps Bay basking in the sunshine, Houte Bay and the winding road of Chapman’s Peak. On the other side as we came downhill we spotted the crisp white sugar sand of Noordhoek, so diverted off to see it. It was a bit blustery and the water was painfully cold, but we had a great time trying to coordinate some aerial photography. Then with a few wet pants, we left for the other side of Cape and Boulders Beach the penguin’s home. Some tremendous icecreams were purchased prior to arrival. All were rather surprised at just how small the birds were and the fact that they stood still, not like Happy Feet at all. The highlight was seeing two nuns and trying to get a photo of the penguins and the nuns together, not a success. We returned to Camps Bay to trudge up and down the beachside restaurants for lunch, we finally found a room at the far end of the prom, and we walked back along the lawns by the beach edge, where various props had been set up just for us, perhaps? Eve We then headed back to the hotel for a swim in the busy and uncomfortably murky pool, with its slither of a sea view.

We didn’t have much time, a brief supermarket sweep into SPA to collect a picnic and then off to Kirstenbosch Botanical gardens for our New Year’s Eve picnic concert. We, unfortunately, met with Cape Towns’ longest traffic light, that almost was in its own time zone. As we drove up to the gardens on the other side of Table a Mountain, the nearby roads were chock full of parked cars, but it was rather spooky as we went in and the main car park was almost empty. We could hear thousands of voices that lead us through the twilight to the grassy bowl that was to be the venue. Took some time to find a bare spot of grass for us to squeeze into. The first night we were a bit tired and cold eating outside, so had to take lots of layers this time, but it was lovely and warm, they were not needed. The band was Grassy Sparks, which were ok, nothing special, so left a bit early to avoid the crowds and find out way back through the pitch-black gardens to the car park, few others were stupid enough to have parked so far away, DOH! Avoidance was made as to the big question, are there wild animals within the gardens? For the first time, all of us were up when the new year ticked over, Mary wasn’t as sleepy this time! We had a game of cards and then you could hear cheering nearby and a few fireworks.

The year got off to a great start, I had not set the alarm, it was only 9 am, so we had slept in, a bit of a shame as the plan was to get a few things done. Instead, we took a leisurely paced Nelson Mandela celebration buffet breakfast. The morning was to be at Table Mountain, not having got up due to high winds, twenty-plus years ago. Trip advisor had suggested that parking was a nightmare and at £5 each way in a taxi was a less stressful way after 20 mins wait, the ordered taxi had not arrived and the line had grown, so we drove. We did have to park someway along the road, but it was not a big issue. Having booked online (it gives you a 7-day window) we jumped a vast line, and a little bit of a wait had us up in about 30 mins. The gondola’s floor rotates so go get a good view at one point and a much-appreciated blast of breeze as you come past the open windows. Clear bright blue skies above us and not a spec of shade, but the spectacular views made it a worthwhile trip. A couple of chaps stood on a big rock having photos taken of each other, much to the worry of Mary. Once back at more like ground level, we were too hot and bothered to make the planned shopping expedition to the Victoria and Alfred Docks for a Republic of South Africa football top, for you know who, so headed off east towards Hermanus. The drive was simple, with a huge pass to climb out of the mountains. As part of the adventure, we headed to a petrol station and bought sausage rolls for lunch, which turned out to be an acquired taste, which we didn’t acquire, they were dire. With the rolls still ringing in our mouths, we arrived at our B&B, the first impression of which was that it was isolated and out of town. On the pristine side, it was next to the police compound and ended up just over a five-minute walk to the waterfront. There were five bedrooms set around a small plunge pool and a veranda, almost like a Roman villa. It was charming, with heavily padded seats and loungers. All guests were European, everyone left windows and the French door was left open to catch the breeze and lounged around reading. A delightful and relaxing place when the kids were not crashing around the pool.

We dressed up for dinner and self-consciously walked into town, making a note to catch a taxi back. Despite it being New Year’s Day, many shops and restaurants were closed. We spent some time wandering around choosing which we fancied, but the first said there were full, this was the case with the second and third, at this point we were worried and hungry. In the end, we came to a first-floor bar/ restaurant that was belting out soft rock, with the only oh here option of dining with crisps, we entered and they had a table. Pleasantly surprised as the band was one chap, who was into a few poppy ’80s and 90’s numbers and thankfully it was a Phil Collins-free zone. The food was good and with some wine and two courses it was £27, we averaged £25-32 for dinner! On the way back we made a booking for the following night at The Cattle Barron, no guesses needed as to what they served. It being dark, us fortified with some local wine and few people around, we felt less self-conscious in our glad rags so walked home. As ever the kids had a swim around the pool before bedtime. A note was stuck to the door from Hertz in response to my messages, saying they would come and swap the cars at 8am the next morning.

I was woken at 645 am by tapping at the door, it was the deeply unhappy landlady in her spectacular dressing gown. Hertz had arrived earlier than expected. I came out to the rather stunned Hertz chap, who when I pointed out he was early, put his head down and waved his hands, the landlady had clearly expressed her views on this when he rang the doorbell. He took the minivan and left a RAV4 SUV, which looked as if it would accommodate the luggage much better than the Merc saloon. I went to bed but the image of the landladies dressing gown still haunted me. After breakfast we headed back into town, as part of the continued plan of winning friends and influencing people, I pressed the button which activated the enormous iron gate and simultaneously, the landlady charged across the courtyard to grab her cat sleeping happily in the alcove where the ton of steel was bearing down on it. One of its nine lives gone.

The plane to stay in Hermenous was to see the whales, although we knew the season ended mid-December we had assumed the would be a few around for us to take a boat trip out to sea to see. This was not the case, they had gone three weeks before, this coincided with the shark season and the whale mothers and calves make a hasty retreat. We, therefore, had a relaxing day ahead to amuse ourselves. The town was transformed and was lively with the shops open. A few purchases were made by the others including a skateboard by William. When Mary and I had come twenty years ago, we went for a meal with Neil and Julia at a restaurant in a cave on the cliffside, so we went to look for it. We came across a huge and rather dilapidated saltwater bathing pool, full of shells and seaweed. We had a pleasant half-hour paddling here, trying not to slip over and watching some others play a ‘Total Wipeout’ like the game, running up and down what was left of the sea wall, avoiding the waves crashing against it and along it, like a Mexican Wave.

We headed down some steep steps to the cave, only to find it was ‘drinks only’ and not lunch so we sat waiting for ages for a drink. They had a huge flat slab of rock just above the waves and on there were large blue bean bags and parasols, unfortunately, these were occupied by the town’s beautiful people and immediately in front of their slightly too loud sound system, which meant us old farts sat to the side, bagging a brief photo opportunity (see Mary fainting death in one shot) when the others left. Fortune lay there was a more gentle set of steps for our exit as we aimed towards a lunch venue. Yet again we found restaurants were full, despite many more being open and after visiting quite a few we were getting despondent and couldn’t believe it had happened to us again. Thankfully we odd get a table at a trendy tapas bar, it was a small open-sided building, and the edges were ringed with a fine water mist to keep it cool, food was good, but service was grave. The TV has the cricket on, which kept William amused. The
 afternoon was very relaxing and spent around the pool, the kids were submerged in the water and we were submerged in our books. A good antidote to the previous two days racing around Cape Town. The dinner was very relaxing having made a booking, we sat outside playing games on a roofed picnic table, I foolishly underestimated the steak size and went for a 200 gram, which I was later told was for the ladies and it would be a very small lady too, I should have gone for 400, or as the big farm boys take a 500 gram. Nice but left wanting more. On our return to the B&B the kids had their religious dip in the pool before bed. The bedrooms only had fans and the kid’s was especially hot, so glad in some ways it was to be our last night in this stuffiness.

All the luggage fitted, but as we drive away, the imperial landlady motioned us back, as I had let William’s new skateboard roll under the car, phew! The main road east was a single carriageway with a thick yellow line and then a wide lay-by, which those kinder drivers in a slow vehicle pulled into to let the faster cars pass, or as a pedestrian path often 3 deep and sometimes for just general commercial purposes such as a fruit stall Steeper uphill sections grew a second lane, but often overloaded cars didn’t have enough power to overtake the trucks or pride to pull in behind them, leave one line of frustrated straggler behind them. On the long straights, I often has to poke a head out to see if the other direction was clear! Usually, not, it didn’t make for a relaxing journey, at least the sat nav was on my side.

After a shitty three and a half hours we arrived at the coast again, this time the Indian Ocean. Tom Tom directed us to a beachside car park in Mossel Bay. We had to pass through Check Point Charley and guards armed with clipboards, to ensure no one got in with booze. We were the only whites here, it was a charming little cove, with views of the not-especially-attractive resort in the distance. The thatched cafe supplied Mary and me with bacon and banana toasties, a yummy combo we’d never tried before. Miraculously we survived, the cafe looked like a micro biotic test lab.

We didn’t stop in George, on hindsight I wish we did and cruised through what seemed a closed Knysna( it was a Sunday), we ignored signs to the quayside, but have since heard how delightful that on the island in the estuary is a silly omission, but a good excuse to return someday. In a town between here and Plettenberg Bay, we stopped at traffic lights adjacent to a classic car showroom, it came as a surprise and I wished I had gone for a poke around, I clocked my first car my Nanna’s Austin 1100) as well as Mg’s, big Healeys and what looked like 60’s racers. I’ll have to Google it.

On the outskirts of Plett we came past a wolf sanctuary, speeding past I caught out the side of my eye a large white animal, so exclaimed look at the size of that wolf! Katy in no uncertain terms advised me it was a horse, subsequent horse sightings were therefore deemed wolves. The GPS brought us in via some charming grassy suburban lanes that wound around the back of sand dunes. Our smashing lodge sat among many of South Africa’s millionaire summer houses, some amazing-looking buildings, many like a James Bond villains lair. The Robberg Beach Lodge looks down on the dunes and along the coast. It took our breath away, the decor was dead slick, with whites, greys, creams and much blond driftwood artistically attached to any frame they could find. This was a collection of houses and our adjacent rooms were in a small line called Cottage Pie, with a veranda and a small pool, which got a lot of use from us. That afternoon we headed to the beach, a two-minute walk across the dunes. Due to the rip tides, there are only slim areas to bathe in, but this was not an issue. Amazing the difference a day’s drive makes, from the foot-numbing cold of the Cape’s South Atlantic to Pletts deliciously warm Indian Ocean, it seemed a warmer see than in Majorca last summer. The waves were huge and body surfing was extremely easy, we all had a fantastic time, even Mary flashing the odd boob post-tumble. The hotel said that as it was peak week they doubted any restaurants would have space so suggested we aim for one that didn’t take reservations, so at 6 pm we headed in convoy by taxi with a Swedish family. The driver was a black fella who ran a restaurant and was helping out a friend as a driver, very articulate, we had a long and interesting talk about life in SA and the shame of my women’s size steak. The Lookout stood on the sand and was very popular, the kids played below while Mary and I interrogated the Swedish lady for an hour before we got a table on the deck, it was twilight as we got the news that the kitchens were overloaded and it would be 45 mins to an hour before food would be served. Given the investments already made in time, we stayed with it, but astonishingly it was another two hours before we demoralised diners had our food, the kids were great considering the time we were there. Our tuna steaks were lovely for a few minutes before getting cold swiftly and the atmosphere wasn’t perfect as we were surrounded by lots of tipsy and loud groups. We headed back for the inevitable dip in the pool and were shortly followed by the livid Swedish family.

Started slowly with the inevitable dip by the kids, sea kayaking was out due to strong winds, so the morning was spent on the beach in the surf. To try and avoid another ‘Dinner Gate’, we went into town for a big lunch and then to get supermarket supplies for a beach picnic that evening. Plett is a strange layout, our side was dunes chic high-quality houses before you came to the town sat on either side of an estuary. The main centre was the other side and on a hillside, with steep wooded slopes down to relatively small beaches and rocky outcrops. We ended up at a swish pizza restaurant on the hilltop with views out into the bay. We sat in a booth near the open sides and enjoyed some spectacular pizzas, bacon, banana and avo were on offer and I had a delicious Brie and cranberry. On the continued hunt for a South Africa official football shirt, we headed for an out-of-town mall at looked like it had been shipped straight from America. As usual only adult shirts, so he made up for the disappointment, by buying some new ‘a bit too big for now’ footy boots for later in the year at £20 roughly half price, the girls bought a bit too and me some £1.50 shirt for the safari. Not so much fun was the supermarket sweep for the next two days of picnics. The afternoon had yet another pool splash for the kids and then to the beach for a picnic. The kids went off for a walk and chat and a number of people stood pointing out to the sea, we think they saw dolphins, but we couldn’t. The sun tends to set swiftly, so we went marching up the beach and met them on the way back, yet another pool dip before bed.

We had booked an Ocean Blue Sea Safari, which promised that we would see seals, possibly dolphins and with a small chance of whales. The constant pressure of Katy’s request for a lie-in meant a slightly later breakfast and the inevitable dip in the pool before heading into town at about 11 am. Having given Tom Tom the day off, my poor map reading had us park at an adjacent beach. With a short walk along to Central, which would have been ok if it was not for the superheated sand, even with flip flops it was at a foot-burning temperature requiring an embarrassing sprint to the water edge. The boat was a large 30-40 foot glass fibre catamaran with 5 rows of seats facing forward, a flying bridge at the back and s spitting bridge above. This was sat on a large trailer parked on the sand, we boarded up a ladder. Hold on tight they said as a large tractor then roared into life and fished us towards the water at a rapid rate, once in the water at trailer night it jammed on its breaks shooting us forward and launching us spectacularly into the sea with a great bow wave, just like a lifeboat. This was the highlight of the trip. Under bright blue skies, we roared off along the shore eventually passing our hotel. The very bouncy ride had William feeling green despite half of one of her travel-sick tablets. After 10-15 mins we came across the rocky headland to the right side of Plettenberg Bay and the 50,000 seal colony. What a noise, what a pong. We were very close with lots on the rocks, some asleep some barking away, but the vast majority seemed to be in the water, laying flat with their heads down and one or two flippers in the air like a sail to keep cool.  After 10-15 mins the boat headed across the bay and into open water it became a bouncy ride, William, like most, dozed off in the sun and the rhythmic beat of the boat. All of the family of five in front of us nodded off. No dolphins or whales were spotted on the half-hour across, we then turned left and followed the coast back to base, another half-hour of zero sea mammals. Not a particularly great trip but the seals were fun. I wouldn’t bother again.

We all had a brief dip in the sea, then cautiously ate our picnic under the evil eyes of the seagulls who were just a little too close for our comfort. So back to the pad, for the inevitable dip in the pool and the test drive of my £4 boogie board in the surf. What a laugh, William and I had great fun. Katy’s face was a little burnt so found the salt was sore and was therefore at the water’s edge. She spotted near her feet what looked like bits of litter and a lad next to her said to watch out for those Blue Bottles they are nasty and promptly ground it into the sand with his flip flop. Almost immediately she felt a stabbing pain in her foot, there clearly was another in the surf. Mary used a towel to scrap off the string-like tentacles and a lady next to us suggested she get a lifeguard, while this was going on William raced into the sea to collect me, at that precise point the string on the boogie board snapped and it sailed into William’s arms. The lifeguard said the venom was considerably more painful than a jellyfish and would be severe for 15 min to an hour, the best pain suppressant was to wee on it but Katy did seem that enthusiastic with that suggestion, the second best was to immerse it in as hot a water as you could stay and the back up was vinegar of which he had a bottle and liberally doused it. Katy was naturally in tears and said it was much worse than a bee sting or the weaver fish sting shed had a few summers ago near Lymington. The vinegar didn’t seem to be helping this much, so we hobbled back to the hotel a couple of minutes away and had her foot in a nice hot bath for an hour and a half.  Having now google bluebottles they appear to be common in South Africa and around e Indian Ocean! The smaller cousins of Portuguese Men of War, have air sacks that keep them afloat and are not the same as jellyfish and require different. Approaches to getting stung. That evening we had managed to book a table at a restaurant so reluctantly she came out of the bath and was feeling better with a cocktail of painkillers in her and a foot smothered in sting ointment. Back on Central Beach Moby Dicks was disparagingly described as a shack on the beach by the hotel and took booking until 630pm, we had a smashing fish meal and Katy was lively and cheerful a nice end to a not especially successful day, except for the great surf. As ever the day was rounded off with a dip in the pool.

Early breakfast and start were needed to get us to the safari lodge before 230 pm, despite the usual stress of getting everyone in the car on time, it was a successful 8:45 am when we reluctantly departed our smashing hotel in a smashing town. The road to Port Elizabeth barely had any curves but it was a pleasant journey with nice scenery at the start and next to no fuel stations. A passing car left a crack in our windscreen, which I’ll have to pay for at some stage. After running parallel with the coast for just under two hours, we refuelled and rounded the uninspiring industrial Port Elizabeth, then headed inland. After an hour we kept passing the entrances of different private safari parks. About the time Katy announced she was feeling sick and came up front to ride shotgun, our Tom Tom, or rather Hertz Tom Tom went doo-lally announcing we should turn left but showing we should go right, despite this being a straight road as far as the eye could see. After a spot of map reading and scratching of the head, we headed down a road to soon find the tarmac disappeared and we were on a very rough dirt track heading across the country past the odd cattle in fields. Fillings were given a good seeing as we rattled along, leaving a pretty impressive red plume of dust high into the air. We came across a large family walking along, not sure where they were going, but they must have come from a long way off. A couple of farmer’s pickup trucks roared past us at least double our speed leaving me in a pinkish fog for some time. I was rather nervous about a puncture, given the rattling we were giving the car, it was a lot less bumpy at what seemed like a scary 40 than trying to take it carefully and slowly, the farmers gave me that idea. After what seemed hours, but was probably 20 mins we popped out and took a bit of road with a huge sense of relief, Adrian in his Landi would probably have covered it ten mins.

We  arrived at  Kariega around 130pm and the guard directed us toward some buildings on a ridge line in the far distance and handed us a sheath of papers. On the short drive, we were amazed at the amount of different antelope that were grazing by the road, it could almost be Richmond Park they were so unfazed by us. A little further was a small group of zebra and as I wound down the window for Katy to take a photo the Sargent Major in the back yelled ‘they are wild animals, we must keep the windows shut and doors locked’. Mary had clearly been scrutinising the papers on the way from the gatehouse. Not quite sure what a zebra would do if they had gained access to the car, nick Katy’s iPhone, watch the kid’s DVD, sing with Mary? Anyway, this gave us some great opportunities to rib Mary about the killer zebras and their fearsome reputation.

After check-in, we drove a few minutes to the main corral, where the lounges, bar, restaurant, shop, pool, gym, spa and chalets are located. Then met our ranger CJ at the restaurant, who gave us a brief briefing, then had lunch before heading to the chalet to unpack and wait for the 4 pm pick-up. We arrived at a huge house, very unexpected, there was a part from the carport (wow) it had a big lounge and kitchen, with a bedroom and bathroom each, that’s three. It was set on the edge of a hill with nice valley views and a deck for the perfect vantage point, with even our own private pool, which the kids naturally jumped straight into. After an unpack we had a nice hour or more around the pool.

JC arrive at 4 pm for our first safari drive in his Toyota Land Cruiser, wot no Land Rover, pha! This had three rows of bench seats, each getting a little higher toward the rear of the truck. In it were two other couples. They knew each other and were part of a group that had come to SA to follow cricket. England was winning at the time so thankfully we hadn’t had to endure a ribbing from the locals. Lots of game as soon as the drive started and within minutes we had come across a couple of white rhinos, we were all rather surprised at how soon we got to see the animals. Rather than a vast national park, Kariegi is a private game reserve and more the size of a county, the variety and amount of game are more concentrated and is one of the reasons they are popular. The area, The Eastern Cape, is famed for elephants and has many parks, it is also malaria free so no pill popping is needed.  This is a wide open grassy savanna, but it’s a hilly terrain with a list of thickets, the tracks winding their way around these. We came across a mother elephant and two calves in the road, munching away at a bush and seemed relaxed in our company. They wandered over for a look and had a sniff of our bumper, it was lovely to be so close, after about 10 mins they meandered off. Later we came across a black rhino on a hillside, my knackered old Le Mans binoculars made all the difference, you could see them ok, but thee meant you could scrutinise them in great detail.

After a couple of hours JC took us to a bald hillock to have drinks and see the sunset, as it seems to set really quickly here. Out he gets his camping table and fills it with beer, wine G&T’s and rich imperialistic titbits, while we chat about what has been seen. Soon Lisa says saying in a charming and quizzical way, ” oo look, have they followed us?”, at which point we all swivel our heads towards the back of the truck. There coming up the hill at a steady pace was clearly not the mother and calf, but rather a large elephant. JC requested that we leave everything and swiftly get back in the truck, sit down and stay quiet. The trucks have a massive bull bar around the front with thick tubes that run along the sides and step up towards the back, they have steps welded on to assist with access. William hops up these like a chimp, but the slower adult not so. Lisa was a large lady and took some time manoeuvring up this climbing frame and was causing rather an obstruction on her side of the vehicle, it was rather like trying to reverse a rhino into the truck and Katy who was waiting for her was getting a little anxious. Roughly the time everyone was sat down the elephant was parallel with us, about 20 ft to the side. KC said that was Charlie and a grumpy teenager and there was nothing to worry about, just stay calm and quiet. Charlie then stopped, clearly upset we were on his hillock, so flapped his ears and gave a litter trumpet, JC was standing and responded with a few ‘get away with you’ like comments and some impressive shoo-ing gestures. Unimpressed with this paltry show, Charlie lunged forward with a mock charge, at which point JC basically responded in the same way, just louder, taller and with Olympic-level flapping of arms, it was only his ear flapping that let him down, Charlie clearly had the advantage on this count. The well ‘ard ginger man in the fashionably short shorts won the day and Charlie began to step away. Be clearly had second thoughts and turned for a final bellow wanting the last word, but JC’s final shoo-off was the game changer. JC was pumped up and dead excited about the encounter, in contrast, Mary was not so excited and rather anguish as to what the elephant could have done. JC having decided it wasn’t Charlie, as it had a tear in its ear, said there was never any danger, and not everyone was convinced. I did note that JC didn’t hang around re-packing the table and refreshments. I have a photo of Mary and William standing proud on the truck after this and both in their hats, Mary’s expression is not so much Out of Africa, but get me out of Africa. I can’t recall what else we saw as not-Charlie seemed to dominate our recollections. After three hours we featured straight to the restaurant and as always a great meal, the difference this time as that the word was out and JC who are with us was greeted by many other rangers and congratulated on the encounter, perhaps it wasn’t quite as straight forward as it seemed. I had the encounter on my iPhone until the point Mary expressed some doubt as to the way things were going and Katy had a video of not-Charlie much closer, neither seemed anything as dramatic as we all recalled it. Early to bed in readiness for our 530am wake-up call.

I didn’t have a great sleep, the sound of water requiring me to have a pee, as we were next to the pool I assumed it was a faulty pump, the pool’s not mine, but I realised when answering the wake-up call we were now in a full-blown storm, what a change from yesterday’s weather. It was hard enough getting the others up at 530am let alone the prospect of sitting in an open-top truck for three hours. So when JC arrived we donned his rain capes on top of plenty of layers, it was very chilly. We were the first pickup so the other took the first row with time and me in the second, which had Lisa scowling at Katy at the next stop. It had clearly been raining all night, the roads were streams and it was raining hard, but to lift our spirits there was an amazing number of animals out, much more so that the previous evening. Notable was a large group of giraffes which we stayed with for some time as the gentler meandered around quite happy in our company. We also came across the warthog trotting along the road and we followed him for quite some time, he knew we were there as he kept looking back, but like a middle lane hogger on the M25 wasn’t going to be intimidated, he eventually skipped off into the bush and Pumba immediately became William’s favourite. After a couple of hours, the water had run down seats and necks, and we were all wet cold and miserable, so when we passed near the corral we asked to jump out, leaving the other four who were on a one-night trip to endure another miserable hour, later they said they have seen nothing new and wished they had also bailed out. So bizarrely at 8 am I set the log fire going, William went for his first of many hot baths and we three warmed up in showers and pulled on as many layers as we could find. Breakfast was around 9 am and then we lazed around the huge fireplaces in the open lounge areas, hogging the warmth and wifi. Then returned to the chalet for a while, William for another bath and some premier League on the TV, while the girls went for a massage. After lunch sat again in the lounge and watched the leaky roof drip and fizz onto the hot stone of the fireplace, what a lazy and ultra-relaxing day it was.

By 4 pm when JC came by it had cleared up a bit, not raining but grey.  It was just us now as the others had left, which made it a nicer experience. This was to be a Lion Hunt, Mary wasn’t too thrilled, but off we went to the other side of the game park and as usual, we came across many game. JC then spotted some prints on the road which we followed for some time. With some liaising with other rangers, we came across two male lions lazing around on a grassy hillside overlooking a pool. As we came above them, we met two very red rhinos that had been rolling around in the ochre mud. The view down on the lions wasn’t good, the odd ear and paws sticking up from the long grass. So we took a big detour around the other side of, the pond where the slope faced us. We could see the animals, but it was the binoculars that brought them into fine detail, for me it was have been no great shakes, but being able to see them so clearly made all the difference to me. Despite the distance, Mary was uncomfortable. JC suggested that we come back later and perhaps they will have moved and hopefully, the lions would be in a more visible position. In the meantime, let’s look for the main elephant heard, which AG the time seemed an innocuous plan.

A little drive took us back to the same hillock as last night, then as we came down the other side along a small track, we heard the herd in the undergrowth. What seemed a large elephant emergent as we passed and stood in the track about 100 or more yards behind and we slowed to a stop. A head 100 -200 yards ahead was another truck parked at a bend in the track. Suddenly between them and us trotted a rhino from left to right followed instantly by an elephant’s bello and I assume one from the rhino too, who was soon seen sprinting back from the way he came. The two animals usually don’t have anything to do with each other and are certainly not normally aggressive, but in this instance, the meeting was a surprise for both and reacted in shock, perhaps not to the elephants as there were young with them. A smallish elephant then followed the rhino stopping in the road ahead, making a lot of noise and flapping away with his ears. Simultaneously immediately to outright was an entrance to a clearing and out came another elephant possibly 20 ft away. We were all at this point crouching down, the elephant behind was now also trumpeting away, adding to the drama. The small elephant then became aggressive towards us, CJ said he wanted to get past us and come up the track, which was wide enough but the elephant clearly felt it would impinge on his personal space. By this time Mary was very anxious and asking to get out of there. Finally, the elephant in front walked up past us then turned straight left towards the elephant in front of us, who must have reversed out and was replaced by the enormous matriarch and calf. JC radioed to the truck ahead to give us an escape route and it reversed into the thicket as we bumped our way past.

The sense of relief was brief, after a couple of turns there was a straight section of the track with not-Charlie, yesterday’s villain making steady progress uphill towards us, no doubt having heard all the trumpeting. I then leapt into the back with Mary and William, “you’re all leaving me” exclaimed Katy in her usual understated way. Unhelpfully JC pointed out the curious coincidence that we had met him again, an observation not fully appreciated at the time. The track was steep, winding, rocky and very muddy from a night and day’s worth of rain, added to that the high back of the truck means it’s a wing mirror reverse, a pretty hard manoeuvre even without the incentive of an elephant on the way up. With a request to the other truck to make room in the thicket, we reversed in and sharply parked up next to the other truck, quietly waiting for not-Charlie to reach us. We heard lots of crashing around so assume he headed off the track at some point. In the other truck was a group of Irish and one chap, in answer to Mary’s question “aren’t you scared”, colourfully described the earlier lions, walking in front of their stationary truck and then along its side. So our elephant encounter was ‘small beer’ then? Mary wanted to get out here pretty smart-ish as the herd was all around us. The other ranger said the bottom of the hill was impassable due to the rains, so it was to be up the hill again passing our new friends. So up we went and I noticed it was a tad faster than before, an incident-less escape. Optimistically JC asked us if we wanted to try and find the lions again, Mary was rather unenthusiastic. So off we trundled as far away as JC could go to make us more relaxed. Stopping for the sundowner, a certain passenger refused to get out of the safety of the truck.

We returned to the restaurant for a briar (BBQ) and had lots of meat, some were kudu, a small antelope. JC was despondent when we thought it tasted like a beef stew. After dropping the other back at the chalet, I returned armed with an iPad to try and check us in for the following evening’s flights, once again unable to check us all in, leaving a small amount of nervousness for the next 24 hours.

Katy and me only for the early morning drive, with a jacket, is was warm enough and the sky was clear it was going to be a lovely day. Lots to see, especially giraffe, lots and lots clustered around a thicket, we sat and moved around the group, this was on the edge of some grasslands where many others were making their way across, there was 30 in all and it was lovely in the bright morning light. We also came across a small wildebeest heard with young, then met them later as they ran across us. The main aim of the morning was to try and see a hippo, so we took a meandering track alongside a river, which was full of game, lots of different antelope kept popping out of the thickets. JC also kept popping out the truck, to survey the river at different points. It was a pleasant way to spend the morning in different scenery than we had been used to. After the third or fourth stop, JC ran back saying there was one on this stretch, so we jumped off and follows him down a small bank with hippo prints clear in the mud, but he had gone, and no sign of Mr Hippo. We stayed for a few minutes then with the help of the trusty old binoculars we found a big bump under the trees on the far bank, I was amazed to later see its head appear which was much larger than the little island-like bump sticking out the water. Once again the binoculars gave such a clear view and made all the difference. It then disappeared, although the trail of small bubbles leant you could track its progress to the middle of the river. Another truck arrived JC having advised them, but as soon as they joined us the hippo didn’t resurface and we were left as frauds, but it was clearly them that scared it off. After a few minutes, it resurfaced in the middle of the river this time with a calf, not sure where it had been until then, perhaps hidden on the other side of mum? Again with the aid of the binoculars we had some great views before heading off. Like the sundowner stop in the evening there’s a morning break too and this time the spot he chose was out of a fairy tale. It was at an old stone weir with water cascading over it and with a small ford that we had driven over, the banks rose up either side of the stream with trees at long it, one of which had a family of small monkeys keeping a good eye on us. The truck was parked on a smashing lawn and a giraffe was looking over the trees at us, the subtle morning light was magical and it was warm not yet hot. Life is good and this pretty much perfect scene was even improved upon when CJ got out the coffee and freshly made chocolate muffins. Somehow the conversation turned to lost parents and tattoos, it was lovely to listen to and be with my now grown-up daughter. It was becoming such a nice morning we were all happy that he just meander around. Had an odd giraffe run along the track all straight-legged, boy there are a lot of them at Kariega. There was also a zebra roadblock, thankfully Mary was absent it would have caused great confusion with no windows to wind up.

Despite a search, the one thing we didn’t see was buffalo, not that we were that bothered. It was delightful with Katy, a memorable morning and for us a great finale.

After breakfast, we headed off at about 1030 hrs to go ride an elephant at another place. JC had said he felt their training was cruel so we didn’t talk too much to home about this. We managed to end up at the wrong park, which meant a return trip along a very bumpy road. Katy and I rode them in company with three others as outriders, they were armed with our cameras and had a good stab at trying to use up all the memory, they took hundreds of shoots. After a little show, we went out along a ridge line for tenth mins and back. Unlike Thailand’s wood seats, there was just an old curtain and you balanced on the poor animal’s spine. Much to my embarrassment, I found myself slipping downhill and pressing into the buttocks of the driver, neither of us I think were that comfortable with this. After the ride we filled the animals with bucket loads of animal pellets, some straight into their mouths, some sucked up from our hands with them hoovering up those dropped on the floor.

Off to Port Elizabeth for lunch, we had a smashing fish meal overlooking the beach and elephant-like cranes of the container port. The meal was a nice finale in the sunshine. Katy had been feeling a little unwell that afternoon and was poorly on our arrival at Port Elizabeth Airport. Dropping off the hire car had the added inconvenience of a report due to a stone chip picked up on the main road out of Plettenberg Bay and not on any of the rough tracks. Looks like I’ll be paying for that at some point, but fortunately, Linda convinced me to buy an annual excess car insurance policy before I left. A visit both to the chemist and the gift shop had us equipped with meds for Katy and finally a boy South Africa national team football shop, the last one too. William’s holding has now been deemed a success. Despite being unable to check us all in on both the domestic hop and the international leg, Comair( a BA subsidiary ) did check us all in for both flights, phew!

I sat next to a nice chap on the flight who ran a plumbing firm in Jo’burg and had taken his son to a youth’s golf tournament, having been on a golf course for four days he was almost as red as the Arsenal he had on, he gave William some gentle ribbing about Chelsea, (as usual, at least one part of his outfit was Chelsea kit). This was a very interesting conversation about life here and the various changes taking place now many black people are becoming educated. The other significant element about the flight was the dramatic thunderstorm we landed in, with lots of lightning and very bumpy, Katy was feeling very sick, and all paper bags ast the ready, but unused. By the time we had wound our way through from arrivals to the other departure terminal and security, the Virgin flight was boarding, so no hanging around or window shopping for us. The others were in a centre block of three and me across the aisle. There was a delay before take-off and two rows in front of me was a couple with a toddler who had their own seat but refused to stay sat strapped in and was having a tantrum wriggling out or up clipping the buckle. In the quiet of the cabin the parent’s response to this reached a crescendo and what I assume was the father’s response was shockingly abrupt and way beyond what we think any normal person would deem acceptable. It seemed to be only verbal and not physical but was still inappropriate and abusive. Mary still felt angry on arrival, so she had words with the child’s mother in Heathrow’s toilets.

As you will gather a smashing trip, lots to see and lots of adventure, we all got on well and had plenty of laughs.