/ 16 October 2008

Great expectations

I come from Kagiso on the West Rand, where visiting a game park is considered bourgeois. The irony is that most residents of that township would rather spend their money shopping at the local mall than use it to travel to new places.

But the idea of driving away from the pollution of Jozi to the tranquil wilderness of the Lowveld was a dream come true for me. I had never visited a game park, nor driven such a long distance through the evergreen expanse of northeastern Mpumalanga. I had great expectations.

As we passed through the country­side around Schoemanskloof and flitted past the banana plantations of White River my excitement continued to build. My dream was finding a place of absolute stillness, with no cellphones, radio, TV or internet. I was not disappointed.

Hoyo Hoyo Tsonga Lodge and Hamilton’s Tented Camp in the Mluwati concession are a 50km drive from Kruger Park’s Orpen Gate near Skukuza and once we hit that road we knew we were really close to nature: the first hint was having to pull over several times to make way for sluggish herds of elephant crossing the dirt road.

Our first stop was at Hoyo Hoyo, a down-to-earth, traditional camp, built in the ancient pattern of a Tsonga village. Its six traditionally furnished huts have beautifully embroidered cloths and textiles draping the walls and windows. I was a little disappointed at the absence of the traditional fabric in deep pinks, greens and purples that has been made famous by Tsonga women in their Shibelano dress (designed to make their backsides look bigger).

The stone-walled huts are thatched with straw sourced from female co-operatives in nearby villages.

In my search for the ultimate bush adventure I scorned the jacuzzi as being too lavish and jumped into the outdoor shower. The wildlife roams freely through the camp and my shower took a little longer than expected as I kept being distracted by a troop of baboons that was watching me with as much interest as I was watching it.

Sitting on the front porch of the hut listening to the many and varied calls of birds and insects brought back early childhood memories of rural North West province.

At sunset the Hoyo Hoyo crew announced supper with thudding drums and blasts on a kudu horn. Resident kudu horn-blower and janitor Rogers Mangena began working at Hoyo Hoyo when it first opened in 2003. He says that despite the long hours and time away from his family — he works 21 days in the park and then goes home for seven days — this is his dream job. ”I meet lots of interesting people every day. The bush is peaceful and kind and there is always something interesting happening,” he says.

The next day we set off for Hamil­ton’s Tented Camp, 14km deep into the bush. Named after Colonel Stephenson Hamilton, an instrumental figure in establishing the Kruger National Park, the camp reflects the era of the grand colonial safari adventure. The stylish tents have beautiful polished wooden floors and are decorated with pith helmets, battered trunks and old-fashioned binoculars, playing very much on the Out of Africa theme.

Resident game ranger Armand Minaar welcomed us and gave us a talk on game drive etiquette in prepa­ration for our three-hour drive. I thought of how many times I’d seen this on TV but had not imagined myself actually doing it.

I must confess, however, that I’m a lazy sort of guest and I preferred sitting on the porch outside my tent watching the game flocking to the waterhole.

Hamilton’s manager, Elmarie Gutchmidt, says that while the safari travel industry targets foreign guests, efforts are made to attract local tourists. ”We are trying to attract the local market but we have realised that it is not cheap for them to come up here, so we have introduced some special rates.”

As we packed to go home, I faced the long drive back to Kagiso with dread — how to explain my wonderful experience to people who think game parks are only for the elite? That may have been my one and only chance to visit the Kruger Park, but I’m going to keep spreading the word and encourage as many of my family and friends to visit this fantastic national treasure.

Monako Dibetle was a guest of Hoyo Hoyo and Hamilton’s Tented Camp