The night before our final day in the bush, Bennett, the hyper-intelligent lodge guide who'd picked me up from the airport on my first day with a "Duncan Reyneke" sign and the most comprehensive set of random facts about everything (see part one of this story for more on Bennett), had showed up at camp! Aside from being an Outlook Lodge resident, driver, and collector of factoids about the city of Johannesburg and its outlying areas, Bennett was also, by all accounts, our ride home in the morning. I felt certain he would know literally everything about the ride home...
The long wave goodbye
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________Bennett had us up and ready, packed and caffeinated at 5:30 AM. No one was impressed, but with hot bellies full of fresh coffee, we piled our kitbags into the back of the lodge Kombie which he had driven through the night before, and, in the steadily growing daylight, set out into the park for one more drive before beginning our long drive back to Johannesburg.
(Readers should keep in mind that the trip back from a tour such as this is made significantly longer by the addition of the fantastic panorama route detour, which adds around three hours to the Kruger-JHB drive. You should keep this in mind because I didn't, and figuring out you might end up late for your return flight on the morning of your departure is concerning.)
Bennett assured me he had my airport drop off "waxed", though, so in the rumbling passenger seat of the sixteen-seater combi, I kicked up my feet and watched as the extremely green Skukuza lowveld trundled past. The sun was out in between scattered clouds that day, leftovers from a light rain we'd had during the evening, and the park looked greener than it had the entire time we'd been out there. Largely driving in silence, my usually chatty group watched the rolling landscape for signs of movement, our eyes slightly more trained than when we'd arrived. Our keenest observations, however, proved pointless, as the animals we encountered on our way out were all crossing the one road we drove. Vultures and marabou stork loped across the sky, casting shadows over a lone chameleon, grey in colour as it crossed the hot tarmac. This little guy was probably the most ridiculous creature we'd seen anywhere in the bush - it stood in the middle of the road, not daring to move a muscle lest its new audience see it - instead, it swayed steadily, back and forth, as if doing its best impression of a concrete, bug-eyed leaf caught in a gentle summer breeze. Nothing at all to be suspicious of.Additionally, we spotted zebra, giraffe, four lions (two male, two lionesses) and some final elephant (in addition to the by-this-time-not-that-exciting-anymore impala).
Two hours later, we'd left through the Phabeni Gate, and made our way to the sleepy town of Graskop to fill up the combi and stop for breakfast. Little did I know that what I was about to eat would change my taste in breakfast foods, forever, and irrevocably. The silver spoon cafe was where we stopped, a small restaurant on one of the town's main streets, specialising in pancakes. Scanning the menu, I knew immediately what I wanted. Twenty minutes later, it arrived -
Banana. Marshmellow. Pancakes.
(that's right - you heard me)
I don't think I will ever eat anything that good again in my life. From here, it was a swift ride through to our first stop along the panorama route, the breathtaking Lisbon Waterfalls. Cascading impressively down a 92 m drop, the Lisbon river creates the area's highest waterfall here, a stunning, crystal clear spectacle that had the group standing at the rails, mouths agape, while vendors eagerly set up their stalls along the path back to our vehicle, in preparation. The area is loud, chilly, and extremely impressive to take in, regardless of how early it is.Next up was a trip to an incredibly commanding natural sight - stretched and carved out of a section of the Drakensburg, we rumbled to a stop alongside the Blyde River Canyon. 26 km across at its widest points, and measuring on average 800 m deep, the canyon is comprised predominantly of striking red sandstone, and is the third largest in the entire world! Finding yourself on the edge of this beast, railing or no, one has to fight to maintain their sense of balance, but the trade off is a majestic, airy vision that takes in literally your entire field of vision at most points. This was by far the most impressive of the Panorama sites, and I can still feel the sense of standing there as I write this.
Before making our way back to Benoni and the lodge, Bennett steered the van around to the last of our Panorama detours - the quaint and historic Pilgrim's Rest. This ex gold mining town has been set aside as a historical landmark, dating back to times of the gold rush in South Africa. Wandering for half an hour through the uneven streets, we passed through and around old post-offices, an antique car museum (the gleaming grills of ancient Fords glinting dully from inside the doorway) and various authentic stalls, museums, and historic recreations in the now dappled mid-day sun. Here, there was a true sense of the history of this area, and the progression of the rest of my country, and it was great to discuss this with my group, all foreigners, as we made our way out and back onto the main road home._______________________________________________________________________________________________________Five hours later I was boarding my flight back, and the heat, veld and khaki of the bush became a ringing in my ears that I appreciated very much, making my way through the bells, metal detectors, ticket counters, baggage carousels, and arrivals lounge of Cape Town international at 11PM that last night.I would like to take this time to thank Carien, Sarah, Oliver, Ric, Bennett, Leonard, and the staff at both Outlook Lodge and Skukuza Rest Camp, for putting me out into the bush, and putting the city slicker in me in his place with a wonderful three day safari. It was an awesome experience, and if you haven't tried it, it's time you looked into it.