Kruger National Park – a 21 day amazing adventure

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Kruger National Park: 1st camp – Letaba, 2nd camp – Shingwedzi. 3rd camp – Olifants, 4th camp – Satara, 5th camp – Orpen, 6th camp – Skukuza and 7th camp Lower Sabie.

A life time dream was about to be fulfilled as we winged our way over the antarctic ice in a Qantas 747 on the way to Kruger National park via Johannesburg, South Africa.  Twenty-one days in Kruger watching wild animals doing their thing in their natural surroundings!!! Bring it on!

We had an overnight stop close to the airport in Joburg as there was only one flight each day up to Phalaborwa where we intended to enter Kruger park.  Also it would give us a chance to get over ‘jet lag’.  We were picked up from the airport by our accommodation and delivered back to the airport the following morning to catch the daily plane to Phalaborwa.  We also planned a one night stay in Phalaborwa to pick up our hire car, to shop and to further recover from mild jet lag.

Phalaborwa Gate into Kruger Park

 

Phalaborwa Airport

 

Rules & Regulations

Phalaborwa or Kruger airport was a delight – tiny, no waiting in line, unusual toilets and animal sculptures everywhere. you just knew you were close to Kruger National Park.

Our guest house – Llama Guest House  in Essenhout street was central and close to supermarkets and the Kruger gate.  It was very clean & comfortable and included a complimentary bottle of good South African red wine and a fruit basket. The owner was a lovely lady who had lived in Madagascar for many years and moved to Phalaborwa several years ago to avoid unrest but is disillusioned with SA, feeling it is going the same way.  Only in the country two days and already  we had many warnings about keeping our purses and ourselves safe.  We would have to get used to bars on doors and windows and gates with hook wire on top.  We ended the day with a wonderful meal at the Buffalo Restaurant down town. 

It is hard to get a clear idea of what the camps and shops in Kruger are like even from extensive google research. Months before we left I joined a Facebook site called ‘ SANParks – Kruger National Park’. The planning for our trip started about nine months before we hoped to depart. 

We needed to book the camps sites even before we booked flights so we could travel the park in an organised way. The planning was helped immensely by a book I ordered called – Tinkers Kruger Park Guide & Map .  It took three weeks to get here but was really worth the wait.  It had really detailed maps, photographs of wildlife, birds, camp information, the Do’s & Dont’s of Kruger and suggested itineraries.

We booked the campsites on https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger  The site is easy enough to navigate but does take a while to get used to.  You cannot just book one camp site if you have a set itinerary in mind – you need to make sure ALL the other campsites are available for your required  dates and hope by the time you get back to booking them they are still available!  The camp sites fill up very quickly especially the rondavels with ensuite.  You cannot choose a specific one as that is sorted when you arrive at the camp and you cannot check into the camp until 2pm.

Our rondavel at Olifants

 

Mastering the Braai

Not knowing what to expect in the camp shops we stocked up on food and drinks.  And because we knew some camp accommodation did not have basic eating utensils we bought all the essentials to survive – thermos, insulated mugs, plates, knives, forks & spoons plus a chilly bin to keep food in.  I can now confirm that the shops sell most things including a variety of boerewors which must contain at least 90 percent meat in flavours such as garlic, cheese, impala, kudu, lamb etc……  There was not a huge variety of other types of meat.

With our car at the ready and food packed into chilly bins we set forth through the Kruger Gate after a good nights sleep!  The excitement was palpable….what would we see first?  We stopped at the office to go through all the paperwork before we were allowed to drive through the gate.  The young woman behind the counter was less than friendly but we did not care as we were on our way to our amazing adventure.

Not a great pic but the only honey badger we saw!

The very first thing we saw after going through the gates was a honey badger which we discovered later was not a very popular animal in Kruger because of its bad habits and fearsome reputation! But not many people see them as they tend to be nocturnal.  I was not quick enough to get a good photo – I had not got my gear at the ready. One of the best tips for my long lens was to bring a beanbag to rest it on the window.  It worked a treat!

Next we saw lots of Impalas – male, female and young.  They are such curious creatures – not afraid to stare you out.  We were driving very slowly – 20 km per hour. One can drive at 50 km per hour on tar seal and 40 kms on dirt roads. We really had no clue where we should be looking or which area we were likely to see any animals.  It was fun just driving along anticipating……. Suddenly there was a large herd of zebras in front of us on the road.  Every zebra has unique markings – just like our fingerprints.

Early morning at a waterhole
male impala with oxpecker bird!
Impala everywhere
Can stroll or run out on road

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suddenly we saw some elephants on the road ahead and one large elephant started walking towards us.  Because it was our first elephant encounter we were pretty nervous so we drove slowly past well over to the other side of the road!

Strolling across the road!
Suddenly out of the bushes!

Elephant crossing the road in front of our car!

There were many beautifully coloured birds that we would get very familiar with during our three weeks but we could not name them just yet!  Passing by some water holes we were surprised to see so many dry but learned later that Kruger was very close to declaring a drought in August 2018.

We entered through Phalaborwa gate at 9am and arrived at LETABA Camp at 1pm having driven just 50kms. We were booked in for three nights but were too early for the check in time so went to the cafe and had a coffee and some lunch.  We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of both coffee and food – having had no idea what to expect.

Our rondavel was number 49 – circled in black!

Our rondavel was really quaint – it is a traditional circular African dwelling with a conical thatched roof, two single beds, toilet and shower and a well equipped kitchen.  However, we had to ensure we did not leave any food in sight as the baboons and vervet monkeys would grab and run.  In fact we learned that they could open the fridges easily and as we travelled through the different campsite each had a different way of coping with these naughty monkeys!

Vervet Monkey nicknamed ‘Blue Balls’
This is why they are nicknamed “Blue Balls”
Looking so innocent!
Breastfeeding baboon style!
Watch out for those teeth on the innocent vervet monkeys!!
Sitting happily in the middle of the road!
Where are those fleas?
More teeth – baboon this time!
Co cute but also so clever!
Baboons – mum and baby
Who needs a baby sling?

We sat in the restaurant for a few hours with coffee and drinks gazing at the amazing view over the planes and the Letaba river.  We watched waterbucks grazing and hippos slowly making their way down to the river for their evening frolic in the water.  Amongst the waterbuck were two silver-backed jackals, several Kudu and the odd egret or two drinking from the river.

Sausage fruit – Baboons can eat the sausage fruit . … but unripe fruit is poisonous, especially to humans. Many animals love the sausage tree flower
The warning not to park under this tree as the fruit is very heavy and will cause damage to your car

Our rondavel had a braai outside – a uniquely South African cooking tradition and one I hoped to master over the three weeks!  In fact everywhere we stayed we had a braai outside the accommodation just for us. At 6pm when the gates of the campsite were closed for the day we watched flame after flame light up the night sky as everyone lit their braai in readiness for their evening meal.  I watched my neighbours light theirs’ and asked lots of questions until I felt I could master it the following night.  I did notice it seemed to be the domain of the men. A SA friend on Facebook commented that her husband was most impressed with my efforts!!

After a really good nights sleep we were at the gate at 0615 with our drinks, rusks (not baby rusks, they are also like cardboard but some have nuts or fruit in them) and our flask with boiling water, some fruit and some sandwiches for lunch.  Gates open at 0600 and we were by no means the first out!

The first animal we saw was a very innocent looking spotted hyena looking as though he’d had a good night. Next, high on a branch we spotted a martial eagle – we only knew the name because a man stopped to see what we were looking at and informed us.  We learned very quickly that this was what everyone did – if you see a car stopped – stop and ask!

Hyena looking very content!
Spotted hyena & cub

Mother & baby hyena

We drove along by the Letaba river and saw some giraffe and kudu . We then turned into a dirt road and suddenly I looked over at my friend driving and could only see a mass of cream and brown ‘squares’ through the window – a massive giraffe was standing in the side of the road nibbling on the trees and we were so close we could have opened the window and touched it!  We got a fright but we soon got over it when we spotted several giraffe a few meters further on strolling across the road, we sat for ages just admiring the beautiful gentle elegant beasts eating from the tall trees and strolling slowly across the road.

Baby giraffe only few days old
Mother & Baby
So cute
Drinking at waterhole
Learning the skill of neck fighting!
Family of three checking us out!
This give you an idea of the size of a few day old giraffe
This bending down to drink is hard work!
Neck play fighting
Family heading for the waterhole

                                                                            

We stopped at one of the many bird-hides dotted around Kruger, most are situated by rivers. Some hides had plenty of water and were full of life others were dry and deserted. The whole of Kruger was pretty dry and they were close to declaring a drought when we were there. The Matambeni bird-hide  was full of life – large crocodiles, several hippos making honking noises, birds coming and going, kudu wandering down to the water and then an elephant walked right beside the hide down to the water and spent an hour eating and drinking – what a wonderful sight! We could not take our eyes off his beautiful long eyelashes (can be up to 12 cms long!). We also learned that elephants eat and drink between 16- 22 out of the 24 hours of the day and only sleep for up to two hours!!

We drove along the S62 on a very bumpy road to the Longwe Lookout – a sensational view over to the Lebombo Mountains and to Limpopo National Park and the Letaba river.

View down the Letaba river from the Letaba restaurant – way in the distance the hippos are come down for the evening swim!

There are not many places one can safely get out of your car in Kruger – several rest areas, some  picnic areas and the campsites of course but always at your own risk according to the signs!  But we were able to get out between yellow lines on the bridge over the Letaba river close to the campsite (again at our own risk of course!).  There were several water fowl including Egyptian geese, egrets and herons in the river and people told us about a leopard that had killed an impala the day before and had come back earlier to drag it away and hide it in a secure place, possibly up a tree as they can climb easily not like many of the other animals.  Later in our trip we spotted one dead impala hanging over a branch by it’s hind legs a couple of meters up a tree close to a main road – it was a pretty impressive that it was dragged up there by a leopard as it was a big impala!

There is also plenty of life within the campsite in the evenings when lots of small impala, bushbucks, monkeys, squirrels and even warthogs come out to play.

Warthog
Bushbuck at campsite

Our second night at Letaba we attempted a braai having armed ourselves with firelighters, wood and matches from the shop and of course the inevitable boerewors sausage!  We cooked corn and potatoes in tinfoil and cooked the boerewors on the braai grill once it had burned down for over an hour until the embers were glowing red then it cooked very quickly. 

We met our first large herd/gang of buffalo on our second day on one of the dirt roads south of Letaba – we first spotted them down by the river and saw several stare us out as we sat in our car taking photos. Finally we moved down the road and then saw a herd of over 100 buffalo cross the road just where we had been parked – that was what the stare from them was about!

Buffalo down by the river

Herd of buffalo crossing the road in front of us – could have been well in excess of 100!

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After three nights at Letaba we headed north for three nights at Shingwedzi calling in at Mopani for coffee on the way.

Number 47 – circled in black!

 Today we were very lucky with our sightings – helmeted guinea fowl, large family of baboons, waterbucks, crocodiles, hippos, another buffalo herd, herd of zebra, lots of impala, huge herd of elephants of all ages, some wildebeest and very large birds – the secretary bird (a very ugly looking creature but with a certain poise) and a kori bustard.

We were told that one usually sees wildebeest with zebra and the reason for this is – if attacked the zebra can run faster than the wildebeest so the wildebeest become the prey! But the wildebeest also has a good reason to hang with the zebras – their stripes mesmerise and distract the hunter!

We stopped at the bridge over the Letaba river again and while out of the car a family of about 40 baboons came towards us with a mind to cross the bridge – luckily they crossed to the opposite side from us and went past us – mums carrying babies on their backs and under their bellies with dad bringing up the rear hunting all the little ones ahead of him.

Most days we would pack our lunch and our flasks with the intention of finding a waterhole to sit and enjoy the animals come and go.  Things change so quickly at waterholes – one minute there is a herd of elephants, then come the giraffes or the water buffalo or impala.   Many people came and went while we sat there for a few hours, they did not stay long enough to see who came next!

At the Middelvlei waterhole there were lots of struggles and skirmishes between a herd of zebra and a herd of buffalo, the buffalo were the more aggressive and seem to regard themselves top of this particular pecking order. When they were done they wandered off leaving the zebras in peace. Every waterhole was different and exciting – you did not know what would arrive there next.  And they come from all directions – you might even see a large elephant come by the back of your car, thankfully they are just interested in getting a drink or playing in the mud or swimming using their trunks as snorkels to breathe. 

I just love watching the baby elephants play and try to do everything mum and the rest of the herd do!
Locking their trunks: young elephants lock trunks, like humans might hold hands. Also when engaging in courtship behaviour, elephant couples engage in friendly trunk wrestling and entwine their trunks together.

It is wonderful to watch the herds all playing together and the tiny elephants learning how to drink water through their trunk.  If they cannot manage it they just put their mouth down an drink that way!  An elephant can drink up to 14 litres of water in one go through their trunk!!  Usually the elephants are top of the pecking order at most waterholes but one day we saw eight white rhinos drinking surrounded by lots of impalas and then a herd of elephants approached but were halted by some aggression from the rhinos and eventually they turned and left.  One guide called William explained that each breed of animal respects the other so the elephants were happy to step back and wait for the rhinos to finish.  At other waterholes we saw elephants chase giraffe and zebras away while they drank, swam and generally messed about! 

Some water holes were all dried up but there were several big round cement tanks (beside some of the dried up waterholes) that contained water – man-made for times of drought.  At these tanks the elephants put one foot on a cement block to reach into the tanks.  the baby elephants just run around the tank trying desperately to get their trunks to reach into the tank!  We saw some great challenges at some waterholes – young elephants chasing zebra, and a young elephant (short tusks – not fully grown) was playing with the water at a waterhole that had little water to spare – he was just squirting it everywhere and not letting anyone else share it!

Over the period of three weeks we saw lots of antelopes: hundreds of impalas male & female, big and small. Bushbucks often hung around the camp sites but we also saw them in the bush.  The Kudu, whose horns are the symbol of South African parks because of their magnificence and shape were fairly common! The horns can grow up to 1.8 meters long and are spiral, curving around and around to a final six spirals when fully grown, they usually reach their full length when Kudu is about 6 years of age.

Mature male kudu. The kudu’s horns are the symbol of South African Parks!
Mature male Kudu with six curves in horns (and oxpecker birds)
Male & female Kudu at waterhole
Female Kudu
This is the bronze sculpture at Skukuza camp site. Sadly once locked like this it is almost impossible to free themselves

The  steenbok are beautiful little antelopes, they move in pairs and graze together in open areas but graze separately in bush for safety.  If they sense danger they lie down and flatten their ears (they have very big ears) so they look like a stone! They measure 40-50cms in height.

Female steenbok
Male steenbok

As we were driving along from Shingwedzi to Letaba we spotted some klipspringers on rocks close to the road – they have very coarse rough hair which helps them survive in their rocky habitat. They are such cute little creatures but very timid.

Klipspringer(means ‘rock jumper’) on rocks – his natural habitat. His coarse hair is blown by the wind and is white underneath. He is also very small – about 50-60 cm height

Waterbuck were everywhere where there was water and tsessebe roamed around in the bush sometimes mixing with zebra & wildebeest.  The latter we saw a lot of, especially running with the zebra herds.

Waterbuck on Crocodile River
Waterbuck is easily identified by the white circle on their rump!
Another antelope – the tsessebe
Tsessebe
Tsessebe

We were lucky enough to spot a roan antelope in the distance when up near Shingwedzi but not close enough to get a good photo. We also saw nyala, duiker and many wildebeest

Common duiker
Nyala
Nyala
Wildebeest/Gnu
Herd of Wildebeest
Zebra & wildebeest sharing the waterhole
Wildebeest, zebra & elephant at waterhole

It was a 110 kms from Letaba to Shingwedzi so we stopped at Mopani, about half way for coffee and a break. Everyone drives slowly and stops whenever anyone else is stopped – asking “what can you see?” or stopping to let herds of elephants, zebra, giraffe or buffalo pass.  We enjoyed a cup of coffee at the Mopani Camp and also the view out over the Pioneer Dam.   Just  past Mopani we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and then came across a traffic jam which meant that something very interesting was happening.  We managed to get ourselves into a good position and saw a carcass of an elephant with about 100 vultures feeding from it.  There were several different types of vultures sharing the carcass with three spotted hyenas and two black-backed jackals.  We learned later that the elephant had died of natural causes and this was the scavengers natural way of cleaning up the park!

Vultures, Black-backed jackal & spotted hyena cleaning up the elephant carcass
Two hyenas
There were about 70-80 vultures either eating or sitting around waiting for the next course

Having left Letaba we arrived at Shingwedzi at about 15:30.  Shingwedzi, our second campsite, was a lovely campsite right beside the Shingwedzi river that flows into Mozambique and the Limpopo National park.  As this was as north as we were staying we decided that we would drive north the following day toward the most northerly campsite – Punda  Maria – on the main H1-7.  We often took little loop roads off the main roads as they were quiet and sometime there were more animals to be seen. Along the Mphongolo loop (S56) we came across a water hole with about 20 hippos, lots of crocodiles and many birds – the regal African fish eagle was perched high on a tree overlooking the action at the waterhole. 

Oxpecker birds sitting on top of the hippos

Hippos grazing
Hippos playing and making lots of noise
Hippopotamuses playing – third largest mammal and showing their teeth!
We counted about 25 hippos at this spot! They are most vulnerable in drought as they depend hugely on water. Hippos are most active at night, when they forage for food, they eat mostly grass – and can eat up to 35kg. They can hold their breath for up to FIVE minutes under water

There was a large herd of buffalo drinking alongside a herd of elephants – coexisting amicably. A large herd of zebra had just left the hole before the buffalo arrived – not sure whether they were finished drinking or had been driven away but thats life in Kruger.  While we sat in our car mesmerised by all the animals at the waterhole – suddenly a large grey elephant strolled up behind our car and -whew- she and her herd following walked straight past and down to the waterhole.  As we drove around Shingwedzi we were sad to see many of the river beds and waterholes dry.  Even the bird-hide Kanniedood hide near the Kanniedood Dam was deserted but we did find some waterholes with water further along the S50

Elephant & buffalo sharing drinking rights at a waterhole

Baby elephant enjoying the mud – it protects his skin from sunburn!
Leaning into the mud!
Baby learning how to drink from his trunk – takes up to two years to get the hang of it. If he cannot get his trunk to work he just bends down and drinks through his mouth.
After a good old roll in the mud

Herd lead away from the waterhole by the matriarch. Baby is never far from mum’s side

Each campsite is different – all the camps except Orpen had a restaurant and all that we stayed at had shops.  Each camp had a ‘Sightings Board’ which the rangers fill in with coloured buttons that represent each animal.  The only animal whose position is never identified is the rhino because of the poaching which unfortunately still happens in Kruger.  These boards can be useful as a guide to where you could possible see a specific animal.  The best way to know where animals are is to talk with people who have just come back to the camp site from a days adventure.

Each of the ‘big five’ have their specific colour on the board but the sightings of rhino are not recorded

Most of the restaurants serve good food and drinks and usually have a lovely view out over the river or plains.  They also have laundry facilities, some have pools and one or two have ‘day spas’ where you can get rejuvenated for your next adventure!  We made use of the spa in Skukuza – we had been on the road for 16 days so were ready for a break and it was so very enjoyable!  Skukuza camp was the biggest in Kruger and had every facility one needed.  Orpen on the other hand was small and intimate and right beside a waterhole where you could swim in their swimming pool and watch the elephants stroll to the waterhole!

Each day was more exciting that the last and each day became a day of – ‘Elephants’ or ‘Giraffes’ or ‘lions’ depending on how many we saw.

Our first view of lions was six days into our time in the park.  We stopped where a few cars had stopped along the road and one driver pointed to where the lions were – they were a long way away but we could see them through binoculars – we saw three lionesses and several cubs, one of the people there told us there were 11 cubs altogether but we only saw a few. .  The lionesses tend to gather in groups when their cubs are young so they can share caring and killing food for the cubs.

On the S50 road we came to Dipene Outpost, where an old cement bath was used for several years  from 1938 as a foot-bath to disinfect  illegal immigrants coming across the border from Mozambique with the aim to curb a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.  We then drove on to the bird-hide at Nyawutsi where we spotted a beautiful fish eagle!  On the way home we nearly ran over about a dozen banded mongoose crossing the road!

Dipene Outpost
The old cement bath (1938) that illegal immigrants had to dip their feet in before entering South Africa.

Our third camp site was Olifants for three nights – 141 kms (our longest drive within the park) so we took our time driving there and again spent some time watching the scavengers continue to clean up the elephant carcass we had seen three days earlier.  The carcass was much cleaner and there were less vultures around but several black-backed jackals and a few spotted hyena were still enjoying their find.

The smallest of the camp sites we stayed at – had swimming pool and waterhole just outside the fence where elephants visited regularly.
Our rondavel & view!
Sunrise from our rondavel in Olifants

Along this route we saw a few magnificent baobab trees, one or two were devastated probably by elephants trying to get water from them.  The elephants use the tree for shelter, food from fruit and water in times of drought by ripping the bark away and drinking the stored water.  They also use it as a scratching pad!!

Baobab tree
Baobab tree often scarred from elephants trying to get moisture from the tree.

We had booked a river walk at Olifants so we were up and ready for off at 8am. We had two local guides Moira & Dennis who carried rifles.  We drove in a safari vehicle to the river where they loaded their guns and were very forceful about what we could and could not do!.  Single file, no stopping unless they do. Keep up with the person in front…….  They were pretty knowledgable and explained about different types of animal dung – shape size and texture. Elephants have a very poor digestive system so their dung is full of fibre and thorns from the trees they consume.  People are warned not to drive over elephant dung or you may get a puncture!!! I won’t go into detail of all the other dung we learned about!  They showed us a hippo’s skull from the previous drought and said that they are very vulnerable in drought as they depend so much on water. We noticed two large herds of elephants come down to the river on the other side from us but when they started to come over to our side the guides quickly gathered us together and set off back to the truck.  They told us later that we were on one of the paths that the elephants often take.  The whole event lasted three hours from pick up to drop off.  We did enjoy it but it really was a little bit of an non-event!

Our river walk
Our ranger Moira and her loaded gun!
Dennis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herd of elephants heading down to the river
The herd of elephants crossing to our side. Our guides quickly moved us on!
Swimming close and keeping a closer eye on us!

Our feathered friends in Kruger were numerous so armed with a good pair of binoculars and Kruger National Park Map book with its drawings/photos of 238 bird species we were able to name/identify quite a few.  Mind you, we did need photos as well so we could peruse the pictures in an attempt to identify them.  In truth we probably managed to identify only about 50 birds.  The very ugly secretary bird, kori bustard, the lilac crested roller, storks of every description, the goliath heron, many species of starlings and the aptly named “Go away bird” plus many many more including the common southern yellow-billed hornbill nicknamed the ’banana bird’.   My favourite was the beautiful lilac crested roller especially when they spread their wings in flight and reveal exquisite teal coloured wings!

Lilac-breasted roller
Black-shouldered kite
Crested barbet
Southern ground hornbill
Yellow-billed stork
yellow-billed storks
African fish-eagle
Grey Heron
Wahlberg’s eagle
Wahlberg’s eagle in flight
Goliath heron
Red-billed hornbill
Southern yellow-billed hornbill – ‘banana bird’
Burchell’s starling – they are everywhere!
Bateleur
Southern ground hornbill – parent & juvenile
Saddle-billed stork
Kori bustard
Kori bustard
Secretary Bird
African hoopoe
Forked-tailed drongo
Black-shouldered kite
Egyptian geese

Secretary Bird

Satara was our fourth camp site and we had booked for two nights – we had hoped to stay three but there was not one available space for the third night so we opted for two night in Orpen following our stay in Satara.  Olifants to Satara was a short 54 kms so we took our time and found several waterholes and decided this was the ‘day of the giraffe’ as several herds came and went at one waterhole. They shared the waterhole with a family of about 30 baboons.  We loved to watch the giraffe bending down to drink – they look so graceful and so awkward at the same time!  We also were lucky enough to see several young male giraffes using their necks to fight – it was only a play fight but when a female is involved it can be very serious  if she is the only female in the area.  Their necks are surprisingly strong despite only having 7 vertebrae.  They go “neck and neck” into a fight and usually strike the rump, the legs or the underbelly and the victor get the woman!

Our accommodation was down in circle A

After leaving Olifants we drove to the ’N’wamanzi lookout’ just a about 5 kms from Satara.  The view was amazing and there were about a dozen vervet monkeys sitting very innocently in the trees.  We opened our window just to take some photos but kept a very close eye on the monkeys.  Soon after another couple arrived in their range rover, the man got out to take some photographs leaving his car door open……. and then his partner also got out and left her door open….remember these monkeys look very innocent!!!!  But they are not.  As quick as a flash they were into their car grabbing what they could and came away bearing food and fruit when the couple ran to the car and chased them out.  The couple  laughed about it but I dont think they will leave their car door open again!  One unusual aspect of these monkeys ais that they have ‘blue balls’ and their nickname is just that!  The bluer the scrotum the higher they rank in their group !!!!

View from N’wamanzi lookout
View from N’wamanzi lookout with Vervet monkeys sitting on the tree
Kanniedood Dam

We also had a ‘cheetah day’ it was so exciting. First we saw one laze in the long grass, get up wander around and drop back down again. What magnificent creatures they are.  Later we spied three younger cheetahs sitting together under tree.  Suddenly one sat up with his ears pricked and got up and sank down to a crawling, hunting preying position having spotted an impala in an open area a few hundred meters away.  His two mates also sat up but headed off in a slightly different direction.  You could imagine their plan – cheetah 1 will drive the impala around into the paws of cheetah 2 & 3 and that is exactly what he did.  We did not see the final kill but it looked pretty fatal for the impala.

Relaxing under a tree
Cheetah checking us out
Something stirs his interest
He is onto it! – a lone impala

Orpen was our fifth camp and we stayed two nights.  It is a very small but intimate camp with shop and swimming pool and a great waterhole just outside the fence.  We swam in the pool and watched several elephants come and go. We then drove 145kms from Orpen to Skukuza where we were booked for four nights and our full day safari with Legend safaris. 

The smallest campsite – quiet with swimming pool and waterhole outside the fence

There was a lot to see on the drive from Orpen to Skukuza including a huge Kudu that ran straight out from the bush and leaped right over the 4WD vehicle in front of us.  It was both terrifying  and exciting at the same time, but luckily neither car, man or beast were injured.  We were within 10kms of Skukuza when we spotted two rangers carrying guns and decided we would stop and ask if we could take a photo. 

The two rangers we gave a lift to

They were happy to oblige but they also had a request – would we give them a ride to their camp a few kilometres this side of Skukuza – they had been walking for hours in the heat of the day???   We were a little hesitant as our back seat of the car  was full of food, photographic equipment and other stuff but we managed to move things about to fit them in.  They were very pleasant young men, one spoke English to us but the other said little except ‘ thank you’.  We dropped them at the road up to their camp, about 4-5 kms before Skukuza camp.

A very large and busy campsite. Lots of schools and locals come in for a day trip and are educated on the ways of Kruger and its animals

Skukuza which was by far the biggest and busiest  camp we had stayed at in Kruger.  We had also booked our one and only full day safari with Legend Safaris who operate from outside the park – very good reviews on Trip Advisor.  They were really helpful when we asked if we could change our day  – “no problem, let me get back to you” said Shaheen, from Legend Safaris. Our safari began at 0600 in front of reception at Skukuza camp.  There were only two of us and William, our guide, arrived promptly so we were on our way by 06:15. It turns out that William Hlatshwayo was the very first black African guide in Kruger forty years previously, Has since formed his own Tour company called Crowned Eagle Tour & Safaris.  He was also a private game guide to Nelson Mandela when he visited game parks and tells the story that Mandela said one day to him – all countries should be like zebras – where black ,white and coloured all live in harmony.   Every country should be a ‘ZEBRA’ country!

Zebra in Kruger National Park
Zebra in Kruger National Park
Zebra in Kruger National Park
Zebra in Kruger National Park
Zebra – pull me-push me
Zebra, wildebeest and buffalo have a few skirmishes at waterhole
Its OK I will wait!

William turned out to be worth his weight in gold, the sun rose as we left the campsite.  All rangers and guides have ‘walkie talkies’ and communicate about sightings, so within half an hour of driving William picked up that there was a leopard a few kilometres away and took off in that direction stopping briefly at a waterhole to admire some white rhinos.  He managed to position his truck in just the right spot so we could see the leopard clearly.  He was sitting down when we arrived he then stood and moved around eventually crossing the road right in front of us and dropped down in a sitting position again.  It was an amazing view from the high safari truck, (an aside – the one mistake we made was to hire a small car and not a high vehicle with good visibility.)

Our first sight of this beautiful creature – the leopard!

Our next stop was at a waterhole I mentioned earlier where there were eight white rhinos drinking and the elephants came down to the hole but they stood back and retreated as there were so many rhinos there.  This was a new experience as up until now the elephants has always dominated at the waterholes!  William explained it was about numbers and respect amongst the larger animals – whoever gets there first and has the most in their group gets to finish!  We then stopped beside the road to see three lionesses in the long grass. 

Elephants standing back until Rhinos finished drinking!
Mother & young rhino
Rhino dont mind sharing with impala!

William then drove us up to Mathekenyane  lookout – a 360 degree view over the plains – with Mozambique only 8 kms away! We saw a ‘tower’ of about 30 giraffes big and small strolling and eating down near the road we had come up. Having seen all the giraffes from above, William drove us down the hill and here we saw several young males neck fighting again. William assured us it was just play but also it ensures they know how to do it when needed.

Close to where the giraffes were we saw two tiny steenbok – male and female grazing together in the open plains.  We learned that snake eagles and bateleur eagles are not true eagles as they have no hair on the lower part of their legs so snakes can not grab and hold them down.  William then drove us a long way down a very rough corrugated road and informed us  as we rattled along that we were now having an ‘African Massage’!  He took us to a waterhole with lots of elephants and giraffe drinking and we sat and watched them all in silence for a long time. 

We had told William earlier that the one thing we would ‘love’ to encounter was a pride of lions just wandering along the road towards us.  It was getting late so we headed home and OMG we came around the corner and there coming towards us was a pride of 12 lions!  One large male ‘daddy’ and 11 cubs about one year old – a mix of male and female

This beautiful face gazing up at us in our jeep! So very close! Our guide said this boy was just under a year old!
This was our ‘WOW’ moment – our first sight of this pride
The leader of the pride – the proud dad!

 We were just stunned and could say little but OMG, wow, wow and more wows.  They just sauntered along the road and flopped down on the tar-seal right beside our truck – I could have reached down and patted them.  They were so close that I could not use my Canon 100-400 lens!! I had to revert to my smaller camera.  We were overwhelmed by it all and just kept saying ‘wow’ ‘amazing’ ‘OMG’.  We had to pinch ourselves to make sure we were not dreaming.  William told us that this same pride often wanders down the road H4-1 in the afternoon.  They kept getting up and flopping back down again and looked very undernourished, the young males were just beginning to show signs of growing a mane.  What memories and what a truly amazing day.  It would be hard to top that experience.  It is truly etched into my memory! 

After four nights in Skukuza we headed to Lower Sabie for two nights and on one of these nights we went for a organised ‘night ride’.  We saw several animals fleetingly, porcupine, hyena, two scops owl, spotted eagle owl, giraffe, civet and genet.  It was a little bit of a let down as one had to hold the spotlight for the two hours and try to spot anything moving. I decided I was not good at this and so missed out on few things. I felt the driver and the co-driver’s hearts were not in the drive.

View of Lower Sabie campsite from the causeway

We enjoyed Lower Sabie and especially the ‘sunset pool’ very close to the camp where the bird life was fantastic and varied and the large pool was lined by over 16+ crocodiles.  We spotted a heron hitching a ride on the back of a hippo and two yellow-billed storks fighting. 

Some of the Hamerkop nests
Sunset lake just beside Lower Sabie camp site -teeming with life

In several of the waterholes and pools there were dozens of Hamerkop nests in the trees in the middle of the water, this African bird’s nest is a massive, roofed structure set up in the fork of these trees. It takes about 8 weeks and 10,000 twigs to build, and is lined with mud for water-proofing and insulation.  The male and female build them together – it is a huge effort but they don’t just stop with one, they often build up to four nests a year!

Several of the many crocodiles we saw!

One large crocodile

We were very sad to leave Kruger but on our way out to Crocodile Bridge Gate we passed 11 lionesses and lions stretched out on cement steps looking very sated following a kill. 

A pride of lions resting after a kill
Pretty relaxed !

The cement steps were below a dam wall and they lay there with their legs up in the air totally relaxed just like cats!

Sunset on Kruger
Celebrating 21 wonderful days in Kruger
Last night at Crocodile Lodge outside Crocodile gate – beside Crocodile river.
Sun going down on Kruger National park

We had booked two night at Crocodile Safari Lodge just outside the gates so we sat on our deck, looking back over to Kruger, a glass of wine in our hands, reminiscing.  Magical!!

 

 

Zebra – in Kruger National Park


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Riding the thermal track in Rotorua

Riding Rotorua Thermal Bike Trail

(Te Are Ahi thermal trail)

We were very sad to leave behind the remoteness of the Timber Trail and Blackfern Lodge (see previous blog) but there were compensations at our next stop – the city of Rotorua has lots of cafes where we can get a good latte and flat white!!

We had booked 5 log cabins at Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park which was about 3kms outside Rotorua but was close to the Te Are Ahi thermal trail.  Te Are Ahi means the Pathway of fire….should we be worried?

The floating man made island from the air.

The holiday Park had just about everything to keep a person happy, clean and cosy log cabins, cafe, lock up bike shed, a bike cleaning unit, thermal pools and very helpful staff.  It is beside the Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology and often caters for student accommodation needs.  The Holiday Park is in fact owned by the institute of Technology but this may change soon as there is a council proposal to return the land around the Holiday Park to the local Ngati Whakaue.

Day One: 35kms

Our plan for Day One was to cycle from the i-SITE in CBD, Rotorua to Waimangu Volcanic Valley approximately 30 kms.  Cycling one way was perfect but we also needed to get back to our accommodation so we decided that three cars with drivers would drive to Waimangu and park there and a fourth car and driver would follow and bring all three drivers back to start the bike ride. 

There was division in the camp about which way to go – as we were three kms from city – would we go into the lakefront and then back out to Waimangu or go straight there and go into town on the way back. Whichever way it added 5 kms to the ride.

Seven of our team opted to ride first to Waimangu but Marcia and I decided we would head into the town first and start the ride from CBD.  We both had cycled around Rotorua before and just love riding through the thermal areas.

Marcia on the moonscape

The Bath House (1908) over the silica flats

Checking out the vents of steam

Some are more fierce than others!

Just opposite the Thermal Holiday Park on Old Taupo Road and the bike trail there are two busy roads but the local council have made it easy for bikies to cross to the bike path via new underground path/cycleways.

We all set off together via the underground pathways and then waved good bye as we went our seperate ways!

Marcia & I followed the cycle path along Hwy 30 past Geothermal valley and Maori village.  We turned right into Froude St following it until it met Sala street.  A couple of hundred meters along Sala street we picked up the bike trail again – this bit of cycle trail is not very well signposted.

This was the start of the ‘off road’ cycling alongside the Puarenga Stream and under Te Ngae Road.  Leaving the stream we headed towards the surface of the moon!!  That is what is felt like riding through the the grey silica flats with steam rising from vents all over the surface.  We stopped to examine the yellow crystallised sulphur on the rocks that sat in piles on top of the silica. 

Crystals of sulphur on rock

The cloud shapes were as fascinating as the steam vents!

Helen & John taking note of the warning signs to STAY on tracks

John H leaving the moon’s surface

Lorraine on boardwalk

 

Helen enjoying her ride on the boardwalk

John P enjoying the ride

David enjoying the lunar surface

Bob riding on the moon surface!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our next stop was at Camerons Laughing gas pool which in 1931 was described as “a hot pool, the gases emitted from which banished the deepest gloom in peal after peal of uncontrollable laughter”. The gasses emitted are a mix of hydrogen sulphide & carbon dioxide which we mortals call laughing gas or Nitrous Oxide used by midwives for women in labour which of course we know is no laughing matter!!

Camerons Laughing Gas Pool

On we rode around Sulphur bay pass the famous Polynesian Pools passing sloppy, murky bubbling brown mud pools one of which was called “The Coffee Pot’ which plopped and gurgled as we passed it. Locals tell the story that people tied themselves by rope to the Manuka bushes and lowered themselves into this brown murky liquid as it was a thermal attraction with healing powers. We did not try that trick or stop for coffee as there were many notices warning us to stay on the designated path!

Plops and gurgles of the mud pool

We then crossed to Hatupatu Dr and headed towards Sulphur point but stopped to enjoy the spectacle of black-backed, black-billed and red billed gulls nesting at Rocky Point, a small silica inlet,  which is part of a wildlife reserve and of particular interest because gulls are not usually found in geothermal areas. The black-billed gulls are only found in New Zealand and are, according to ‘New Zealand Birds Online’ “one of the most threatened gull species in the world”. 

Black-backed Gulls on Rocky Point

Black-backed Gulls on Rocky Point

Dabchicks everywhere!

Mostly shags on this rocky point

This inlet is part of the Sulphur Point Wildlife Sanctuary which is home to an amazing number of wading birds such as the endangered New Zealand dabchick, banded dotterel as well as the black-billed gull plus more common birds such as the scaup, shag, pied stilt and Caspian tern. This sanctuary achieved  refuge status for wildlife in 1967.

The bay is a sulphurous area lying on top of a geothermal field  and the colour of the water around the area is a milky white because of its unique ecological makeup due to sulphur particles suspended in the water. The area around Motutara Point is a refuge for all birds as the warmth of the water and environmental conditions create a bird spa.

Moturere Island host to nesting birds – black-billed gulls & shags

Kayakers near Timanga & Moturere Islands

Dabchicks near the man-made floating island

Off the Motutara Peninsula  just by the boat ramp are Timanga and Moturere Islands. Timanga Island was once home to several families who lived on it but little of it is visible today. Moturere Island was once a geothermal bath used for treating many illnesses and is now the bigger of the two islands and home to roosting and nesting birds. We stopped to watch the array of birds coming and going on this tiny island. There were a couple of kayakers paddling around – as motorised boats are not allowed into the refuge area kayaking is a great way to get close!

From Motutara Point you can also see Mokoia island in the middle of Lake Rotorua and is at the centre of a beautiful love story between Tutanekai and Hinemoa who were forbidden to meet but she swam to her lover on the island.  It is now a wildlife refuge.

There were just so many things to see and do along this trail that riding a bike takes a back seat. There is also an amazing invention floating just off Motutara point  – a man made island launched in 2012.  It is the size of a football field (5000sq m) and was constructed from half a million plastic soft drink bottles specially treated and covered with fibre matting which had plants which were sourced locally sewn into it. This floating island is moored just by the point and can be moved to other areas.  It is believed to be the world largest man made floating wetland.

View of man-made floating island from Motutara Point

Research indicates that the floating island will ‘remove up to four tonnes of nitrogen and more than 1000kg of phosphorus from the lake every year’. It also acts as a navigation tool for airplanes as it was constructed to spell out the word “Rotorua” in giant floating letters.

After leaving the point we stayed by the lakeside but rode through kanuka & manuka trees which lined the track all the way to the Lakefront where the water was black with swans and dabchicks all looking very content, many having been well fed by tourists! 

Black swans and their babies on the lake

As we got close to the Lakefront we passed the a beautifully carved waka called ‘Te Arawa Waka Taua’, built by hand in 1989 by local carver Lyonel Grant. It is constructed from totara wood, is approximately 20 metres in length and weighs approximately 2.5 tons.

We turned around at the lakefront and headed back the way we came, passing our accommodation and heading out towards Waimangu. This was a boring part of the ride as it was alongside a very busy highway until  we turned into Highlands Loop Road.  When we reached Waimangu Road our separate cycle path finished but it was downhill all the way to Waimangu Volcanic Valley where we all met and enjoyed a welcome cup of coffee at the cafe there.

Coffee at Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Day Two

Again – an agreeable division in the camp. Five members decided to drive back to Waimangu Volcanic Valley, this time with the bikes in tow and ride as far as Kerosene creek which was about 18-20kms out and same back.  The report back was that is was a lovely ride until the turn off to Kerosene creek where the path became so overgrown they were torn by briars and blackberry bushes and one person rode through grass that was so long it sent him off his bike.  David, one of our team, rang the council to complain but one wonders if that call resulted in any maintenance action.  But the view of Rainbow mountain more than compensated for their discomfort!

Riding through the steam

Sun and steam create beautiful shafts of light

Colours of Rotorua

Checking out the temperature of the stream…HOT!!!

Mud and steam

The rest of the group headed back into Rotorua along yesterday’s route and ended up riding up Lake Road to a cafe called Third Place Cafe where we enjoyed a great cup of coffee. From the window we could see the small historic Maori village of Ohinemutu and decided we would ride down to investigate.

View from the Third Place Cafe

Marcia & Lucy outside Maori Tamatekapua meeting house in Ohinemutu village

And who is this??

Ohinemutu is home to the Ngāti Whakaue tribe, who gifted the land on which the city of Rotorua was built. Ngati Whakaue is a sub-tribe of the Te Arawa waka (canoe) which journeyed from the Pacific homeland of Hawaiiki to New Zealand around 1350AD. The location is beside Lake Rotorua and has active geothermal energy, used for cooking, bathing and heating.

Helen & John leaving St Faith’s Church

Window with with image of Jesus wearing a Maori cloak etched in it – St Faith’s church

There is a beautiful historic Tudor style church at the lake edge called St Faith’s Church built in 1914. Inside there are many Maori carvings and panels but the most beautiful aspect of the church for me was the window etched with the image of Jesus wearing a Maori cloak.  If you position yourself in the right spot he appears to be walking on water.

We all agreed it had once again been a very successful bike week and headed off to the ‘Wild Rice Thai’ for dinner to celebrate – a great place to eat if in Rotorua.

Our combined average age of 73.33 had survived – The Waikato Trails, The Timber Trails and the Rotorua Thermal Bike ride!  Bring on next year!!!

Riding the Pureora Timber Trail on my E-bike

Riding the Timber Trail.

In two days!

Ready for Day One on the Timber Trail  L-R Lorraine, John, Bob, David, Helen, Lucy & Des

With The Waikato River trails (previous blog) behind us we headed for Blackfern Lodge – 1731 Ongarue Stream Rd, Waimiha or to put it another way  – the middle of nowhere!  We had just left our wonderful accommodation for two nights in a guesthouse called “Out in the Styx” which was fairly remote but Blackfern was even more remote.  The lodge is situated half way along the Timber Trail bike ride and would be our home for the next three nights giving us two days to ride the 85kms of the Timber Trail.  Because there were ten of us in our group we had booked several months in advanced to ensure accommodation as it is pretty sparse along the trail but is improving with the opening of the latest addition – the new Timber Trail Lodge. 

We travelled the 82kms from Mangakino to Blackfern Lodge  and arrived there about 1pm. The 82kms took us about one and a half hours to get there mainly due to the fact that the last 10 kms was on a narrow dirt road which required caution.

Blackfern gardens

Sign by the Ongarue stream at Blackfern lodge

Axe head bushmen family – from the past!

History of timber felling in the region

Old photos of times gone by!

But what a spot! It was so worth the drive – Blackfern Lodge, a tranquil oasis dotted with rustic cabins and a softly flowing steam close-by the cabins.  The stream was home to eels, trout and endangered Whio or blue ducks. A short walk took you to a fast flowing waterfall with a pool underneath to swim in (if you are up for it). There was also a longer one hour easy walk that challenged your sense of humour with several eclectic artefacts, sculptures and several creatively humorous notices which defined the rye and quirky sense of humour of the previous owners.

Allo! Allo! on the one hour walk!

The couple who now owned the lodge had just taken over from older members of their family a few months previously.  The previous owners had lived and worked there for over 20+ years . The complex started off as a place to make a home, it then morphed into a well known local restaurant and finally into an accommodation lodge.

Endangered Whio duck

Whio or blue duck

Our accommodation at Blackfern Lodge

Of course our main reason for being here was to ride the Timber Trail. Rachel, our host, had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at 0830 the first morning and take us to Pureora – a very bumpy 30-40  minute ride along unsealed roads. The same shuttle would also pick us up at the end of the second day at Ongarue. The 87 km Timber Trail is situated in the Pureora Forest Park between Lake Taupo and Te Kuiti and is called the Timber trail as it follows the old rail track that was used to cart out the timber to the sawmill in Ongarue. The trail follows the Ellis & Burnand Tramway built in 1903.

Day One – 36kms on trail to turn off for Blackfern + 7 km to our Lodge

We were all up bright and early but full of apprehension about what was ahead on today’s ride.  We are all well over seven score years except one youngster aged 65.  We are also fair weather riders and had heard that the Timber trail was challenging for riders of our fitness and vintage! But we were also excited to test ourselves.  I was riding my three year old e-bike – a smart-motion city bike – how would this go on this rugged terrain that suggested mountain bikes would be the best choice??  We had also heard that over 600 riders had been through the Timber Trail days before us so we anticipated it to be a little churned up, plus it had been raining for over a week.

Our shuttle driver regaled us with lots of local information which distracted us from our very bumpy ride to the start of the track at Doc base on Barryville Road.

The first 4 kms of the track were relatively easy with a short diversion at the three kilometre marker to view and photograph a 1920s historic logging caterpillar bulldozer, which was left abandoned for years but has since had a facelift. From 4kms to the first shelter (a little red shed) was a gradual climb through podocarp forests of rimu, totara, miro, matai and kahikatea.  The King Country region was covered with forest prior to European settlement which the  Māori referred to as Te Nehe-nehe-nui, the great forest which is slowly regenerating.

The only area without trees – just Toi Toi

Glad to see this sign after 14kms of uphill cycling!

Little white flowers and berries along the way

Moss covered trees

My E-bike amongst the gnarled old trees

First Shelter or little red shed – great reading on the information board

The climb continued in earnest into the ‘cloud’ forest around Mt Pureora with breaks for views and photos along the way up to the highest point on the trail – 971 meters above sea level.  Just before you reach the highest point there is a walking track up to Mt Pureora 1165 m and is a 40 minute walk each way.  Some tackle it on their mountain bikes but they are ‘true mountain bikers’! 

We rode passed gnarled moss covered dark green trunks and trees and the undergrowth was dotted here and there with foxgloves and some pretty white flowers and red berries.

From here the trail is mostly down hill but with some steep and rutted descents to the 18kms marker (the blue markers telling you how far you had travelled were positioned every single kilometre) where we met the first of the trails suspension bridges 115m over Bog Inn creek, followed 2kms later by another bridge 109m over Orauhora creek.  According to the Kennett brothers “Unless you suffer from vertigo, it’s worth stopping in the middle to appreciate the forest views”. I took their advice and walked back to the centre after first biking across the bridge just to prove I could!  The view of the beautiful forested ravine below the bridge was a stunning canopy of trees with the New Zealand native ponga trees proudly displaying the fern leaves.

One of the many amazing suspension bridges that were on the track

View from the centre of the bridge of bush clad valley

Beautiful native Ponga – always looks so special from above

Taken from the middle of the suspension bridge having cycled over and back!

Between the highest point and the bridges there were several viewing points along the top indicated by special markers    ‘views of Lake Taupo’ and areas where you could get ‘cell phone coverage’.  Unfortunately lake Taupo was not visible as there was cloud cover but we enjoyed the break trying to find it! This trail consists of 35 bridges including the 8 suspension bridges.

Sign to view of Lake Taupo – alas it was shrouded in cloud!

All along the route I was mindful of the bars on my battery reducing more quickly than I liked.   I knew I was using my brakes because my road tyres were struggling to cope with the ruts, dips and bumps on the downhill run and of course I also used some throttle on the 14km climb. Using brakes frequently on an e-bike unfortunately uses more battery because the engine stops each time you apply the brakes and you need to use power to get going again so the battery suffers. 

Finally we arrived at the 36km mark where there are very clear signs directing us to Blackfern Lodge – another 7 kms on…..would my battery last?  After riding a further 3-4 kms I came to a stile (which we had been warned about) and as I was riding alone at that time I had to negotiate a 25kg E-bike over a style by myself. I managed to do it with a lot of huffing and puffing. I was over the stile and riding on top of a soft carpet of pine needles when …my battery ran out. Bugger…… I still had about 2-3 kms to go and most of it was uphill.  In fact it turned out to be a long steep grind through the forest punctuated by the occasional bizarre notices place on the route by the Blackfern Lodge owners.  What a sense of humour…! not long to go, just up around the corner….. no way!  Finally after several corners and much more uphill I reached the top and was met with a notice that said  – “Enjoyment is the success of conquering the challenge”.  I admit to not feeling any enjoyment at that time!

Sign on route back to Blackfern Lodge

 

We all arrived back in dribs and drabs and were warmly greeted by the two members of the team who did not ride.  After a shower and a glass of wine I began to feel that excitement!  We ate a beautiful meal prepared by Rachel.  All we had to do was heat it in the oven while the wine and beer and tongues flowed.

Day Two: 47km Piropiro to Ongarue

 After a great nights sleep we all had different ideas about what we wanted to do today and so there was lively discussion over breakfast. By the time Mark & Rachel came to see what the plans for the day were our plans had changed. Six wanted to do the trail from Piripiro to Ongarue but did not want to cycle the 7 kms to the start of today trail. So it was decided that Mark would take all six ( for for a certain price right through to Piropiro where the trail started for the second days ride and then the shuttle would pick them up at about 4pm at the Timber Trail carpark at Ongarue. So we loaded the six bikes aboard Mark’s pickup truck which has bike racks front and back and was used mainly to take guests back up to the ridge line to start the second day ride – just a couple of kms thereby avoiding a long climb to get to the Timber Trail but today he would take them right to Piropiro which would be about a 40 minute drive but would save that extra 7 km.

Mark loading bikes onto truckl

And the six are off to Piropiro

The second day of the trail is certainly easier than the first. With packed lunch and slightly sore butts they were off.  There was less climbing and more descents but the rain the week before and the 600 cyclists riding through had churned up the trail so again one had to take the descents carefully so as not to get a tyre stuck in a ridge!. Again the day starts with a relatively steep climb through stunning Podocarp- hardwood forest and across another massive suspension bridge.  There were several suspension bridges, including New Zealand’s longest one with a span of 141m across the Maramataha Valley. There was a moderate climb through native forest before they reached the terminus of the Ellis and Burnand bush railway that extracted timber from 1914 to 1958.

Meanwhile because of my battery issues the day before myself and Helen, another member of the team, opted to be driven to Bennett Road outside Ongarue. Marcia who was not riding because of an injury drove us to the car park to start the ride. Our plan was to ride out and back on the Timber Trail to beyond the Ongarue spiral.  I would be able to keep a close eye on my battery  and turn back if it began to get low. By riding out and back we could also get a lift back in the shuttle with our six team mates to Blackfern Lodge.

Off on Timber Trail from Ongarue end starting at Bennett’s road car park

Muddy but beautiful

NO STOPPING for 1500m! Wet & muddy trail

On the drier part of the trail through private property

Some of the old original sleepers!

It was a beautiful ride although it was a steady climb for 10 km to the Ongarue spiral. We did pass an area that was cordoned off with red and white tape because of logging in the area but I am afraid we ignored it and kept going.  It really was easy going until we came to a huge sign indicating a rock fall ahead!  When we got to the rockfall we had to haul the bikes over this mound made by the fall.  After that there were several alert signs telling us that we must NOT stop for the next two kms as we were in danger from rockfalls.

Finally we got to the Ongarue spiral – what an amazing section of the trail this is.   Great to look at and even better to ride through the curved tunnel and over the bridge and ride around in a circle. You can still spot some of the original beams that held up the bridge when trams were passing over it. 

Photos and history on information board

Helen at the Ongarue Spiral. We go around in a circle and end up on bridge above (in photo)

The trail had several information boards that DOC with the help of local historians has created to take us back in time especially the information and photographs about the Ongarue Spiral and how the workers lived while building this railway. One story tells of a pay clerk riding out on his horse to deliver pay-packets to the workers and while having a cup of tea his horse bolted and was not found for several weeks but he still had the saddlebag with the workers pay envelopes in it!!

Ferns & moss

Blue Kilometre markers along the route

Finishing the trail at Bennett Road car park

We arrived back at the car park having ridden 24 kms with lots of time to spare so rode down into the sleepy backcountry village of Ongarue where there is little to pass the time.  However, there was a backpackers in the main street but it was closed.  Luckily for us a guy pulled outside who was a friend of the owners and he persuaded the owner to make us a coffee, which he did reluctantly. The friend of the cafe owner and his son were in the honey & bee business and sold us 1KG of their honey via internet banking!! The father had been in the bee business for over 20 years and now the son had joined him and both live in Taurmanui.

Ongarue local

The Bee man

Another Local

The Bee man’s son and a great salesman

The ‘Flashpackers’ where we had coffee on main street of Ongarue!

The old station in Ongarue

The shuttle was there at 4pm exactly and took us all back to our oasis where a wholesome dinner, wine and beer awaited us.

So what had we achieved over two days?   Eight long slow climbs, seven rapid descents, 35 bridge crossings,  dark but beautiful regenerated native forest, lots of gnarled moss covered tree trunks, a few open plains dotted with toi toi, lots of muddy and rocky single-riding tracks, some easy pedalling, lots of stops/breaks, learned the history of the King Country, took many photos and finally felt a huge sense of satisfaction.

Next morning we were very sad to leave Blackfern lodge but we were off on another adventure – riding the Te Are Ahi Thermal trail in Rotorua.