Kruger + Blyde River Canyon // FIRST VACATION OF SERVICE!
I went on the first vacation of my service!
Also, the Cardinals made it to the playoffs! No shock there, but exciting nonetheless.
Back to my vacation… 5 days, 4 nights in Nelspruit, Blyde River Canyon, and Kruger National Park. We coordinated our trip with Heritage Day, a South African holiday, so we didn’t have to take an extra day of leave 😉
[Peace Corps gives volunteers 2 days of vacation for every month of service, so 48 total vacay days, but they don’t count South African holidays since our orgs are closed those days anyway]
I went with Jess, Cathy, Austin, and Rafeeq. Honestly, if you had told me during PST that I would go on my first vacation with those four people, I wouldn’t believe you, but I am so glad I did! We had so much fun and we meshed really well together (despite hours in the car with no escape). I also facilitated bonding by banning sleep and music from the car ;P It was originally met with objections, but eventually everyone got on board and it resulted in some great convos. I would travel with world with these weirdos.
Cathy, Rafeeq, Jess and I met in Pretoria on Thursday to pick up the rental car and begin our drive to Nelspruit. Austin lives on the other side of Nelspruit, so it made sense for him to take a taxi and meet us there. Despite many set backs (chaos getting the rental car… lost malaria meds…) we finally made it to Nelspruit, and only 8 hours later than expected. Sorry Austin!
Speaking of the rental car… I drove a manual car on the wrong wide of the road! As the only person in the group who knows how to drive stick, I bit the bullet and was chauffeur the entire weekend. I guess the tears and frustration from being forced to learn stick at 15 has finally proved useful (don’t tell my mom I said that).
We stayed Thursday night in Nelspruit at a hostel called The Funky Monkey in a retro-type cabin. Pretty cool, not much else to say.
Friday morning we re-packed the car and made our way to Chimp Eden, the Jane Goodall Chimp Rescue Sanctuary. Each chimp at the sanctuary was rescued from a horrible situation, like circuses, testing facilities, and as pets. Luckily, they all had a happy ending at Chimp Eden!
After lunch we went to the Lowveld Botanical Gardens in Nelspruit. We basically spent the entire afternoon laughing, taking pictures, and roaming the grounds. By the end of the day, we’re pretty sure the staff had put a tail on us since there was a security guard who just happened to go everywhere we went.
The next three nights we stayed in Hazyview, a town about an hour north of Nelspruit, and situated right between Blyde River Canyon and Kruger. We stayed at Gecko Backpackers, which we highly recommend for anyone doing this trip. The staff was so nice and told us exactly where to go and what to do in the area (even if we were horrible at following directions).
Saturday we decided to drive the Panorama Route around Blyde River Canyon. Blyde is the third largest canyon in the world (can you guess the first?), but it is the greenest canyon, which makes the scenery incredible! The Panorama Route is a driving route around the canyon that takes you to the best viewpoints and to some awesome waterfalls. The first stop on the Panorama Route was a town called Graskop where we ate at a famous pancake restaurant and shopped in the local art shops. I bought a really cool, hand-painted wall hanging.
Side note: “Iced coffee” in South Africa is more like a coffee milkshake, but we still had one at every meal 😉
The most famous stop on the Panorama Route is called God’s Window, and to be perfectly honest, it was a complete disappointment. It was crowded, we hiked far too long to get to the viewpoint, and it didn’t even look like a canyon.
Our favorite viewpoints were Lowveld Viewpoint and Three Rondavels. We actually weren’t even planning on going to Lowveld since we were running out of time, but we stopped on a whim, and it was incredible! We broke the rules a bit and went past the gated walkway but it was well worth the risk.
We sat on the edge of a cliff, on the edge of a canyon, and felt like we were on the edge of the world.
Lowveld is easily the most underrated viewpoint and we were the only people there (quite unlike the overcrowded, overrated God’s Window). We spent over an hour just sitting, admiring the view and taking it all in (and of course, taking pictures haha).
Remember that scene in Mission Impossible II when Tom Cruise is free climbing that rock face? That’s how I felt. But cooler and less dumb.
Three Rondavels, Pinnacle, Berlin Falls and Mac-Mac Falls were equally as impressive, but there is something to be said for the bonding we shared on the edge of the world at Lowveld. A completely unexpected treasure.
I also need to mention the restaurant we ate at for lunch on Saturday called Potluck Boskombuis. It was situated in the middle of nowhere. Literally, the middle of nowhere. The whole restaurant was outdoors so we could see the food being cooked under a cliff overhang. The large wooden tables were right on a stream, and no cell service meant the restaurant was isolated in the best way possible. They had a limited menu since two people were cooking for 50, but the food was amazing. I wish I took more pictures, but I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Sunday was a completely different type of bonding. We got in the car at 5:30 a.m. (to beat the rush into Kruger) and didn’t get back to the hostel till 6:30 p.m. We spent alllll day in the car together, minus breakfast at Skukuza Rest Stop, and lunch at Lower Sabie Rest Stop, and we all came out alive. Not many groups of 5 people can say that haha.
We saw so many incredible animals, and some just feet from our car! The Big 5 is a term coined by big-game hunters that refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot (Elephant, Buffalo, Lion, Rhinoceros, and Leopard) and everyone who goes to Kruger aims to see all five. We saw Elephants, Water Buffalo, Lions, and Rhinos. We ALMOST saw a Leopard (we heard him moving in the bush and saw his kill in the tree) but alas, the big cat alluded us.
We also saw giraffes, a hyena, warthogs, hippos, impala, monkeys, baboons, eagles, and a crocodile. And Rafeeq only got yelled at once for sticking his whole body out of car (which is shocking considering how often we did it).
I also gave Rafeeq a quick stick lesson in the middle of Kruger. Despite the inevitable stalling, he actually did really well! However, patience was running low at that point and we had to see more animals before the park closed at 6 (if you’re not at the exit gate by that time, the car gets fined R700!), so Rafeeq’s moment in the driver’s seat didn’t last long.
Quick tip: Entrance to Kruger costs over R200 if you’re an international visitor, but only R66 for South African residents. If you have a South African visa (which all PCVs do) you get the resident price!
Monday morning we reluctantly made our way back to Pretoria to return the rental car and head back to our respective villages.
I had so much fun and I can’t wait for my next South African vacation!
P.S. All pics without my signature were stolen from Cathy 🙂
Vacation days spent: 2
Vacation days remaining: 46
Have you ever been to Hazyview, Blyde River Canyon, or Kruger? Tell me about it in the comments!