Lost in Africa

  • Miles travelled:  6750 (mostly in circles..)
  • Highlight: Being treated like kings at Khotso Backpackers
  • Lowlight: The moment we realised what the funny looking donkeys were
  • Hours spent wandering lost around the Mkhomazi Wilderness Park: Six

An interesting few days to say the least!

As we mentioned in an earlier post we’d agreed with Khotso Backpackers that we’d test run a new tour package of theirs. The first part of this was our homestay with Mapaseka. The plan was then that we’d hike back down the Sani Pass and over the border into SA, our guide would lead us over the hike down to Cobham nature reserve and we’d meet the guys there for a horse ride back to Khotso.

What could possibly go wrong?

We left Makhapung in good time in the morning, conscious that we had a long day ahead of us. Tour guides in 4x4s on the way up the pass kept pulling over to speak to our guide and find out why she was going in the opposite direction. She would tell them that we’re heading to Cobham and they’d go ‘Wow, that’s a long way.’

In retrospect, we probably should have realised there was a flaw in the plan at this stage.

Anyway, we carried on our hike down the pass which, it turns out, is not nearly as interesting as the hike up. It took nearly two hours to get down and we made it past the border at 12.

At this stage we started to realise that the plan was unravelling slightly. The guide had found out the night before that the normal route down to Cobham was closed off to stop drug traffickers from getting across the Lesotho/SA border. Instead, she said, we’d have to go the long way round, which meant walking all the way back down to the main road.

We’d already been walking for two hours, with legs sore from the previous two days of hiking, so after we spotted a sign saying ‘13km to go’ we were more than happy to be offered a ride in the back of a passing bakkie down to the start of the trail. By this point it was nearly 1pm and our guide had told the horse riding guys that we’d be in Cobham by 12pm.

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Nevertheless, we’d been told it was about a three hour hike from the top of the Sani Pass so, despite going the long way round, we figured it couldn’t be much further, especially with the extra time we’d saved in the bakkie.

We set off into the nature reserve, climbing up over a ridge behind a large troop of baboons, and started making our way happily through the fields. Eventually, we came to a sign warning that the trail in this direction was also closed. Our guide, however, was confident that she had spoken to the staff at Cobham the day before and that it was definitely open, so we pushed ahead anyway.

As we don’t normally hike with a guide, we were making the most of the opportunity and not paying much attention to where we were going on the map. We trusted they would lead us the right way and focused instead on admiring the beautiful scenery in the park.

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It had been raining on and off all morning and the clouds were starting to get more aggressive so, sadly, most of the mountain landscape was lost to us. Although, it did mean Jamie finally got to wear his favourite poncho.

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Anyway, after a few hours of following the trail through the long grass on the hilltops overlooking the valley, our guide suddenly veered off the trail and started making their way down. Again, we just assumed they knew where they were going and so followed on without being particularly concerned.

By this point we’d been walking for nearly four hours and had only stopped for half an hour for lunch. We weren’t particularly tired yet and the rain was picking up so we decided to push ahead without bothering to take rest stops.

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After a while, the guide admitted that they weren’t entirely sure where we were and that, given the weather was taking a turn for the worse, we’d better start making our way down from the mountain. We still weren’t especially concerned as we had a few hours to go until darkness and could see what looked like a farm house in the distance.

The next hour and a half was spent contouring the hill overlooking the valley, picking our way through bushes and clamouring over rocks, with the ominous sound of baboons barking in the distance. We were getting more and more tired as we tried to find a way down to the valley but kept meeting with hidden rivers or big gaps in the rock. We hadn’t had electricity for two days so were both very low on battery and had assumed our guide would be able to use their phone if necessary. Unluckily for us, it seemed there was some kind of issue with signal in the area so none of us could make any calls to the guys at Khotso to explain why we were three hours late.

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Eventually, we managed to get through to James at Khotso to explain that we were lost, nowhere near Cobham and that we were heading for a big farm house in the distance in the hope that they could tell us where we were. We could see a fence and some strange looking livestock which at first we took for horses, then, as we started getting closer, decided must be donkeys. The problem was that the couldn’t see a gate to get into the enclosure and couldn’t see how far round the fence went.

Another hour or so later we finally made it to the valley, feeling pretty exhausted and growing more anxious as the rain continued and darkness neared. We were getting closer and closer to the field and were hoping that we could just hop the fence and get to the house through the donkey field.

As we approached the field, however, we realised that these were some very strange looking donkeys indeed, with short spiky hair and funny looking legs. We’d had sight of this farmhouse for miles over the valley, but the mist and grey clouds meant the visibility wasn’t very good.

My heart sank when we got close enough to see black and white stripes starting to appear on the ‘funny looking donkeys’.

‘Holy sh*t, Jamie, they’re not donkeys, they’re Zebra!’

Turns out the ‘farmhouse’ we were aiming for was a safari lodge and the fence we were hoping to casually hop over was actually a fifteen feet tall barbed wire fence guarding a private game reserve. To make things worse, the fence continued for miles in each direction with no end in sight.

We could see zebra and bok but had no idea what other animals might be in the reserve – buffalo, wildebeest, lions?

Jamie has a whistle built into one of the clips on his backpack and we tried to get the attention of someone in the distance, but no luck. By this point, our guide was on the phone to mountain rescue trying to explain we were outside some kind of safari park but couldn’t work out how to get across it. If we’d had data, we could have just googled the name of the place but none of us had access to working phones. We figured there couldn’t be many private reserves in the area, but neither mountain rescue or the Khotso guys had any idea where we were.

Eventually we found some faint vehicle tracks in the grass leading to a gate that appeared to be unlocked and had to make a call – should we make a dash across the reserve and pray that those were bok underneath that tree in the distance not lions?

We reasoned that any reserve with dangerous animals wouldn’t have an unsecured gate that we could break through and we were (mostly) sure that the guest houses weren’t fenced off so we decided to make a run for it.

Luckily, we were right and we were finally found by some game wardens who let us know we were in the grounds of the Sani Valley Lodge and that, thank God, they didn’t have any lions.

Eight hours and many miles of walking later, we finally made it back to Khotso. Our poor guide was distraught by this point and almost in tears at the mess up. It didn’t help that the safari lodge guys kept telling us how lucky we were to have made it off the mountain before darkness and the storm kicked in.

Other than the fact that we were completely exhausted, we hadn’t been too concerned about being in danger. We could see houses, after all, and still had several hours of daylight left. I think things must have seemed a lot worse on the other end of the phone, however, and given that we had had to be rescued four or five hours later than expected, several miles from the location we were aiming for, the Khotso guys were extremely happy to find us in once piece.

We were shuttled back to the farm, placed in front of the warm fire and treated to a cold beer and plate of hot fish pie.

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The guys were incredible and went out of their way to make it up to us – offering us glasses of warming brandy and plying us with anything we desired for the rest of the evening. We tried to go to bed at one point but, after Jamie stopped by the kitchen for glasses of water, were pulled back into the thick of it. Several glasses of (straight, urgh) brandy later and we were invited out to the local ‘bar’ to celebrate our safe return. The guys didn’t let us buy a thing all night to make up for putting us in ‘mortal peril’ (Alexis’ words) as we made our way through shots of Tequila, Jager, unknown purple stuff . . . you get the picture.

We were woken the next morning, feeling more than a little confused and extremely achy, with trays of breakfast and tea in bed. Despite the adventures of the previous day, we were very sad to be leaving this incredible place and especially these incredible people.

We were even more sad that five hours of driving awaited us. One of the worst hangovers of my life and the less said about that day the better…

(PS. We’re not totally ignorant and obviously do know the name of our guide but they feel bad enough already so no names needed!)


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