Journey to the iron mountains…

Our guide stopped to allow me to take a picture of the Waterberg Mountains.  While I got my camera settings correct in the dim light of the cloudy morning he explained to the other two guests on the drive that the mountains that surround the Marakele National Park were very rich in iron ore.  The name of the closest town, Thabazimbi, even translates directly to mountains of iron.  And it was because of the high iron ore content in the mountains that the area was know to experience some of the most dramatic electric storms in the country.  Which explained a whole lot because, the evening before, driving through to the town of Thabazimbi I got to experience one of those legendary storms first hand.

It is year two of my Sanparks challenge to see all the Sanparks run national parks in South Africa.  It was also my birthday so I decided that a quick escape into the bush was called for.  I made my mind up on Thursday afternoon, booked the accommodation on Friday morning and hit the road early on the Sunday morning before my birthday.  Last minute trips are always filled with adventure.  I only checked whether after and saw Sunday was meant to rain.  Its a pity my weather app does not provide a severity of the rain alongside the chance.  Plotting my route I saw that I had to pass the Pilanesberg so I decided to leave earlier and drive through the park, stopping for lunch before heading on through to Marakele.

That proved to be a faithful decision.  I got to the Bakubung gate just after 7:30am and started to make my way through the park to the Pilanesberg centre for a late breakfast/early lunch.  At around 9:00am I stopped next to a singing Rufous Naped Lark to get some shots.  A couple pulled up to me and I instinctively greeted them with a polite “I’m a birder, just a bird and nothing else to see” when they pointed out that they had been following a pair of cheetahs who would surely emerge from the long grass.  And sure enough, not 5 minutes later the two males came striding through the grass alongside the road, from almost directly behind the bird I had just been taking pictures of and I had not even noticed them.  I spent a magically 15 or 20 minutes following them, mostly struggling with the focus on my 300mmF4L lens because of the distracting high grass.

I moved off after the cheetahs went in the opposite direction, taunting a very agitated male wildebeest as they did.  A few minutes later the first rains of the morning caught me, bucketing down for a solid 30 minutes.  I eventually got to one of the hides and parked the car because it had become too hazardous to drive with almost zero visibility and animals in or very close to the road.  I grabbed my lunch and set off once again heading towards Thabazimbi and was caught in a second batch of rain.  When the GPS took me east I thought I had finally seen the last of the rain which was moving south west to north east.

I was unfortunately mistaken because my GPS likes taking round-about routes to what should be straightforward journeys.  The route it chose took an almost 110km detour to get to the same point a 40km stretch of road would have got me to (as I found out on the return journey).  And by the time I got to the outskirts of Thabazimbi I could see the lightning flickering under the heavy grey clouds that had formed a shroud over the iron mountains.  I entered the Thabazimbi town in rain that was falling sideways in thick sheets that made visibility almost zero.  I had no choice to once again pull off and sit the storm out, taking the chance to grab a coffee and catch the few bars of cellphone signal I could find.

By the time I got to the park after the storm had passed it was almost too late to do anything else but make supper and prepare for the next morning when my game drive would hopefully let me see more of the park.  But first I had to make my way to the camp I was staying in which proved to be and adventure in itself as the downpour had left newly formed rivers across the path of the only road in and out of the main camp which would have been impossible to pass in a normal sedan.  As it was, the rain gave me reason to feel the Kia was a good purchase.

The rainwater was still flowing the next morning when I got up to go for a morning game drive.  The ranger made the most of it splashing through the mud and generally driving like a rally driver.  Unfortunately that was about the most exciting thing about the drive.  We did not see much else in the 2 hours we were out, one elephant with a broken ear and the sound of a lion roaring in the distance.  The birding looked to be better but again there was not much time to get many shots.  The park itself is a little bit different in that it is divided into two halves, with the main camp in the half with none of the big five (except maybe rhino although I did not see any) and the larger animals and big five all in the other half.  I went out again later in the day and managed to see a little bit more.  And upon returning to camp also did some birding and got some time with a couple blue headed agamas.

I had two close run ins with giants of the bush in my short time in the park.  The first was with a large male elephant who, after having a stand-off with a compatriot who he bested, headed straight for where I was parked and taking photos of him from.  I turned around and headed in the opposite direction but he kept coming for a while.  The second was a little scarier.  Heading back into the big five section of the park I came across a family of white rhino grazing along the road.  I stopped a good distance away but the male still rather agitated.  So I decided not to attempt a pass.  After some 20 minutes of watching them, with the male not seeming to calm down the family moved off into the bush, which I took as a signal to move passed.  But as I passed the spot that the rhinos had moved into the bush at, the male came rushing back out and charged the Kia.  He was just protecting his family, and I could see that so I should have waited a few more minutes for them to leave completely.  The mega-fauna definitely making sure I knew my place in the hierarchy of the bush.

I left the Marakele National Park on Tuesday morning, my birthday morning and made the drive back to Johannesburg. I stopped at the cableway at Hartebeespoort Dam and went up to take in the view, then at Maggies farm in Lanseria to get some chicken pies, probably the best in Joburg.  I had added another Sanparks administrated park to my challenge list, number 8 of 21 in my challenge.  September will maybe see me get a few more onto the list.  Every new one to the list is an adventure, every missing one an adventure in the making. But as I discovered, sometimes the journey is almost as much fun as the destination, so I’ll keep on trucking!

My Sanparks List (in the order I have done them):

  1. Camdeboo National Park
  2. Addo Elephant National Park
  3. Mountain Zebra National Park
  4. Table Mountain National Park
  5. Kruger National Park
  6. West Coast National Park
  7. Karoo National park
  8. Marakele National Park



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