After a great few days by the beach at Lekeitio and assorted day trips we’re on the move again. Today we’re headed for the Picos de Europa, the jagged deeply fissured mountains that straddle southeast Asturias, southwest Cantabria and northern Castilla y León with some of Spain’s most spectacular mountain scenery and best hiking. It’s a wild landscape of imposing limestone peaks, glistening lakes and open meadows filled with grazing cattle, sheep and goats. Eagles soar on the high mountain thermals as glacial water plunges down sheer rock faces into stunning river gorges.
We cram everything back into the car and head for the motorway. The rain is biblical as we approach Santander this is ridiculous. Beyond Santander, we leave the motorway and the rain eases. We follow the River Deva southward upstream through the stunning Desfiladero de la Hermida gorge to the town of Potes where we’re staying for 2 nights. Potes is a hugely popular staging post on the southeastern edge of the Picos, with the Macizo Ándara rising close by and as we’ve now climbed into the mountains the drop in temperature is quite distinct. It’s now 13 degrees eek! Apparently Potes is overrun in peak periods so we’re hoping that early May means it won’t be to busy. The heart of Potes is a cluster of bridges, towers and charming cobbled backstreets that have been restored in traditional slate, wood and red tile after considerable damage during the civil war. The Quiviesa and Deva rivers meet close to the heart of this distinctly charming town.
We take an exploratory cycle into town and beyond. It’s been a long day in the car and we need to stretch our legs. We return to our hotel to shower and change and head out for dinner. Brownie finds a restaurant that serves fantastic enormous entrecôte steaks which we wash down with a local red wine. Tomorrow we’re headed 23km west of Potes to Fuente Dé, where a dramatic cable car provides the main access to the high hills and some scenic walks in this area.
Today we’re heading for Guernica, a name synonymous with the brutality of the Spanish Civil War. The town suffered a devastating bombing raid that levelled the city in 26th April 1937. The German and Italian forces who undertook the bombing were supporting Francisco Franco to overthrow the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War. The bombing almost entirely destroyed the city and many civilians perished.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), Guernica was considered to be the northern bastion of the Republican resistance and the center of Basque culture. For this reason, it became a prime target for Francisco Franco. It also came to prominence thanks in part to Pablo Picasso. The events of the horrific bombing which inspired his most famous piece of artwork – “Guernica.” While “Guernica” does not contain any direct reference to the bombing it does show suffering and destruction. The painting gained monumental status serving as a visit reminder of the cruelties and tragedies of war.
We visit the Picasso mural first and then walk to the Park of the People’s of Europe which features two enormoussculptures by Eduardo Chillida and Henry Moore. The sculpture by Chillida is called “Gure Aitaren Etxea” which means “The house of our father.” It was ordered by the Basque Government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Guernica bombing. It is a monument dedicated to peace. The sculpture by Henry Moore is entitled “Large Figure in a shelter” and is part of the collection “War Helmets,” that the artist started during the World War II.
The bombing raids suffered in the Basque country from July 1936 onwards meant that the Basque Government decreed that air raid shelters be built in all towns. The Mayor of Guernica instructed municipal architect Castor Uriarte to build at least six shelters for public use. At the same time a large number of private shelters were also constructed. We visit two of the shelters dug into the mountain side in Union Square and the audio visual and sound effects are chilling and give us goosebumps. It’s a stark reminder of the ferocity of the air raid in 1936.
The Talleres de Gernika factory built two shelters for is workers in September 1936. We visited one of them, the “Astra” shelter that took its name from the renowned Astra 400 “la puro” handgun which was manufactured in Gernika in the first half of the 20th century.
This year’s Tour de France is starting in Bilbao and the first three stages of the race will commence is the Basque region of Northern Spain. There is huge pride that the region is once again hosting race stages and whilst in Guernica we visited a fan park setup to encourage locals and tourists to watch the race when it starts on 1st July. It’s an uplifting end to a very sombre visit to Guernica.
We leave Guernica and head to the coast and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe a tiny island off the northern coast of Spain. The island is connected to the mainland by a thin, winding, manmade pathway and 242 steps need to be climbed in order to reach the chapel at the top. The chapel is dedicated to John the Baptist, and has been standing in the same place since the 10th century. There have been several tombs discovered in and around the church dating back to the 9th and 12th centuries. The site was attacked by Francis Drake in 1593 and has also suffered several fires.
The hermitage is also home to several offerings from sailors who survived shipwrecks. It’s said that at the start of the tuna fishing season local fishermen come and say a prayer and make an offering to wish for a successful season.
It’s a steep climb down from the top of the hill to the start of the causeway and we’re dreading the return walk. It’s a warm afternoon and we get quite hot walking to the top but it’s so worth it and the views out across the Atlantic are fantastic. It’s a grim climb back up the hill but we encourage each other and eventually make it to the top. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you’ll recognise the site and it’s definitely worth a visit. It’s free to visit you just need to book a ticket online in advance as visitor numbers are limited for safety reasons.
After 4 great days in San Sebastian it’s time to leave and head for our next stop Lekeitio, via the house and grounds of sculpture Eduardo Chillida. At his house and extensive grounds we’re presented with the evolution of Chillida’s work over a period of 50 years.
The park displays around 40 monumental sculptures made of alabaster, steel and granite, while the farmhouse shows, chronologically, Chillida’s journey through sculpture, from his early drawings on paper and preliminary depictions of the human form in plaster and chamotte through to his most iconic creations.
Walking around the 30 acre site we marvel at Chillida’s creativity. The sculptures silently sit in the grounds blending seamlessly into the surrounding natural landscape. They don’t feel out of place in fact they’re perfectly sited as watchful guardians of their environment. The grounds are a place of solitude and serenity. A meditative space that fills us with a huge sense of peace and calm.
We drive to Lekeitio marvelling at the stunning coastline and wide sandy beaches. We stop for lunch at Deba and chat to a Basque fisherman who on Coronation Day asks us our thoughts on Prince Charles. We advise that we pro-Royals. Our fisherman is an ardent Republican and he advises that the financial embezzlement scandal that engulfed Spain’s previous King, Juan Carlos means he has no time for Royalty. He wishes us happy Coronation Day and we continue our journey to Lekeitio.
We locate our lovely apartment where we’ll be staying for the next 5 nights in the port town of Lekeitio.
Yesterday’s visit to the battlefields was immense and we’re still talking about it at breakfast this morning. We’ll certainly rewatch Zulu through a new lens when we return home. We awake to bright sunshine and blue skies which is a relief as today we’re back on the road again, this time it’s a short 100km drive to the Valley Lodge at Babanango Game Reserve.
But just before we leave Dundee for Babanango, we go and visit the Talana Museum which is a battlefield site turned heritage park. There are memorials, cairns and 27 historic buildings relating to the 1899 Anglo-Boer Battle of Talana. Spread across the site, there are comprehensive displays of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars, local history, Zulu beading, glasswork, a very detailed exhibition relating to the local mining industry, a section on Mahatma Gandhi located in the original court house in which he was tried and sentenced on two occasions. This fascinating exhibition focuses on Gandhi’s time in South Africa, Dundee and the context of the rest of his life. Sadly, we don’t have more time to explore the wealth of exhibits.
The drive from Dundee to Babanango takes us through the big skies of Zululand. Zulu means ‘Heaven’ and the vast rolling green landscape is befitting of the name. It’s a quite beautiful drive although sadly the townships and villages that we pass through are evidence of just how much poverty there is in South Africa. We’re stopped by the police en-route as part of a routine stop and upon discovering that we’re British the lead officer jokes about our inability to keep a Prime Minister in post for more than 6 weeks.
Throughout the drive we see a number of white stone circles. We’d seen a number during our Battlefields tour and learnt that these white formations represent the “heavenly Jerusalem”, or “Zion” for a local community of Zionist Christians. The stone circle is a meeting place for believers who don’t require or more poignantly cannot afford to build an expensive church in order to worship in. We see a couple in use with worshippers in prayer but it felt disrespectful to take photos. These enigmatic almost insignificant structures are in complete contrast to the wide open landscape of KwaZulu Natal but feel strongly at the heart of every community.
We finally reach our turnoff from the R68 and join an unmade road. We shake rattle and roll in a cloud of dust for around 10km. The hire car copes admirably and I’m keeping everything crossed that Brownie drives on the way out. I don’t fancy another stint of off-roading!! We finally reach our destination, Babanango Game Reserve. Its the first project being undertaken by African Habitat Conservancy (AHC), established by German philanthropist Hellmuth Weisser and seasoned South African conservation and safari industry veteran Jeffrey van Staden to support the conservation of African wildlife in the north-west regions of KwaZulu-Natal through investment and community development. It’s seen several private game farms and land owned by the local communities brought together to form the reserve. With a range of habitats and varied topography, the Reserve offers mammal sightings, including buffalo, giraffe, nyala, zebra and impala. The Reserve is also home to rich reptile and invertebrate life, and more than 250 species of birds. This will be our first game reserve experience having previously only visited national parks in Southern Africa so we’re very much looking forward to everything Babanango has to offer over the next 3 nights.
As we hand over the keys to the car and our luggage is whisked away to our room, we swiftly come to the conclusion that we’ve landed in game reserve paradise. We’re ushered to our table for a late lunch, order up a G&T and tuck into delicious fishcakes, salad and oriental beef stir-fry. We could get used to this! At 4pm we meet for our first game drive and are introduced to Mr X, who is we discover a fabulous guide and an absolute walking encyclopedia of wildlife, particularly birds.
We commence our drive and almost immediately spot a beautiful black rhino who is a new arrival and unusually for rhinos, quite inquisitive. She’s 3 1/2 years old so hopefully she has many happy years ahead of her at Babanango. Currently, there are 10 black and 18 white rhino on the Reserve and we keep our fingers crossed that we get to see some more of them. As we travel around the Reserve we see Impala, Blue Wildebeast, Zebras, Eland, Red Hartebeast, Giraffes, a nest of 20 Ostrich eggs and 2 Cheetahs.
The two cheetahs are brothers and have only recently been allowed to leave their boma in which they spent 2 months. A boma is traditionally known throughout Africa as an enclosure, stockade or fort used to secure and protect people’s livestock. Boma’s can also be used for wildlife introduction to settle and habituate an animal to its new home. The cheetahs seem to have acclimatised beautifully and look to be loving life on the Reserve.
The cheetah brothers are adorable and we could sit and watch them all day as they gambol around. We head back to the lodge in the dark bouncing around in the jeep after an excellent couple of hours in the bush. Dinner is a gourmet delight and one of the staff team regales us with a Babanango tradition of “Story of the Day”. He recites in sonorous tones an excerpt from Thabo Mbeki’s speech I am an African It’s a powerful, thought provoking end to a fantastic day. We retire to bed with big smiles and fantastic memories. We’ve got to be up a 5am for our morning game drive, god we’ve missed these eary starts!!
After a good day of rest yesterday with gallons of wine and an excellent braai it’s time on Day 32 to get our walking shoes back on and head out for our final hike at the Royal Natal National Park and it only seems right to take the Sunday Falls Hike on a glorious sunny Sunday.
It’s a much shorter walk than anything tackled previously with only a slight incline as our legs are still feeling it a bit after Fridays exploits at Tugela Falls. It’s a gorgeous day and it’s great to walk between the beautiful blossoms of the Protea flowers and the lush grass. The waterfall is gentle and its most striking feature is the strong copper coloured rocks of the riverbed.
South Africa has the finest pre-historic collection of rock art in the world with art in national parks and reserves around the country. The most important of these sites are found in the uKhahlmba Drakensberg Park, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the importance of this cultural heritage as well as being an area of natural importance. There are approximately 20,668 individual paintings in about 500 caves and overhangs are heavily protected. Upon completion of our hike we visit the excellent visitor centre at the Royal Natal National Park and they organise a guide to take us on a hike to see the San Rock Art. This is too good an opportunity to see some of the oldest cave paintings in the world.
The San rock art is over 3,000 years old and the only place in the Royal Natal National Park where visitors can view it. Our guide, Sizwe is part of a group of community guides who lives in the village the other side of the Tugela River. He explains how San rock art depicts the religious beliefs and practises of the time, providing us with an insight into the lives of their lives. The San would draw the art in a trance-like state. This trance-like state was brought about through medicine, dancing and drumming. It was a way in which the artist could connect with their ancestors and the spiritual world.
The rock art is quite stunning and our first sight of it is very powerful. The hunter-gatherer San are among the oldest cultures on Earth and are thought to be descended from the first inhabitants of what is now Botswana and South Africa. The painting that are visible depict hunters and their animal prey. The San used red, brown and yellow pigments as paint. They made white paint from white clay or bird droppings, black from manganese minerals and charcoal. They never used blue and green. The blood of an Eland was often mixed with the pigments. They made their brushes from animal hair or bird feathers. It was fascinating to be able to view the rock art and understand the thinking behind it and the execution. We drive back to the hostel to start packing as we’re on the move tomorrow to the Battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.
Breakfast is at 7am this morning as we’re off on a boat for an ocean safari. At 8am we walk 5 minutes down the beach to Barra Reef Divers and meet the skippers who explain that we’ll be out for around 2.5 hours and that they hope to spot humpback whales’ dolphins and fingers crossed a whaleshark that we potentially could snorkel with (an 18m long vegetarian softy). We collect masks, fins and snorkels and board the rib. Its fairly choppy and a number of the group are starting to look a little pale. The waves are 1-1.5 metres high and there’s quite a swell. Sadly, the whale sharks prove to be elusive despite a long search. We do get to see dolphins and humpback whales fairly close up including two babies. The waters off Mozambique and down to South Africa are where the whales come every year to breed and give birth and it’s a great opportunity to see them. We head towards a reef and drop over the side of the boat in hopeful anticipation. The reef is almost non-existent and what is left is in a very very poor shape with few fish. Its incredibly disappointing after being informed the night before by the dive company owner just how good the reef was. We make the best of it and enjoy a splash around in the warm Indian Ocean.
We return to dry land and take a walk downtown to a small market, en-route the skipper of the boat drives past us in his truck and offers us a lift. We jump in, some more elegantly than others I hasten to add!! On arrival the market traders are absolutely delighted to see their first customers of the day.
We return to our chalet with our purchases and prepare for an afternoon on the beach with numerous dips in the sea’ sunbathing and a swim in the pool en-route home to shower and change for dinner. The beach is absolutely beautiful’ stretches for miles and is deserted bar about 8 people. Insane.
Saturday dawns slightly cloudier and more sultry than yesterday. I wake at 5am and after reading in an attempt to return to my slumber I can’t fight it any more and I get up at around 6.30am for a walk on the still mostly deserted beach whilst Brownie gentle snores in our bed. After breakfast we go for a swim in the pool and read for a while. The tide is coming in and we decide it’s time to work off breakfast with a bodyboard. There’s no one in the sea and we have a great time.
Whilst some of the group go with the truck down to Tofo, further down the coast, we decide to go for a late lunch at a fabulous beach restaurant, the Green Turtle. I have a plate of enormous prawns and Brownie has the freshest of crab salads. It’s a really nice opportunity for us just to spend some time together and dress up a little in our dresses that we’d purchased earlier in the week in Eswatini. We return to our chalet to pack at about 6 as the sun gently descends. It’s been another glorious day.
The campsite at Tshipise has a large resident monkey population and we went to bed slightly anxious that we might have visitors during the night. Casper & Rimson frequently remind us just how smart the African primates are including the ability to open a zip of a tent. At 3am however our biggest concern is that we’ll end up either in Kansas or a dry tree branch will crack and fall onto our tent as the wind blows a real hoolie. Brownie gets up to retrieve our by now very dry washing. Heaven forbid it gets blown away and scattered across the camping grounds. We suddenly have visions of the monkeys modelling our clothes first thing in the morning.
We wake at 6am thankfully unscathed from an extremely blustery night. Makes a nice change to have a lie-in. We always remember to take the small wins where we can when we’re on the road. Rimson cooks scrambled eggs and bacon a great Saturday breakfast. Our last one on this particular truck as thus afternoon we’re headed for a hotel in Johannesburg prior to joining the new truck for the next leg of our trip to Eswatini, Mozambique and finally back into South Africa.
Today’s leg is around 500km from Tshipise to Jo’Burg another big driving day. It’s a road day and a boring one at that the scenery is drab and we spend our time staring out the window, sleeping, reading and snacking.
We repeatedly pass Heymanns Kole trucks from Harare on the road a reminder of the huge mines we passed in Zimbabwe. It’s cooler today and we need to add another layer after the 32-35 degree heat that we’ve had in Zimbabwe all week. It’s very irritating as we’d got used to hot sunny weather whilst in Zimbabwe.
We arrive at our hotel at 2pm to be advised that we cannot check in as the system is down so we adjourn to the bar for £2 pints of lager and Crystal Palace on the tv. We eventually get to our rooms for the longest shower ever. We have an early dinner of copious amounts of meat and chips and retire to the biggest bed with the crispest whitest sheets we’ve seen in a long time and sleep like babies.
Alarm sounds at 6am this morning as we’re leaving for a walk at 7.30am. After breakfast we commence our Game Walk which will be a good change from rattling around in a safari truck. Within the Game Reserve there is an interwoven network of 9 trails that traverse Mlilwane and this morning we will be walking the Hippo Trail which is approx 8km and will take us around 3.5 hours to complete. The sun’s starting to peek through burning off the clouds and there’s blue sky already making an appearance.
There’s mist on the mountains and this green paradise with leafy ferns at knee height strongly resembles the Lake District. We repeatedly remind ourselves that we are actually in Southern Africa. As we walk we encounter Zebras, Impala, Bush Buck, Kudu, Warthogs, Wildebeast and Crocodiles. The earth is a beautifully terracotta hued and contrasts brilliantly with the bright green landscape. We encounter a colourful colony of bee-eater birds and watch fascinated as the swoop in an out of their burrows in search of their as it turns out not so elusive prey.
We return for lunch of noodles and salad and after some more laundry flop into the pool for a cool down. An intermittant read, a nap and a cold shower brrrr completes our afternoon. Refreshed and ready for a delicious Braai dinner we toast the day with a chilled foamy beer.
Sondzela Backpackers has table tennis and a pool table so that’s our after dinner activities sorted quite hilariously. We retire to our tents at 10pm smug in the knowledge that we won’t be leaving until 8.30am in the morning resulting in a lie-in until 7am – you’ve just gotta love these small overlanding wins.
After 2.5 simply awesome days, this morning we leave the magnificent tumbling falls behind us and head south to Hwange National Park aboard our Nomad Africa truck. Our guide is Rensom and driver Casper. Its a 200km drive along fairly good paved roads.
Hwange is the largest of Zimbabwe’s national parks and offers excellent opportunities for viewing the diversity of wildlife that calls the park home.
We stop enroute passing a large number of coal mines many of which have seen Chinese investment, capitalising on the rich array of natural resources Zimbabwe has to offer.
Just before we arrive at Hwange we stop to visit the Painted Dog Conservation Centre to learn about these endangered animals that personally we knew nothing about. Painted dogs (lycaon pictus), also known as African wild dogs or painted wolves are one of the most endangered predators in Africa with less than 7,000 believed to be left in the wild. They can now only be found in small pockets of Africa, with one of the last strongholds being in Zimbabwe. We visit the rehabilitation centre and also observe a pack of 3 Painted Dogs that are resting in the shade about 200m from the Centre.
Lunch consists of freshly cooked burgers in a bun with a mixed salad and cheese and oranges quarters for dessert. Hoping that this is a sign of things to come as the food was tasty and plentiful. We drive for approx 30 mins and arrive at our location for the next 2 nights.
We’re staying at Miombo Elephant Camp & Little Miombo just outside Hwange National Park and on arrival we’re advised that as they’re not full we don’t have to camp and we’ll be staying in a room instead. We’ll it’s actually a luxury safari tent and it’s fabulous. We have our own water-hole which is floodlit so we’re hopeful for some night game sightings particularly elephants.
Tomorrow morning we’re scheduled to go on a whole day game drive leaving at 7am.
After a restful night’s sleep and a long lay-in we head off in search of breakfast in 32 degrees. It’s Saturday and feels really quiet strange as there’s no hockey kit to ready in preparation for a match, no fantasy football league to argue over and no Match of the Day to record. There’s also no attendance at birthday parties to celebrate the milestones of Ellen & Jo at 30 & 60 respectively!!
We take a wander around town to locate our Nomad truck meeting point for 2 days time. Its not busy and local traders are eager to engage us in conversation in the hope of making a sale of everything from wooden bowls, a set of carved “big 5” animals to an 8 foot giraffe beautifully welded from recycled metal!! We gently advise that we’re not in the market currently. Personally, I quite fancied this rhino but sadly he’s not for sale.
We return to the rest camp and retreat from the very hot sun. I catch-up by writing a chapter of my blog and a read of my book whilst Brownie concentrates on learning Spanish – trips to Spanish speaking destinations in 2023 are in the pipeline so we’ll be reliant on her resulting studies.
We head for the Lookout Cafe for a sundowner and early dinner. It overlooks a horseshoe bend in the Zambezi River and the bridge crossing in the distance being the border between Zimbabwe on the left and Zambia on the right. It’s the night before full-moon and the Zambezi glistens as it glides by. En-route to our watering hole very excitedly we book a helicopter flight over the falls for tomorrow afternoon.
The following day after large quantities of wise water the night before, we have a very late lunch and a lounge by the pool. Our helicopter pick-up is at 4pm and the helipad is just a 5 mins drive from the rest camp. After a weigh-in and safety briefing we join our Flight of Angels with 2 other passengers. Everyone gets a window seat and I get the golden ticket up front next to the pilot.
The flight is just 12 mins but affords us with a fantastic opportunity to view the falls from above and appreciate just how vast they really are. It’s summer here currently and the resulting reduction in the water flow allows us to view the whole of the canyon as the water flows down which at other times of the year would be completely obscured by towering plumes of mist as vast quantities of water cascade over the falls. We see elephants crossing the river as we return to the helipad. It’s our first game sighting of the trip other than our resident pesky monkeys who when they’re not terrorising me in the washblocks are desperate to get through the windows into our hut!!
I mentioned previously that it was nearly full moon and tonight it is and we return to the Falls at around 7 to take a tour with the park guides to witness a lunar bow. Lunar rainbows are viewed when the moon is near to full (when it is at its brightest). A Lunar rainbow is a rainbow produced by light reflected off the surface of the moon refracting off of in this case the spray generated by the waterfall into the air. Luna rainbows are relatively faint, due to the smaller amount of light reflected from the surface of the moon. Because the light is usually too faint to excite the cone color receptors in human eyes, it is difficult for the human eye to discern colors in a moonbow. As a result, they often appear to be white.
We spend around an hour marvelling at the truly awesome spectacle and feel very blessed to have been able to witness our first Lunar Bow. We head back to camp to pack after a truly memorable day. We are leaving camp at 6.30am to join our Nomad truck.