The varied and beautiful terrain of South Africa is as vast as all of Western Europe.  With so much to see, leave the driving to Drifters Adventures Overland Tours.  The price of petrol in Southern Africa is sky high, so even renting a vehicle can be expensive, and surely you won’t see as much of the country as on a Drifters Tour. (Opening photo by Drifter Kristyn Gore, from Norway.)

Our gear grinder on the 18-day South Africa and Swaziland tour was a burly Zimbabwean named Griffiths, who had arms as strong as a protected leadwood log, which can live in the bush for thousands of years, and lie for hundreds of years when dead, a great hangout for the White Headed Eagles.

Along the Panorama Route Valley in South Africa.

Our 15 passengers awoke before the sunrise at the Joburg Lodge and tossed luggage and gear into the oversized storage bins at the back of the truck, then each picked out a seat.  It was an adult summer camp on wheels. Drifters rotates the seating daily to give everyone a different perspective of the rolling landscape, but you will always sit with your spouse or friends.

A bush native browses.

It was a relief to leave the big city of Johannesburg behind, with an urban sprawl reminding me of Los Angeles.  As we left Joburg’s high veld hills we were temporarily bound in traffic due to a massive rush hour pileup. Another good reason to leave the driving to Drifters’ experienced guides/drivers.

All-in-all the South Africa “N” double lane freeway system is in very good condition; we drove north on N1 and then cut east on N4.  Our huge diesel 4x4 excursion truck was a blessing as we bullied our way around the jam, until we came to a slick and muddy section in the Panorama Route Valley when we had left all main highways.  We all clambered out of the snug green pod and threw dry sand and dirt under the dually back wheels and then gave the vehicle a nudge, but it was all done with good humor and we were soon again on our way to the Drifters Bush Lodge deep in the northern end of Mpumalanga Province (South Africa has nine provinces).

Our mobile carriage took us to the small dorp (town) of Dollstrom, well known as the fly fishing capital of the Drakensberg Mountains.  Tackle shops lined the streets and I basically wanted to go AWOL for the afternoon and drop some flies to see what jumped, but it was fall and trout season is in the summer and spring.

We pause for lunch at Pilgrim's Rest.

It was a snack stop for dried biltong (beef jerky)  in the town of Belfast before wheeling onto gravel for a due north course to the 18th century  gold mining town of Pilgrims Rest.  Lunch was at a quaint café in the sleepy dorp with walls of Drakensberg foothills all around. We were finally in the bush. My butternut squash soup was organically grown right around here.

We left the escarpment behind and dropped into the lowveld scrublands where the natives lived – animals. It was nightfall when we pulled into the Drifters Bush Lodge, a string of heavy canvas tents on platforms strung along pathways fingering through the bush. 

The Bush Lodge has hot water from solar power.

The camp had solar power and each tent had a private hot shower with low flush toilets provided by a water tower; one towel for each guest came with the shower; canvas flaps closed tightly to keep out the mosquitos, which I never saw at all on the tour.  I could have left the Malarone malaria tablets behind.

Griffiths was a dynamo of action and immediately pulled out the propane burners and whipped up dinner which was later served under a gazebo type affair that opened onto a large deck with amazing views of a crater like valley and blue-tinted mountains afar in the background. This was Africa personified; nothing in view but bush. Peter, from Germany, sported a t-shirt stating, “I Love Bush”. We could have also scribbled in “Camp” on his shirt.

The large deck provides great views of the bush.

Eve, Peter's wife, slipped on her Hollywood-style sunglasses to add some glamor on deck. Few noticed the poisonous green vine snake on the cook shack roof that slithered into a green bark fever tree, giving it absolute camouflage.

Everyone was in good cheer, but especially so when Griffiths announced “dinner is served” - by yourself, buffet style, on military-type stainless steel trays.  Hmm . . . lamb chops and lamb shish kabobs, or sausages, a fruit salad, and the local delicacy, “pap” which was cooked to the consistency of sticky rice, but was finely ground yellow maize. Pap would be a nice staple on the tour.

Griffiths was a one pot wonder chef.

It had been 12 hours of scenic driving to get to the Bush Lodge and everyone was bushed, so I snuck off to my suburban tent at the end of the farthest path, and the stars popped and glittered.

I awoke to the weird call of the Franklin bird. The Bush Lodge is in an unfenced private reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park, so I unzipped the tent flaps with trepidation to see what was lurking about.

Voosy finds a skull in the bush.

Plan for the day:  a walking safari with Drifters guide Voosy to see what to discover.  In single file we discovered civet cat scat, rhino scat, elephant scat, and kudu scat; the scat was scattered everywhere, marking each animal’s territory. Black rhinos eat leaves while white rhinos eat grass, so each leaves “behind” a different scat trail. I learned that female giraffe dung is tapered while the male is straight. I expected a wart hog to come barreling out of a hole in a termite mound to leave its angry calling card, too.  The dung beetles were having a field day. Humans use the toilet paper bush, a soft and ferny acacia.

Voosy pointed out the Blue Sweet Bush, with its roots used as an African Viagra. Each bush in the bush had a purpose: the thorns of the tooth pick bush kept the teeth clean; elephants backed into the thorny buffalo bush to protect the rear from predators.  After the three hour game drive it was back to the lodge for “brunch” – we were the out-in-the-bush lunch brunch bunch, a late morning meal combining breakfast and lunch. Griffith had concocted a savory goulash of various meats, cheeses, and beans, plus a salad and an egg dish. Most meals are one pot wonders that could have been featured on the Cast Iron Chef.

Elephants are playful and popular by Drifters guests.

We all anticipated the evening game drive with Drifters guide Isaac, who loaded us into an open air safari truck that took us into the heart of the veld where we saw impalas, cape buffaloes, giraffes, blue wildebeests, a sleepy jackal, yellow billed banana birds, and everyone’s favorite – elephants; and it was still only the second day of drifting through South Africa!

The majestic Blyde River Canyon.

It was a more leisurely drive the next day through the Bushbuck region where we visited the massive Blyde River Canyon. (Blyde means joy.) We walked over the spray splattered bridges above the cataracts called the Portals, where two rivers conjoined. Then Griffiths slid out the mobile camp kitchen for hotdogs al fresco in the shade in Portal Park.

We spent one night at Drifters Hazyview Lodge, built on stilts over the gushing Sabie River. The accommodations were wrapped around an indigenous subtropical forest in a Lincoln log-style structure with excellent rooms with shared bath facilities. The gathering spot before dinner was the bar, where Drifters guest Dave, from Switzerland, acted as the barkeep.  Alcohol and soft drinks are on the honor system with payment made upon leaving the lodge. A bigger lodge is planned here by 2014, with the present log structure to be torn down.

The lodge had a full kitchen, and Griffiths was in his culinary element with a late dinner of roast beef and egg and cheese scalloped potatoes. By the end of the evening the pot was scrapped down to the metal.

A leisure walk in the Hazyview Lodge woodlands.

On the morning walk Griffiths pointed out Monkey Orange Fruit, dangling pods on the Sausage Trees, Mistletoe, and Chinese Lantern plants.  I pulled down a stalk of papyrus grass along the trail and tickled the ear of Peter, from The Netherlands; he thought bugs were attacking him.

Next stop was Kruger National Park; click the sign and read on..

Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos by the editor and Drifters guests Peter Manig, and Kristyn Gore.