Lowveld Self-Drive Adventure
Christmas in July

Three Rondawels. Mpumalanga. C Duplessis

So, we're going to Tzaneen, my wife and I, during the World Cup. Which kids should we take? We must take our 9-year-old daughter, but what about our 17-year-old son? Will this be one of the last family holidays we take with him, and if so, how can we fool him into coming with us?

After a brief discussion and the promise of a large flat screen TV and satellite, we gave him no choice. He did, however, perform when he thought he might miss the Final and the Fan Park party with his friends, so I used some air miles to book a flight for him back to Cape Town from Nelspruit near the end of our trip.We put our car on the train to Joburg, flew from Cape Town and drove to Tzaneen via Polokwane, all pretty painless with not too much travel tension. We arrived in Tzaneen and settled in for six nights with our friends at the magnificent King's Walden guesthouse.It is a beautiful house in a glorious garden with a magnificent view in and of the hills above Tzaneen.During our stay, we cycled, walked, talked, ate, drank, played football, read, watched football, shopped, and generally 'dwaaled' around. Our daughter was fully occupied with the children of our friends. Our son not so, but we fed him with food and movies and he stayed on the cusp of surly. We all braved the Magoebaskloof Canopy tour; phoofy sliding high above the rivers and trees of the lush forest. The whiff of danger and the thrill of the ride appealed to all of us.One day we drove up to Louis Trichardt after hearing of a particularly fine fabric shop,. After shopping, advanced hunger drove us to the romantically named Clouds End Hotel In search of some fine country cuisine. Oh dear no - very sad, the worst boarding school fare in a musty time warp.

On to the Kruger National Park. I've never been there and we had an expert guide in our Tzaneen host. We headed to Skukuza and spot animals straight away, we're all excited. Among the rangers there are lots of "roger that?" "over and out ", "what did he say?" and "where ?"

Yes, we saw the big five and lots more but my highlight - and I believe the highlight for us all - was the giant Python stretched across the road, with a big fat belly. It didn't budge so we stopped and it eventually slithered away at very high speed, which dispelled my "I'm not afraid of such a big fat snake it's so slow" myth.

The rondawels are a slightly strange architectural form for me. Iconic I know but hard to fit out with furniture and it seems to be hard to put decent lighting in them - why? There is no shortage of meat or booze at the rest camps, which I imagine explains the low speed limits. The carvery supper at Pretoriuskop was my son's idea of heaven - he never needs encouragement to go back for more.

I find it very hard to read by large fluorescent light, lying on the opposite of an orthopaedic mattress, but it's apparently all part of the fun and it helped get up far too early for more game viewing. The 17-year old wanted to sleep in, so he missed the leopard ( up the tree watching hyena's eat the remains of his kudu). Only the Big 4 for him...Finally the long drive back to Cape Town. We leave our son to go to the airport with our friends for his mercy flight home. We decide to head towards Clarens in the Free State - we heard it's beautiful, maybe a little chintzy, but a good place to spend the night. We are going to drive through Barberton, Badplaas then up through the Mpumalanga highveld, to the Golden Gate Park and Clarens. We don't know what to expect but we like road trips and we've ditched the teen, so here we go.It started well, through White River, Nelspruit then Barberton and on towards Clarens. Lowveld bush, avocados, the occasional sub-tropical palm. Everything is still pretty and we are in high spirits. Then we hit Badplaas... Things are not pretty anymore as we drive on and upwards through endless dense pine plantations, all seeming quite dead.We drive on through Carolina, Bethell and finally Standerton - each town more sad and depressing than the last with dirty, bleak countryside between and a strange sulphurous smelling mist. Not to mention countless potholes and strange ridges in the road, which made it feel as though I was stuck in an impossibly difficult play station driving game. Grim.In one industrial wasteland, a bee landed on my windscreen and clung on for dear life, begging for a lift out - I think the sulphur got to it. Eventually a giant belching power station loomed and the mist and smell evaporated. We were now upwind. A few k's on and "Oh no look - a riot up ahead!" screamed my wife , only to realise they were in fact cows in the dust on closer inspection. We stopped in the middle of the road with banks on the sides as hundreds of cows were herded calmly by and with then came a sense of relief and we set off again towards Clarens.

We got to the Golden Gate, just as the sun was setting. The landscape comprises glorious, ink spattered sandstone cliffs. Finally to Clarens. We couldn't see much and went straight to the Protea Hotel to check in. All seemed fine, if a little cramped, and with unnecessary open plan showers in the bedroom. But it's just for the night so okay.

Ravenous, we go down to supper only to discover there is no table for us. Not only no table but no dinner -a long and sordid story, best left untold. In the morning we get up early, still hungry. We decide not to risk the "free" hotel breakfast and head into town.

I wish I could tell you that it seemed like a great place, but it didn't. It resembles a caricature mountain village theme park with lots of oversized rustic signage - totally fake - and they were celebrating "Christmas in July"; a cracking marketing ploy, but breakfast was good and we split town.

We drove towards the sea, through the spectacular Free State mountain landscape, down through Aliwal North, Graaf Reinet and through the Karoo to George and finally to Wilderness, the journey long but relaxed.We spent the night in a suite with a great winter rate at "The Views" and drove the few hours back home. Well in time for the World Cup Final...By Clive Pollick

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