Well the sleep pattern hasn't quite recovered from the epic journey, so I've been awake since 3am. Today will likely be the day the body clock gets itself back into sync. Disappointingly, as nice a hotel as it is, there is no wifi in the rooms, so a couple of hours with the Kindle before packing the case and heading down to breakfast at 6.30am.
Today we are headed towards the Kruger National Park, leaving Jo'Burg at 7.30am. We will be travelling for the best part of the day through Mpumalanga, known as 'paradise country' and considered to be one of the most geographically diverse and beautiful places in South Africa. However, as we set off from Jo'Burg and onto the N4 motorway, the landscape is pretty uninspiring; flat, dried out looking farmland with the maize fields having been harvested in May (maize is the staple diet in South Africa). So I listen to our guide Nigel's introduction to South Africa before just sitting back and taking the opportunity to relax.
We pass another township near Brug. It still takes my breath away - squalid, run down shacks, strewn with litter. Several residents are seen walking down the side of the motorway - a couple pushing a wheelbarrow, another man kicking what looks like an oil barrel along the road, and one just scouting the ground for whatever he can find. It's a harsh and unfortunate environment and I wonder how the people here spend their days. Nigel tells us that electricity is becoming a limited resource and, with that, electricity outages are now common in certain areas at certain times. As a result, some illegal shanty towns frequently set up cabling to steal electricity from street lamps - masses of illegal unsafe cabling that has been known to set alight entire settlements due to bad wiring. And if the police try to stop it happening, their personal safety is threatened and that of their families.
Our first comfort stop is at Middelburg and we are advised by Nigel not to use credit cards due to fraudsters rigging cash machines to read card details. It's nothing more that a service station pit stop with burger joint and general store, but I immediately feel like the conspicuous tourist, so I make a hasty purchase of coffee and chocolate and return to the bus. I'll hope to feel a little more secure as the trip goes on!
As we continue to travel late morning, the landscape becomes more mountainous. Dino, our driver, toots the horn at a family of baboons crossing the road, little babies on the backs of the mothers. As we drive, several more baboons are seen at the roadside. My photographic finger is twitching badly and the camera is screaming to be freed from the rucksack, but I tell myself to be patient - we are on the first day of a two week trip after all!
Lunch stop at Hazyview, the equivalent of a UK retail park providing a number of eateries and shops. A Caribbean pizza and glass of orange juice and the batteries feel recharged, so we make our way to the hotel - the Kruger Gate Lodge. Enroute the roadsides are adorned by ramshackle tents from where South African's attempt to sell their wares. As we get nearer to the hotel, the Kruger National Park is on either side of us, separated only by a high electric fence. It is here that we catch sight of our first game animal - a herd of zebras! And the camera screams again to be freed!
We eventually arrive at the Kruger Gate Lodge - our hotel for the next three nights. It's an amazing place - a great big treehouse-like hotel with a very 'African Safari' feel. I love it! I no sooner get my suitcase into the hotel room and the camera is eventually freed for its first true taste of Africa. I head over to the hotel's 'watch tower' - a bar, positioned to look from a height out onto part of the reserve. Immediately below young bushbuck are grazing, offering some fabulous photo opportunities.
But not ten minutes later my expectations are straight away exceeded when an entire herd of elephant make their way past the watch tower.
There must have been about 15-20 mothers, children and babies - it was a spectacle to see, and one I hadn't counted on happening so soon! Patience rewarded and camera pacified!
In amongst the elephant was buffalo, but they were more difficult to get a clear photograph of as they were obscured by the long grassy reeds.
It's late afternoon by this point and the light is starting to fade. It's dark by about 6pm here now, so there will be limited further opportunity today to get many more photos. But I manage a final shot of a vervet monkey in the hotel grounds for good measure.
Talk about making up for lost time! I am beyond excited about the sightings over the last couple of hours. Two of the 'Big Five' (Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion, Leopard) before we have even been on our first game drive!
Just enough time to freshen up before a group dinner under the stars, sat in our tree hotel, a roaring fire in the centre to keep us all warm, and the sound of the African bush at night all around us. A perfect end to the day, and hopefully just a taste of things to come.
Thank you for reading.