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Irish Times Article

Just the two of us

Paddy Woodworth
and his wife didn't know quite what to expect when they headed off to honeymoon in South Africa. But its rhinos, elephants and eagles - not to mention the odd massage - made for a perfect holiday

Less is often more. Our original (and entirely self-inflicted) southern Africa honeymoon itinerary took in two regions of Namibia, the Okavango delta in Botswana and, then, Cape Province and KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Four weeks was longer than we had ever had for holidays, and it seemed infinite.

In the nick of time, we got some sense and slimmed the trip down to South Africa alone, mainly KwaZulu-Natal. Even then, we rashly planned a trip that would take us from game parks in northern KwaZulu-Natal to wetlands on the coast, then down through the Anglo-Zulu battlefields in the centre and up into the Drakensberg Mountains, which dramatically straddle the eastern border. Luckily, we kept our options open for the final 10 days, because a combination of great good luck and a near disaster made us change our plans radically a second time.

Cape Province is a great place to chill out. Phantom Forest and Phantom Beach, on either side of Knysna on the Cape's lovely Garden Route, got us off to a most relaxing start. But this is the most European zone in Africa, both in its demography and in its beautiful and oddly familiar Mediterranean landscapes. In the hope of finding something with a more indigenous flavour, we flew to Durban, then drove north through KwaZulu- Natal towards the Mozambique border.

The first 300 miles were disappointingly familiar, as monotonous rows of eucalyptus alternated with even duller conifer plantations. Then, as we approached Hluhluwe-Umfolozi national park, there were dramatic changes. Thornveldt, with its scattered acacia and gleaming stands of fever trees, had suddenly opened up all around the highway. Tall women in vivid Zulu fabrics walked regally along the hard shoulder, casually carrying improbable loads on their heads. The round thatched houses, which the Afrikaners christened rondevals, were scattered through what we now decided we could call "the bush".

Feeling a little more excited, we still approached our destination with barely suppressed anxiety. We had chosen White Elephant Lodge, in Pongola Game Reserve, from the internet, where it looked seductively comfortable and promised remarkable encounters with rhinos and elephants. But we were booked in for five days over Christmas, and if it was disappointing the whole holiday could turn sour.

We turned in at a neat gatehouse and set off on the half-hour drive through the reserve to the lodge, with instructions not to stop or get out of the car. Almost at once we saw why: the park was alive with game. A warthog - comical, ugly-beautiful and strangely endearing, as though imitating the vision of a brilliant cartoonist - was the first to show. Surprisingly, it was a rich red, acquired, as we later learned, from the dirt in which it loved to roll. Even the elephants around Pongola tend to be rust-coloured. Then we saw the warthog's piglets, right beside the car, long thin tails held ridiculously erect, poised for flight.

This seemed a good start, and more followed quickly. A family of graceful impala surveyed us from a small rise before bounding off, pristine white rumps bobbing rhythmically. Something shifted high up in the thick acacias to our right and morphed into a giraffe - surprisingly hard to spot only 50m away. Before we reached the lodge we had been on fairly intimate terms with three more species of antelope.

If the wildlife seemed welcoming, the human greeting at the lodge was almost overwhelming. We were handed cool, damp cloths to wipe our necks and faces as we emerged from the car. Within minutes our dinner order was being taken, although it was only 3pm and a magnificent afternoon tea was already spread before us.

Then we were asked if we would like to "go elephanting" before dinner. I eagerly assented, but my wife was tired and said she would rather read in the king-size "tent", hidden by its own acacia thicket, which was to become our home. Well, perhaps she would like a massage, suggested Caroline, the manager. There had been nothing about this on the website, but it turned out that Trish was able to have relaxation therapy once a day, instead of one of the two bush activities on offer, at no extra charge.

It was an ideal compromise, allowing me to pursue my passion for birding most mornings while she took things a little easier. I used to go out at 5am with Patrick, a Zulu ranger whose sharp eyes and sharper ears introduced me to an astonishing variety of species. From martial eagles to painted snipe, from open-billed storks to tiny iridescent sunbirds, Pongola was simply bird heaven.

Trish and I would meet again at brunch, a selection of cold cuts, fruit, cereals and egg dishes that, coupled with broiling midday sun at 35 degrees plus, made an early siesta deliciously tempting. Alternatively, one could dip into the historical and zoological library in the lodge or just stare across the shimmering bush and the Pongola reservoir to the Lebombo Mountains, where the earliest remains of Homo sapiens have been found.

Then, in the late afternoons, we could head off to study the park's 40 elephants, with rangers who were both entertaining and erudite on the complex sociology of the component families. And, yes, there is an albino among them - hence the lodge's name - but the red-mud coating, which is like elephant sunscreen, made her hard to distinguish from the others.

In the big game parks, such as the Kruger, animals are often surrounded by a dozen vehicles packed with tourists. At White Elephant, all contact with game is strictly limited to one vehicle at a time. Very small groups are also allowed to stalk white rhino on foot, under strict supervision.

On one occasion we drove to within 100m of a herd of Cape buffalo. We just waited there in silence until these huge and sometimes ferocious beasts moved up and grazed all around us. One of them put his muzzle right into the open-topped Land Rover and sniffed my arm.

Back at the lodge a sumptuous dinner was being prepared, presented on tables with exquisitely artistic settings and served by staff who treated us like cherished friends.

We left with lumps in our throats, to head to another reserve, also booked off the internet, which promised just as much animal magic in even greater luxury. The wildlife was indeed magical. A single canoe trip through a mangrove swamp brought us into close contact with harlequin-coloured pygmy geese and magnificent fish eagles.

The rest of the package, however, was your authentic holiday from hell. There was no menu, and the obligatory steak was as chewy as old hiking boots and came with congealed, insect-infested sauce. The tents were left wide open for extra guests - think snakes and spiders. The unlit pathways were shared with bad-tempered night-grazing hippos - animals you want to avoid getting up close and personal with.

We ate our first breakfast with our bags packed, then hightailed it back to White Elephant. There was so much still to see there that we saw no point in moving on again. The Drakensberg Mountains could wait for another visit, as could the Anglo-Zulu battlefields.

Game reserves, of course, even at best, are artificial bubbles in the sea of human misery and high aspiration that is the new South Africa. With advice from our hosts, we now attempted to encounter the real world outside their gates. We visited a nearby village where one woman had lost five of her six daughters to Aids. The sixth was still alive, her condition stabilized by antiretroviral drugs. Numerous grandchildren were now all dependent on their grandmother. She was, understandably, rather drunk by noon on the day we met.

The heartbreaking plight of this and other local families was alleviated, to a small but possibly vital extent, by a remarkable orphanage in Ubombo, a nearby town. Entabeni Children's Village, which was set up by volunteers, gives day respite to some of the many children in the care of elderly relatives and full bed and board to a few of those who have no relatives left.

The irrepressible exuberance of these children, and the extraordinary commitment of the teenagers who acted as their house mothers, gave one a sense of what South Africa, on which so many of Africa's hopes now hang by a slender thread, might yet become. In ways that are impossible to explain, we both felt that meeting them was a privilege, a highlight of a most memorable holiday, and the best of many good reasons for returning to Pongola.

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