Does anyone ever win those Facebook contests? I’ve often thought that way, when I’ve browsed the internet, being bombarded with offers of winning this and that. Haven’t you? It’s probably just a way for them to collect permissions to send me newsletters. Even so, I sent my travelogue from my stay at Mpala. Four months later, I received an e-mail from Per (no deals or offers included), stating that I had won the contest. I do have to add, that whenever the contest comes from Mpala, there’s no doubt about the sincerity of the contest. If you are fortunate enough to be admitted into the “family” at Mpala, you would know that it is legitimate.
Once we were done celebrating, we started planning yet another trip to the place I always wanted to go back to. We settled on May 2017. This time I was bringing my son, Darius, aged 14, as a part of his confirmation present. Hopefully a journey and an adventure of a lifetime.
6 years and about 30 hours of travelling later, we finally set foot in Hoedspruit on the 15th of May. The South African wind struck my face and then that old familiar feeling in the stomach of the adventures to come hit me. We left through the small gate at the airport and exited to the parking lot, where we were greeted by the latest member of the family – Dawie the ranger. We introduced ourselves and chatted a bit while we waited for our luggage.
Helle, one of Mpala’s owners, and her daughter Annelise, were waiting in the car and greeted us as we entered. Dawie started the car and off we were. The talking went on in the car, actually, we had such a good time that no one even noticed the Elephant on the roadside welcoming us with its trunk raised. Well… Nevermind, we were back!
After somewhat 20 minutes of driving, we took a turn down the familiar dirt road and then it hit me. I had completely forgotten how long the drive to the lodge is. Thinking about it, I remembered it as a 5-minute drive, which might have been pretty naive. It is a 25-minute drive on a bumpy dirt road. When you drive on it for the first time, it feels like it’s never going to end. But if you want to experience the real African adventure, you have to get as far away from civilization as possible. Half the way down the road we turned around a corner, and there were Per looking for something on his right-hand side. The first ”present” of the day – Buffalos. Buffalos everywhere! Somewhat 30 buffalos had decided to have their breakfast right there. What a way to start off! After taking atleast 50 photos, the last 10 minutes of driving to the lodge went on by fast and a familiar sight came into our view: Mpala Safari Lodge.
There they were again. The Mpala family; greeting us. The chef, the waitresses, the cleaners, the gardeners, the rangers and the manager. I’m writing “again”, cause it all felt the same, even though there has been changes to the staff during the 6 years. A lot of them were the same people though. Somehow it feels like time stopped when I left, but times goes on, even at Mpala. Even though there were some new people, it still felt like I had known these people all my life. Mpala Safari Lodge is truely a magical place.
After the greetings, we got settled in our rooms and went to the porch for a lovely lunch.
The next morning, the smell of Africa hit the nostrils when we were leaving for our first game drive. A smell that is easily recognizable if you ever visited the lodge before, and if it’s your first time; It’s a part of the adventure. Believe me, it’s not a bad thing, just unusual for our western noses. The time was about 5:30AM, but we were ready. Excited, we sat in the Land Rover and watched the bush as we tumbled down the dirt road. That day we saw antelopes, amongst them a Nyala, a Giraffe and loads of Baboons. Dawie the ranger knows his stuff and has plenty of stories to satisfy even the biggest nature aficionado.
After a short rest back at the lodge, we were out on the second adventure of the day: The quad bikes. We drove around in the huge area and we found out, that dust has a special way of getting into ALL cracks and creases. The good thing about us being there first, was that the next guests probably wouldn’t be able to get as dusty as we did, mainly because I think I removed most of the dust by swallowing it during our drive. On the quad bike tour, we saw Giraffes and a huge male Elephant. The guide went ahead and made a sudden stop. We stayed behind. He came back after a short while. “Up there – Lions”, he said as he pointed. We watched the two young male lions, lying about 80 meters away from us.
“Let’s celebrate this with a refreshment,” he said; “You’re lucky – it’s not too often that we see the lions on the quad bike ride and it’s only the second time I’ve seen them, even though I’ve been on this tour for 25 years.” Later we were told that there were more lions than we could see. They had taken down a giraffe, so the whole pack had to be in the area. Perfect timing!
Happy, satisfies and dusty, we returned to the car and Dawie drove us to the bush camp. The camp is quite some distance from the lodge and in the middle of the bush. However, it has a sink with running water and even a toilet. We washed of the dirt and the rest of the night was spent on dinner in the bush and the bright night sky of the southern hemisphere. Later on, back at the lodge, tired and happy after an exciting day, we got under our covers and crawled back in safety behind the mosquito net.
The phone rings; it’s Dawie. It’s early morning and the sun isn’t out yet, but the coffee is ready and we’re going on a bush walk. The largest and only animal we see on our walk is a squirrel. No worries, cause there is a lot of other things to look at, and the sensation of walking in the bush without the safety of the car is quite unique. Just feeling the grass brushing against your legs and seeing the landscape up close is amazing. Besides that, Dawie can tell about all the small things we usually don’t see from the car. The various different kinds of plants and trees, the uses of them amongst the native inhabitants and all the different kind of tracks from the animals.
After lunch, Dawie and Stacey took us to the village school. A visit I especially had looked forward to. The school looks like it did 6 years ago, besides the fact that they now have a computer room, donated by a very generous visitor at Mpala. In the kindergarten, the children are cheering us on, everyone smiling and laughing. “It’s funny how it’s often the people that has the least, that are the happiest”, Dawie said. A sentence I will keep in mind the rest of my life. Nothing is more true, and it suited the situation perfectly. It put our lives into perspective and made me realize how lucky I am.
Onwards to Mpala’s latest project; A local daycare in the village a 5-minute drive from the School. The place is called Mmakadi. In gratitude, the children made a special parking sport for Mpala, written in yellow letters on the pavement is the words “Mpala parking”. We are greeted by the head of the daycare, Gloria. She speaks in pride of the place and tells us about the work they do. She takes us to the room where all the small children sit, eyes peeled. They sing and dance for us, while we all sit back and smile about the fact, that out visit contributes to the support of these poor children. Mpala is very committed to helping out the local residents, and especially the children.
While walking back to the car, all the children sit on the only playing rack, waving goodbye. Mpala and the daycare has plans for renovating the place, with money that comes from the generous donations from Mpala’s guests. I look forward on seeing what has been done, when I return once again.
It’s Thursday and the next 2 days are spent in Krüger National Park. We leave early and arrive shortly after the gates are opened. After 10 minutes, Darius wins our small internal contest to spot an animal first. It was an impala. Besides the impala, we see wildebeest and zebras everywhere. We continue on and it doesn’t take long before we spot 4 rhinos grazing in the distance. As we quietly follow them, they come closer and closer. All the other cars have driven by, not noticing anything, so for half an hour we had this amazing sight all to ourselves.
The rest of the day goes on with sightings of elephants, giraffes and antelopes by the masses, before we drive through the gates of Lebata Camp in the late afternoon. Here we will spend the night. It’s a quiet place where the monkeys moan and wait for a moment’s inattention from the poor guard, who hopelessly spins around and tries to chase them away, so they don’t steal the guests’ dinner. An ungrateful job that never stops, but has a lot of entertainment value for the guests.
The next morning, we get up early. We’re heading out as soon as the gate opens to see the sunrise. Definitely worth the early wake. Again, we drive around and look. We don’t see much more than elephants and giraffes, but that’s the nature – not every day is the same and one day there can be animals by the masses and the next day might be a lot quieter. We are there on nature’s terms and we will see whatever Krüger decides to offer us that day. If you want to be sure to see all the Big Five every day, go to the zoo. Personally. I prefer to enjoy the gifts that nature brings us.
We didn’t see any lions, hyenas, wild dogs or leopards. But we still got Krüger under the skin and walked away with amazing natural experiences. The advantages of not seeing everything is, that you have the perfect excuse to return again.
The Drakensberg mountains were on Saturday’s schedule. All the well-known places, amazing natural scenery, winding mountain roads and small villages. We also chose an additional experience in the form of a backward bungee jump called “the big swing”. This is usually not something mentioned in the brochure or on the website. It was by chance we came across the subject during the dinner a few days earlier, when Helle mentioned that it was a possibility. Stacey got us booked in for the jump. Now we were nervously and excited waiting for our turn. I was first. I was led to the edge and the instructor got me strapped in, while he was telling me about the procedure. “You’re going to go to the edge, put your heel beyond the board and bend the knees”. He held on to the rope while I was leaning back. And then he let go!
If you’ve ever felt like 4 seconds turned into 20, you know the feeling of a bungee jump. There’s nothing quite like it. The view of the waterfall, falling to the bottom along with me, was indescribable. The elastic rope tightened and I swung away from the rocks. All I could do was to enjoy the ride. Both Darius and Annelise from the lodge tried it too. If you are into adrenaline kicks, I recommend that you ask for this excursion. After the jump, we celebrated it with a pancake at a place called “Harry’s Pancakes” in the small town of Graskop. It’s actually pretty hard to eat pancakes with a big smile on the lips.
The last day arrived upon us. We were going on a river cruise with breakfast on an old steamboat. We slowly sailed away. We were all alone, besides a single other guest that also turned out to be from Denmark. We talked a bit and looked at the animals on the shore and life of the locals doing their daily chores while the pale Danes sailed past.
We end our stay at Mpala with a final game drive and a drink in the watch tower, while the sun sets in the horizon, listening to Dawie telling tall tales and enjoying our last evening to the fullest.
All good things must come to an end and this day came way too soon. We’re going home, but we’re coming back. I never imagined that a week could go by so quickly. Darius had set his mind; he didn’t think that we would ever meet people as nice, as the people at Mpala. It made him wonder, why we were even going to Cape Town to spend the next week. He’d rather stay at Mpala for an additional week. When a 14-year-old boy is longing to stay at a desolate place with slow Wi-Fi and no television – They’re doing everything right!
I feel like saying, that everything at Mpala is the same. That wouldn’t be true. The magic is the same and you will still long to go back, even though you only returned back home. The tranquility is still there. The adventures are still great and you will never get tired of all the things the nature has to offer. My expectations were high and once again they were met, and exceeded.
Mpala, thank you ever so much. I will definitely see you all again.
Kenneth Vikkelsø, May 2017