Jewel of the North

Words and pictures by Kerry Fraser Words and pictures by Kerry Fraser

A full, golden moon was resting on the side of the koppie, taking a breather, before it hoisted its heavy, swollen bulk skywards once more. It seemed almost close enough to reach out and touch, as it backlit the three red hartebeest steadily approaching the waterhole.

There was just the snap and crackle from fireplaces, and no other light apart from that shed from the heavens. The moon illuminated the contours of the landscape and each campsite in the darkness, their fires burning in the half-light, and the stars sputtering slightly in the shine.

Out came the night-vision scope! The reflected moonlight provided enough light to bring the green creen to life – there was no need to use the infra-red torch button on the side.

From the waterhole, 30 metres away, three pairs of glowing green eyes surveyed the six campsites circled to one side of the water source. Someone hooted out a laugh, but the buck have had much experience with bipeds that come and go, and paid no notice. They quenched their thirst before being rousted by a porcupine walking determinedly towards them from over a boggy patch. The hu-hu-hooo of a female spotted eagle owl massaged the heavy night air, while a pair of jackal scratched out their yelps in the background.

We were staying at Motswedi Campsite No. 1, in Mokala National Park; one of SAN Parks newest gems set in the diamond fields of the Northern Cape. Mokala is the Tswana word for the Camel Thorn tree which is quite common in the area. Motswedi means ‘fonteintjie’, (little fountain), and around this waterhole are six well-appointed campsites in a semi-circle. Each campsite has its own private ablutions – a private loo as well as an enormous separate private shower with washbasin. This campsite is relatively new and the bathrooms are gorgeously tiled in pale greys and blues. Not only do intrepid bush lovers have their own bathroom facilities, but each campsite has a solar geyser for warm water, a breakfast nook looking out towards the waterhole, a private kitchen with washing up area, a twoplate gas stove, and fridge-freezer! Well, I guess you still get to bring your own kettle.

Campsite No. 1 was the best of the 6 campsites as far as we were concerned. We had a neighbour only to the one side of us, with the sun setting on the other side; plus we had an unrestricted view of the waterhole, and the site was right up close to the knee-high fence that kept the curious buffalo at bay. And crumbs, was I glad that knee-high electric fence was there, because I know now that buffalo can sneak up on a person as if they had hooves wrapped in towels.

Whilst gnawing on my lamb chop one evening, I looked up – into the large face of a heavy, solid, nosy dagga boy staring intently at me. Chop hovered and shook slightly en route to my mouth, until a loud breath huffed out and the bull began grazing noisily a ruler’s-length from the fence. Apparently I was an appropriate dinner companion – it was, after all, a mutton chop and not beef.

We had journeyed to Mokala with the intention of seeing roan antelope. Throughout our bush-whacking years, we had been hard put to see one. Mokala touts itself as the park ‘where endangered species roam,’ and so we were confident we would pick out their painted faces from behind the rocks and grasses. It did, in fact, take us a good four days to find the herd; but when we did, we were overwhelmed with youngsters of all ages, large fat females, and doting, happy aunties. Sable were more difficult to find, but there is always game to be seen. One cannot actually drive very far without seeing something: gemsbok cantering in mock fright, jackal trotting about as jackal do, or majestic eland bulls strolling with the world at their feet. Early mornings and late afternoons found us at a bat-eared fox den. Their pointy little faces had ‘naughtiness’ written all over them as they played and leapt at each other.

The traffic at the Motswedi waterhole was busy; every few minutes something new would come down for a slurp and there was generally a trusty warthog rolling in the muddy wallow. Our trip to Kimberley had not been uneventful. The previous day had been spent in agonised driving to the City of Diamonds with eyes glued to the van’s gauges. Just outside of Harrismith, a goodly distance from home, the oil pressure light had flickered to life. Once we reached Bethlehem, we had become properly concerned and had visited the local Midas to purchase an oil filter and thicker oil. We found a mechanic in the shop and went through to his Mom’s house up the road to change oil and filter. It was a Saturday, past 12pm, and preparations for the Currie Cup were under way in the rest of the town.

Back on the road again, and once more the oil light illuminated the dash. When we had reached Kimberley, Michael changed the oil pressure sender unit (yes, we had brought a spare), and, lo and behold, it had been the cause of our distress. Much relieved, we slept like babies that night.

There is something particularly special about waking up in the mornings and, as you lift the coffee cup to your lips, watching the springbuck leaping about like popcorn and setting the herd to pronking, the fur on their back ends reg-op making them look like little puffballs or sneeuballetjies.

This part of the country has big sky which produces the most magnificent vapour trails from horizon to horizon; trails that shift from white- to black- to pink stripes in the blue. We arrived at Mokala to be greeted by wonderfully warm conditions. I lazed about on the grass in front of the knee-high fence, lethargically bringing the binoculars to my eyes each time a new visitor came to drink at the waterhole. That afternoon game drive had the temp reaching highs of 54°C. After the chill of winter, it was nice to feel the burn of the sun on my skin. The next day was as gloriously warm, with 35°C at 08h30, and the animals already taking cover under the trees.

But we were in for a surprise when we woke in our roof-top tent shivering and with our teeth chattering the following day. The wind that had rustled up on us was chilly, and by 09h00 it read 9°C – almost a 50° drop in temperature! We had the icy wind for the next few days, but we still went out game viewing. We developed a great tactic for the viewing: we kept driving past the animals slowly instead of stopping in the wind. If you braked to a halt, they would get up and run away. If we inched our van past them, they would all lie stock still, some with ears flattened to their scalps, and patiently wait until we moved off. We got incredibly close to game in this manner: we passed within inches of steenbok next to the car, and red hartebeest and their creamy-white babies lying right up close as we each pretended not to see the other.

We rounded off our Mokala experience by spending a night at Mosu Lodge to celebrate our birthdays. The staff went out of their way to decorate our dinner table and the menu offered tempting dishes. The blue wildebeest venison fillet with chocolate chilli sauce was tasty and tender, and the beef rump with cheese sauce positively mouth-watering.

Mokala National Park has a few interesting plans afoot. They are investigating a 4x4 route through their park, as well as a mountain bike trail; and on November 7, the fence separating the Lilydale section of the park from the dangerous game area will be coming down.

It is a popular park with the locals, and in order to get a booking for a weekend, one needs to book well in advance. All the roads in Mokala are gravel, and sedan vehicles may not be able to traverse all the roads when the area gets a wetting. The rainy season sometimes creates havoc with the roads and occasionally internal tracks may need to be closed.

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