Southern Africa, 2 weeks, 10 passport stamps!!

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Jun 1st, 2016, 09:35 PM
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Southern Africa, 2 weeks, 10 passport stamps!!

This was our fifth visit to Southern Africa. We spent part of it looking for the perfect beach town in northern KZN where we would love to retire.

Our itinerary was as follows:

Marakele National Park - 2 nights Tlopi Tented Camp
Northern Tuli Reserve, Botswana - 2 nights Serolo Safari Camp
Kruger National Park - 1 night each Punda Maria, Letaba, Lower Sabie
Mtunzini - 2 nights Nkawu Cottage
Zululand Rhino Reserve - 3 nights Rhino River Lodge
Johannesburg - 1 night Southern Sun

We left on Friday night, 10 hour layover at LHR, another overnight flight to JNB. Two hour delay, arrived JNB late Sunday morning. First passport stamp. Avis rental car very slow. Finally made our way north to Marakele. We stopped in Thabazimbi for supplies. Unfortunately no liquor is sold on Sundays in S Africa - would have to come back tomorrow .

We signed in at the Marakele gate, got the map to camp and did the game drive to our tent. Very nice! Beautiful view on a dam with the mountains beyond. The tent was well appointed and spotlessly clean. There is the sleeping/bathroom tent and a kitchen tent all on the same deck. Monkeys are a huge problem here, so the kitchen has been modified to keep them out. We were pretty tired so started the grill, ate dinner, settled in and went to bed. That's when the fun started (no! Not that!). It got very windy and we could hear thunder in the distance. The rain started lightly then got heavier and heavier. We were in the middle of a fierce storm with rain, wind, thunder, lightning and hail! We were in a tent and it was really scary! Fortunately the tent held up just fine and the storm passed. Then an elephant came to drink by the lake - very noisy and a bit unsettling when we couldn't see it. I was too tired and fell asleep. Up at dawn!

Marakele is home to a colony of vultures. We drove the next morning to go see them, but none were flying. Very narrow mountain road. If the park is to become more popular they will need to widen the road or start a shuttle service - two cars can't easily pass. We would come back. The park is divided between the "dangerous game" side (where Tlopi Camp is) and the "safe" side. The tunnel and gate dividing the two sides is effective. Due to the weather and wind, not much to see today so we went back to shop. On our return, many more animals greeted us. When we got to the predator side, we were greeted by elephants and a few other large game. No predators, which was as expected. It was too late to drive up to the vulture colony so we did more game drive and back to the tent to make dinner. Good day.

The next morning we woke at dawn after an uneventful sleep. We drove to the vulture road, but elephants had redecorated and a tree was fallen across the road. Just as well. We had a long drive to northern Tuli today. We enjoyed the game - and a few nice surprises - on our way to the main gate. We drove out, found our way to the main road and headed off.

Up next - the eventful drive to the border post to Botswana!!
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Jun 2nd, 2016, 04:31 AM
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Welcome back! Just letting you know that I'm joining you for the ride.
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Jun 2nd, 2016, 05:55 AM
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Looking forward to more! Great start!
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Jun 2nd, 2016, 07:00 PM
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On to Serolo Safari Camp in northern Tuli in Botswana -

So we head north out of Marakele NP after a few questions to locals in town. We are doing great until the road conditions deteriorate - potholes then broken sections of road then we are doing maybe 30km/hr so we don't destroy the car (or tyres). After quite a way like this, the road detours to the dirt next to the road. Turns out they are resurfacing the road - good, but a little notice would have been helpful! We rented a 2 wheel drive so this part got weird. Finally the road conditions improved and we passed a turn to Platjan - it's a dirt road. The road to the border post couldn't possibly be a dirt road. We get to the next turn in Alldays and it's the wrong border post - that one requires a 4x4! So I call Serolo (for about $8/minute!!) and get directions. We have to go far out of the way, but we should get there in time for the afternoon game drive. Finally we get to the Pont Drift Border Post - the S Africa passport control goes well but the Botswana entry took a very long time. Two more passport stamps!! We go the roundabout route to Serolo and are greeted upon arrival.

This is when things got a little odd. We were then shown to our tent by our ranger, Jerry, and introduced to the kitchen staff. Hurry for the afternoon game drive, would you like a drink for the ride? Sure, and we were handed a beer and a soda. We were off - only the owner's sister along with us. It was a nice drive but we didn't see much. The hyenas who had been denning moved and the cheetah seen for the past week were nowhere to be seen. As it got dark, we expected a stop for sundowners and a snack, but no. We returned to camp for a pleasant dinner. Another odd thing was a man and his very young daughter (maybe 5) at dinner.

The next morning we were off at dawn with the man and kid. Really? A five year old at an unfenced tented camp? On a game drive? We were under the impression that kids were not welcome at Serolo. It only got worse - she NEVER shut up!! By the end of another uneventful game drive, I was ready to leave. We texted the owner and they arranged for a second vehicle, thankfully. The afternoon game drive was again very quiet except for a puff adder we all walked right by - we only saw it returning to the vehicle!! We returned to camp for a nice dinner.

The next morning we looked around for wildlife, but very little again. We went on a hike up a mountain - it looks like the mountain in the Lion King. Beautiful view, pleasant walk. We saw eggs in an eagle nest off the side of the cliff. Back to camp for our drive to Kruger.

It's hard to review Serolo Safari Camp. It happens that wildlife is scarce, but I just didn't like the owners (who we only saw at dinner our second night because there was a travel agent in camp), there was no staff to ask questions and it just wasn't my kind of place. So a goodbye to Jerry (the only person at Serolo we really got to talk to!) and we were off.

Since we wanted to see where we went wrong, we headed out at the Platjan Border Post. Much easier... Yes, it was the dirt road. Never would have thought that. This border crossing went very quickly. Two more passport stamps!!
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Jun 2nd, 2016, 07:20 PM
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Sorry to hear that Serolo wasn't worth the visit. How does the scenery there compare to Sabi Sand or Chobe? Just trying to picture the area.
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Jun 3rd, 2016, 07:34 PM
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tripplanner - I'm not sure Serolo wasn't worth the visit. It's adjacent to Mashatu which is outstanding. I think we were just unlucky with game viewing - especially with the drought. We broke our three day rule because we arranged this trip a month before we left! They were booked solid the nights before and after. I never felt comfortable there, though. Not sure why. Maybe it was the skeleton staff and no management around? I don't know. I got an excellent recommendation from someone who gushed on and on about how great it was...

Northern Tuli is gorgeous. Mopani tress, Baobabs, mountains, wide open spaces... Really beautiful. Dry river beds. Much more open than SS, more craggy hills, small mountains. No water based animals like red lechwe or tsessabe like Chobe. There are other lodges nearby that I will choose next time. Tuli Safari Lodge (on small traversing area) and Nitani (which I thought was closed). Of course Mashatu is the premier lodge in Tuli.
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Jun 3rd, 2016, 07:47 PM
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Thanks Christabir. Appreciate the description of the landscape. Sounds different than the places I visited last month.
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Jun 3rd, 2016, 08:12 PM
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Since we had to cross the border at Platjan and not Pont Drift, we didn't think we'd have time to drive to the Pafuri Gate and make it to Punda Maria by gate closing at 17:30. So we take the more direct route to OM gate. We got a little lost but no biggie. Then it got weird. School after school after school. Do the children all live in this area to go to boarding school? There were way more schools than the small town should have. It was tough with nutsy traffic, livestock and all the kids walking.

But we made it to PM gate and checked into our tented accommodations. Very nice. Again spotlessly clean, well appointed and great view. Due to the monkey problems, the outdoor kitchen was fitted with screens and hooks to secure everything and the noisy fridge inside the sleeping quarters. We had another braai dinner (everything goes on the grill!) and after looking at some of our pictures with a sundowner, hit the sack early.

Up before dawn again. We didn't have time for the area north to Pafuri, so we took a gravel road just outside camp. Shortly after sunrise we heard the bugle call of a very angry sounding elephant. We stopped the car, ready to take off in any direction! Just behind us, an adolescent elephant ran across the road ignoring us, but quite agitated. We never did figure out the trouble - as far as we know he was alone. Huh.

We were really surprised by how few cars we saw. We saw all the normal game and elephants. A couple of hours into our drive a worker vehicle flashed his lights to stop us. Lions just a km away on the left. First time we have ever had workers concern themselves with wildlife. So we searched and searched on the left. No lions. Oh, there they are, on the workers' left!! A pride of 6 lionesses and one male. We stayed with them for almost an hour as they moved about. Only about 6 cars stopped the whole time we were there. We had a long drive so we grudgingly left.

A couple of hours later we were quite distressed by all the bones we passed. General game viewing was pretty good. There's just the main tar road, so everyone is on the same road, but little traffic. The areas near waterholes were basically naked as they were overgrazed by everything that came to drink. Hey - there's a car stopped on the roadside and we check it out. Dog!!! Really? Wild dog? Yup, sleeping under a tree. Wait, he's sleeping on top of two more! Three! We hang out a bit, one gets up to move to another spot. Oh my, he just plopped down on another one! Four! Something moved off to the right. Another one! Wow. They really blend in... Five! We stayed with them for a long time - they stretched and moved from tree to tree but nothing much as it was the middle of the day. But it's dog!! We had only seen them once before - sleeping in the dark. We left them with no one else there (where is everyone?!)

Not long to Letaba. It started to drizzle a little. We checked in for braai and sundowners. Another clean, nice room. This time a perimeter bungalow. Crap - the rear tyre looks flat. Go to the petrol station, add air, it just goes flat again. Ask the attendant and he tells us to go to the emergency car repair assistance (on a no entry road). Can't find anyone, back to petrol station. Can't get help until 7:00 the next morning. So we go to our bungalow, change the tyre with help from some very well-meaning "neighbors" and it's flat, too. Lots of bad words and go fill it with air at the petrol station. It looks fine. We decide to leave early next morning and get to Skukuza (more services and an Avis counter in case things get worse) before they close at 14:00. Finally, food and bed.
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Jun 3rd, 2016, 09:54 PM
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Off we go with a plan to be at Skukuza around noon, have the tyre (now the spare) fixed and head east to Lower Sabie. Again, up before dawn and out the gate as they open. We are in a little rush so we can't dawdle.

We make the first turnoff possible to a gravel road. Not far along we saw something to our left on a no entry road. So of course, down the no entry road. Hyena, quite a few, on a mission. Looks like they are headed to the main road. Hurry, and find them crossing the road right in front of us. Six adults and one subadult. I know, I think I'm the only one who thinks hyena are really cool. We didn't have them for vey long, but watched them head off on whatever mission they were on.

We drive back to the tar road and even though watching for wildlife, I suddenly swerved around a large snake crossing the road. I thought I hit it so turned around to make sure it wasn't partially flat. Found it at the side of the road and it was fine. Another car stopped to see what we saw. It was gone. They had news of a leopard pretty far south, but in a tree and might stay put for a while. We are in a bit of a hurry, so we head south. At the next small animal jam, still word of the leopard, so off we go. Over an hour later, we come across a relatively big cat jam. I stopped .5 km away, took out the binos and found the gorgeous cat right there in all its glory in a dead tree. Great! We get into the jam, get a few fantastic pictures - our first leopard in a tree - and since it isn't going anywhere, we head off. Two happy campers.

As we approached Satara, the landscape was eerie. In the past is was a beautiful savannah with plenty of wildlife. Now just wasteland. It was very different and almost scary. Maybe it had burned? No, just that dry. Hopefully it will recover with the rains.

We get to Skukuza and to the airport for the Avis counter. Shockingly, the car rental is at the main camp. Makes no sense - unless you fly in, you don't need a rental car! Anyway, we get to the Avis desk, tell them our troubles and since we got the tyre insurance (yay!) the tyre was fixed, everything in the boot put back together, and off we go to our last stop in Kruger, Lower Sabie.

We drive on a gravel road for most of the way. We are put off by all the traffic in the south and unfortunately the game viewing was disappointing. One funny thing was a crabby young elephant who chased us off on the way to a waterhole. We stopped at the waterhole (nothing there) and turned around. We were prepared for the family of elephants but they were gone. Poof! Three minutes and a small herd of ellies disappeared.

We enjoyed the drive to LS for our perimeter tent - our favorite ever. But this time was a little sad. Few hippos to serenade. Beautiful moon rise over the Sabie River - full and bright red. Stunning. Again, spotless and very nice. Fridge in room due to monkeys. We lit the grill for our final braai in the bush. Very few grunting hippos....

The next morning, up before dawn again. Pack up and off we go. We are booked in Mtunzini in northern KwaZulu Natal (pretty far!) and have to be out at Crocodile Bridge by 10:00. No rush, plenty of time.

On our first turn off the main road, I saw a rock move out the corner of my eye. A black rock is moving? Back up and it's a juvenile honey badger! They are so funny - always moving and always entertaining. We hung out with it for a bit until it went out of sight. We make it to Crocodile Bridge in time to have breakfast and head south out of Kruger. My favorite place. Never disappointing, but this time just a little sad. I don't talk about rhinos in Kruger as they are in real trouble due to incessant poaching.

I just want to give some idea of our daily schedule in Kruger. We take breakfast (cereal, fruit, hard boiled eggs, coffee) to eat at a convenient picnic area or rest camp after a few hours on the road. We do the same with lunch (leftovers, cold cut rollups, snacks), stopping during mid day. We shop before we reach Kruger - this time we bought a soft sided cooler. We supplement our big shopping with buying food at the rest camps. Skukuza is very well stocked, the smaller ones have pretty good options. In the past we've eaten dinner in rest camp restaurants and also done SanParks night drives. Since my husband is the photographer, I drive in national parks so he can always be ready for the unexpected pic.

We were going to skip Kruger and leave Serolo and fly from Polokwane to Durban or drive outside the park to KwaZulu Natal. We decided we couldn't be that close to Kruger and miss it. We knew driving through in three days would be hard and exhausting, but we love Kruger.

Off to KwaZulu Natal....
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Jun 4th, 2016, 04:36 AM
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Thanks for the detailed descriptions of Kruger. Sounds like the park is quite varied, landscape-wise. Glad you had the opportunity to see your first leopard in a tree.
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Jun 4th, 2016, 05:30 AM
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Thanks for the very detailed report. It is fun to read about such a diverse and interesting self-drive trip. I really appreciate how much you and your husband express your joy for all of the animals, little creatures and even smaller critters you come across. You just don't get excited for the big 5, which makes all of following along enjoy them as well.

Re: "We got a little lost but no biggie. Then it got weird. School after school after school. Do the children all live in this area to go to boarding school? There were way more schools than the small town should have"

I am actually thrilled that you came across a small community with a robust level of schools. The continent has worked hard to achieve MDG 2 of primary education for all, though there is still a long way to go to put a dent into the overall poverty rates of most of the inhabitants, and to achieve similar rates in secondary education, which is an unrealized human right for most. On the contrary, I am often dismayed to go through villages and see no schools, often wondering how kids are able to access an education we often take for granted in the Western world. So to me there are never too many schools in Africa, no matter how many children may be trekking to and fro. And you are in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the rates of enrollment are the lowest. So I rejoice and thank you for pointing out that one village is doing their part to educate a large number of children. It is a blessing most do not get.

Looking forward to more. Especially KwaZulu Natal, where I have only explored twice for shorts amount of time.

Keep enjoying. I am.
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Jun 4th, 2016, 03:10 PM
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Lola... - I appreciate your view but I worry that children are being shipped to what felt like ”school farms". They are all private and there were way too many. Schools should be in the community where the kids live, not hundreds of km away from home. We've driven all over S Africa and driven during school let out times often. Never saw so many schools or kids in one place. The University of Venda is in the town (and lots of buses running) so maybe it is a "school town". I don't know but it was disconcerting that we passed at least 50 (more than that) private primary schools in less than 25 km. The town was Thohoyandou.

Nothing is more important than education - especially for girls. It's a game changer worldwide. But it must be accessible.

KZN is next. Love it there.
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Jun 5th, 2016, 12:41 PM
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Ian
 
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Are you one of those women drivers that ignored my 'traditional' finger wave in Kruger? Just kidding . . .

We were there about the same time. It is interesting to hear your perspective. The hippos at Lower Sabie must have slept in while you were there because we had a nice symphony. Here is a picture I took the morning we were leaving. 8 crocs & 13 (I believe) hippos.

https://flic.kr/p/HuruDZ

Ian
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Jun 5th, 2016, 04:04 PM
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Hi Ian. No idea what you mean by the finger wave.

Maybe in June 2014 the hippo population at LS was unusual. No drought and normal water levels. There were hundreds of hippos during our two night stay then. Maybe 15-20 this time, much lower water in the Sabie River. )My expectectations must be way too high). But the moon rise was one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. Thanks for the pic.
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Jun 5th, 2016, 04:49 PM
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Our drive through Swaziland was very uneventful. Passport control at the north was easy and quick - some workers helped us determine where to go, with a few giggles. No problems, two more passport stamps! The way they direct you on roads is to the next large town, not direction (E-W-S-N). We brought a small map of Swaziland so we didn't get list this time. We drove through Hlane Wlildlife Park (yes, a highway goes through and it's unfenced!!) with no problem. We always stop for petrol and curios when we don't spend any other money in Swaziland. A few hours later, we are at border control again. This one is much more modern, but not as fast. No problems again, two more passport stamps. Back on the road in S Africa.

We stopped for gas, coffee and snacks at a rest stop and then stopped at the craft market on the N2. It always takes longer to get everywhere than we think, so we got to Mtunzini just before dark. We found our accommodations easily - Nkawu Cottage. It was clean, very well appointed and comfortable. The owner was away, but her husband welcomed us. We didn't feel like cooking so we ate at a local restaurant - it was Sunday night so little was open. We found a friendly place open and enjoyed our meal. The moon rise was amazing here, too, over the Indian Ocean. Wow.

We got up without an alarm today and made our way south. We want to find the perfect retirement neighborhood, so I had done some research before arrival. We decided that Zinkwazi Beach, Prince's Grant Estate and Mtunzini might fit the bill. So we start in Zinkwazi., just about 30 minutes south.

We drive around town and it's really great. A true beach holiday town, well maintained and pretty. The beach is stunning. Many unspoiled km of gorgeous beach. Without seeing any houses, it was hard to determine which part of town would be best, so when we saw the door open at the local real estate agency open, in we went. A few minutes later we were in an agent's car driving around with wonderful, funny commentary. Loved the town and the real estate is amazing. One condo has the perfect view, perfect price. Needs a complete remodel for me, but probably rentable as is. The agent also does property management, so very convenient. Only trouble is there isn't even a convenience store, much less a grocery or restaurant. Still on the list, but not perfect.

We drive to Prince's Grant just a few minutes away. We don't have an appointment so the guard at the gate (it's a high end gated golf community) contacts the property manager for us. Again, a few minutes later we are in a golf cart with an agent looking at real estate and getting a wonderful tour of the estate. Very nice and they now own the very highly rated golf course so the house fees include unlimited golf. We both really like it but no pets allowed (a deal breaker), few permanent residents and no shops at all within 15 minutes. We drive through a few more coastal towns but none appeal to us.

We return to Mtunzini and visit the beach (really nice) and conservation area (beautiful). The town is surprisingly nice and has all the services you'd expect - a small Spar (grocery), pharmacy, restaurants and doctors. We stop into a real estate agency and make an appointment for the next morning. We drive back to Nkawu Cottage for a braai and sundowners.

In the morning we make breakfast, pack and see a little more of town before our appointment. We see the gated community and a couple of houses and it's time to go. Fell in love with one place, but had to talk ourselves out of buying it on the spot (it needed a complete remodel, but will be PERFECT!!). Luckily was refrained from doing anything stupid...

It's a tough time to shop for real estate. There is lots of development and industry coming to the northern coast. A new estate is planned near Prince's Grant (Blythedale) and a medical travel hospital is possible for Tugela Mouth. Unfortunately there is also a sand mining operation approved. Who knows how that is going to affect the area. We will have to wait - I'm pretty bummed out about that.

Off to our happy place - Rhino River Lodge.
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Jun 5th, 2016, 05:08 PM
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Ian
 
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This will explain the wave:

https://www.sanparks.org/forums/view...it=wave+finger

Ian
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Jun 5th, 2016, 06:16 PM
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I've never thought about international house hunting but what you are describing sounds fun. Are there particular rules about foreigners purchasing property in SA?
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Jun 5th, 2016, 07:53 PM
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Ian - pretty funny. I didn't know it was a "thing". We wave to everybody. It got to be a personal joke between my husband and I - not everyone finger waves - so we got creative with our waves. So yes, I finger wave or full out wave.

tripplanner - it was fun. We met a nice people, learned a little about the towns we visited and saw some great real estate. Some gorgeous water view properties for less than half of what my house is worth (some a lot more, though!). S Africa has no restrictions for foreigners buying property unless it's very large tracts of land. Interest rates are very high for everyone and foreigners need 50% down. If we had decided on a property, we would have taken a mortgage on our home from a U.S. bank and paid in cash. But you can't register a car... Go figure. (We 4x4 shopped, too!!)

One of the reasons we want to be temporary or permanent residents is the difference in price for residents vs foreigners for some lodges/reserves. Last minute availability for SADC residents at some places can be 10% (not a typo) of what we pay. And the Wild Card for SanParks and rhino Card for KZN are cheap. I know, not the best reason to move 8,000 miles away! But my medicines are dirt cheap, too. $400 here, $38 there ($65 at LHR) for the exact same med, manufactured in France. Shocking. Sadly, still too expensive for most locals.
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Jun 6th, 2016, 09:36 AM
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Very interesting, christabir, and glad it was fun for you too. I can imagine that house hunting gives you a different perspective on an area that most of us as tourists never get an opportunity to experience.
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Jun 15th, 2016, 10:54 AM
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Hi christabir,

Thank you very much for your detailed and insightful report. We plan to drive the same route from Lower Sabie to KZN via Swaziland (Crocodile bridge gate - Swaziland northern border - Hlane - Big bend and out in the south of Swaziland). Since you have made the trip recently, would you please comment on the road condition for this stretch? And some comments about driving in KZN area in general would be much appreciated.

I read somewhere that you should apply for multiple visas when landing at JNB if you plan to drive to another country. In my case, it would be when driving through Swaziland. Please confirm if this is true.

Also, is there a fee to take the car across the border? Do you have to pay to cross the border? Thank you for your help.
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