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Roadtrip: Following the Jock trail in a BMW X5 M50d

2018-03-27 08:39

Road Trip - Jim Freeman

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman/i>

Mpumalanga - People say you forget things as you get older and maybe that’s true. On the other hand, as I stand on the cusp of 60, I find myself sometimes remembering some of the things I’ve forgotten.

My memory was jogged recently when I took the BMW X5 M50d to an extended visit to the Kruger National Park (KNP) and its surroundings ... scampering off now and then on one-day excursions north and south of my base at Sanbonani in Hazyview in Mpumalanga province.

I’d started the trip, though, at the exquisite Jock Safari Lodge, about halfway between Skukuza and Malelane situated in a 6 000 ha private concession within the southern section of the KNP at the confluence of the Biyamiti and Mitomeni Rivers. 

Walking though the gardens I came across a statue of a Staffordshire terrier facing off against a fully grown sable antelope with a very imposing set of horns. I was immediately whisked back to my youth: of course, this was Jock of the Bushveld  country!

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Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

Penned by J Percy FitzPatrick and first published in 1907, the novel has drawn criticism (and later reprints have been revised) for colonialism and cultural insensitivity but it remains a classic tale of the relationship between a swashbuckling adventurer (FitzPatrick) and his indomitable dog.

It was with great delight that I saw a copy of the book – which I’d probably read around 1972 – in the Skukuza rest camp shop and took it back to read between morning and evening game drives. I was once more enthralled by the narrative of “a little red dog with one cocked ear” that was written at the insistence of FitzPatrick’s children. 

I was soon reading about the incident depicted outside my suite: young Jock worried the wounded antelope, attacking the hind legs before getting a grip on his nose. All the while, FitzPatrick struggled to clear his Mauser of a jammed cartridge case in order to finish the unequal battle.

Jock Safari Lodge

In the early 1980s, SANParks – under whose auspices the KNP falls – sought donors to finance construction of guesthouses and camps in the Kruger.  The descendents of (later Sir) Percy FitzPatrick wanted to keep alive the history of Jock and money was released from the author’s trust fund to build a bushveld camp. 

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

It was run as a self-catering public facility till 1999 when SANParks decided to establish private concessions within Kruger. What is now Jock Safari Lodge and the “park within the park” that Jock’s guests can claim for their exclusive use was the first concession granted.

Jock is now a fully fledged private lodge with all services, including top-notch catering, a spa and extremely experienced field guides. There’s a second property, FitzPatrick’s at Jock, which the author’s family built when they underwrote the original camp. They get 40 nights sole use of the place each year; for the rest, it’s hired out as a family-friendly standalone unit that sleeps six adults.

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

“It’s like a private villa in the bush,” says lodge general manager Louis Strauss, “that caters for children of all ages. Only children over the age of six are allowed at the main lodge.”

He adds: “The first concessionaire was Duncan MacNeillie, who produced the 1986 film version of Jock of the Bushveld but he wasn’t much of a hotelier, so he brought in the Mantis group to run the place.”

The concession then became part of the Shamwari group but, in May last year, holding company Dubai World sold it to a Swiss non-profit conservation group called the Caleo Foundation. “Caleo also bought Sanbona, situated between Montague and Barrydale in the Western Cape, from Dubai World,” says Strauss.

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

The Kruger Park

Few people go to the Kruger National Park simply to read books. The bush and its inhabitants are the main attraction and, while the BMW X5 is more than equal to the task of taking on all the public roads, you don’t want to take a vehicle priced at nearly R1.4m into places where it will quite conceivably get stuck... when elephants, rhino and other nasties are around.

The park, opened to the public in 1927, measures nearly 450km from north to south and is nearly two million hectares in extent, so there is no way you’ll see anything but a tiny fraction of the park in a single game drive.

We headed out in the requisite open-topped game-viewing vehicle with Patrick Mziyako as our guide. Off road driving within the concession is permitted only for predator sightings – as the damage a vehicle does to the veld takes up to two years to repair.

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

The KNP is world famous for its wildlife numbers and diversity and it would be impossible to list everything I saw on five drives. Highlights, though, include early morning encounters with a den of spotted hyenas, eight lion cubs gambolling in a riverbed, close encounters with rhinos and buffalo, and on a night drive we saw the entire Big Five after dark.

I’m an avid birdlife fan and the most charming sighting was of two white-fronted bee-eaters huddled together for warmth on a branch as the morning sun peeked through the tree canopy.

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

When game-viewing was slow, Patrick educated us most entertainingly on the lore of the bush and the indigenous Shangaan population, even stopping to show a female passenger the plants local women use for shampoo.

As is to be expected, the cuisine at Jock Safari Lodge is exceptional. The kitchen team was trained by the redoubtable Garth Stroebel, formerly of Cape Town’s world-renowned Mount Nelson Hotel. 

Hazy views

On the third day, I climbed into the BMW and headed to Hazyview. It is not the greatest drive from Paul Kruger gate because the R536 is narrow and not in good condition, but the Sanbonani Resort Hotel and Spa was a wonderful surprise.
Friends had booked two timeshare chalets and these were our base for the next week or so. The modern chalets, serviced every day, were spotless and very well equipped... right down to wineglasses and corkscrews!

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

The next day we ignored the road I’d taken the day before when we set out in the dark, turning off just outside Hazyview to Phabeni gate. It took no time at all to get there, fill in the necessary paperwork and pay our park entrance fees. The SANParks staff was friendly and efficient and we were in the park before it was properly light, so we had some really good sightings before heading to Skukuza for breakfast.

With restaurants in the Kruger now outsourced to popular franchise chains, catering standards are good. We made short shrift of our bacon, eggs, sausage, toast and cappucinos as we overlooked the Sabie River – one of just six perennial waterways in the park.

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

During my stay I also headed up to Hoedspruit to catch up with Laurence Saad, owner of two lodges in the Balule Nature Reserve. Balule shares unfenced borders with the KNP but without public access.

No visit to the Lowveld can be contemplated without a trip to the stunning Blyde River Canyon, the deepest “green” canyon in the world, and the Blyde River Dam near Sabie. There you can take a boat trip that will take you round the bottom of the Three Rondavels. I was too late for the boat so continued the drive, all very quick and comfortable in the X5, up the Panorama Route to the three peaks – named Magabolie, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto after the wives of Bapedi chief Maripi Mashile.

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

My second solo expedition took me to Barberton where I encountered Sir Percy again, this time without his dog. FitzPatrick was a transport rider, ferrying essential supplies from Delagoa Bay in Mozambique to the booming (but short-lived) gold rush towns of Pilgrim’s Rest and Barberton. It was during his treks from the coast that many of Jock’s adventures take place. 

However, sleeping sickness caused by tsetse flies killed all his trek-oxen on one trip, leaving him destitute. He turned to journalism and, while living in Barberton, made the acquaintance of the legendary “Cockney Liz”, a beautiful piano-playing and singing barmaid. 

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

According to local author Hans Bornman, Liz arrived in Africa in January 1886 in search of her fiancé. “She followed his trail to Kimberley and then to Barberton, without success. Without a penny to her name, Liz had no other choice than to take a position at the Red Light Canteen as an entertainer and barmaid.

“Liz’s charms soon had diggers flocking to the canteen and she quickly became famous – or infamous – for being auctioned off to the highest bidder at the end of the evening. Before long, Liz had enough money to buy the Red Light Canteen, then to build the Royal Albert Hall and Restaurant.”

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman

Liz lies in an unmarked grave in Cape Town. And here the story of my Mpumalanga roadtrip comes almost full circle: she was fired from her job as barmaid at the Mount Nelson Hotel for soliciting guests... the same hotel where Garth Stroebel was once executive chef.

RoadTrip rating: 76%

Vehicle specs

The Vehicle: BMW X5 M50d
Engine: 2 993cc TwinPower six-cylinder turbodiesel
Power: 280 kW at 4000 to 4400 r/min 
Torque: 740 Nm at 200 to 3000 r/min
0-100 km/h: 5.9 seconds
Top Speed: 236 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 6.6 litres/100 km (claimed)
CO2: 173 g/km
Transmission: 8-speed Steptronic Sport
Price: R1 408 200 (recommended retail)

We like: A magnificent, comfortable beast with quite good off-road capabilities, but don’t test the limits in areas with limited service and backup. 

We do not like: Those (optional) 20-inch run-flat tyres are not suited to rutted road surfaces. Different size tyres front and rear and no full-size spare wheel exasperates the problem.

OR Tambo Airport on N12 and N4 to Jock Safari Lodge, 425km, Jock Safari Lodge to Sanbonani (Hazyview) via Phabeni Gate, 90km, Hazyview to Dullstroom, Hazyview to Hoedspruit, 100km, Hazyview to Blyde River Canyon (Sabie): 91km, Hazyview to Barberton, 109km, Dullstroom to OR Tambo Airport, 242km. Total roadtrip distance, 2 180km (including day excursions and visits to KNP)

Recreate our trip
Kruger National Park

Jock Safari Lodge 

Sanbonani Resort Hotel and Spa

The Clock Shop (Dullstroom)

This article first appeared in the August 2017 edition of RoadTrip magazine. Subscribe to RoadTrip here.

Image: Road Trip - Jim Freeman


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