Squarely sitting off the beaten track, Mokala National Park is remote enough that a lengthy dirt road approach would be required. Our paper map and Google’s insights seemingly as prone to disagreement in second class areas of the Third World as the political factions that divide them, we hesitated and finally gambled on an early branch off from the N12 and a surreptitious arrival from below.
A rather perfidious absence of any road signs or directions to the park was unnerving, and when the road turned into a nightmarish rattle over corrugated dirt and stones, we clenched our teeth and I pointlessly shifted speed up and down in search of a vibration sweet spot. Finding none, I was left to zigzag wildly across the whole width of a thankfully empty road as I picked my way through the flatter looking stretches. Our backs tensed up and seat belts began to squeeze us in a forceful embrace—the Landcruiser’s belts tighten up in bumps and can only be loosened on a perfectly smooth road or by coming to a grinding halt.
Against all odds, some twenty brutal kilometers later, we spotted a tiny post and the coveted right arrow at a crossroad between two seemingly poor alternatives. But once heading north again, the road widened nicely, its surface smoothed out and trees on both sides framed a long, perfectly straight alley that beckoned us to rush forward. The land began to change color and from a dusty, tired brown dress, it put on a robe of soft rust powder with hints of ochre and bronze. We were reminded of driving up to the Kgalagadi long ago, except that there would be no obvious road-side poverty here to tug at our hearts like the Kalahari San had done, merely surviving at the side of modern motion as if frozen in time and utter destitution.
Suddenly, a sign, a small gate on the left. Too little time to react, I had picked up speed and was dragging a nice dust plume at around sixty. Embarrassed about missing the turn and the cloud that would have hit the poor ranger, I did a U-turn and we presented ourselves and our booking. The licence plate was recorded as always and checked against a list, and suspicious eyes roamed through our supplies partially covered with a heat-reflective shield. “May I have a look at the back?” the ranger asked politely. “Of course,” I answered, “I’ll open for you…” “That will not be necessary,” he changed his mind coming back to my window, “thank you!” His visual inspection must have satisfied him that we did not carry weapons. Poaching is a major issue at all SANParks and while Mokala does not have big predators, it is home to many endangered species, including both black and white rhinos.
We were given directions to the main camp Mosu Lodge, five kilometers onward, and happily drove on at a crawl, eyes alert, senses perking up and shutters itching. Within moments, sore backs and rattle were forgotten. The landscape, which had been subtly marbled in all kinds of Karoo browns most of the day and only cheered up in the last half hour, suddenly erupted in a symphony of chirpy new colors. Tall grass shone in striking pale gold, the soil had metamorphosed into a deep orange with a rusty edge, and a gigantic storm cell to the southwest cast dramatic light and shadows on our late afternoon arrival.
The reception area, strangely, was surrounded by green grass, proof that abundant water was at hand despite the dry environment. This place was quiet going on dead, a striking contrast with Addo. We checked in quickly, noticing that for a change there was no store other than a few empty shelves between two doors and mentally patting ourselves on the shoulder for arriving prepared and fully supplied. Directions and instructions were issued: we were to drive another five clicks into the hills, pay attention at a few intersections and eventually find a locked gate. We would let ourselves in with the provided key and lock behind us again, or else. Because you see, not only had we booked our own cottage, it came with its own private chunk of the park!
Marie had initially hoped we could stay in a famous tree house—an actual house in a tree—but it was booked solid a year in advance, so this place, called Haak en Steek, was baptized Plan B. It would turn out to be a major success and we were relieved not having to deal with the Cape cobras reported to drift into the tree house occasionally.
Tired from the long ride, we got back into Mogashagasha and ventured deeper into the park, carefully negotiating the sandy road and avoiding sharp stones and thorny bushes. Stunningly colored ant hills stood here and there, showcasing the mesmerizing soil and poking through wavy grass like as many watch towers.
Upon approaching the gate, I must say we were indecisive. There was nothing around. But a sign confirmed Haak en Steek under private access. Marie jumped out to let us in, unaccustomed to being able to do so without turning her predator radar on. Having locked behind us, we followed the red sand path into our new domaine of a few nights.
After a few hundred yards, a low bungalow appeared on the edge of a circle of large camel thorn trees. It had been labelled as a “rustic cottage” and rustic it was, perfectly fitting an impeccably red soil tableau and, as we soon realized, featuring its very own waterhole. Frowning with amused uncertainty at the rhino warning sign that greeted us, we neatly parked the Landcruiser perpendicular to the house, more out of self-respect than anything else as absolutely nobody would see it.
The bungalow, an original construction which predated the Park’s creation exactly ten years ago, was a bit decrepit and dark, opening up mostly onto the waterhole side. A first inspection revealed that the curtains were a touch stained and the furniture had seen better days.
However the location was simply idyllic. Pure bush on all sides, no fence of any kind to prevent animals from roaming freely around, vermilion soil contrasting with the golden grass, utter silence other than the wind and birds singing in the branches above, not a human or even structure of any kind for miles, it was even more remote than the Weltevrede Fig Farm or Brandkop had been. We had – proverbially – scored. Again.
No drinking water, the park staff had warned us, but there was hot water for the kitchen and shower, and enough electricity for scarce room lighting, all of it gas-powered. But we carried our own water, and our many candles would complement available light nicely. Phones could be charged in the Landcruiser while on sightseeing drives. Marie would eventually manage to get a weak signal by hoisting her phone on a tree to upload a picture to Instagram. O tempora! O mores!
It was still impressively windy, not unlike afternoons had been in Namibia’s Namib Desert, so we pondered the wisdom of a braai, ultimately granting ourselves a green light out of sheer desire rather than logic. Offloading Mogashagasha was expedited and we then performed le tour du propriétaire, ritual inspection when taking possession of any premises, however short the stay or marginal the ownership.
The cottage’s instruction leaflet was formal: there shall be no going beyond the perimeter picket fence and no walking around the waterhole, for our own safety as well as the animals’ peace of mind. But since said fence was long gone, there was absolutely no indication of where our turf ended and theirs began. Venturing out in four directions as far as reason allowed, we set conservative limits to our wandering in order to avoid running face to face with a temperamental rhino—and having to improvise the Mick Dundee way.
A first sunset gloriously coated the savanna with drips of magma and then as the light slowly vanished behind lingering clouds, we lit a fire. I warily eyed the sparks that flew horizontally but that braai was well away from any vegetation. Gusty, the evening had gotten cold and we decided to eat our boerewors inside at candle light, an initiative that was apparently greatly appreciated by all kinds of flying insects as well as a poor bird which smashed into the windows repeatedly before I went out and waved it off, both of us probably a little traumatized.
We had ceremoniously reserved our Chocolate Block wine, out of the twelve bottles carried along, for the last stretch. Purchased at Pick n Pay for a fraction of the cost it goes for in Brooklyn, its enjoyment in the bush would be our revenge against the export world. Glasses were filled generously and the wine was allowed to breathe while we set up for dinner. Then we toasted to life, us and everything, and took an inquisitive sip.
I honestly cannot remember who spat the wine out first, chokingly surprised by the floating presence of a rather large foreign body. It turns out a very specific kind of massive biting fly, no doubt a local wildlife eater, was also hopelessly alcoholic. A couple of them had been irremediably attracted by our wine and plunged to a happy death, leaving an oily residue on the surface that made us empty our glasses rather than attempt a rescue. Stunned by how quickly the flies had managed to find both glasses—it had only been minutes—we finished the meal with Canon lens caps balanced on the rims, only uncovering to take a furtive chuckling sip.
The following two days fit inside a perfectly content bubble of self-contained isolation, the tesseract of nature all around adding its final dimension by cleverly pushing me inward. The further I reached out, the closer I ended to my most inner thoughts, questioning months and months of corporate abuse—the only answer a philosophical shrug: just be here, now.
By morning, wind had abated and softly puffy cumulus streets announced that while the air still felt chilly, a warmer time was in the making.
We toured the perimeter curiously, still ambivalent about the cool factor of a rhino or buffalo close encounter of the unexpected kind. Vervet monkeys paid us a return visit but kept their distance, obviously not fully corrupted by tourist presence, that was encouraging.
Then we set out on a drive around the lower part of the park, stopping at the main camp to buy the only two water bottles they had in stock and inquiring about a much advertised game pie option which, we learned with a tear, was unavailable. So we pushed on to go check the tree house out, but it was as well guarded as our own cottage and short of trespassing, we could not even catch a glimpse. But we were by then traveling through a much more boring zone, vegetation and scenery-wise, and I reassured a regretful Marie that our deal was much sweeter.
We found a few towers of giraffes, probably my favorite animal to meet in the wild, and ever so slowly drove back to Haak en Steek. As we returned to the cottage a small herd of black wildebeest was visiting the waterhole. They did not stay long, skittish, but many more animals would visit us at random times. A proper waterhole, everyone knows, doubles as a spa. Various kinds of antelope reveled in mud baths and observing their habits, precautions and prejudices was always a lot of fun and yielded a million questions.
The afternoon was still young and rightfully full of its bright self, so I pushed the boundaries of our self-imposed safe zone a little further to investigate a network of bizarre trenches behind the cottage, likely drawn by the mighty hands of time and water flow, but gone dry and forming a series of substantial obstacles. When I came back, Marie had pulled the two padded chairs from inside the house over to the very edge of the waterhole, along with a small table. The way she put it, “A place like this invites repose and contemplation, neither of which can be done from bad seating.” And there she sat, her feet propped up and a perfectly content look on her face, watching Africa unfold before her. This, I thought, is going to be an impeccable setting for our forever-ritual G&T.
And as we lounged under camel thorns, a drink in hand, discussing birds and pointing silently at a thirsty bokkie or a mongoose scurrying past, Africa did not disappoint and I felt perfect bliss wash over me.
A solitary steenbok appeared in the distance, shimmering through the scarce vegetation like a ghost, and we watched, hopeful, as it imperceptibly made its way to the spot where Marie had left a peace offering we figured would be irresistible: a fresh lettuce leaf. While the offer was eventually accepted, we will never know if it was appreciated, treasured or regurgitated.
By the time braaing started, a second magnificent sunset was unfolding and I dutifully ran around recording it. We decided to eat inside again as even a windless evening was shiver-triggering.
The second morning, having performed our breakfast routine with delight and discussed options as well as the fact that we still had not spotted the illusive rhinos, we opted for a longer drive up the entire length of the park. This took us through a changing landscape of koppies, and eventually, vegetation receded to just about nothing. Dry rolling hills surrounded us and distant solitary sets of horns stood guard through the heat blur. The goal of our excursion was the northern camp Lilydale which was nestled above the Riet River—a rather abstract concept in such harshness—and we hoped to be rewarded with some kind of lunch.
Lilydale was empty. An inviting pale blue swimming pool, perfectly filtered and re-circulated, sat in front of the reception office among a green grass parterre that was being watered by sprinklers. Having dropped our jaws in incredulous awe, we learned that no food was available, the restaurant having simply shut down for the season; but a key—it was handed over—would let us unlock the gate to the river. Oh, and would we be fishing?
Pondering the ridiculousness of such an option while walking through wet grass, by a perfect pool, across a parking lot, onto a stony path, down a steep slope littered with crab shells, through a high fence via a padlocked gate, next to tall reeds and finally along a clean, free-running river, was nothing short of surreal. We had been immersed deep into a postcard Africa minutes before and were suddenly listening to the song of water through weeds and rocks, overflown by swallows nesting in large muddy nests anchored to the cliff behind us. Staying a few minutes we took it all in, but eventually the timer was reset and we had to escape. This was just odd and did not fit.
We retreated up the path, dropped our key off, hopped in the Landcruiser and bailed south, stopping momentarily at a side lookout in the middle of a vast undulating plain where we silently ate biltong while watching eland, bontebok and zebra, all of which placidly watched us right back, possibly upset about the biltong.
On our way back we stopped at the Mosu Lodge for a late lunch. Carefully maintained grass was again present, as if proof of civilization, and a gardener was dutifully trimming the footpath’s edges with a weed-wacker. This almost could have been Hollywood and I half expected to run into Eddie Murphy screeching “Roxanne”. We walked into the relative darkness of the restaurant, found with mixed feelings that a long table was already seating a loud group of tourists but the rest was utterly empty. An absurdly ordinary toasted sandwich and a beer later, we vacated the premises and back in the sunlight, reflected on the sad fact that while convenient, SANParks meals are never impressive. I guess nothing is perfect. Neither is astronaut food and they never complain about the view, so neither shall we in such an impressive space.
Stopping at reception as we drove back to our base, we innocently asked one of the rangers where the rhinos were. That’s a big no-no, of course, in a National Park. They will never say. Rhino tracking is not even allowed on sighting boards, in a weak attempt at preventing poachers from using crowd-gathered intel’. So he apologized and dodged the bullet by asking where we had been. “Pretty much everywhere,” we answered. “Have you done the Matopi loop?” he inquired with a raised eyebrow. That was the loop closest to our base and we had reserved it for last. “No? Well, you should try it out,” he hinted with a mischievous smile, “I can’t tell you what you will find but give it a try.” The winks were almost theatrical.
We thanked him profusely and even though weary, headed straight where directed and closed the entire loop at a slow, watchful pace. We found more giraffes, zebra and buffalo, but never a glimpse of a rhino. Looking back, I am not even sure the ranger had actually given us a hint. Maybe he thought giraffes would distract us and had thrown us a bone. We joked that the park’s rhino population was in fact a single, neurotic individual on a remote control that was systematically steered away from human eyes. But Marie’s cousin Andy would disprove that theory brilliantly a few months later.
When we got back to the cottage, with plenty of light to spare, Marie and I went about our individual businesses, she focusing mostly on dinner and I selfishly stalking a cute hare and a pair of dwarf mongooses which I finally had figured lived a few dozen feet from the house. Later, while the golden hour warmed my heart along with color temperature, I met a solitary giraffe through the diplomatic lens—close enough that I could get a symbolic handshake but far enough for that hand not to shake.
Sunset was once again epic, enhanced by the deep orange of the earth and steely skies in the east. That night, not a breath of wind disturbed the haunting silence that descended on the land. Almost too intense to be bearable, the absolute lack of any kind of noise makes the New Yorker in me nervous—long gone is the peace of perfect Little Cayman nights with for only sound the gentle lap of waves at the iron shore—as though something essential is missing, a warning of impending disaster. It takes a while for my mind to quiet down and match the outer world, and for my heart to slow its frenzy ever so slightly, towards inner peace.
Up at dawn as we had a long journey ahead of us, we still allowed ourselves time to pay this small universe our goodbyes. I stayed for a while with the mongooses behind the house, mentally taking stock of it all one more time, scanning the veld with loving eyes. Tasting the bittersweet aroma of departure, I took a long sip of the moment, and, like Sam wiping his mouth after paying the beer barrel farewell in the cellar before joining Frodo and Pippin on a legendary trip, I said out loud: “I’ll last for a bit now, sir.”
So we hit the road.
Opting for a northern exit despite our southerly course to follow, we avoided the worse corrugated dirt road section through a forty-kilometer detour. It was then stop and go for close to an hour in an alternating traffic construction zone and finally, the newly paved road opened up and pedal could chase floor.
One stop remained on our return to Cape Town, and rather than rest for the night at the familiar Karoo National Park, we had decided—on my weighted input—to break our SANParks routine and support the private sector. My instinct in choosing hideouts was to be proven much weaker than Marie’s, but our thirst for quirkiness would be quenched and I was in for a treat.
On the last leg of our mechanized walkabout, homeward-bound and slightly breathless from much sheer beauty, having carried my running shoes all the way from North America, I was finally going to log a trail run in, and in exceptionally tall company. After all, if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and—which is more—you’ll see giraffes, my son!
«The Road to Mokala» Series
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Marie’s recount: Mokala – thornveld, sunlight and space