October 21, 2013

Safari Lite: Cradle Nature Walk

This is almost ancient history, but I have a story to tell about one of Johannesburg's lesser-known attractions.

It was during those last frantic days of my life in South Africa at the end of last year. I was trying to soak up as much of Africa as I could, revisiting the places I knew I'd miss, giving last tips to all the parking guards I'd come to know so well, buying up every piece of craft I laid my eyes on, and organizing what seemed like one good-bye party after another. As you might imagine, I was a bit harried, what with having to also organize the packing up of our house, picking up medical records all over town, and selling my car - all without a husband who typically abandons me at times like these claiming to be working his new job when we all know he just wants to escape the mayhem.

In any case, I was thrilled when my good friend Dory - you might remember her from my Kilimanjaro Diaries, and I'd also like to give her credit for some of the pictures in this post - informed me that she had organized an outing with friends for me. She didn't tell me anything else, except to bring good shoes, a camera, and an appetite. That sounded just like the kind of enjoyable day that I sorely needed to take a break from everything, and I was thoroughly looking forward to it. Although I did harbor a sliver of worry in the recesses of my brain, because the last time Dory had talked me into something I ended up in a 97 km bike race that left me wishing for a butt transplant afterwards.

The day came, and I was picked up at my house on a bright sunny morning - nothing unusual in Johannesburg where all mornings are sunny and bright. We made the rounds to collect a few more friends and off I was chauffeured across the beautiful countryside adjoining Joburg's Northern suburbs, the same countryside I had ridden through training for that cursed bike race with Dory Sunday after Sunday a few weeks prior.

Our destination was Cradle Nature Reserve. Joburgers might know it's there, but I had never heard of it, even though it wasn't much more than half an hour from our house. The thing is, there is a lot of stuff out there. What's known as the Cradle of Humankind is brimming with hotels, inns, restaurants, B&Bs, and small safari parks, all set in the most picturesque landscape you can imagine. If it was somewhere in the middle of nowhere I'm sure people would travel very far to see its beauty, but sitting right next to Johannesburg and Pretoria, that whole area has an almost neglected feel to it. Though it does seem to be the number one destination for the wedding industry.


Getting ready for our hike in front of Cradle Restaurant - you can see a glimpse of the
 view through the door in the background.


What's nice about the Cradle Nature Reserve is that you can do walking safaris there. No noisy game drive vehicles, no instructions to keep windows rolled up at all costs - just nature pure on a beautiful day far from the hustle and exhaust fumes of Johannesburg.

Upon arrival we were met by Vic, who was going to be our guide for the day. At first I was a bit put off by his detailed instructions about everything and repeated questions if we thought we'd be okay - he must have regarded our group of five women as some sissies from the big city who couldn't be trusted to put a foot in front of the other, and I had to resist the urge to tell him that Dory and I had just come back from a week of climbing Africa's highest mountain - but I did warm up to him as he got on with his tour and showed us all sorts of interesting things.

Vic inducting us into the vagaries of a nature walk

Here is some of what we learned that day:

The cabbage or Kiepersol tree (Cussonia) belongs to the larger family that also includes Ginseng and ivy and is related to such common herbs as parsley. It has many uses, from its edible leaves to treat indigestion to its soft wood reportedly used to make brake blocks for ox wagons, as well as its succulent roots that may or may not work to treat malaria.

I didn't take a picture of the cabbage tree but these are some of the blue wildebeest we saw

The rocky ground in the area consists of a lot of dolomite which is a very good conductor of lightning. Not too long before our walk, Vic told us, several dead rhino were found in the spot we were standing on that moment, including a young. "You're going to like this story," Vic said. I had trouble imagining how yet another dead rhino story was going to be likable in any way, and it really wasn't. It's just that the only explanation they came up with afterwards, seeing as the rhinos were completely unblemished, was that they were struck by lightning all at once. I guess them dying without any of the agony and bleeding and starving rhinos are usually exposed to when their horns are cut off was a bright spot in an otherwise harrowing African saga of death and despair.


This is what I mean about the beautiful countryside so close to a big city

Great to be out and about with good friends


Black jack (Bidens pilosa) is a ground covering herb that is useful as a natural insect repellent. Apparently it is also used to treat malaria (which, I can't help but think, you wouldn't have gotten if the insect repellent part had worked better).


Black jack

The thorn of another plant, the looks and name of which I promptly forgot, lends itself superbly as a natural-grown toothpick, the veracity of which I proceeded to confirm by giving my teeth a thorough cleaning during the rest of our walk.


Dental hygiene in the bush

The bark of the white stinkwood (Celtis) tree often plays host to the larvae of the Celtis leaf beetle, which show ups as large and rather creepy looking black patterns on the tree trunk. I think there was also a story about those patches always being on a certain side of the tree so that you could potentially use them to navigate should you have gotten lost and forgotten your iPhone at home, but I admit I do not remember the specifics. I was probably checking my iPhone at the time.


Yep, there it is, checking the iPhone. Shame on me!

The blue wildebeests we saw were not indigenous to South Africa. But like all wildebeests they were walking while nodding their heads, and the reason for this is that they are trying to get rid of the blowflies in their nasal cavities.

Ugh. I'll take leaf beetle larvae over blowflies any day, because I once read a murder mystery featuring Edgar Allan Poe and blowflies that could kill and then eat people. Just the kind of thing you'd connect with Edgar Allan Poe, in my opinion. It was just a book of fiction but it didn't leave me very kindly disposed towards blowflies.


Celtis leaf beetle larvae on a white stinkwood tree

Impala antelopes can delay their fetus from growing for up to three months if there is no rain to sustain the herd. Livingstone eland - which are the largest antelopes to be found in Africa - can't delay the fetus for three months but instead hide their newborns for three months from everybody else, even other eland. Waterbuck - the ones with the toilet-seat shaped marks on their backsides - taste bad and are therefore left alone by crocodiles, which is a good thing because they live so close to the water that they'd be in serious trouble otherwise. Which brings me to crocodiles, who we were surprised to learn - beyond the fact that they are picky eaters, that is - lay their eggs into the sandbank above the river, and if the temperature is above 24 degrees the babies turn into males, whereas anything below that makes them female.

Huh! I'm sure all of this will come in handy some day when playing a trivia game with friends and I can blurt out all these obscure facts I learned from African game rangers in the course of three years.


The best picture I could get of the eland

The best part of the day, of course, was a fabulous lunch afterwards back at the lodge and restaurant. Its terrace can easily boast one of the best views in Johannesburg, and the food was excellent. Thanks to Dory and my other friends once again for treating me to such a special day!

Oh, and no complaints from any body parts afterwards, especially not my tender backside.





More Information:

Cradle Nature Reserve
Kromdraai Rd
011 659 1622
Hours: 8am-10pm
Chalets available for rent

Nearby attractions: Maropeng Visitor Centre and Sterkfontein Caves, Balloon Safari

This article is part of Joburg Expat's What to do in Joburg series. You might also like: