[Editor’s Note: I know all you want is the pictures. Links to 3 albums from the trip are here – 2 are from Kruger itself and the other is comprised of the non-Kruger parts of this trip, including two stopovers in Johannesburg, a visit to a Shangaan village, and a trip to the Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga. Enjoy!]
We settled on the first week of October for our visit to the most famous national park in South Africa, Kruger, because the university was off that week. What we didn’t realize was that the week was also spring break for primary and secondary schools all over the country. We were thus both surprised and worried when we got in touch with the accommodations at Kruger to find that there was nothing available in the park during the whole week. Were two Wurzburgs not flying halfway around the world to join us, we could have simply changed our dates. As it was, we had to find something – anything – to accommodate the 6 of us.
As I sat in a meeting a couple weeks before departure, I got a semi-urgent text from Meggan: “When will you be finished?” As soon as I got out of the meeting, I called. “I think I’ve got a place for us, but it seems a little too good to be true. I need you to take a look at it.” Once home, I followed her internet trail as best I could, working to figure out if this place she had found was (a) actually there, and (b) available. After an hour of sleuthing, we determined that this place was either a very well-crafted hoax or a very poorly-advertised gem. There were no trip advisor reviews, though there were photographs – whether the photos were of an actual place was anyone’s guess. Payment could only be made through a specialized lodging site and could not be made until an invoice had been emailed to me. As I entered in our credit card info, I felt about 70% certain that the place was legitimate. I figured I’d leave it to American Express to deal with it if it was not, though Meggan pointed out that the greater concern at that point would be arriving to Kruger without a place to stay. True. There was always the giant van we were driving, I suppose.
We collected Joseph and Warren in Johannesburg and trekked northeast toward Kruger, readying ourselves for the non-existence of our reserved lodging. In the interim, we had several conversations that had raised my certainty level to 85%, which is significant, but I would recommend to travelers that certainty levels for accommodations be closer to 100% before you commit to a trip. Just good practice.
We had been instructed to enter the grounds of a hotel near the main gate to Kruger and inform them that we would be staying at “Mananga House.” Apparently, our place was built on a lot obtained when the hotel started selling pieces of its property to builders. At the hotel entrance, we explained that we would be staying at Mananga House and the attendant looked puzzled, confused, and bewildered. All three. In fact, looking back at the conversation, I’m not sure why she opened the gate for us because at no point did she seem to be aware of what we were talking about. We passed through the gate and turned left. Aha! There was a wooden sign bolted to a tree reading “Mananga” in red lettering and directing us onto a dirt path through a forest. Certainty level 95%. We drove past a series of timeshares to a small fence and a wooden shed. Beyond the wooden shed, which Ben and Sadie declared in triumph must be our place (they were incorrect), there seemed to be nothing. The road continued through the trees, but there was no further sign of anything. Certainty level down to 60%.
I pushed on in the van with nervous laughter coming from the middle seat (Joseph and Warren) and potty talk coming from the way back (Sadie and Ben). [I am actually not sure that potty talk was occurring at this particular time, but there was enough potty talk from the way back over the course of the week that I’ll just pretend that is what was happening as we drove through the forest. Don’t ask for examples of potty talk, please.] 10 seconds further into the forest – nothing there. 30 seconds into the forest – still nothing. It wasn’t until we had been slowly rolling through the forest for a full minute (or so it seemed) that we saw a clearing and, ‘lo and behold, another “Mananga” board posted to a tree and a beautiful, wide house situated on a plot of grass and dirt within the trees. At the door stood John, father of one half of the couple that owns and built the place, ready to let us in just as he promised he would be. In the course of the prior fifteen minutes, the chances that John was a paid actor whose duty was to answer a fake phone line and lure hapless tourists into the Mananga trap/fraud had seemed substantial, but now here he was, showing us around a house made up of 3 giant rooms – a central living room/kitchen flanked by giant bedrooms – and ready for us with cold, sparkling lemonade in the fridge and a selection of local fudge on the counter, complete with “Enjoy Your Stay” notes tied to the tops. Mananga may have seemed to be too good to be true in our research – it was large enough for all of us, was situated quite close to the park’s main gate, and it was available – but the reality was actually even better than we could have hoped.
Not only was the place comfortable and convenient, it was isolated in the woods, giving it a real sense of being on safari. But the kicker was the stream of visitors we had. Over the course of our five days at Mananga, we saw in our yard: impala, kudu, zebra, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, various lizards, mongooses (mongeese?), baboons, and nyala. There was a rumor of a leopard nearby which kind of freaked me out when I sat outside with Sadie after dark, but we never saw it. After our first day in the park, we came home to find 4 zebras grazing in the grass. Two days later, John sent over assistants with a bucket of food that Sadie used to feed Grannie, the eldest female Kudu. Just before we said goodbye to Mananga, Grannie ate out of Sadie’s hand. This was special stuff.
So I can confirm that Mananga does in fact exist and (aside from a substantial contingent of bugs) it is fantastic. Thank goodness there was no availability in the park!
As may be apparent, the stay in Mananga was on its own a special trip. But the real reason for our journey was the visit into Kruger. There are plenty of stories about that as well. Perhaps I’ll post some at some point – but for now, here are the photo albums (click each pic for an album)…