Ask my 11-year-old her fondest memories of South Africa and she would rattle four names in one breath. Mind you, these would not be any of the “Big Five” – rhinoceros, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and lion – or other wildlife for that matter. Etched on her lips are the names of four canines she’d bonded with: Tipsy, Goofy, Zeb and Fatso.

We (which included hubby, son and daughter) had certainly not planned for this to happen. Our three-week itinerary was supposed to be filled with outdoor activities that maximised game viewing, nature appreciation and culture immersion. Cape Town provided us with a cosmopolitan view of the country once off-limits to Malaysian passport holders until the fall of apartheid in 1994. Its stunning coastline captivated us with frolicking Cape fur seals, Jackass penguin colonies and migrating southern right whales. We picnicked at Boulders Beach, home to thousands of penguins – and even swam alongside them.

After a week, we boarded an east-bound two-hour flight to Durban. A three-hour leisurely drive took us through the pretty countryside of KwaZulu-Natal to Mooi River, a farmland community. We broke the journey at Piggly Wiggly for a coffee break. As the name suggests, the cafe is adorned with cute pig ornaments and caricatures. I became acquainted with Rooibos Espresso, a concoction of Rooibos tea and coffee with milk on the side. It’s our version of Kopi Cham – plus a rich dose of flavour and aroma in burgundy.

A guide showing some of the San rock paintings at Giant’s Castle.

Animal encounters

Our journey continued through rambling hills, farms and villages – the route aptly called Midlands Meander – to the dairy farm operated by Ann Kean and her husband Drew, where we rented a guest cottage.

Once we alighted from the car, Ann emerged from her farmhouse brandishing a cane. We soon saw why: Four boisterous dogs bounded after her. She needed not have bothered about keeping the dogs at bay, for soon kids and dogs were rolling on the lawn engaged in a rowdy wrestle.

The dogs accompanied us everywhere on the farm and were rambunctious hosts in the evenings. One became particularly attached to us. Tipsy the Pitbull cross, even camped over and thankfully didn’t wreak havoc to the cottage. (We were told later that she was a chewer; my ripped slipper was evidence!).

Mooi River is an excellent base to explore the Drakensberg Range, particularly Giant’s Castle, renowned for its San tribe rock paintings. The Drakensberg region is home to the largest collection of San rock art in Africa. The San or Bushmen are indigenous people of Southern Africa (San means “those without cattle”) who were traditionally hunter-gatherers. The Bushmen Cave Museum established in 1903 is among the most accessible rock art site featuring 500 rock paintings, some of which are estimated to be 800 years old.

The two-hour trek to the open-air museum proved to be a hiker’s dream, with 360-degree views of meandering rivers and green mountain range. A guide introduced and interpreted the paintings of wildlife such as eland antelopes and human figures engaged in hunting or ritual dance.

A natural Amphitheatre giving spectacular views of the Drakensberg Range. Photo: South Africa Tourism

On our return trek through the river route, we saw a large blue and red grasshopper, which I later discovered is called the foaming grasshopper, one of the toxic species known to emit poisonous foam when threatened. Thankfully we knew better than to engage with strange creatures. Or did we?

Of all the places we’d visited, this was the toughest to say goodbye to. Tipsy appeared particularly forlorn. We even considered extending our stay but the accommodation at St Lucia was already prepaid. The six-hour drive there was filled with chatter and recollections of the dogs’ antics.

Upon entering the estuary located on an islet, we saw road signs warning of hippos roaming the streets at night. We didn’t encounter any but saw plenty on board a cruise down the river. Pods of hippos congregated near the river banks, also home to kingfishers, African fish eagles and other birds. We spotted the first Big Five: A scowling buffalo that didn’t look too happy with the intrusion of its privacy.

Eager to get the remaining Big Five off the checklist, we headed to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park on our first self-drive safari. Off the beaten track, right around the corner, a lone giraffe stood in our path! We also saw zebras, rhinoceros and many breeds of antelopes before calling it a day as the summer heat became unbearable.

We headed to the Isimangaliso Estuary Beach to cool off. Keeping a lookout for crocodiles and hippos, we followed the boardwalk to the sound of pounding waves, eager for a dip in the ocean. Except there was no ocean in sight. Stepping off the boardwalk, we found ourselves in a mini-Sahara confronting an endless stretch of sand dunes. It took some 300m to get to the waters’ edge but the pounding waves and currents were too strong for an idyllic swim.

Heading for a fall

The opportunity for a soak came during our next stop in Hazyview. Following the panorama route, we explored stunning waterfalls such as Lone Creek, Berlin and Mac Mac Falls. Lone Creek Falls is accessible after a short hike and we came right across the 70m high waterfall, the height of a 23-storey building. We came prepared in our trench coats but left drenched to the bone.

One could easily fall in love with Mpumalanga and its many falls like this one – the Berlin Falls.

The incredibly high 70m Lone Creek Falls.

We continued our drive through Blyde River Canyon (at Mpumalanga), a 33km-long gorge known as the largest “green canyon” in the world, to view nature’s splendour of green mountain range, deep valleys and gurgling streams.

Nestled along the panoramic route is the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre which operates open jeep tours of their facility, allowing visitors to observe cheetahs, wild dogs and other endangered wildlife. Huddled together was a pair of Sable, South Africa’s most expensive antelope, which can easily fetch 27 million rand (RM8.7mil) each.

A day in Kruger National Park introduced us to warthogs, cheetahs, lions and elephants. By now we had all the Big Five checked except for the elusive leopard. Our adventures ended in Johannesburg before boarding our return flight home.

Unlike other areas in South Africa, the city didn’t feel safe. Houses loomed like fortresses: barb wires on high walls, grilles on windows and doors, and equipped with sophisticated alarm systems. (Johannesburg is ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in South Africa due to reported violent crimes).

Upon our return, a well-meaning friend asked if we were ever worried for our safety, whether from human or wild predators. Truth be told, the only threats that disrupted the calm of our vacation were in the form of four pooches that have trampled all over our hearts.

The highly prized and very endangered Sable antelope.

When pressed to reveal another South African favourite, my daughter paused for a few seconds before announcing, “Ann Marshall Bishop Kean – only if she’d give us Tipsy.”