TALKING SHOP: MY GREAT BIG SHOPPING SAFARI
Over the years, I’ve done my fair share of shopping in the Kruger National Park and surrounds and I have to confess that I never lose that fascination that draws me back again and again to inspect what can only be described as a cornucopia of food, lifestyle, homeware and clothing products that are guaranteed to fascinate any visitor.
This time round, though, my long suffering shopping, travelling partner and husband limited me to just one roadside stop en route given just how long the journey was (we did not travel to the Park through Swaziland this time) and the inevitable shops which we visited en route or as part of our stop overs in the Park itself. Fair enough – that was plenty to keep my wallet itching.
But before I launch into specifics, I do have a few observations to make.
My biggest curiosity when it comes to so-called curio shops has to be the pricing. We are told that everything is aimed at international tourists with deep pockets and the benefit of good exchange rates but I would have thought that, after lessons learnt during the pandemic and the way that domestic tourists propped up this ailing sector, a little more reason would prevail.
It seems not. So, once again, the order of the day has to be good old common sense. I go shopping for small gifts for those special people who help me out when I am away – those filling in for me at work or caring for houses or pets – and allow myself one special commemorative item as a special indulgence. It is only on the last item that I tend to suspend my ‘value for money’ conscience and instead opt for something that I won’t necessarily find anywhere else.
Often, reasonable and unique gifts can be food related – sauces, preserves, liqueurs or confectionery that is unique to the area. This year, my gift to myself was a quirky T-shirt that I definitely won’t find in a city department store. The only comfort is that I have always paid premium prices for clothing in the Park but have usually found that the quality was good. I am still wearing lovely scarves, hats and even jewellery that I have purchased on one of many holidays.
That said, lines have to be drawn. After all, who can justify spending R145 on a basic mug sporting a “mug shot” of a horn bill? I can buy beautiful mugs back home for a third of that and even handmade ceramics for the equivalent. The same goes for books which I can find on line for far less and bring along with me.
So, shopping on safari is about spotting those unique, special finds that can come back and form the backbone of many a braai side tale. Then, there’s an opportunity to spice up the mundane. This time round, I replaced my very tired mouse pad with one sporting the Birds of Kruger) just to remind myself that I am working towards my next break away in the bush as I begin to plough my way through the backlog of things that have stacked up during my absence.
But, most of all, the comfort to be had from my indulgences during holiday shopping is that it supports local businesses, crafters and artists. You can be happy that a portion of your inflated till slips might just go towards supporting conservation. A little can go a long way even if you are a domestic traveller and this is a good opportunity to support the tourism sector as it rediscovers itself and emerges from the bleak days of Covid.
FARM STALL HALL OF FAME
My roadside choice was the Farm Stall at Halls along the N4 leading into Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit) if only for the fact that the last time that I passed by it was under renovation and I really wanted to see what had emerged.
For tired, creaky and very hot travellers, the famous Halls Farm Stall was a wonderful oasis. We didn’t want a big meal, so a good old toastie was just perfect, served either in the quaint, vintage coffee shop or out in the beautiful green oasis outside which doubles up as a nursery. An ice cold smoothie (papaya to give my order an exotic spin) also went down well.
The food was good even if the service was a little on the slow side.
Even while waiting for our order, I was bobbing up and down looking at nearby plants, wandering through the beautiful displays and feeling suitably soothed by the fact that the sprinklers were on irrigating a huge array of both exotic and indigenous plants.
I resolved that, if I could take one thing home with me, then the aptly named Fever Tree boutique nursery adjoining the farm stall would definitely be it. Apparently, the nursery has been operating in the lowveld for the past 10 years and specialises in rare and wonderful plants for “extra ordinary people”.
The prices are steep but this is the sort of greenery that you will probably have spied for the very first time. The only down side for us was that I was unlikely to be welcomed into the Kruger Park with a collection of exotic bromeliads in the boot, so we had to pass on that one. Next time round, I’ll be visiting on the way home.
Here, more than at any other roadside stop-off that I’ve seen, the combination of deli and nursery really brings the outside in and vice versa. The vintage bits – which include the shell of an old car, ancient farm implements and more at the entrance to Halls – also add to the olde worlde vibe.
A wander around the shop itself revealed everything from more vintage treasures to hand made décor items and toiletries using natural ingredients. The bakery is a great place to stock up on great stuff if you are off to a self-catering establishment and there are plenty of interesting goodies that are guaranteed to take your regular braais to a whole new level during your stay.
As expected, the deli side of things was a treasure trove of fruit preserves, jams, marmalades, relishes, sweets, dried fruit and nuts, marinades, chutneys, beverages, biltong and other homemade snacks. This is all boosted by a healthy array of fruit and veg which is grown locally in the many orchards and massive plantations that line the route into the province of Mpumalanga.
What is really lovely – and memorable – about the Halls Farm stall is that it is so beautifully curated. It is a wonderfully entertaining introduction to the province and leaves enough good memories that you’d definitely go back at the very next opportunity.
SHOPPING IN KRUGER
Now this is something that I’ve been doing since way back when when I was a kid with her pocket money saved to spend on a treat during the annual family holiday. The shops themselves have come a long way over the years and most are now fresh and modern with delightfully chatty and friendly staff who are always more than ready to help.
When I have visited shops in other reserves outside of the SAN Parks orbit, I have often wondered how what we still often refer to as the Parks Board (aka SAN Parks) have gotten it so right. They somehow manage to mix the super practical – from the braai tongs and dish towels that you forgot to pack to insect repellent and sun screen and even a range of groceries to fill in the gaps – with luxury items such as hand painted crockery, jewellery and gorgeous toys for kiddies.
For the most part, the stores are very similar with curios sectioned off from groceries but, somehow, each camp does manage to create a Parks Shop with a special ambience. With that comes the inevitable fact that some are definitely better than others and the interesting fact that this swaps around and varies from year to year – something to do with changes in management?
The shop on the Lower Sabie deck – a which remains my favourite spot for checking out the antics of ellies and hippos in the river bed over an ice cold beer on tap – seemed a little tired this time round. It ticked all the boxes but lacked a little enthusiasm. The smaller shop in Crocodile Bridge, which has far less resources but a lot more staff enthusiasm, was a marked contrast.
There is no restaurant here at this small gate-side camp, but the shop does have a very efficient coffee bar where many of the day visitors line up for a brew which they decant into their own travel mugs (to keep things warm as they begin to search for game) whilst enjoying a big smile from the lovely lady dispensing the caffeine!
The shop itself is well managed with staff that know their stuff. I was so impressed to hear one of the staff in the store dispensing some good advice to a tourist who was about to spend a fair amount of money on the wrong pair of binoculars. They also have regular specials to keep stock turning over.
Another plus for this delightful little shop is the adjoining nursery which is well stocked with indigenous plants and plenty of indigenous trees that you see in the park.
One of my favourite camps – and shops – has always been Satara. It is somewhere between the basic stores in in the smaller camps and the bigger and more glamourous offering in the Kruger Park’s so-called capital, Skukuza. Well curated and easy to navigate, it is as easy to stock up on fire wood and charcoal as it is to buy a good bottle of wine or even some lovely earrings. I love strolling around, especially in the heat of the day when the cool air conditioning is an added bonus.
PICNIC SITES WITH SHOPS
This is something that is rather unique to the Kruger Park. Although it does not apply to all picnic sites, there are many that have well stocked shops as well as cafes where you can get a welcome meal whilst stretching your legs and checking the sightings board to see what you can expect along the road.
I think that these are run on a concession basis which probably explains why they tend to have rather unique characters. This time out, I was thrilled to encounter Nkuhlu which has had a major face lift. The shop itself is beautifully decorated and the wares on sale are totally different from those found at the Park Shops. I loved the array of practical bush kitchen accessories as well as the beautiful homeware.
Another surprising display was a collection of hand crafted glass animals hailing from Nelspruit which were pricey but certainly special.
The modern bakery and lovely seating area were also lovely.
The opposite extreme was the picnic site and shop at Thokwane which has always been a popular and often crowded spot to take a break during the long journey between Lower Sabie / Skukuza and Satara / Orpen.
Sadly, although this was once imaginatively decorated with vintage bric ‘n brac and was a rather magical site back in the day, the hanging tin mugs and plates and other memorabilia that now sway in the wind leave one with a feeling of neglect. When combined with badly run down ablutions and generally shabby facilities, the effect is sad and one gets the feeling that an upgrade is long overdue.
On that note, I hope that it is included as one of the priority projects that will form part of the recently announced R370-million Kruger Park upgrade. Kudos to SAN Parks for work that is already being done on the fire ravaged petrol garage at Lower Sabie and, I’m told, the gutted shop at Letaba. Apparently the somewhat dilapidated central block of buildings at Shingwedzi is also getting a revamp, so I’m looking forward to a visiting there again soon.
All in all, the Parks Shops are a great testament to what can be achieved in a retail environment in what are often some of the most out of the way places. Yes, choice is limited and prices are high but they make for a very comfy stay in the bush. Visitors really want for nothing.
As they are further developed, I look forward to seeing how they can provide even more ways of supporting local businesses. I certainly look forward to even more creative items and curios that I can squeeze into both my suitcase and my holiday budget the next time I visit.
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