Monday, 11 July 2011

The Kingdom of Swaziland

I arrived in Swaziland from Mozambique by local mini-bus.  You might have thought that I would have been put off by my journey up to Tofo, but no, the return Maputo to Tofo journey went smoothly.  After spending a lovely Sunday afternoon in Maputo with Keith, Simon and their twins Andrew & Cameron, I was ready to brave the chapa station again on Monday morning.  Conveniently I had overheard a Dutch student, Isabelle, asking for advice on travel to Swaziland at the backpackers on Sunday evening and before long I had two travel companions for the journey.

Maputo to Manzini is really not very far at all.  About 70km on the Mozambique side and then the same again in Swaziland.  We were crossing via the Goba border which turned out to be incredibly peaceful and efficient in its lovely mountain setting.  Our only real hold up of the day was turning up at 7am (as recommended) but the bus not being full and therefore ready to leave until 11am!  We chomped on delicious fresh bread while we waited, one eye monitoring our rucksacks which had been placed into a trailer.  Just before departure, they were unloaded and the trailer filled with produce.  Our rucksacks looked precarious on top but the driver dug out some cord and secured them down.  I have to admit that I turned and checked them various times during the journey to ensure that they hadn’t bounced off into the countryside.

Swaziland instantly felt very welcoming and by 5pm I was installed at a lovely B&B called Malandelas, in the Malkerns Valley.  Time for a beer, sunset and some Wimbledon on the TV in the “pub”.  Swaziland gained independence from the British in 1968 and certain influences remain.  The next morning it became clear that I could do some more game viewing in Swaziland (yippee!) and that there was a backpackers (Sondzelas) inside the Mlilwane National Park, 2km down the road from where I was staying.  I booked in for two nights.

Mlilwane National Park only has small game (antelope, zebra, hippos, crocs) and as a consequence you can do self guided walks and hire bikes.  There was a slight hiccup when Sondzelas forgot to come and pick me up but the chief of the Malkern’s Police ended up helping me out when I accidentally dialled the police station.   I quickly forgave Thulani for forgetting me when I spotted his Steven Gerrard sticker on the dashboard.  There were some nice Brits staying at the backpackers and it was such a lovely retreat that I stayed an extra night enjoying a sunset game drive, self guided walks, a guided cycle and an impromptu sunset bathe in the local natural spring.  Walking to and from the backpackers to the main camp, I said hello to the zebra, impala and warthogs.  Although winter and therefore the dry season, the countryside was lush and beautiful.  It must be even more so in the summer rainy season.

Whilst there, I started reading up on the other game reserves in Swaziland and realised that both Hlane National Park and Mhkaya Wildlife Sanctuary were easily accessible via public transport (Swaziland isn’t very big – 120km by 180km).  Before long I found myself with a reservation for two nights at Hlane (big game – lions, elephants, rhino) and one night at Mhkaya (main attraction: black & white rhino).  Neither of these parks has any electricity so I charged everything to the full and set off on the bus.

Hlane National Park is separated into a couple of different sections – the main section where you can go on guided walks and cycles and then the big game section where the lions, elephants and rhino hang out.  Whereas Mlilwane had seemed relatively lush during the dry season, Hlane was absolutely desolate.  Many of the trees were dead (blame the elephants – they eat the bark and/or knock them down) and all the grass was yellow.  It seems amazing that the animals find enough to sustain them during the winter.

I headed out on a sunset game drive on my first evening and was spoilt by seeing a crèche (about eight – that’s a new collective noun for you!) of white rhino followed by three lions prowling around.  I sipped my beer while they played.  One rhino did starting running towards us but then seemed to change his mind and turn around.  We later came face to face with an old elephant on the road and had to gently back away while he continued to move forwards.  At night, it was very dark at camp and my room was lit solely by gas lamps.  I could hear the hippos moving around near the waterhole as I went to sleep and the roar of lions when I woke up.  But noise travels quite far, right?

The next day I decided to try a 2 hour guided cycle.  Although this only takes you around the main section of the reserve with small game, on our return we saw the same three lions as the night before, all walking past the gate of the big game section.  They had full bellies and so clearly the previous night’s hunting had been successful!  They eyed Themba and I up as dessert but that would have involved the effort of trying to jump over the very big fence and, like crocs, lions are not that inclined to make effort – they sleep for about 20 hours a day!  If my guide doesn’t look concerned then I try to be relaxed…  In the afternoon I enjoyed watching 4 big rhino taking an afternoon drink by the waterhole visible from the camp.  I then spoiled myself with another game drive at sunset and we came across more elephants, rhino and an old lion curled up asleep next to his kill.  Based on the smell, it wasn’t very fresh… and appeared to have once been a blue wildebeest.

I set off to Mhkaya the next day, a little sad not to have seen any giraffes.  A couple of easy mini-bus journeys later, I sat waiting by the side of the road to be picked up.  No guests can drive into Mhkaya; a pickup has to be arranged at either 10am or 4pm.  Having left plenty of time to get there I found myself sitting reading a book for an hour surrounded by goats and chickens, much to the amusement of the local children coming home from school.  Mhkaya is a little different to the other parks as you pay a set price and then everything is included: accommodation, all meals and a variety of game drives & walks.  The stone cottages are partly open (fresh air instead of windows) and so your loo most definitely comes with a view.  Again, everything is lit by gas lamps making for a wonderful “enchanted forest” feel.

It quickly became apparent that I was the only guest staying at Mhkaya (low season) and so the staff were ever so attentive.  Whilst it would have been nice to have some people to chat to, the situation did mean that I had most of my game drives/walks with a private guide.  I could ask Bogano as many questions as I wanted and always have the best seat in the jeep!  After our sunset game drive (lots of white rhino by the watering hole), a table had been set for my four course dinner in front of a roaring fire.  It was just me and Madame Bovary.

My lovely bed was covered in a big cosy white duvet and blankets so there was no worry about me being cold – especially when I realised that during dinner, the staff had been and slipped a hot water bottle inside the sheets!  It was a magical place to sleep and incredibly peaceful – I had expected to hear more animal noises and therefore possibly spend the night worrying about the lack of door/barrier!  I was woken the next morning by one of the ladies bringing me coffee and a muffin at 6am in preparation for my 6.30am game drive.

Entering the big game section of the reserve, the first thing we encountered was two white rhino fighting.  We drove very close as Bogano tried to separate them by making a lot of noise banging on the side of the jeep and revving the engine.  They took no notice and so I snapped away.  They were separated later in the morning by two rangers who put their vehicle between the two animals (who had injured each other).  I questioned Bogano about the ethics of stopping the fight – surely nature should be allowed to determine the outcome.  The answer is that normally, yes, but rhinos (as we have discussed previously) are disappearing fast and the purpose of Mhkaya is to protect endangered species to allow for the re-population of Swaziland’s other game reserves.  Swaziland has some of the world’s strongest anti-poaching laws.  Between 1988 and1992, the so-called “Rhino War” was fought in Swaziland.  Rhinos were being poached and the poachers finding loopholes in the law to avoid punishment.  A couple of months ago, the first rhino since 1992 was poached at Hlane.  The poachers are already behind bars for 15 years with no possibility of parole.  Very efficient.

Later on, we went on a two hour game walk, coming very close to various female rhinos and their young ones – the littlest was just 3 weeks old!  A French family joined me for the afternoon game drive.  I exercised the brain a little by translating things and we enjoyed yet more white rhino (sadly no black rhino), some playful elephants and ended with a family of giraffes close to some zebra.  As they are all my favourite animals, this seemed like a fitting ending to me.

Coming from Mozambique, Swaziland felt more prosperous but it seems that many people dream of moving to Europe.  It is a lot more relaxed than South Africa and it is nice not to see armed security guards everywhere like in SA and Mozambique.  I would highly recommend Swaziland to you, not simply for the wonderful and relaxed game reserves but also because it is a very beautiful country, easy to navigate and the people are extraordinarily welcoming and helpful.

Top Twenty Swaziland photos on FB

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