Monday, August 9, 2010

The Kingdom of Swaziland

Swaziland, the small country surrounded on three sides by South Africa and bordered to the east by Mozambique, was a welcome stop on our route from the coast to Kruger National Park. You could easily drive the length of the country in a day, but we allowed ourselves four days to explore just a bit of this tiny kingdom.

We expected to visit two of Swaziland’s National Parks – Mkhaya and Mlilwane – but were thwarted at the first. The road from the highway is definitely a 4x4 road and our little Tata was not equipped to even attempt the river crossing we encountered barely 500 meters in. We spoke to a local boy and realized we hadn’t sufficiently researched this park. It turns out that it is one of the fancier parks in Southern Africa and prior reservations are strictly required. A tractor comes twice per day to pick up guests and bring them to their swanky accommodations. We later learned that these accommodations would have been way outside our budget anyway.

So, we moved on and landed at the Swaziland Backpackers Hostel in the Ezulwini Valley. This is the gateway to the Mlilwane National Park and the most commonly visited area of Swaziland. We had a nice night here, but decided to move on the next day. We moved to a hostel not too far away that afforded us more opportunity to get out and hike around and see the area.

We went on a short hike that afternoon up the mountain Sheba’s Head where we had some beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. We also met some nice folks that evening that were just beginning their round–the-world trip. Now veterans of this sort of thing (ha!), we passed on some of what we have learned as others had done for us when we were first starting out. Although I think the one rule of this sort of travel is that no two people (or couples) experience the same things and places in the same way. You’ve just gotta see for yourself!

Finally we headed into Mlilwane. Mlilwane actually has a hostel inside the park that made for nice affordable accommodation. The real perk of Mlilwane is that large predators aren’t much of a threat. There are crocs and pythons and hippos and even ostriches you need to be wary of, but you aren’t confined to your vehicle as you are n most game parks.

So we went for a hike. The park, like the country, isn’t that big and we covered a good chunk of it in one day. We hiked the “Hippo Trail” and it was nice to get hiking again. We came across all sorts of animals as we hiked from zebras – some were skittish, others didn’t seem fazed as we walked right past them – warthogs, crocs, monkeys and a myriad birds and antelope.

After the hike we sat at the Hippo Haunt restaurant at the main camp and had a beer. This is an interesting place as it is next to a small pond where hippos reside. There is small stone wall on the edge of the pond and every now and then local school groups will show up and a ranger will put some grain out for the hippos. Onto shore the hippos come. It is neat to see them up close and get good photo opps, but it does feel a little TOO zoo-like. It’s hard to really think of these hippos as wild, though they could leave the area if they wished.

The next morning we set out for South Africa again and left Swaziland behind. It is beautiful country and the people here are incredibly friendly and nice. Oh and one more thing… Swaziland can’t abide catapults.

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