A lion here, a rhino there… A week between South Africa and Swaziland, where the land is beautiful, the people welcoming, and the food astonishing
A trip to South Africa is one of those journeys that shouldn’t be undertaken without preparation. Going to a country so important in racial relations development without knowing much about it would, well, be a shame. From diamonds to bauxite, from apartheid to multiculturalism, this country seems to have it all, for good and bad. Although my journey was meant to bring us visit the vast and beautiful Kruger Park area, I made sure to read and research about the history of this beautiful and tormented land. What I found was a place that is shamefully beautiful but still plagued by a huge racial divide. What most impressed me (and my family) was the cheerfulness of the people – regardless of their ethnicity – that made us feel welcome anywhere we went. If you are interested to know more – or to see some pictures of this incredible part of the World – please read on.
South Africa, finally! After an interminable, 30-hour long journey, I was there! Johannesburg’s sky was as blue as it can get, the air was refreshingly chilly, and the traffic around the airport moderately organized. A stark contrast with my first time in Africa, in 2004, when I landed around midnight in a hot and humid Dakar, in Senegal. Hoards of people there were fighting for my attention to cab me to my hotel, making my first experience in Africa – and in a developing country for that matter – somewhat distressful. But nothing of the sort happened here. Everything was orderly, quiet…
Our first and main destination of this trip was the single, most important park in all the country: the Kruger National Park. We spent the first few days very close to Kruger, but not quite inside it. You see, the park itself is surrounded by a number of “private game reserves”, which are directly connected (no fences) to the park. As these reserves are private, sophisticated, luxurious hotels have sprung up all over; these are discreet, fully blended-in lodges that provide the quintessential safari experience to whomever seeks it.
Getting to the Kruger area from Johannesburg takes around 5 hours. You first drive on a new, spotless toll road and then – around Belfast – you turn north-east towards Limpopo and the Drakensberg. The scenery is beautiful, the country enchanting. You pass through Dullstrom, the coolest (and among the highest) town in South Africa, renowned for its pine trees and trout fishing. Our first meal in South Africa was at the Gourmet Barn, a cute little place well-located in this charming town situated at 2200 meters above sea level. The food was a good introduction to what we were going to find in South Africa.
Well past dusk we reached Toro Yaka Game Lodge, located within the Balule Game Reserve. Let me tell you: this place was beautiful! The hosts – Steve and Nicole – and all the staff were most gracious, the rooms were SPECTACULAR, the grounds fabulous, and the food heavenly. And Toro Yaka is considered to be on the low end of the luxury resorts that dot the area around the Park! But I will let the pictures speak for myself.
You realize you are in Africa and not in a very nice zoo once you venture around the “bush” (that’s how the wild is called). The shear number of animals living freely in the park is a reminder that this is their territory and that we are only intruders seeking to peek into their lives. I must say, they most graciously let us do it, as long as we do not disturb them. And in that, Toro Yaka excelled.
The drives were masterfully led by the staff – and I want to sincerely thank Stacy for her great driving and tracking skills. Balule, north of Thornybush, is home to all the big five, and action wasn’t certainly amiss. We spotted buffalos, many elephants (Ezulwini – the guy in the picture below – was simple beautiful), giraffes, zebras, countless impalas, warthogs, kudus, wildebeests… and a committee of vultures eating the carcass of a giraffe! That was absolutely brilliant, as it showed us how cruel yet functional mother nature is. Granted, we didn’t see any big cat (although we saw an African wild cat!), but we heard lions growling around our lodge and we saw fresh tracks of leopards and black rhinos as well – sometimes you just have to be lucky to see animals. We also did a bush walk with Steve, which was incredibly informative. Also – for those of you who might be afraid of wildlife – let me assure you that at Toro Yaka the staff seemed to take safety very seriously. You really just need to sit back, relax, and enjoy! Here are some pictures…
The bush is a place where you can see nature doing its course in full swing. As I mentioned earlier, we found the carcass of a giraffe that died probably the day before of natural causes (it appeared to be an older giraffe, given its dark spots). While big predators like lions or hyenas hadn’t found the carcass yet, vultures did. When we got there, they were literally feasting on the dead animal. Here’s a video I shoot while observing:
We visited the carcass three times more in the next 24 hours, and while we didn’t see any lion claiming it we saw lions, leopard, and hyena tracks around the area. Also, the stench of the carcass grew exponentially by the day!
I want to add that the drive to/from the Park is scenic and very nice. Gentle hills leaves way to higher ranges, all surrounded by endless farms and breathtaking scenery. As we were kind in a rush I did not take many pictures, but here is one to give you an idea.
One of the most-overlooked sights of the country is the Blyde River Canyon, the third largest in the World, which cuts through the Drakensberg Mountains Range. For us it was an easy detour, given the proximity to Hoedspruit. The approximately 70 km of road , takes you from beautiful vista points at 1800 meters of altitude to the magnificent sights of Bourke Luck’s Potholes – incredible hollow rock formations at the end (or beginning, depending where you’re coming from) of the canyon. Panorama points are well signposted along the road, and the view that you get from them is simply majestic.
The Bourke’s Luck Potholes are interesting rock formations found around the Blyde River. They are hollow rocks eroded by wind and water in centuries of endless activities. What mother nature can create is, sometimes, absolutely stunning.
After the Potholes, the road climbs up and down the hills, until a detour brings you up to the aptly-named “God’s Window”: here, 300 steps takes people to the top of a mountain/hill where you have a beautiful view of the highveld below.
It took us a leisurely day of driving to get from Hoedspruit to Nelspruit, and this detour is highly suggested. Nelspruit was for us a convenient stop en route to Swaziland, yet the city itself seems most uninteresting.
Yes, our next destination was Swaziland. A country many people have never heard of. Which is fair, given that the most renown feature of the country are the colorful King Sobhuza III, who has 13 wives, and an HIV pandemic that affects 26% of the total population. Yet, I am glad we took the time to spend a couple of days in this little yet interesting kingdom. What drew me here in the first place was my cultural anthropology background, as I wanted to see by myself the Swazi culture and what the Sobhuza dynasty had created. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect; but this tiny country managed to surprise me.
The road that from Nelspruit takes to Mbabane – the capital city of Swaziland – is a continuous succession of up and downs on rolling hills. The scenery is very suggestive, alpine. Gradually, the highveld gives way to the lowveld, and the weather becomes warmer. We drove by the town of Barbeton, which had a strange outpost feeling, but we didn’t really stop by: the town didn’t seem particularly interesting.
As mentioned above, the scenery in this part of the country is remarkable.
Swaziland is similar yet remarkably different from South Africa: the landscape is familiar, with rolling hills and mountains in the background to create a dramatic backdrop; the roads are similar – well signposted and in very good conditions. But the people are different. The first notable difference – of course – is that it’s not white people driving SUV’s and BMW’s, but black people. That must mean something; also, the country is far more rural than South Africa, which means that there are no slums Johannesburg-style and that poor people seem to live a more dignified live than Swaziland’s bigger neighbor. Not a small feat, if you ask me.
For such a small place, the Ezulwini Valley – the political and royal center of the country – is remarkably interesting.
Top-notch restaurants (we tried Calabash and were thoroughly impressed),
upscale hotels and casinos,
the Parliament house, the national stadium, thermal baths… and the Mantenga Reserve, home to the Swazi Cultural Village. This is a reproduction of a traditional Swazi compound; the 100 Elangeni admission fee gets you to things: a dance/singing performance and a tour of the village. The former is performed at 3.15pm every day, and I think this should not be missed by anyone visiting Swaziland. The crew dancing and singing does an excellent job in conveying the essence of Swazi traditional music and dance. The 45 minutes-long show is highly entertaining and interesting. I was very impressed.
Here’s some videos that hopefully will convey the quality of the performance:
The cultural tour is equally interesting. Knowing more about Swazi culture and people’s beliefs was most interesting – not only for someone with a background in Anthropology like myself.
Among the highlights of Swazi culture: no limits on the number of wives a man can take; price of a virgin wife set at 17 cows; strong importance in the grandmother of the family; mobile villages with huts easily transportable in order to find the best fields for feeding animals and growing plants.
Near the village, the Mantenga Falls are also an interesting natural sight worth a detour:
The other – and perhaps more important – reason that brought us to South Africa was the Mkhaya Game Reserve.
We headed there after a good, Swazi breakfast:
This is one of the three biggest game reserves in Swaziland – and likely the most famous one. It’s main draw? One of the biggest populations of wild white and black rhinos out t here. The tour here didn’t disappoint us. Whilst we didn’t see any black rhino, we managed to see no less then a dozen different white ones. These animals are simply splendid, so peaceful, so gentle, yet so ruthlessly poached by ruthless mercenaries who sell horns to the new rich in Vietnam and China, who falsely believe that a rhino horn is an elixir that can cure it all. Superstition has only done bad to these poor animals; World governments have decidedly stepped in after the “rhino war” of 1988-1992 against poachers, and some good results have been attained, as the population of white rhinos keep increasing.
But the black rhino remains critically endangered, and its survival is all but assured. In any case, a tour of Mkhaya is something I highly recommend to anyone – and I’d say that this reserve alone is worth a detour into Swaziland. The reserve is also home to many other animals, including hippos. One of the most unforgettable sights of this trip was seeing a mom hippo teaching her cub how to swim. That moment alone was priceless.
Here are some pictures of this wonderful park!
Swaziland isn’t a big country, and crisscrossing it gave us a good idea of the landscape and the people. While generally it looks poorer than South Africa, it is by no means a hopeless country. Many criticize the King for his lack of investments into improving poor people lives. That might be true, but the general feeling here is that the average person here is much better off the his/her South African counterpart…
And this brings me to the most pressing (and arguably controversial) topic of them all. Inequality in South Africa. Twenty-something years after the end of apartheid – that monstrous machine set on by Afrikaners who made of Hitler a model to follow and who enacted such laws as the Race Separation Act and the Immorality Act (which forbade people of different races to have any kind of romantic/sexual involvement) – it seems like little progress has been made to improve the general welfare of the majority black population. Strip the country of its people, and South Africa is a developed country: nice roads, nuclear power plants, world-class hospitals, fertile lands… Too bad that almost all these riches are in the hands of 10% of the population. It is really sad seeing white people zipping through the highway on their flaming-new SUV’s, while black locals have to walk for hours to get to work to earn just enough to feed their family. Mind it, I am not blaming it entirely on the whites and their decades-long oppression. An incompetent, corrupted, populist regime led first by Thabo Mbeki and now by Jacob Zuma (the former who denied that HIV was a sexually transmitted disease, the latter barely acquitted of rape charges) has failed to bring much wealth to the vast majority of people. A tension, a division among whites and blacks is clearly still felt. You will hardly see any black person in pubs and restaurants patronized by whites. You will hardly see any black and white people sitting at the same table sharing a meal. The rainbow nation looks more like a bottle containing oil and vinegar: they share the same bottle, but never mix together. Clearly, a lot must still be done.
The bright side is: the land is really beautiful and rich. Fruit orchards, plantations, grazing fields, precious minerals and stones bless this land of contrast. If future generations will make good use of these resources, there is no doubt that South Africa will shine as one the economic powerhouses of the World.
But now I digress. Because I want to talk about the Kruger Park. This mighty national park – now stretching into Mozambique as well – is the size of Israel and houses an incredible array of wild animals and plants. We only spent a day here, but we saw more animals than all the other days combined. Granted, you do not have the luxury and amenities of the private game reserves, but nothing can beat the shear number of animals living here. The stretch of park running between the Skukuza resting camp and the Lower Sabie one – along the Sabie river – is likely you best bet to see the big five and more. In just a day we managed to see rafts of hippos, tons of impalas, kudus, baboons, many elephants, giraffes, zebras, an African wild dog, crocodiles, warthogs, buffalos, and two lions. We didn’t see any leopard nor cheetah, but the formers were sighted that very same day along the area we drove by. it was simply brilliant seeing so many elephants crossing the road while driving your own vehicle. It’s a very unique and rewarding experience that I am lucky to have experienced and that I look forward to repeating in the near future.
I will let my pictures speak for myself.
Also, I would recommend everyone visiting South Africa to take some time to rent a car and drive around the countyside. Mpumalanga is a seemingly-endless succession of rolling hills, escarpments, canyons, and scenic little mountain towns that will provide you with great food and a different experience. Plus, this is 100% Afrikaner country, and you will mostly hear people speaking Afrikaans. People here are very different from what you can find in Johannesburg or Durban, and this alone justifies peaking around a bit in my opinion.
Last but not least, I would like to talk about South African food. Before leaving, a friend of mine told me that South Africa is a meat-loving country. Well, he was right. If you think that Americans eat a lot of meat, well then come to South Africa. Not only that, but the quality is most outstanding. The beef has a taste that I have only experienced in a couple of steakhouses in the United States (and those were expensive ones!), with the added bonus that a 2/3 pounds of sirloin or rump steak cooked to perfection will hardly cost you more than 13-14 dollar at even the fanciest of the steakhouses in the small towns around the Kruger Park. I am not a huge red meat eater, yet I managed to have five consecutive steak dinners during my holidays. Enough said.
Also, South Africa has excellent game meat. Impalas, Springbok, Kudus, Ostriches can be found pretty much everywhere in the form of biltong (dried meat), steak, stew, or pate. I myself brought back some wildebeest and zebra pate. It’s redundant to say that chefs here know how to cook a good piece of meat, which makes eating out all the more enjoyable (but vegetarians be not afraid – the country offer plenty of salads and soups and breads to satisfy your hunger).
South Africa… what a state of mind. A lot of driving, great food, incredible people, unbelievable nature, and memories of a lifetime. The Rainbow Nation and its little neighbor Swaziland didn’t fail to impress us. Sala kahle, South Africa. I am sure I will see you again… and pretty soon indeed!
– Bring a good binocular. Animals can come incredible close to you, but sometimes you will see incredible things t a distance. A binocular will make everything so much easier to enjoy and experience.
– Food is South Africa is good. Like, really good. Even if you do not eat meat you will always find vegetarian options.
– Biltong – a traditionally-Southern African dried meat – is this region’s best=kept secret. Tons of stores specialize in it, and a more commercial version can be found in every convenience store. Flavors vary, from beef to ostrich to impala. Please be sure not to miss it!