It started faintly, just at the edge of my hearing. When it got so loud I couldn’t ignore it, I asked Jen, and she heard it too. It would sometimes change, softer or louder, higher pitch or lower. I sped up, slowed down, and changed gears, though the high pitched squeal didn’t seem to change because of anything I did. Finally, I pulled over and the noise didn’t change. Stumped, I shut off the Jeep and checked the trailer, but the noise persisted. At least we knew it wasn’t us making the high pitched whining noise. We drove on, scratching our heads as to what it could be. As we crossed South Africa towards Lesotho, we got into grasslands and the noise went away completely. We pretty much forgot about it until we were almost into Swaziland, a few weeks later. It started just before the border and continued into the mountains after we crossed. When we heard it in camp, I asked Tando, the camp owner and manager, what it could be. He had told us he was once a ranger in South Africa’s Kruger Park, so I figured he would know. It struck me like a lightning bolt when he said “it’s like crickets rubbing their wings together,” cicadas! We had been hearing cicadas, loud enough we could hear them over the engine as we drove down the road, that is loud! Our first day in Swaziland and we already learned something and solved a mystery that had plagued us for weeks.
Everyone we knew that had come to Swaziland noted two things about it. First, it is wonderful. Full of friendly people, fantastic scenery, and amazing opportunities. Second, almost no one travels there for long. South Africans will come of a weekend, or transit through the country on their way to and from the beaches in Mozambique. Foreigners and overland travelers don’t seem to spend much time exploring. Because of this, we were excited to check out Swaziland. While small, it has a variety of landscapes and climates we have only seen in a couple of other countries along the way. The border crossing was simple and quick, and before we knew it, we were headed for a campsite. We stayed in the mountains just outside the capital of Mbabane. Apart from learning about cicadas, we organized to have our renewed Carnet shipped to Mbabane (yes, it has taken over 4 months to get everything sorted out and a renewal on it’s way to us).
Staying where we did allowed us to explore the mountainous highveld in the northwest of the country. The lodge where we stayed was also a gathering point for many expats working on building homes and starting their lives in Swaziland. Locals also often stop by for a beer or two, allowing us to get a feel for what life is really like in Swaziland. Nearby is Malolotja National Park, full of steep grassy meadows, waterfalls, and a few antelope. On our drive through the park, we saw our first Eland, the largest antelope in Africa! We had heard of them on our previous trips to South Africa, and in Namibia and Botswana, but hadn’t gotten to see one until Swaziland. Blesbok were also in abundance, and we got a kick out of watching them watch us, with their white striped noses and long faces. It’s that time of year, and the blesbok had lots of babies, which are fun to watch scamper about.
The plan had been to hike down to one of the waterfalls after driving their trails looking for animals and views, but as we watched, the sky got darker and angrier, so we headed to the lodge to wait out the weather with a snack. As we shut off the Jeep, the rain hit, and as we watched from inside the lodge, the hail came. In no time, the hail was coming down the diameter of a nickel. I watched the Jeep, worried that the windshield would crack, until Jen mentioned the solar panels we had left out at camp, charging the trailer. I was sure we would have to replace our solar panels, as camp was only a couple of miles away. The lodge has a corrugated iron roof, so we gave up trying to talk and just watched the weather. We had passed a game viewing truck headed out on our way into the parking lot, and thought he was headed for a garage. When the group of tourists came in soaked to the bone wearing climbing harnesses, we realized that he had gone to get a group on the zip line! Jen looked at me and I could read her mind, “Absolutely NOT!” Zip lines in a thunder and hail storm? I agree with her. After 45 minutes, the storm passed, and we headed back to camp to survey the damage. The whole way back, we could see water pooled in deep ponds in the low spots along the road, ice floating around the edges. Back at camp though, we found no hailstones and they had only briefly seen rain. Our solar panels were unscathed! It was December 31st, Happy New Year!
Our friends had posted photos of rhino in Swaziland, so off we went to Hlane National Park (pronounced shlan-e). We had heard that the country club in the nearest town offered camping, and took them up on it. From here, we explored Hlane and a couple of other local conservancies. As we drove through the park, we rounded a corner overlooking a small pond. Across the pond, two hippo were climbing up onto the shore and headed into the brush. We watched as they ambled about the bank for a bit and munched on some grass. Not long after, we looked up from the park map to see a large group of rhino laying down for a nap just off the road. We stopped and watched as they swiveled their ears towards us. A couple were up and they walked to where they could better hear us and keep watch on the others. They weren’t moving much, so we headed around them, leaving them to nap in peace. We were pretty excited to see so many rhino, and hippo out of the water. In camp, Jen found info on another park, Mkhaya, that offered game walks with rhinos! However, the park only offers all-inclusive visits and does not allow you to have your personal vehicle beyond the main check-in gate. It is a bit spendier than we usually prefer, but far cheaper than all-inclusive options in other countries, so we decided to do it, if for no other reason, walking safari with rhino.
We booked our Mkhaya trip, a 24 hour experience. Two game drives, a game walk, 3 meals, and accommodation in an open sided, thatched roof “cabin” with a private bathroom. They even offered secure parking inside the park where we would leave the Jeep and trailer. We met the ranger at the appointed time, just outside the park. He thought the Jeep would have no problem getting into the farmhouse, where we would leave it overnight. When I started the Jeep, his face lit up at the sound of it. After parking and gathering our overnight bags, he drove us through the park towards camp. Along the way, we saw giraffe, including a baby he through was about 3 weeks old. As we traversed the park, we saw rhino in the distance, so he drove that way. This was a good sized group, with a playful youngster. I even got to get in a photo with them, only a few yards away! Since none of the adults wanted to play, the youngster headed our way. A tap of the horn sent him scampering off to find mama. We left them to their dinner and headed to camp.
“Camp” is just off a dry riverbed in the bush. The “cabin” has a tall thatched roof and short stone walls. The roof never meets the wall, creating a picture “window” that wraps around the whole building. At dinner (a four course meal) we found out the only other guests were a young couple from the Philippines. Coffee was delivered to the room at 5:30 the next morning, the game walk started at 6:00. We drove out to the other side of the park and immediately found rhino. We were walking within 30 feet of three full grown rhino! Their eyesight is pretty bad, but they hear well. If they got a little too close, the ranger would clap his hands and they would move away with a start. He also told us about the different thorn trees and about mushrooms that grow in termite mounds. He found one on our way back and had us give it to the kitchen staff to cook up with our breakfast. They are delicious! After breakfast and a nap, we did another game drive, seeing more giraffe and even a mother and calf Black Rhino. He was pretty excited to find them, they are solitary and elusive. He also found another bunch of mushrooms, which he picked and took back to the kitchen for the staff. Lunch in camp and it was time to go. What spent 24 amazing hours in Mkhaya, up close and personal with rhino and giraffe. What a wonderful experience.
Our next stop was Mahamba Gorge, in the southern part of the country. Here, the Mkhondvo River cuts though the mountains in a narrow gorge. The camp was spectacularly beautiful and the hike into the gorge was pretty. While camped outside of Mbabane, we had received a message from someone that had seen us on the road. They were American and somewhat stunned to see Oregon license plates in Swaziland. We were still waiting for our Carnet to arrive, so we thought we would go visit them in Belembu (see what they’re all about here), a village in the northwest. Belembu was once an asbestos mine. When it shut down in 2001, the village was pretty much abandoned. A missionary group bought the town from a timber company that owned the surrounding land and used it to house orphans. When their milk delivery didn’t come through due to bad roads, they decided to open a diary to supply milk to the kids and the rest of town. Then they opened a bakery for the same reason. The bakery also make Swazi doughnuts, a delicious treat. Swazi doughnuts are dough fried in long rods, just smaller than a hot dog bun. They’re then cut open lengthwise and filled with a sweet creamy filling. After one bite, Jen decided we shouldn’t share one and ran back into the store to buy another! Shortly thereafter, they opened a honey plant and water plant to provide income for the ministry and jobs for some of the locals. Their water source is one of the highest springs in Swaziland, so they have pure water to market. Their various businesses supply about 40% of their operating budget. They take care of nearly 350 kids in the orphanage, and town is about 1000 people. With the milk and the bread, the orphan’s needs come first, then the townspeople. Any excess milk is made into emasi, similar to buttermilk, and sold to grocery stores in nearby towns. The only road to Belembu is a rough, dirt and rock logging road that gets treacherous when wet. They have to be self sufficient.
The folks that reached out to us are an American family from Mississippi. Jim, the father, is the city engineer for Belembu, responsible for keeping the town working. This is no mean task, everything was built in the 1930s. Elysa, his wife, raises their 4 youngest children and helps out around town. They provided an interesting behind the scenes look at the town, built in the colonial age. They showed us the old movie theater, now being deconstructed to provide materials to repair and maintain the homes around town, and the lodge. They gave us insight into how the orphanage works, with younger kids housed 6 to a bungalow, where miners used to live, with an “auntie” that looks after them. Once they reach 18, they move into a group home with other boys or girls their age and start to take on more responsibilities of running their own lives. Siblings are kept in the same housing so families stay together. We appreciated their hospitality and insight to the project. They also introduced us to Ben, a young Canadian volunteer that ran the carpentry shop. His excitement for our trip was fun, he even drew us a map of where to explore in Belembu and took us on a scenic drive one evening.
We still had a few days before the Carnet arrived, so we headed back to the east side of the country, to a little campsite at a farm and B&B. We had stayed one night earlier, and thought it deserved more time. The farm grows a variety of crops, citrus fruit, macadamia nuts, corn, bananas, coffee, and dairy cows. The owners live on site, and he is an eye surgeon at the local hospital. For many years, he was the only eye surgeon in all of Swaziland! Their home is an amazing 2 story brick house with a thatched roof that her grandfather had built in the 1930s. He, and her father, had only used it as a hunting lodge, it was never lived in until the 1990s! We enjoyed the beautiful setting, seeing coffee and bananas grown in the same fields, and just hanging out in camp with our new friend, Rosa the German Shepherd. She found us and hunkered down in our campsite the whole time we were there. She would greet us every morning, looking for attention. We had to tear ourselves away to get back to Mbabane to pick up the Carnet. Once it arrived, we beat cleats for the border, eager to get on the road north.
Swaziland is amazing, we loved it. For the life of us, we cannot figure out why more people don’t spend more time there. Nearly every foreign traveler we met was only in the country for a couple of days, headed back to South Africa, into Kruger Park, or home from Mozambique. They’re missing out on so much this small country has to offer. We appreciated their concerted efforts to stamp out poaching and bring back wildlife. Roadwork and infrastructure building goes on all over the country. The variety of scenery in such a small area is amazing. And the people are always friendly and quick to smile. Friendly people and a lack of high walls and fences around homes makes Swaziland feel safer than other parts of Souther Africa as well. Swaziland sits high on our list of favorite countries in Africa, that is for sure.
Swaziland by the Numbers
Miles Driven: 1111
Days in Swaziland : 27
All Inclusive “Resorts”: 1
Rhinoceros Encountered: 30
Swazi Donuts Eaten: 6