Monday, 26 October 2015

Adventures in Swaziland!

"Welcome back Jane" was the greeting when the All Out Africa drivers met our group at Johannesburg airport. This was to be my third trip to the Kingdom of Swaziland, one of Africa's smallest countries, so I knew what the drive would have in store. We drove out of the city on a modern motorway, and were soon heading east over the plains; not the most stunning drive, but our stop at a service area made up for it, as it is also a farm and gave us our first sight of African animals such as water buffalo and ostrich.

Leaving the motorway, the scenery becomes more interesting; Swaziland is surrounded by upland, or highveld as it is known in Africa. The western border with South Africa is particularly interesting, and would be the focus of our wilderness trek the following week. Border formalities done with, and our driver was noticeably happy - "welcome to Swaziland" he beamed - really proud to show off his country!

A short drive and we arrived at our first nights camp, but not before making a short stop for provisions. We were in the Malkerns valley, the heartland of Swazi tourism, so the supermarket was modern and well stocked; familiar brands with a local flavour! This was a camping trip, and our base was run by All Our Africa who have both a tour business and support a range of charitable projects. The campsite was in a lovely setting, with good facilities, and we were soon relaxing watching the sun go down on our first night in Africa.

The next morning we were to have an introductory talk from our hosts, then move on. I asked our driver if we could shop at a nearby market, rather than just buying supermarket food; this proved to be a great experience, negotiating prices for small sacks of fruit and vegetables and admiring the array of handmade tin chicken feeders!

Our drive continued towards the east, where we would be spending a few days at Shewula mountain camp. Shewula is community tourism project amongst the 500m Lubombo mountains, where you can walk, share in the life of the community and its health or childcare projects. We were to work at a primary school, but while there met a number of Dutch visitors who really enjoyed the walking tour and hospitality from the ladies of the community. The appeal to me of Shewula was being able to walk amongst a rural community, watching life go on, have conversations and generally see a bit of the real Africa - no tourist bright lights here, in fact limited electricity, a variable mobile phone signal and no internet, but in the words of a recent visitor "beautiful place with amazing surroundings. Stars clearly seen at night from a lovely little round hut that you would be sleeping in. The staff are more like family, very friendly and loving and the food that they cook is beyond heavenly! Not for 'Hilton hotel only lovers' this is the perfect getaway for someone who doesn't mind being away from all the hustle and bustle of fast paced life."

Onwards, as our time was limited we left Shewula for Hlane Game Reserve. Described as a "Royal Park" little did we know that the Swazi king was also due to visit! We arrived at Hlane just in time for lunch, and a brief look around before joining the sunset game drive - sunset is around 5:30 in winter. The drive takes place in covered jeeps, and I commented to our driver that the old vehicles from my previous visit had been replaced - yes, he replied, just this week! The game drive was great, with probably the highlight being a tall elegant giraffe and its baby, walking into the setting sun. That evening we were treated to a brilliant display of traditional dancing, with optional audience participation! Up early the next morning for a second game drive, during which we got really close to a group of lions, and some elephant, as well as wildebeest, impala and warthogs. As we returned to the camp, it became obvious that something was happening; I asked the staff, and was told that the King was arriving that afternoon. Prior to being open to the public, the 30,000 acre site was a royal hunting ground, and King Muswati still visits each year. Sure enough after a much increased military and police presence, the royal cavalcade arrived - something for us all to write a blog about!

Our final destination was back west to Malolojta Nature Reserve - over 4,000 acres of mountain wilderness, and a conservation area. Here we were to enjoy the African bush in it's raw state, but first a bit of adventure in the form of a jeep drive and 'canopy tour' zigzagging across a ravine on zip wires! I was nominated to go first and take the photos, as we zipped through the stunning scenery! Then rucksacks donned we headed along waymarked trails to the river and our first night of wild camping. After 3 visits to Malolotja, my favourite place is still the potholes - giant pools scoured out of the Rock and fed by a lovely waterfall. Here we relaxed, the intrepid members of the group had a cold swim, and that evening watched baboons climbing the rocks above, then reminisced about the trip which was drawing to a close.

Swaziland is a small country, but a great and varied destination for the visitor. We are hosting our own Swaziland Adventure in 2016, a walking holiday with a range of walks, including the 2 day wild camping and canopy tour in Malolotja; see our Mountain Walking Holidays website for the details.