Saturday, March 5, 2011

Adventures in Swaziland

27 February, Lower Sabie Camp, Kruger NP

Lion and leopard have eluded us to date. So, this morning we were up at 5 am (ouch!), ready for the camp gates to open at 5:30. We have spotted so many of three of the BIG Five that we are almost sick of the sight of them. Elephants, rhino and water buffalo are almost a traffic nuisance. Mind you, we still stop and fire off several photos every time we see them. Particularly the elephants! Today, though, it was an all-in effort to spot lion and leopard.

Our success was only partial. We spotted a lion high up on a rocky outcrop. Not a great sighting, but we'll count it! Leopard still is missing from our dance card. Oh well, we still have a month to go. In four days, we have driven over 500 km within the boundaries of the park in search of wildlife and this is only our first National Park!

While our aim has been to spot the Big Five, we have also been blessed with multiple sightings of giraffe, zebra, warthog, impala, waterbuck, baboon, kudu, even a couple of squabbling honey badgers, and a variety of other animals and birdlife, so we really can't complain. We even saw the legendary African dung beetle in action in a pile of elephant poop!

We leave Kruger tomorrow for Swaziland and hopefully more adventure?

Kruger has been a fantastic experience. We probably will be pinching ourselves in a few weeks , saying, “Were we really that close to so many wild animals?” This land is so rich in life, with birds by the million, hip-high grass as far as the eye can see - enough to sustain hundreds of thousands of large animals - and all in a strip of land 60km by 350km. What must it all have been like 200 years ago?

28 February, Willows Cottages, Malkerns Valley, Swaziland

Is Good to be King

Swazi people are a single ethnic group who migrated south into the area that is modern day Swaziland in the middle of the 18th century. The royal line of the Swazi Kings goes back to around 1550. Today, King Mswati III is the last absolute monarch in Africa. With his mother, Ngwenyama, (the she-elephant) Mswati (the lion) rules over a tiny, land-locked kingdom, wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. Still predominantly rural, our first impressions of Swaziland are very positive indeed! Villages and towns are clean and relatively (for Africa) tidy. The shanty town squalor that is a blight on many South African towns has yet to show itself here. Housing is basic, but people seem to take a great deal of pride in their homes. There are still some traditional, grass-thatched circular houses, but these often are adjacent to more substantial, block-constructed buildings. All this is set in spectacular mountain ranges and rolling valleys that, at the moment, are as green as can be. Sugar cane fields, mango and banana plantations and rich sub-tropical vegetation remind us of the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Queensland.

Our accommodation at the 'Willows Lodge' is situated halfway between the only cities of note in Swaziland, Mbabane and Manzini. Neither can be considered large, Manzini, the larger of the two, has a population of only 75,000. We are yet to visit either so we'll reserve comment.

Back to the King. While tradition (or the royal press corps) dictates that the King is loved by his subjects, there have been some rumblings over the years about the 'high life' that his majesty enjoys. Part of the problem seems to relate to the shopping habits of some of his wives (yes wives) who prefer to shop at Harrods rather than the local markets. Now, we are not sure whether his majesty has 13 wives and the last one he selected was 19 or if it is the other way around? Good old Mswati is allowed to select a wife during the annual Umhlanga or Reed dance, when up to 20,000 topless teenage maidens dance before him hoping to be selected for the free ride to Harrods with the rest of the wives. He doesn't have to select a wife every year, just as the mood takes him. - “Is Good to be King!”

1 March, Malkerns Valley, Swaziland

Swaziland grows on you. Rapidly! The scenery is one thing, but the people combined with the scenery is quite another. Crest any hill or ridge and you will see dozens of people working, selling, walking, waiting, chatting and just hanging about on the road side. Beyond them there will be a seemingly endless landscape of spectacular mountains and hills with rolling lush valleys in between.

Mass tourism hasn't hit here yet and this suits us just fine. First up this morning we visited the small Swaziland National Museum and the Royal Memorial Gardens. We were the only people at both venues. Small as it was, the museum gave us a nicely presented and brief history of the Swazi people and their road to nationhood.

The Mantenga Cultural Village might sound like a giant tourist trap and is the sort of place we usually avoid like the plague, but what a great experience! Again, we were the only people there, at least at the start. A French family joined us later in the morning. After the guided tour of the 'working village', we had the traditional song and dance display. It was a little strange at first, with just the six of us watching the 30+ dancers and drummers, but quickly became a fantastic and extremely intimate experience. A quick trip to the local waterfall for a light lunch and we were off to Mbabane, Swaziland's national capital.

We are fairly sure we are the only people we know who have actually been to Mbabane. Let us know if we are wrong. We had developed a fairly negative view of the city. Some of the guide book descriptions may have had something to do with it. The Lonely Planet uses codes to alert travellers of cities and towns that aren't worth a visit. Phrases like, 'a good place to change trains' or 'most tourists just pass through'. For Mbabane, the Planet's comment was ' a good place to get things done'.

Well the real story is... Mbabane is just fine. Not the prettiest city in the world - that's for sure - but lively, vibrant and, despite the new Mall on the edge of town, very African. Hawkers trade on the dusty fringes of the chaotic taxi (mini bus) terminal that adjoins the western style mall, men and women in smart business dress head off to lunch amongst rural workers in town for the markets. People on the streets are good humoured and, in a city this small, they all seem to know every second person. People are polite and considerate, even on the roads! A small city with a great feel to it!

A most important attractor for us is always the value for money in any country we visit. Yes, we always get to this point in our blogs! South Africa and Swaziland are both great value for travellers. On the 'beer index' they are somewhere between Vietnam and Germany. Strange parameters we know, but both these countries are close to the top of the beer index - that is, the best value. Less than 80c a can in Australian terms is extremely good value. Food and clothing are also great value, as is eating out. We shouted our hosts and a friend to dinner at a fantastic little restaurant in Johannesburg the other night for less than $20 a head. That included a tip and a fantastic three course meal, not to mention the super-friendly service.

To finish off our day today, we drove the long way back to our cottage through the Ezulwini and Malkerns Valleys. Small scattered villages dotted the hills, while the never-ending streams of kids walking home from school on the very edges of the narrow roads kept us on our toes.

2 March, Malkerns Valley, Swaziland

Driving around is truly the only way to really see a country. Being herded like cattle through the 'must see' tourist sights and forking out for silly hats and carved fertility symbols that will only have to be surrendered to Customs at home, just isn't our thing. That's why we see ourselves as travellers. Not tourists. Travelling this way is definitely not a holiday. But we are not on holidays. This is 'work' for us, or as close to work as we ever intend to get from here on in. So, today we travelled fairly aimlessly through the Swazi countryside to just short of the Mozambique border and back.

Manzini, Swaziland's largest city, was our first stop for a walk about. Much like its sister city, Mbabane, just 30kms away, Manzini was a pleasant enough place. We headed off to the markets first and were amazed (and pleased) to see dress stalls where the shop owners were sewing away at the back of the stall, making all their own items with portable Singers, straight out of the 50's, complete with wooden covers!. Basket weavers worked with fantastic agility and speed , producing simple carry baskets of multi-coloured plastic. Yes we did buy one! The poorer Swazi shop here for almost everything they need, as do the small 'General Dealers' (corner shops) that dot the countryside and the street hawkers who peddle smaller quantities of the same items at every corner and village bus stop in Africa.. Up on the main street are the more entrepreneurial outlets, some locally owned, but also Indian, North African and Chinese owned. Most of their product is imported from Asia.

In Manzini, as in almost every town of size, here and in any developing country, there is a new Mall with a major chain like Pick-n-Pay, Super Spar or Shoprite as the anchor tenant. Here is the portal to 'western world', the look alike, sameness world of chain retailers that is invading every corner of the globe. Interestingly enough, the product they sell is also mostly sourced in Asia, probably from the same suppliers as their struggling competitors. They just make it look better, and make the 'shopping experience' more 'appealing'. But at a cost. Fast food outlets have also invaded this part of the world, notably KFC and Nandos, but, interestingly, not McDonalds.

Our ramble through the countryside took us through some areas where traditional Swazi homesteads still remain. Some even still have traditional cattle kraals and fenced compounds of woven reeds or saplings. In many areas though, more modern homes are replacing the traditional structures, albeit incorporating traditional shapes. Many of them are quite flash and more than a few, rather grand.

In the north of the country, large, company-owned sugar plantations dominate the landscape. One of the largest is the Royal Swazi Sugar Corporation. “Is Great to be King!”. These plantations seem to have their own company town complex attached, much like mining towns in Northern Australia. The one we visited was just like Jabiru in the Australian Northern Territory.

On the subject of road trips, the road system in Swaziland is generally good, with both single and double-lane major roads joining the bigger towns as well as secondary roads linking smaller towns. However, no matter where you go, you must remain alert as you will encounter many obstacles to impede your progress. The first is the many, many people walking, walking, walking – to work, to school, to shop and then back again, often carrying small and large articles on their heads (we saw a woman today with an esky (cooler box) atop hers!), or pushing wheelbarrows. These are not a major problem as they keep to their assigned areas. The second danger, is wildlife – cattle, donkeys, goats mostly. These are of more concern as they, in their minds, own the road and all vehicular traffic must give way to them. Once you accept this fact, all is well. The third is more insidious. Coming into towns, anywhere near schools, intersections, anywhere really, speed bumps can suddenly materialise under your wheels. These range from small warning bumps to suspension-busting hills. While they MAY have been signed about 100 metres away, there is no indication regarding which type you will encounter and their markings have often been worn away, so they have become almost invisible. These, combined with mega-potholes on the smaller roads present the driver with the greatest challenge.

3 March, Malkerns Valley, Swaziland

Our last day in Swaziland today and it was a very easy one indeed. We had heard that the nearby Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve wasn't up to much. The advice was good. Sadly, most of Swaziland's animals were hunted and/or poached out of existence in the 1950s and 1960s. It was all too late when reserves were established in the 1960s. Animals had to be captured from other parks in South Africa and Mozambique for release in Swazi's few reserves. Today's fare consisted of a few fairly domesticated wildebeest and the odd impala. We did see a crocodile, but he was so bored with it all that he just slipped under the water when he saw us. We actually saw more wildlife, in the form of a few giraffe on our drive around the northern part of the country yesterday.

To kill the rest of the day, we took ourselves off to the local multiplex cinema to see The Next 3 Days with Russell Crowe. An usher took us to our pre-selected seats. All for the princely sum of E56 ($8) for both of us! So modern was the complex that when we came out, we had to pinch ourselves to remind us that we actually were in Swaziland!

Our stay here has been a great experience and a real eye-opener. Swaziland is still a poor country by western standards with some enormous problems. HIV/AIDS rates are just behind those in South Africa, which are the highest in the world. Life expectancy here is just above 40 years. For all this though, one can feel a real buzz in this tiny country. Things are definitely on the improve, as demonstrated by rapidly improving housing standards and improved education standards. AND the number of BMWs and Mercedes on the roads!

This is a happy, scenic, peaceful place, where enormous efforts are being made to develop and improve living standards, while retaining the still vibrant Swazi culture.

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