When, oh when, do you find time to blog when such wonderful adventures await?
The fact that it’s already Mid-October is a bit of a mind-bend for us, the time just seems to be flying by. Although Swaziland itself is small (theoretically, you should be able to drive across the whole country east-to-west in two hours), there’s so much to do and see – all within driving distance and we’ve kicked off October with two busy weekends of travel.
Swaziland is nestled in a part of Southern Africa that is made up of fascinating topography. Along the eastern border lie the Drakenberg Mountains, with steep-edged cliffs and some of the oldest rocks on the planet. In fact, the scenic Makhonjwa Geotrail, which runs from South Africa, up into the mountains, and crosses into Swaziland, is often called the Genesis Route. First our first October weekend, we ventured to the Northwest corner of Swaziland, where the mountains fingertips reach into the country, and spent a night at Phophonyane Eco Lodge (pronounced pop-an-yah-nee), located in the Phophonyane Nature reserve and home to the beautiful Phophonyane falls.
The Lodge itself was beautifully designed, built on a small plateau overlooking a quiet green valley filled with rural villages. Pine trees mingled with palms, and noisy little vervet monkeys jumped from tree to tree. A man-made water feature was built to run through the property, creating the sound of small waterfalls wherever you went.
Our room for the night was described as a Luxury Tent and I was certainly charmed! Perched on a wooden platform with a wrap around deck, built on a hill, our tent comfortably fit two beds and from either bed, you could look out the mesh windows and see butterflies flitting amongst thick green leaves of the trees outside.
We spent the afternoon hiking, walking alongside the Phophonyane Falls, first reveling in the brisk pace of our descent down to take in views of the falls, then marveling at how out of shape we are as we hauled ourselves back up the steep paths.
All in all, it was a relaxing weekend and we enjoyed the lodge so much, we plan to go back next month when my parents are in town.
The following weekend we headed east, traveling down into Swaziland’s Lowveld region, an area of rolling hills and farm land that ends abruptly, soaring upwards into the Lubombo escarpment along the southeastern border of the country. Before, I mentioned that “theoretically, you should be able” to drive across Swazi in 2 hours, and I say this because GoogleMaps has a pretty bad reputation here, and for good reason. At best, GoogleMaps assumes that road conditions are good enough to consistently drive the speed limit but the reality is that there are often hazardous pot holes, slow-moving vehicles/trucks, or casually meandering livestock in the road that cause delays. At worst, GoogleMaps tells you to take a route that does not exist, telling you to cross from one country to another on a rural dirt road that does not actually lead to an official border post (rather, it drops at you at the Swazi-South Africa border, in the middle of nowhere, looking at a road with a small pile of rocks blocking your path.) All this to say, when we headed west to visit Tembe Elephant Park, GoogleMaps estimated 3.5 hours of travel time, but in reality it took around 5. Good thing it was worth it.
Tembe Elephant Park is a spectacular little gem located in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. Little isn’t actually the right word, as it’s actually nearly 75,000 acres of nature reserve, but the small camp where we lodged felt cozy, warm and welcoming, and once again, a luxury safari tent (this one even more luxurious! I was beyond thrilled!) Thanks to the unexpected detour with GoogleMaps, we arrived mere minutes before our scheduled afternoon game drive, but the staff moved quickly to get our bags to our room, our lunch packed into to-go boxes, and we hopped into the vehicle to head out into the park. Within minutes, we were treated to our first elephant sighting – a big-eared friend off in the dense bush, a bit hard to make out but quite noisy as she ripped the leaves off a tree for an afternoon snack. Not content with the poor view, our driver moved along and took us to the nearest watering hole where there was our first clear view of two gigantic, beautiful elephants. Moving away from the watering hole, we began to venture through the park and suddenly found ourselves on the road and in the middle of a herd of 8 or so gigantic elephants who seemed to care not at all about our presence. They munched and crunched (loudly) all around us, working their way along and feasting as they went. As we continued to drive, we were treated to sights of antelope and nyala, buffalo and zebra, as well as even more elephants! For our first safari drive in Africa, it was all we could have asked for and more.
The following day we weren’t as lucky as the weather had taken a turn for the worse. At 65° and raining, the animals had headed to the dense forests north of the drive paths in search of shelter. We caught glimpses of a few giraffe herds (SO amazing!), a giant herd of buffalo, and plenty more Africa-deer-things (impala, antelope, nyala, etc.) but not much else. Possibly the highlight of the wet weather was that it made the sandy ground below us well-primed to capture animal tracks and we were clearly able to see lion and leopard prints in the sand – including the prints of some lion cubs – although the cats themselves eluded us.
On our final morning, the weather started to clear and we were treated to one last game drive where we spotted a family of elephants posing picturesquely by the side of the road, as if awaiting our arrival. It was the perfect end to the weekend.
At least, it seemed like the end to our weekend, but to our pleasant surprise, on the drive home we were treated to multiple giraffe sightings as they walked near the highway in the various game reserves we passed along the way! The spring weather was shifting as well and left us with stunning views of the Swazi countryside as a storm was contemplating it arrival.
Nearly halfway through our time here in Africa and we have more adventures on the horizon. More to come 🙂