Phophanyane Falls & Tembe Elephant Park

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.

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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.

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Nearly halfway through our time here in Africa and we have more adventures on the horizon. More to come 🙂

Weekend Adventuring

This week we celebrate the one-month-in-Swaziland milestone and while our routine means daily life has grown fairly familiar, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the activities and adventures to discover here in Eswatini. Since the sun sets early, the majority of our adventuring is packed into our free days and weekend – luckily for us, September was a milestone month here in Eswatini with three work holidays, meaning a little more time to explore.

And it’s good thing too because there’s a learning curve to exploring here, particularly for two calculated planners like Jon and me. In Seattle, when the weekend approaches, we have countless resources to keep us apprised of current festivals, events and activities. To go on a new hike, we each have at least one app on our phone that will tell us exactly what trails are nearby, where the trailhead is, a map of the route, reviews from other hikers and even show photos. If friends come to town, it’s a quick search to pull up a list of tourist attractions to visit (and sites all include their business hours, fees, and directions) and restaurants to try. Not so much here.

Fortunately, our hosts have been great tour guides and have shown us some cool spots in our first month! We haven’t been good about keeping regular updates as we see things, but here’s a recap of our first month of weekends:

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary:

Our first full weekend in Swaziland we trekked 25 minutes down the road to visit the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a +11,000-acre farm-turned-conservation-area that’s home to an extensive list of mammals, reptiles/amphibians, birdlife and vegetation. Within the park, there are guided game drives, horseback trails, mountain biking trails and hiking trails. There is also the self-drive option which is exactly as it sounds and is exactly what we did.

Driving around, taking in the landscape, we got our first glimpses of African wildlife including crocodile, monkey, warthog, zebra, and deer-like creatures too numerous in species to name. We stopped for lunch at the central camp and ate overlooking a small lake plentiful with turtles in the water, and ibis in the tree above. We were even treated to seeing a gigantic African fish eagle make a number of passes as he sought out his lunch was well.

In our 4×4, driven by our seasoned host, we also took the opportunity to venture up some of the steeper roads and were rewarded with beautiful, sweeping views of the Swazi landscape before descending back into the valley and heading home with the sun setting behind us.

 

Exploring Our Own Backyard: 

A piece of advice Jon received before we left was to be sure to find time to recharge. When traveling there is the temptation to see everything right away – don’t stop! See it all! But if you’re burnt out, you can’t fully appreciate the new experiences. So after almost two full work weeks, we decided to decompress with a weekend at home. Fortunately, we live on a property with quite a bit to see and we ventured out to explore around the river a little more. Every time we go down there I’m amazed by the way the water has carved out gaps and holes in the rock, and smoothed the edges until soft curves replace jagged edges. We hopped around and climbed the rocks along the river, until finally reaching a point where the rocks were quite high and quite steep, with a small but aggressive waterfall rushing between them.

 

Mantenga Nature Reserve & Cultural Village:

Refreshed from a weekend of R&R, and with another national holiday on Friday, the following weekend was the perfect time to venture out again. On Friday, our hosts organized a lunch with some visiting family and our colleague, Katrina, where we were treated to an incredible authentic Italian feast (I kid you not!), which we enjoyed dining al fresco under two staggeringly large trees in the courtyard of craft market. As we concluded our meal, we were entertained by a band of small monkeys that traipsed across the rooftops and patio umbrellas, chasing each other and feasting on their scavenges from the market’s rubbish bins across the parking lot.

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That same weekend, Jon and I returned to the Mantenga area on our own, our first solo venture out, to visit the Mantenga Nature Reserve and Cultural Village. As I mentioned before, finding information on hikes around here is no easy feat but we had read a few reviews that the reserve had some small hiking trails and thought it would be worth a try. We weren’t disappointed and find ourselves with two smaller hikes that lead to beautiful views of Mantenga Falls, as well as two much larger hiking loops we weren’t equipped for on a 95° day. We also visited the cultural village and took a tour of a traditional Swazi homestead, where we learned how the homestead communities were organized, how their beehive huts were built, and the traditional roles of different family members. After the tour we were treated to a review of traditional singing and dancing as well – which was an impressive showing of very high, very fast kicking and rhythmic stomping. All in all, it was a lovely day of nature and culture, and of getting used to driving on our own on the wrong side of the road.

 

It’s so hard to believe we’re already a month into our 3.5 month adventure and it seems like we’ve done so much and so little at the same time. We’ve started a list of the weekend trips we want to make and the sights we want to see – our calendar is quickly filling. December will be here before we know it.

 

 

Bugs 2.0

I truly wish I could share more of the nature and creatures we see but my binoculars don’t have a camera and the zoom on my phone rarely cuts it. So instead, we just settle for photos of the fantastic moths that flock to our front door on a regular basis:

 

The number of different moths and their sizes are incredible! That moth pictured on the far right has a wingspan approximately as long as my fingers – probably about 4 inches, which in bug terms is relatively huge! He may also be my new favorite bug… those small squares in the middle of the darker stripe on both sides is actually see-through! If you look closely in the picture below you can see how his left square is tan-ish (the same color as the window/curtain behind it) and his right square is blue-ish (the same color as the wall behind it.

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Not pictured are the lightning-quick spiders with legs that reach about 2-inches, the creepy millipede thing that was curled in my shower this morning, or the 1.5-inch-long cockroach-thing that drowned himself in a pot of water on our kitchen counter this week.

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sourced from giphy

On the Road

This weekend we took our first road trip out of Swaziland. Because we don’t have visas, we have to leave the country at least every 30 days, so we knew we would be making a number of trips out of the country and used it as an opportunity to do some exploring.

Driving a vehicle on the opposite side of the road has taken some getting used to – with a handful of moments of panic. Fortunately, we’ve been practicing with a number of 30 minute trips over the past few weeks. Since we’re rarely in a hurry, emphasis is on driving safely (which truth be told…is not too different from my habit at home).

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Similar to our surf – sturdy!

Our vehicle is rented from our hosts – a 2002 Toyota Hilux Surf. Drives like a tank and has a 4×4 option, so it’s great for getting around, although the conditions of the roads and standard driving practices can make for a… festive experience. Here’s what I mean:

Road quality:

From our experience, roads are mixed throughout Swaziland, with mostly paved main roads but dirt in the rural areas. When on pavement, avoiding axle-breaking potholes ensures there are no boring stretches, even on the main arterials!

Once in South Africa however, road quality on the highways/arterials (even on mountain routes) was as good as anything in the US: consistent signage/road paint, passing zones marked, few potholes.

One unique feature we noticed was periodic large signs that outlined who was responsible for the upkeep of that road section (engineering firm, local authorities, etc). A good way to ensure accountability for when a pothole does appear!

Following distance:

Nope, not a thing here. Whether on a highway or dirt road, two-seconds following distance is far too generous. At home when someone tailgates you, they want to pass/drive faster. Here, it’s pretty much just the habit – even with another lane available to pass!

Similarities to America:

  • BMW & Mercedes owners drive like idiots everywhere
  • Police know where to set their speed-traps most effectively. We didn’t get nabbed (except at a rural checkpoint where they stopped everyone to ensure you had a drivers license), but at one point we saw 5-6 cars pulled over receiving pay-on-the-spot fines
  • Semi trucks are annoying to pass
  • Fuel: a full tank of gas is about $50 at home, and about the same here.
  • It’s a big country! For example, driving from Swaziland to Cape Town would be an 18 hr drive – similar to our annual Seattle>Winnipeg road trip across half of North America.

Weekend Recap:

We drove to South Africa, heading north from our home near Manzini to Nelspruit, the ‘largest’ major town of 50,000. After some first-timer confusion at the border, we hit the mountain roads, taking in some beautiful views and even saw some roadside baboons!

We spent 2 nights in Nelspruit at a quiet AirBnB studio. We found a nearby breakfast place where we ate both mornings, next door to a fantastic restaurant (dinner both nights – do you spot a trend?) Allie is a great cook and does a good job at home, but it was nice to eat out and not have to cook or worry about dishes after 🙂

We toured Chimp Eden (where they care for the oldest chimp in the world – 79 years old!), and then went to the Sudwala caves and butterfly garden that afternoon. Both exceeded our expectations, and we stopped for a while outside the garden due to the not-at-all-afraid-of-us creatures.

Returning home Sunday evening (stopping to get groceries on the way), we both felt mentally refreshed – it was good to adventure out and change our routine the past couple weeks.