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

Our Daily Routine

rou·tine /ro͞oˈtēn/
noun

  1. a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program

When people ask us how we’re doing we say “things are going well, we’re starting to settle into our routine”. Which is true, we’re already fairly accustomed to a daily schedule and while it seems almost banal when you’re in the midst of it, a good friend reminded me that she actually has no idea what daily life in Swazi might look like so I thought I’d share:

The sun rises early here. Today our room started to lighten at 5:48am. We have beautifully woven curtains that effectively block out light but much to Jon’s vexation, I enjoy slowly waking up with the sunlight rather than to an alarm in a dark room. To keep on schedule, we have an alarm set for 7am and the first action of every day is to tie up our mosquito net. There’s some famous quote about the best way to ensure a productive life is to make your bed every morning and while we rarely do that at home, it’s become part of our routine here.

Once out of bed, whoever makes it to the kitchen first puts on the kettle and the water boils as we get ready. Getting dressed takes mere minutes as it’s consistently too hot for pants, so I select one of the three day dresses or two skirts I brought and only have to decide if it’s a flats or sandals kind of shoe day. Breakfast consists of yogurt with muesli and fresh fruit (lately I’ve been jiving on passion fruit) with tea (black for me, rooibos for Jon).

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Work starts at 8am on week days but since our commute takes 2 minutes (literally: we timed it, from door to desk was 2 minutes 3 seconds), we’re able to move at a fairly leisurely pace. To get to our office, we walk through the weavery and are greeted every morning by the friendly faces of the women who are starting their day as well. Before even stepping inside, we see the women at the dye station who are prepping the fires to heat the pots of dye, which will be used to create beautifully vibrant fibers in a whole array of colors. Then we step inside the workshop and it’s already quite a hive of activity. The radio has been turned up and there are women at the wheels spinning threads, winding them around bobbins. The looms are often already manned and as the shuttles shoot back and forth beautiful patterns start to form, well on their ways to becoming scarfs or shawls or blankets (or other things!) We hike our way up a flight of stairs to the lofted admin offices, open the windows, and start the work day.

I think everybody says “there’s no such thing as a usual day here” but it’s true here, there’s no such thing as a usual work day here. There are ongoing projects, sure, and each Monday we have a staff meeting to discuss updates and the plan for the week, but there are also a variety of activities or diversions that pop up each day. Sometimes it’s a new small project that needs to be tackled in a particular afternoon, or a visitor coming to help out or train the women. Sometimes the power just goes out for no real reason (that happened today… and yesterday). It’s unpredictable but that’s kind of what makes it fun, right? Sometimes my nine year old pal Khetti comes up and we take a break from work to play games, practice math, or learn origami. She’s bright, and fun, and eager to learn new things – this week she completed my homemade times table chart and learned to play the game Risk (on Jon’s phone)

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At 4pm the bell rings to signal the end of the work day on the manufacturing floor and all the women pile into one truck to be driven home. I’d say it’s precarious but they pack in pretty tightly and somehow they all seem secure. The building becomes quiet save for the radio which stays on, turned down, so that Spooks Cat doesn’t get lonely overnight. Since it’s spring here, the days are starting to lengthen but currently the sun is already lowering by 5pm and it casts a really lovely glow across the vacant workshop as we leave for the evening.

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Once home, we lounge. I don’t think Jon has napped in over a week, which amazes me, but he’s found a handful of books that keep him enthralled and most days after work, he settles in to read (lately, it’s been so hot that he immediately takes refuge in the coolest room, our bedroom, with the curtains drawn to keep the heat out). Aspirationally, I brought a thin mat with the goal of doing yoga in my down time but have only managed a few sun salutations. Instead, I more often find myself in the hammock on the porch, reading a book or playing a game while watching out for birds and bugs I haven’t seen before. On cooler days, we occasionally venture down to the river to climb around on the rocks and soak in the beauty of place, and to get an ever so slight cardio burst on the trek back up hill to home.

 

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The sun finally sets just before 6pm and the bugs come out in force, which usually drives me inside. It works out well though because then it’s time to prepare dinner. As Jon mentioned before, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the offerings of the local supermarkets and it’s practically been business as usual when it comes to dinner. We also recently signed up for a farm produce delivery box that comes once a week we’ve had a bounty of leafy greens, fresh herbs, and local fruits and veg.

 

Dinner is often accompanied by a game. We brought a few of our favorites with us and I don’t think we’ve made it through an entire day without playing cribbage at least once. We have a few Netflix shows downloaded but are running out pretty quickly, so we try to spread them out (although we pretty much burned through the second season of Ozarks, which we downloaded the day it was released, while in the Dubai airport). We have plenty to read and use BookBub to get new books when we run out. With the sun setting so early, by 9pm it’s been dark for 3 hours and we’re usually pretty beat so we turn in.

Week One(ish)

While I had the best of intentions to share a Week One update on the one week anniversary of our departure from the US (I even had a witty intro written up) I was thwarted Thursday evening by an invitation to happy hour, followed by an extended weekend away from the office/wifi and now here we are, day 12 – the time seems to be flying by.

Our first week was quite a busy one. When booking our travel, we didn’t realize that we would be arriving in Eswatini (Swaziland was renamed by King Mswatii III earlier this year – apparently they were tired of being confused with Switzerland) during the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance*, a cultural event lasting eight days where young ‘maidens’ from across the country come together to honor the Queen Mother and to dance for the King – and possibly for the King to pick a new wife, although the particulars of that component are a bit unclear to me. We missed the first few days, but were fortunate enough to be tipped off for the seventh day, which is open to the public and hosted near where we’re staying, so we took the opportunity to attend.

Day Seven is one of the actual days of dancing during the Reed Dance festivities. By day seven, the participating young women (of which they said there were around 100,000!) have already come together, gathering at the royal residences. They’ve already make their 30k trek to the river to cut reeds and presented them to the Queen Mother, and they’ve finalized preparations for their hair and attire in anticipation of the seventh day. On Day Seven, the King and his family welcome dignitaries and representatives from all over the world, along with public spectators who crowd the seats of a stadium, to watch the young women dance.

During the ceremony, the ‘maidens’ assemble in groups based off age and region, dressed in beautiful, colorful, celebratory attire and parade across a large field in formation, dancing and singing as they pass by the King.

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The sheer number of women participating was staggering – taking well over an hour for the seemingly never-ending line of dancers to finally conclude. After their initial pass in front of the stands, they assemble in the field, where some groups continued to sing and dance, filling the field with movement and noise. We took video but apparently we’re not paying enough to WordPress for our blog to support video so… I’ll have to figure something else out.

Once all the young women were gathered in the field, a small group of women stepped up to a microphone and began to sing. At this time, the King, brandishing a solid gold axe, and his entourage came out on to the field and greeted each group, dancing with them one at a time. With SO many groups participating, the King had to hustle to get to each group, and even then still, it was bound to be a long process!

In the end, I’m told that often the King announces his new bride near the conclusion of the Umhlanga ceremony, pulling her forward from one of the dancing groups, but with the sun setting and the evening growing chilly – and a large field of maidens still to meet – our little group decided to depart early.

The following day was our first day of work. Our small but mighty team is captained by our host, Kerry, who owns and operates Tsandza weaving. Temphilo, Tsandza’s Office Manager has made us feel quite at home, and we’re also joined by Katrina, a volunteer through the Australian Government Funded Volunteer Program (AVI) – and of course Spooks, the office cat. Our office is located on the second story of the weavery and there’s a constant hum of conversation from the women downstairs, combined with the methodical click of the shuttle shooting brightly colored fibers back and forth across the looms. While working on getting our bearings this first week, Jon was able to successfully sort out an IT issue and I’ve been getting familiar with other social enterprises in Swazi to see what guidance we might glean from their experiences.

This week we’ve also been thoroughly enjoying the vibrant nature that surrounds us daily. My binoculars hardly see the inside of their case and I’m constantly on the porch looking for birds and creatures. To date, from our own little porch, we’ve spotted colorful birds like black-collared barbets, brown-hooded kingfisher, and scarlet-chested sunbirds. We’ve also seen blue-headed lizards, countless geckos and even one monkey, climbing through a nearby tree. At night, we enjoy a chorus of frog calls combined with the cheerful chirp of bats. The days range from temperate to hot, and the evenings have been cool. We’re entering the rainy season and for the last few nights have been thrilled with rolling thunderstorms that light up the sky, shake the house and fill the river that we can now hear flowing rapidly just down the hill.

All in all, we’re settling in well, enjoying our surroundings and slowly getting acclimated and acquainted. I’d call it a successful first week.

*Please note: I, by no means, am any expert on the history/rules/traditions of Umhlanga so if you’re interested in learning more, the Kingdom of Eswatini’s tourism site provides a more thorough overview: http://www.thekingdomofeswatini.com/eswatini-experiences/events/umhlanga-reed-dance/

10,405 Miles Away

A car, a ferry, a taxi [that rear-ended a Porsche so we got…], an Uber, a shuttle, an airplane, another shuttle, another airplane, a bus, and a car. By land, air and sea, it took us just over 40 hours of travel to arrive in Swazi, and by the end, I asked the question: did we pick the single furthest destination possible?

At 10,405 miles from home, the answer is: essentially, yes. While it would be possible to add a few hundred kilometers by heading to the coast or even a few more by jumping over to Madagascar or Reunion, once you hit Mauritius, you’re technically headed closer to home once again.

And with so many miles between here and home, there’s bound to be a number of differences. Looking out my window now, I see only a handful of trees large enough to climb when I’m used to forests filled with trees so tall you can’t even see the tops. There are no squirrels bouncing around, just lizards climbing up my walls. The outlets still have three prongs, but they’re all three round and gigantic!

But there are also similarities and we’ve found ourselves settling in comfortably to our new home. We live on the property of Tsandza Weaving, just downhill from the home of our hosts, and only a few steps along the road from the weaving workshop, in a cozy outbuilding that was recently updated for us.

Home

Nestled just south of the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and southwest of the city of Manzini, we’re perched on the slope of a hill and the view from our deck looks out over a valley carved out by a stream, then up steeply towards the mountains of the Ngwempisi Wilderness Area.

Porch

A large wall of windows with French doors marks the entry way and keeps a pleasant breeze flowing through, so even the 95° spring days don’t feel as hot as you’d imagine. Inside we have a comfy living space and a fully equipped kitchen, divided by a large countertop/peninsula/breakfast bar. Under the counter is shelving for food storage and we were pleasantly surprised during our first trip to the grocery store that many of our usual staples were readily available and we’ve been cooking dinner every night.

Front Doors    Living Space

Down the hallway is our bedroom beautifully decorated with pillows, curtains and a throw from the weavers (we actually got to meet the women who made them!), along with a mosquito net over the bed to keep the creepies out at night. Beyond our bedroom is a bathroom and additional bedroom with a single bed, more than enough space for the two of us.

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In the coming weeks, I’ll post more about the property and the nature around us, as well as about life in Swazi. This morning Jon and I joked that if we were a newspaper, he’d write the Business section and I’d be in charge of Lifestyle, Travel and Culture, so keep an eye out for additional updates coming shortly!