Crossing the big blue Atlantic ocean over night, we found ourselves early that morning setting foot on the third continent of our adventure and one we’d both dreamt about visiting for years… Africa. A captivating land known for its amazing wildlife, grandiose natural beauty, rich and diverse history, unique culture, traditional village life and unfortunately, patches of tremendous poverty. Our first stop would be the last remaining monarchy in Africa, the diminutive kingdom of Swaziland, and it would prove to be one of our favorite and most memorable stops on our journey so far. Arriving at the border crossing in our rental car straight away from the Joburg airport, we found ourselves amid a large mob of people with passports held over head, pushing and shoving trying to get the attention of the lone immigration official on duty. After 30 minutes or so we had made our way past all the more timid foreign travellers (needless to say, our timidity had gone out the window 12 countries ago) and shoved ourselves to the front of the local crowd to finally get our stamps. Then came the battle to get out! Getting back to our sweet compact rental car with its un-safari-ready tiny wheels, a paltry 6 inch clearance, plastic bumpers and most importantly, a maxed out insurance plan, “The Adventuremobile” as we affectionately called her whisked us away from the chaos and into the great unknown. We headed the hour or so to the middle of the small country to make base in the beautiful Malkerns Valley at a converted mansion called the Sundowner Hostel. Getting acclimated to Swazi culture, our first few days were spent exploring the area (This was the first time we actually had a rental car on this trip. Such freedom) and visiting the many local craft markets in the area. On our third day we visited a traditional Swazi village to see a customary drum and dance show and learn about local village life. As we wandered around the amazing “beehive” huts in the village, we spotted a roving gang of grey vervet monkeys on the edge of the village and walked within a few feet of the large pack. At one point a pair of monkeys were tussling and I said “they’re attacking each other” which Laura heard as “THEY’RE ATTACKING!” and yelled THEY’RE ATTACKING?!” and took off running. I heard that not as a question but as a statement and thought she saw something happening I hadn’t and took off running after her through the village. At this point the sight of Laura and I hollering and running away from the monkeys like a couple of idiots clearly got the monkeys attention and they gave chase after us, probably to see where the two crazy people were running off to so hurriedly. Oh to have been a fly on the hut and see the two of us running through the village with a gang of curious monkeys hot on our tail! It was at this point that I think Laura had a “wait I’m like ten times their size” moment and turned and yelled “SHOO!” at our would be assassins and they immediately turned and darted off into the woods. When we figured out how the whole thing started we laughed so hard I think tears actually ran down our cheeks.
After we had so horribly botched our first African wildlife moment, the next day we headed an hour across the country to the gorgeous Hlane National Park to see what we could find. It was safari time. Hiring a jeep and a guide from the entrance, we set off through the varied terrain in search of the infamous African “Big Five”. Lions, Buffalo, Elephants, Leopards and Rhinoceros. We drove for some time scouring the countryside with no luck before arriving at a watering hole deep in the woods. Directly across the water from us stood a massive full grown wild male elephant towering over all the plants and animals around him. Including us. We sat there for some time in awe watching as the beautiful beast drank from the small pond before we headed off in search of other wildlife. We wouldn’t have to go far. As we headed down a dirt road through a grassy plains like section, we came around a bend and spotted a large male lion lying in the grass near the road. Mind… officially… blown! Our driver took us within just a few feet of the lion which in an open air jeep seemed a little crazy since we were so close he could have easily jumped in the jeep with us before we even had time to turn and run. We sat there for some time watching this king of the jungle as his large golden mane billowed in the wind and every yawn revealed a massive mouth full of teeth designed specifically for killing. We could hear him growling at us as we drove past him which at our proximity honestly made our stomaches drop a bit. What an experience. Two down, three to go. As we made our way deeper into the park we came across a field full of grazing Kudu (an antelope like animal), beautiful Impala and several large imposing Buffalo. Three of the “Big Five” down and the day was only just beginning! After stopping to watch another large male lion and many more elephants deep in the thicket (talk about lucky) we stumbled upon several majestic orange and brown giraffes hanging out in a small clearing. Giraffes being one of my favorite animals, I snuck out of the jeep and was able to walk up close enough to them to draw their attention my way. The smile on my face could have been visible from space. As we continued on past herds of roaming warthogs, monkey covered trees and various other amazing fauna (This was one of those once in a lifetime kinda days), we entered a clearing filled with what appeared to be huge grey boulders bellow a tree. That is until one of the boulders stood up to look at us and revealed itself to be a giant White Rhino! We pulled up close to the group of Rhinos who all raised their heads in curiosity. Somehow we convinced our guide to let us hop out of the jeep (a big no no) and pose for pictures just a few meters in front of the massive creatures. As soon as Laura took two steps in front of the jeep though, the two ton Rhinos all stood up at once to face us and our driver quickly hurried us back into the jeep and hit the gas. Rhinos can run 30mph and inflict a lot of damage fast so with Laura and I laughing back in the jeep, we left our Rhino friends behind and headed out in search of the 5th of the Big Five…the illusive Leopard. A nocturnal animal that blends in so well to their surroundings they are almost impossible to spot during the day time. Our search unfortunately proved futile and we left Hlane that day having seen an incredible four of the Big Five (and so much more) and having had possibly the greatest wildlife experience of our lives.
The next day we sought to continue feeding our newly discovered addiction to African wildlife and drove to the Mlilwane Wildlife Santuary. Since we were allowed to do it, we drove our own little car in and went on a dirt road safari in the Adventuremobile. Since it was so low to the ground we had to stop regularly and climb onto the roof with our binoculars to see over the roadside flora. Man that car was completely covered with muddy footprints by the end of the day! But out perseverance finally paid off.. Zebras! In a field on a hill nearby. Since they were nowhere near the road Laura and I grabbed the camera and set off on foot into the bush to find them. Crossing a stream and taking several wrong turns, we eventually found the small heard of ten or so grazing Zebras and walked right in amongst them. It was unreal, they are truly stunning animals to behold. The vivid black and white stripe patterns were so striking against the green and brown backdrop. We walked with them silently for 30-40 minutes, no other humans in sight, in a surreal almost meditative state. It was as if we were communing with nature somehow and it was quite a sensation. After a while we eventually made our way back to the car. We wouldn’t find any leopards in Mlilwane unfortunately but the memory of walking with that heard of Zebras that day will last a lifetime. As will our entire trip to Swaziland. A few more days enjoying the local culture, amazing people, breathtaking landscapes and unique cuisine and we headed South across the border into South Africa. To begin a whole new adventure.