My trip began with a long drive from Johannesburg to Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland. After many delays (we were definitely on “Africa” time… aka everyone is always late) and a fellow traveler losing her passport at the airport, we made it to Swazi after dark on Saturday, 3 September.
We set up in our tents in the dark and had the first of many delicious meals cooked by our guide Bruce. We camped inside of Hlane Royal National Park, which is Swaziland’s largest protected game area. The park used to be a private reserve for the Swazi royal family but is now held in trust by King Mswati III for the nation.
Fun facts about Swazi:
- Swaziland is the last remaining monarchy in Africa
- It is landlocked by South Africa
- Very small country – only 120 x 80 miles
- The Swazi king picks a new virgin wife every year. The current king has 14 wives and his father had more than 70
- The exchange rate between SA Rand and Swazi money is 1:1 (so roughly 1:7 USD)
Our stay in Swazi was all about seeing animals. Our campsite was within a 2 minutes’ walk to a popular watering hole in the park and I took every opportunity to sit on a bench and watch! At any time of day I could find hippos, warthogs, white rhinos, elephants and impalas.
White rhinos are very popular in Hlane as all rhino species worldwide are becoming endangered. The rare black rhino is in danger of extinction in the next few years due to poaching. Last year poachers killed 330 rhinos, and this year an additional 230 have been killed already. As you might have guessed, rhinos are hunted for their horns. Unlike elephant tusks, rhino horns are not ivory – they are made of a hair-like substance – and in order to get the full horn out the rhino must be killed. Some reserves saw off rhino horns so they become less attractive to poachers (don’t worry they grow back in about 3 years). Rhino horns are most often sold in Asian markets where they are used for herbal purposes, such as erectile dysfunction.
By far my favorite animal sighting was a herd of 5 elephants! They were absolutely beautiful and one walked really close to our vehicle. Elephants are such fascinating and intelligent creatures, Bruce taught us so many new facts about them. I love that herds are led by the oldest and wisest elephant (male or female), not the biggest or strongest. Elephants remember things based on their scent – one female elephant led her herd on a very long migrating trail 50 years after taking the trail as a calf. They also use their large ears to ventilate their body when the big African sun gets unbearably hot. Elephants only have a 1 chamber stomach, so their digestion system is very inefficient. They use their large teeth to grind and break down their food, but their teeth decay as they get older. You can tell how old an elephant is by how broken down the food is in their poop. So if there are lots of twigs and leaves in tact in the poop, it is a very old elephant. (I know more than I ever wanted to know about animal poop now.)
Later that night a large group of Swazi people asked if they could dance for us. We watched them perform by light of the fire (there was no electricity in the camp). They were mostly dressed in a more “traditional” manner. The women draped beautiful cloths around their body with a picture of the Swazi king on it. A group of men played the drums and the men and women would sing along and take turns dancing. Their type of dancing was unlike any I have ever seen. It consisted mostly of a series of high kicks that looked incredibly exhausting. I don’t think I could do that!
We only spent one day in Swaziland before we headed off to the Mozambican border. But that night I fell asleep to the sounds of LIONS. It wasn’t scary… it was actually so incredible! I tried to strain my ears as hard as I could all night for their roars (human ears are weak in comparison to most animals I encountered) and would smile in delight if I heard anything. Those sounds helped solidify the fact that I am truly living in Africa right now. Sometimes in Cape Town it’s easy to forget I am half-way across the world… but when you lay in your sleeping bag listening to lions hunt… I know I am a far way from home…