There to Here – Southern Africa Travels & a Circumnavigation

There to Here – Southern Africa Travels & a Circumnavigation

After a challenging Indian Ocean passage, we were ready for some land time and what better place to explore than southern Africa! Come with us as we travel inland to incomparable game parks and unique experiences, then make our way down the Wild Coast of east Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and complete our world circumnavigation in Cape Town.

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Off to Kruger National Park

Thunder and lightning and heavy rain kept us awake a good portion of the night, but the morning dawned bright and clear. We headed to the lodge restaurant for our inclusive breakfast. The forest dripped with last night's rain We could hear monkeys chattering and birds sang in chorus. A lizard eyed us as we entered the restaurant. lizard swaziland

We stopped in Mbabane, Swaziland's capital and biggest city, for more provisions (and snacks). Swaziland is one of the smallest countries in Africa. It is no more than 200 km (120 mi) north to south and 130 km (81mi) east to west. The trip wasn't far mileage-wise, but the country roads were all of the narrow secondary and tertiary type with hills, curves, some gravel and lots of potholes and we'd learned to allow much more time for travel.

swaziland countryside

We'd heard about Ngwenya Glass from several sources and since it was pretty much on the way, we wanted to stop and check it out ( plus you know we seldom go anywhere directly). Ngwenya (siSwati for crocodile) uses recycled glass to produce beautiful new glassware. We found the little factory located off a country road. Peacocks wandered the well-manicured grounds. We were greeted warmly as we entered and allowed to watch the factory workers in action from a balcony above.

ngwenya glass factory swaziland

The showroom was gorgeous with way too much to choose from. There was glassware and beautiful decorative creations. We ended up with some wine glasses, a cobalt glass elephant and a fine glass pendant. Then we were off again.

ngwenya glass showroom swaziland

The road meandered over rolling, verdant hills through any number of little towns as country roads often do. People went about their business. Kids in uniform were coming home from school. Most people don't own cars, so they either walk or take combis, little overcrowded mini-vans.

people and towns of swaziland

Truth be told, we had thought about giving Kruger a pass. We'd heard that it would be crowded and we conjured up images of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone when the traffic is bumper to bumper during the summer. But we were so close and Kruger is so well-known for its animals, we talked each other into it. It wasn't hard.

We'd made reservations for a hut inside the park, but none were available for this night, so we chose a guest house in Komatipoort close to Kruger's Crocodile Bridge entrance and a stone's throw from the Mozambique border. Our hosts suggested the local golf club, only five minutes away, for a beer and a light supper. The club overlooked the Crocodile River and Kruger was on the opposite riverbank.

golf club and riverview in swaziland

We waited out a torrential summer downpour in the car, then tromped through muddy puddles into the club. We settled at a table on the patio under cover, but close enough for a river view, and ordered a couple of Castle drafts. Many Afrikaaners live in this northern part of South Africa and the chat at the golf club was all in Afrikaans. We sipped our beers and watched the river. Much to our delight, a hippo appeared on the shore. We watched as she waddled her way into the river. And our Kruger experience began before we even entered the park. hippo in swaziland

Swazi Crafts and Culture

Our travel isn't just about wild animals and birds, we're also interested in local crafts and culture. First of all, Swaziland is a kingdom, one of the few remaining peaceful monarchies in the world. King Mswati III rules Swaziland with the help of several advisers. There was a picture of the king in an honored place in every place we visited, whether it be a public building or a tiny stall in the crafts market. The country is bankrupt; there is 40+% unemployment; 26%+ of the population is HIV positive and TB is rampant. Still, the people seem happy. king mswati swaziland

I'd read about Swazi Candles and had seen some of their products. This is a Swasi  women's endeavor and profits go back to the community. We watched candles being made, then browsed in the shop which was well-laid out and appealing. It wasn't only candles. There were heaps of handmade Swazi baskets and other craft offerings. This is our kind of place to buy souvenirs and we stocked up on elegant, African-motif candles and baskets.

swazi candle shop swaziland

We checked out Kwazi Swazi, a more conventional gift shop which offered the usual t-shirts and souvenirs, but not much made in Swaziland. They did, however, have some distinctive items and we ended up buying a carved, stylized zebra head which we thought would look great as a decoration on the boat.

kwazi swazi swaziland

We headed to the colorful open craft stalls in the same complex. We enjoyed looking, but didn't buy much. I fell in love with some of the batiks and the six foot tall carved giraffes were most appealing. Alas, I couldn't talk the captain into moving any tall animals aboard the boat.

swazi craft market swaziland

We moved along Route 103 in the Ezulwini Valley, a route noted for its shops. We stopped at the local craft market. There was stall upon stall of crafts, mostly identical … carvings, batiks, jewelry, cheap souvenirs. It was hot and humid as we moved from cramped, tiny stall to stall. The vendors welcomed us warmly and asked us to look at their offerings, trying hard to make a sale. It was hard to refuse, but we were sweaty and thirsty and ended up buying nothing, but a small batik print. It was simply too hot to shop.

craft stalls swaziland

The currency in Swaziland is the lilangeni … the plural is emanlangeni (E). The Swazi currency is tied 1:1 directly to the South African rand. Conveniently, we could use rands to pay for anything, but invariably received emanlangeni in change, which is not accepted anywhere but in Swaziland. This proved to be a bit of a problem when we left the country and constantly confused the two currencies to David's chagrin. The national languages, by the way, are English and Swati. We practiced saying hello in Swati - Sawubona (hello to one person) or Sanibonani (if two or more people).

swaziland currency

In the afternoon, we visited the Swazi Cultural Village for a tour of a replica village as well as a traditional singing and dancing performance. Though the guide was quite informative, there was nothing in the “traditional village” except several thatched huts, and some of them were missing. The village was sterile. There were no accessories, no embellishments, no people, no signs of life … a deserted village, a grouping of empty huts.

swazi cultural village

We were asked for money at every turn. Beyond the admission fee, we were asked to: Tip the guide, please. Tip the singers and dancers, please. Buy some crafts, please. It was hard to say no, but it left a sour taste in our mouths. Some of the singers and dancers were quite enthusiastic and we enjoyed their performances.

men dancing in swaziland

Other participants, however, were ho-hum about the whole thing, arriving late and appearing totally bored throughout the performance. We felt as if our presence was an imposition and they obviously had much better things to do than entertain guests and share their culture.

bored perfomer in swaziland

We ended the day at the Mantenga Lodge, not far away from the cultural village. The room was nice and, thankfully, air-conditioned, since the heat and humidity were getting to us. Dinner was at the lodge's restaurant and it was an elegant outdoor affair though casual.

restaurant in swaziland

The view of  Execution Rock was exceptional from our seats in the restaurant. We'd just learned at the cultural village that the Swazis used this rock as their form of punishment for major crimes such as murder, adultery and witchcraft. They dragged the guilty parties to the top of the rock and forced them to jump off to their deaths. By the way, Swazi men were free to practice polygamy and still are. King Mswati III has 15 wives and counting. Who'd have time for adultery?

execution rock in swaziland

The question is, I guess, did we really experience Swazi culture? The well-choreographed tour and presentation at the Cultural Village was disappointing. Don't get us wrong. We enjoyed our time in Swaziland. It's a beautiful country, but we came away knowing not much more about the culture than we knew from our research before arriving.

We're heading to the renowned Kruger National Park tomorrow. Are you ready to come along?