I’m a little late getting this out there, since my trip to Swaziland was December 15-20, but that was followed by Christmas in Zanzibar (separate post to come) and New Year, and I got a bit lazy with my free time. So here it is!
I had tried to attach a detour to Swaziland to visit Laura and Thibaut to a couple work trips in the two years since they left DC, but it hadn’t panned out. So I was psyched to hop a direct 3.5 hour flight from Dar into Johannesburg, and planned to meet up with Laura to drive back to Mbabane. Easy peasy! There’s two flights to Johannesburg daily, but the one that fit the schedule was the 6am flight (instead of 1:30pm). Getting up at 2:45 in the morning to get to the airport is no one’s idea of fun, but I’d much rather do that with the promise of friends and vacation on the other end than for a work trip.
By the time I arrived at O.R Tambo airport and got through a very long immigration line, I was short on sleep and disoriented, but managed to find an ATM, breakfast, and the train easily enough. A short 15 minute ride over to the Sandton neighborhood where I was to meet Laura in a couple hours. After a bit of meandering around this glitzy and somewhat overwhelming shopping outpost, I settled into a cafe with a cup of tea and a giant scone until it was time to meet. (I heard later it’s called the richest square kilometer in South Africa.)
Fortunately, after a bit of trouble helping our driver find his way through traffic out of Johannesburg, the 3-4 hour trip over to Mbabane was smooth and uneventful. I so rarely cross borders by land, I almost forgot you have to go through twice. Park, get your passport stamped for the exit, get back in the car, drive 100 yards, park, go back in and get your passport stamped for the entry.
With the exception of the highway through/around the capital, Mbabane, (which is hilly, winding, and a bit hazardous since you get large slow trucks that impede the rest of the high speed traffic) the rest of the country I saw was far more laid-back in ambiance, with quite a wide variety of landscapes. Sharp hills, rock-strewn slopes, rolling green hills and fields, farm and pasture land, wide valleys and mountains, and timber country, like pine tree farms for miles and miles. Not a huge amount of tourist infrastructure, but it’s a very small country (about the size of New Jersey). There are a few good attractions, mostly cultural and wildlife parks, and it’s easy to navigate (so long as you stay on the left side of the road). We could have been more ambitious for the three full days I was there, but my main priority was to see my friends! Visiting a new country was just a nice bonus.
It was lovely and cool, low 60s, grey and a bit damp on arrival, but it did not stay overcast. We had clear sunshine the latter days of my visit. Still the overall cooler temperatures (<80F) and dry air made for a lovely break from the heat and humidity of the more tropical Dar es Salaam. Sometimes it was quiet enough in the neighborhood and in the woods for the cicadas to be deafening. They sing a different song in
southern Africa than they do at home — sometimes harsh enough I mistook them for a distant fire alarm! Another time like a rhythmically creaky door (but maybe that was a nearby bullfrog). What left the greatest impression, though, for the sense memory invoked, was getting up early in the morning and coming downstairs to wide open glass doors and a fresh cool breeze pouring through. Stepping onto the balcony, I was transported to childhood summer mornings walking through wet grass. Maybe Hawley, maybe home, but it gave a huge sense of peace and nostalgia. And a momentary bit of sadness that my DC city home doesn’t give that sensation or the breeze and quiet. Tradeoffs, eh? In any event, it was lovely to to share a quiet morning and a cup of coffee with friends in their home (until the car or house alarm down the road went off for the umpteenth time).
The main thing we did over the long weekend was drive out an hour or so to Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. There are no big predators in this particular park, so you have the option to walk, hike, or self-drive around the park. (Just don’t go too close to the water, because there are crocodiles and hippos!) We opted to hike, so my first safari was on foot! Green grasslands, red, red dirt, hills, woods, eucalyptus trees, and these darling little red pink, orange and yellow flowers everywhere. And of course the animals!! Walking, hiking, or self-drive safari in Mliliwane. Zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, antelope, impalas, kudu, crocs, others. Sadly, no hippos revealed themselves. Being a holiday weekend, lots of locals came to drive around and barbeque at the main “camp” in the park.
Hanging out, having little G “cook” repeatedly for us, going for walks, catching up on sleep. We did some cooking ourselves, but the grand plan to make an early Christmas dinner was thwarted by the Incwala holiday observance, which closed all the grocery stores. The holiday focuses on the king and a period of seclusion, but I’d surely botch an explanation of the cultural history, so I won’t try! In any event, we ended up with restaurant take out and a bottle of champagne instead of a ham and all the trimmings. No matter! Breaking bread with dear friends is the real point of it all.
Come Monday morning, it was time to start the journey back! There’s an easy van-shuttle service back to Jo’burg for about $40, but the scheduling didn’t match up with the afternoon flight back to Dar, so a bit of shopping and a quick overnight in a hotel by the airport rounded out the trip! It took even longer to get into the airport and through security than it did on arrival, and at one point, I found myself holding some poor father’s sleeping baby while he shuffled papers looking for birth certificates and letters of authorization for travel while having his biometrics checked at passport control . Still made the flight! I hope he got to sleep on his plane, wherever he was going!