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Two Weeks in South Africa, 1999

Mkhaya Game Reserve, Swaziland

I negotiated the roads to the park entrance, admiring all the antelope species along the way out. At the entrance, the guard asked if I'd give someone a lift, so I gave a jolly lady a lift to the market and had a bit of conversation with her. There's a lot I would have liked to know about her life in Swaziland, but she had her mind on shopping, and wasn't very forthcoming. It was nice to be in a real African country where the black people were in charge of their own destiny and the where the whites were there by invitation and to help out, and so there were none of these overtones relating to skin color as had been a legacy of apartheid in South Africa. Still, it paid to be wary of desperately poor people in any large city in that part of the world, and because I was not able read into local situations as I passed through these areas, I was making it my policy to pass up hitchhikers.

The jolly lady didn't go far down the road, and the market wasn't of much interest to me, not like the fascinating markets I might encounter in Cameroun where you could buy healthy snack food made from peanuts and wash it down with fresh milk dipped from gourds the women carried about on their heads, and where you could sample the local pombe beer or tangy palm wine, peruse local crafts, and just watch people who were getting their kicks watching you. Au contraire, I was soon back on the highway and entering the sprawling, traffic ridden city of Manzini, which I was only mildly caught up in, being able to bypass it mostly via the thoughtfully designed road system. However, on the far side of Manzini, I encountered a roadblock where police were checking every vehicle. I was pulled over and each of my bags examined. As the policeman went through my stuff, we chatted, and I told him about how I had almost come to work in Swaziland in 1975 and now, 24 years later, I had finally got there. He confessed to wanting to visit America. He seemed to appreciate the irony when I pointed out that we had in common that we both desired to visit each other's countries, and that he might have his chance 24 years hence. On that note, he ended the search and sent me on my way. The process had taken me, leaving Manzini at 8:30 in the morning, just 15 minutes. Coming into Manzini, there were literally hundreds of cars backed up each awaiting a turn at being meticulously checked. What they were looking for I had no idea. I would like to think they were checking for poacher's weapons, but they could have just been looking for unflattering photos of the king's wives.

Had I been in that kind of road jam, I wouldn't have made it to Mkhaya by 10, but as it was I arrived there at a quarter after nine. It wasn't hard to find. I'd been given an excellent map of Swaziland at the Avis office where I'd gone to check on options for leaving off my car and it was easy to track the highways to Phuzmoya, which seemed to consist of a collection of a dozen or so buildings by the roadside. I was past the town before I knew it, but a couple of kilometers beyond there was a battered sign indicating a turning for Mkhaya and a sign immediately after, next to a shop greeting arrivals and telling them to wait there, someone would be along. The shop was the only building within sight and I parked in what little shade it provided and went inside to examine it. There wasn't much there of interest, and no electric plugin for my computer, so I decided to pass half an hour having a cup of tea back up the road.

I had my choice of two tea houses, one on either side of the road, and I chose the one where I could park my car outside and keep an eye on while I sat inside (though actually when I got inside I didn't sit where I could see the car all that well, but took a table near an electric outlet and got out my computer. Here, tea and coffee was only 80 cents, that is, a fraction of the 5 rand I'd been charged back at Mlilwani, and in such a place, you can imagine the stir my computer caused. Everyone had to come over and look. A young boy sat and watched with great interest what I was writing, even pointing out my spelling mistakes, so that it interfered with my conversation, and I decided to talk to him instead. He was one of these kids who would probably do well with a computer, but he had absolutely no opportunity to get his hands on one. Of course he asked me to teach him how to use mine, but I explained that you had to learn to use the one you had at hand. We got on to how he could get a computer. I asked if he knew of any American aid offices in the country, like the one I had almost gone to work for. I suggested he might approach them and see if they could get a hold of any second hand computers that people in the states were just throwing away, and maybe arrange to get such computers for schools in Swaziland. In fact, I got the kid's address, so if anyone reading this would like to help send a computer to a kid in Swaziland, talk about making his day, well, let me know.

It was by then time to go back to the Mkhaya pickup point, and by then somene was waiting for me along with some other guests, an Irish lady who lived in Mbabane and pronounced the name of the place mabaan, and her corpulent visiting parents. The drill was, we went with the ranger (more like a ranger's assistant) who met us at the gate and who had been brought there by departing guests from the night before. We then gave him a lift to the park office which was inside a series of gates with signs acknowledging contributions from various wildlife preservation organizations. At the office we left our cars and transferred to a land rover with no top which would be our transport while in the park. We would go on a game drive (three were included in the package, purchase of which was the only way that park could be visited. At the end of the game drive lunch would be served (3 meals was also part of the deal). So as we were leaving our cars, a game drive short of a lunchtime spread, corpulent Irish parents were scarfing down KFC from a barrell. These were people who did not like to be far from their food supply, I could tell.

The first animals we saw were snakes. On the drive into the park, I had to brake suddenly to avoid a large snake in the road, a black mamba. Startled himself, the snake reared up its head in striking position, get this, two meters off the ground. This snake could bite you in the heart. And then the snake sped into the forest, it's head reared the same two meters high as it ran. If this snake came for you, it could bite you in the back of the neck in about the time it would take you to turn and begin to run. This was a very impressive and very dangerous snake.

As we began our drive in the land rover the walkie talkie squalked. One of the rangers had found a python and we could go and have a look. We picked up the ranger on patrol with his AK-47 and he rode along with us to take us to the spot. The python had been out sunning itself, but by the time we arrived it had coiled up inside a bush and was difficult to see. We approached on foot as close as we dared and I used my field glasses at close range to get the best look I could through the leaves. This python had babies that were moving around next to its mother. I think I've seen pythons at better advantage in the Houston zoo, but it's always interesting to see these legendary animals in the wild, just footsteps away from you.

The most interesting thing about the park, the thing you can see there that I hadn't seen in all the time spent in Kruger Park, was its rhinos. Here we could see rhinos close up. I've seen rhinos in game parks before but they're among my favorite of the African animals. They can be huge, with improbably shaped heads, and with that daunting horn protruding dangerously, the rhino's curse as it is his weapon. In the day spent in the park we had a lot of interaction with rhinos. We drove up to them and sometimes got out of the cars to approach on foot. The rhinos were not always well behaved. On a drive that evening, with just me and a ranger in the car, we drove a little close to one and it charged the car, ramming us with its long horn. It's unusual for animals to react to a car I think. Normally they don't see a car as much of a threat to whatever it is they're doing. Lions just ignore cars, for example.

Once in Chitwan Park in Nepal our group was attacked by a rhino. We had gone into the forest on foot because attempts to find rhinos by road had produced zero sightings in two days. When we came upon a mother and her baby, the mother charged protectively. The girls I was with turned and fled. I took a picture -- it's not every day you can get a shot of a charging rhino. What I got a picture of was our guide with both his arms in the air turning the charge with a loud noise and a wave of his stick. The alarmed rhino turned tail and trotted off with its baby in the opposite direction.

The park had a nice collection of nyalas, elands, and impalas. There were zebra and two wildebeest in that part of the park, and some hippos in a pond with a single crocodile (more crocs in other ponds elsewhere in the park, I was told, but you could still pretty much count them on all your fingers). At the pond, I was actually fascinated by the activities of the weaver birds, strikingly yellow creatures who could be seen, with field glasses, "weaving" their nests, hundreds of them in a cluster of trees on an island in the pond.

By the time we had pulled into the camp for lunch, we'd seen pretty much all there was to see in Mkhaya except for its elephants. My companions on my morning drive in fact were staying only for lunch, which on reflection, is what I wish I had done. They probably saw the park's elephants on their way back to the gate, since the rangers were quite good at locating the animals by listening for them, and elephants were quite noisy creatures. Evidence of their perigrinations often blocked the roads, since they splintered trees to scratch their heads, often leaving them in the path of the land rovers. In my case, after lunch I had some down time in my "luxury" tent in the camp, which I used to wash up and do my laundry and hang it out on the guy wires of my tent, and after a couple of hours I went out on the second of my three game drives, just me and the ranger, and we found the elephants and sat and watched them for some time. A tiny one that didn't seem to know what to do with its trunk was most amusing. Actually, elephants are very watchable creatures, and sitting among them in a land rover with its top removed is not a bad way to pass an evening. The rhinos were even more entertaining, particularly the one that rammed our car, as I mentioned earlier.

Since I was the only guest at Mkhaya that night, and since it turned out the camp had no electricity whatsoever, there wasn't anything to do there after dark except read by the light of kerosene lamps and allow the all-Swazi staff to cater to me. The lady who prepared the food was a good cook, and her African dishes were wholesome and tasty. Still, compared to other nights I'd spent in game parks, where there were other expats around and the ambiance was convivial, here there was no one even to drink with, so I ended up going to bed early. My tent was luxury in that it had a concrete floor and attached bath, open air. The bedding was sumptuous and I slept well beneath the mosquito netting, though I'm not sure there were any mossies about.

Next morning, I awoke as usual with the dawn and went down to the dining area where someone had laid a log on an open fire for me. I stood in the chill warming myself in its glow until breakfast was brought out for me. Again, I felt uncomfortably like a raj with a retinue of servants as the lady asked how many eggs she could prepare for me. I wasn't particularly looking forward to the game drive either, since I'd learned that there were no predators in this park, and the fun of going out on morning game drives, for me, has always been to see what the cats have been up to in the night. The drive coming up was obviously going to be more of the same as I'd seen the last two times out, and it turned out to be even less of an adventure since a tire in the Land Rover started deflating, and the ranger had to get on his walkie talkie and call for a spare. This kept us close to a rendezvous point for too long until a vehicle with the tire appeared, at which point the ranger seemed anxious to return to the camp to get me moved out so he could get me back to the gate so he could pick up the next group of visitors coming in at 10 that morning. The drive wasn't a complete waste of time though. At one point we stopped near a group of elephants and got out to approach them, warily, on foot. We retreated when they wandered in such a way that they might come between us and our car.

Next episode:
Back into South Africa, and a drive over to Sodwana Bay

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Last updated: December 20, 1999