Return to the Stevens Family Homepage
Return to the Stevens travel home page
Return to the South Africa travels page
Previous episode | Next episode

Two Weeks in South Africa, 1999

Mlilwane Game Reserve, Swaziland

After a huge breakfast, I headed back up the road for Piggs Peak, at a more relaxed pace this time. For a road going over an international border, this road was pretty miserable, unpaved and rough. But scenic. In other words, I thought I might drive over the edge at one or two points, or slide off a hairpin in a gravel spinout, but I survived the hour it took me to reach the Swazi border. In a shady bend of the road there was a SA border post where I was stamped out by an officer who must have wondered what he'd done to deserve this posting, and allowed through the gate by someone who looked like he'd been born to the position. A short way up the road I met the Swazi counterparts. I filled in a form and had my particulars recorded in a great ledger by a lady officer, and then I was passed on to her colleague at the same counter, the customs officer, who asked me if I had this that or the other. He mentioned wine and I did happen to have a bottle, so he had me fill out a declaration form, a momentous exercise in bureaucracy taking up time and space in a file somewhere to this day no doubt, but leaving little else in the way of warp in the cosmos. And then I was on my way.

I drove through the premises of the asbestos mine on the border and passed up a number of Swazi hitchikers before getting back on to tarmac, which was to prove to be the norm for roads in Swaziland, much to my relief. It was 20 km to Piggs Peak, a town of not much along a north-south swath of tarmac that would take me to the capital Mbabane. I stopped at the Highlands Guest House, an inviting respite with parking in the shade, where I had a cup of tea while I perused my LP in an attempt to get my bearings. After doing that I figured I might want to stay at Mkhaya game reserve, a place where rhino were being again re-introduced into Swaziland. I liked the sound of the place, so I wandered to the curio shop and asked them how I could call the place. The curio shop had a phone and they let me make the call for a dollar or so. I booked accommodation for that night. They told me I was within 3 hours of their place, and that they took guests at 10 in the morning or 4 in the evening. This was a place where they met you at a town called Phuzamoya and drove you in their land rovers the rest of the way. It was a bit expensive, but the $100 they charged was for "luxury" accommodation, 3 game drives, and 3 meals, plus the feeling of contribution toward the rhino preservation effort worldwide. LP recommended it, so I thought why not. I agreed to meet them at 4 p.m.

I don't remember anything particularly salient about the drive to Mbabane, except maybe that I reflected on the name of the town. Lonely Planet says it's pronounced mbaa baa nay, but the expats I met called it mabaan. Go figgah.

The road through the western part of Swaziland wound through the high plateau, and off to the right at some point was a mountainous wilderness area, with animals, which I would like to have visited if I'd felt I had more time in the country, and more security for my valuables. It was not a park you drove through but one you hiked into, having made arrangements with the officials in the capital. My destination was not a wilderness, which would have taken from me days of my time, but a game park which was going to take exactly one day, 24 hours.

Eventually, I came upon the Mbabane bypass, which should be a road going around Mbabane, but it wasn't clear to me where I should get off to head into the capital, so I did so prematurely, and ended up under a tree consulting the limited maps in the LP trying to figure out where I was. I worked out that I needed to go further up the "bypass" so I tried again and wound up this time in central Mbabane. At a gas station I got the usual service I had become accustomed to in SA, the washing of windows and checking of oil and water in addition to pumping of petrol, in return for a gratefully accepted tip, and in this case I gleaned the additional information that the Mozambique embassy was just over the hill from yon transmission aerials.

I happened to be in town in the morning, so I thought why not get a visa to Mozambique. It was supposed to be cheaper and more straightforward here than in any of the South African cities. Following instructions I had no trouble finding the exact location, a compound with a rusty gate down an unpaved road. Inside two Mozambiquan ladies dealt with the rush of applicants using very limited English skills. They could understand questions and issue very standard responses. It was just after 11, and the sign said if you got your passport in by 11, you could get your visa same day. The ladies didn't seem to mind a few minutes here or there. To me they said, "2-30". I said, hey, wait a minute, I'm supposed to be somewhere 2 hours from here at 4, can't I get my visa now? It was too late to retrieve my passport. It had already disappeared to a back room somewhere, and their English skills went to near zero. I tried to ask nicely but after half an hour figured I was getting nowhere, so I ended up changing my reservation to Mkhaya to the next day and picking up my visa at 2:30 as requested.

In the time I had to hang around Mbabane, I read up on accommodation in the area, and decided that of all places I might like to stay (as opposed to Mkhaya, and given the time it would take to get there from the capital), Mlilwane game park sounded pretty good. It was near Mbabane on the main road to Manzini (possibly the larger town, and nearer the residence of the absolute monarch). As is normal in these countries, accommodation would have to be booked in the capital, in a parks office in the main shopping mall opposite the local market in the city center. I went there and easily booked a dorm room for only 105 rand (the Swazi E was equivalent to the rand and did not need to be acquired by exchange). Inside the office a lovely young lady by the name of Reilly was giving the ladies who worked there a bit of lip for having deposited money at the bank earlier and not collecting a deposit slip, because the lady who usually wrote out such slips was not there at the time. So they had deposited money but failed to get a receipt, something the Africans had thought nothing of. Miss Reilly took a more Western view and was on the phone with the bank while I was trying to arrange my accommodation. She cast a few glances my way and as I was leaving offered me a lift to the game reserve, but I had my own car, and we never met again.

The shopping center was itself a trip. Its existence showed the sophisticated nature of the Swazis in their capital, and of course the demeanor of the black residents of Mbabane was self-assured, as it would be in any African city outside of South Africa. White expatriates blended in easily here, without apartheid overtones. I had two scoops of ice cream and an expresso at one of the shops in the mall. The two scoops came in a "bowl" the size of a sundae, and the coffee was rich and flavorful. The bill came to just a couple of US dollars.

At 2:30 I went back to the Mozambique Embassy expecting a hassle, but in fact they opened the gates at almost exactly 2:30 and they were organized inside to the point where I had my passport back with a Mozambique visa inside in only a few minutes. I could have made it to Mkhaya after all. No matter, Mlilwane turned out to be an excellent choice for a night out in Swaziland.

So after a day spent on highways, in shopping centers, and dealing with bureaucracies, I was again on the highway heading out of town. A sign at the head of this highway mentioned that it was a new road. The road linked Mbabane the capital with Manzini the major city and passed by the valley where the king and his family and retinue lived. The king was at that time embroiled with the press over the matter of his latest wife, a high school dropout. She had been photographed at the graduation ceremony of one of the earlier wives siting next to the graduating wife. This irked royal riposte and the reporter who wrote the story had been fired from the paper and the editor of the paper that had published the picture had been ordered to report to the palace. This he had refused to do; meanwhile the issue of press freedom in Swaziland, the public's right to know versus the royal desire for putting the proper gloss on things, was flaring up on my radio as I drove. It seemed to be a storm in a royal teacup, but one with possible repercussions for those ensnared in the mess.

The Mlilwane game reserve was in the vicinity of the royal dwellings. The owner of the land on which the park sat was one Ted Reilly, and he and his band had recently armed themselves to resist the poachers of the rhino. I didn't expect to see much in the way of game during my stay at Mlilwani, but it seemed a good choice for a restful evening and a break from driving up and down highways. I tried to get there for the hippo feeding at 3 but just missed it. The park had a pond in which lived half a dozen hippos and they sort of hung out permanently just off the restaurant, site of their daily meal, where the tables and chairs were situated for the convenience of those who wished to watch the hippos. Watching hippos can be as thrilling as golf on tv -- every now and then someone makes a hole in one, but it doesn't happen often. Basically, all you usually see of the hippos is their backs and eyes. Now and then there is a snort and a splash and by the time you look you've missed most of the action.

I not only had a dorm room with 4 bunks all to myself, but I had a whole dorm building to myself. I deposited my bag there and left my computer in the trunk of the car, which I parked outside my bedroom window, not that there was any threat there, but one can't be too careful. Opposite my door there was a path leading into a meadow, the start of a 5 km loop trail. As I set out on it, I noticed a snake, which turned out to be a night adder, creeping along the side of my building. I tried to steer it away from the threshhold and eventually it returned to the meadow, where I was about to walk among its cousins.

The meadow was scattered with small groups of grazing nyala, kudu, and zebra. Impala came close to the camp, even walking in among the cabins at night. On the walk, warthogs scampered about above and below my trail. It felt good to get some exercise, and the meadows with the animals grazing was bucolic. This was the only walking I did on my trip. It wasn't easy to find a walk where I could take the time and feel secure enough to carry my documents. At many trailheads, I wouldn't want to leave my things in my car for very long.

After my walk, I went over to the restaurant to sit on the veranda and drink beer and watch the hippos do nothing until after sundown. Although the dorms were practically empty, the rondovels were fully booked, so the restaurant was crowded. It was relaxed to get food there. You put in your order at the bar and then relaxed there until it was ready. I ordered a braai (barbecue) of impala and wildebeeste sausage and a bottle of red wine. After eating, I pulled up a chair next to an electrical outlet by the window of the restaurant and sat there consuming wine and electricity as the Swazi dancers in costume started drumming and dancing the dances they presumably were practicing for the annual festivals. They would kick a leg up and clap their hands beneath it, the idea being to do that in time with the drumming and in quick succession for as long as the dancer could manage it, which for most was about 6 or 7 times. The whole scene of drinkers and diners sitting around watching the dancing was very sociable. I had the impression that expat residents of Swaziland were among us for a night out.

I was the last to leave the restaurant after the wind-down of festivities -- a lot of people were drinking wine, but most of them were sharing bottles. I had a good night's sleep in my dorm room with the impalas outside my window in the moonlight. I was up at first light as usual. I quickly packed my sleeping bag and put my things in the car and brushed my teeth in one of the communal baths. I had arranged now to be at Mkhaya at 10 o'clock for their earlier of two daily intakes of guests, and I figured if I were away by 8 I'd have plenty of time, so I strolled over to the restaurant to have coffee for 5 rand, almost a dollar, and say goodbye to the hippos, whose plans for the day were to remain 95% submerged until feeding time at 3, when their daily activity would take place and they could return then to doing what hippos like most to do next to eating (nothing).

Next episode:
A second day, and a third, at Mkhaya Game Reserve

Return to the South Africa travels page

Use your browser's BACK button to return to a previous page

For comments, suggestions, or further information on this page, contact Vance Stevens, page author and webmaster.

Last updated: December 20, 1999