part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4
DAY 6 - Monday 4-9-18 - Flight to Durban, Game Viewing Cruise on the St. Lucia Estuary
This morning transfer to the airport for your flight to Durban. Upon arrival in the early afternoon, drive to St. Lucia. Later, embark on a game viewing cruise that takes you on the St. Lucia Estuary. This tidal estuary is home to Nile crocodiles, hippopotami, sea turtles, and even sharks, making it a fascinating and uniquely diverse ecosystem. This evening, enjoy dinner at the hotel.
the wake-up call came at 5:30am for an 8:30am flight to durban, south africa. the durban airport was fine but ahmet told us there's a TON of theft, & it's by the staff - "they were caught on camera & they kept their jobs". he advised locks & not putting any electronics in checked bags. i was glad i had decided to pack tightly into a carry-on sized piece, since half of what i take anywhere are electronics, so i didn't risk checking anything. they served a surprisingly decent chicken omelet on the plane, & obviously my stuff was fine... but another woman on the tour had her lock removed... i don't know if anything was stolen from her.
i bought bug spray, as we were entering malaria country (ahmet told us that mosquitoes are the biggest killer in africa - a million africans a year, mostly rural, mostly preventable with netting & spray, & they simply don't make the news), & a south african-made berry smoothie with gooseberries. the weather was much warmer & there were birds of paradise, the first flower i really liked as a kid, planted outside the airport. we boarded another coach for a 3h drive up the coast, & left the atlantic behind for the indian ocean on our right.
we passed forests used to make MDF - i found that cool since my custom computer desk is MDF - & a "controversial" new mine where they dig titanium dioxide. that shit is in EVERYTHING white in the states. at a rest stop, i found three coins: an unidentifiable, scraped-to-hell piece that even ahmet couldn't identify, a swaziland penny, & the south african dime (a tenth of a rand is 10 borwa, about an eighth of a penny USD) for my foreign dimes collection. i was pretty pleased by that since i'd been able to use my visa everywhere & hadn't bothered to exchange currency.
arriving at st lucia, i found a very cool red & black millipede in a tree, then we went on our first safari of the trip - a boat ride where we spotted SO MANY hippos! at first it was just one, then a pod of three, then five, eight, SEVENTEEN... i caught video of them play-fighting & being hippos & they were wonderful. hippos sound just like horses when they blow air out of their noses, & i was charmed. ahmet told us st lucia is the hippo capital of africa, & there are over 800 in the 40-mile river we were on. we saw at least fifty over the four miles we traversed. we saw a couple nile crocodiles too, too quick for photos (though i saw them mummified in egypt so i wasn't too fussed), & an african fish-eagle. (i got an... okay pic of him - it's hard to focus a 20x zoom on a treetop, but he was still cool to see.)
the hotel at hluhluwe had only decent wifi, but the buffet dinner was excellent - lots of choices, meats & veggies & salads & a few desserts. there was even a calamari dish that was crazy tender. there was some kind of brownish-orangy pudding i liked a lot, but i couldn't quite identify the flavor. oh, & the vinagered (not pickled) beets were surprisingly tasty!
i retired to my room. someone decorated this place with style - it doesn't show well in the photos, but there were a lot of obscure angles in there. i charged all my batteries & went to bed early for tuesday's 5:15am wakeup call. funny how the super-early mornings impact me less when i'm so far ahead of seattle time to begin with.
music: nomeansno, "instrumental section"
music: yo la tengo, "tired hippo" (selection)
DAY 7 - Tuesday 4-10-18 - Game Drive in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, Travel to Swaziland
After an early breakfast, travel to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, situated in northern KwaZulu-Natal, which contains an immense diversity of fauna and flora and is particularly famous for its conservation of black and white rhinos. Home to Africa's "Big Five," you may have a chance to see elephant, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard, in addition to rhino during your morning game drive through the reserve. The park also boasts warthog, crocodile, and antelope. Following the safari, continue to the border of the Kingdom of Swaziland*. This independent kingdom within the borders of South Africa is known for its lovely scenery and vibrant indigenous culture. Stop at a handicraft market this afternoon before arriving in your hotel in the early evening.
*Please Note: Swaziland is an independent country from South Africa and therefore has different entry requirements. Non-US passport holders are responsible for checking if a visa is required for Swaziland in addition to all other countries on their itinerary.
i woke to find a spider on the shirt i laid out... which i found amusing since it was my spider shirt. XD spotted a frog on the way to meet the group, & two of them reported seeing what sounded like house geckos. we boarded the coach at 6am & headed to hluhluwe - a quarter million acres of national parkland. ahmet told us, "the vehicles are open on the sides to give the animals a chance - they're hungry." he added that the lions could jump in & eat us, but they don't. okay! the sun was big & deep red, & i was repeatedly surprised by the well-kept paved roads & highway signs across all of south africa. i learned the standard marriage fee here is eleven cows, & in someone's guidebook, i found my spirit animal (photo below).
so monday we were in the hippo capital of the world, but tuesday was the rhino capital. we got to the preserve & boarded our jeeps. i sat up front with our driver, mtugo, which was a grand decision as he kept taking my camera from me to photograph things on his side of the car - what a champ. we rode only a few minutes before finding a cape buffalo, an egret, a red- or yellow-billed oxpecker, a fan-tailed whider, & then a FUCKING LIONESS CAME WALKING ALL CASUALLY TOWARDS OUR CAR. right there on the road. mtugo backed up to keep her ten or fifteen feet away, & she just cruised down the road until she disappeared into the bush. i got only a mediocre photo as i screwed up the video i thought i was taking, & hoped to see more... & not two minutes later, ANOTHER FUCKING LIONESS, SUPER NONCHALANT, JUST WALKING DOWN THE ROAD. this one found a high point & started calling to her fella, & i captured it on video for sure that time. i saw but couldn't photograph some vervet monkeys (too fast) & some kind of huge vulture (too far), then a trumpeter hornbill. mtugo was freaking out about how lucky we already were.
we stopped for breakfast then, which was laid out at picnic tables. scrambled eggs, seedy bread & jams, some excellent pork sausages they'd obviously just grilled for us, & local pineapple. i ate quickly & wandered around looking for tiny creatures, & found dragonflies with black bars on their wings, honeybees, & lots of cloven hoofprints & poop in the grass.
back in the jeep, we saw a kingfisher, then our first rhinos - three of them, laying down, quite far away but within range of my 20x optical zoom. :) i had most wanted to see hippos & rhinos on this trip, & i achieved both! a couple warthogs crossed our path next, then we found giraffes being their ridiculous selves quite close to the road. another high point came when mtugo spotted a legless lizard slithering off the road - i hadn't dared to hope of seeing one of those! we found a hammerhead bird, several beautiful inyala, an african hoopoe bird, & then a bunch of plains/burchell's zebras let us drive extremely close to them - we could've touched them (but didn't, of course). a fourth rhino was seen, also pretty far away, then some impalas, a FIFTH rhino (close, but quickly walking away - i captured what i could of him, but always made sure i was looking with my human eyes instead of just through a viewfinder). there were a couple more warthogs, then our last big sighting was a herd of sixteen female impalas with one big ram, barely off the road from us. a pretty damned good few hours, i'd say - seeing three of the "big five" (cape buffalo, lion, rhinoceros, leopard, & african elephant) on our first safari was very lucky indeed.
we drove 1.5h to the kingdom of swaziland, where we were stamped out of south african customs, then literally walked a block to swaziland customs. i'd never entered a country on foot before! & i also found it interesting that, for a few minutes, we were in no country at all. waiting for the other passengers to use the restroom, i spotted a speedy little lizard, a beautiful reddish dung beetle, & some kind of grasshopper or locust. we were stamped into swaziland super quickly & cleared the whole crossing in about fifteen minutes - a far cry better than ahmet's concern of a couple hours.
on we drove - swaziland is about 100 by 75 miles, & we ate a boxed lunch on the way (biltong [dried beef, not as tough as jerky & very popular here], juice, apples, crackers, chips - things that could sit in the bus & not go bad). i noticed my water bottle had condensation inside, & the sunlight refracted on it like holographic nailpolish. in swaziland, i saw a lot of small open buildings & busted-up cars, but felt it disrespectful to photograph these things from my giant air-conditioned coach. this country has the highest HIV rates in the world - the WHO says 23% according to ahmet, but locals believe it to be more like a third of the population. (& this explained the free condoms in the restrooms.) the average life expectancy is just under 50.
ahmet said women here have excellent posture as they all grow up carrying things on their heads, & indeed a woman doing just that was the first thing i saw when we reached the touristy little shopping area. i was going to buy some gifts for friends, but though every little maker said they hand-carved their soapstone figurines & painted the pretty little bowls themselves, i did my usual once-around before buying anything... & found everything i liked repeated all over the place. so i skipped it. i did take a photo of one awesome bowl with a painted zebra kicking another zebra in the face, though. (THAT i only saw once, but had absolutely no use to own it nor are any friends very into zebras.)
i received compliments on my dreads everywhere i went, & most ask if i had them done in a salon. several people told me i'm unique. it's nice to be in a place that appreciates my stylistic choices, & no one made any "white people shouldn't have dreads" comments or facial expressions. (for those who think dreads are appropriation: first man had dreads. we know this because first man didn't have hairbrushes. my hair easily does this whether or not i get involved, & all hair types will lock with enough time & length.)
we continued on to the hotel while ahmet told us more about local culture - apparently the locals think that things made in swaziland are low quality, so they export their items out to south africa... then import them back into swaziland. that way they're "proudly from south africa" & that makes them quality. cripes. does the whole country have an inferiority complex?
the mountainview hotel indeed had a lovely mountain view, & i hung out, photographed some creatures (tiny snails, pointy-butt ants, tiny spiders) & typed for a couple hours until the restaurant opened at seven. ahmet had promised game meat on the menu, & even made sure they were stocked especially for me. ^_^ rain had started in a DELUGE a few minutes before 7, but the equivalent of a two block walk to the hotel restaurant was all on covered pathways. i had their "triple medallion" meal of springbok, kudu, & wildebeest on rosti. though i'd eaten all of those before, i'd only had springbok raw as carpaccio, so i went for it. of course they were all delicious, & the wildebeest was much more gamey here than in south africa (which i enjoy). the rain stopped for the walk back, but left a heavy & thick mist across the entire grounds.
finally we were outside the drought zone, & i was able to have a proper shower before turning in. & boy what a shower it was - there were FIVE showerheads in that thing. O_O i half think we cut through swaziland JUST to be out of the drought faster.
music: a selection of a cover by alice donut ;)
music: phantom planet, "do the panic"
DAY 8 - Wednesday 4-11-18 - Swaziland Sightseeing and Matsamo Village Visit
After breakfast visit the Ngwenya glass factory, where visitors can watch talented glass blowers create a range of enchanting African animals, birds, and fish, as well as tableware, made from recycled glass that is collected by the children of Swaziland. Transfer to the South African border and visit Matsamo Cultural Village where you can learn more about the Swazi traditions and customs. Enjoy traditional dance and song performances with authentic African instruments as well as traditional Swazi cuisine. You may wander through the village with its many traditional huts and interact with the locals. Later, continue to the hotel where you will enjoy dinner.
breakfast featured delicious guava juice, quince jam & french toast, & these little shrimp-stuffed hush puppies that i would gladly eat every day. on the bus at 8:45am, gleefully later than usual, i had a little winged friend sitting in my windowpane. i didn't THINK he was a mosquito, but he eventually started flying into my face, so i had to murder him. (he was a crane fly & would not have hurt me. RIP leggy bug.)
we went to some shops, & i finally found a souvenir for someone important. i rarely bring gifts back for people, figuring that the effort i put into documentation is what my friends would want over, say, a swaziland magnet they'd feel obligated to display. in general, i only buy presents when i find something perfect for that person *&* think they'd make use of it. in this case, i found out he has a thing for hippos, so i was keeping watch for cool hippo stuff, which was a bit difficult since we left st lucia. the things i'd found until that point were nice, but as i mentioned, every booth claimed they carved things personally by hand... & yet every booth had identical offerings. these shops also had the repetitive stuff, but then i saw awesomeness: flat carved soapstone with places for tiny plants at the edges & 1-2 small hippos in a pond area that holds water. i hadn't seen anything like them & i was instantly sold - it's so effin' cute with the hippos in their little pool. i was 50R short of cash on the price & they didn't take visa, but the shopkeep said it was the owner's fault for not accepting credit cards & that she'd give me a special discount. the price was already very reasonable, & i'm a rich white american, so i suuuper didn't feel right about it. fortunately, i was able to borrow the 50R from someone else on my tour, & ran back in last minute to give it to her. she gave me a big smile & my karma was restored. (there's a pic of two other planters from that shop, but i didn't photograph the one i bought since i was rushing; there will be photos of what i did to it at the end of the travelogue. :) )
the mist was beautiful on the drive back towards south africa. ahmet told us about how giraffes love umbrella acacia trees (you've seen them - they're a ubiquitous symbol of africa) for their tasty leaves. when the giraffe starts chomping on the tree, the tree responds by bringing tannins up from its roots, up its truck, up the branches, & into the leaves - & so the leaves quickly become bitter. the acacias also alert other acacias in the area that there's a giraffe nearby, so THEY pull up tannins, too. & that's why giraffes move around so much - not just to be graceful & beautiful to watch, but because the trees all went bitter & they have to go find one that didn't get the memo. NATURE, YO.
we went out through swaziland customs & walked back into south africa - my second time entering a country on foot - to visit the matsamo living village. (it's a swazi village & technically it's in south africa, but it's literally AT the border, so it's considered "no man's land".) our local guide (who had big smiles & a great sense of joyful humor) said, "mampopo is waiting," & i started a round of "we can't keep mampopo waiting!" which caught on quick. as we entered, she taught us to yell "aaaay kiiii yah" (ay like "hey"; she did not have us yell "ikea"), meaning "anybody home", because it's tradition to ask to be invited into the village. we heard an enthusiastic reply & were thus allowed in.
we learned all about their culture & traditions, including how the young people are trying to change things - it's very male-dominated. the whole place smelled amazing, like the best campfires ever. the men in our group had to go first "in case of danger", then we women could follow into a hut. it was great listening to our guide tell of her culture while understanding how different american culture is, & making kind jokes about those differences.
there was a performance next, & i absolutely loved it. i recorded a full half hour of it, & i encourage you to watch it below - it's captivating. (plus i actually did some video editing beyond trimming things in commandline, heh.) we'd been warned that the dancers may pull us on stage, & to go if asked & not worry about it - "in our culture, any move is a dance". of COURSE one of them beelined directly for me, & i couldn't decline... i'm not much for physical arts, but it was actually pretty fun. the woman who brought me onstage danced with me a while, until suddenly one of the guys cut in on us. i just kept doing what they were doing, & it seemed to work out - i was much more successful as a swazi dancer than any other kind, that's for sure. when the number ended, he asked me a bunch of rapid-fire questions, then thanked & hugged me repeatedly. ^_^ when the group leader said they had a cd for sale for only 100R, i nearly sprained another finger ripping my cash out of my pocket. that performance purified my blood & cured my depression (for a while, at least). ahmet told us later that they're a world-class group with many awards to their name, & that was very easy to believe.
we had lunch in the village - notables were the mashed butternut squash, polenta, cabbage slaw, & an amazing banana pudding. there were whole bananas on the table, & i took one - though i don't like them much at home, i always eat bananas in other countries because they're DELICIOUS. (we only get the hardy but shitty cavendish banana in the states.) the performers helped serve, which i found strange, but it gave me a chance to compliment them individually. i went bug-hunting after, & found a spider by the river.
our next stop was to a grocery store in case anyone needed provisions. i found a cinnamon cola (very tasty! but caffeinated, so i only had a few sips then shared it around) & a mint nestle bar i'd never seen. an old man in the store asked if my nose jewelry made it hard to breathe, & i think he was pleased that i answered him intelligently - he then asked where i was from & wished me a good trip. oh yes, it's quite obvious i could only be from the states. we drove on to our hotel while i read a book, & my room at the hazyview protea was nearly as large as my apartment in seattle. i spent some time cleaning up the hippo planter i bought, knowing they'd never let me back into the states with tiny swaziland trees OR the dirt they were in, & was already thinking of how to compensate for that. (you'll see!) dinner was a wonderful buffet including "venison" (impala chops in this case - far tougher than the beautiful impala steak i had at belthazar, but still yummy), the best tomato-based sauce i've ever tasted, plus a decently thick mango juice (though nothing could ever top the mango juice i had in egypt).
i wrote a while, texted with my boss about giving my employees their yearly merit raises (i'll only be back a day before it hits their paychecks, so i consented to missing one of my favorite times of year - but he did a great job battling for money for the team in my absence, so i'm not complaining!), tried the mint crisp bar (excellent - it's full of mint honeycomb!), read, & turned in early for thursday's 4:45am wake-up call to an all-day safari... [insert unintelligible cute squeal of excitement here] :D