Kigali – 1st impressions

We arrived in Kigali at 3am on Wednesday morning, and spent the next two days locked inside the Marriott hotel at a tech conference.  So it wasn’t before Friday morning that we first stepped out into daytime Kigali – and moved over to check into the infamous Hotel des Mille Collines – AKA Hotel Rwanda.

The short version of the story – the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines during the 1994 genocide sheltered over 1,000 people inside his hotel, refusing to let the murdering militia into his compound, saving lives. Checking into our retro room which has barely been updated, we were acutely aware of the history of the hotel – the very walls seem to buzz with what they’ve seen.

On Friday evening the hotel was hosting a cultural evening – with live music and dancers showcasing Rwandan culture.  Why not.  Two friends of ours came over, and we spent the evening shielding our ears from frankly headache inducing wailing and out-of-tune recorder playing.  The “choral performance” (ahem) was only rescued by a short highlight in the form of a warrior dance – featuring knee-length wigs, loincloths, spears and drumming… before we retreated to the poolside bar for chats and a far quieter end to the evening.

Saturday morning came, and it was finally time to explore Kigali at our leisure… or, in reality, time to face facts.  When in Kigali, we could only start by visiting the Genocide Memorial.

The tour began with a 10 minute witness testimony video, with survivors telling of watching their families massacred in front of their eyes – a sense of pervading guilt for having survived the attacks which claimed their loved ones. Video over, we stumbled out into the air, eyes already welling up – this was going to be brutal.

Steadying ourselves, we went through into the main museum, which first took us through an explanation of the factors leading up to the genocide, before turning a corner into graphic details, photos, and videos of the massacres which took place.  There are no words to describe the emotional burden of walking through that exhibition – every single person was sobbing, the scale and extent of the brutality is impossible to put into words.

Stumbling through rooms filled with skulls, bones, and thousands of photographs of loved ones donated by grieving relatives, we ascended into the last room – the Children’s Room.  Here, homage was paid to the little ones who were murdered in the genocide, with photographs, snippets of their favourite toys and foods, and the ways they were killed.  Seven year olds bludgeoned to death.  Two year olds macheted to pieces.  To say that I bawled my way through the exhibit would be an understatement, I honestly thought I might faint from the horror of it all.  Tom, groaning with sadness, led us out as it was “too much to bear”.

Paying our respects to the 250,000 people buried in the Memorial grounds, we were picked up by our taxi driver.  With us still snivelling in the backseat, he cheerfully waved his thumb back at the museum: “Ehhh, full of bad news that place, isn’t it?” And carried on whistling along to the radio as we stared at him speechless.

And there, is my first observation about Rwanda.  A place that has seen such total, hellish horror – and 24 years later people can speak about it in near-nonchalance, a fact of matter of the past.  HOW CAN THESE PEOPLE PROCESS THE TRAUMA????

Next morning, the weather wasn’t in favour of our plans to spend the day by the pool, so we decided to walk to the Belgian Peacekeepers Memorial – the place where 10 Belgian soldiers were massacred in an attempt to coerce the country to withdraw its forces.

And here’s observation number two – walking along the streets of Kigali to the memorial, the streets are SCARILY clean.  Pristine.  Not a speck of dirt anywhere. Trees and hedges perfectly trimmed.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

We made it to the memorial – an ex-army camp, a place where the 10 Belgian peacekeepers had been promised safe passage out.  Instead, they were encircled by a hundred armed soldiers and slaughtered, managing to resist for hours.  What can I say, the building is a mere shell – more shot-up than anything I have seen in my life.

Here too, the tour guide (a man of few words), led us over to tributes to the Belgians, notes from their families, amid the pock-marked walls and offered dead-pan comments like “Some of them had children”, “His sister wrote that” – “Take as many pictures as you want”.

Enough death, enough mutilation, the sun came out and we rushed back to the hotel for Sunday at the pool in Kigali (also the title of one of the best books I’ve ever read).  We spent the afternoon sunning and swimming – in the pool that once sustained a hotel full of people with water to drink, while they were sheltering from the unfathomable outside the walls of the compound.  It is a true oasis of calm, and Sunday at the pool is a local institution – people flock to enjoy the live music, Primus beers, and lush gardens around the pool.

These first days in Kigali have left me with nothing but questions, disbelief, and juxtapositions.

Having seen the remnants of the genocide with my own eyes, nothing could have prepared me for the extent of the horror – a horror I’m incapable of understanding. Questions reel in me.  Disbelief – at how friendly, down-to-earth, and composed the locals are.  How?? And the sheer juxtapositions of walking down the safest, cleanest, most modern streets in Africa – where shops put your items in recycled paper bags, as plastic is banned – … to memorials graphically showing the very, very recent utter hell that happened here.

Just, I don’t know. I really don’t know.

 

 

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Xmas in Mozambique

And just like that, our much anticipated stint is Mozambique is well underway. We’ve been here for a week now – having travelled 2,600 kilometres from Cape Town to Vilankulos, gateway to the Bazaruto archipelago.

We arrived in Maputo last week to an ominous grey sky, and impossible humidity. A friend of ours from Cape Town, Mike, has joined us for the Christmas holidays – and never having visited Mozambique before there was nothing else for it but to take him on a walking tour of Maputo to get the ball rolling.

Queue two days of trekking around the city – from sipping coffees at the urban market, getting locked into the main cathedral on Independence Square (we got out through an open side door), zooming through traffic on death defying tuk-tuks, strolling along the seafront promenade, to partying into the night to Maputo’s up-and-coming jazz-esque musicians… we thoroughly introduced him to life in Mozambique.

But that was only a short interlude – our main destination? The beach.  So on Thursday we picked up a hire car, loaded it with our copious amounts of luggage, and set off to drive the 500km to Tofo beach – a small laid-back village nestled at the start of a seemingly endless pristine white beach with the waves of the Indian ocean lapping at the shores.

Our arrival was less than dignified – turning onto the road housing our accommodation, our poor VW Polo promptly sank into the deep sand, and gave up.  We were well and truly stuck, wheels spinning, unable to make the last 100 metres of our journey.  Before we knew it, the whole of Tofo was surrounding us – digging at the sand beneath our wheels with their hands, finding logs and stones to put before and under the wheels, letting the air out of our tyres – and with 20 minutes of community effort, creativity, and heaving – Tofo’s population had our car out of the sand, and we drove round the back way to our destination.  What an entrance.

We checked into a small hostel there, and spent two days doing absolutely nothing.  We walked on the beach, swam in the warm ocean, lazed around on the sand, and ate seafood in the evening (including the best crab curry I have ever tasted).  Now the holidays were really underway.

Tofo, however, was just a break in our drive… we needed to get all the way up the coast to Vilankulos in time for Christmas. So on the 23rd, we loaded up our car again, and finished the 320km left of our drive… landing at Baobab Beach backpackers resort, and checked into our waterfront chalet. Holiday-mode on (although festive feelings largely lacking in the 30C sandy resort).

Christmas eve daytime we did nothing – we spent the day wandering on the beach, pottering around the small quintessentially African town of Vilankulos, sipped fresh coffees at a newly opened beachfront hotel, and lounged by our hostel pool.  But in the evening our accommodation had organised a Christmas party – and we were eager to take part.

The evening started with a show by the town’s local choir – think gospel music, dancing, and funky takes on Christmas carols.  Following which, PINTS of sangria were the included tipple – with heaving tables of samosas, pizzas, and canapes.  We drank and gobbled with the other 50 or so people taking part – making numerous new friends.  Kitchen melt-down ensued, and our Xmas dinner of barbecued fish, dry turkey, and a sauce alleged to be gravy (it wasn’t) arrived at 10 o’clock.  We barely had the energy left to polish off our Xmas dinner pudding of chocolate mousse before collapsing in bed for the night – we had an early Christmas Day start.

In an attempt at Christmas cheer – we had decided to book onto a day trip to the Bazaruto archipelago, with our small motorboat setting off at 8am.  We clambered aboard with a French family of four – and the seven of us set off for our Christmas Day treat.

After a 50km boat ride, we were deposited on Bazaruto island – a sand dune in the middle of the ocean.  We clambered to the top of the dune to take in the incredible views of the sea dotted with islands as far as the eye can see – and to take our Xmas selfies, of course.

From there, we were loaded into another boat – and holding on for dear life we bounced and crashed over the rolling waves into the sea to the two mile reef – also known as “the aquarium”, where we were to spend a couple of hours snorkelling.

We were lucky – we swam around among more astonishingly colourful fish than I could ever describe. The range of corals was stunning.  The sun shone down illuminating the seascape below us.  From one outcrop of coral, a huge patterned barracuda peered out at us (we took a quick look and moved along – scary looking thing).

Then our boat skipper was yelling for us to hurry back to the boat immediately – we all raced through the water to see what was up.  A turtle had come to say hello – so we spent the next minutes swimming alongside the graceful turtle, swirling around among the corals (we didn’t stand a chance at keeping up).

Snorkelling over, we were served up a fish barbecue on the nearest beach, before loading back into the boat to start the trip back to Vilankulos.

Almost immediately – shrieks of excitement… an elusive dugong was playing around in the water.  He came very close to our small boat, so we got amazing views of this near-extinct creature.  The animals had clearly come out in force to make our Christmas Day extra special.

There was time to stop off on a different tropical island for one last hour of swimming, before making the last hop back to mainland.

But it wasn’t over – on route to shore, we found ourselves surrounded … by a pod of dolphins who had come to play.  They frolicked around, swimming under our boats, jumping out of the water either side of us, showing off the baby in their group.  We swiveled in our seats, laughing, watching their antics and hardly able to believe our luck.

We exchanged a few small gifts back at the hostel, over beers and pizza, and sunburn.  It might not have been traditional, it might not have been cold and white – but it was a totally magically Christmas in its own way.

 

 

Vilankulos, and the beautiful Bazarutos

Eventually we moved on from our home on the beach, to our next stop – Vilankulos, further north up the coast of Mozambique.

We checked into a backpackers hostel right on the sandy waterfront, overlooking the local fishermen as they go out and come back in their small wooden boats. This was our base for the next week.

Being a backpackers, we were surrounded by all sorts of people from all walks of life, so our week in Vilankulos was a little more lively – evenings spent sitting around in the outside communal area, eating dinner under the stars, drinking cold beers and chatting to other strangers exploring Mozambique, all to the accompanying sound of the lapping waves.

We took one day trip out of Vilankulos, to visit the beautiful Bazaruto archipelago.

Joining forces with a group of four Germans our age, living in South Africa, we had our own motorboat and skipper for the day.

The tour first took us 1.5 hours out into the sea, to a huge coral reef teeming with fish of all colours and sizes. We snorkelled there for a while, swimming among the fish which seemed as intrigued by us, as we were by them.

Next it was back on the boat, and we were taken to a huge sand dune in the middle of the sea – Bazaruto island. While the skipper and his friend set up a barbecue on the beach, we hiked to the top of the dune to take in the astounding view. From the top, sand banks and islands painted a dazzling pattern in the bright blue of the sea. It was stunning.

Walking back down the dune, we were met with freshly barbecued fish and cold cokes – delicious.

After lunch, we walked back up the dune – we hadn’t had enough of the view. But to our surprise, everything had changed. In the hour we were gone, the tides had shifted, and completely different sand banks had emerged, while others had been submerged. Within an hour we had returned to a completely different – but equally brilliant – view.

The afternoon was spent at another island, where we could explore the island or swim in the sea. Tom and I opted for swimming in the turquoise blue sea, and sunbathing on the perfect white beach.

After a 2 hour boat trip back to land, it was evening, as we had spent the most ideal day in paradise.

While Vilankulos itself was not much more than a dusty little town, the Bazarutos proved to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I truly hope one day I’ll get to go back.

 

Life on the beach

It’s been two weeks now, since a civil war ruined all our travel plans.

Planning our overland trip across Mozambique, north into Tanzania, it was a car rental agent who mentioned it first:

“As much as I want the business, I have to voice my concerns – are you sure you want to cross the war zone? If you say you want to, I’ll rent you my car, but I really thought I should ask.”

What the hell was he talking about? A brief Google search later and all was revealed, indeed, there’s a silent civil war happening in the centre of the country – mass murders, criminal kidnappings, convoys of cars travelling with military escort and even then being attacked.

Of course, we couldn’t take the risk.

We were delayed in Maputo for the next day, re-planning our trip. We’d go to the next stop on the coast for a few days, move on to the second stop for a few more, then we’d have to drive back to Maputo and fly to Tanzania, we accepted.

So the next day we drove the nearly 500 kilometres to the coastal town of Inhambane, and took up our self-catering cottage on nearby Barra beach.

Life quickly fell into the rhythm of the beach. We’re woken early by the rising sun, we work hard through the day, finishing up early at around 3 or 4 to go and read on the beach, or go for  a walk.

By 4.30 the chill of the evening comes in, so it’s time to race down to the nearby village market to buy the fishermen’s catch of the day – fish, prawns, lobsters – to take home for the evening’s barbecue.

Evenings are spent sat in the dark, watching the glowing embers of the barbecue, our fish sizzling to perfection.

The sun sets early these days, by 5.30 the darkness is so all-encompassing it would be claustrophobic, were it not for the kaleidoscope of stars which seem to surround us.

We quickly realised we didn’t have anywhere to rush to, and the beach life is actually incredibly cheap. So within a couple of days we had extended our cottage stay.

Since then nearly two weeks have passed, with the same day-in, day-out routine. Quiet, relaxed, and accompanied by the rustling waves of the sea and the crackling leaves of the palm trees.

In all my life, I really never thought I’d find myself living on the beach in Mozambique.

Maputo

Leaving Swaziland, our next “home” has been Maputo for the past four days – and in contrast to the Swazi experience, I love it here.

We arrived Thursday evening, having hired a man with a car in Swaziland to drive us the 2-3 hour trip to Maputo. It quickly became clear he had never left the country before, and although he proudly waved around his pristine passport in the car, as we approached the border he got nervous and silently tiptoed towards the immigration desk hiding behind us.

The border guard was kind, sensing his nervousness, and we saw him look around quickly to check if his colleagues were watching, and then slide our mate’s passport back to him with a pen – he hadn’t even signed it yet.

By the time we made it through the border the man was truly elated, and it was confirmed – we were friends for life, and he chatted continuously all the way to Maputo.

To our surprise, Maputo turns out to be a huge, bustling city – with an infuriatingly complicated one-way system. It took us a good hour of driving round and round the city being thwarted by no-entry signs before we finally made it to our hotel.

Let’s be frank, our hotel is a hovel. Apart from the bed – which thankfully is clean -, the main feature of the room is a glass shower cubicle, which bizarrely also houses the toilet. Never mind, this was supposed to be a money-saving solution anyway, so we checked in, and promptly went out.

We were looking forward to catching the tapas and live music of Maputo, so we headed straight to a recommended venue – Cafe Dolce Vita. Unfortunately, it has succumbed to the cultural destruction that accompanies the wish to be “modern”, or “Western”.

While we went there for a cosy, atmospheric tapas bar with live local music, what we found was a soulless white fast-food joint, complete with neon lights, and plastic tables and chairs, with the talented local band rehashing Rihanna songs and crooning out Bob Marley. Such a shame.

The next day we set out for our first big challenge – setting ourselves up in Mozambique without speaking any Portuguese. We needed SIM cards, and adaptor plugs. No amount of gesticulation, miming, and drawing pictures could get the girl behind hotel reception to understand we were asking where to find an electronics shop, so we were sat outside our room studying a map to locate any “shopping district” (there isn’t one), when a young guy stepped out of the room next door for a cigarette.

Saying hi, it turned out he and his girlfriend  lived in Johannesburg, but he was originally Mozambican. Leaping on the information, we picked his brains on which way to set out on our errands and then we were off.

Following his instructions, before long we had found a little shop selling cables and plugs. Walking in, shouting a big “bom dia”, Tom turned to me – how on earth are we going to explain an adaptor plug?

I was one step ahead – I’d brought my charger, and whipping it out of my bag I proffered it to the sales lady. Thankfully, she was bright, and replied something which sounded much like “adaptor”, and we nodded frantically. Soon she was back with exactly the plug we needed. We managed to ask for another one, get to the bottom of the price, and thank her profusely, before exiting, one errand down, feeling very pleased with ourselves.

Out on the street, we bumped straight into our friends from the hotel. Any idea where we could find a mobile provider? No, but they were also looking for the same thing. We set off in opposite directions on the hunt for SIM cards.

We quickly found one, and walked in daunted at the prospect of buying and registering a phone line in Portuguese.

A lady gestured at us to approach her desk. The conversation went like this. “Bom dia. SIM card. Obrigado.” [SMILE HOPEFULLY]. She got it, and helpfully, asked for our documents rather than getting us to fill out the incomprehensible forms. Within minutes, we had gestured, drawn and gobbledygooked our way to two SIM cards loaded with data. Excellent.

Just then, our friends walked in grinning that we had beaten them to it. They smiled at the guy at the next counter, and – assuming we must have communicated in English – set about explaining in quick English what they wanted. “Get to the back of the queue,” the salesman snapped (there wasn’t one). Whispering at them to try in Portuguese, we left to roam the streets of Maputo, feeling altogether accomplished and organised.

We opted for an early night, as we had a full day of sightseeing planning for the next day.

In the morning, we hit the streets walking round the main sights of the town, visited the central craft market, and went along to an art gallery where they use old weapons from the civil war to create really cool sculptures.

Maputo is a funny experience. It’s a really vibrant and built-up city, and the architecture is very, very reminiscent of Europe (for obvious reasons). My initial instinct has been “It’s just like Havana”. There’s a Mediterranean lilt to the place.

There are cafes and little restaurants littering the streets, always full to the seams with people luxuriating over long lunches, pouring out little carafes of red wine at all hours, or sipping shots of espresso.

Worn out from the morning’s walking, we took the passenger ferry across the sea inlet which divides Maputo, to the “Manhattan of Maputo”, Catembe, and went for a lunch of prawns on the beach, with an incredible view of Maputo’s skyline across the water.

An excruciatingly slow return ferry crossing later, it was time to brave our freezing showers (our hotel has no hot water), and rush off to catch the football in a pizza and sports bar, surrounded by every single expat living in Maputo, by the looks of it.

The past few days have been interesting – while we have pottered and wandered and seen the “sights”, we haven’t really “done” anything – there doesn’t seem to be anything to do, specifically, in Maputo. The museums we tried to visit were all closed, the cathedral padlocked shut, many of the guide-book recommended sights closed for renovation, or not.

Yet we both feel like we’ve had such a nice time, and we both love Maputo. There’s just something in the air.

For my part, I have observed one thing which is very different from other African countries. Black and white people live totally together, equal, and importantly, they seem to share the same culture.

Sitting in small backstreet cafes at lunch time, for example, we were surrounded by tables of mixed ethnicity looking relaxed, wearing the same clothes, sharing the same foods, sipping wine (yep, at lunch time!), chattering away in Portuguese.

This may not sound like much, but there’s an underlying contentment and equality in the air, which is very unusual in Africa.

In other African countries we often find “local” cafes/bars, and “expat” venues – the former serving completely different dishes and drinks to the latter. And in many African countries you will hear a myriad of languages, with everyone forced to speak in one “official” language (generally English) – causing so much to be lost in translation. The attitudes and behaviour of the various groups are also wildly differing, sometimes to much hilarity, sometimes to grave frustration.

Here, none of that. Everyone seems to be enjoying the same culture, the same lifestyle, the same habits. And everyone is stubbornly committed to their shared language – Portuguese. It’s no-one’s second language, so no-one is the linguistic underdog. And NO, they definitely do not speak English, not even a word, even when secretly, they do. (If you’ve ever tried to speak English in France, you’ll understand what I mean).

Now, maybe this is all because Mozambique was colonised for longer, maybe everyone has been trampled into homogeneity. I don’t know. But what I will say, is that right now, for me, Maputo has been a lovely, refreshing example of people getting along.

 

Swaziland – the verdict

You know, I’m not going to mince my words on this one.

Never, have I ever visited and left a country with a more “nothingy” view of it than Swaziland. We’ve spent 6 days here – we’ve really, really tried to find an exciting highlight, an “aha” moment of Swazi tourism, but alas… there is just nothing to recommend this place.

Leaving South Africa, we were looking forward to visiting this quirky little monarchy. We had nearly a week to poke around, see the sights, and immerse ourselves in the country’s culture. We couldn’t wait.

Day one, we headed straight to Ezulwini – the “royal valley”. Billed as a beautiful valley between the rolling mountains, favoured by the royal family, and littered with quaint craft markets and artisanal stalls.

Well, even on arrival this seemed a bit hyperbolic. We drove past the “Houses of Parliament” (a tiny white-stone building with no pomp about it at all) on the way into Ezulwini, into the “valley” (a slight dip between some pretty low-level hills). We were less than spellbound.

We had arrived quite late, so after checking in to our hotel (free upgrade!!!!), we went to do a little work in the bar before dinner. Here, a little social surprise awaited us. Among the men in suits and ladies in high-heels, mingled men in traditional local attire – red cloths tied around their bodies, loin cloths visible, and otherwise naked as they were born. Sitting at the bar, sipping their beers, chatting to “plain-clothed” people. I’m still not convinced they weren’t royals.

In the morning, we took advice on what to do at a local tourist information centre. Visit a cultural village for a show, walk to the waterfalls, visit the candle-making and glass blowing workshops, take in the culture of it all… we were told.

Feeling dubious, but nonetheless willing to try anything, we set off around the Malkerns area, to visit some of these little artistic gems. Well, in total it took about an hour.

Underwhelmed, we headed off to visit the cultural village. We arrived at the Swazi village to much hand-shaking from the tour guides, and were promptly showed to our seats for the dance show.

In fairness, this was probably the highlight of Swaziland. We were treated to a 45 minute dance spectacle – and by the end they had managed to drag me up to “learn” Swazi dancing. (Note, it only really entailed stamping my feet a bit, and waving a horn around a bit).

Following an interesting tour of the Swazi village – a polygamous village featuring huts made of branch and grass; we set off to walk to the waterfalls nearby. It took about 5 minutes, and… was no great shakes.

Trying to remain positive, we headed back for dinner, focusing on the nice show and tour we’d had – there must be more things like this to see.

Next day we had planned to move hotel – to a cheaper option. We drove over to the backpackers we had booked, but to our dismay, found a dilapidated old house covered with dog poo courtesy of the three big dogs who attacked us every time we left our room.

We quickly escaped, and drove over to a different backpackers we had spotted on the road. Asking to see the rooms, the friendly owner – albeit slurring his words – showed us the bright and spacious room.

“The bathrooms are just over there,” he pointed to the bushes in the garden (literally), and here is the kitchen, he announced, rounding into another room. In the “kitchen” sat a group of around 10 people smoking bongs, so totally baked they could barely sit up.

“Go check out the best room of all,” he directed, pointing to the living room. We wandered in, to find a 12 foot snow white python slithering around the room freely.

“So, here are your keys,” the owner proffered. “We’ll just go and get our things first,” we replied. Running back to the car, we drove straight back to the original hotel – the extra money was worth the sanity.

On the afternoon we set out to visit the museum, and THE BIG CRAFT MARKET. So big, it was specially marked on the country’s maps. It had to be good, right, and we’d be able to buy souvenirs to take home.

The museum attendant positively leapt to attention, such was her excitement at the prospect of a visitor. There were exhibits on Swazi tradition, culture, regal and colonial history, and natural history, she announced. “It’s an interactive museum with so many features, but actually only this one screen works,” she squeaked, looking embarrassed.

We made our way through the exhibits – one whole wall of which was dedicated to the different types of cows. (Black, black with white spots, brown, brown with white spots… I’m not joking). The history room was in all honesty very good, the rest, farcical.

The big craft market, well, there were roughly 30 stalls, granted. Pushy salesmen and women jostled us into each of their stalls to show off their wares. Which were EXACTLY the same tat sold in tourist markers continent-wide, from Kenya’s Masai markets to Cape Town’s craft sheds. This was supposed to be artisan central!!! I did alight upon a small figurine, an inch-sized little elephant, that I would have liked. The salesman tried to charge me a tenner! “We can bargain,” he grinned. We left.

Oh well, we went back to our hotel, and decided we must just need to go further afield. So we set out planning a trip to the North-West of the country, to visit the world’s oldest mine, lovely walking, and a world-famous glass blowing factory.

Next day, we set out on our day trip, bickering over whether to visit the mine (Tom) or the glass factory (me) first.

We pulled up to the mine gate, to find an unmanned post, and a shabby gate hanging off its hinges. By this point, we weren’t turning back. We drove through the gate, up along the mud path, finally finding the visitor’s centre, where we were looking forward to the guided tour.

Closed, derelict, eery.

So we set off in the derelict mine to fine the so-called “Lion’s Cavern” – the oldest mine in the world, at least 43,000 years old, where the Bushmen first mined. As we walked through the vast overgrown empty mine, the backs of my hands prickled and my heart raced – the place was simply so eery, it felt almost haunted.

We climbed up to the highest point – with beautiful views – and found the cavern (a hole in the rock), before retreating back to the car and getting out of there.

Next was the glass factory, which admittedly piqued our interest. From a viewing gallery we were able to watch the factory full of men and women hand-blowing glass, and making everything from vases, to wine glasses, to intricate little figurines.

Outside, there were a cluster of little stalls, one of them a chocolate workshop, so we went in to look around, coming out with a piece of chocolate covered coconut ice, and pecan dark chocolate which we nibbled in the car on the way home, subdued.

Next day we set out on another adventure – to the Hlane Royal National Park, on the far east of the country, and reputed to be brilliant for game-viewing. We had booked a forest chalet, and stocked up on food supplies for 24 hours in the bush.

On arrival, we were informed tourists were only allowed in certain areas of the park. The lion, rhino, and elephant enclosures were charged at a much higher additional fee. Feeling glum, we proceeded to our chalet, spotting the odd lone deer or kudu.

At the chalet, big signs informed us to beware of the snakes, and gave us the number to call in “snake emergencies”. There was no phone signal. And so we spent the early evening sat outside in the dusk, sipping our warm beer and listening for hissing.

By 7pm the darkness – surrounded by invisible snakes – was so suffocating that we retreated indoors to play cards, and cook up our “rustic” spaghetti, tuna and tomato sauce dinner.

We spent the next morning at our chalet, drinking cups of tea outside, by this point actively looking for snakes. Having spent the whole night quaking, we at least wanted one photo!! But we were evaded, and we started our drive back to our next destination with only one elephant viewing to cheer us up.

Today was a sad day, as we had to give back our dutiful little car – a nippy little Hyundai, which has served us so well since leaving Cape Town.

We’re now on our own, onwards to Mozambique. So I’m spending tonight writing this post, looking back over our week in Swaziland before our departure tomorrow. And I’m genuinely astounded, and feel a little guilty. You see, we spent the whole week here trying really hard to find something local, something special. And it just wasn’t here. I didn’t even know places like this exist – a whole country of small towns with nothing to report. It really makes you think.

See you later Swaziland, ahem… I probably won’t be back.

The beautiful Drakensbergs

From Coffee Bay we arrived at our hostel in the Drakensberg mountains in the evening. We’ve wanted to visit the Drakensbergs – on the border of Lesotho – for years, so we were happy to arrive, and needed an early start the next morning to make the most of the day.

We went to bed early, setting our alarms for 7am – we were off hiking.

Next morning, we awoke at 9.45 – both of our phones had run out of battery over night. Frustrated, we gobbled some breakfast and set off for the Royal Natal park, to fit in as much hiking as the late-starting day, and my bruised throbbing leg, would allow.

At the gate we received a map, we located a route, and off we set, up into the mountains.

There are simply no words for how beautiful the Drakensbergs are.

Our route started through grasslands of head-height thick grass, and we came across lots of local ladies either cutting the grass, or carrying bundles of it on their heads back to the village.

After the bright grasslands, we were into deep forest, with waterfalls and rockpools hiding round every corner.

Following a steep scramble over rocks, we came to “the Crack”, a big crack in the cliffs with water tumbling over the cliffs like a natural shower.

On the way back we detoured to take in extra waterfalls, a  cascading river, and finished strolling through more fields of grass, with splendid views over the valley.

By the end, we had covered over 13kms, we were exhausted, and my long-suffering leg was calling it quits.

Back at the hostel over dinner, there was only one thing to talk about – planning how soon we can get back to the Drakensbergs for a longer trip. We’re hooked.

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