South African Safari Weekend
Hello readers! We have returned from an amazing weekend in South Africa. Please forgive my heavy use of superlatives in this post as we saw all kinds of things that can only be described as awesome.
After a challenging week in Swazi we were all excited to head to Kwazulu-Natal, the northeastern province of South Africa. Friday afternoon we embarked on the 4.5 hr trip, driving southeast from Mbabane, down along the Swazi/Mozambique border and into South Africa. This area of the country is appropriately called the lowveld and is beautiful countryside with many small, traditional rural villages. Near the SA/Swazi border the landscape becomes noticeably changed by agri-business. There are miles and miles of sugar cane fields and perfectly straight rows of gum trees. Used to produce paper, these trees go from seed to maturity in only one year. Coal mines and sugar processing plants are visible as well. We arrived to our adorable B&B in Mtubatuba, complete with three ducks swimming in the garden's pond.
Saturday we awoke at 5 AM to meet our Afrikaner safari guide, Johan. We piled into a traditional safari-type open sided vehicle and took off for HluHluwe-Umfalozi National Park. The park is 120,000 hectares, 60% of which is off limits to humans, which makes it unusual among SA parks. The terrain is very hilly and covered in typical southern African "bush" - grasses, umbrella trees and shrubs. Its early winter here so most rivers and watering holes still have some water in them from summer rains; the area got a lot of rain last year but the previous eight years saw complete drought. The park is home to all five of the "big 5" (elephant, lion, cheetah, buffalo and leopard) as well as many other animals, birds and insects.
Pictures should do most of the talking but some highlights include watching a baby and mother rhino running and playing with one another. Shortly after we came upon a group of 11 giraffes peeking out above of the trees having a snack. They put on a show for us by trotting along and proving their grace despite their gangly bodies. Seeing them in person in their natural, wild habitat was incredible. No fences, no human interference other than a messy dirt road. Most of the animals (cats aside) are not threatened by the vehicles, only solitary people on foot, as they are usually poachers. The animals just stare at you and continue on with their day. We also saw a pack of 16 painted African wild dogs, the most endangered African carnivore. Our guide told us if we went on 5,000 safaris we would probably see them only once. We knew it was a truly rare occurrence when even our guide pulled out his camera! While that statistic is impressive, I think we were all most in awe of the sight of a giant ~40 year old male elephant silhouetted against a hillside as we drove out of the park. Nature is truly amazing. We also saw a large family of baboons, warthogs, kudus, impalas, zebras and lots of species of birds.
Saturday afternoon we drove 30k east to St. Lucia, a beach town on the shores of the Indian Ocean. We headed straight to another national park, this one encompassing a large estuary, inland waterway and beach. Many, many hippos were bellowing and yawning in the estuary. A baby one was walking along the shore line and it was adorable to see fully out of the water. We kept our distance as hippos are known for being quite mean despite their herbivore diet. There were lots of local people fishing on the beach; the swimming isn't very good due to extremely strong currents and rip tide but most of us did wade in a little ways and can say we have been in the Indian Ocean! At a nearby seafood and pizza place several of us split a Cape Vidal (nearby fishing port) platter for dinner, complete with prawns, spiny lobster, butter fish and mussels. Everything was delicious and a steal (the weak economy and favorable exchange rate of $1 = 8.4 SA Rand is good for tourists like us). On our way back to Swazi on Sunday we drove through some Zulu villages and engaged in a little American diplomacy (i.e. shopping).
Tomorrow begins our second and final week at RFM and the Wellness Center. I know we are all grateful for our magnificent time in South Africa and ready to take on the challenges that this week will certainly bring.