As we crossed the border and began our drive into Swaziland, we were immediately taken with the greenery and the lush valleys backed by impressive mountain ranges. This was not what we expected, an emerald gem that was reminding us of the verdant parts of Hawaii, or the greenest pastoral scenes in Europe. The apparently rich, red soil was checkered with timber forests and pineapple fields. It was a grand landscape of agriculture, sparsely populated.
Our first stop was a small mountain town called Bulembu. This town was originally an asbestos mining center, which ultimately lead to the demise of its miners health, and the eventual closure of its industry, as the dangers of asbestos were discovered. With a loss of jobs and income, coupled with the spread of AIDS, 10,000 workers left and Bulembu was nearly abandoned. As the community emptied in search of work or due to death, it almost became a complete ghost town. However, there was a Christian group that came to care for the children orphaned by the tragedy of HIV and mining sicknesses, and decided to reinvent Bulembu as a tourist destination. Their efforts are slowly paying off, as visitors come to Bulembu to appreciate the beauty of its location, enjoy the comfort and hospitality of its country lodges, visit a museum explaining the history of the mining industry, shop for locally made arts & crafts and native honey, and volunteer in the orphanage.
There was an evident pride in the homes and clean streets which made me feel hopeful for the future and impressed by the community. However, I couldn’t stop dwelling on the sad facts of Swaziland. This is a country devastated by AIDS. Swaziland has the highest HIV rate in the world, with 27% of the population infected, and an average life expectancy of 49 years. I couldn’t let go of the thought that one out of four people that we met was likely carrying HIV, and who will care for all of the vulnerable, parentless children (estimated at 230,000)? Heterosexual sex is the main transmission of HIV, with a disproportionate amount of women infected in comparison to men, with polygamy and child marriage having a significant impact on these statistics. (*Speaking of polygamy, the King of Swaziland, Mswati III, currently has 15 wives. Interestingly, this pales in comparison to his father, king Sobhusa II, who had more than 125 wives in his 82 year reign!)
After sobering Bulembu, we spent our next couple of nights in the idyllic Malkerns and Ezulwini Valleys. Here we shopped for local crafts (i.e. colorful candles shaped into wild African animals), and visited a traditional Swazi village to learn about their culture and watch a singing, dancing and drumming performance. We had a notable stay in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary where we sat in Adirondack chairs on our porch, watching the sun dip behind the trees while zebras grazed in the grass and wild boars foraged for food. We were able to bird watch and hike through green fields, side by side antelope and zebras. Lastly, we found ourselves crashing a pool party, and invited to celebrate a birthday with a group of Swazis. We were constantly surprised by the fertile beauty of the country and the friendliness of the locals. There was a strong sense of peace and faith to the realm, despite high poverty and serious health concerns.
Our last stop in Swaziland was to visit one of their most reputable safari destinations – the Hlane Royal National Park. This land used to be part of the King’s Royal hunting grounds, but is now Swaziland’s largest protected area held in trust and managed by Big Game Parks. When we first arrived at Hlane to check into reservations, we learned that we had been upgraded from our standard family chalet into their largest family suite, which could accommodate up to 8 people. It was a huge self-catering, stand-alone lodging, complete with a living/dining room, kitchen, bathroom with bath, two bedrooms, and a large loft with four single beds, all decorated with rustic wood and leather furniture, and African-themed artwork. Our stay was off to a great start!
Hlane has a limited self-drive section, but if you want to get into parts of the park that have Transvaal lions, you have to go on a guided safari excursion. Per our Kruger Park photos, you may have noticed that we did not have a photo of a lion. On our very first day, we did see a lion, very, very far away, resting in the grass, but other than that poor sighting, our five days were spent in anxious search of a pride or solo feline, without success. Our desire was to end the lion drought, so we quickly signed up for a ranger-guided sunset tour. The safari began with more impalas and elephants, before we finally turned the corner and made eye contact with an elusive mother lion and her cubs. Our vehicle pulled closer, and passed by a rotting hippo carcass, which we smelled long before we sighted it. There we sat, huffing through our mouths, trying to seal our nostrils from the stench, mission accomplished!
There is no electricity in the park, so when we finally returned to our cottage in the early twilight, after a delicious steak dinner, we discovered that the staff had lit multiple oil lanterns throughout our home. It was very pretty and added to the visual ambiance and quiet of the night (interrupted by the occasional animal cry). However, our appreciation of the warm glow and cabin aesthetics was short-lived. No electricity meant no fans, and the heat and humidity were proving oppressive. We all showered and laid in our beds, barely tolerating a single sheet. As soon as our bodies had stilled, the buzzing began. DOZENS of mosquitoes swarming around our heads! Dan was donning his headlamp and dancing around the room swatting at our enemies. I was lying in a pool of sweat, unable to let a breeze in through our unscreened windows, and the attacks were relentless. My only escape from bites was to cover my entire body with a sheet, even my face, creating a small gap to expose my mouth and nose. Underneath, “cocooned” in a sauna, our sleepless night began. After eight months of travel, we all can pinpoint this disappointing night, as the absolute worst on our entire trip! Thankfully, a bad night of sleep is not our only memorable impression of Swaziland. My mind’s eye is imprinted with the color green, a backdrop of soaring mountains, and the warm smiles of the people who call this country home.