As a break from all the hustle and bustle of our wildlife viewing in Kruger National Park we decided to go Swaziland and Mozambique. This plan was fraught with danger. Not because of internal strife, civil war or guerilla activity, but rather because I was running out of pages on my passport. South Africa requires that you have 2 completely blank pages when you enter the country, and I was a long way from that! But with plenty of blank corners in the passport, the knowledge that if all else fails bribery was an option, and the strong belief that no one at the borders actually cares, we decided to risk it.
Our first break involved going into the incredibly friendly, relaxed country of Swaziland. This land locked country is one of the smallest on continental Africa, and is ruled by a monarchy whose roots stretch back to the beginning of the 19th century. Traditionally the king rules the country in concert with his mother, the Indlovukai or Great She Elephant. She is considered the spiritual leader of the country, while her son is the administrative leader. Succession is a bit of a complicated affair as the king himself does not choose who will take over the throne once he passes. Instead the royal family elects one of his wives to become the Indlovukai and her son automatically becomes king. The new monarch must be the only son of a royal wife of upstanding character, who is not one of the "ritual wives" (spouse assigned by the government to a newly elected king, born of one of the two main royal lines). Once a king is crowned he has virtual autonomy in the country and puts in place his own Prime Minister as well as most of the cabinet. The present king, Mswati III, has been heavily criticized for living a luxurious lifestyle in a very poor country.
Swaziland's main export is cane sugar, and the country actually has one of the highest GDP's per capita in Africa. Unfortunately, over 40% of the land in Swaziland (and the majority of the arable property) is owned by foreign investors, leaving most native Swazis existing on less than $1/day. As well, Swaziland has the dubious honour of having the highest rate of HIV infection in the world, standing at 38.8% of the population being positive for the virus. In an attempt to control the spread of HIV/AIDS, King Mswati imposed the rite of UMCHWASHO, or chastity ritual, in 2001. According to traditional belief, during a period of umchwasho unwed maidens are supposed to wear coloured tassels denoting their status as virgins, and are to stay such for the next 5 years. Those under 19 years of age are to have no contact at all with males, while those over 19 are restricted from having sexual intercourse only. Should the rite be broken, the girl's family would be fined, usually the outrageous sum of 1 cow. Due to the outcry from young women who said that their suitors would be unwilling to wait 5 years for them, the ban was lifted one year early in 2005. There was also a bit of a scandal when the king, in 2004 broke the ban himself by taking a new wife, though he did make sure to pay up with a nice bull calf for the honour.
King Mswati, at the present time, has 11 wives and 2 fiancees. His latest fiancee was chosen during the 2004 UMHLANGA (or "reed dance") festival. During this festival, held usually in the month of August, 20,000 to 30,000 maidens voluntarily participate in a 3 day ritual that ends with a dance in front of the king, local Swazis and, these days swarms of tourists. The king will give a "state of the union" speech prior to the dance, and has the option of choosing for himself a new wife from among the maidens present. King Mswati's father took full advantage of Swaziland's tolerance of polygamy, having accrued more than 70 wives in his lifetime, many of them chosen during the reed dance ceremonies.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with polygamy and an absolute monarchy, it is hard to not appreciate what Swaziland has to offer tourists. As soon as you cross over the border it seems that everyone is smiling a little more and is a little more welcoming. The land changes almost immediately from wide open lowveld plains into rolling, majestic hills. As you drive through the country you pass many roadside stands offering a variety of handicrafts, and often vendors will attempt to draw you in by having young children dancing on the sides of the road.
Our destination was the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Not for the wildlife viewing which, quite frankly in comparison to Kruger, is very sparse, but for the Sondzela Backpackers. This much talked about hostel has the well deserved reputation of being one of the most relaxing places on earth to hang out at. The staff is all from the local village, just outside the borders of the sanctuary, and are immensely pleased that you would consider driving so far off the tourist track to visit them. Every night they make a traditional feast over the outdoor fire pit and invite guests to join them. Our first night we had impala stew with roasted squash, beetroot salad and rice. Surprisingly, impala tastes pretty much like what I remember moose is like. The young man running the "front desk" (you actually just kind of wander onto the site and look around for someone who would be willing to take your money, there are no locks on the huts so theoretically you don't really need to pay) was very interested in hearing about the types of animals we hunt and eat in Canada. He didn't think that garbage eating black bears were to his taste, however. After dinner you can relax by the fire, play pool in the open air bar area, go for a swim or just wander back down to your rondawel that is set overlooking the Mhlanbanyatsi Valley where warthogs seem to rule supreme. It is strongly recommended you don't leave any food lying outside your hut as the hogs are pretty pushy about stealing what you don't watch carefully.
We did spend one day at the Mantenga Cultural Village where you enter the traditional living area by shouting out "yebo nkosi" so that someone can come an ritually welcome you to their home. We were treated to a tour of the village (which people still live in) by the chief, Albert and then took seats in the ampitheatre to watch a traditional story dance performed by the local youths. In it a young girl who was betrothed to an evil old man falls in love with a handsome warrior who saves her from a lion. Torn between love and honour, she turns her back on the handsome warrior to fulfill her obligations. But in the meantime the old lecher has caught wind of the two lovers and has accused the young girl of infidelity. The witch doctor steps in just as the girl and the warrior are about to be executed and uses magic to prove their honesty.
Beyond this we really didn't do much, a few short walks in the park (no lions or other dangerous animals, so very safe to wander around inside the gates as opposed to Kruger) and a whole lot of watching the world wander by. Refreshed after a few days we returned to South Africa (no problems at the border) and spent a few more days in Kruger Park before the rental on our car ran out.
The hostel we were staying in outside of Kruger, the Kruger View Backpackers, is only about 5 minutes from the Mozambique border. So we had our host, Dave drop us off at the immigration office. Our reason for going to Mozambique was simple - whale sharks. Apparently Mozambique has some of the largest concentration of whale sharks in the world. These guys are the largest fish in the ocean. The peaceful creatures are actually filter feeders, sucking up tons of nutritious plankton a day. It's a good thing they have not an aggressive bone in their body, because these guys are HUGE! The largest recorded whale shark was 41.5 feet long, but there have been anecdotal reports of them ranging up to one 75 foot monster that dwarfed the fishing boat that pulled up beside it. Their mouths stretch open to over 3 feet, and are filled with 300 to 350 small teeth. They are actually very tolerant, and apparently sometimes even playful, with human snorkellers.
All sounds great, really cool, a "must-do". This is, of course, easier than it sounds. We had to get to Tofo Beach in Inhambane, Mozambique. The first challenge was crossing the border, where line ups during the week can take at least 3 hours, double this on the weekends. So we did something we had never done before and played the white tourist, paying someone to hustle us through immigration. He also put us on the right mini van, loaded to the gills with locals, heading to the capital, Maputo, 2 hours away. By the time we got there our butts were pretty numb from having been shoved in the back of a van with our backpacks resting on our knees. Our next challenge was getting to Inhambane, which consisted to a 6 hour bus ride to the town of Xai-Xai the next day, then a ferry crossing to the town. Then another mini bus had to be caught to Tofo Beach, where whale shark snorkelling tours could be had. Whew, another exhausting day. We stayed at a nice hostel called Fatima's in a grass hut with no floor and only mosquito nets protecting the beds (no bedding actually provided, which was too bad since it was winter and we had no sleeping bags). Tofo Beach is a quiet, idyllic stretch of sand where, apart from diving and snorkelling with the whale sharks, there isn't much to do. It seems that an overabundance of young, 20-something Europeans were hanging out there, which led to an awful lot of late night partying and drinking for two old timers like us, who retired almost as soon as the sun went down.
That's okay, though, we were here for only one reason. The next day we were off in the zodiac boat in search of whale sharks. The dive centre gives everyone a snorkel, mask and fins. They zip out in the tiny boat amongst 10 foot tall swells. When they see a large dark shadow just below the surface they yell "out of the boat" at which point you foolishly obey and throw yourself into the ocean. Close to drowning due to his inability to swim (not really sure why he went in the first time, I think we forgot he was a land lubber), Gilles managed to have a close encounter on his one and only time out of the boat, almost landing on top of the hapless whale shark as he enthusiastically plunged into the ocean. After this we managed to find another 3 whale sharks and have a reasonable time viewing them. My advice, however, to all would be whale shark snorkellers is to not go with a boatful of teenage boys. They just couldn't seem to understand that if they dived around the whale shark trying to touch her, she would just sink down away from us to avoid contact. So sadly, my visions of spending half an hour lazily paddling along side one of these bohemoths didn't come to fruition, but it was still an incredible experience.
Anxious to avoid another night in Maputo we left the hostel the next day at about 4AM and headed back to South Africa. Luckily it's a lot easier to get out of Mozambique than it is to get in, so we managed to be back at our favourite hostel, Kruger View, by supper than evening. With only a few days left in South Africa, we decided to rent another car and spend our last bit of time doing what we loved best - safari driving in Kruger Park.