We spent this weekend in Swaziland, at the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a national big game park.
Our modest plan, as per usual, was to hang out in the park, go on a game drive, maybe go horseback riding, braai, and see a new country. And, once again, our plans were thwarted. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if maybe Al and I were criminals in a past life and are now being punished for our past misdeeds by Vishnu or whoever is in charge of karma. I don’t think we were felons or anything – but maybe shoplifters? How else to explain the rash of bad traveling luck we’ve had recently? This trip wasn’t as out and out disastrous as our Botswana trip, which, admittedly, is a low hurdle to clear, but things definitely did not go as planned.
Al and I set off from Joburg on Friday at 2 pm with a trunk full of food, hiking gear, and — optimistic fools that we are — bathing suits. Four hours later, we reached the border with Swaziland. The drive was remarkably painless, except for a steady drizzle the whole way, and we were feeling confident — TOO confident. We stepped out of our trusty* old Yaris and were walking towards the customs/immigration building when a police officer pointed at our car and said, “You’ve got a flat.”
Understatement of the year.
Guys. This is what our tire looked like:
Yeeeah. Al and I immediately spiraled into a state of deep denial, followed by nervous (bordering on hysterical) laughter, followed by rage, followed by resigned acceptance. These are the stages of African car trouble. We know them well.
A few South African police officers changed our tire, putting on the spare in our trunk, at lightning speed while Al and I stood around uselessly and pretended to be helping (“Yeah, get that spanner in there. There you go.”). Then we drove over the border into Mbabane, the bustling capital city of The Kingdom of Swaziland, where literally everything was closed. It was 7 pm. I figured we needed to get our tire changed that night before we attempted driving into the wildlife park, because I was pretty confident that the road into the park would be the kind of pothole littered, rocky, lake-sized puddle obstacle course of horrors that we’ve come to expect on our trips out of town. However, after driving around for an hour in search of a mechanic or anyone else with the ability to repair a tire, we realized that we were not getting the tire fixed that night and began the slow, rocky, bumpy road into the wildlife park. About this time, it started to pour down rain.
After an excruciatingly slow 4 km drive over an unpaved, potholey, wet road to the gates of the park, we were met by a guard who told us that the road to the backpackers’ hostel in the park was “too wet” and we’d have to take an alternative route. Suppressing our desire to beat this man with his own shoes, we turned around and made it back to the main road, where we began following the extremely vague directions we had been given to the hostel. At 9 pm, when we still hadn’t found the hostel, I started to lose it. Right at the point where I was ready to jump out of the car and hitchhike back to Joburg, we found the hostel, where we were showed to our room and told that we would be sharing a bathroom with everyone else on the hall. We were not pleased.
Five minutes later, the power went out.
Are you getting the picture here?
That first night, after braaing in the dark and carrying our plates back and forth in the pissing rain, Al and I told each other, like always, that things would look better in the morning. Neither of us really believed it.
Later that night, our friends Josh and Ken showed up, too. The next morning, it was pouring rain, and the four of us were told — you guessed it — that a game drive was simply impossible. Impossible! Since nearly all activities in Swaziland are outdoors/safari oriented, we were in sort of a pickle. Not to be discouraged, we decided to take care of business and get our tire fixed. We eventually found a tire garage, which could more accurately be described as a shack on the side of the road that contained tires, but the guys there were helpful and only charged us about $30 for a new tire.
Turns out, though, we needed TWO new tires. I’ll spare you the ridiculous details, but after much ado, we ended up with two new (to us) tires and an instruction from the guys at the garage/shack to get our back right tire looked at as soon as we got back to Joburg, because it was about to separate from the wheel. Awesome.
After getting the car taken care of, more or less, we checked out one of Mbabane’s famous attractions, a concert venue called House on Fire, which has a reputation for being one of the coolest concert venues in all of Southern Africa. Hopeful, as always, we showed up to see what was going on that night, a Saturday. The woman who worked there told us that the staff was on vacation that week so there would be no concerts. Of course.
So, we looked around the venue, which is filled with really cool art. Some day I’d like to go back and actually see a concert there. Imagine that!
The rain had still not stopped, but in the afternoon, the four of us decided to go for a hike in the park. The people at the hostel looked at us like we were insane, but we wanted to see some animals, gosh darn it, and we were going to go for a hike, rain be DAMNED. Since Al and I had not brought ponchos, we made our own fashionable slickers out of trash bags and set off on a soggy two and a half hour hike around the park.
Although we were hoping for hippos, we didn’t see any. But! We saw antelopes of various descriptions, Wildebeest, warthogs, birds, and — my absolute favorite — zebras! For anyone who has been on a real safari, zebras are old hat, but for me, they were incredible. I also sort of wanted to steal one and keep it in our apartment.
That night, we had a braai and drank wine and sat around, satisfied in the knowledge that we had made the most of our time in Swaziland, despite the flat tire(s), despite the rain, and despite the intermittent power. The next day, I took some pictures as we drove back to Joburg, which should give you an idea of what Swaziland looks like, more or less.
Overall, given the circumstances, not a bad trip. It probably would have been nicer had everything gone to plan, but what can you do? We should know by now not to expect things to go perfectly. Message received, Vishnu.
*Read: not trusty at all