Tracking the Elusive Animals at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi1 Park is the oldest proclaimed national park in Africa, and is widely regarded as one of the best. Although it is much smaller than Kruger, covering only 960 square kilometers, and, strangely, a public road runs through it, 2 the park is allegedly a great spot to sight animals – it is also much less crowded than Kruger, and set in an arguably more beautiful setting, which covers large hills and river valleys. Everything we had read about the place sounded awesome, and we couldn’t wait to visit.

We arrived from Swaziland late on Sunday afternoon, only to learn at the entrance gate that there were no accommodation vacancies at Hilltop Camp in the park. Having naively hoped to simply turn up and be able to stay in the park, we hadn’t arranged alternate accommodation (a fact which, once revealed to the park staff at the entrance gate, elicited a few raised eyebrows), and so we decided to cut our losses and return to the park first thing in the morning.

We backtracked into Hluhluwe village and found a room at the Bushbaby Lodge & Camping. True to its name, bushbabies2 lived in the trees surrounding the lodge, and the owner of the lodge sets out a plate of bananas for the bushbabies each night.

DSC_0593 - Version 2
Bushbabies enjoying their bananas

Continue reading Tracking the Elusive Animals at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Swaziland: The Most Beautiful Country You’re (Probably) Not Visiting

Before we started planning our trip to Africa, I couldn’t have pointed to Swaziland on a map.1 I certainly couldn’t have told you that the country is Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy, or that it would turn out to be one of the most physically beautiful countries I have ever seen. (But for New Zealand, Swaziland would be the most physically beautiful country I have ever seen.) We spent four days and nights in Swaziland, transiting through from the country from one part of South Africa (Mpumalanga) to another (KwaZulu-Natal).

Random tidbit: The welcome information we received when we crossed the border told us that cattle are so common alongside, and often directly on, the Swazi roadside that they are affectionately referred to as “Swazi traffic lights.” (Having just come from South Africa, where traffic lights are called “robots,” we greatly amused ourselves by referring to the many cattle we encountered as “Swazi robots.”)

Swazi robots

Continue reading Swaziland: The Most Beautiful Country You’re (Probably) Not Visiting

Nelspruit and Hanging Out at the Mall

After two amazing – but also tiring – days of animal-spotting in Kruger National Park, we were ready for a rest back in civilization and headed for Nelspruit, the nearby provincial capital of Mpumalanga.1  With a population of around a quarter of a million residents, Nelspruit has some of the amenities of the larger South African cities, without as much of the traffic and general congestion.

Exiting Kruger at the Crocodile Bridge gate – which lies less than 10 kilometers from Mozambican border2 – we began driving towards Nelspruit just as the sun was setting.  We drove past seas of massive, green sugar cane plantations as we made our way back to the N4 toll road, the main route between Johannesburg and Maputo, and along which Nelspruit lies.  The drive, which should have only taken about an hour and a half, unfortunately ballooned into a nearly three hour affair, due to slower night driving conditions and an elongated stretch of road work.

About 30 kilometers east of Nelspruit, in an otherwise nondescript part of the route, we found ourselves pulling up to an endless line of stopped cars.  Unbeknownst to us at this point, construction had reduced a six kilometer section of the highway ahead to one-way, alternating traffic.  After five minutes we turned off the engine.  After another five minutes we turned off the headlights.3 After nearly an hour  – which felt more like two – of watching traffic in the eastbound direction fly past us, and trying to surmise what was occurring ahead and when, or if, we would be moving forward again, there was a break in the action and our endless line of cars started plodding west towards Nelspruit. Continue reading Nelspruit and Hanging Out at the Mall

Is that Elephant Charging Us?: A Kruger Play-by-Play

We spent two days driving around Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It sprawls over more than 7,500 square miles (for those at home, that is a bit smaller than the state of New Jersey), covered in a network of tarred and dirt roads that allow visitors to drive around the park in their own cars. Thousands upon thousands of animals –including all of the “Big Five” (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses, and buffaloes) –live in the park, and many of them are easily viewable, even by complete novices like us equipped with just a Toyota Corolla and some snacks for the road.

Surrounded by impalas

NB: Even though I’m referring to the following as a play-by-play, I’ve edited for time and interest. No one needs to know about the zillionth impala we saw, and (amazingly) even the elephants and giraffes began getting repetitive. Only the most notable sightings are listed. (And it’s still a long post! Seriously, Kruger is awesome.) Continue reading Is that Elephant Charging Us?: A Kruger Play-by-Play

The Best Potholes We’ve Ever Seen

When most people think of Africa, they think of big game: lions, leopards, elephants, and the like. Somehow, we made it through our first three weeks in Africa without seeing anything more exotic than a monkey. 1

Accordingly, after leaving Johannesburg, we set our sights on Kruger National Park, arguably the most famous game reserve in Southern Africa. We left Johannesburg late on a Friday afternoon but, because of Kruger’s popularity on the weekends, didn’t want to arrive until at least Sunday morning. We conferred with our guidebooks for potential sights between Johannesburg and Kruger, and discovered the Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga’s Drakensburg Escarpment.

Blyde River Canyon

Continue reading The Best Potholes We’ve Ever Seen

History Lesson in Johannesburg

After our idyllic stay in Vilankulo, we flew to Johannesburg, South Africa.

To be honest, I wasn’t that amped about visiting Jo’burg. It has something of a rough reputation. As someone who lived in New York for five years and Chicago (which has more than its share of gun violence) for three years before that, however, I always take breathless warnings about big city crime with a grain of salt. I’ve found that if you are smart about where you are going, discrete with your valuables, and aware of your surroundings, you’re generally going to be fine.

Marc atop the ramparts at the Old Fort prison complex, with the Hillbrow Tower in the background.

Continue reading History Lesson in Johannesburg

15 Things We’ve Learned During Our First Month in Africa

It’s our one-month travelversary!  Here are 15 random things that we’ve learned thus far after a month on the ground in Africa:

1. We probably brought too much stuff.  And, yet, I neglected to bring a single pair of shorts or a t-shirt.

2. How to drive on the left-hand side of the road.  (Otherwise known as the wrong side of the road.)

3. How to tell the difference between a white rhinoceros and a black rhinoceros.  It’s all in the shape of the mouth.

These are white rhinos.

Continue reading 15 Things We’ve Learned During Our First Month in Africa

Vilankulo: The Reason Katie Almost Stayed in Mozambique

Our last stop in Mozambique was Vilankulo, an ocean-side town often considered the most northern point on the southern Mozambique backpacker circuit. After a week luxuriating on the idyllic beaches at Tofo and Barra, we had begun to question our plan to spend another week on a beach. Will we be beached out?, we wondered. (Follow-up question: Can one ever really be beached out?)

Luckily for us, Vilankulo is very different than Tofo or Barra. While the beaches at Tofo and Barra are gorgeous stretches of soft white sand, perfect for sunbathing or barefoot strolls, the beach at Vilankulo is more narrow – only several feet wide when the tide is high – and less inviting, studded with broken shells, seaweed, and bits of man-made debris. The beach would increase dramatically in size when the tide went out, the water receding to expose nearly a football field worth of waterlogged sand. Late one morning we ventured across the temporarily naked ocean floor, exploring the tiny sea life that had been revealed, while locals hunted for crabs around us.

A tiny crab on the end of Marc’s index finger
Continue reading Vilankulo: The Reason Katie Almost Stayed in Mozambique