In July 1999, I had a footloose safari of South Africa for one month. Each year, I try to see new countries but sometimes, I am forced to relax this rule. A few years ago, I had a 30-day tour of Brazil. At the end, I reached for the return-flight at Sao Paulo Airport and presented my travel documents to a staffer of Alitalia Airlines. He went through them but came with shocking news, “Your Airport Transit Visa for Italy has expired!!” My transit visa was for 8 days but I was returning after one month as per my Brazilian Visa. My mistake!! When I got ‘confirmed ticket’, I took it for granted that everything was valid and fair. So I suffered and had to leave by South African Airline which dumped me in Johannesburg. That is how I ended up there for the second time and spent a few days retracing my earlier steps. Murphy’s Law says, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. How true?
Word of Mouth is an unusual name for a guesthouse but not so in South Africa, where I also found Bump in the Night, Elephant on Castle, and Down the Lane. Called “Backpackers,” they provide inexpensive accommodations and services to travelers, including TV, VCR, video library, E-mail facilities, and a welcome cup of tea or coffee for the weary traveler. Word of Mouth, in Pretoria, the capital city, was my first stop after a long flight from my home in Pakistan. An airport shuttle from Jans Smuts Airport dropped me right at the gate. I chose Pretoria after an extensive Internet search to find a safe area to start my travels in South Africa.
I had heard scary stories and was told that Cape Town was called “Rape Town,” Sun City, “Sin City,” and that a visit to Johannesburg was not complete without getting mugged. All these apprehensions proved wrong, however, and I returned unscathed after 30 days of travel.
It was July when I was there – winter in South Africa as the country lies below the equator. Though days were sunny, the nights were bitterly chilly for my blood. I stayed around Pretoria a few days to get acclimatized and enjoyed long walks admiring fine Dutch style historical buildings, museums and monuments. At that time of year, the jacaranda trees were in bloom, immersing the city in glorious shades of purple and mauve. There were numerous malls and arcades to browse for souvenirs, and roadside artisans sold colorful hand-spun rugs, fine bead and wood works, and decorated hides and skins.
After four days, I sat down with the lodge manager to discuss my travel plans. I had only $1,000 and a credit card, and a wish to traverse South Africa from one end to the other. I wanted to get a taste of everything the country had to offer: mountain biking, river rafting, para gliding, and above all bungee jumping – not to forget game viewing and safari walking.
A variety of transport was available, air, rail and road links, but for my restricted budget a bus network known as Baz Bus was the best choice.Baz Bus picks up and drops off passengers at lodges and hostels. Passengers simply buy one ticket to their final destination and may “hop-on, hop-off” wherever and as many times as they like with no time limit. I got a Pretoria-Cape Town return ticket (rates, page 3), which would also allow me a stop in Swaziland, a land-locked country surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique.
Sondzela Backpackers, Swaziland
The next morning, dressed in layers of cotton and woollen clothes, I stood at the guesthouse gate waiting for Baz Bus to Swaziland. It arrived at 7:15am, a Mercedes Sprinter towing a trailer. It had 22 seats and mostly white passengers, ranging from 18 to 35 years. I’m 57, but that was no problem.I was lucky to get a front seat. The entire route heading east to Swaziland was studded with fruit plantations, stunningly lush green sugar cane fields, high grassy plains and majestic mountains. We passed by Nelspruit, the gateway to Kruger, the world famous wildlife park, home to all the “Big Five” – lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino. After about eight hours we reached the border towns of Oshoek and Ngwenaya. Swazi officials issued me a visa and by 7pm – 12 hours of travel – we arrived at the Royal Swazi Sun Hotel where a van from Sondzela Backpackers lodge was already waiting for me, as the Baz Bus driver had alerted them of my arrival. All drivers had mobile phones.
Sondzela, a quaint thatched lodge, is located inside the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. It was well furnished in ethnic colors and designs and surrounded with aromatic trees like lemonwood, eucalyptus and lavender. There were self-contained thatched cottages, beehive huts, and timber dorms to suit all pockets. I got a comfortable room for only $10.
Many birds were perching around in the hope of food offerings from the guests. A feeling of peace and stillness pervaded the atmosphere. It was just the place to relax after a twelve hour bus journey from Pretoria. But I was not for relaxing. I was in South Africa to have a taste of everything the country offered, and here I planned to do a self-guided walking safari.
In the evening a fire was lit and everyone had a chance to meet after dinner while listening to the calls of wild things. Handsome and colorfully dressed locals joined the guests, engrossing us with tales of lion kills and elephant charges.
To Walk or Not to Walk
The lodge provided a well-sketched route map and guidebook against a small deposit. One area was well publicized as Hippo Trail. Bathing or paddling there was declared hazardous. Now I became concerned about my age, high blood pressure, and weak stomach. My initial response was not to go alone.
But I thought that for a fee of only $3, they could not afford to have a dangerous trail. Besides, white footprints marked the way. Also, a fluttering flag and a flashing light at the starting point were visible from the trail. One had only to look back to seek guidance. There was absolutely no harm in going up there for a trial run.
Next day, a cold, crisp morning, I set foot on the trail. I had a day pack containing biscuits, water bottle and some medicines. With pent-up energy I forged ahead confidently toward a guard post half a kilometer away – uphill. In a few minutes, however, I was obliged to catch up my breath every few meters, stopping to wait for the palpitations to subside. Many trekkers, some carrying rucksacks, waved as they overtook me. I thought I was the victim of altitude sickness or chill factor.
At the guard post Makama Dlamani introduced himself, proudly saying that he belonged to the famous clan, Dlamani, decedents of King Sobhuza. There is a good chance of meeting a prince in Swaziland as the old king had nearly 400 wives.
Pointing out the figure-eight contour of the trail, the guard assured me that at the midway point I could continue on or return to the start. He looked at me as if to assess my condition and added, “If I did not see you back by the late afternoon, I would send someone.” That gave me a boost, and I resumed the walk.
For quite some distance, it was downhill, and I had time to notice nature. I saw giraffe, kudu, red rock hares, and young warthogs suckling at their mother. Black eagles and Lanner falcons circled above.
Then the trail took a turn and faced a water hole. I saw a springbok ram standing gracefully on the edge, its image glistening in clear water. A little further on, an excited impala took off in a series of stiff-legged bouncing leaps. Then … uh, oh, the honeymoon was over.
The path started climbing and became steeper and steeper. Like an old ox-wagon, I went up creaking, jerking, and tilting. High trees shaded the path. On both sides, a green wall of creepers, willows and weeds formed a corridor as in a dense jungle. The walk became a little frightening. All senses were on the alert, hearing, sight and smell. Eyes darted perpetually from point to point sizing up everything that stirred. The ascent became sharper, at many points forcing me to assume a crawling position.
At long last, I saw the sky. I was fully exhausted and practically lying on my stomach gasping for breath. But I could see almost the whole sanctuary in one majestic panorama. I looked around over rolling hills of different colors and shades. It was so refreshing that I literally felt pleasant waves passing through my body.
By afternoon, I at last reached the mid-point, having covered only four km. I thought of venturing into the next phase, but good sense prevailed, and I decided to return. The back trail followed a stream. Soon I was walking on a well-worn path. made by the passage of hippos over many years. Fortunately, they were at the lake, busy feeding on bottom vegetation and surfacing only occasionally to grab a breath of air before plunging again.
Beyond Hippo Trail, the terrain became quite interesting. There were many bridges to cross, ladders to climb and walks along the cliff edge but all safe and pleasant. Soon the main camp was in sight. I reached it about 2:30pm.
It was a miserable performance by trekker standards, but for me it was an experience that fed my soul and challenged my spirit. And it was the best time of my thirty-day journey across South Africa by Baz Bus.
Continued …. Part II