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Saying "So Long" to Southern Africa, Swaziland and Johannesburg, South Africa

July 31, 2019

 

 

Our road trip across southern Africa wasn’t quite finished. We had a week left on our 90 day tourist visa, so we decided to visit one more country, before we flew to Tanzania.

Ol and I have given up on any advance travel planning. We have now been on the road so long that we find it is easier and more fun just to wing it. We also get better deals and with the lack of internet in the bush we really had no other option. Hakuna matata!

As we got to the southern end of Kruger National Park we finally had decent cell service. It was time to start planning. We decided to just drive through Swaziland on our way to Jo’berg (I feel like we are practically South Africans). Our plan was to just stay one night in Swaziland on our way to Johannesburg, where we fly out to Tanzania. We still hadn’t booked our Mr. Kilimanjaro hike, but I had started to research a few tour operators while Ol drove. I still wasn’t sure if I was even going to hike it.

To convince me I could hike Kili, Ol read about a few areas in Swaziland that we could get out and stretch our legs on a nice hike. So we were now on our way to Phophonyane Falls in Swaziland. 

It didn’t take long to reach the border. Swaziland is a small landlocked, monarchy just south of Kruger National Park. Mozambique is on its northeastern border and the rest of the country is surrounded by South Africa.

 

When we got to the border, it was a little chaotic, but it didn’t take us longer than 10 minutes to be stamped out and stamped in. I don’t know why I get excited about a new passport stamp, but I do. 

Just to give you an idea as to how little we travel plan as of late, we found out that the King changed the country’s name a few years ago to Eswatini. Signs and stamps are still being changed over. I am sure it will be years before the new name makes it to maps and globes, so I am going to do my part to spread the world about this beautiful country.

Eswatini is the only monarchy in all of Africa. Posters of the King greeted us on signs and billboards as we passed through small mountain towns. He looks like a fun King and after reading about the countries cultural festivals, I hate that I didn’t plan our trip better. In August the reed dances by unmarried women are performed and in December and January warriors perform the ritual Incawala ceremony. From photos they both look amazing.

Eswatini is also well known for its wilderness reserves.  We were not visiting any of the country’s famous game preserves, but heading to the wilderness area of Phophonyane Falls, a nature area where we can get out of the car and hike, without the fear of being eaten. 

Our drive through the mountains was beautiful. After being in desert and drought regions for so long we were taken aback with how green everything was! Though Eswatini is subtropical, we were in the cool highlands. When we found the sign to turn off the highway, we were a little surprised at how rough the dirt road was. It rivaled any of the roads we covered in Namibia. We had only a few days left on our little 2WD rental car, and we hoped it wouldn’t fail us now. 

Amongst the eucalyptus forests we found the resort with no problem. Our original plan was to hike the falls, eat lunch and then drive a bit further. As soon as we stepped into the car park and heard the falls we knew that we wanted to stay the night.

The resort was an upscale ecolodge with hiking trails around the waterfalls. It only had a few rooms and despite it being a weekend they had an opening! We booked it. After walking past the pool and through the gardens to our charming room, overlooking the falls, we knew that we needed to stay more than one night. Before our bellman had time to drop our backpacks, Ol was back at the reception booking two more nights. 

The resort is located in what is known as the Garden of Eden, and it truly was. I loved the falls had a legendary tale of romance and refreshing natural rock pools. The entire spectacular landscape is set against the rugged Makhonjwa Range (the oldest mountain range in the world). Just taking in the panoramic view over the Ntfonjeni valley (which covers a vast expanse of northern Swaziland) from our cottage, we decided that we needed the rest, even though all we have been doing is driving around and eating for the past month. 

We settled into a private room made of sticks and straw and shaped like a little beehive. Yes, the resort has rooms that are built in the traditional style of tribal huts and are called Beehives. They also have tents perched up on secluded viewing decks nestled in the the riverine forest over the waters edge and cottages set in spacious, private tropical gardens.

Our kingsize bed was wonderfully comfortable, the sound of the falling water soothing, and the weather was perfect. The high was around 70 degrees and the evenings and mornings were chilly. The resort was all inclusive, so all we had to do was show up at the appointed time and enjoy our meals in front of a roaring fire. It was going to be hard to leave this. We were living like the King of Eswatini for a $150 a night.

We spent our days hiking, reading by the pool, and just enjoying the lodge. We also planned the next leg of our trip. We made plans for a nice bed and breakfast in Johannesburg. We also booked a two week stay at the beach in Zanzibar and booked our tours from Arusha.  For me the highlight was being able to sleep in. I felt like I was in recovery from my game viewing addiction. 

When we finally said our goodbyes we headed west to Johannesburg. In Jo’berg we stayed in a lovely area of town on a large estate with a tennis court and only four guest rooms. The young professional couple with small children who owned it reminded me of Ol and I when we had our bed and breakfast. The pampering continued. Our guest suite was over one wing of the house with a nice courtyard. Everyday we were served a three course breakfast in bed! Yes, in bed!

We also got a chance to catch up with our friends from Kruger over dinner. We had a lovely evening. The rest of our visit we were busy shaking the dust of the bush off. We were glad to be back in civilization. We binge watched CNN, visited the mall, went to the movies, and visited museums. 

The highlight of our stay in Johannesburg was visiting Maropeng’s Cradle of Human Kind, a World Heritage Site an hour out of the city. This area is the world’s richest hominid fossil site, home to around 40 percent of the world’s human ancestor fossils. Exploring the cave where some unlucky creature happened to fall into thousands of years ago was interesting, as was the museum and its interactive exhibits. At the end of the tour we had the chance to rub the paleontologist’s bronze sculpture’s nose for luck or head for knowledge. Ol and I each rubbed a different area to be sure we would be covered!

I was also enthralled with the powerful “Long March to Freedom” exhibition that was on display. Almost 100 striking life-sized bronze statues were created to celebrate 25 years of South African democracy. This is the largest exhibition of representational bronze sculptures in the world. 

In keeping with Maropeng’s mission to profile the human journey from our earliest beginnings, The Long March to Freedom exhibition depicts the South African struggle for freedom and democracy.

The plaques beside each statue made each person come alive. It was also great to learn about how the sculptures were made using mentorships with local South African artists.

After several days of exploring Johannesburg we were reluctantly ready to say goodbye to South Africa. We really didn’t want to, but because our ninety day tourist visa was about to expire, we didn’t have a choice. 

We made our way to the airport and returned our little rental car. It had taken us across all of southern Africa and did it without any trouble. Although Ol quickly adjusted to driving on the wrong side of the road and shifting gears with his left hand, he was glad to give up driving for the remainder of our journey. It was the perfect end to a perfect journey across this amazing continent.

Even if I don’t climb Kilimanjaro I still feel pretty adventurous driving across and experiencing up close most of southern Africa in a simple two wheel drive rental car on our own. This African adventure has been the trip of a lifetime and should be on every bucket list. 

 

 

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