Arriving by Police Escort in Nelspruit

Nelspruit may not be on everybody’s must-see lists when traveling, not even those traveling in South Africa. But besides the non-existent scene, this town sits on the threshold to Kruger National Park, and hosts four matches of the 2010 World Cup, so it is on the map, and yes people do come here.

Eduardo and I ended up in Nelspruit after driving (sometimes in circles) from Johannesburg through dense fog, heavy rain and through a rainbow arch. Reaching the town well after dark, and not seeing a single sign pointing towards the town center, we decided to ask for the way at a gas station.

“Sorry, no, I don’t know Van Wijk Street, but I’ll take you to the police station, and you can find out there.”

Incredibly typical for South Africa – everyone’s nice. Everyone’s beyond helpful. So this South African gentleman drives has BMW ahead of us to the Nelspruit police station and asks the policemen to assist us. I’m not sure if there’s no crime in Nelspruit or the policemen were just bored, but they actually escorted us through the town to Van Wijk Street (Van Wyck, for us New Yorkers).

And we arrived at our hostel by police escort…

The Dragon Mountains – Drakensberg Escarpment

After reading descriptions like “South Africa’s most striking landscape” [Lonely Planet] and “This is gob-smacking, lip-licking, eye-boggling, bewitching territory” [Coast to Coast], we were expecting jaw-dropping views. But driving into the Drakensberg Escarpment, we just saw “nice” panoramic views, “cute” waterfalls, and really nothing to write a blog about.

I was egging Eduardo on –“Look how pretty!”, but he was expressively as unimpressed as I was feeling. It seemed crazy that we had planned a whole day’s driving based on this tourist-trap with names like “God’s Window” and “Wonderview”, each charging a hefty $1 entrance fee.

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The most impressive thing on the way seemed to be the state of the roads – they are as well kept as any good European or US roads. It has been very hard to really understand that we are in Africa, not to mention in a so-called “third world country”.

Once we reached Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, both of us agreed that it would be a waste of time and money to visit, so we drove on.

Minutes later, a true God’s window opened up before us, with sky-high chiseled cliffs protruding in blue, across from a (free) viewing platform.

There are very few places in the world that have truly taken my breath away, that are so painfully beautiful they bring tears to my eyes. This was one of them.

Blyde River Valley is worth the drive. Definitely. Even though Eduardo was still (expressively, not truly) unimpressed.

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Elephant Poop Safari – Kruger National Park

If you think a safari means leisurely driving around, taking pictures of lions and zebras who are posing for your pictures, think again. On a safari you spend hours gazing into bushes, up trees and along wide-stretched savannas in hope of catching a glimpse of an animal. Or anything that breathes. And more often than not you end up seeing nothing. At the same time, it is a wonderful adventure, and a memory that will last a lifetime.

We spent four days driving up and down dirt roads through Kruger National Park, entering in the middle of the park and moving a bit further south every day. At first, Eduardo was unimpressed. “What, we’re going to spend four days here?” he muttered the first day. We had just entered the park that morning, and had already seen our fair share of elephant poop and dry grass. But then we spotted our first impala. Cool. When a large group of baboons surrounded our car, it started to get interesting.

“Where are the lions?” Eduardo asked. “Somewhere, anywhere. They move,” I explained. For the first-timer it can be incomprehensible that the animals are actually wild – and free. They go wherever they want, do whatever they want, and you have to be lucky to actually catch a glimpse of them. When we saw a family of elephants crossing the road right in front of us, it sealed the deal. This was going to be a good safari.

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Our first night, we saw some giraffes munching on thorn tree branches, and moments later heard a cheetah attack a baboon.

Zebras are everywhere, but they’re extremely shy, so we had to approach very slowly or they would run away. But when watching them close up, the way their patterns play together is hypnotizing.

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Nearby the Lower Sabie restcamp we spotted maybe 30 elephants who had just taken a bath in the Sabie river.

We only saw one hippo out of water (sleeping). They usually spend their days in the water, with only their eyes peeking out. They only get out of the water at night to feed. You can also call them fricking lazy!

One of my favorites were the warthogs, extremely shy and almost blind, they take one look at you, then quickly run away with their tails up in the air.

And I adored the ugly wildebeests. The poor males sometimes spend weeks alone under a tree, protecting their territory, and hoping to meet a girl.

Early one morning we caught a glimpse of two spotted hyenas, stealing away along the road, then disappearing into the bush.

We almost were attacked by buffaloes that thought we got too close. The leader of a large herd suddenly pushed the others back, scraped his hoof, and got ready to charge. I quickly rolled up the window and screamed to Eduardo: “Go, go, go”. The photo below is taken just before it charged.

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Our last night we spotted three rhinos that for once didn’t run away. They are simply, unbelievably huge and wonderful!

But the lions were the most difficult to discover. Our first lions, a female with two cubs, were sleeping under a tree, stomachs full with a fresh impala-dinner. We would never have seen them if someone hadn’t pointed them out to us. The next day, we found our own lions, sleeping in the high grass.

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After spending long days staring across bushes, we spent the nights in basic restcamp bungalows, where we dined on tuna, avocados, bread and wine. Without plates, and with toilet paper for napkins. Classy!

And, yes, of course Eduardo absolutely loved the safari.

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The Life of a Swazi (Is it!)

On the road from Kruger to Manzini, just after crossing the border at Mananga, and after taking a wrong turn at Sikkhoya, we picked up a passenger.

Now, we all know that you’re not supposed to pick up hitchhikers, but sometimes it just happens. And so far on this trip it has been good decisions.

Musa, our new friend, spoke in capital letters. In every sentence, one word was emphasized. He spoke of the Swazi king, who closed ALL the mines, and therefore there was NO money for the Swazis. In Swaziland there were several RICH mines, for gold, metals, diamonds, but the king closed them down to preserve the riches for FUTURE generations. But there is a mine where they left a BIG, BIG hole, that you can still go and see. And each reply was either a questioning “Is it?”, or a confirming “Is it!”

Musa was great. He had just taken a bus to South Africa to give more money to his 18-year old wife, because she had decided to stay there a bit longer with her 10-month baby. He, himself, was 38. When asked about polygamy which is common in Swaziland, he was strongly opposed to it. Because you can only love one person (you gotta love this guy, right?)

Because he had taken the wrong bus and ended up in Sikkhoya by mistake, he offered to pay us the 40 Emalangeni the ticket would have cost. Eduardo said the fare is 70 Emalangeni, that the extra is for making him laugh. It took a minute for Musa to get the joke.

However, the most interesting thing about him was that in the three years he had been married, he had only had sex with his wife three times. When asked why, he said “because we love each other”. Eduardo and I weren’t sure if it was because he is religious (goes to church every Sunday, likes gospel music, doesn’t drink), or because he might be HIV positive, like 30% of the Swazi population.

But, as Eduardo said, you’ve got to respect that.

The Musa offered us to stay in his house for free (which we politely declined), and said he will never forget us.

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Land of Helpful Policemen – Swaziland

Here’s to wishing the NYPD would be sent on a charm-course to Swaziland (or South Africa) to learn how to be helpful, courteous and friendly.

We had stopped at a street in Manzini, looking at our guidebook and wondering where we should stay the night. We had already driven past a few guesthouses, but all of them were too expensive for our budget. The last resort was to go with Lonely Planet’s recommendation, but we didn’t know the address.

“Can I help you?” a policeman asked, as he crossed the street to speak to us. Being used to NYC policemen, we immediately thought we were in trouble.
“We’re looking for the Myxo Backpackers, but there’s no address,” we replied, hesitantly.
The policeman grabbed the Lonely Planet guidebook, called the number listed, spoke to the guy that owns the hostel, and gave us very, very detailed directions. He even ran out of minutes on his phone, so eager was he to help us.

In the end we didn’t end up staying at Myxo’s, but found a better place just up the road. But it’s cool to be reminded of how policemen used to be like, and how they should be. And given the same thing happened in Nelspruit, we know this was not a one-off incident. Police here are actually nice.

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The Swaziland Football Team

Unfortunately, they did not qualify for the 2010 World cup.

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The Golden Hills of Free State and Kwazulu-Natal

Somewhat by mistake, we discovered what may be the most beautiful part of South Africa – the golden hills that lie in the 400 km stretch between Swaziland and Lesotho.

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Reminiscent of Arizona, these mountains carved out by ancient tidal waters glow in a spectrum of oranges and yellows. It made us feel like we’d been dropped off in a middle of a cowboy movie set, and that Clint Eastwood will be coming riding round the next mountain.

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Close to the Lesotho border, we stopped at Clarens, an artsy village that serves as a weekend retreat for the affluent people of KwaZulu-Natal. The streets of this bohemian haven are bordered with art galleries, restaurants and ecological food shops.

Eduardo and I took a rest here and stayed in a hippy backpackers’ inn, where we had our own little house, with kitchen and all. Freezing cold, but pleasant with a fireplace that kept us alive throughout the night.

One day Eduardo went out jogging, and came home with two kids from the nearby township (where the poor people live, like the projects in NYC). A whole swarm of kids had ran with him for a while, but these two were the only ones who made it all the way, barefoot over sharp pebbles. The reward – juice and cookies at the Duartes’.

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