Published: March 3rd 2008
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We'd left the hostel at Hluhluwe early in the afternoon, crossed the boarded into Swaziland and by nightfall arrived at the hostel - a few km off the 'main' road, down a bumpy unsealed track and seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The hostel I stayed at, Sondzela Backpackers, is within the Mlilwane wildlife reserve itself and turned out to be one of my favourites - located in a beautiful, tranquil setting everyone here was really friendly, and for a small additional cost you get a great meal each night (including a veggie option!!), cooked by the staff outside over an open fire!! I spent a great few evenings here sat round the bonfire, drinking beer, chatting to random people and generally chilling out - by day though there was lots of exploring to do. Unlike other wildlife parks I'd been to in South Africa the animals here are mostly herbivorous so you can walk around on your own and view it by foot rather than needing to be inside a 4WD..... you just have to watch out for the occasional, but slightly less friendly, hippo or crocodile!

On my first morning I headed off with a girl I got chatting to over breakfast - the hostel had some hand drawn 'maps' that we took with us, but we soon found it easier to take the cross country route rather than trying to find the 'track' the map suggested should be there, but which we never quite managed to find. After a few hours spotting warthogs, zebra and various antelope we headed in different directions - she wanted to climb one of the nearby peaks and I wanted to seek out some more wildlife - each time you came up over a hill or round a corner you never knew quite what you'd find, maybe nothing or perhaps a group of wildebeest, zebra or antelope grazing nearby. Alone, on foot and at their level without the 'safety blanket' feeling of being in a vehicle it was a completely difference experience to either Kruger or Hluhluwe - OK so I didn't need to worry about meeting elephants, lions or giraffe's but being alone and so close was amazing.

The next day I met Paul, an English guy, over breakfast and we went off in search of some hippo's. OK I'd seen lots of Hippo's on the boat tour in St Lucia but even so..... We headed over to the lake near the main camp where they reputedly hung out and, @30mins and a few ice-creams later, they finally appeared - on the far side of the reddish brown coloured lake a mother and her calf foraging amongst the green vegetation. They approached the lake, slowly wading in to completely submerse themselves in its cool waters. We stayed around for a while, trying to guess where and when the pair would next surface to breathe, before moving on ourselves. Armed with the 'map' from the hostel we began walking around another much larger lake, through the surrounding green forest and discovering more hippo's mud bathing on the way. The trail was marked every hundred meters or so by a yellow footprint painted on a brick... and with our circumnavigation of the lake compete we followed the footprints up one of the nearby peaks. We hadn't planned on doing a long walk when we set out, if we had we'd have probably left slightly better prepared - our food reserves were limited to a few banana's and a couple of sweets and having left the hostel when it was warm and sunny we didn't have a jumper between us. We'd been told the walk should take a few hours at most, which I guess it would have done if we hadn't gotten lost. Well, not completely lost because every so often, just when we started contemplating retracing our steps, we'd stumble across another yellow footprint - great!! We just had no idea where they were leading us or how to get back. In the end as the day wore on, the air started to chill and we both started to worry about heading down in the dark (a torch was just one more thing we didn't have) we decided to try and get to the top to try and work out where on earth we were - it's not even that we were in forest, rather there were just no distinctive features to navigate by (or at least not ones we'd paid attention to on the way up) and the map just wasn't working for us. It was one of those 'we'll just get to the top of this ridge' situations... except when we got to the ridge we realised we still weren't at the top. Finally though we did get there, quickly worked out which way was home and then sat down to admire the stunning views :0)

I had just over a week before I needed to be in Jo'burg for my flight home and couldn't decide whether to stay in Swaziland or head back into SA.... which is how early on my third morning I found myself getting a bus from the hostel to the bus stop, where I picked up another bus heading towards Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. By 'bus' I mean a minivan that you flag down as it whizzes past and squeeze yourself into the back of along with the other 5000 people who are already crammed inside. I followed the directions I'd been given, which went something like 'get off just past the big traffic lights, follow the signs for the water company and take the first left and...' Finally I spied a crowd of locals hanging outside the white walls and iron gates that surrounded the Mozambique embassy. When the doors opened I, along with everyone else, was herded into a small room where, as the only person who was obviously a tourist, female and white, I felt slightly embarrassed to find myself being queue jumped to the front. It turned out to be a good piece of luck though as I found I lacked the one thing I needed to get a visa - a passport photo - very annoying because I (nearly!) always travel with spares. The camera at the embassy was broken and I had an hour to get into town, find somewhere to get one taken and get back again before the office closed. Another bus took me to the center of Mbabane and I figured heading for the shopping mall (surely there'd be some kind of photo shop there??!) was a good first bet... as I stood trying to work out where I was on the map a guy stopped, asked if I was lost and gave me directions to a guy with a camera - apparently just up the road, turn left before the market, look for an alley and there's a guy down there with a camera. Needless to say I was more than a little dubious at the directions and even more amazed when I found the alley, complete with a guy and his antiquated camera! A few hours later I had my visa and was on a bus heading back to the bus station in Mbabane to look for the first of several buses home.....

Next stop Maputo, colonial architecture, a crash course in Portuguese and chilling on the beach.

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