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Published: November 27th 2009
The appeal of a hostel inside a game reserve is too much to resist so I make my way to Sondzela Backpackers inside Mlilwane National Park. Though the sign saying "For international guests only" smacks of an apartheid that seems wholly unnecessary, I see several warthog and an antelope on my short walk from the park gate to the accommodation, which proves to be only a taster for what's to come. The grounds are gorgeous, the main building and swimming pool being the hub of the hostel with rondavels a little further away. A resident ostrich rarely strays far, and a family of warthog put in regular appearances.
The hostel is an adjunct to the main camp, a 15 minute walk away and home to more expensive accommodation as well as a shop and restaurant. Tame nyala, both male and female, nibble their way around the buildings. Between the hostel and the camp can be seen wildebeest, zebra, and various kinds of antelope. The restaurant in the camp overlooks a pool that, in season, is a meeting point for hippos. Apparently there are better feeding opportunities for hippos out in the countryside at the moment so I see none, but
there's a lazily swimming crocodile and several wading birds as compensation.
Though never full, the hostel has a turnover that reminds me of Australia. I meet a South African couple recently returned from the UK after living there for three years and the wife confides that she bought an Eastenders DVD boxed set. My look of horror is incorrectly interpreted as jest. I also meet an English guy who has been a group leader for World Challenge, and he commiserates with my Mt Mulanje experience, as well as revealing that each child pays about 3,500 pounds for the trip. The presence of Europeans is detectable via tedious amounts of cigarette smoke.
One of the more interesting inhabitants of the hostel is a chap from Hong Kong. In that Asian way he's of indeterminate age (I'm guessing early 50s) but has been travelling pretty much for the last decade, including spells in Chiang Mai "for a few years" and Buenos Aires for a year. He modestly describes his previous job as a "salesman" but I don't probe any deeper. Though travelling indefinitely doesn't interest me as my future, even if money were no object, it's still intriguing to me
the appeal of this lifestyle. Unfortunately I can't get below the guy's skin in any way so come away clueless as to why he's embarked on this eternal vagabonding.
The park offers self-guided walks, and I do the so-called "Hippo Trail". It's undemanding, bar the scorching heat, but I see impala, tsessebe, and a few tortoises to add to my previous sightings. Hitting my head on a cunningly concealed branch precipitates a bout of loud swearing that perhaps explains why I see little else on the walk.
There's no Internet access here (well, there is at the main camp but it never works) so, with my next steps requiring research, I return to Ezulwini for that. Dull but possibly useful info
i. A taxi from Legends in Ezulwini to the Mlilwane entrance gate near Sondzela Backpackers cost R80 though you could probably get it for R60. Note that there are at least two entrances to Mlilwane so you need to specify you're going to Sondzela. Without a taxi, you'll need two kombi
rides and about 2km of walking.
ii. You can book Sondzela accommodation at the Big Game Parks office in Ezulwini.
iii. I paid R155 for
a private room with shared bathroom. The room had a fan.
iv. Breakfast and dinner are available at Sondzela - lunch (and no doubt breakfast and dinner) are available at the main camp. Sondzela meals have to be booked in advance, but you can just turn up for lunch at the main camp. You can self-cater but the Sondzela facilities are pitiful - the kitchen looks impressive enough, with a million cupboards and drawers, but has only one range and little in the way of pots/pans/sharp knives/etc. Plus it's all shared with the staff. You can buy basics (baked beans, cold drinks, beer, chocolate) at both Sondzela and the main camp but they are cheaper at Sondzela.
v. There's Internet access at the main camp but it apparently rarely works.
vi. I heard that Mozambique visas are really cheap in Mbabane (R85 =~$11.5) versus Nelspruit (R470 = ~$60) (also versus what I paid in Malawi).
vii. The Sondzela staff can arrange a taxi back to Ezulwini but you'll have to pay for the phone call to arrange it (R2). Though the staff said the ride would cost R60, the driver initially asked for R100 then came down to R80. Despite
speaking good English, he had no idea where Southern Cross Lodge was - nor, in fact, any of the more well-known places in the area, e.g. Lidwala Lodge or Woodlands Restaurant. He refused to accept the directions that I had and constantly stopped to ask people where Southern Cross was. Bear in mind that it's not as though the Valley has hundreds of accommodation options ...
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