Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Johannesburg to Swaziland

2008-10-27 - Johannesburg - Hippo Hollow

I met the 40 people in the tour group yesterday evening, and Craig Olivier the tour leader from Thompson's. We are in a deluxe Volvo bus – I'm very comfortable as compared with the last 12 days in Botswana, where as you will have read in my previous blog entry, the mode of transportation was a Land Cruiser over very rough tracks (sure couldn't call them roads). The national roads in South Africa are expressways with toll booths run by private companies, who also maintain the roads from the tolls they collect. It's easy to drive in South Africa except in the cities, where there is the usual congestion as found in any developed country.

Craig tells us all about the history of South Africa; how their education and health systems work (user pay); how the power grid is in serious trouble due to lack of investment in new infrastructure (they have scheduled power blackouts); how the white farmers are now helping the black farmers to develop farming skills and purchase land to work. This is all interesting stuff – details we can't appreciate as foreigners looking in. When you travel to a country like South Africa, you can see the problems, what is being done about it, and how the society works (or doesn't work). Apartheid is almost two decades behind South Africans, and yet it appears it will take another generation or two before the blacks can successfully acquire wealth and take a full role in this new nation. South African still continues to have "security issues", as well as a 40% unemployment rate among its black citizens.

Anyway, let's leave the social commentary and move onto the travelogue…

We travel about 500 kilometres eastward today, driving along the N4 national highway most of the way from Johannesburg to Hazyview. Along the way we see the Blyde River Canyon, which is a slightly smaller version of the Grand Canyon but just as awe inspiring. Next stop is God's Window, which presents us with a spectacular view of the mountains and valleys looking eastward. This is the location where the cult movie The Gods Must Be Crazy was shot. We arrive at our home for the next two nights Hippo Hollow – a very nice hotel within 20 minute's driving distance to Kruger National Park. I have a very nice cottage right along the stream.

2008-10-28 - Kruger National Park

We are up at 4:30am for our All day Safari in Kruger National Park. Our driver and guide Alfred is amazing. He finds four of the big five for us within the first hour! We see a lioness and her three cubs sitting on the rocks as the sun rises, herd of about 200-300 buffalo, and I see my first rhinoceros sightings today (Botswana doesn't have rhinos). In the early afternoon we are within 10 metres of a huge bull elephant, and watch as he pushes over a tree to browse the foliage on top. He then lumbers off to a water hole where a rhinoceros and her baby wallowing in the mud. Even this big elephant decides he had better not try to run off a rhino, however the zebra quite happily drink at same water hole, since they know they are safe from lions as long as the rhino is there. By mid-afternoon Alfred has found a leopard on a rock beside the river, and I shoot my first video of a leopard. We saw leopard twice in Botswana, but they are extremely difficult to take photos of, since they don't easily get used to safari vehicles. What a day!

2008-10-29 - Hazyview to Swaziland

We spend half the day driving around Kruger Park – it is huge! We hit three tourist traps today, and I finally relent and buy some small stone carvings from one man – doing my bit to support the local economy. In the early afternoon we cross the border into Swaziland (a sovereign country, distinct from South Africa). I splurged and am staying at the Royal Swazi Spa Hotel, unlike the rest of the group who are staying next door at a more modest hotel. The Royal Swazi Spa is certainly deluxe, offering: lawn bowling, a full service pool, casino, 3 restaurants, tennis courts, spa, a country club & golf course, and a business centre. We have a terrific thunderstorm this evening – the lights go off and on as I have dinner in one of the hotel restaurants.

Swaziland is a study in contrasts. The capital city has a four lane expressway and modern buildings, and yet the people in the countryside are living in shacks with no running water or power, and use long-drop latrines. We are told their new king is pretty unpopular: he is buying a new jet; his multiple wives all run around in Mercedes; he has four royal residences and a private game reserve where he hunts; and he is known to entertain the rich and famous on a regular basis both in his own country and as he travels the world.

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