Baz Bus dropped me at the Royal Swazi Sun Hotel, Mbabane, the capital city of Swaziland. A van from Sondzela Lodge was already waiting for me as the driver had alerted them of my arrival.
Sondzela Lodge was located inside the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Ezulwini valley. It was well furnished in ethnic colors and designs and surrounded with aromatic trees like lemonwood, eucalyptus and lavender. There were self-contained thatched cottages, beehive huts, and timber dorms to suit all pockets. I got a comfortable room for only $10.
Many birds were perching around in the hope of food offerings from the guests. A feeling of peace and stillness pervaded the atmosphere. It was just the place to relax after a twelve hour bus journey from Pretoria. But I was not for relaxing. I was in South Africa to have a taste of everything the country offered, and here I planned to do a self-guided walking safari.
In the evening a fire was lit and everyone had a chance to meet after dinner while listening to the calls of wild things. Handsome and colorfully dressed locals joined the guests, engrossing us with tales of lion kills and elephant charges.
The lodge provided a well-sketched route map and guidebook against a small deposit. One area was well publicized as Hippo Trail. Bathing or paddling there was declared hazardous. Now I became concerned about my age, high blood pressure, and weak stomach. My initial response was not to go alone.
But I thought that for a fee of only $3, they could not afford to have a dangerous trail. Besides, white footprints marked the way. Also, a fluttering flag and a flashing light at the starting point were visible from the trail. One had only to look back to seek guidance. There was absolutely no harm in going up there for a trial run.
Next day, a cold, crisp morning, I set foot on the trail. I had a day pack containing biscuits, water bottle and some medicines. With pent-up energy I forged ahead confidently toward a guard post half a kilometer away – uphill. In a few minutes, however, I was obliged to catch up my breath every few meters, stopping to wait for the palpitations to subside. Many trekkers, some carrying rucksacks, waved as they overtook me. I thought I was the victim of altitude sickness or chill factor.
At the guard post Makama Dlamani introduced himself, proudly saying that he belonged to the famous clan, Dlamani, decedents of King Sobhuza.
Pointing out the figure-eight contour of the trail, the guard assured me that at the midway point I could continue on or return to the start. He looked at me as if to assess my condition and added, “If I did not see you back by the late after noon, I would send someone.” That gave me a boost, and I resumed the walk.
For quite some distance, it was downhill, and I had time to notice nature. I saw giraffe, kudu, red rock hares, and young warthogs suckling at their mother. Black eagles and Lanner falcons circled above.
Then the trail took a turn and faced a water hole. I saw a springbok ram standing gracefully on the edge, its image glistening in clear water. A little further on, an excited impala took off in a series of stiff-legged bouncing leaps. Then … uh, oh, the honeymoon was over.
The path started climbing and became steeper and steeper. Like an old ox-wagon, I went up creaking, jerking, and tilting. High trees shaded the path. On both sides, a green wall of creepers, willows and weeds formed a corridor as in a dense jungle. The walk became a little frightening. All senses were on the alert, hearing, sight and smell. Eyes darted perpetually from point to point sizing up everything that stirred. The ascent became sharper, at many points forcing me to assume a crawling position.
At long last, I saw the sky. I was fully exhausted and practically lying on my stomach gasping for breath. But I could see almost the whole sanctuary in one majestic panorama. I looked around over rolling hills of different colors and shades. It was so refreshing that I literally felt pleasant waves passing through my body.
By afternoon, I at last reached the mid-point, having covered only four km. I thought of venturing into the next phase, but good sense prevailed, and I decided to return. The back trail followed a stream. Soon I was walking on a well-worn path. made by the passage of hippos over many years. Fortunately, they were at the lake, busy feeding on bottom vegetation and surfacing only occasionally to grab a breath of air before plunging again.
Beyond Hippo Trail, the terrain became quite interesting. There were many bridges to cross, ladders to climb and walks along the cliff edge but all safe and pleasant. Soon the main camp was in sight. I reached it about 2:30pm.
It was a miserable performance by trekker standards, but for me it was an experience that fed my soul and challenged my spirit. And it was the best time of my thirty-day journey across South Africa by Baz Bus.