The 6th day of our trek on the Shongololo Express found us waking up early at 4:30am as we prepared to embark on the 2nd of our 5 game drives in Southern Africa. Today we were heading to Kapama Private Game Reserve in the north eastern part of South Africa where we would spend the morning on safari and the early afternoon exploring the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre.
After a quick continental breakfast in the dining car, we boarded the bus and took the short 20-minute drive, in pre-dawn darkness, from Hoedspruit Train Station to the entrance of Kapama. At the park we left the bus and climbed onto open Safari Land Rovers that were waiting for us. As our driver, Rowan, checked us in at the park entrance we covered ourselves with the safari blankets that were on our seats. Even though the temperature was forecast to be in the mid-20’s (Celcius), early morning weather in South Africa in September is quite cool.
The park is privately owned and covers nearly 13,000 hectares in Limpopo Province. It is named for a Swazi king who’s tribe inhabited and hunted in the area in the late 1800’s. We began our journey into the park just after 6:00am and as we headed east, we saw the sun just breaking over the horizon, creating a spectacular sunrise as if to proclaim our entrance to Kapama. Our early morning start meant that we would catch the stirrings of the various wildlife as they were beginning (or ending) their day.
About 20 minutes into the safari we had our first spotting - a lone zebra grazing by the roadside. We meandered along the dirt road for about another 30 minutes before we came across a pair of white rhinoceros. From that point on our sightings became much more frequent. First, a magnificent male giraffe towering over the brush and grasslands. Next we came across a dazzle of zebras, the adults grazing while the younger ones frolicked in amongst the group.
Our most impactful moment came when we arrived at a small, secluded watering hole near a crossing of two of the parks dirt roads. Lying blissfully beside the watering hole were a pair of young lions. Rowan maneuvered the Land Rover off the road, carefully and slowly, to a position about 10 meters from the pair of lions. After positioning the vehicle and turning off the engine, Rowan pointed to a small acacia tree a short distance from the watering hole where another pair of young lions were lazing in the shade of the tree. A few moments later he pointed to a grassy area just beyond the acacia where an adult female, the mother of the adolescents we were watching, was keeping an eye on her pride. We watched in amazed silence. The lions seemed quite oblivious to our presence and one of the two under the tree joined the pair by the watering hole and began playing, teasingly with its sibling. We continued to absorb this incredible living portrait of a family of lions in their natural habitat for another 20 minutes before reluctantly moving on.
Our lengthy stay by the watering hole had left us behind schedule and we had to hurry to meet up with the rest of our group at a base camp where coffee and light refreshments were being served. After our brief stop, we headed back towards the Kapama main gate about 45 minutes away. En route, we came across a group of female white rhinos, and a single, massive male a few meters from the roadside. We stopped to take some photos before continuing to on our way out of the reserve.
Back at the Kapama entrance we disembarked from the Land Rover at the Hoetspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC). The Centre is self-described as a unique African wildlife facility focusing on conservation and the sustainability of rare, vulnerable and threatened species. According to its website, the centre is actively involved in research; breeding of endangered animal species; the education of learners, students and the general public in conservation and conservation-related activities; tourism; the release and establishment of captive-bred cheetahs in the wild; the treatment and rehabilitation of wild animals in need (including poached rhinos); and anti-poaching initiatives on the reserve. Cheetah Conservation is one of its core disciplines and a hallmark of the Centre.
Our tour of HESC included a brief film that talked about its origins and goals, focusing on the holistic approach to its conservation activities. Following the film, we boarded the now familiar open safari vehicles for a drive into and through the individual enclosures where we observed rhinos, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and leopards. At both Kruger National Park and Kapama Game Reserve, we had heard countless heartbreaking stories about the devastating impact of human encroachment and poaching on the African wildlife population that are driving some species towards extinction. HESC deserves credit for its efforts in education and wildlife preservation and in continuing to follow its mission to be a unique African wildlife sanctuary which focuses on conservation and the sustainability of rare animal species.
Our early morning start coupled with brisk touring at both Kapama and HESC had left us feeling a bit tired and hungry as we drove back to the Hoedspruit Train Station to board the Shongololo Express for a late lunch. After lunch we organized our visa paperwork as we were about to leave South Africa for the last time and venture into Zimbabwe for the next leg of our journey. We settled into the observation car to watch the stunning landscape of Limpopo province fall behind us as we chugged towards Zimbabwe. The train stopped at 4:00pm to replenish our water supply. At 6:30pm it started up again as we prepared ourselves for the 7:30pm dinner call. On this particular evening we were served vegetable risotto followed by a main course of salmon with asparagus and red cabbage and finished off with apple crumble and cheese. As usual, our after dinner routine consisted of lively conversation and reminiscing with our Tasmanian companions in the observation car to the soothing clickety-clack of the steel wheels rolling along the track. The train came to a stop at 11:00pm which meant tonight would be a restful and uninterrupted sleep.
If you are considering visiting South Africa, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
Continue to Day 12 - click here
While our itinerary said we were going to be spending the day in Swaziland, it turns out that King Mswati III, one of the world’s few absolute monarchs, had renamed the country to Eswatini in 2018 during his 50th birthday celebration (which coincided with Swazi’s 50th year of independence). The name Eswatini means “land of the Swazi” and it was apparently changed from Swaziland because the King implied that wherever he went people referred to his kingdom as Switzerland.
The official languages in Eswatini are Siswati (similar to Zulu) and English. The population of Eswatini is estimated at 1.5 million and it is geographically, the third smallest country in Africa. The borders of the kingdom were defined after the Boer War. The King owns the lands of Eswatini and has 20 Royal Residences scattered throughout his kingdom. While there are approximately 3600 roads throughout the kingdom, only about 1000 are paved. As with other African countries that we visited, China is investing heavily in Eswatini’s infrastructure and economy, although the unemployment rate is still quite high at over 25%.
Culturally, the country tends to follow its African traditional roots. Approximately 18% of the population uses traditional healing methods. Polygamy is legal and accepted with the King boasting 14 wives (although not as many as his father who had 125!). His youngest wife is 16 years old. The biggest health issue in Eswatini is HIV and it is estimated that 27% of adults 15 to 49 years old are living with it, with more than 40% of pregnant women in the country carrying the virus. As a result of the high incidence of AIDs related deaths, the life expectancy for men is only 54 and 61 for women.
After a short drive from Mpaka Station, we arrived at the first of our stops in Eswatini - a small but thriving market and candle shop just off the main highway. Swazi hand-made candles are renowned for their detail, vibrant colours and vast product range. As we meandered through the candle shop, artisans were rolling and pressing warm wax into exotic animal shapes, then mixing in paints to create lifelike giraffes, elephants, lions and myriad other wild game. They also had a wide variety of animal prints in all shapes and sizes. We could not leave the shop without purchasing some unique Swazi souvenirs.
Outside the candle factory, we wandered through the outdoor market that was filled with more hand-made crafts. Carved, wooden and soapstone figures, metal pots, hand-made jewelry and lines of coloured fabric covered the market area. We purchased a beautiful, carved wooden giraffe and a couple of brightly coloured table clothes emblazoned with Africa’s “Big 5”.
We boarded our bus and continued along the paved highway through the Ezulwini Valley, crossing the pastoral, rolling landscape towards our destination at the Mantenga Cultural Village in the west; a small enclave of the Mantenga Nature Reserve. As we approached the Mantenga Cultural Village, we wound through the valley amongst a small crop of mountains. The village is nestled in a thick forest and overlooks the lush valley and stark mountains in the background.
We disembarked from the bus and walked about 200 meters from the parking lot along the dirt road that leads to the cultural village. The village represents Swazi cultural heritage and tribal life as it was in the 19th century. There is a dozen or so grass huts surrounded by reed fences which provide protection from predators and the wind. Each hut serves a distinct purpose and the village is divided by gender with separate areas for both men and women. As with most polygamous cultures, the wives all live within the village in their own huts. There is a special place for the first wife, who occupies the largest hut and for her mother, who also has her own hut where community ceremonies and feasts are held.
After spending time in the village and getting a chance to explore the huts and talking to the villagers who live there, we were escorted to an outdoor amphitheatre where we were entertained by dancers and singers in brightly coloured traditional dress. The dances were interpretations of different rituals and customs, including a courtship ritual. Each dance was accompanied by traditional African drumming that set a primal beat to each performance. The dances were loud, passionate and vigorous - full of energy and life. This was as much an exhibition of athleticism as it was a cultural performance.
Following our cultural experience at Mantenga Village, we drove a short distance to Mantenga Lodge, a boutique resort that overlooks Shebas Breasts Mountains, the same mountains we saw from the cultural village and the legendary site of King Solomon’s Mines. The most prominent peak is known as Execution Rock, so named because criminals and those accused of practicing witchcraft were forced at spear-point, to walk off the cliff to their death. It was against this surreal backdrop that we enjoyed a lovely lunch on the patio of Mantenga Lodge.
After a relaxing time at the Lodge we reboarded our bus for the 90 minute drive back to the train. As we drove back through the peaceful Ezulwini (which means ‘place of Heaven’) Valley, we learned that 10% of Eswantini is allocated to Nature Reserves. We also learned that, unlike many of the other African countries where nature reserves abound, there is virtually no poaching in Eswatini. The reason? Quite simple - poachers can be shot on sight with no consequences to the shooter. A rather extreme, but effective deterrent.
We boarded our train (after the usual red-carpet treatment and welcome back drink, of course) at 4:00 pm and the train left promptly at 4:30pm. We took our usual spots in the dining car at 7:30pm, where we enjoyed venison pot pie and French beans. As we were eating, the train stopped at the South African border control and remained stationary until just after 9:30pm. When it continued its journey, it travelled until 3:30am, a stretch that included quite a bit of jarring because of the condition of the rails in this part of the country. Nonetheless, we had experienced another fabulous day in Africa.
If you are considering visiting Swaziland, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
Continue to Day 11 - click here
We woke to another gorgeous, sunny morning in Southern Africa on our 4th day since leaving Pretoria on the Shongololo Express. Our overnight transit from Kruger National Park in South Africa had brought us to the magnificent train station in Maputo - the capital of Mozambique. We had our usual breakfast at 7:00 am and disembarked the train on the platform of the grand and historic Central Railway Station, just before 9:00am, to begin our city tour of Maputo. The station was built in the early 1900’s in the Neoclassical Beaux Arts style and has frequently made the top 20 list of the world’s most beautiful train stations.
After spending a few minutes admiring the architecture and grandeur of the station, we began our walk through the inner city on our way to the market. Since it was Sunday and still somewhat early, the streets were eerily quiet which made for an easy 20 minute walk to the market building. The buildings in the downtown core were an interesting mix of old and new with many of the newer buildings seeming to have been left unfinished, a reflection of the struggling economy in Mozambique.
The market building, officially called Mercado Central de Maputo, is set off a main street and adjacent to a parking lot. Like the Central Train Station, the Mercado Central de Maputo was built in the early 1900’s and the exterior has a very grand and distinctive style. We spent the better part of an hour walking amongst the rows and rows of vendor stands inside the building. Mounds of fruits and vegetables, trays of meats and fish and islands of assorted sundries filled the entire width and length of the market. One of the most fascinating areas in the market was a series of narrow hallways on one side of the building. Human hair extensions filled the walls of each booth along these hallways. What was fascinating is that these seemed to be the busiest booths in the market.
It was still early when we left the market area and walked a few blocks towards the municipal government buildings and the church square. On our way we passed by an art gallery which was closed. We were able to peer through the wrought iron fence and view the dozen or so sculptures that were scattered around the grounds of the gallery. What was unique about these iron sculptures is that they had been made from decommissioned weapons and military equipment left over from 2 brutal wars.
Just past the art gallery is the sprawling Praça da Independência (Independence Square) featuring a large statue of Samora Machel, the first President of Mozambique. The statue is flanked on the north by the neoclassical city hall and on the east by the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, a beautiful Art Deco structure featuring a towering white spire at its front. As it was Sunday, there was a mass celebration taking place in the church and we could hear the upbeat African-Christian music resonating from the open front doors.
After spending some time in and around Independence Square our group gathered near city hall and boarded the bus for a quick drive to the Natural History Museum located a few hundred yards from the Indian Ocean. While some of our group chose to visit the museum, we decided instead, to walk across the street to the Hotel Cardosa and bask in the sunshine with a drink on the poolside patio that has magnificent views of the Indian Ocean. As we gazed out over the lapping waves crashing on the beach we could see several islands in the distance that run parallel to the shoreline. According to our guide, the Chinese have purchased these islands from Mozambique and are connecting them with a series of ultra-modern tunnels. The islands will eventually become a series of luxury resorts for wealthy Chinese and foreign tourists.
Following our brief retreat at the Cardosa, we once again boarded our bus and made our way to a small fort that overlooks the old fishing port in Maputo. The Fortaleza de Maputo was initially established as a small wooden fortress in the 1700’s by the Dutch from South Africa but has since been overtaken and rebuilt several times by the British, Austrians and Portuguese. It remains as a smallish, square structure built from reddish stone. There is a single gate which serves as both the entrance and exit that leads into a large open space. The perimeter of the fort contains various rooms filled with historic military relics and were once used for munitions, barracks, dining areas and cells. Outside the entrance to the fort is a large garden that separates the structure from the street. As we were leaving the fort, a large wedding party was gathering in front of the entrance for photographs. The men were dressed in smart suits and the women wore brightly coloured dresses. They sang and danced in a group as we watched and cheered them on.
Our next stop was to a lavish resort overlooking the Indian Ocean. We were escorted through the lobby to a grand dining room with high vaulted ceilings and large arching windows which filled the room with lots of natural light. A smaller room to the side had been set up with a splendid buffet lunch that included a variety of meats, vegetables, salads and delicious Portuguese deserts. After the enjoyable feast, we left the dining area and went outside to the gardens that led out of the hotel to the pools and beach. We strolled through the gardens and marveled at our lavish surroundings. As we looked up the beach towards the north we could see dozens of new resorts being built, funded by the Chinese. While we appreciated the beauty and splendour of our surroundings we also wondered at just who would be benefitting from all of this investment - and what the real costs would be to the people of Mozambique.
To wrap up our day in Maputo, we boarded our bus and travelled north through the city, along the shoreline where we passed by the various foreign embassies and eventually the relatively new Presidential Palace - built by the Chinese. We continued past more new resorts under construction and then turned away from the shoreline into the townships where narrow streets were beginning to fill with children and families who were bargaining with the vendors in make-shift market stands that were set up on either side of the street.
Our bus turned back towards the downtown area and we drove along the coastal road back to the train station. While some of our group went into the station museum, Kim and I lingered on the platform to enjoy the soothing rays of sunshine cast by the late afternoon sun. We were given the all-aboard at 4:30 and managed to get settled into the observation car at the back of the train just before departure at 5:00 pm. The train left the station and after a few kilometers through Maputo we reached the suburbs. For the next 90 minutes we passed through the townships. Rows and rows of sheet metal shacks in small yards that contained tiny square, roofless outbuildings. It didn’t take long to realize that these roofless outbuildings that we could look down into from the train served as the family toilet. What a striking contrast to the extravagance of the oceanside resorts just a few kilometers away. For mile after mile we saw children playing only a few feet from the railway track and then crossing the tracks to wave and smile at us as the train passed them by. We continued to ramble through the townships and eventually into the countryside where we left Maputo behind us, but not the images of its contrasting socio-economic culture.
If you are considering visiting Mozambique, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
Continue to Day 10 - click here
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.