This trip, to my last four remaining African countries (in central Africa) is jinxed before I even set off. I’m leaving without two of the four required visas, but more of that later. My first stop is Chad and I have that visa. I’m flying Air France, via Paris ,to the capital N’Djamena.
The plane is an hour late taking off and packed to the gunwales with French rugby supporters, who have just seen England handed their biggest home drubbing ever. They’re wielding flags and other memorabilia. I fall over a flagpole and take an ingloriously ignominious header, down the aisle of the plane. It’s definitely not a try and my hand requires ice. Then I have to run for my connection and go the wrong way on the navette, in the biggest airport in the world. I just make the connection. No time to buy provisions, but the lovely French stewardess plies me with champagne so the world immediately looks better.
Immigration at N’Djamena is quick and easy. No-one so much as hints for money, although this is yet another African country, where the vast majority of people live well below the poverty line. Most of my proposed journey lies through orange, essential travel only territory, according to the FCO. a chunk from NDajmena to the main road east is coloured red. Violence related to civil war, kidnappings, car jackings and theft are cited.
N’Djamena, the capital, is the largest city in Chad by some way. Perhaps surprisingly, in this arid country, it rose to prominence as a port city. It’s situated at the confluence of the Logone River with the Chari River. It’s also almost on the border with Cameroun, as well as being very close to Nigeria.
The city has little of note to report. There are a scattering of very modern buildings - split arches, a dome tipped TV station skyscraper, the Chad National Museum, the Al-Mouna Cultural Centre, Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, several mosques (roughly 55% of the population follow Islam and 40% are Christian), a market, some roundabouts with sculptures and the president’s palace. No photos allowed.
Time for some R nd R in the Radisson – the epitome of luxury here. Though sadly, it doesn’t run to tonic and the water gives out totally in the middle of my shower and hair wash. It stands in its own enormous compound, well-guarded, on the River Chari. The river feeds the huge expanse of Lake Chad and features small islands, little fishing boats and hippos. (I’ve only read about the latter.) There’s a huge pool by the river. It’s a great place to rest up, ready for the upcoming exertions and to check occasionally, for the elusive semiaquatic mammals. It’s apparent they’re not going to materialize for me and I have to be content with life on top of the water, fish (plenty of silvery splashes as they leap around) and canoes.
It’s a very long drive (two days) to Zakouma National Park, where I’m going on safari. And we’re told that recent rains have reduced the roads to ruts and doubled the journey time. We’re going to wild camp on the way. I just can’t wait.
We are a group of four: Sarah who lives in Wales, Karen from Fort Lauderdale (who has a formidable camera lens and proper safari gear all packed into hand luggage) and Gunnar from Malaysia. Our two Land Cruisers also contain Mike, our guide from Zimbabwe, two drivers, a cook, and Tahir, our transfer leader and interpreter. Chad's official languages are Arabic and French, but it is home to over 200 different ethnic and linguistic groups. The Babel Tower of the World.
We’ve been instructed to be ready to leave at 5.30 a.m., so I’ve complied, though early morning starts are far from my favourite thing. Naturally, the crew don’t turn up till 6.30 a.m. when the sun is well over the horizon.
Chad is divided into three belts: The Sahara Desert zone in the north, an arid Sahelian belt in the centre and a more fertile Sudanian Savanna zone in the south. The latter bridges the gap between the dry north and the central African rainforests, and that’s where we’re headed. I should also mention Lake Chad, to the north of N’Djamena (I flew over it to get here). This is the second-largest wetland in Africa, and gave the country its name. Chad, somewhat ironically, is sometimes known as The Dead Heart of Africa, because of its central position and because it's so dry.
As predicted, the road surface deteriorates rapidly, once we are out of the capital, though we still have to pay tolls at the regular péage points. Potholes proliferate. We career on and off the raised carriageway, bouncing along the sand and salt licks beneath.
The route is mainly rural, with flat, yellow desert scrub, acquiring a greenish tinge, as we progress east. The towns are lined with open shops and thronging market stalls. Horseback riders and high flat facades give them a wild west feel.
The Sahelian villages have round huts, with frilly flamenco dress roofs. Some of the dwellings are festooned with small round gourds, trailing from vine plants - Christmas houses. Roofs are used to dry crops and stack hay, away from animals. Cereals are stored in large painted clay pots. The main transport is motorbike or ass. Those with a little more money have horses and most of the goods go by donkey cart. Meandering donkeys or camels hog the road, unwitting sleeping policemen. (Which incidentally they call dos d’anes - donkey backs in Chad.)
As I’ve already said, this is a very poor country. Much of the land isn’t suitable for agriculture and most of the people scrape a living by herding camels, cattle, goats and sheep. These drift by, a never ending stream. There is some oil in Chad (replacing the traditional cotton growing industry), but ongoing civil war and coup d’états and refugees pouring over the Sudanese border from various crises there (most notably Darfur), have increased the economic pressures. I’ve also read that the country holds vast reserves of oil, uranium, and gold. I’m not sure what’s happening about that. Tahir knows very little about it. As is so often the case, corruption goes hand in hand with poverty. There is very little mining development it seems. Though there is definitely a Chinese presence here, with the usual road building programme. That’s usually associated with mineral extraction.
This is a very controlling regime, with an extremely poor human rights record. Chad ranks the second lowest in the Human Development Index. Online maps are restricted in Google and Chad has only one television station (Tele-Tchad), which is owned by the state. Radio is the main source of media coverage in the country.
Understandably attitudes vary from shy, but friendly (a wave of the hand) to suspicious and a little hostile. No cameras here, thank you.
At N’Goura, a group of pointy topped kopjes, heaps of smooth round boulders, enlivens the horizon. It’s roasting hot. Over 40 degrees. One of the land cruisers is low on fuel and we stop to buy some a jerry can’s worth. Filling stations are in short supply and so is fuel, it seems. Tahir explains that Chad’s ex colonial masters, the French , have hijacked supplies since the Ukraine war began. The drivers fill up using a funnel and a muslin cloth. Cook Jerome ventures off to buy meat for dinner. I’m wondering how he’s going to keep it fresh, in this sweltering heat.
South-east now to Mongo, switch backing. The town is named for the many delicious mangoes grown in the area and sold by the wayside. Some of the frilly roofs are joined by red (natural clay) brick houses and walled compounds. More stunning inselbergs, a swirl of ochre, framed by a perfect azure sky. Now, both vehicles need petrol. We find a garage with diesel (long queue of motor bikes waiting for petrol) and, relieved, set off up the road. Then, Tahir realises that they haven’t collected their change and we have to turn round and fetch it.
The poor drivers who have been at the wheel for over nine hours now, set up our tents for us. Dinner pops out of the back of one of the cruisers - two hobbled chickens. No need to worry about our lack of a fridge - though bath temperature drinking water isn’t hugely pleasant. The fowl are dispatched with rakes, boiled (the feathers come out more easily) and fried.
We have thin foam mattresses and Mike has lent me an air bed. Even so, the ground is appallingly hard. My shovel bounces off it. No toilets and no holes in the ground and no ability to dig one. My stomach is already playing up. At least two of my companions snore. It’s not the best of nights. Camels, goats and cattle are meandering, chewing their breakfast bushes around our tents, when we wake up. It doesn’t make early morning ablutions any easier.
But thankfully, the forecast very bad roads do not materialise. Now, we’re entering the savanna region. It’s still flat and golden. But there’s some agriculture and lakes, heaps of catfish being smoked on the banks, unappealing rows of charred whiskers. We bounce a little on the sandy route, weaving in and out of palms, acacia and occasional villages. And ever more camels, goats, cattle.
The sign at the entrance to Zakouma isn’t wildly auspicious, 'You Are Now in the Park', it says, in French. But the wildlife has a much better handle on a welcome. A large troupe of baboons appears immediately, alongside a pair of warthogs. Elephant, giraffe, buffalo, various bucks and antelopes follow, in quick succession. There’s a mammal performing, at each stage of our journey to the camp. Which is just as well, as our transport team haven’t a clue where it is. They thunder past the animals, who go flying off in all directions. ‘Isn’t there a park speed limit?’ I inquire of Tahir. ‘No,’ he replies obliviously. Jerome has already cheered earlier, when we almost ran over a puppy.
The room is fairly described as basic, in an oddly turreted bungalow. My room has dangling wires, where the ceiling fan used to be. Fortunately, there’s a portable alternative. No hot water and I shower with some trepidation , but the tepid water is actually tolerable, in the heat.
The lodge has a bar, with good food and a bar. What more could you ask for? There’s a very expensive Wi-Fi hotspot, a crocodile river and a viewing platform with a hide. Elephant come down to bathe and drink. Lion even pop up on a regular basis. All is fine on the western front.
Zakouma is famous for its river systems, rich floodplains, and seasonal wildlife migrations. In the wet season, the centre of the park is marshy wetland, with large lakes and overflowing rivers. It’s virtually impassable. Safari season is the dry season, when the animals flock to the huge pans and waterholes left by the receding waters.
Zakouma National Park was established in 1963, renowned for its huge herds of elephant - over 4,000 of them. But the elephants had learned to congregate so closely because of the persistent threat from ivory poachers. By 2010 the park had lost 90% of its elephants. So, African Parks, a non-profit making conservation group were invited to take over. Gun battles and assaults on park headquarters were eventually eliminated.
The days are long. Driver Hassan Zachariah takes us on morning drives (start at 6 a.m.),afternoon drives (back as the sun sets) and night drives (back at 10.30). The latter involve torches being swept along all the roadsides, searching for reflections in the eyes of startled animals. There are an abundance of sinister yellow crocodile eyes in the pools. Hassan doesn’t speak any English, so I’m official interpreter. My reward is a gin and tonic. (They’re one up on the Radisson). I need it after the long days. My companions are seemingly inexhaustible.
The only other lodging in Zakouma is Campe Nomade, which caters solely to the affluent. They fly up in small planes and are ferried around in safari vehicles with leather covered seats. The glamping style tents are erected in a new spot each year and the likes of us are not allowed in the vicinity when anyone is in residence. We’re permitted to explore the Rigueik Pan, where the camp is based, when all their clients are out elsewhere. It’s on a different scale - a huge expanse of sage green, cinnamon brown and charcoal soil - herds of buck and giraffe grazing contentedly. It's a perfect spot for a sundowner.
It’s the dry season in Chad and we have been told, quite firmly, that it will not rain - by locals and tour operators. This is the Dead Heart of Africa. So, I haven’t brought any wet weather gear. And the equipment provided conforms to the same beliefs. Zakouma isn’t open in the wet season, when it becomes a huge swamp with much of the land submerged. (We’re careering over cracked mud for much of the time).
There’s no weather proofing on the safari vehicles and a plethora of small holes in the roofs. Nevertheless, storms range on the periphery of the park for most of our stay. It rains for 10 minutes, on our way to Rigueik, enough to soak us and then dry out. There’s an absolute deluge, another evening, in search of elusive pangolins and aardvarks. Everything I’m wearing is drenched and so is everything I have with me. This time we’ve skidded to a halt.
The famous Zakouma elephants (they have very small tusks - perhaps an evolutionary response, or is that too quick for Darwin?) now number almost 600. And, because they’re no longer so anxious about predators, the herd tends to split. We’re told it’s mainly in two parts at the moment, with numerous solitary or small group males. We see those every time we venture out. We’re told that the largest herd is down in the palm forest (which isn’t really a rain forest) and we’ve planned to go there. But the unheard of rain in the dry season has put paid to that. Tinga GPS says that the rest of the herd is just 20 minutes’ drive away. So we’re out looking for them instead.
The elephants, however, are still not that happy about human proximity. They’ve retreated to thick swathes of forest. We circle for some time, with no sighting, before deciding to give up and go in search of other wildlife. Or so we think. It’s not till I notice the same fallen tree yet again, that we realise that Hassan has not given up, despite instructions. A hair-raising ride across thorny scrub and many flailing branches, to the edge of the herd. It’s impossible to see them properly, in the foliage. There’s a great deal of trumpeting. Mike says they’re distressed, so I don’t like to venture closer. So near and yet so far.
Zakouma is, in theory, home to the Big Five. But black rhino have only just been introduced and are an unlikely sighting. Lion, yes, ( female lions, some with cubs, male lions are more evasive, like the female elephants.) elephant, definitely yes, leopard, one, blinking, at night and buffalo. We do get to see a huge herd of buffalo - some 600 together. This is another success story. The park’s buffalo population was reduced to about 220 animals in 1986, but now numbers over 15,000.
Zakouma is also home to 50% of the global Kordofan giraffe population. We encounter these regularly, lolloping across the pans, chewing the acacia and, very slowly and cautiously, lowering their heads to drink. They’re a gorgeous rich brown pattern.
Other than those, here is my Zakouma mammal tick list:
Defassa waterbuck, bush buck, Bohor reedbuck, Thompsons gazelles (red fronted - Hassan calls them something gazelles)), Egyptian mongoose, banded mongoose, warthogs, vervet and patas monkeys, olive baboons (a scattering of Buddha statues squatting erect on the plain or participating in sprint races thundering along), oribi, roan antelope, topi (called tiang here), cheetah (fleeting backsides), buffalo, crocodiles, common genet, civet, serval, , Lelwel’s hartebeest, Buffon’s kob, diminutive common duiker, striped ground squirrel, lesser galago and spotted hyena (wandering with two babies).
This is a shorter list:
Monitor lizards, Nile crocodiles, agama lizards, tortoises and three pythons (this is a first).
There’s also a plethora of birds. These slow our journey immensely, as Gunnar and Mike are intent on identifying very single one. I’m probably not going to list them all:
Gloriously bright show off bee eaters, green, little green, and bright northern carmine (flocks lifting off from the banks of the pans in hundreds as they decide where to drill their nests), marabou storks, saddle bill storks, yellow bill storks, woolly necked storks, African open billed storks, crowned cranes (multitudes of them), vultures of several types (hooded, leopard, white backed, white headed Rueppells and griffon - four different types in a row on one carcase), ostriches, long crested eagles, fish eagles, owls ,eagle, scops and otherwise, Abyssinian rollers( looping wonderfully behind us and posing on the slimmest of branches), ground hornbills, northern hornbills, red billed hornbill, tiny red billed queleas, (massing on branches until they sag and then taking off in a cloud of thousands, filling the sky and making waves like the murmuration of the starlings in England - Watch My Video on You-Tube), pelicans, assorted herons, grebes, hamerkops, sacred ibis, bateleur, harrier hawk, goshawk, lizard buzzard, black bellied bustard, African jacana, thick knees, green pigeons, turacos, coucals, malachite kingfisher, hoopoe, nightjars, lapwings, beautiful sunbirds, drongos and oxpeckers.
The highlights of our wildlife observations:
A lion attacking a buffalo and coming off worst, hyenas gorging on a stinking giraffe carcase, a ground hornbill spearing and eating a small snake which he flaunts under the beak of his mate, lions with a waterbuck kill, teeny lion cubs - four being suckled by their mother (Gunnar deems this a good moment to tell us that he was breastfed by his mother until the age of six), another pair of lionesses with two youngish cubs and giraffes sparring, thumping each other with the sides of their necks.
The most unusual encounter is a civet trying to nip at a python. He’s fascinated. Does he really think the python is food potential and not realise that the menu is likely to end up reversed? Luckily for him, he decides that our flashlight is getting in the way of his adventures and he saunters off.
It’s an impressive encounter list, but sadly, nothing to add from my small, shy or impossible lists. I’ve been told that aardvarks (anteaters) are a possibility, but all we see are their claw marked holes. No (even more elusive) pangolins either, despite relentless searching.
Camping on the return journey is even more eventful than on the way out. The ground is still rock solid and the tent pegs can’t be hammered in, to hold down the flysheets. And it’s clearly going to rain (in the dry season). The other three have their guy ropes attached to one of the land cruisers, which is driven into the middle of the camp site. My tent has been placed a little way off, to try and avoid the snoring. So, the water containers are utilised to hold the sheet down. Which is fine, until the crew need water and come to fetch it late at night, whilst simultaneously having conversations on their phones.
Tahir warns of snakes in the area, which doesn’t thrill me. But it’s actually a scorpion that’s running rings outside my tent, its stinger waving aloft. There’s also a huge ants’ nest (big ones) just in front of me. Come on aardvarks. This is your opportunity. And just to add to the confusion, the wind roars under aforesaid flysheet and it rains. But fortunately not in buckets.
Karen emerges in the morning, as always, with a full face of make-up, false eyelashes and immaculate clothing. How is she doing it?
Back to N’Djamena, with only one flat tyre, and without running out of fuel. Though it was a close run thing. We’ve done well.
The country's only international airport is small and with very few facilities. There’s one counter serving drinks and snacks in the departure lounge. And there are outdoor escalators, but they don’t work. Equatorial Guinea next.
I’ve heard of (and seen) the Big Five of course, but guide Vic in Zambia also maintains that there’s a Little Five and an Ugly Five.
In Africa, the Big Five game animals are the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo. The term was first coined by big-game hunters, and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot, but is now also more happily used by anyone on safari in Africa.
The African (or Cape) buffalo live in large herds that have been known to include a thousand animals, though usually groups are smaller, with up to 12 animals on average. The buffalo’s primary predator is the lion, but buffalo are very forceful and unpredictable and according to some statistics are the most lethal mammals in Africa, as far as dead humans are concerned. They have even been observed killing a lion after it has slaughtered a member of their herd. Not to be mistaken for the far more peaceful water buffalo.
Elephants are the world’s largest land animal. Male African elephants can reach three metres tall and weigh between 4,000 -7,500 kilogrammes. There are two different species of elephant in Africa – the African Savannah elephant and the African Forest elephant. African elephants have huge ears that are roughly the shape of Africa, so they’re easy to distinguish from Asian elephants. Both species remain under threat from poachers who want their ivory tusks.
African elephants communicate across large distances at a low frequency that cannot be heard by humans. These magnificent mammals spend between 12 to 18 hours eating grass, plants and fruit every day. Even their poo is useful, as many plant species have evolved seeds that are dependent on passing through an elephant's digestive tract before they can germinate. At least one third of tree species in West African forests rely on elephants in this way for dissemination.
Leopards (also known as panthers) are spotted big cats, distinctive in that they are excellent at climbing trees. (The spots act as camouflage). They’ll often safeguard their kill in a tree to prevent lions and hyenas from stealing it. In my experience they are the hardest of the Big Five to spot – except in South Luangwa. Otherwise I’ve only seen them, at a distance, in South Africa. They are nocturnal, solitary and secretive, staying hidden in trees or tall grasses during the day
Lions are the most sociable of all big cats and therefore the most interesting to observe. They live in groups called prides, which usually consist of related females and their cubs. The males are most well known for their manes. Typically, the darker a lion’s mane, the older he is. Lions have to be strong and powerful in order to hunt. On average, males weigh 190kg (almost 30 stone). African lion numbers have plummeted by over 40% in the last three generations, due to loss of living space and conﬂict with people.
Rhinos have poor vision and because of this will sometimes attack trees and rocks by accident. However, their hearing and sense of smell are excellent. I’ve been able to sneak up very close to them with guides- as long as the wind is blowing away from you.
There are white rhinos and black rhinos. White rhinos aren’t white, but slate grey to yellowish brown in colour. The species name actually takes its root from Dutch, "weit" (wide), in reference to the animal's wide muzzle. The black rhino is very rare, hook lipped, and its colours vary from brown to grey (not black).
The rhino is the most endangered species of the Big Five. Rhino poaching is being driven by an Asian demand for horns, made worse by increasingly sophisticated poachers who are now using veterinary drugs, poison, cross bows and high calibre weapons to kill rhinos. Often they saw off the horn and leave the carcase. Very few rhinos now survive outside national parks and reserves. a.
The Little Five, were designated so as to draw attention to more of Africa’s lesser known wildlife.
The antlion is the size of an ant and found in sandy, arid areas throughout Africa. It has a wide body and large jaws and is actually the larvae stage of a flying insect known as the Antlion Lacewing that looks similar to a dragonfly. Antlions are nocturnal and dig small funnel-shaped traps about 50 millimetres deep in dry, sunny spots. They wait at the bottom of it, covered in sand so that only the head is protruding. Ants are their primary prey, hence the name.
The buffalo weaver bird is the easiest among the little five to find and observe. Red billed and white billed varieties are often seen in acacia trees.
The elephant shrew is a small, insect-eating mammal with a long nose. Elephant shrews are cute with their long noses They are very common in Southern Africa, but I saw one in Zambia, where they are less often observed
Leopard tortoises live across East and Southern Africa in savanna habitats and are herbivorous, eating grass and succulents. They are name for their leopard patterned markings and at an adult size of 25 centimetres, they are amongst the largest of the Little Five. One must never pick up a leopard tortoise (or any tortoise) during the winter months, as it may eject its stored urine and water as a deterrent. Due to the distance it must cover to replenish this lost moisture, the tortoise could die of dehydration.
Rhino beetles are part of the largest species of beetles in the world, reaching six centimetres in length. They have two large horns on their bodies, which the males use in fighting. Proportionally to their size, Rhino Beetles are among the strongest animals in the world. (Surely this one should be on the ugly list too?)
I think this group name is rather unkind. I’ve seen all of them together in Zambia. And they are all incredibly interesting. Though if pushed I might argue the case for the inclusion of the hippo, which I think is horribly ghoulish out of water. The list features:
Africa's most common large carnivore. There are three hyena species - spotted, brown, and striped. Spotted hyenas are the largest of the three. They are fairly large in build and have relatively short torsos with lower hindquarters, and sloping backs. Hyena are attracted to carcasses, along with their ugly friends, the vulture and the marabou stork.
A massive wading bird: large specimens are thought to reach a height of 152 cm and a weight of 9 kg. It's sometimes called the "undertaker bird" due to its shape from behind: cloak-like wings and back, skinny white legs, and a large white mass of "hair". The marabou stork is a frequent scavenger, often alongside vultures. It is believed that the naked head and long neck are adaptations to this livelihood, as with the vultures, with which the stork often feeds. In both cases, a feathered head would become rapidly clotted with blood and other substances when the bird's head was inside a large corpse, and the bare head is easier to keep clean!
How can you not like a warthog? Pumbaa from the lion king ambles the plains inoffensively, it seems. though their tusks can inflict severe wounds. The tusks are ivory, so warthogs are at danger from hunters who take them to carve, like elephants.
A family of scavenging birds. There are 11 species in Africa, six of these are endemic. The key characteristic of many vultures is a bald head, devoid of normal feathers. It was thought that this was because it is easier to keep clean ( see marabou stork) but it is now believed that the bare skin may play an important role in thermo-regulation. Vultures have been observed to hunch their bodies and tuck in their heads in the cold, and open their wings and stretch their necks in the heat. Vultures also use urine as a way to keep themselves cool by spraying themselves.
Wild life conservation organisations say that vultures get a bad press and that they are vital in cleaning up carrion. They also say that vultures are on the verge of extinction.
Also known as a gnu. They are antelopes with large, box-like heads and distinctive curving horns. The front end of their body is heavily built, while the hindquarters are disproportionately slender, with spindly legs. They have a grey coat, a black mane and a beard. Magnificent on their annual migration in Kenya and Tanzania, the biggest animal migration in the world.
In researching the above I also came across the Shy Five and the Impossible Five. For some reason the aardvark features on both.
(All of these, except the shy meerkat, are nocturnal and I’ve seen a couple of them scuttling away. I have blurred meerkat pictures. The desert fox is very similar to the bat eared fox so that might count. and I've also seen numerous porcupine quills....)
Aardvark (Yes- it's on both lists. I didn't write them!)
Cape Mountain Leopard
Pangolin (didn’t one of these cause coronavirus?)
White Lion (in the wild).
Finally, I’ve now also discovered The Big Seven - a clever marketing ploy by the tourism industry, adding another two enormous animals, the great white shark and the southern right whale, to the Big Five. Both can be seen off the coast of South Africa.
And how can you they miss out the gorilla? (Rwanda and Congo)
eSwatini is an absolute monarchy, although the king does rule in conjunction with his mother (known as the Queen-mother) and parliament. It’s a highly polarised society, with some extremely poor housing and enclosed affluent areas and shopping malls.
This is an extremely male dominated society, where the sexes are brought up very much to follow their respective roles. Polygamy is allowed. The current king has 14 wives (or 17 depending on who you believe). His father had 60 (or 75). Each has their own palace, as do some of the many princes. New roads have been constructed, especially between the palaces, government buildings and the airport. The king is obliged to take leave of his mother, so as to be in touch with his ancestors, last thing before he leaves the country and she must also be his first port of call when he returns. In addition, he needs to be able to zip between his wives, of course.
The official languages are English and siSwati, a language loosely related to isixhosa, the official language of South Africa.
The currency is interchangeable with the South African rand and the data download speed on roaming (3G) is pretty awful
Swaziland became a British protectorate in 1903, after British victory in the Anglo-Boer war, achieving full independence once more in 1968.
The country’s Houses of Parliament are in the city of Lobamba where the royal families have lived for over 200 years. Lobamba and Mbabane are both capitals of eSwatini. Mbabane, in the hills, was established by the British, as they wanted a cooler climate for the government officials to work
eSwatini is Africa’s last remaining monarchy.
Swaziland officially changed its country name from The Kingdom of Swaziland to The Kingdom of eSwatini in April 2018. The change was announced at the 50/50 celebrations (50 years since independence and the King’s 50th birthday). The new name derives from Mswati II, the 19th-century king under whose rule Swazi territory was expanded and unified. It means “place of the Swazi people” and is intended to remove the country further from the British (who named Swaziland) and distinguish the country more clearly from Switzerland.
Advice given is that crime levels are low, but street crimes and burglaries do occur, sometimes involving violence. There have been numerous incidences of car hijackings on major routes from South Africa and Mozambique. Vehicles have been taken at gunpoint. Avoid walking in the downtown areas of Mbabane and Manzini after dark and do not travel around in remote rural areas unless in a group. There is often an increase in criminal activity during the festive season.
I didn't encounter any problems.
I’m not actually heading to the place where I booked today, as the king woke up on his fiftieth birthday in April and decided to rename Swaziland to eSwatini. This came as a complete surprise to most of the population, who aren’t very happy about the associated bill. So, eSwatini here I come, from Zambia via Jo’burg.
I’m met by my driver, Thulani, who isn’t sure where I’m staying in eSwatini. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings. I know I’m booked into three national park camps and I’m hoping they’re not too basic. We arrive at Hlane Park, driving through a great deal of gated fencing and it’s already dark. I’ve been allocated a little hut in a compound; it’s a big site with camping and cottages and there’s no electricity. It’s lit with paraffin lamps, which is romantic as long as you don’t want to find anything.
Thulani is supposed to be showing me to my room, but he can't find it and instead he's dancing around in the gloom declaiming, ’The numbers are confusing me’. I eventually work out which one I’m in and fumble my way in. The contents of my bag go flying as I try and unpack using only the sense of touch. It’s not easy. I’m told to report for a sunrise safari at 5.15 a.m. I double check that. Aaaaargh. Then I reconnoitre my route to the morning meeting place, navigating by following an arc of lamps from a parking lot.
Except that when I venture out at 5 a.m the lights have all been extinguished. I know which way to set off, but I’ve soon gone astray. All I can see is shadowy bush and a group of impala leaping away in front of me. I retrace my steps and realise I’m utterly lost. Time to panic. I eventually stumble across a cottage and knock up the poor inhabitants. They are very understanding South Africans who get dressed and escort me, a little fretful, to the correct place.
The safari park is really just a giant zoo, huge barbed wire enclosed areas of forest and veldt. But the trip passes off well and the resident pride of lions, once discovered, thoughtfully group themselves right in front of our land-cruiser, yawning, growling, licking each other, sharpening their claws on tree trunks and leaping at the odd vulture who ventures towards their recent kill, hidden in the bushes. No spotlights necessary. This is proper elephant country, flat bush interspersed with dead tree trunks and odd thickets where the antelope, giraffe and zebra lurk.
The white rhino (making up the Big Five on this trip - I've come from Zambia) are kept in a separate enclosure, so that they can be better guarded. I’m not sure about this logic. Surely keeping them with lions is a bigger deterrent? Though this way we can be charged separately for seeing them.
Rhino tracking involves driving to a spot where you can see the huge mammals, getting out of the truck and following the guide (very cautiously) upwind of them. They have poor eye sight, but good hearing and an acute sense of smell. Five females are dozing under a tree, lumbering suspiciously to their feet as we approach, then quickly slipping back into lethargy when they deem us harmless. Senzo, the guide has a wooden swizzle stick ready to distract them if they become alarmed. He says their sight is so bad they need clear diversions and the best thing to do is bang a tree if they seem agitated. I’m glad he doesn’t have to.
Then a transfer to another eSwatini park, Mkhaya and more cottages lit with paraffin lamps. I have to concede that this one is actually very romantic, though still very impractical. The cottage has half open stone walls, so I’m actually sleeping in the bush. There are monkeys screaming in the forest and I’ve been warned to hide all my valuables, as they stage raids on the dwellings. The rhino and big game is kept out by an electric fence, but there are antelope wandering just outside my room. The pretty little nyala look as if someone has painted their flanks with runny icing sugar. And I shall be checking my bed for snakes and other undesirables before I get in.
I’ve been spoilt for game in Zambia I feel. Here I’ve seen wildebeest (making up the Ugly Five on this trip), warthog, zebra, kudu and giraffe, but the Swazi varieties are skittish, bolting off as our vehicle approaches. The hippo, however, are curious and swim towards us, heads swivelling as we pass, but they still maintain a careful distance. I’ve also seen plenty more white rhino. This park is one of the few places in the world where they also have the hugely endangered black rhino, (we're told) but these are rarely seen, as they feed from the trees and hide in the thickets.
It’s an open air dinner, with candles round a log fire. Definitely romantic. Fortunately, I can read from the Kindle app on my phone when it’s dark. This is helpful when it comes to the ensuing ‘cultural performance’. I’m stoic for half an hour, but sidle away, when the audience participation commences.
We don’t drive out till 6.15 a.m. this morning, so a real luxury of a lie in. There’s little to see except more rhinos, though I’m enjoying the landscape. The flat-topped acacias and pineapple crested aloes are uniquely gorgeous, the red African sun peeping through them.
A walking safari is scheduled after breakfast; I brace myself for the usual lengthy explanations about vegetation, as we manoeuvre along the paths with trepidation. Most of the plants here have wicked thorns, in order to survive in the vicinity of so much wildlife. And, as anticipated, the guide explains about the amazing medicinal properties of each plant. But there’s also plenty of dung of different varieties, and it’s fresh. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the giraffe and zebra are much more amenable when we’re on foot and we spend a delightful hour hob-nobbing with more than a dozen of the ungulates.
The zebra are hangers-on, says our guide, as they can’t see very well, so they wait for the giraffes to signal if they spy trouble. There’s also another group of white rhino, with two cute babies. The young males entertain the infants with a game of horn bashing, before they collapse for a nap. The white rhino seem more habituated to humans than the other animals here. I wonder if it would be safer for them if they were not.
Another transfer, another dusk arrival. This time I’m at Mlilwane Camp, the original Swazi game reserve. My home for the next two nights is a traditional spherical ‘beehive hut’, in a village circle, with - hurrah - electricity. Except it has no windows at all, which is a little odd, so I still can’t see much. I’ve just sent the curtain on a pole, that divides my bathroom from the main room, flying. The pole supports are well beyond my reach. I knew the cool box Thulani gave me would come in handy for something. You also have to stoop right down to enter, as it has an exceptionally low arched doorway, which has to be modelled on a hobbit-hole.
The setting here is stunning-rich red soil, misty mountains and antelope (very tame indeed here) grazing on jade green pasture in the foreground. The lofty pillar aloes are bearing sunny yellow flowers, beloved of sunny yellow birds. Today, I’m off on a tour to learn something about the country.
Guide, Sifosi, outlines the programme, which includes an overview of the kings and queen of eSwatini's palaces (we’re not allowed close up) and parliament at Lobamba, other government buildings at Mbabane, a cultural village, a cultural show and a waterfall. It ends in a glass factory, so I can do some shopping. ‘It’s all entirely flexible’, he finishes.
‘I’m not keen on shopping’, I begin, but he decrees that we’re going anyway, so I don’t bother to suggest excluding the cultural show too, or dare to inquire what his definition of flexible is.
The cultural show is almost exactly the same as the last one, except that I can see it better, because it’s daytime. And the cultural village is almost exactly the same as the one I’m actually staying in, except that the doors are even lower, to keep animals and other enemies out. It's said to be 'a replica mid-19th Century Swazi village, constructed using authentic materials and techniques. set against the scenic backdrop of Nyonyane mountain', The commentary is amusing, if highly chauvinistic. Women on the left, men on the right. And the scenery is very nice.
Further along the Lushushwane River is Mantenga Falls, as promised, Swaziland’s largest waterfall by volume. The river tumbles through a series of glassy pools.
The food in eSwatini varies in quality, but is always plentiful. Most of the game parks serve buffet style- tasty impala stew, bean and pumpkin casserole, chops etc. There’s usually coleslaw or salad, most commonly with beets. Sadly for my figure, my favourite treat is the sweetish mealie (corn) bread.
It’s raining today and very chilly here in the high veldt. It’s a damp trudge through the squelching mud to the fry up buffet breakfast and the open dining area is dark and draughty. This is why I usually try and avoid anything that smacks of camping. I take my bowl of fruit and yogurt out to the camp fire, which has been protected by a sheet of corrugated metal, but it has been commandeered by two warthogs, who appear to be roasting themselves. I have planned a pleasant walk amongst all the friendly antelopes; this is now a non-starter. I’m not being picked up for my flight back to Jo’burg and onto Reunion until 11 a.m., so I’m marooned in my hut. I retire to bed and blankets.
Game parks in Zambia are reported to give the best chance of spotting leopard in Africa. So, flying in from the gorillas of the Congo and I’m going to South Luangwa Park to check this out.
It’s now clear skies for the first time this trip and scorching hot. An extremely bumpy landing at Mfuwe, in the midday thermals, on yet another minute plane, brings me to South Luangwa. The National Park marks the end of the Great Rift Valley,. The Luangwa River meanders through the middle from escarpment to flatter country and woodlands, creating a variety of scenic vistas. The plains and ox bow lagoons, are the important parts - where the wildlife concentrates.
It’s a scenic drive to the lodge across palm strewn plains and through several villages, though the poverty is very obvious. There are numerous thatched rondavels, and traditional circular store houses on stilts, as well as mud brick buildings, mainly shops and businesses, with great names, ‘God First Super Mall ‘, ‘The Divine Hair Salon, ‘Shopping Centre’ (the latter all of a metre square) I have a riverside chalet and a ringside seat for the bucks, elephant and hippos on the opposite bank. The river is shallow and sometimes the show creeps much closer. The hippos calling resonates across the water, a brass band tuning up.
There are four-hour evening and morning game drives in an open sided safari vehicle. My guide is Vic (short for Vickson), who has good write ups on Trip Advisor, and the truck is crammed with Italians. My fellow Europeans have no concept of how to behave in the wild and chatter constantly and loudly, shrieking with laughter, smoking and waving their flashlights at all the animals as well (illegally) as at all the passing trucks.
Even they manage to stick to an awestruck whisper, when we come across a young male lion devouring an impala it has stolen from a leopard. It can’t be the same leopard we next encounter. He has gorged on (more or less) a whole warthog (the remains are in his tree) and is so full he can’t move. He’s lying askew on the ground, breathing heavily. I can’t really criticise the Italians for the flashlights - all the safari cars are using them too, choreographing the animals movements like stage performances. The big cats don’t seem to mind. They just carry on placidly minding their own business.
The restaurant at my lodge has decided it might be nice if I eat dinner with Vic. My heart sinks, but I manage to inveigle a table on my own and am just settling into my starter when a large South African ‘Call me JP’, plonks himself down at the bar adjacent and continues to talk all through my meal. He’s smoking too. Doh! He’s unfortunate enough to be driving the Italian group back down to Malawi tomorrow, so I don’t blame him for putting away beer in large quantities. And I pretend to be deaf when he offers to escort me back to my room. We’re not allowed to walk on our own at night because of possible hippo encounters.
The next day Vic has told me we will be on our own. We’re not - a family with one very noisy daughter accompany us on both of today’s outings. So, the noise levels aren’t that different to yesterday’s. The park is parched brown and it’s relatively easy to spot the game when it emerges into the morning sun. We career along various trails, through thickets, across bush and along riverbeds, both sandy bedded and dry and reasonably full of water. The latter is studded with crocodiles lounging. The leopard has dragged itself 20 metres and is still spread-eagled on the ground, rolling occasionally.
Later, we halt to allow a group of elephants (it’s too small to be called a herd) cross in front of us, two babies and two females. One elephant, very curious, confronts me face to face, trunk waving. ‘You should have stayed still,’ remonstrates Vic as I duck. ‘It wasn’t angry’. It’s okay for him – he wasn’t the one in the firing line.
The local pride of lions is ruled over by two brothers who have been named Ginger (because he’s pale - almost albino) and Garlic. I’m not sure they’re very dignified names, but the lions seem to be having a relatively easy existence, sunbathing along the banks of the dried upriver bed. The whole pride has been feeding for several days on an elephant that died last week (of natural causes). The stench now fills the whole area and the carcass has been more or less abandoned to the vultures, but the lions are replete and happy. The females, together with three cubs, are lazing further along the edges of the river. We sit in our car, (and half a dozen other vehicles who have all come pelting in) only a couple of metres away.
This is much too close for my liking; there are no doors between me and the big cats. Vic seems unperturbed, though he does point out that we should not stand up and present an obvious target. And the lions do, indeed, all doze peacefully, the mothers licking the cubs, until they spot a lone kudu advancing. Even though they are not hungry this is too good a chance to pass up.
The largest lioness is immediately alert and on her feet, passing close by our vehicle (we earn a keen assessment) before she lopes away, followed swiftly by the others. Even the male lions bestir themselves. The kudu is having the fright of his life. He shoots off, like an arrow, into the distance and over the river. He’s decided crocodiles are a better option than lions and luck is with him, or the crocodiles aren’t quick enough. He makes it safely to the other side and the lions return sulkily to their sun lounging.
The night’s drive brings a female leopard drinking at a pool and a return to the lions. They are still sleeping in virtually the same spot, with both males sprawled right across the track, trucks making detours around them and parked up all along the riverbank. Garlic is sitting up, yawning and twitching as he summons the energy to set off for the night. The spotlights play around him. It’s just like the opening credits of an MGM movie.
It wasn’t a great night’s sleep. A hippo spent most of it chomping noisily along the other side of the wall by my bed and snorting to his friends in-between mouthfuls. Today’s safari companions are a cute family of Zimbabweans. The three children are quieter than yesterday’s one English girl, though they are very young and rapidly lose their enthusiasm for big game. They don’t understand the rarity value of today’s (painted) wild dogs although the ensuing scramble to follow them is a bit like taking part in a high-speed car chase in a movie. Lucy, the local leopard is quietly perched above a gully and not adding any entertainment value and the lions are elusive today. I can’t say I’m surprised. I think I would have gone and hidden in the scrubbiest, most inaccessible piece of land I could find, if I had been subjected to the indignities that were inflicted on them last night.
My last drive, in Zambia, at night mainly involves joining a line of cars pursuing Lucy, who is out hunting. So, we’re stalking the stalker. She is hiding in a gully, waiting for night to fall, as she’s not super-fast, but to her disgust is given away by a guinea fowl. His frantic clicking call is echoed by the puku antelopes, who are Lucy’s target. Several spotted hyenas are prowling, heading in the direction of the elephant remains. They’re taking over the night-time shift, from the vultures.
By the time I’ve completed five game drives my tally of notable animals is: lion, leopard, elephant, warthog, mongoose, lilac breasted roller, bee-eaters, hippos, crocodiles, storks of varying kinds, monkeys, baboons, impala (of course – disporting the McDonalds’ M on their rear as that’s what they mean to lions), weaver, bushbuck, puku, kudu, waterbuck, vultures, hyena, giraffe (Thornicroft – endemic to this park), zebra (a variety of Burchell’s with stripes all down its legs), wild dog (very rare) and genet. So that’s four out of the Big Five - no rhino here.
Vic's also talked about The Ugly Five. I think this is a bit unkind. It features marabou stork, warthog, vulture, hyena and wildebeest. I’ve seen all of them here except the wildebeest. If pushed I might argue the case for the inclusion of the hippo, which I think is squeamishly ghoulish out of water.
Overall, this is some of the best game viewing I’ve ever encountered, in terms of proximity to the animals. Most of them seem to have become fairly well habituated to humans. Is this ethical I wonder? I suppose this is the only way they get to co-exist in this modern world
As I write, a herd of elephants is grazing across the river, looping the tenderest shooting branches with their trunks. A hippo is infiltrating their ranks. He looks tiny in comparison. And a troop of minuscule monkeys is wandering single file past my chalet door, peering in. It’s firmly closed to stop them staging a raid. And to deter the insects. The tsetse finally got me this morning. Twice.
Next stop, eSwatini
It’s been a very long day. I’m flying from Brazzaville in Congo to Lusaka. As the crow flies Zambia is to the south east, but that’s not how it works. I have to travel north east to Nairobi and change planes and then fly southwest to Lusaka, covering over twice the distance a crow would. What’s more I have to stop en route at Kinshasa. At ten minutes this is surely one of the shortest international flights ever and the subject of sheer terror in case they make me get off the plane and won’t let me back on again. We also stop at Harare on the second leg and Harare isn’t exactly on a straight line from Nairobi to Lusaka either.
When the captain announces over the intercom, ’We’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands’, it doesn’t do much for your nerves. Fortunately, it isn’t too bad. A light aircraft landing at Lusaka has burst a tyre and blocked the runway. It looks as if we might have to divert, but after a few circuits of the city, while they tow it away and repair the tarmac, we land safely and I’m in the land of malls and fast food.
It’s now 1.15 a.m. so it’s technically tomorrow anyway. My visa on entry goes smoothly. I have U.S. dollars. The driver who picks me up insists on waiting for a passenger who subsequently turns out to be fictitious. I wait in the bus with a Zimbabwean who used to be a BBC engineer. He’s playing modern hymns full blast on his phone, ‘so that I can hear it too’. It seems churlish to point out that I’m not really in the mood. And it’s 3.30 in the morning before I get to bed.
David Livingstone was the first Briton to record having set foot on Zambian soil, in 1851. In 1855 he became the first European to see Mosi-oa-Tunya, the waterfall on the Zambezi River, which he named after Queen Victoria - although the Zambian town near the Falls is, in turn, named after him. In 1888, Cecil Rhodes, a mineral rights concessions from local chiefs and Northern and Southern Rhodesia, (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), were proclaimed a British sphere of influence. Northern Rhodesia was later combined with southern Rhodesia to form the central African federation. The discovery of copper resulted in change of emphasis to mining from colonization to farm and Zambia now produces over 13 % of the world’s copper.
Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with, 60 percent of people living below the poverty line, 83 percent of people in rural areas. The economy fluctuates depending on the world price of copper. Nevertheless, in 2010, the World Bank named Zambia one of the world’s fastest economically reformed countries. After a downturn, the price of copper has started to rise again and tourism has been developed, especially at Victoria Falls, on the border with Zimbabwe and the game parks.
Reading tells me that Zambians are exceptionally friendly, and this is definitely true. Everyone has a greeting or offers help (though there’s also some begging). There are rules about who speaks first and, French style, you mustn’t initiate a conversation before exchanging a greeting. Apparently it’s also fine to call on Zambians unannounced. Though I assume that only applies to friends and relations. It’s generally considered a safe country to visit but there are the usual warnings about taking care after dark and especially out of town.
The two main draws are:
The population of Zambia is concentrated mainly around the capital Lusaka, in the south. The city is another urban sprawl and reading isn’t throwing up any must-sees. There’s a definite western influence apparent. My hotel is surrounded by shopping malls –it looks as if they’re still building most of them – and this seems to be where life in the city is centred. I’ve been for a wander round. It’s all very sixties, even though it’s new and the large Spar supermarket products are displayed along American lines – robust and well organised rather than elegant. It certainly isn’t cheap for such a poor country.
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