In Search of Wild Life

Scientists have estimated that there are 8.7 million animal species on Earth. So it's not really surprising that searching for wild life, engaging or otherwise, features heavily on  many travel agendas. And I've met some travellers, who are undoubtedly obsessed, especially with  big cats, or other mammal lists. Middle of the night expeditions in search of pangolin or aardvark are common. I've been up to my knees in mud, with a flashlight, impaled on thorns in the middle of the African bush. It's worth it, if there's an uncommon  sighting. And, if not, I can always get to sleep in. Unless there's another call. 

The Big Five, the Little Five and the Ugly Five

I’ve heard of (and been lucky enough to see) the Big Five, of course, but guide Vic, when I'm in in Zambia, maintains that there’s also a Little Five and an Ugly Five. My first thought was that this is beginning to sound like a spaghetti western film. But I've investigated. The blue links will take you to the posts that describe where I saw the various animals.

The Big 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, and kill, on foot.

African Buffalo

(Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia)

The African (or Cape) buffalo live in large herds which have been known to include a thousand animals, though usually groups are smaller, with up to 12 animals on average. Buffalo are forceful and unpredictable animals - 'temperamental tanks' 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. (The buffalo’s primary predator is the lion.)

Not to be mistaken for the far more peaceful water buffalo, from Asia, or the American bison. Though they're all from the same family they are distinguished by their home, hump, and horns. Sorry, Neil Young, but you can't believe everything you hear in songs - buffalo do not roam on the range...

Elephant

(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Gabon, eSwatini, South Africa, Nepal, Congo, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Chad, Central African Republic)

Elephants are the world’s biggest land animal. They are huge. So large, this probably sounds mad, that you don't always notice them when you're driving through the rainforest. Male African elephants can reach three metres tall and weigh an incredible 4,000 -7,500 kilograms. They are also pachyderms (great word) - large and thick skinned. There are two different species of elephant in Africa - the African Savannah elephant and the African Forest elephant. African elephants have huge ears, which are roughly the shape of Africa, so they’re easy to distinguish from Asian elephants. Both species remain under constant threat from poachers who want their ivory tusks.  The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy paints an astonishingly emotional and illuminating picture of a group of elephants and their matriarchal hierarchy, as they struggle for survival in sub Saharan Africa.

African elephants communicate across large distances at a low frequency which 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.

Leopard

(South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Chad and Zambia)

Leopards (also known as panthers) are spotted big cats, but distinctive from other large felines, 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, in Zambia. They are nocturnal, solitary and secretive, staying hidden in trees, or tall grasses, during the day.

Lion

(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Chad)

Lions are the most sociable of all big cats, which probably makes them the most interesting to observe. They live in groups called prides, which usually consist of related females and their cubs. A pride of lions is usually made up of related females and their cubs, together with a male, or small group of males, who defend their pride. The lionesses rear their cubs together and cubs can suckle from any female with milk.

The males are most well known for their manes (although some are now evolving without). 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 190 kilograms. And they can eat up to 40 kilograms in a single meal. African lion numbers have plummeted by over 40% in the last three generations, due to loss of living space and conflict with people.

In the wild, there are two formally recognised lion subspecies. The well known African lion (Panthera leo leo), found south of the Sahara Desert. And the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), which  exists in one small population, in western India. Fascinatingly, the lions in west and central Africa are more closely related to these Asiatic lions, than to those found in southern and east Africa.

Rhinoceros

(Senegal, eSwatini, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)

 Rhinos, another pachyderm, 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 us.

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.

The Little Five

Then came the Little Five, a later addition, added by naturalists, so as to draw attention to more of Africa’s lesser known wildlife, especially in the veldt of South Africa. It seems a strangely arbitrary list to me. And I think I'm still missing two - though I might well have seen them and missed them. The Little Five are the antlion, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise and rhino beetle.

Antlion

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, which 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.

Buffalo Weaver

(Somaliland)

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.

Elephant Shrew

(Zambia)

The elephant shrew is a cute small, insect-eating mammal with a long nose. They are very common in Southern Africa, but I saw one in Zambia, where they are less often observed (no picture, sadly.)

Leopard Tortoise

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. I know I've seen them, but I can't find the picture!

Rhino Beetle

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?)

The Ugly Five

 I can't track down the origins of The Ugly Five, but think this group name is rather unkind. I’ve seen all of them in Zambia, alone. And they are all incredibly interesting and often undervalued. 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:

Hyena

( Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Chad)

The hyena is Africa's most common large carnivore. There are three hyena species - spotted, brown, and striped and the aardwolf is also related, but that's on the Impossible List). Spotted hyenas are the largest. They are fairly big in build, but have relatively short torsos, with lower hindquarters, and sloping backs. All their strength is in their bone-snapping jaws. Hyena live in clans of one to two dozen and are attracted to carcasses, along with their ugly friends, the vulture and the marabou stork. These scavengers will hide food in watering holes and never waste anything. They will even feed on the hooves of their prey.

But The Lion King didn't do them any favours and hyenas generally get a very bad press. They are actually excellent hunters and kill most of what they eat. Spotted hyenas can bring down prey many times their size and have been recorded killing cape buffalo and giraffes.

Marabou Stork

(Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Chad)

The marabou stork is a massive wading bird: large specimens are thought to reach a height of 152 centimetres and a weight of nine kilograms. 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!

Warthog

( Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Mauritania, Uganda, Chad)

How can you not like a warthog? Pumbaa, from The Lion King, ambles the plains inoffensively, tail erect, 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. Warthogs, as one might guess from the name, are swine, related to pigs, boars and hogs. The patches on their faces are not actually warts, but thick growths of skin, which act as padding, for when the males fight during mating season.

Warthogs are lazy, or maybe their tusks make it hard to dig and they live in dens made by aardvarks (see the Shy List). The males usually live alone, but the sociable females (sows), live in groups of up to 40, called sounders.

Although they might look fierce, warthogs are mostly herbivorous, foraging for roots, berries, bark, bulbs, grass and plants. When food is in short supply, warthogs may eat meat, but only dead animals, worms or insects.

Vulture

(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Mauritania, Gabon, Uganda, Chad)

Vultures are a family of scavenging birds, who have also suffered from a bad press. There are 11 species in Africa and 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 are vital in cleaning up carrion. I've read that some smell really sweet, like talcum powder. I'm not keen to get close enough to find out. I've also read that vultures are on the verge of extinction.

Wildebeest

( Zambia, eSwatini, Kenya, Tanzania)

Wildebeest are also known as a gnu - I'm a gnu, How about you? The name is Dutch for 'wild beast'. They are antelopes with large, box-like heads and distinctive curving horns. There are two species: the blue wildebeest, or brindled gnu and the black wildebeest, or white-tailed gnu. The front end of the wildebeest 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. It is estimated to number between 1.3 and 1.7 million animals.

Wildebeest are herbivores, but can run at up to 50 miles per hour. They have to, in order to escape predators, like lions. They live in huge herds and their survival depends on group or 'swarm' intelligence. Even their birthing season is a highly synchronized event. Most wildebeest calves are born within a short period, at the start of the rainy season. This means plenty of grass and a better chance of evading predators. The calves are able to run, within two minutes of being born!

The Shy Five

Then, I came across the Shy Five, designed to encourage perseverance in animal watchers and nocturnal animal safaris. They are the porcupine, bat-eared fox, aardvark, meerkat and aardwolf. All of these, except the meerkat, are indeed nocturnal and I’ve seen a couple of them scuttling away.

Porcupine

Porcupines are fairly widespread - there are old world and new world species. The third largest rodent after beavers and capybara. They have approximately 30,000 sharp quills, as defence. A baby porcupine is a porcupette (so cute, though not to be confused with a porky pie). When born, a porcupette's quills are soft hair; they harden within a few days. I've seen numerous discarded porcupine quills....

Bat Eared Fox

The bat eared fox lives in east and southern Africa and is relatively small, the only truly insectivorous canine. The desert fox is very similar to the bat eared fox, and I've seen that, in Mauritania. Its ears are rounder.

Aardvark

I'm desperate to see an aardvark. I've spent hours waiting around their holes (see Chad), but no luck as yet. They are not especially rare, but only venture out late at night. These are strange looking creatures, with long snouts, which they use to sniff out ants and termites and then they dig them out using their claws. They are mammals, related to elephants, manatees, and hyraxes, but the only living species of their order ( Tubulidentata).

Meerkat

Thanks to the power of advertising everyone nowadays knows what a meerkat looks like. But they may not know that these bashful (in real life) creatures are Southern African mongooses, which speed away at the merest whiff of danger. ( I have blurred meerkat pictures.). They live in rocky crevices or burrows, in packs of up to 30. The alpha or dominant individuals in a pack breed and the subordinate members look after the pups. Very Brave New World.

Aardwolf

The aardwolf is related to the hyena, but it eats insects and their larvae, mainly termites. One aardwolf can lap up an astonishing 300,000 termites in a single night using its long, sticky (and tough) tongue.

The Impossible Five

My next discovery was The Impossible Five, which seems to have been the creation of a writer called Justin Fox, who set himself the challenge of seeing them all. His list includes the aardvark (again), the Cape mountain leopard, the pangolin, the (very rare as they don't breed like rabbits) riverine rabbit and the white lion (in the wild, most of them are in zoos).

Now, I was really lucky and I did see a black bellied pangolin in the Central African Republic. Pangolins are, possibly, the most trafficked mammals in the world. Read more about them, in that post.

The Big Seven

Then I came across The Big Seven - a clever marketing ploy by the tourism industry of South Africa, 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.

The New Big Five - Out of Africa

You'll have noticed that all of this post has been devoted to Africa. A few years ago, British photographer Graeme Green started a campaign for a new Big Five for future travel bucket lists. He wanted to expand the focus globally and to place the emphasis firmly on photography and preservation, rather than hunting. Incidents such as the sad shooting of Cyril the lion, added fuel to his endeavours. Many conservationists were involved and a poll was held. The New Big Five were declared to be: elephant, polar bear, gorilla and lion.  I'm happy with that. I've seen all of those: polar bear (Svalbard), gorilla (Rwanda, CAR and Congo) and tiger (India). So, that probably deserves a High Five?

And that's not the end. The 'Big Five' idea is burgeoning. The Arlberg Alps region has come up with its own Big Five: ibex, chamois, golden eagle, marmot and bearded vulture.

What's your Big Five?

Is eSwatini a Poor Country?

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.

Facts and Factoids

  • eSwatini is Africa’s last remaining monarchy.
  • 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 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 one of the smallest countries in Africa; despite this, its climate and topography are diverse, ranging from a cool and mountainous highveld to a hot and dry lowveld.
  • 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, with which it is linked, and the data download speed on roaming (3G) is pretty awful

A Very Brief History of eSwatini

  • The Swazis established their kingdom in the mid-eighteenth century under the leadership of Ngwane III.
  • Its current boundaries were drawn up in 1881, after the Second Boer War
  • Swaziland became a British protectorate in 1903, after the British won the final Boer War,
  • Swaziland achieved full independence once more, in 1968.

Why Did the Country Change its Name?


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 it Swaziland) and distinguish the country more clearly from Switzerland.

Is eSwatini Safe to Visit?

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.

What To Do in eSwatini?

  • Great game viewing and parks, although at times it is a bit like being in a giant zoo
  • Gorgeous mountain scenery
  • And cultural villages and assorted royal buildings
  • I flew in from Zambia. I'm going onto Reunion.

Where's Swaziland Gone?

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.

Hlane Park, eSwatini

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.

Lost in the Bush

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 Lions of Hlane

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.

Rhino Tracking - Completing the Big Five

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.

Mkhaya, Eswatini

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.

Completing the Ugly Five

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.

Mkhaya Walking Safari

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.

Mlilwane Camp, eSwatini

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.

Touring eSwatini

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.

Food in eSwatini

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.

Warthogs Take Over the Fire

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.

Getting into Zambia

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.

Facts and Factoids

  • The official language of Zambia is English, however, there are over 72 languages spoken in the country.
  • The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) has its headquarters in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia
  • The national symbol of Zambia is the African Fish Eagle, which is found on the national flag and looks much like the American Bald Eagle.
  • Although its on a tropical latitude, the general height of its plateau gives Zambia a moderate climate, earning it the nickname, the 'air conditioned state'.
  • Zambia shares arguably the largest waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls, and the largest man made lake/reservoir in the world, with Zimbabwe.

A Brief History of Zambia

  • The Broken Hill skull was the first human fossil ever discovered in Africa, in Kabwe in 1921. It shows that humans lived in Zambia at least 200,000 years ago.
  • 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, obtained 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 and Zambia now produces over 13 % of the world’s copper.
  • Zambia gained independence in 1964 and prime minister Kenneth Kaunda became president. He retained power from 1964 until 1991, (as a one party state for much of that time.) 'One Zambia, One Nation, he said. After that,Zambia became a multi-party state.

Is Zambia a Poor Country?

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.

Is Zambia Safe to Visit?

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.

Where to Visit in Zambia?

The two main draws are:

Lusaka, the Capital of Zambia

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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