Swaziland, the name just sounds African, conjuring up images of safaris and wild animals. It did not disappoint!
Swaziland is a beautiful country, and as yet appears to be relatively unscathed by mass tourism. It retains a ‘wildness’, it feels like real Africa, rather than a sanitised tourist experience.
Over the next couple of posts, I shall provide a brief trip report with images from a recent 14 days safari trip, that covered 3 parks in Swaziland, and 2 camps in one of the smaller South African parks, the Pilanesberg.
We (my girlfriend and I) flew to Johannesburg in South Africa aboard one of the new British Airways A380 double decker aircraft. Paying a bit extra for premium economy was worthwhile, as even at 6ft3 I was quite comfortable in the seat and managed to get some sleep.
Arriving at around 0700 local time, we grabbed our hire car and set off on the 6hr drive to our first camp in Swaziland, Hlane Royal National Park.
The border crossing was the quickest I have ever had in Africa! The paperwork at immigration and customs (including declaring the camera kit) must have taken under 10 minutes. We had to pay 50 Rand for Swazi road tax, which is around £3! Other than that there was no charge for visas, and no ‘tips’ required to ease our passage.
This is a very small park, you can cover most of the self-drive trails in a couple of hours. Despite it’s size, there are large numbers of rhino, plenty of giraffe and elephants, and they have a pride of lions.
The lions however can only be accessed on one of the organised game drives, as they are kept in a separate area. We were booked on this drive, but when we found out the vehicle would be full to the brim with 10 of us (there are 10 seats for passengers) we declined. A vehicle full of non-photographers is not the best place for me to try and create some nice images, as their wants/needs would be quite different to mine.
The draw here is the ease of access to large numbers of rhino. On one occasion there were 9 by the waterhole, which is conveniently located right in front of the restaurant. The only thing separating you from them is a couple of strands of barbed wire.
Our accommodation was a Rondavel (small hut) which had plenty of hot water, but no electricity. Lighting is provided by paraffin lamps, which is nice for a while, but it makes you realise how dependent we have become on easy access to power. I made sure the camera batteries were fully charged simply by using a 12V car inverter.
We treated this place as a stop gap before the trip proper started, to get ourselves dialled in a little bit and make sure we were well acclimatised before moving on to our next camp. However, the rhinos and proximity of other game really make this camp quite good!
Just 2 hours drive from Hlane, this reserve offers a level of exclusivity as there are only 12 cottages available. We spent 2 nights here, and had 2 game drives per day, plus a bush walk, all included within the price.
Game drives here are on the camps safari vehicles, with no option for self driving. Fortunately for us, the vehicles were not full, so photography was still fairly productive.
Again, there is no electricity, and the cottages are semi open, with just half open walls, so you really get the feeling of being in the wild, yet with the comfort a good bed and a mosquito net! At night you hear the bush babies and hyenas calling, which just adds to the experience.
The food was good, and the dining area was outside in a clearing among the trees. Nyala roam through the camp, whilst monkeys use the trees above, hoping to steal some food.
We had a very nice time here, other than our experience with our guide. He was miserable, and talked down to all of the guests as if we were stupid. Our ‘bush walk’ consisted of him interrogating us for 15 minutes, then telling us about how great he is. Whilst we saw huge numbers of rhino on our game drive (18 in just one drive) any questions we had about them were met with disdain, or accusations of being poachers. He spoiled it for us, to the extent that we skipped a game drive rather than be subjected to 3 hours of being spoken to like an idiot.
Our final 2 nights in Swaziland were spent here, as it was closer to the border crossing than either of the other camps, making our upcoming drive to the Pilanesberg shorter by a couple of hours.
Our accommodation was the beautiful Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge, built by one of the early pioneers in Swaziland, Mick Reilly. This wonderful old house commands great views over the nearby valley, and all meals are served outside where possible, in the well planted botanical gardens, where duiker graze on the lawn, and bushbabies may be hand fed in the evenings.
The sanctuary is stuffed full of plains game, but with no predators (other than crocodiles) it is perfectly safe for people to go walking, and with numerous trails through the park self-drive games viewing was very productive. The rolling grasslands made for a different feel than our previous 2 locations. We undertook a 3 hour hike to visit an old bushman’s cave, which was very worthwhile, it felt good to really stretch the legs after several days of driving.
The main camp offers plenty of accommodation for family groups, from camping through to cottages, and with monkeys in the trees and warthogs rummaging on the ground, it is a great place for families to get close to wild animals.
Swaziland is not what one would consider a common destination, but for the smallest country in Southern Africa it certainly has a lot to offer. I feel like we only scratched the surface, yet the people we met were all friendly and welcoming (with the exception of our guide). I would love to go back, and explore a bit more of the country, as the scenery we saw was fantastic and deserves a good exploration.
Continued in my Pilanesberg trip report
Ahhh, the joys of packing. Will it fit? What do I need to take?
Thankfully, flying British Airways has the benefit of 2 pieces of cabin baggage, one of which may weigh up to 23kg.
I like to lay everything out on the floor and check it off on a packing list, making sure I haven’t forgotten something essential. Items that are easily replaced, or non-essential will go in the hold, everything I need to shoot and download images will come with me, preferably in just the one bag.
Yes, although the AA batteries and charger are travelling in the hold.
The weight? 13.4kg, so around 10kg to spare, not that there is any actual room.
The bag is a Lowepro Vertex 200AW, I got mine here – Lowepro Vertex 200 AW on Amazon
Assuming the flight arrives on schedule, this time next week I should be somewhere between Johannesburg and Swaziland, making my way to Hlane Royal National Park, for the first stop on a 2 week photography trip that is taking in 5 different lodges in 4 game parks/reserves. To say I am looking forward to it would be quite an understatement.
Naturally, the primary aim of the trip is photography, and as always happens before a trip, my mind is now turning over what I need and how will I carry it.
Thankfully, after several such trips in recent years, I am happy that if any 1 item is to break, I have enough redundancy to keep shooting. I am also happy that I have enough equipment to capture the images I have in mind, from macro bugs to the milky way, without carrying enough gear to stock a small camera shop.
One minor complication with this trip, is the fact that for several days we will be without electricity. Naturally, with 2 DSLR’s, tablets, kindles and other electronics to keep charged, this was a minor problem, looking for a simple solution.
Rather than multiple batteries (I do carry a couple of spares anyway) or USB powerbanks, I have gone for a cheap 12V inverter. This simple device plugs into the car cigarette lighter, and provides 2 USB ports and a standard UK 3 pin plug socket with 240V output. At 300W maximum rated output, it’s not going to power a kettle or iron, but for charging multiple small batteries and devices through a 4 way adaptor it will hopefully be invaluable.
I ordered this Inverter from Amazon, and will report back on its success or otherwise on my return – BESTEK® 300w power inverter
Another aspect of the trip that is under consideration, and is always in a constant state of refinement and development, is that of workflow – downloading, backing up and managing images whilst away from my main workstation. On a 2 week Safari, even on a very slow day I may well shoot 2-300 images, which on the Nikon D7100 I use as my primary camera is in the region of 12-16GB of data per day. Extrapolate for 2 cameras and 13 days of shooting, and it is easy to see there will be many thousands of images to handle.
Given the multitude of variables and techniques, backup and workflow is going to be the subject of several blog posts in the not too distant future.