We always expected there to be an element of adventure on a trip such as this one, a touch of bundu-bashing if you will. We were amazed at how tame, navigable terrain wise, things had been thus far – Dean going as far as to mention that we might not even need the 4-wheel drive on the trip at all. Famous last words. We departed Gonarezhou with a general idea of where we were going (nothing too specific, of course) as well as a pre-loaded Google Maps route on our cell phones. We would first be heading South East, arriving and navigating the rather under-utilised border of Chiqualaquala into Mozambique.
Suddenly, all evidence of established roadways disappeared as we arrived at an old Portuguese church in the spot that the road should have been. The bombed ruins a testament to the pre-civil war beauty that could have been. Shards of stained glass window glinting off the incoming rays of the midday sun that cascaded down, unencumbered by roof or ceiling. The crucified Christ still hanging, mournfully overlooking the scattered rubble that populated the church insides. We climbed up the narrow steeple to the place where the now broken bell would once have been rung. It was the perfect vantage point to survey the town in search of a route forward. The town, it turned out, was as rubble ridden as the church over which we stood, and absolutely no discernible roadway out could be identified.
Eventually, we consulted Google and selected a general direction that seemed to be roughly correct. Although we did take note that, according to Google Maps it looked, by all accounts, that we were meandering periodically (and illegally) into Zimbabwean territory as we drove down very close to the borderline between Moz and Zim. The scene though was distinctly Mozam, absolutely everything existing on a platter of sandy inadequacy, we had to remind ourselves that we were actually a considerable distance from the coast. The rural villages we passed by were no exception. Not a single blade of grass could be found which, we thought, might be a good reason as to why we hadn’t seen much livestock along the way. The sandy road became progressively more uneven and when I fell asleep, there were genuine concerns for the structural integrity of my neck as I was flung from side to side on the bumpy trail.
We were all quietly concerned about the river crossing we would be braving later that day. Having received 120 mm of rain in this area over the previous few days, we were all on edge. This meant we were all very surprised when we came across a 50m river bed, completely dry, sometime around 11:30. Glad as we were, we decided to stop under the cover of a few giant, shady trees just on the other bank, as we retrieved what bread had managed to evade the mould epidemic in Gonnaz as well as our tins of tuna which we used to put together a few tuna mayo sarmies to keep the energy levels up and the tummies somewhat occupied. While we sat there munching, it was to our utter dismay that a massive branch in the tree high above the Mazda took this particular moment in time to break off and come crashing down onto our sponsored vehicle’s bonnet. We literally couldn’t believe it. There would be no ways Mazda was going to believe us when we told them the only dent on the vehicle wasn’t the result of negligence, but rather just the unfortunate falling of dead wood!
Back on our way in the now slightly dented vehicle, we reflected on how according to plan the drive itself had gone thus far. We arrived in a bigger-than-usual town that seemed to be the destination of this sandy segment. Google Maps told us there was a river just ahead that we needed to cross and that we should ‘catch a ferry’ – which was met with some scepticism. Upon deliberation with a man on the side of the road, it was decided to drive about 6 km down the river (in the opposite direction to what Google was telling us) in search of the river crossing. We stopped when the road disappeared into the riverbed and Dean, now more notably concerned, jumped out and did a quick cross-country to check out the scenes. After deciding the river was far too high and very un-crossable, we retraced our steps until, back at the Town of Dumela, we found a group of men eating food in a circle next to the road. Amazingly, it turned out that one of them could speak Afrikaans, so after an in-depth discussion with Zandré, he described to us a white bakkie with an empty trailer that would soon be making the crossing. Describing the site of the crossing itself quite brilliantly as being ‘next to the white building’. There were a lot of white buildings
It was beyond fortunate that we intersected said white bakkie with empty trailer just as he was setting off in front of us. Our initial plan of simply following the man surreptitiously from behind as he drove was thwarted when he careered off on the almost undrivable of roads at an unthinkable speed, quickly disappearing from view. Dean was driving the front-most car when we realised we needed to get this man’s attention quickly before he left us trailing in the dirt. Thus, began what is truly one of the most surreal and bizarre experiences of my life, with Dean pushing down repeatedly on the hooter as we flew over the ground, literally engaged in a high-speed chase over near-undrivable Mozambican river-side dirt roads, my arms flailing out of the passenger side as we tried to get the man to see us in his rearview and slow down. One of the strangest things about the whole situation was that we were in the middle of nowhere at the time and there was nothing around us that could have been making noise, plus the man’s window was open. We found it very hard to believe that he wasn’t purposely ignoring us and in fact, in front of our eyes, he seemed to be increasing his speed in an attempt to escape us.
This all went on for a good 90 seconds and the 4 of us in the car were in stitches when the man eventually slowed down and put his head out of the window to talk to us. Once stationary, he seemed nice enough. After we explained the situation, he told us that he was also on the way to Pafuri Border and he agreed to show us the way. It had gone 2 o’clock by this point and we were eager not to waste any more time as we were in a bit of a hurry to reach the border before it closed at 16:00. The man in the car assured us that would be more than enough time. “Easy peezy,” he said – or maybe some equivalent. Well, the river crossing went alright, it was worryingly deep in one or two spots, but following on the tracks of our new friend we managed just fine. We had a celebratory air punch and then began the last stretch to the border. Dean even contemplating an extra game drive through the park with the extra time we’d have.
And then, as we came around the next corner; mud – knee-high, thick, slippery mud – and our friend had now got stuck, trailer and all, in it. So it looked like we were going to need our 4-wheel drive capabilities after all. But not before we had all climbed out the cars, thickly layering ourselves in the process, to give our friend a push. The muddy stretch was probably around 800m and like every other day of the last 3 weeks, it was very humid.
A group of women we’d passed earlier on the way now approached and a pandemonium of shrill voices broke loose after our friend made what sounded like a snide chirp about them helping push. After some negotiations took place, the women loaded their belongings into the trailer and all 30 odd of us stood, panting, sweating and pushing in the slippery mud in what must have made quite the sight. Except for Sibo, who was more than happy in the recluse of the parked Ford.
An hour had passed before finally the path was clear for us to make our own attempts at the muddy stretch. It was a real miracle that the low range efforts of both vehicles were successful on the first attempt because by now we were well and truly under the pump to get to the border in time. By the time we had successfully negotiated the mud, reloaded ourselves into the vehicles (trying our hardest not to get mud everywhere on the seats) our friend had long since disappeared with his now fully loaded trailer of women. We flew along the dirt as fast our tyres would carry us, in the direction we hoped would take us to said border, as the clock ticked on relentlessly. 20 past. 25 past. Half-past. We were in the process of re-defining ‘under the pump’.
It was quarter to 4 when we eventually pulled into the Pafri Border gate to Kruger, and we found there a Policeman diligently waiting for us. Our un-stuck friend had primed them for our delayed arrival, and we were very relieved when they agreed to stamp our passports for us and let us through. There may or may not have been the mutually agreed upon confiscation of a 6-pack or 2 from our cooler boxes, but we accepted the small loss to our private stores without too much regret.
We have never before been so happy to see South Africans, I don’t think. About 7 policewomen, in their uniforms, were mildly amused to see us roll in, each covered in about half a swamp’s worth of mud and sweat, 25 minutes after closing time. They took one look at us and without hesitation pointed us in the direction of the nearby tap they were using to wash their cars. We were beyond grateful to give ourselves a well-deserved rinse. After an exceedingly pleasant SA border experience we resumed the journey, gone 4 by now we, unfortunately, had to can the idea of the extra game drive. Luckily for us though, the drive to Shingwedzi, where we would be overnighting, was pumping with game, most likely as a result of the recent rains. Everything was lush and green and as though the universe was smiling on us that day, we were surprised with a fantastic sighting of 2 male cheetah walking towards us next to the side of the road. Cheetah are my absolute best (along with wild dogs) and I really enjoyed this one as you don’t see them very often in Kruger.
That night we enjoyed a big burger at the restaurant in camp, which went down really well as it had been a long time since that lunch-time tuna sandwich. We were all happy. It was the kind of day we’d signed up for – a proper adventure, under-planned and improvised, it had excitement, the right balance of stress, anxiety, comedy and success. Besides, what good story ever started with, “It all went according to plan”? Nevertheless, we were happy to be back on the proper South African roads (reminding us to be grateful that South Africa isn’t as bad as some out there). We were also happy that we could pay in Rand again and were looking forward to the prospect of some reliable refrigeration
The next day we overnighted in White River with Dean’s folks. They took great care of us and we headed into Swaziland the day after feeling well fed and energized. On the way through to Mbuluzi game reserve in Swaziland, we stopped by the Jackson residence in Tshaneni where Eugene took the lead in conversation while Chris sussed out the damage. We arrived at Mbuluzi by the early evening and settled into our rooms. We had great fun that first night, including some ill-advised night fishing and stargazing as well as a midnight demolition of the leftover spaghetti bolognaise.
Monday was a public holiday in the Kingdom of eSwatini, but not for us, or the kids, as we loaded up into the vehicles at 6 am en route to Shewula Mountain Camp. It was about a 50-minute drive and we were met there by Mandla, the Mbuluzi head game ranger, Masimula, the individual identified by LiC the previous year for FGASA training, and Sibhamu, part of the RMI team that partnered with LiC for this trip last year.
The lessons over the next 2 days went well. We had much involvement from Sibhamu and Masimula, which was great. Particularly to see Masimula at work with the kids, he was really fantastic at the work and it was so gratifying to see him still so comprehensibly involved after a full year away from the LiC team. Besides the actual lessons, Sibhamu did a lot in terms of explaining the Swazi culture to us and the way of life for people out here in rural Swaziland, which was a real eye-opener.
As it was officially school holidays already for all the kids, it took half a day for them to warm up to the idea of being at ‘school’ again. But once they did, things went well. There was a definite naughty streak that ran through a lot of the boys, but the girls were a lovely bunch, really bright and engaging.
Due to some technical difficulties with the Jackson’s game drive vehicle (and the ineffectual mending of the same tyre on 3 separate occasions) the excursion had to be taken on just the one cruiser. The kids took turns between the game drive vehicle and the back of the Mazda as they were taken around the Mbuluzi South Reserve and they seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience and the animals that they got to see.
After the excursion, we set up a makeshift classroom on the patio at the Jackson’s lodge. Megs, Lienks and Sibo delivering the last lessons of the week, after which the kids finished the day off with some pap and wors, relaxing by the pool.
The team cooked up a big stew for dinner and played roommate ping-pong tournaments in between, spirits were all really high, even though the girls seemed to have picked up a bit of a bug. None of us really wanted to think about the fact that we only had one more day together before going home. It really was an amazing group and an amazing trip. Just from a personal point of view, the whole team worked together seamlessly. There’s a lot you learn about a person by being on top of them for 26 days. We learnt each other’s personalities and habits and learnt to be extremely effective playing to each other’s strengths. There was a lot of fun in the group. We had a couple of ‘dad jokers’, led proudly by Xander, and I won’t necessarily exclude myself from that. We had the inseparable girls with an affinity for laughter, the impact and value of which cannot be understated. The ‘gals’ added much needed feminine energy, brightening up the masculinity of the group. We had our pack leader, master of organisation who would literally have each day laid out to the millisecond.
I know an awful lot more about this bunch than I did in the introductory blog post from so long ago now, one thing I didn’t make a mistake with, though, was Sibo’s proclivity for napping. Eugene soon became ubiquitously known as Huge Euge and I can honestly say (though I can’t exactly explain why) that this is one of the most appropriate nicknames I have ever come across. Through all the fun and jokes though, the group was also capable of startling depth for such a young bunch. This was a theme that started as early as the very first half-hour in the car with Zandré as we left Pretoria. Conversations could range from slap-stick chatter of absolute rubbish to the organisation of the galaxy or the origins of organic life in a heartbeat and it was a privilege to rub minds and personalities with every single one of them.
We spent our last day together at Sand River dam, located a few clicks from my house in North Eastern Swaziland. The dam was originally purposed as a yacht club, in the days before television where people would actually do those sorts of things, and was set amongst the IYSIS ranch in the area. Surrounded by natural vegetation on all sides, full of game and aquatic fowl, it is a little slice of African heaven which I am most blessed to have at my disposal.
We put the boat in the water and everyone had a turn at either skiing, wakeboarding or tubing. The tube met its untimely end after Xander and Zandré, clinging on for dear life, clung just a little too hard, first snapping off every individual handhold before, eventually, succumbing to the G-force and plummeting head-first into the cool, turbulent waters. Honourable mentions include; Lienks on her first successful slalom run, Zandré for his skiing debut and Sibo for his petrified expression after crossing the wake during his first tubing experience.
We savoured our last day together, a bit of ping pong on the go while we braaied our lunch and chatted. As fate would have it, the sun wasn’t going to let us go silently into the night without a send-off. The life-giving solar mass had now dipped just below the line of the overcast afternoon and was cindering bright red as it approached the horizon. The wind of the day had quietened down and the water now was blissfully still. The only ripples underneath and behind, originating from the motion of our own boat.
We allowed the smell of the day to dissolve away, along with its heat. The spray of the lone ski carving through the water, a soaring silhouette against the darkening night sky. In our hearts, we were quiet, content and settled and there was a collective yet unspoken peace that was shared in the knowledge that in that moment, and the month that had preceded it, we were all exactly where we were supposed to be.