I’m convinced there must be some sort of witchcraft brewing, because over a full month has passed since I visited eSwatini and I can’t figure out where the days went. At first I figured I’d just cheat and post a few of the best pictures from the trip, but then I re-read my journal. And I remembered the freshly born baby giraffe, and the rhinoceros (rhinoceri?) that followed us around like puppies, and the pet warthogs sleeping by the campfire, and I had to at least attempt to eke out a little post.
eSwatini changed its name from Swaziland within the past year, in an effort to reject outdated colonizer monikers. My entrance stamp still read ‘Swaziland,’ and I never once heard someone refer to the country by its new name, but I dig it. During our brief stay we visited two of the country’s three Big Game Parks, starting with the Mkhaya Game Reserve. This was our one real splurge of the entire trip, which we justified because Mkhaya is the only park in Southern Africa where you’re guaranteed to see rhinos.
In fact, eSwatini has been successful in halting nearly all poachings since their “Rhino War” of 1988-1992. During that time, over 70% of the country’s rhinos were lost to illegal commercial horn poaching, largely thanks to collusion between rangers, the judicial system and poachers. Protestors eventually managed to get a partially decomposed rhino along with gruesome footage of a baby crying as its mother bled to death to the king, who then removed all discretion from the courts. Instead, he implemented mandatory minimum jail sentences for poachers, and provided rangers with a pay raise and AK47s, legalizing a “shoot to kill” policy. A reward system was also put in place, with cash given for any information leading to the apprehension of poachers. These policies in tandem have proven successful, and since 1993 only three rhinos have been killed.
After clambering into our Indiana Jones style 4×4 at the entrance gate, we were able to see some of the park’s personalized anti-poaching measures firsthand. To start our safari we first had to wind through a maze of electric and barbed wire fencing, enter several locked gates, and stop at the occasional hidden trip wire before finally setting off down a meandering dirt track. As the sun rose higher the day quickly became warm and oppressively muggy. The heat actually worked in our favor, because as our guide Bongani explained, rhinos hate the heat which means they all flock to wherever they can cool down.
Sure enough, we drove down a little side trail lined by tree stumps polished smooth by rhinos to the closest shady watering hole, and there they were. Eight rhinos reclining lazily on the lakeshores, the only real motion the occasional flick of their ears to bat away flies. Eventually one of them laboriously climbed to his feet in the knee deep mud, turned to look us dead in the eye, and let out a long, deliberate fart before proudly sauntering off into the bushes. I lost it, giggling the entire rest of the drive.
We reached the lodge in time for a delicious lunch, especially impressive considering it felt like we were in remote wilderness. After eating we settled into our open air accommodation, set back from the main lodge deeper into the forest. Our thatched roof hut had no walls, meaning that the mosquito net around the bed was our only protection. Bongani handed us an emergency whistle and warned us to watch out for baboons. I kept the whistle clutched in my hand while trying to nap, but it didn’t do much to ease my nerves.
During the afternoon drive I realized it was baby season in the park, meaning I was in for a whole lot of adorable. Our first sighting was a baby giraffe, new enough that the umbilical cord was still attached. His hair was in complete disarray, and when he tried to run to catch up with mom he didn’t run so much as trip over his feet, and it was verrrry cute. There were plenty of baby zebra and impala, always sandwiched between protective parents. Baby hippos seemed curious, popping up out of the water between their sleeping parents to wiggle their ears while taking a look at us.
Warthog families always seem to be running, careening around corners with their tails like little lightening rods, perfectly straight except for the ends flopping back in forth in rhythm with their gait. And baby rhinos just might be the cutest of them all, especially seeing how tender mother and baby are together. They remain a team for over three years, and they are constantly nuzzling one another while sweetly chattering.
That night after another delicious meal and a campfire, we followed softly lit kerosene lanterns through the bush to our hut. As I lay down to sleep I almost rested my head on a spider the size of my palm, and spent the rest of the night fitfully dreaming it was crawling across various limbs. The 5:30 wake up came far too early, but even in my bleary stupor I was impressed by the woman able to navigate the rocky path to our hut while carrying an entire tea set on her head. The morning’s safari was rainy and cold, and I might have felt a little glum if it hadn’t turned out that rhinos loooove playing in the mud. Most of the morning was spent in a downpour watching a hyper baby rhino having the time of his life splashing around and trying to get his mom’s attention.
In the afternoon the rain eased off, and we were able to go on a bush walk with Bongani. I was impressed by his tracking ability, and learned a lot about the medicinal uses of local plants. We were able to watch giraffes grazing up close, navigating easily around acacia thorns the size of my pinky finger. Dung beetles rolled perfect bespoke spheres of rhino poo across our path, showing off their strength. Eventually we followed this poo trail to find two rhinos busy eating an afternoon snack. We watched them for a few minutes, amazed to be so close without any kind of barrier. Deciding to let them finish munching in peace, we started following a narrow trail through the dense shrubbery.
I looked back a minute later, and there they were, crunching through the leaves on the same path. We cut a hard left and rounded a grove of trees… and so did the rhinos. For the next 20 minutes every step we took, they followed, getting closer and closer with every turn. Eventually Bongani slowly reached down, picked up a sun-bleached giraffe femur and dropped it loudly, which startled them enough that they took off running in the opposite direction. Turns out that despite their fearsome horns, rhinos are actually quite gentle and incredibly curious.
That night I actually managed to get some sleep even with the bush babies wailing, and after a final morning safari and another delicious breakfast buffet, it was time to leave. A pleasant drive brought us to Mlilwane National Park in time for lunch. Being on safari is the only activity that burns less calories than watching television, so it was a treat to take advantage of the perfect weather hiking around the park. I was a little wary while walking because of all the signs warning about the dangerous hippos and crocodiles, but our only wildlife encounter was with a pair of warthogs.
All of the warthogs we’d seen had been extremely skittish, but these two trotted right up to us. I swear they were smiling as they gave us a sniff and presented their heads for a scratch before continuing merrily on their way. Later that night I saw the same warthog couple curled up next to the campfire, and went to sit near them. A plaque explained that there have been resident warthogs since the founding of the park, and these were the current pair resting in their favorite spot. We all watched the crackling flames together until our eyelids grew heavy. With a little stretch they rose in tandem and trotted off to their den for the night, which was my cue to get some sleep as well.