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BUSH to BEACH

SA4x4 is joined by representatives from Toyota, Suzuki, and Kia as we meander through eSwatini’s magnificent national parks before darting down to the southern coast of Mozambique – all under the expert guidance of Riaan Jooste of Complete 4×4…

It’s a sad truth that many South Africans take our neighbouring countries for granted. Those in the know are fully aware of the awe and splendour on offer just beyond our borders. With that in mind, we enlisted the services of Riaan Jooste, a passionate 4×4 tour operator and enthusiast who would be plotting our canter through Swaziland – these days known as eSwatini – and southern Mozambique, one of his personal favourite destinations.

Editor Angus Boswell and I had met up with him in Pretoria, and it wasn’t long before we were awaiting the arrival of our full contingent at Alzu Petroport en route to the Oshoek border post. First to arrive, in a brand-new Fortuner 2.8 GD-6 A/T 4×4, were Toyota’s Jeanette and Anthony Clifton, the South African motor industry’s favourite couple. They were soon followed by Kia’s Niel Behrens and his wife Elana in their stylishly dark Kia Sorento AWD 2.2D 8AT. Before you ask, yes, this was a 4×4 trip. You’ll just have to read on to see if the Kia made the grade…

Last to arrive, courtesy of a wrong turn here or there, was Suzuki’s Toni Herbst and her son Daniel. Naturally, they rocked up in a cheeky little Jimny, which quickly became the butt of many a joke. In his ‘concern’ for the little beast’s conservative fuel capacity, Riaan offered up his roof rack as an emergency alternative. To be fair, his monstrous 4.6-litre straight-six Nissan Patrol would probably be up to the task, too.

Hot glass & fat crocs

With full bellies and topped-up tanks, we hit the road and began our adventure, with plenty of radio banter to keep any and all early morning naps at bay. We’d need to cross the border nice and early to allow for a very interesting schedule in eSwatini. We got through the Oshoek border post with very little hassle at all, indicative of the Kingdom’s all-access approach to tourism.

It’s that very approach that has made the Ngwenya Glass factory such a hotspot, and I mean hot spot. Here you can watch expert craftsmen blow liquid glass into a huge array of elegant designs, as long as you can handle the heat. Once you enter the workshop of ‘Swaziland’s hottest attraction’, which has been operating more or less since 1979, the sweat begins to pour right off.

Interestingly, Ngwenya Glass has its own Rhino and Elephant Fund, which is one of the country’s most successful conservation initiatives. Add to that the fact that its products are made from recycled glass, and you’ve got one heck of an eco-friendly establishment. Our stop here was brief, but it was appropriate, considering where we were headed next.

Our overnight destination would be Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, run by eSwatini’s Big Game Parks. Our convoy arrived nice and early, slap bang in the heat of the afternoon – nothing an icy Sibebe lager couldn’t fix. Riaan had booked us into traditional beehive reed huts which, despite a superficially rudimentary design, went a long way to warding off the sweltering temperatures outside. Although Mlilwane isn’t a Big Five reserve, our campsite was shared with plenty of nyala, themselves seeking out a bit of shade.

The crocodiles, although plentiful, kept their distance from the camp, and on our drive into the reserve, we spotted a couple of brave (read: stupid) tourists creeping up on them to get that all-important Instagram shot. I don’t think any of us would have begrudged those fat crocs a little nibble…

Showered and fresh from a scorcher of a day, we met our masterful tour guide, Caro, who would be taking us on the uphill sojourn to Mlilwane’s Execution Rock, known as Nyonyane Mountain, to enjoy the sunset from this vantage point. Luckily for us, we wouldn’t be forced to jump off it like criminals were made to do in the past. Instead, we were given the spectacular opportunity to observe the jagged protrusion from a safe distance, as the last rays of sunlight pierced the valley behind us. Sibebe in one hand and Nik Naks in the other – not a bad start to the journey, eh?

Mlilwane’s mango malaise

Mlilwane is home to a vast array of plant and animal species, but all are now under threat from an unlikely villain – mango trees. Mango is highly invasive, and its domination of Mlilwane’s grasslands has been aided by a recent bushfire that destroyed vast tracts of the park’s indigenous vegetation. The park’s herbivores don’t eat mango leaves either, so it’s up to authorities to fight off the plague. Sadly, from what we witnessed, it seems there is a long battle ahead.

Back at camp, we were treated to a fine buffet dinner, complete with a local traditional dance performance. It’s always nice to see reserves integrating local cultural projects into their daily programmes, and it certainly gave us the eSwatini welcome we were so eager for. Our convoy contingent was also beginning to warm up, partly thanks to a hearty round of drinks, but also because it was just such a lekker bunch of people, you know?

Swazi soirée

Early breakfasts are the best breakfasts, mostly because they fade away in time for a hearty lunch. With Mlilwane squarely in our rearview mirrors, we headed off to Malandela’s Guest House in Malkerns, where our early breakfast plans were ruined by an unexpected power cut. It seems Eskom’s reach is far greater than we think!

Once we had trundled around the property, which includes an events venue, restaurant, shops, and an adventure centre, breakfast was served, and we learned a bit about Malandela’s history. Once a farm owned by Pete Thorne, a popular figure known locally as Malandela, ‘the follower’, it expanded with the addition of his wife’s craft shop, and Pete’s love for sharing a pint developed into the pub and restaurant which stand today.

The beautiful garden setting is quite popular with tourists and locals alike, thanks partly to the ornate, surreal sculptures that adorn the events venue. They’re made from the same red earth that Pete used to build his pub, giving the whole place a really rustic feel.

With some spare time on our hands, Riaan felt that a quick stop at Swazi Candles was in order. We had the opportunity to see the candlemakers at work, while also exploring the plethora of crafts on sale at the tourist market that it forms a part of. Tourism is truly burgeoning in eSwatini, and it’s fantastic to see so many locals contributing directly to the industry. They’re being helped by some decent infrastructure investment, too.

With Toni’s Jimny weighing heavily with curios and candles, we headed onward and southward for Hlane Royal National Park, a Big Five reserve close to the Swazi border with Mozambique. On arrival, we sat down for a couple of crisp beers in full view of our new neighbours, a couple of unbothered and statuesque hippos at the waterhole right next to the Ndlovu Camp restaurant. Soon enough, they were joined by a pair of white rhinos, meaning we didn’t even need to leave the camp to encounter the park’s most famous residents.

That didn’t stop Angus, Daniel, and I from commandeering Riaan’s Patrol for an afternoon game drive, while the rest of the crew dozed off in the comfort of their chalets. Who made the right decision, you ask? Well, just ask the five rhino we got up close and personal with. Daniel spotted them from atop the car, after we passed a couple of curious giraffe in the dry thicket. We even got to watch the mother rhino bulldoze an inquisitive male out of her calf’s path. Needless to say, and knowing the land speed of said rhino, Angus had the Nissan in first the whole time…

We did go off in search of the park’s isolated lion pride, as well, but a combination of Garmin fumbling and poor time management meant we probably set off in the entirely wrong direction. Back at camp, we lit our paraffin lamps and sat down for a pre-dinner kuier outside Riaan’s chalet, before heading off for another superb buffet dinner – this time under the watchful eyes of a pair of resident barn owls.

We ended the evening where it began, back outside the chalet. Undeterred by some light drizzle, we indulged in some of ‘Tant Sannie se Melktert’ – a despicably delicious concoction – and reflected on some time well-spent in the Kingdom of eSwatini. The coast was calling, and who were we to refuse it?

Bom dia, Santa Maria!

Dark clouds heralded rain on our approach to the Goba Frontera border post, which, ironically, boded well for our drive towards the coast. Although we did spend a significant amount of time getting the convoy through the border and onward to Maputo, we appreciated the opportunity to see the change that has been effected on the country by the Chinese.

Perhaps most notable of all is the Maputo-Katembe bridge, the largest of its kind in all of Africa. The 3km-long concrete and steel behemoth isn’t that intimidating from a distance, but once you’re passing underneath its towering pillars, any car will feel like a Jimny! Sadly, this modern marvel has cost Maputo dearly. From all accounts, the river delta that the bridge transverses has suffered major environmental damage as a result of the construction, with many pointing fingers at an environmentally-negligent approach by the Chinese benefactors.

Sadder yet is the devastation that has been wreaked upon Mozambique’s once-fertile coastline, with Chinese fishing vessels trawling everything in their path as compensation for their infrastructure contributions. As of October 2019, relations between the two countries seem to have stalled following ongoing corruption investigations, but the damage has already been done.

Luckily, we were in for some eco-friendly respite at Maputo Elephant Reserve, which has been a haven for one of Africa’s historically vulnerable pachyderm populations for some time now. A quick stop at the gate gave us the opportunity to deflate tyres, with Anthony lending his expertise to the 4×4 newbies among us. It was time to put these off-roaders to the test and, with 90km of thick sand between us and Santa Maria, the Kia had its work cut out for it.

The rain had firmed up the sand a bit, but there were still plenty of long slogs and deep ruts to overcome. The Fortuner ate everything up with consummate ease, proving once again that its body-on-frame underpinnings make for a winning recipe. Meanwhile, Daniel was cutting his teeth in the Jimny, and despite his total lack of 4×4 experience, he conquered hill and trough without so much as a high-revved whine from the little Suzuki.

The Sorento, meanwhile, had everyone holding their breath. It had managed the flat sections with ease, but in 90km of sand, you’re bound to come across some horrible slopes. At one point, the front bumper was more sand than plastic, but the Kia made it around every corner right on cue. One particular hill did require a couple of attempts up, but once again, the Sorento proved that there will always be a place for AWD SUVs.

Maputo Special (Elephant) Reserve

Forming one part of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area, Maputo Special Reserve is home to a wealth of land and marine biodiversity, inhabiting lakes, wetlands, forests, grasslands, mangrove forests and sandstone reefs. It occupies an area of 1 500km², and stretches all the way to the Tembe Elephant Park in KwaZulu-Natal.

The reserve is home to more than 400 elephants, many of whom are survivors of the Mozambican Civil War. The reserve is a safe haven from conflict and poaching, protected by teams of rangers and backed by the Peace Parks Foundation. It is a genuine success story in the conservation of wildlife in this war-torn part of Africa.

Our journey was peppered with zebra and a variety of antelope, but there was a distinct lack of the park’s namesake. Where were the elephants? Wherever they had set up camp for the day, it was far off the beaten path. Nevertheless, we trundled on, as dense woodland opened up into vast, grassy plains, before transforming into coastal forests that signalled our approach to Santa Maria, a tiny settlement right at the edge of the Machangulo Private Nature Reserve. The reserve is an extension of the Maputo Elephant Reserve, managed and maintained by the local community.

Santa Maria is home to a lovely getaway called Bemugi’s Place, which would be our home for the next two nights. Just before sundown, we were welcomed into the sand-floored, nautical-themed restaurant by Bemugi himself, and what happened next set the tone for the weekend. You see, Mozambicans have a drink called an R&R (Rum and Raspberry), which is a deadly combination of the local Tipo Tinto rum and Sparletta Morango. Morango actually means strawberry, but that’s not important. What’s important is that the drinks get stronger and stronger as the evening winds on. Riaan’s epic generosity ensured that the party went on well into the wee hours of the morning, ending in a mad wobble towards our beach houses. It didn’t help that the keys were numbered incorrectly…

Parrotfish & prego rolls

After the long haul through the sand, we were quite ready for a tropical vacation, and that’s exactly what Riaan had planned. Santa Maria is a jump-off point to Inhaca Island and Portuguese Island, two tropical getaways popular with cruise liners and sun-seeking tourists. A quick speedboat journey across Canal de Santa Maria took us to our snorkelling spot for the morning, because what good is a tropical holiday without some colourful fish?

We geared up and got wet, plunging off the edge of the southern tip of Inhaca Island and onto a magnificent sandstone reef, teeming with all manner of marine life. The water visibility wasn’t perfect, but it was still clear enough for us to see the sea floor a good 10-15m below. Our boat captain, Rocky, reassured me that there were no sharks nearby, but I wasn’t convinced. Soon enough, however, I had forgotten all about Jaws, and I was diving down to get a closer look at the huge schools of fish darting around us.

Once we had dried off, we headed further north towards Portuguese Island, and we could just barely make out the jagged skyline of Maputo from across the bay. Outside of cruise season, the MSC resort on Portuguese Island is totally deserted, bar a few security guards and some curious seagulls. All the real action happens back on Inhaca, were we hopped off at a small harbour and walked along a sand road to get to Restaurante Lucas, a famous local establishment renowned for its Portuguese cuisine and laid-back atmosphere.

While Angus laced up yet again and headed out on a run around the small town, we ordered some steak prego rolls, Mac Mahon Dois M beers, and plenty of R&R to go around. It was a great opportunity to sit back and chat about our remarkable experiences over the previous days, dampened only by a particularly boisterous bunch of tourists that sat a couple of tables away from us. Lunch was followed by a brief walk through the election campaign poster-plastered town, where wood-carvers and curio traders sell their wares to eager tourists. Yes, Toni, I’m looking at you!

Back on the boats, we sped back towards Santa Maria, startling some very pink flamingos along the way and soaking in some of the blazing sun while the sea painted us with salt. That’s island life, and we were loving every second of it. Back at Bemugi’s, Angus and I readied our triumphant vehicle fleet for some sunset snaps on the beach. Riaan arrived just in time with a couple of cold ones, and we watched the sun fade on our adventure one last time, confident we had made the most of our time abroad.

That evening was more of the same, with drinks flowing as we chowed down on some authentic Mozambican prawns, calamari, and chicken, with Anthony and Niel regaling us with tall tales and expertly-cracked jokes, setting the scene for another long night with our toes in the sand at Bemugi’s. It’s funny how a group of near-strangers can band together so tightly in just a few days. Perhaps it has something to do with that rum?

Homebound & heartsore

As morning broke, our adventure was nearly at an end, but we still had 90km of sand between us and the road to Kosi Bay. We waved farewell to Bemugi and his place, and started the hard trudge back to civilisation – reluctantly, it must be said. Once again, all three vehicles proved themselves on the sand, but alas, no elephant. We made a quick detour at one of the reserve’s magnificent lakes, and then it was all cylinders go until the gate, where some quick air compressor work had our rubber ready for the tar.

Riaan had one last trick up his sleeve: lunch in Ponta do Ouro, already packed with South African tourists seeking to escape the chilly weather back home. The real reason for our stop was to pick up some cut-price Tipo Tinto, but for those of us who never want to drink it again, it was nice to take in the bustling atmosphere of the resort town.

Once through the border post at Kosi Bay, we began to part ways, with our manufacturer contingent breaking off and heading home. For Angus, Riaan, and I, there were still many kilometres until Pretoria, but we were well-rested and satisfied with a successful adventure.

Where we stayed

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
Lobamba, eSwatini
Accommodation: Camping, self-catering cottages, lodges, dormitories & huts.
Meals: Hippo Haunt Restaurant
Activities: Swimming pool, horse riding, game drives, mountain biking, hiking trails & cultural experience.
Tel: +268 2528 3992
Email: reservations@biggameparks.org
Web: www.biggameparks.org
GPS: 26°28’47.7″S 31°11’44.2″E

Hlane National Park
Simunye, eSwatini
Accommodation: Camping, self-catering huts & cottages.
Meals: On-site restaurant
Activities: Guided walks, game drives, birding, mountain biking & cultural experience.
Tel: +298 2528 3943
Email: reservations@biggameparks.org
Web: www.biggameparks.org
GPS: 26°16’21.0″S 31°52’49.2″E

Bemugi’s Place
Santa Maria, Maputo, Mozambique
Accommodation: Campsite & self-catering houses.
Meals: On-site pub & restaurant
Activities: Boat trips, fishing, snorkelling, canoeing, whale watching & wake boarding.
Tel: +258 4385 6836
Email: bemugis@gmail.com
Web: www.bemugis.com

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