Tag Archives: Travel

Rockin’ at Rock Lodge

A hidden entrance to an enchanting getaway.

This weekend I celebrated Austrialian Day here in Swaziland with a wonderful bunch of Aussie volunteers. Snags on the barbie and a luscious pavlova were on the menu…at Rock Lodge. An amazing local livelihood project south west of Malkerns at a little community called Ngwempisi, the lodge was built in 2004 and looked like something out of the Hobbit. A South African designer was brought in to execute the plan — a three-story structure built around some monstrous boulders. No electricity, open air, propane tanks provided cooking fuel, and yet running water that was potable!  And to top it off, an outdoor, flush toilet and glorious shower! A steep 1/2 km below us was a wonderful river to swim in (no Bilharzia, fast running water, fingers crossed). Two separate dorm-type rooms offered more than enough bunk beds for our 12-person group, firewood for the BBQ pit was provided upon our request and a guide was arranged to take the group down to the river (a little hard to find on your own). A Swaziland adventure to savour…

A gorgeous respite in rural Swaziland!

Fellow volunteer Camille shouldering the boulders..

Take me to the river!

Water was far too fast for crocs or hippos…but super refreshing.

Chillin’ on the terrace.

Sleeping with nature.

Our boulder neighbour dude.

The superstar goat at the top of the hill.


Christmas In Southern Africa


After a hectic five months, my holidays have arrived! I took off for Kruger Park and Mozambique shortly after my birthday, which was a lovely present. It took around 6 hours to get to Kruger from Manzini. Our little bungalow was tight but did the trick. Three bats in the curtains the first night! The rest of the game we saw was even more amazing. A pride of lions…at least 15 of them, during our night drive. During the day we saw tons of hippos, elephants, zebras, impala and quite a few rhino. I love the elephants and rhinos best. Such lovely majestic big beasts.


Following Kruger, we headed to Mozambique. Stayed in a sweet rest spot called Casa Lisa and then on to Tofo Bay. This is where the whale shark supposedly hang out. Unfortunatley, overfishing (nets) and too much curious human activity have driven them from the area. The tour info doesn’t tell you that of course. Oh well. We swam in an aqua Indian Ocean, saw dolphins and tons of small fish, lounged on sugary sand beaches, met fantastic fellow travellers and generally did not want to leave. Prawns and fresh fish can be bought at the local market. Coconuts are everywhere, people are lovely and friendly – patty caking with all the local children. Music booms from every grass shack. Our accommodation, Turtle Cove was lovely, off the beach, but very chill and fantastic food. Couldn’t have asked for more.

Now we are back in Manzini and had a wonderful Christmas dinner with some fellow expat volunteers, and Swazi friends. Turkey and creamed spinach and trifle. Yum! I feel very blessed to have been able to skype with my family back in freezing Ottawa. Saw the snow!! yeow!

We’ll be travelling Swaziland in the next week and visiting friends. It’s full on summer, so very warm. Any chance to swim is good.

Merry Christmas to all my readers. I appreciate your interest and support and wish you the best of the best in 2013!


Back to Mlilwane

One of Mlilwane's resident springboks.

This week was busy…and tiring. We had a very inspiring Gender Consortium meeting on Friday at SWAGAA — in November is a global initiative called 16 Days of Activism Against Abuse and all the Swazi gender-based NGOs have a hand in raising awareness about what abuse is and how it can be stopped throughout the country. The weekend promised some much deserved R&R. Saturday I spent doing chores, grocery shopping and cleaning. Barbara Sibbald, a journalist visiting from Ottawa to do a story about MSF for the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and I planned to go to Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Saturday night I awoke around 4 am to the crashing of thunder and lightning. God was bowling 10-pin right above my head, but by 7 am, the noise and rain had subsided. Instead, the country was covered in a Scotch mist. Barbara and I decided to chance it since Barbara was heading back to Canada in a few days. We headed out to the sanctuary with our intrepid taxi driver, Gift, the only female taxi driver in Manzini.  Gift, had never been inside the part before, so the three of us decided to head in, Gift at the wheel.

Love those markings!

We all had our cameras out, Gift snapping shots with her cell phone to show her three kids when she got home. Despite the weather, we saw blue wildebeests, bushbucks, blesbuck, impala and zebra. Although we hung round the hippo pool hopefully, none of the big beasts showed themselves. I was especially disappointed, wanting to check up on the poor fellow I had seen a couple of week ago who was covered in war wounds after a nasty fight with another big male. Oh well, we had a really great time, driving around the 4500 ha park, checking out the original homestead, Reilly’s Rock lodge, where a lovely attendant pointed us in the right direction after we had gone in circles for about half an hour. “I’m sure they don’t put signs up so that tourists have to hire guides,” Gift said indignantly. On the way home, we learned a bit about her life. She was originally from South African, but married a Swazi who paid 17 cattle as the “bride price” to her father. Not only did she drive cab, but she had various business diplomas and was learning sign language to expand her opportunities. Swaziland has a large deaf population because a side effect of the antiretroviral drugs for HIV is loss of hearing. She also had worked at the textile factories in Matsapha and told us she’d never go back. “They pay E840 a month and you get fired if you talk!” she said indignantly. That’s around $100 a month. Many of the women have to supplement this meager amount by selling their bodies, Gift told us. Swaziland is quite modernized, but also extremely impoverished. Just to get to work, feed themselves and put some sort of roof over their heads is extremely taxing for textile workers earning that wage. It is a beautiful country, but there is much going on that bubbles disturbingly below the surface.



Swaziland’s Smallest Wildlife Sanctuary


At the park entrance

A lovely lunch, a horribly injured hippo, and beehive huts – it was hot and sunny day in Mlilwane Park today, Swaziland’s smallest wildlife sanctuary (4,560 hectares). After taking a kombi (mini van transpiration – maximum 15 people, usually with around 17 stuffed in) to the turnoff from the main highway, Camille, Haley and I walked for around 4 km to get to the park entrance. Camille and Haley are also volunteers, and like me are thirsty to explore this beautiful country.

Haley (L) and Camille (R).

We paid our E40 admission fee ($5) and were told we could walk to the base camp. “It’s just over the hill, at the hippo pond,” the guard told us. Another 1 km on the bright red, muddy path, passing springbok and warthogs, and we were there.

Hot, exhausted and ready to sit. Entering the camp area, we passed lovely looking beehive huts, where you can stay overnight. Peeking inside, they looked lovely, double bed, and ensuite bathroom. Very civilized.

We continued to a campfire area but were stopped in our tracks by a huge, slow hippo, which waddled in front of us. Hippos can be very dangerous. Usually during the day they keep submerged in cool ponds and rivers. Only at night do they venture out of the water to forage. If you get in the path of a hippo and the water, they will charge. Humans don’t stand a chance against this hurtling tonnage. So it was with much trepidation we skirted past this fellow to the restaurant. As we passed him, we noticed his back was badly scratched and bleeding. Ugh.

Warrior hippo.

Was this a skin condition? Was he poorly cared for? I had been reading all about Marineland in Ontario and was feeling very cautious about this situation. Sitting down for lunch, we gazed at other hippos in the pond, as well as a crocodile and much noisy waterfowl. Lunch was delightful, a grilled chicken salad, and as we ate, the injured hippo came to one side of the restaurant deck. “What has happened to him?” I asked the waiter. “Oh, he was in a fight a few days ago. He was trying to protect a female and a small one from another bull. The bull tried to kill him,” the waiter told me. The hippo was staying out of the water because it irritated the gashes, he said. Nature is cruel, nothing sentimental or sappy about it. I don’t know if the environment in the reserve exacerbated the situation or not. All I can hope for is this magnificent creature will heal. I’ll definitely be going back to check.

Not sure if this was the one he was fighting, or protecting.

Dancing Maidens at Umhlanga

Royal maidens leading the regiments.

Ever since I got to Swaziland, people have been talking about Umhlanga. Gina, a German volunteer in our office was incredulous when I admitted not knowing what it was. “Have you been living under a rock? Umhlanga is Swaziland’s biggest event. Every year we always see pictures of it in the newspaper in Germany.” Smirks and smiles accompanied every mention of this event, especially by the guys. “All the Swazi maidens dance before the king, and they’re almost naked,” Gina explained. Wow. How could I not know about this? I started to do a little digging on the Internet and couldn’t actually find that much. Even Wikipedia’s listing was lacking citations. What I was able to piece together was that Umhlanga, also known in English as the Reed Dance, happens every year over eight days, usually the end of August, early September, when reeds are ready for harvest.

Sings and dancing (more like marching) round the stadium.

Thousands of Swazi maidens (reports state anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000) pay honour to the Queen Mother, marching to fields of reeds, chopping them down, bundling them up and then presenting them to the Queen Mother as windbreakers for her residence. Over beers at the local hotel, I found out from various Swazi men that the King was known to choose a wife from the maidens occasionally. Some people even thought the whole exercise was for the King.

The costumes were the big attraction for onlookers — a bead necklace, wool sash, rattling anklets made from cocoons, and skirt (actually more of a belt). Many maidens carry a machete, which they use to cut the reeds.

The maidens make their own skirts. Good thing it was warm that day.

Cocoon anklets.When did this all begin? The Internet sources were fuzzy. Maybe the 1940s, maybe more recently. It seems the official purpose of the annual ceremony is actually about virginity. When I arrived at the big event, I was given a pamphlet that noted, “This tradition is focused on encouraging young Swazi women to abstain from intimate relations and keep their virginity intact until they are considered old enough to be married. The second main objective is to provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother.” The age of participants ranged from toddlers to young women in their twenties. Apparently there is random virgin testing. A Swazi woman pointed out a young woman with a fantastic, blingy hair arrangement. “That’s the King’s girlfriend,” she whispered. Humm. My guess is she managed to avoid the testing. At the head of the regiments of girls were lineups of young women with red feathers in their hair. A sign of royalty, I was told. There were a lot of red feathers, which makes sense since the King has 14 wives (and many children) and his father had 70 wives and around 1,000 grandchildren. Lots and lots of royalty in Swaziland, I’ve found. I missed the presentation of the reeds to the Queen Mum, but I got there for the King’s appearance.

I missed getting a photo of the King, but this guy's rear view was more interesting anyway.

A red carpet was rolled out onto the stadium grounds and out trotted a group of around 50 men, all in traditional Swazi attire – a long cloth tied around the waist, topped with a leopard skin. Apparently Nelson Mandela’s grandson was amidst the throng. The group ran around the maidens, stopping to pay tribute by bending before the ones that caught the King’s eye. When they were finished and back up in their stadium seating, assistants handed out Styrofoam boxes to select guests. Gina had somehow made it into a VIP area. “I was sitting near the King,” she told me the next day. Thus, she got a Styrofoam box. “What was in there?” I asked. “Samosas and pizza slices.”  At the end of last day of the ceremony, the sun slipped down behind the mountains flanking the stadium and Ludzidzini Royal Village and one of the King’s daughters came out to do a dance. Singing and shaking, she proudly proclaimed, “I am a virgin and I am not afraid to be tested.” As if daring an inspection, she promptly did a back bend. Nervous laughs could be heard amongst the audience. My Swazi friend noted, “She did this once before and was spoken to about it.”  Royals and controversy. Doesn’t matter what country you’re in. Wonder if she’s met Prince Harry?

Luckily we didn't meet maiden requirements, so we didn't have to wear maiden attire.

Swazi Food

I’ve been in Swaziland for two weeks and am starting to get the hang of things. On one hand it’s a very modern country, for those with an education and money, and a very challenging one for those without.  There’s a brand new mall near my house, called Riverstone Mall, and it looks much like anything we’d have in North America, or even nicer. This is where I do most of my food shopping…at a grocery store called Pick’N’Pay, which is a South African chain. Interestingly, the prices are the same or higher than prices in Canada and you can get just about all the same sort of stuff. Feta cheese, butter, milk in a carton, even frozen foods. Anything processed is expensive. I stick to mainly vegetarian choices. Lots of lentils, beans, rice and yummy fresh produce. There are tons of vendors and street stalls, too. They all seem to sell the same produce, it looks like from a mega-agro producer. You can’t get single items, everything comes tightly bagged in multiples. I bought a bag of 8 tomatoes today for 5 E – roughly 60 cents. So, some vegetables and fruits are quite a bit cheaper than in Canada. Other produce I’ve been enjoying include fresh oranges, lemons and avocados. I made guacamole the other day to die for. But no corn chips anywhere! I made do with crackers.

Here are a few more of my observations in this tiny, beautiful country so far….

1)    Swazis love meat. A BBQ cook-up is called a Braai. My stove is even equipped with a “braai” or grill.

A little spot in Manzini with delicious braai.

2)    The love of meat can even be seen in potato-chip flavours – Short rib or Smoked Beef chips are very popular.

3) There are also many interesting sauces on the grocery store shelves.

3)    Plastic bags are everywhere. I buy three items and I get three plastic bags. Cashiers look at you like you’re crazy when you tell them you brought your own bag.

4)    South African wine is a tremendous value. Some of my favorites that sell in the LCBO for $12 or more are less than half-price here!

5)    There is a whole section in the grocery story devoted to “fat spreads” aka margarine. I prefer butter, but even so, it’s enough to put you off your toast.

6)     Swazis aren’t really into coffee. I’ve found only 2 coffee shops in Manzini, a town of more than 70,000. Thankfully I have my own coffee maker.

7)    KFC is everywhere.

8)    I’ve only seen one person riding a bike.

9)    There are three gyms in Manzini, and lots of expat members. This is because there are quite a few international NGOs (Clinton Health Access Initiative, Catholic Relief Services), both here and in the capital city of Mbabane.

10)                  I’ve discovered a delicious relish-y item called chakalaka. It’s made of onions, carrots, green peppers, tomatoes and chilies and you can buy it in a can or at the take away vendors. You can put it on bread or use it to spice up just about any entrée. I love it and mix it with beans, cabbage and any other main course dish.

11)                  Swazis eat a cornmeal mixture that is much like polenta, called pap. It looks like mashed potatoes on the plate and is very dense. It’s not particularly flavourful on its own, but is delicious with chakalaka!


There are lots more Swazi specialties for me to explore and I’ll be sure to share my experiences with you on this African adventure.

Bon appetite!

On the road in northern Ethiopia

Driving north from Addis, farmland and mountains stretched for eons...

We’re currently on a road trip in northern Ethiopia that will last 10 days. First stop was two hours north of Addis in Debre Behar, where we met two volunteers at the local teaching college. Maeve Keenan’s specialty is advising teacher trainers on learning programs for students with special needs. They practice in a local primary school, which accommodates children who are blind, physically disabled and mentally challenged. It was a Sunday, so we couldn’t see Maeve in action with her students, but we took a quick tour of the campus after delivering heaters to Maeve, and another freshly arrived volunteer from the UK, Fatima Jussab “It gets below freezing here in the evening, last night it was –5 C,” Maeve told us, shivering. I interviewed Maeve and Fatima about their experiences over breakfast at a restaurant called Eva’s, owned by a famous female Ethiopian runner. They had crepes with jam and I had delicious scrambled eggs and a macchiato, a sort of Ethiopian cappuccino.

Dessie was next, which we got to around 6 pm that night. Freezing! I had to put on my fleece and windbreaker jacket. Mahlet, who is accompanying us from the Addis VSO office, donned her toque. We met Raffi Matutino, an IT volunteer from the Philippines and Joe Abell, an English Language Improvement Center (ELIC) volunteer from the UK for dinner at a small café downtown. The guys all had lamb tibbs (cubed meat fried with onions) and I had vegetable soup – just not feeling that hungry. We stayed in a pension that night, a sort of 2-story motel, which luckily had double blankets. Breakfast was in a funny café with a slightly Roman feel, white columns and a mermaid statue. I went for a scrambled egg with berbere (blended chili spice) sauce and onions while the others had special foul which was eggs, beans, onions, spicy tomato sauce and some yogurt on top. Our driver Tamrat gave me a taste and it was delicious.

We met Raffi and Joe at their house and loaded a spare mattress in the truck that they wanted moved to campus. At Dessie Teachers Education College, I interviewed the dean about the school’s commitment to VSO, and then spoke to Raffi and Joe separately about their roles. Raffi, who had a 1-year placement, was told he’d have to wait five months before IT equipment he needed would arrive. In the meantime he was filling his time by giving some of the teachers basic computer training. “I just want to be of some use,” he told me, adding that he planned to look around at other colleges to see if he could help them out while he awaited his equipment delivery. Joe wasn’t sure what his role was yet. Having taught English in Cameroon for two years, he expected to have the same job here, but that wasn’t the case. The ELIC advisors I met before created guidebooks and manuals for teacher trainers to use, encouraging students to be creative and come up with engaging, active learning plans. Perhaps this is what Joe will end up doing as well.


Butcher shop delivery on a non fasting day!

Addis Ababa is a diplomatic hub, swimming with white UN vehicles and trucks emblazoned with NGO emblems. The home of the Organization of African Unity and the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa,  Addis is also one quirky town. Here are a few things I’ve noticed so far…

• Only a few streets have names, and most people don’t know them. You have to give cab drivers landmarks to get where you need to go.

• Open sewers are everywhere, so is the fragrance. Sidewalks (where there are some) have stone slabs covering the sewers, and sometimes a slab is missing. It’s a 4 foot drop. You don’t want to fall in.

• Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days. That means no animal products available on the menu. These are great days for vegetarians – the shared platter known as ye som megeb, or fasting beyainatu, is a portion of injera (a flat spongy pancake made from teff) covered with helpings of lentils, chickpea mash, cooked spinach and whole vegetables like beans, carrots and potatoes. You eat with your right hand. Restaurants are all equipped with sinks to wash after you’ve eaten.

• Beef/goat/lamb is super popular (on non-fast days). The city is filled with Christian butcher shops, identified by the red cross on the outside.

• The population is about 60/40 Christian/Muslim.

• The beer is delicious. I love two brands, St. George’s and Harar. Cost is 12-15 birr (80 cents). Only Christians drink alcohol. Muslim cafes are good for juice, chai and coffee. Some places serve a drink that is a mixture of chai and coffee.

• Average salary for a middle class person is around 1500 birr per month (a little under $100). Lowest wage is around 30 birr per day (the average for a shoe shiner, and there are lots of them).

• Many diplomats live in an area called Washington. The large houses rent for around 40,000 birr per month.

• Elevation is 2,408 meters – thin air mixed with dust and diesel fumes makes breathing difficult. I walked up Entoto Mountain, which looks over the city and has an elevation of 3,000 meters. Gasp!

• Call to prayer – Christian and Muslim — starts around 5 am. Sleeping in is not an option.

•  Cabbies all drive blue and white Ladas. You have to negotiate a price before getting in. The ferengi price is always double. State of repair varies. Push start? Hanging wires? Door won’t close? Teddy bear in the back? You never know.

• Main traumas in hospitals are from traffic accidents. Ethiopia has the 2nd highest traffic accident fatality rate in Africa.

• When Manchester United plays, most of the city shuts down and TV cafes are packed. Bring on the St. George’s!

• St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia.