5 a.m. and Kruger starts to come alive. What we see has the unrealistic grasp of a movie in production: as if following invisible stage directions, wild animals start to pop up from the bushes. We activate vocal chords (zebraaaaa, giraaaafe, elephaaaaant, rhiiiinooo, buffaloooo), we swap places, jump over each other and inevitably squash a few toes and kick a few faces on our way to the windows. Takalani, happy with his vaccinated European kids’ reaction to such blooming fauna (and “most especially” with the proof that he did not bring us to Impala National Park) instructs us to shout some more when we want him to halt for snapshots. The truck is flooded with overexcitement: Africa, at last!
We’re not exactly riding at full speed, since Takalani truly wants us to reach our own private pictures-taking quota. The animals don’t seem to mind us until some of them approach us worryingly. We have everything under control, for Takalani has already trained us to yell when big animals were a wee bit too close and we deemed it dangerous. Upon hearing us, he would then start the engine (which he systematically turned off so as not to scare the animal away) and immediately take off. Judging by the fact that he occasionally did not hear us crying “stop: picture!” and that the engine took forever to warm up and decide whether to work or die on us, the success factors seemed less romantic.
And then, the unexpected: A young elephant crosses the road, centimetres away from the front of our truck. Takalani stops the engine and stays alert. The elephant stops, too, intrigued by our presence. It is big, powerful, and close enough to stretch its trump and transform Takalani’s massive vehicle into flying saucer. No one breathes for some long seconds. Takalani does a saving gesture: he lets the car slide down a bit. This, I believe, showed that we meant no harm. Dumbo is reassured and moves on. We inhale.
Further away cars were clustered, meaning that something major was on. We are indeed lucky to see our fourth Big Five: a young leopard lets his tail and legs hang from a tree for a unique photo shooting session. I damn my zoom lens for not reproducing the original in all its beauty and give myself a chance to put the device aside and observe. This is a rare sight, even for locals. Once more, there is silence.
Another look and we must leave world’s third biggest wild reserve behind. Life and Takalani carry us away at an extraordinary fast pace in this African adventure. Today we cross the Kingdom of Swaziland to reach Zululand.
The Land of the Swazis, outside South Africa, is in many aspects a dream country. First of all, it is so small, that you have to keep your eyes open as you cut across, so as not to miss it, my Swaziland-born friend told me. For the men who fancy polygamy, Swaziland is one of the last 50 countries that still acknowledge this practice. Here you can buy as many wives as you can handle, if you have the money and the stamina. The king himself, Mswati III, sets the good example by marrying a woman every year. Sadly, this is also where HIV touches half of the inhabitants – a figure hard to believe.
Mswati number III is a naughty boy: at 45, he counts 13 wives and 27 children, still a poor performance compared to that of his deceased father. The history goes that the late King Sobhuza II lived happily with his 70 wives and 97 children. This gives us a sense of Sobhuza’s favourite hobby and the volume of ginger that might have been consumed during his reign. Slightly less sex-oriented than his daddy, Mswati catches up reputation-wise by feeding the newspapers with other exemplary exploits. In a country where the majority of the population lives on less than the equivalent of 1.25 USD per day, the king, ranked one of the world’s 15th richest monarchs, spoils himself with bling bling parties and fancy gifts. But, being the last absolute monarch, he must think he’s worth it.
We pull the truck on the side of a large sugar-cane field to eat sandwiches and fresh mango. Some of us get grumpy at the sandwich, but Takalani has his way of making it go easier down the throat. “My brother, you will eat sandwiches until you say no more”.
We eat, pack and move on, for though tiny in size, Swaziland has a time-consuming border crossing process. Now as an immigrant, I am highly allergic to procedures. They usually require something that I don’t seem to have naturally been endowed with: patience. Queuing up and melting under the burning sun to get stamps that give you the right to step on the other side of the fence is something that I would have definitely revised, had I been one of the king’s wives. A privilege that I am denied, by the way, since Swaziland’s most wanted man narrows his choices to black African women only.
In total, we get our passports stamped in guise of souvenir four times: 2 for going out and back into South Africa and similarly into and out of Swaziland. “Hakuna Mat…Thank you,” say I to the lady who inks my document for one last time, making my return to SA legally possible.
At the Lavumisa/Golela border, some Zulu girls are dressed for what we suspect to be a special event, maybe a wedding. They enjoy themselves big time laughing at us: we must look as fallen from out of space. I do my best to get social and smile at my condition along with them, trying to come to terms with the idea that ridicule hasn’t killed anyone. Yet.