Christmas at Hlane

Christmas 2011 at Hlane Royal National Park

We’ve been celebrating Christmas together for several years but this year was the most unusual.  We wanted to get away from site for a few days so we went to Hlane Royal National Park.  (Just a note…this post was originally written with the intention of uploading some videos of our expierence—however our internet is not cooperating right now.  We’ll insert some photos for now, we’ll keep working on the videos and hopefully have them up soon.)

The trip began early in the morning on Christmas Eve.  Despite the fact that we live quite near Hlane, the entrance is on the opposite side of the park and our only transport option has us taking a very round-about way.  Now, holidays in Swaziland always come with perilous transport (as the driver of any bus or kombi might just decide to stay home that day), but this Christmas Eve was even more perilous as it was pouring rain.  We headed out and huddled under an umbrella a couple kilometers from our school waiting for the 7:30 am bus to take us to the tarred road.  The umbrella was purchased before our move over seas because it was cheap and small.  Unfortunately that morning, the umbrella proved to be cheap and small.  Soon, 7:30 passed and so did a kombi—filled to the brim with people and unwilling to stop and pick us up.  8:00 passed and we were beginning to lose hope—the bus had been early before, but never this late.  Finally, at 8:30 the bus came bounding around the corner of our now muddy, slip-n-slide of a road.  We were so excited to get inside—that was, until we got inside.  As this, and the previously mentioned kombi, were the only transport options available to leave our community (or any community along about 20km of our road) they were packed with holiday travelers.  The bus which has about 50 seats was more reminiscent of a moshpit—well over 100 (maybe even 150) soggy, sweaty bodies were crammed into the bus-shaped mold.  We ended up standing in the aisle towards the front.  Rebecca wound up smashed into the side of a seat between two tall men as Oliver was trying to take up as little of the crowded aisle as possible by leaning much to far into a seated passenger’s personal space.  At every stop, one or two people would get off and three would get on.  This was not the way to start a couple days of relaxation and celebration.

After one bus transfer and several cramped muscles, we arrived at our destination—Hlane Royal National Park.  Walking into the park was exciting, but the rains continued to pour down.  We checked in, but our room was not ready and the rain had grounded all activity in the park to a halt.  In addition, the self-guided walking trails we had read about are only in the Northern part of the park and were reserved for families renting cottages in the satellite camp.  We sat under a shelter watching an empty water hole thinking about Christmas cookies and snow and family.

We stuck it out though…spending the rest of the morning reading  under the pavilion while our room was prepared.  Once we were let in, unpacked, and took a nap things started to look up.  The rain was letting up and some hippos emerged from the watering hole.  We also discovered that the log on the bank was actually a crocodile and although it didn’t actually move, it was ten times more exciting to look at.  Very few people were at the park so it was very quiet and relaxing.  As we had dinner at the camp restaurant, we watched a family dispute break out among the hippos, as is common among family holiday celebrations.

Family Christmas Dispute

We ended the night in our rented hut by watching Love Actually by the light of our gas lantern.

Just like kids across America—we got very little sleep as we were so excited for our ‘Rhino Drive’ scheduled for early the next morning.  We got up at 4:30 am and watched the sun-rise at the watering hole, met our guide,  and set off into the park.

Rebecca ready for Safari!

It wasn’t long before we got to our first rhinos.  Now, the Rhino Drive is special because you have the opportunity to hop out of the vehicle to walk with the rhinos.  As we were the only two on this Christmas Morning Safari, we got to pick when we got out and where we went.  The first two rhinos were laying down in the mud.  Our guide started to explain how rhinos have very poor eyesight so they rely on listening and smell alert them to their surroundings.
Watch out!
These two were very curious
As they moved closer and closer to try and figure out what we were, we cautiously backed towards the truck. Oliver convinced Rebecca to turn her back on the gigantic animals with horns so he could take a “fun” picture.  Suddenly, the rhinos picked up a little speed and lurched towards us.  Rebecca did a great job of following the guides instructions and not screaming, and our guide used his ninja like reflexes to bend down and pick up and handful of the rhino dung we had been talking about, yelled and threw it in their faces (we guess to make them think we are rhinos too)  They came to a sudden stop.  After a second to catch our breath, the Rhinos marked the territory as only a pair of rhinos could and headed off into the bush.  Our journey continued with a  total of 15 White Rhino (some of them only a year old) spotting and a number of other animals (more pictures are on our flickr on the right hand side of the page), including a mother and baby elephant.

Elephant and Baby

We returned from our drive feeling much better about our decision to stay at the park for the holidays and got ready for the Christmas Lunch in the restaurant.  It was quite a fancy affair and came complete with Christmas cookies and ‘Crackers.’

Christmas Lunch

Dessert at Christmas Lunch

After eating WAY to much food, we settled in for another relaxing afternoon at the waterhole reading.  Just as the sun set, we headed back to our hut to attempt to Skype with our families back home.  On our way, we came across a swarm of insects emerging from the ground and one very gluttonous frog enjoying his own Christmas feast.

Fat Frog Feasting

We were able to at least have a short conversation over Skype with our families and fell asleep to yet another hippo argument.

Happy New Year,

Oliver and Rebecca

Rebecca is currently reading: Passage to India

Oliver is currently reading: The 5-minute Iliad

P.S. Don’t forget to check out the rest of our pictures on our Flickr.

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