Nothing to Declare

Published in Africa Geographic, October 2005

“It is a very small place. Do you think George will fit in there?” We shared the German’s anxiety as we investigated the space, designed for one suitcase, behind the back seat of his VW Beetle. But our options were limited. We had just learned that George, with an American passport, needed a re-entry visa to get back into South Africa. The permit could only be issued in South Africa. We were in Swaziland.

We’d met Hans at Mlilwane Game Sanctuary, where we were relaxing after an exhilarating few days hiking in Malolotja Nature Reserve. No-one had told us Swaziland was so beautiful! Casinos and pornography, yes – sin was the big attraction for most South African visitors in 1975 – but here were green mountains, meadows full of flowers, simple campsites, and miles and miles of hiking trails. It was November, and the long-tailed widow birds were doing their thing, popping up out of the grass then fluttering down trailing their long tail feathers like a child’s kite. We saw wild antelope for the first time: blesbok (silly looking animals, we thought, with long, lugubrious faces) and I was enchanted to spot some dassies, smiling sweetly from the rock koppies. They reminded of cheerful guinea pigs.

Mlilwane also had its sweetly-smiling residents, though Rosie’s nature belied her appealing expression. The little warthog had been bottle-reared and was now an over-confident and bumptious adolescent. I’m sure (am I?) that her charge and sideways thrust of her little tusks were supposed to be friendly, but it left a permanent dent on my cine camera which I used as a shield. The hippo, Somersault, had an even bigger smile, and had reversed the usual hippo behaviour of snoozing during the day and eating at night so he could enjoy the snacks fed to him by the wardens. Then there were the blue cranes. Very elegant they were, dressed in haut-couture blue-grey, but with a mean streak. We watched one chase a visitor round the rest camp and into the thorn bushes.

For our first African game park we were not doing badly. But we wanted a game drive – that’s what you do in a game park – and for that we needed a car. Enter Hans. He was taking a short break from his engineering job in Johannesburg, and was glad of the company (so he said). It was while we were watching, in some astonishment, a pair of male nyala performing some sort of stiff-legged dance that Hans broke the news about the re-entry permit.

We were getting ready to leave. Our rucksacks were packed, and I’d insisted that George ate a small breakfast. “After all, if we’re going to fold you up into that space, there’s no room for a full stomach.” We stopped a mile from the border, and George climbed over the back seat. There was just room for him to assume a foetal position, kneeling on the floor with his head between his knees. “What ever you do, don’t sneeze” I said, covering him with a rug and a road atlas.

“Passports?” Hans and I beamed at the border guard as we handed over our documents. “Lovely day, isn’t it? Thank you so much.” And we drove across the frontier into South Africa.

© Hilary Bradt

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