Joe and I recently returned from a trip to Swaziland, where we worked on a story for World AIDS Day. It was an eventful trip so I’m dividing my account of it into three parts.

We left for Swaziland a day early so we could visit the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden, a nature reserve for rescued chimps near the town of Nelspruit, about four hours from Joburg. Joe wanted to investigate a potential story and I wanted to see the chimps. It was also a good opportunity to see another part of South Africa. Nelspruit is a popular jumping-off point for people visiting Kruger National Park. It’s in the Lowveld, which means it’s lower elevation than the Highveld, where Joburg is. It’s also much hotter and damper. The town is bordered by rainforest.

We got a late start (as usual) and didn’t arrive at Chimp Eden until about 3 o’clock. We’d missed the last tour but the guard at the gate said we could drive up to the lodge and make an appointment to speak with the director.

We drove a couple of miles up a dirt road and found the lodge, but there was not a human soul to be found there. It was odd. We wandered around and managed to see some chimps in an enclosure a few hundred yards away. (Sorry, I left my camera in the car so no pics.) Then we gave up and left.

But look what we saw on our way out!

The first of many fantastic wildlife sightings on this trip.

A rock had chipped Joe’s windshield earlier in the day, and a chipped windshield would never survive the roads in Swaziland. So we drove back into town to get it fixed. By the time that was done, it was obvious we’d be spending the night in Nelspruit. I opened my Rough Guide South Africa book and basically picked a guest house at random. It was called Utopia in Africa. Joe called them and they had a room available that we could afford (R900, or $128). Done.

There was about an hour of daylight left, so we decided to visit the Lowveld National Botanical Garden in Nelspruit. I know what you’re thinking: “Another botanical garden??” But yes. There are lots of gardens in South Africa because a lot grows here. Anyway, this particular garden is considered to be one of the best in the country.

In the garden.

Walking into the garden was like walking straight into a jungle. In fact it is a jungle. It was interesting to compare the vegetation there to the Highveld vegetation at the gardens I’ve been to in Joburg. There were also tons of vervet monkeys – the first monkeys I’ve seen since moving to South Africa – and a roaring waterfall.

Monkeys!

Plated Lizard.

On our way from the garden to the guest house we witnessed a spectacular sunset. We pulled over on the side of the highway to take pictures of it.

Obviously this is Joe’s doing, not mine.

(I know, I know. Sunsets are also overused in this blog. But what are you gonna do.)

We arrived at Utopia in Africa, which was tucked away on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, right as it got dark. We were greeted at the gate by Patricia, the proprietress, and Sam the dog. We immediately loved both of them. As we unpacked the car we saw a beautiful pair of spotted eagle owls calling to each other from opposite ends of the roof – I’ve never seen an owl before so I was very excited. Alas, it was too dark for pictures.

I don’t know how we keep finding these amazing places to stay. Utopia in Africa is true to its name. I don’t even know how to describe it – a lovely thatched house on the side of a hill, perched on the edge of a nature reserve. The balcony of our room looked out over endless green forest. There was an amazing vibe there – homey and relaxed, but sophisticated the same time. It definitely gives the Antbear a run for its money as my favorite place to stay in South Africa.

Here is a picture, although the Utopia website does a better job of showing what it looks like.

Utopia. If you ever go to Nelspruit, stay there. And don’t forget to request the Guinea Fowl Room.

There’s not much nightlife in Nelspruit, but Patricia recommended a restaurant called Zest in the new shopping mall up the road. The presentation of Joe’s bone-in fillet was very impressive so I’ve included a photo.

We really did not want to leave Utopia. And if we’d known what was in store for us at our lodge in Swaziland (plug for the next installment!), we might have stayed there forever.

We took the back way into Swaziland (Joe hates crowded border crossings). We passed through the town of Barberton and stopped by the side of the road for some avocados. Our last view of South Africa was this stunning section of the northern Drakensberg, where it felt like we were on the edge of the world.

Next up: Swaziland.

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