Out of Africa: What It’s Like To Sleep in a Treehouse in Swaziland
After driving over 2200 miles across Sub-Saharan Africa, we crossed the border into Swaziland and arrived at a treetop bungalow amid tumbling waterfalls in the Hhohho Forest. The Phophonyane Falls Eco-Reserve— in the shadow of Piggs Peak, miles from the border of Mozambique in Mbabane– is the place where we exchanged South African rands for blue Swazi dollars and woke up to the birds chirping through the sound of running water.
Driven by a quest to capture the essence of Swaziland by conserving one of its most beautiful natural areas, Phophonyane is set along a series of waterfalls and cascades along beautiful old-growth forests– thus the name Phophonyane Falls. The reserve has views of the surrounding Gobolondlo Mountain ravine, and extensive, serene gardens.
The staff used slingshots to ward off the Vervet monkeys (the ones with the blue butts) who scampered hilariously across the water deck every morning. (They load the slingshots with palm nuts from the native forest; we drank Rooibis tea and hoped that they wouldn’t knock over the pot.) The on-site restaurant served Swazi curries and pap (a doughy midland grain dish that is eaten with hands) and cheerful staffers tended to guests who had the option to stay in a traditional Swazi beehive hut (which a staff member is finishing a few images below) or a tree house cabin, which is what we chose to do.
The reserve is nestled up in the hills in a middleveld enscarpment habitat (a fancy way to say that our elevation was so high that my sunscreen exploded from the air pressure despite the fact that we drove there) and yet still the sub-tropical forest was lush and inviting, and hot enough for us to wade in the rock pool after our hike. The sound of running water can be heard from every corner of Phophoyane, and this results in an interesting therapeutic effect: proximity to a waterfall is said to have regenerative benefits because the sound of moving water results in negative ions that somehow trigger the mammalian brain to secrete increased levels of serotonin (i.e. “the dream hormone”). Each night we slept well, surrounded by the forest and nothing but the sound of its creatures.
One morning, my guest and I went on a hike with a local villager who helped us identify unique-African plants like the Common Fig Tree, and another that he called “Flame Thorn”– a tree characterized by its sharp, spike-filled bark (above), which people in his village use to make brooms.
Shortly before we left, GC spoke with Phophonyane’s owner, Rod de Vletter, about how the ecolodge came about before discussing his future plans to encourage further preservation in this fragile region of Africa.
Garden Collage: How did you personally get involved with Phophonyane? What is your story, and how long have you been in Swaziland?
Rod de Vletter: I came to Swaziland in 1975 only with the intention of visiting my parents. My father was based here at the timem as a technical advisor for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). While I was here, I was offered a job at Waterford Kamhlaba, an international school in the capital, Mbabane. It was a well-known anti-apartheid establishment, where many of the ANC leaders sent their children, such as the Mandelas and the Tutus.
“Proximity to a waterfall is said to have regenerative benefits because the sound of moving water results in negative ions that trigger the mammalian brain to secrete increased levels of serotonin, i.e., ‘the dream hormone’.”
I was very attracted to both the school and to Swaziland, and so I took the job. In the same year, we were told of an old farm in the north of Swaziland for sale, which my father purchased. I went to live on the farm and decided to leave Waterford the following year to experience rural Swazi life and teach in a local high school, which was about 10 km away on a rough road. I went to school everyday on an off road motorbike (the classic Yamaha XT500).
GC: You also mentioned that this was “your wife’s business”. How did she get involved with the Ecolodge?
RdV: In 1980, the Swaziland Government transferred me to a school in Mbabane, where I met my future wife, Lungile. She came to live on the farm in 1980 and we married in 1982. She started a dairy business on the farm where she produced outstanding yoghurt that soon earned an excellent reputation in Swaziland. In 1985, with the help of CIDA– the Canadian International Development Agency– the Swaziland Government established the Swaziland Dairy Board, which then regulated the industry and obliged all milk producers to send their milk in an unprocessed form to a central depot. This would greatly reduce the profitability of our dairy enterprise, so we decided to switch to a different form of livelihood. As we were both ardent nature lovers. adventurers and campers, we decided to turn the farm into a nature reserve and an ecolodge. Lungile ran the business while I worked first as a safari operator covering Swaziland, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. I went to Mozambique in 1993, a few months after the end of the civil war, to look at business opportunities– but instead ended up working for the World Bank, focusing mainly on Transfrontier Conservation Areas. I commuted weekly between Phophonyane and Maputo.
GC: Are you doing anything specific by way of ecological conservation? What are your plans for the surrounding trails going forward?
RdV: After returning full time to Swaziland in 2010, I developed a transfrontier community ecotourism program, which focuses on developing trail networks, lodges, campsites, and community conservation areas and corridors linking eastern Swaziland with southern Mozambique and norther Kwa-Zulu Natal [in nearby South Africa].
GC: How does Phophonyane engage with the local community? Your staff are all local, right?
RdV: At Phophonyane, we are mostly focused on providing an attractive and original ecotourism product, conservation management, and developing linkages with the local community. At the moment we have a guided walk into the local village which is an authentic experience greatly appreciated by our guests. The interaction between our guests and the neighboring community has led to many positive interactions in the way of social and financial support for the Phophonyane community. Most of our 25 staff members come from the local community. They receive on the job training and have developed commendable skills over time.
GC: What would you like prospective visitors to Swaziland to know about the country, your reserve, and the ecology of Swaziland?
RdV: Swaziland is an extraordinary country in many ways. Almost all of our guests comment on the warmth, kindness and natural good humor of the Swazi people, and the relaxed and peaceful nature of the country. The visitors experience is enhanced by the beauty of the country, especially its spectacular landscapes. Swaziland has very high biodiversity for a small country. Several attractive game and nature reserves offer a very personal game-viewing experience, as well as uncrowded nature reserves where one can hike in dramatically scenic areas without ever encountering other people. Swazi culture retains its integrity and permeates every aspect of life in Swaziland. The annual Reed Dance is, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic cultural events on the planet. [Editor’s Note: Umhlanga, or The Reed Dance ceremony, is an annual Swazi and Zulu dance event where thousands of unmarried girls and women perform for the king of Swaziland.]
Phophonyane tries to capture the essence of Swaziland by conserving one of its most beautiful natural areas. It is set along a series of waterfalls and cascades, with deep natural forests and wide views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The staff are unfailingly attentive and good-humored in the characteristic Swazi way. The lodge itself is designed to blend entirely into the surrounding landscape, with unique and varied accommodation spread out over extensive gardens. The Phophonyane experience is summed up in our motto: “Peace. Privacy. Paradise.”