Road Trip – Alabama to Swaziland

From a highway’s black ice in Alabama to gravel mountainous roads in the Kingdom of Swaziland, my fun Chevy Spark rental cars provided a great backdrop to some of my American and African adventures.

It all started with a severe winter ice storm moving across the southeastern United States and airlines canceling thousands of flights, including my next day’s flight out of Alabama.   It was an important flight for me since it was the first leg of my flight to South Africa, and of course I didn’t want to be delayed. I called the airline and was delighted to speak to an actual human instead of an automated answering service. The representative assured me that my Atlanta-Johannesburg reservation would not be canceled since I was willing to drive myself to Atlanta.

The next day the rental car company opened at 7:30 am, I begged for a one-way rental, and within minutes I was unlocking the door to a compact Chevy Spark. Sharp little freezing rain drops stung my face as I heaved my suitcase in the back, and I mentally celebrated that I could secure a set of wheels at a moment’s notice and that I was off on a new adventure.

Chevy Spark on Ice

Through thick and thin (thick rain drops and thin ice on the road), my little Spark was fabulous. For almost 200 miles, I cautiously cruised along, enjoying the compactness of the unfamiliar car. The car and I survived a few minor slides on the black ice, and we slowed more than once for a multi-car pileup. At one point I thought the windshield wipers were acting a bit clunky, and when I stopped to examine them, I discovered that the freezing rain had formed nice little ice globs on the rubber blades. So I snapped the ice off, and continued my journey.

It was such a treat to have a USB port in the console so I could charge my iPhone. That turned out to be a lifesaver as I surely would have been stranded without the ability to call and locate the car rental return at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. My planned two-hour drive ultimately lasted six hours, but my rental car was spunky and comfortable the entire time.

Fast forward a few weeks and it was time to rent another car so we could explore the Kingdom of Swaziland and a coastal area of South Africa. Imagine my surprise when my rental keys opened the driver’s door to…you guessed it, another Chevy Spark! Of course the driver’s seat was on the “wrong” side of the car, but other than that, I was right I home. This was going to be fun!

For 10 days my friend, Andre, and I drove and explored miles and miles of countryside and small towns. Whether we were scooting along endless hills in Swaziland or local streets in the South African town of St. Lucia, or exploring the wetlands area in Cape Vidal, the cool compact car did her job. By this point, it was obvious the car needed a name, and thus we dubbed it “Sparky”. ‘Twas apt.

Sparky on Safari

We drove Sparky north to Cape Vidal where we were able to roll sun, sand, sea, and safari into one special day. Virtually traffic free, the curving paved roads near Cape Vidal cut between some of the world’s largest vegetated dunes on the east and large lakes on the west.   I had not expected to see rhinos, warthogs, zebras, elephants, crocodiles, hippos and monkeys – but there they all were, easily seen right from Sparky’s air-conditioned comfort. Who would have thought Sparky would become a game viewing vehicle? Dozens of stop and go’s and hundreds of photographs later, we drove down to Mission Road, a perfect spot for a picnic at the frothy edge of the blue Indian Ocean.

After driving through Nsoko and Siphofaneni and spending another night in Mbabane (the capital of Swaziland), it was time to choose a return route to South Africa.  We could either take a longer, known, paved highway or take a shorter, mostly paved but potentially impassable route. A local man was mostly confident when he said, “The MR20 should be fine. It hasn’t rained.” We voted to take the shorter route.

With Sparky heading north, we visited the Hwane Dam en route to Piggs’s Peak, where the road, as I knew it, ended. It was time for a 20 km drive on a hard-packed, gravel filled, hilly, winding, isolated, empty, and army guarded (See road. Bouncing and sometimes sliding along, I felt like a bobble head. Up and down and left and right, we gingerly drove along, dodging potholes, mini dust storms and felled trees. I appreciated the lack of traffic and took advantage of a few roadside areas to stop and absorb the peace of the beautiful mountainside. It was a relief to see finally the Bulembu Police Station and border crossing post after driving nearly an hour on this road in the Hhohho Region.   Sparky was caked in dry, red dirt, but not worse for the wear!

Back in South Africa, I was disappointed to return Sparky, but all rentals must come to an end. What a stroke of luck that I had my Chevy Spark along for such a variety of adventures: first in an American ice storm, then in a South African seaside safari and finally on a challenging dirt road in the mountains of Swaziland.

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