The Kingdom of Swaziland

Swaziland is a little land-locked country, surrounded on all sides by South Africa and Mozambique. Besides being the only absolute monarchy left in Africa, I didn’t know much about Swaziland, other than it has (at least had) the highest rate of HIV positive people per capita in the world. Someone in Johannesburg told me I should visit in winter, so I could go skiing, but after arriving and asking when the ski season is and being laughed at, I learned there’s never any snow in Swaziland. Someone must have confused it with Lesotho.

To my surprise, Swaziland was a much safer, more peaceful part of southern Africa. As soon as I crossed the border from South Africa, everyone felt more at ease, and no left-over apartheid feelings of racial separation seemed to exist. I could walk the streets alone at night, and even hitchiked my way around Ezulwini Valley. I felt really at home at a hotspring called the ‘Cuddle Puddle’ which was actually a big, beautiful, warm pool where you could BYOB and order take away pizza.

safari on foot at Mlilwane

Ezulwini valley was a sort of tourism center in Swaziland, and there was more tourism than I expected. There was a handful of backpackers and most hostels were associated with an adventure company or game park. At Mlilwane Game Reserve, there are no predators, so you can actually go on a walking safari, and get up close and personal with lots of zebras and little horned antelopes and ‘beests.’ They had other game parks, one personally belonging to the king, where you could see lions, elephants and rhinos a lot easier than Kruger National Park, which is 1,500 square kilometers larger than the entire country of Swaziland.

Mantenga Falls

I went on some other hikes, one to a cultural village and waterfall, and another to a granite cave. You wouldn’t think those activites were thrilling anywhere else, but because I hadn’t expected any adventures, I laughed my whole way through the 200m of cave tunnels we had to squeeze, bend, crawl and climb thru. We went to a soccer game to watch the beloved Swallows, one of the better teams on all of Africa, play surrounded by an enthusiastic local crowd. We were the only foreigners in the stadium.

at the football stadium in Ezulwani valley

I met an American film producer who used to work for National Geographic and had been making a new tourism commercial for Swaziland, and got sold on visiting Swaziland yet again. I ended up staying a few days longer than I expected, but still left some things undone, and was glad I didn’t visit for only a weekend as I had originally planned. I was lucky to leave at all, since I learned at the border exit that I had been illegally visa-free in Swaziland the entire time. So for any other Icelanders being sold on visiting Swaziland anytime soon, make sure you get your visa on arrival, even if they let you in and stamp your passport without one.

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DV Follow-up story: “Katrin Sif reached her goal: visited 200 countries before 30”

Here’s an English summary of an article published yesterday on DV by Bjorn Thorfinnsson. See the online version in Icelandic here.

Katrin Sif reached her goal: visited 200 countries before 30; planned a week long birthday celebration in the last country, Mauritius.

page 12 of DV March 21, 2017

Three days before her birthday, Katrin landed on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There she had reached her goal, to travel to two hundred countries before she turned thirty. After sharing her final list and recounting, it turned out Mauritius was country #201, but either way she had made it. Katrin, the adventure woman, was located in Lesotho when DV reached her, another new country, where she was about to go horse back riding.

It’s easy to say that Katrin Sif is one of the most traveled, living Icelanders today, and she had already been interviewed by DV at the end of 2016 where she shared a bit about her travel lifestyle. At that point, she had been to 197 countries and only had a couple of months to reach her goal. Her 30th birthday was fast approaching.

Katrin saves money from her summer job as a tour guide in Iceland, and then flies out every winter and travels around the world. She’s an active member of couchsurfing, where she gets free accommodation in each country. She believes its not just about the couch to sleep, but to be able to experience a country with the help and insider tips of a local. Katrin usually travels alone, so she can travel freely as she pleases.

The Goal was reached accidentally in the Seychelles

The last 3 countries Katrin had decided to visit would be in the Indian ocean: Reunion, which is a part of France, the Seychelles, and Mauritius. She flew from Paris to Reunion and stayed there a week, which happened to coincide with a new volcanic eruption at the Piton de Fournaise. From there she went to Madagascar, and finally to the Seychelles where she explored paradise for a week, unknowing she had already reached her 200th country. She stayed the first few days couchsurfing, but also allowed herself to enjoy some luxury at the Hilton hotel for her last nights.

Katrin then went on to Mauritius, what she thought to be country #200, and held a week long birthday celebration with 9 friends from across Europe and North America to celebrate with her. Included in that group was a Lebanese entertainer from Paris, a German horseman, a Belarussian pair, her college roomate from Washington, and the Icelandic Culinary team’s chef Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson.

“Not even close to stopping”

“The week was amazing, and I couldnt have imagined better people to spend it with. We were happily traveling around the island and were especially pleased with the beautiful beaches, and never ran out of local rum” says Katrin. On her blog, Nomadic Cosmopolitan, Katrin speaks about the fun they go up to. After a week in Mauritius, she went to South Africa and planned to visit Lesotho and Swaziland, both new countries for her list. After that, she’s headed to Mozambique for the first time. “I’m nowhere near close to stopping” says Katrin.

Country Count disclaimer

Its difficult to say how many countires there are in the world. According to the UN, there are 193 recognized country states, plus the Vatican and Palestine. Katrin also counts a few others. For example, Greenland and the Faroe islands, despite being under Denmark, are considered separate states. She also counts separately England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, though they are all considered the same country by the UN. With these exceptions and others like it, Katrin has the possibility to visit more than 230 countries. Thus, there’s plenty left for this traveling Icelander to keep exploring.

The List of Countries Katrin has traveled to:

Afghanistan, Albania, American Samoa, Andorra, Anguilla, Antarctica, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cambodia, Canada, Cayman Islands, Chile, China, Colombia, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Curaçao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Estonia, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, French Guiana, French Polynesia, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Greenland, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kosovo, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Marshall Islands, Martinique, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Federated States of, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Niue, North Korea, Northern Ireland, Northern Mariana Islands, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Réunion, Romania, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin (French part), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Sint Maarten (Dutch part), Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Svalbard and Jan Mayen, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste (East Timor), Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tuvalu, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Vatican City State, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Virgin Islands, British, Virgin Islands, U.S., Wales, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe

Riding in Lesotho

Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked kingdom, surrounded by South Africa on all sides. There aren’t many road borders in or out, but you could easily walk into the country by accident. There are some beautiful mountains and National parks on the north side where South Africans can see Lesotho just across the valley, including the Drakensberg and Golden Gate National park, places I visited to flirt with the idea of Lesotho before arriving.

on the road in Lesotho

I found couchsurfers to stay with, a household of Filipino sisters and brothers and cousins. They’re all working in various businesses, from textiles to furniture and a car garage. We ate breakfast and dinner together every day, with a few other guests, and at one point I was in Lesotho singing Karaoke with 9 Filipinos drinking South African wine and couldn’t imagine expecting a more random experience to write home about.

bumpy road ahead

I borrowed a friend’s car from Johannesburg and drove to Lesotho. The roads on the South African side were excellent – and also filled with tolls and speed cameras. Once entering Lesotho, I didn’t see a single traffic police officer or camera, and only one traffic light, and the roads were full of potholes, where they were paved, and one big pot hole where they weren’t. I was driving a Ford Fiesta, not the greatest off-road car, and it took hours just to drive 80km, but I managed to get deep into the countryside and find some horses to ride.

riding off into the Lesotho countryside

Lesotho has an alive and kicking horse culture – people still travel by horse, shepherd on horse back, and use horses to work their fields and transport goods. I found a camp called Malealea where tourists can go on multi-day treks, up to 28 days, and basically see the whole of Lesotho from the back of a horse. I rode for only one day, barefoot because I didnt have proper shoes and it was too hot, and left my guide in the dust everytime I asked him if we could go for a gallop. We visited a waterfall, a cave, and some ancient rock art paintings, and by the end of the day I realized I should have stayed a week for this. But oh well, there’s always a next time. And next time I’ll bring riding shoes.

Mauritius, country #200

I came up with the goal to try and visit 200 countries before I turned 30. I arrived in Mauritius, country #200, 3 days before my birthday, and 9 other friends from around the world. Without sharing too much incriminating evidence, here are a few pictures and stories from the best birthday week I’ve ever had.

one of those lazy beach days

Most of my friends are from Europe or North America, so I had originally chosen Laos as a more ‘central’ meeting point. But my best friend Ursula from Washington D.C. said there had to be a beach, and booked her flight to Mauritius even before I did. She knew it was a new country for me, and thought it would increase the number of people coming, despite it being much further away in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

La Cambuse beach

There were supposed to be twelve of us, but one friend from Australia who is a pilot for Qantas couldn’t use his standby tickets because of some schedule changes. My best friend from Canada, who recently married an American, got scheduled an immigration interview for a date exactly in the middle of her already booked vacation, so since Green cards don’t last forever and Donald Trump exists, she had to cancel.

But, there was the Lebanese entertainer from Paris, the German horse-back rider from Munich, the Belarussian couple from Minsk, my study abroad roommate from Washington DC, a couchsurfer I met in Italy from Pennsylvania, an emergency doctor from New York, a professional dancer from LA, and Iceland’s best chef. We were 4 girls, 6 guys, half of us couchsurfers, and nearly no one had met eachother before.

the 4 ladies of the group

The week went flawlessly. I could never imagine putting a group of 10 strangers together, traveling and staying together in a foreign country without any hiccups, but it was perfect. Everyone got along, the rum was never-ending, and the beaches and sunsets stayed beautiful no matter where we were on the island.

sunset at Flic en Flac

We spent our first 4 days in Blue Bay, 3 days in Flic en Flac, and 2 days in Trou aux Biches, near Grande Baie. Our only errands every day were to refill the ice bags and fill them with wine, then walk to the beach and work on our tans, or burns, in some cases. In Le Morne we swam with wild dolphins in the open sea, and our personal taxi-van carried us from A to B and showed us some of the touristic sites on the island. We passed towns with the names of Suriname and Yemen, and saw endless fields of sugar cane backdropped by Jurrasic park-like mountains.

Tea party at the Bois Cherie tea plantation

We visited a rum distillery, a tea plantation, a Hindu temple, and some waterfalls and park areas, but the beaches were by far the most memorable. The water was always warm, and even under dark and stormy skies stayed bright and crystal blue. We had a few rain showers, but went to the beach anyway, and missed the cyclone that hit after we left. We danced at some live music bars, drank with some locals who were friends of friends of friends, ate brunches with bottomless mamosas and cooked dinners together at the various airbnb’s we stayed at. It’s a miracle no one got hurt or lost or left out or too claustrophobic, but this group of people made my 30th birthday a most unforgettable party. I’ve also never traveled in such a big group, but after visiting 200 countries and experiencing Mauritius the way I did, I kind of wish some of those people would carry on traveling with me.