Swaziland

We got the car serviced in Nelspruit, and headed south towards Swaziland. It was a false start. We’d found a camp site on a farm which was listed on an overlanders website but couldn’t find it where it was supposed to be. We stopped at a bar (one of these places where everyone looks at you when you walk in) and were told that the lady that ran the place had moved away a few months before after her husband had been murdered! Woh, that was unexpected. We’d read some horror stories about farmers being murdered in South Africa over he past 10 years and perhaps this was one such incident. We didn’t know, but we needed to find somewhere else. We had a quick search on the net which identified a caravan site near the border. When we got there our gut said no, don’t stay here. Had we imagined the car that seemed to be following us just before we pulled up there? There was no real security at the entrance and something just felt wrong. Always trust your gut instinct. We did. It was getting dark and our alternative was back in Nelspruit at another caravan park, 45 minutes away, but that’s where we headed. The site was simple and welcoming and felt ‘right’. We had a good nights sleep.

In the morning we headed back south and to the Swaziland border. The scenery was beautiful. The land rose steeply as we approached this landlocked Kingdom, with green vistas in all directions. We were the only car on the road. There had been no signage indicating that there was a border crossing here at all but the map, our guidebook and our gps indicated there was so we kept going and were slightly relieved to see a sign a few miles from the border itself.  We were the only people there, apart from about 8 staff, most of whom were sitting around doing very little except watching us with apparent interest. One of the men came over and started looking at the car in more detail. We waited for him to find a fault and ask for a ‘fine’; but no, I think he was genuinely interested in the Land Rover. “Strong car” he said. It was not the first time that expression had been used to describe the Landy and we had to agree. He waived us in the direction of the office, we showed our passports, they stamped us out without looking at the Carnet, we drove through to the Swaziland side who stamped us in and that was that. It took barely 10 minutes. Marvellous.

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The quality of the road immediately changed and the fine tarmac on the South African side was replaced with a very rough dirt road. This probably accounted for the lack of other travellers at this particular border post, but we had chosen it for the mountainous landscape it took us through and the Landy was more than up to the job. Strong car. Smile

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Road from the border

Our destination for the first night was a nature reserve in the mountainous north-west of the country, an hour or two’s drive south from the border via the rather frontier-like town of Piggs Peak. The scenery en-route was somewhat marred by the industrial-scale forestry that the area was being used for. There were huge plantations everywhere, mostly Blue Gum (Eucalyptus) and Pine, which, from what we were told, was mainly destined for the paper industry. They were harvested by clear felling and dotted around the landscape were large areas of cleared ground with just the remains of the tree stumps, waiting to be replanted or with tiny saplings levered into the unpromising-looking spaces between. The air was hazy and we could see areas of smoke rising. Many of the road verges were burnt, some still smouldering, as were some areas of open ground, presumably to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fires. We passed a crew burning a large area of ground right next to the road, fire engine at the ready.

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Smoke from controlled burning

We arrived at Malolotja Nature Reserve with just enough time to check in and set up camp before the sun set. It was a beautiful place and the setting of the campsite was fabulous. It seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere, although it actually wasn’t that far from the road, with rolling grassland and rocky outcrops and mountains in the distance.

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Looking down over our camp site

We had the camp site to ourselves that night and although it got rather cold in the evening (we had the braai and a separate fire going to try to keep warm) it was brilliant. We decided to stay the following night too, which gave us a chance to explore the park. It had several 4×4 tracks which led us deep into the park and provided some stunning views, albeit rather hazy.

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The wild Eningu in her natural environment

Apart from several antelope species there wasn’t much game here, and no dangerous animals. This meant that you could walk in safety and, unlike all the other parks we’d visited so far, the area had a large number of trails to explore on foot. We didn’t have time for most of them but there was one that led to the highest waterfall in Swaziland which was supposed to take a half hour to walk down to and an hour back up. That would do.

We drove to the start point and set off. The path immediately headed down a steep hillside and continued like that all the way. It was relentless going and all the time we were aware we had to come back up this way. It took us nearly an hour to get down. I wish we could say it was worth it. The ‘bottom’ of the path was half way down the hillside and gave us a limited view of the top half of the waterfall. Another couple, a British man and his Swazi wife, were down there already and they confirmed that this was indeed ‘it’. As we sat down to have a rest and admire ‘the view’ they started on the torturous walk back up. We had a 15 minute rest and headed back ourselves. Although we weren’t climbing up like mountain goats we passed them very quickly. By the time we got to the top over an hour later we had completely lost sight of them. At the rate they were going they must have been an hour behind us. Time was getting on and the park closed not long after that. We left a note on their car to let them know we’d inform the gate, just in case they were late or had problems. This we did, although the guard didn’t seem that concerned, but at least they knew. We heard nothing more so assume they got out ok!

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It may be the highest waterfall in Swaziland but not sure this view was worth the walk…

Back at camp we had a very quick shower to wash the day’s sweat away. The water was nice and hot but the air was not. Deciding it would be less cold than in the morning we braved it and got a couple of big fires going again to warm up!

We had company in camp that night and got chatting to them properly in the morning. A young Capetonian couple, MJ and Hannah had originally headed for the north-eastern coastline to go surfing but the waves weren’t cooperating so they’d opted for a few days in Swaziland before heading back to the coast to try again. Their car had overheated on the way up and they were talking about going to a local petrol station to get it looked at. Angela offered Gareth’s services to have a look. (Thanks Angela!). There was nothing obviously wrong and the verdict was that it might be a problem with the thermostat so they needed to get to a proper garage. There was one not far out of our way so we offered to go with them in case they overheated again. The trip was about an hour and we got there without incident, unless you count the car that nearly crashed overtaking us like an idiot in the face of on-coming traffic, or the coach crabbing up the inside lane of a dual carriageway with his front nearside wheel and his rear offside wheel lining up nicely!! A beautiful dressage move but not so good in a bus. His suspension was, to use the correct technical vernacular, completely shagged and his tyres dragged along the tarmac leaving dark streaks of rubber and thick black smoke as they went.

We left our new friends at the garage after exchanging contact details and with an invitation to visit them and Hannah’s family when we got to Cape Town.

After a very good lunch of local lamb curry at a place called Boma we made our way to another nature reserve, Mlilwane, where we planned to do some more walking. The park was established from farmland by the owner Ted Reilly, a leading light in Swazi nature conservation, to preserve Swaziland’s diminishing wildlife and provide a place for people to enjoy it. The place was dotted with walking and cycle routes – just as with Malolotja there were no dangerous animals here. It was Thursday and our plan had been to stay for two nights but they could only fit us in for one as they were fully booked for the weekend. It turned out they were hosting a huge biking event on the Saturday, where about 500 cyclists were due to compete in races of varying abilities, from family events through to a crazy off-road route of 64km. We managed to find an alternative for the second night, meaning we could spend the day exploring the park as we’d originally planned.

The camp was unfenced, with zebra and warthogs grazing around us. We cooked and ate dinner in a kind of scout hut, which gave us welcome protection from the chill of the evening. Heading back to the car in torch-light, we discovered a herd of Impala snoozing right next to the car. Our caution not to disturb them was successful but wasted as, just as we’d quietly climbed into the tent without a single animal getting up, an Impala buck arrived round the corner and harried the whole herd to its feet. It was Impala rutting season; the males were noisy and agitated and the rest of the herd was harassed! Which is rather how we felt about a group of loud Americans who were ‘entertaining’ the whole camp (i.e. them and us) with their delightful conversation until the early hours.

Our day in the park started with a drive up some of the tracks that the hard-core cyclists would be using in the following day’s race. The route was steep and twisting. On each corner there was a berm to take water away from the track (and so prevent erosion) which meant two things: firstly as you came flying into the corner on your bike you might be fooled into going straight on (which, on the side of a hill, would be very bad) and second, assuming you took the corner the berm would quite probably lift you into the air as you turned. It was mad, and there were going to be some very sore bodies.

After a bit of a bimble in the car we parked up and put the solar panels on the roof to save the battery and keep the fridge powered up. We were more than slightly concerned by the presence of a nearby troop of baboons but made it as baboon-proof as we could and headed off on our walk. The Mochapane Trail. It was lovely. The path wondered along the hillside, snaking through trees and open grassland with views all around. It followed an old aqueduct which had been built along the contours to provide a head of water for the tin mine that had operated here during the early-to-mid 20th Century, before the land was turned into a nature reserve. In places the aqueduct had been built along the rock face and now a somewhat precarious boardwalk and bridges had been put in its place.

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Why is Angela standing so close to the rock face?

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Oh, that’s why… Smile

Most of our route was fairly easy-going but we took the option of a detour to a hill top – Execution Rock, a high outcrop with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet to the rocks below. As the name suggests, this was a place where murders and thieves would meet their end. As we climbed we couldn’t help but think what it must have been like for the condemned to make this steep walk to their demise, where they would be “forced to jump” (surely pushed?) to their death. To add to the atmosphere, as we approached the summit we heard drums beating from far below, faster and faster until they ended abruptly just as we reached the top. Pure coincidence – they were from a cultural village with a daily display just at the time of our walk – but it was a slightly unnerving feeling  nonetheless. For us no such horror was in store and we had fantastic views as we gave our legs a much deserved rest on the warm rocks and doused our dry throats with gulps of water.

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Execution Rock

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The view from the top

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The rock face

We were later told that Ted Reilly’s father, who had farmed the land before his son, had seen witch doctors sneaking around the foot of the cliff searching for human bones to use in their craft…

After descending from the rock in a less terminal way we found a great spot for lunch, under the shade of a tree – despite the colder nights the days were still pretty warm – and with a great view. As we ate Gareth spotted something going on in a fenced-off part of the reserve below – an area where they focused on reintroduction of their more endangered animals. A large livestock truck was parked just inside the entrance and several groups of people were positioned variously to open the truck, take photos and generally to watch. It was evident they were releasing something. We waited and watched with them. The ramp door was open and they kept encouraging the animal out, opening a hatch in the roof and waving a bright yellow hazi-vest at it without success. After about 10 minutes and several more attempts the beast finally made a run for it and Gareth managed to snap it just as it did so. It was a big Waterbuck stag. We’d seen quite a few in Kruger but evidently they are not common here. They are easy to identify as they have a ring on their bottom that looks rather like a toilet seat.

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Look carefully and you can see him about to run behind the bush on the right

Our route home continued along the aqueduct, with more ‘bridges’ and this rather interesting if slightly wobbly ladder through an area of rock fall.

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We’d had a lovely day and after so much time in the car in Kruger, Swaziland had offered a much needed opportunity to get out and get some exercise, and all the better for such great surroundings. Our camp site for the night was at a backpackers 15 minutes away. As we drew up in the late afternoon sunlight we had a final view of Execution Rock, its beauty belying its grisly past.

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