Finally we dragged ourselves away from the Ogg residence. We had slept really late the night before. Mike and I had adventure raced together as Team Swazi Trails some years back, so there had been plenty of war stories to be told.
Sadly Johan had had a really bad night with hot flushes and a stomach that was very upset. He had been up and down all night, and wasn't quite his usual chirpy self.
Our packs were now heavy as we had no logistical support lined up until we completed the route. We were aiming to finish on Saturday (3 days) or latest Sunday (4 days) time. Jenny (Johan's wife) had wangled a Blue Train ticket for their return to Cape Town. She was too far pregnant to be allowed to fly. This train was departing Monday morning promptly. A ride on the Blue Train is not something you miss. Messing an 8-months pregnant woman around is also something to be avoided at all costs. Swaziland may have been hassle-free, but our own lives had a less forgiving nature. We were under pressure.
First stop was Mananga Border Gate. Yet another friendly place. We pulled over at a small workshop to effect some repairs to our seat posts. Possibly it was the extra weight of our packs combined with the continual jarring of corrugated gravel roads, but we had both found our saddles slipping lower and lower on a regular basis. This put extra strain on tender knees so a lasting solution was needed. We roughened the posts, added sand to the clasp and cranked the posts tightly closed again.
We crossed the Komati River and headed off in the direction of Buhleni. We had decided to head for the new tar road that now links Balegane with Msahweni. It wasn't the shortest route, but the promise of a smooth surface was enticing to our long-suffering butts.
The first homestead that we passed was that of a Sangoma, a swazi traditional healer. Many years back I had visited this place with James Hall, an American who had undergone kutfwasa, the training to become a healer. Much had changed since those years. Back then we had walked across a rickerty wooden bridge, then followed a narrow dusty footpath that left from behind a giant marula tree. Now there was a major causeway across the Komati and a wide gravel road. Behind the sangoma's homestead there were now fields of sugarcane.
Sometimes progress is so slow that it is not noticeable. People in Swaziland, as in most developing nations, have been going through a phase of development that includes increased consciousness of their rights to better living conditions: water, electricity, transport, schools. Such consciousness often comes with disenchantment with the pace of development. When sitting under a marula tree, or waiting to fill a water container at a communal water tap, change must seem to be non-existent. However, for me this trip had been an eye-opener. There had been significant changes in the last 10-15 years. We had crossed many areas that I had last visited when preparing routes for the Swazi Xtreme or when undertaking consultancy work for various aid organisations. I had very clear memories of many of these areas, and the spread of development infrastructure was significant to say the least.
Johan and I had spent many hours already discussing what actions and areas of development speed improvements in quality of life the fastest. We had both agreed that good all weather roads were the starting point. The communities that had new or upgraded access roads in the past decade were those that also had the greatest visible change in other services: water reticulation projects, electrification, schools and clinics. Without good road access no other services could be installed or maintained. In this sphere the local roads department are both heroes and villians. We had seen examples of well-contoured and drained gravel roads and others that were an environmental disaster.The latter were clearly the result of wishful thinking and a bit of unauthorized use of Government machinery. Routes could be found that looked like a bull-dozer driver had taken his machine for a spin up the mountain carving his own route as he went. When he failed to cross a ridge or stream he would start again from a different angle, leaving a scarred and eroded landscape. One hopes that Swazi government is aware of the need to employ decent surveyors and to finish off bull-dozed routes with proper drainage. Doing it right the first time is what is needed and political pressure from chiefs and parliamentarians for rapid results should not be at the cost of the environment or ongoing maintenance into the future.
After 30km on gravel we hit the tar and the small town of Buhleni. We had ridden in silence for up to 20 minutes at a time, the first time on the trip we had not been constantly chatting, bird-spotting or actively route-planning. Clearly we were fighting our own internal battles, keeping legs moving, maintaining forward momentum, trying to ignore blisters, aching butts and strained shoulders. To make matters worse, the stiff headwind we had met the previous night into Mananga had now switched and was meeting us head-on again.
If you ever need a decent local meal in Buhleni, there is one little place that we found to be top class. Ayami Restaurant is a small general dealer, take-away, restaurant all rolled into one. It has only two tables, but very friendly staff and they are not shy to pile your plate.
Johan and I both opted for beef, pap (maize porridge) and the 3 salads option. Their plates are the size of a large pizza, and are piled to capacity with a small summit almost 150mm high in the middle. At first we thought the ladies had deliberately loaded us, after hearing where we had come from and where we where going, but as other customers wandered in, we realised this was the standard. Make not mistake, Swazis know how to eat and there is never anything left on the plate. These two plates, plus a coke each came to only E 42.00 (less than US$2.50 each). We did the meal justice, then had a chance to digest whilst fixing a puncture, the first bike issue on the trip so far. We then put our heads down for our second to last border post - Matsamo.
Matsamo is on the MR1 road across Swaziland and is the main tourist route. As we junctioned at Msahweni and picked up the pace to Matsamo, we were well-aware of this as campervans, rental cars and coaches zoomed past in both directions. We hoped that they were finding time to stop and experience hassle-free Africa, the way we were. Swaziland's real attraction is its people... and at 100km/h people are just a blur.
Matsamo is also called Jeppe's Reef, a reminder of this regions gold-mining history. Our intended overnight stop was at Wyldesdale, another old goldmine about 25km away.
We nipped off the MR1 immediately after the border turnaround and followed the Ntfonjeni road up the wide valley that heads to Piggs Peak. At the head of this valley 30km from where we were, we could just make out the Orion Piggs Peak Hotel and Casino. Built as part of the government's policy to stimulate tourism development hubs in various regions of the Swaziland, its hotel has never really achieved more than being a island of opulence in a sea of trees, but its casino has gone much bigger. As the land-base for an online casino business, the Piggs Peak Casino in recent years has been Swaziland's most prolific advertiser regionally and is arguably Africa's largest online gambling site. Saturation advertising on websites, on radio and in print has rewarded their first-mover advantage with an almost household brand-name.
Neither Johan nor I are fans of gambling, Johan's business having been almost bankrupted by a trusted manager with a gambling addiction. She is now serving 6 years in jail, a mother of two school-going children.
We both hoped that Swaziland's tax collection revenues from gambling were achieving a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. However just like the myth of Robin Hood, when in the company of bandits, its a little hard to justify the means to the end.
Talking about the end, our end to the day was always one hill away. We were no longer attempting to cycle hills and were enjoying the regular walks to stretch the legs and shift muscle use. At last we were at the base of Lufafa Mountain, the mountain with the gash or cleft.
"How do tourists get here?" queried Johan as we fought our way along a challenging track that would have had the average urban 4x4 owner sweating buckets.
"They don't," I replied, "this is a very secret hideaway known only to a very small circle of locals."
Wyldesdale has a campsite down on the confluence between the Shiyalongubo river and the Lumati, where a red double-decker London bus serves as a kitchen and cover from rain, as well as a scenic little camp with a few cottage rooms on the ridge up above.
Without the energy to climb the hill we had planned to sleep in the red bus, and ponder the energy and humour it must have taken to get it there. Our plans were somewhat disturbed by Mrs Bothma, who had moved into the bus, lock, stock, mattrasses, cooking pots, kid and barrel. Mrs Bothma told us a long long story about her husband was selling the farm next door and how she now had no place to stay, and that she was wanting to build a house in South Africa, but that she had no money.
This kind of stymied our plans a bit. Although Mrs Bothma appeared not to be the favoured wife of Mr Bothma at this point (Mr Bothma is a polygamist) we did not want to be found sleeping under her roof nevertheless. Mr Bothma, being a Swazi man, is likely to act first and talk in court later when confronted by unknown guest in his wifes abode.
So we pushed on up the hill....literally. Down in the lowveld this hill would no doubt be called a mountain, but being just the outstretched knee of a massive chunk of the Makhonjwa Mountain range just behind it, we bluffed ourselves that it was just a little hill. At last we reached the camp and a friendly well-fed dog. But all was locked up and dark and we prepared ourselves for a chilly night on one of the verandas.
Then our luck suddenly changed abruptedly and Philip, the elderly camp attendant emerged sheepishly from behind one of the locked doors. He was apologetic for missing our arrival, but we were far from perturbed. At his age forty-winks is a prescribed necessity for longetivity.
Within minutes we were in luxury. Hot water showers, towels, double beds, chairs, a table to sit at. The long dusty 89km that lay behind us was soon forgotten.
"That was my hardest day so far," said Johan, " I had nothing in me from the time we left Tshaneni this morning". Johan doesn't complain. He'd bitten the bullet and made it. It had been well-worth the effort to reach this secret spot.
Ayami Restaurant in Buhleni
89km at a moving average of 11.8km/h