Sunday, August 23, 2009

Day 11 - the Mganda Valley zig-zag

There was no time pressure on us now and we lounged around like lizards on the cottage verandah we'd commandeered at Wyldesdale. It was not too far to Bulembu, our next stop-over, although admittedly there was a bit of attitude gain to be dealt with. Our mission was to take it easy - no straining of muscles, no damage to joints, no accidents. The end was in sight and we could hardly believe we were nearly there already. It had gone so well since we had decided to carry on, back on Day 9, there was an almost an unspoken fear that Murphy may be lurking somewhere.

Wyldesdale is a fascinating place. Its a chunk of land owned by 4 partners, who are the shareholders of Rio Tinto. Well, Rio Tinto Swaziland that is, but imagine having that on your CV..."erh by the way I'm a 25% shareholder in Rio Tinto". The global mining company had previously mined gold here... and/or did a bit of prospecting - I am not sure. I don't think there was much gold mined...because I have been into the Lomati Mine previously and its not that extensive. The Wyldesdale Mine I believe is not much different.

The Wyldesdale property has a chunk of mountain on it called Lufafa. Lufa in Siswati means crack, chink, cleft or fissure, and when you look at this towering peak you can see exactly where it gets its name from, as there is a deep cleft in its face that is darkened by thick forest vegetation. At the Lomati river boundary of Wyldesdale the altitude is approximately 524m above sea level. Barely a kilometre and a half away the western corner of this property is marked by the mountain peak at 1432m. That's 908m of height to tilt your head back at.

I'd wacked a Control Point (CP) onto the summit for the 2005 Swazi Xtreme and then another one deep up the Shiyalongubo river, at the Shiyalongubo Falls - Wyldesdale's Eastern boundary. Now standing here, with 10 days of wear-and-tear in my legs...the thought of climbing up to that summit made me feel weak just thinking about it. Let there be no doubt about it - those competitors who've tackled the SX in years gone by...are people who are just not normal - they are XL - extra-large.

The walk up the Shiyalongubo (meaning "leave your clothes") is another of those magic experiences, which if you ever find yourself overnighting at Wyldesdale is a definite day outing. The waterfall is stunning, tumbling into a steep-sided box-canyon with a huge plunge pool at its base. Definitely a place to leave your clothes on the bank.

The almost inaccessible Shiyalongubo river valley and those of its tributaries have also been prized dagga-growing sites. If you ever wanted to walk through a field of dope plants taller than head height this is the place to do it. However, the tragic side to this is that pristine indigenous forest has been hacked open to allow sunlight to reach these illicit plants.We headed off at about 10am and tone of the day was definitely chilled. The route we were going to be following has about 20-zillion river crossings. The road, which later becames just a footpath, zig-zags from one bank of the river to the other, as if the grass appears constantly greener on the other side. Previously on one-day outings we've splashed our way through these crossings with much humour, as hidden rocks made the crossing a bit like russian roulette. Many an over-the-handlebars tumble is to be expected. However on a multi-day outing with dry bedding and food supplies on your back and feet that must be keep as dry as possible to avoid softening and blistering, the stepping stone option needs to be taken. All of these crossings had well-worn routes, one just has to look for the slightly muddied stones to know where the locals cross. Well - that's the theory. Locals don't wear cycling shoes with metal cleat attachments underneath. These cleats aren't compatible with rounded boulders. I provided humour for Johan and bemusement to a few locals...and my feet weren't dry for long.

We had negotiated a crossing or two when we were forced to duck off the track to let a Mr Bread truck pass. Now a bread truck thundering down this stretch of 4x4 turf was almost as out of place as Wyldesdale's red London bus. Mr Bread is a relatively new bakery in Swaziland but they've practically taken over the country. Whilst there may be those who disagree with their business tactics, there is no doubt that they've got a serious commitment to delivering bread. The staple food of Swaziland used to be maize-meal. It could be argued that it is now bread. Many rural households no longer bother to plough fields...relying instead on remittances from family members in the cities to help them get by on the baked flour option.

The bread truck stopped at green corrugated-iron shop with a lop-sided pool table outside. Johan and I christened it the Lomati Country Club and challenged the locals to a game. Alas, the table had issues and was unplayable, but the banter from the crowd was entertaining, including the dude who'd already cracked open his first quart for the day. He reminded me of a few similar spirits in my own neck of woods (12C, Ganda & Anus - stand up and be counted) whose enthusiasm for a dop or two gets many a legendary occasion underway.

The Lomati River departed Swaziland a few kilometres further on, its headwaters lost in the midst of the most broken patch of countryside anywhere this side of the equator. On a topo map the countryside looks like spiderweb of streams and contour lines all mixed up in an impossible jumble of amoebic shapes.

Our route lay up the Mganda Valley, which sticks to the Swazi side of the border. But first, a stop was required to say "hello" to Paul Pritz. Paul is a subsistance farmer. Whilst he may be poor in appearance, he is an individual who is extremely rich in spirit and passion for the natural environment. Paul owns the portion of land just west of Wyldesdale, his homestead stradling the confluence of the Mganda and Lomati rivers. Originally of Polish extraction (oops or is it Hungarian ??) Paul married a Swazi woman and took to farming in this remote corner of Swaziland many many years ago. He is now 72 years of age, walks with a swinging gait that indicates a stiffening of joints and characteristically cups his hand behind his good ear to hear better. His memory is razor sharp and sitting down with him for an hour is an experience to remember...and best you do remember, because he certainly will...and will recount to you many things you said to him on your previous visit, no matter how long ago it was.

I've been popping in on Paul on odd occasions for many years, once or twice on official business (Protection-worthy Areas Survey / Biodiversity & Tourism Corridor studies) and other times just out of the sheer joy of being able able to MTB through the Mganda Valley. If I haven't mentioned it yet - the mountain bike trail through the Mganda Valley is is is... beyond description. It is sheer joy. More than 20km's of downhill, singletrack, streams, jumps, gnarled sweetly interlinked that your face just aches from the smile that splits it.

Anyhow on this occasion Paul had some big news. For years he has been trying to get his land proclaimed as a nature reserve. Its been an ongoing saga... a lot of dead-ends, knocking on this door and that door, lots of consultants (self included) and generally a lot of hot air with no progress. For a self-sufficient person like he is, this must have been very frustrating. When a frontiersman needs something done, he takes an axe, a spade or a pair of pliers and he just gets the damn thing done. Fullstop. Now, as we know, the world is crying out for the protection of its natural areas and this man who owns a decent chunk of land wants to donate his property in perpetuity to the cause of nature conservation. You'd think there'd be rush to assist him do this...but up until a few days before our visit, it had taken more than 10 years of effort on his part to get this right.

"Its done, Darron," he said with tears in his eyes, "it was signed just a few days ago, my land is going to be a nature reserve, part of a transfrontier park". I was happy, his dream was coming true. I didn't probe the details, but I knew that this wasn't going to bring him much financial return, but possibly some real peace of mind.

Paul Pritz and his family live in a single 5mx5m army tent, their other possessions scattered under the tall trees that typically indicate that this is or was once a stately farm dwelling overlooking a swathe of farming land. Apart from community cattle overgrazing his hillslopes and alien vegetation growth, the greatest threat to his property has come from the neighbouring dagga farmers. Incensed at the damage that they've caused to the fragile riverine and cloud forests that transect his land, Paul has had an ongoing battle with them. Two years back, a small incident flared into open warfare and a mob stormed his homestead and burnt it to the ground leaving Paul and his family as refugees living out of the back of his pick-up truck outside the Piggs Peak Police Station. Everything he owned was destroyed...everything apart from his spirit. That someone with so little wants to give so much to future just boggles the mind. [If there are any benevolent souls out there who'd like to contribute something to making Paul's life a bit more comfortable and who many have a means to assist this fledgling nature reserve, please email me.]

After departing the Pritz premises Johan and I took in the full beauty of the Mganda Valley. Although we were cycling upstream and against the normal direction of this route, it was still brilliant MTB'ing fun. The Swazi families that live up here, appear to live in paradise, the outside visitor it is paradise: crystal clear streams, grassy slopes, forested glades, no litter, no pollution, no noise. But the reality is no doubt less than picture perfect. We passed a family moving slowly through an old maize field picking fresh blackjack shoots - no doubt for making a spinach dish as umshibo (sauce) to wash down the phutu maize-meal porridge. I grew up knowing blackjacks only as weeds...not as a source of sustenance.

At the last homestead we were engulfed by a crowd of kids.

"Sicela ma-sweeti," they called asking for sweets. Johan and I had been puzzled by this repeated request. It is not unusual as a visiting white-face in a rural area to be asked for various things, "i-50c", "i-mali", "i-Cap" and the real chancers "Borrow me your bisikili", but the Mganda Valley had developed a definite over-riding interest in sweets. There seemed to be a real expectation that our backpacks and pockets were packed with sweets and that we were just waiting to dish them out. Johan and I decided to get the bottom of this perception. We questioned them in depth on why they were asking for sweets, who had given them sweets in the past, what made them think we had sweets? It drew a total blank? They seemed to have no real idea why they were asking for sweets, they were just asking!

The interrogation over, the kids then switched to other topics. A boy offered us some Monkey orange fruit. I've had this before, its delicious, but one has to be a bit careful about swallowing or chewing the seeds as this family of fruits under the name Strychnos gives rise to the poison Strychnine which is extracted from seeds of certain species. The kid did belately tell me this...but fortunately I already knew and had been spitting them out.

Amongst the group was a very well-spoken little girl. She had absolutely flawless light skin, perfect teeth and looked the picture of youthful health. It was apparent that she was being very carefully minded as she had a big straw hat on your head to protect her from the sun. We were impressed with her grasp of English and her cheeky questions. It turned out she was doing Grade 4 at a school in the capital of Mbabane, which explained things. Clearly she was the chosen one. In large rural families, parents are often forced to make the hard decision of which children to educate and which not. It seems to be a cruel roulette of life, but one child may be given everything to ensure they pass through school and university and on to a well-paying job, whilst other siblings are kept at home to tend goats and cattle. That successful child is seldom released from that debt however, and will be expected to make significant remittances back to the family for the rest of his or her life. Family bonds are very strong in Swaziland, however the burden of a maintaining responsibility for the needs of a large extended family is no doubt stressful to the extreme. One wonders what fate awaits the little straw hat princess.

The zigzag track up the Mganda Valley finally enters the commercial plantations of Peak Timbers. After a few kilometres of adherrance to contours it suddenly breaks off to zigzag straight uphill gaining over 400m in vertical height before cresting the ridge that overlooks Bulembu Village. Coming down it in the reverse direction it is an adrenaline blur. Going up - its an hour long push... unless you've got issues to prove in granny-gear. Johan and I took a gentle walk, conscious though that our easy day, just like the shadows, was getting fairly long.

Having gained the 400m in altitude, we burnt off 350m of these in a quick descent into the Mkhomazana Valley, a necessary loss in order to access the final climb into Bulembu Village.

The sun had set by the time we crawled into Bulembu Village. Our easy day had been stretched to 7.5 hours in the end.

I'm a regular visitor to Bulembu Lodge, which we use as a venue for Swazi Trails corporate team-building outings. I also have a number of good friends resident here. On this occasion another old adventure racing contact was our port of call. Tina had raced with both Johan and I previously...and Mike Ogg for that matter. She and her husband Colin are relatively new residents in Bulembu, together with their youngsters Leesha and Jake. Tina had invited us for dinner...but little did she know that once halted we weren't getting up again to go we took over her lounge floor for the night. It was a good night.


Tina's Lamb stew


Tina's Lamb stew


Tina's Lamb stew


38km at moving average of 6.9km/h

No comments:

Post a Comment