Sunday, August 23, 2009

Day 12 - the horse turned and bolted for the stable

Like a horse in a hurry to return to his trough, Johan and I threw caution to the wind and bolted for home on Day 12. We had our last border post to tick-off and then an unknown distance back to Ngwenya/Oshoek - our original starting point.

There was no more walking the bike, no more being careful of injury. We charged out of Bulembu like shop-lifters in panic. Tina chased us and only caught us at the border.

"Hey, I thought I'd catch you guys earlier," she said, "I forgot to get a photo - that was sooooo cool having you guys pop by, I have to have a snap." Tina was talking kak, all she really wanted to do was jump on her bicycle for a little bit of a spin, re-live those care-free AR days we'd enjoyed before.

On our first race with her, she'd been an internet date. We'd met her at the start. It was a 250km Wild Coast Adventure Race organised by Mike Baker. At first we thought she was a bit highly strung. She gave us all sorts of issues about not wanting to use her new MTB on the beach or exposing it to corrosive salt water. I'd promised her we'd carry her bike across every river mouth and avoid salt water at all costs... then behind the back of my hand whispered to team members Mike and Tao: "24 hours of racing will kill or cure that attitude." It did...and she was a machine. We clocked almost 350km on that race... something that happens in AR not only because of navigational variance, but also organisational variance - what's an extra 100km when you're having fun?

Talk about extra kilometres - we'd done a few more than anticipated on this circum-navigation as well. For a 550km straight-line border, we'd thumb-sucked a distance of about 600km, adding for the zigzags of the tracks we were following, whilst subtracting for the inevitable corners that were missed. Well, leaving Bulembu we were already on 640km, so the likelihood of going past 700km was high.

We'd decided to do the last portion of our trip on MTB's using the Diepgezet road that runs just outside the border of Swaziland. The original plan had been to walk across Malolotja Nature Reserve which stretches from Bulembu all the way to Ngwenya. Malolotja has some exceptional scenery and great hiking trails. It would have taken us two days to walk across its skyline of ridges and peaks, using the deep north-south gorges as easy access routes. However, the dubious state of my knees, the lack of a tent or bivvy in our gear at that point and the logistics of needing to then send a vehicle to fetch our bikes at Bulembu had combined make the cycling option more attractive. We'd also be able to do it in a single day, which would score definite points with the troops back home.

The Bulembu-Josefsdal border crossing straddles the road between Barberton and Piggs Peak. On the Swazi side of the border the village of Bulembu has a fascinating history and its future may be similarly significant. Bulembu was previously known as Havelock and was a major asbestos mine in its time. The value of investment ploughed into this rough mountainous area is unbelievable. The village had houses for everyone, management and staff alike, it had tar roads, schools, a golf course, country club and sports facilities. It generated its own power. Asbestos was a wonder material in the early 1900's and at points was more lucrative to mine than gold. The world's longest cableway was strung up to transport the asbestos from Bulembu to Barberton - 22km away.

Then asbestos fell out of favour and the town scaled down and finally was liquidated. It became a ghost town and the scrap merchants descended on it like vultures to cut and chop up tons of recycleable material. The village was saved from total ransacking by two individuals who bravely bought the Bulembu Development Company from its liquidators. Buying a whole town, for not very much cash, might sold like a lark, but the fact of the matter is that its a bottomless pit of need and associated responsibility.

Fortunately Bulembu had fallen into the hands of some incredibly committed people. Shares were sold/passed on to Bulembu Ministeries who are now effectively owners of the town. The company is a non-profit organisation and has an incredible vision for the future. See Bulembu.
The organisation is primarily focused on the care and upbringing of orphans and every development in the town is designed to gradually increase the town's capacity to absorb, care and assist orphaned children. This commitment to provide an environment that allows these kids to overcome the cruel fate that has befallen them, is an exceptional example of what a group of people can do when united by a common spirit of service to mankind.

Tina told us that already the town was supporting over 200 orphans and that the target was 2000 in the next ten years. Her husband Colin is a vet and diary expert. He was pioneering the opening of the a diary project on the old Havelock golf course. The milk will be used primarily for the town's own needs as there is already a substantial population, as well as for the neighbouring Malanda community who are considered very much a part of the whole Bulembu micro-economy. Forestry, a honey project, bottled water and the Bulembu Lodge are other efforts in place to kick-start economic activity and chase out the "ghosts". I love Bulembu and everytime I return there is another building renovated, another sign of progress. It must seem painfully slow for those who have such great dreams to get things going, but to a occasional visitor the steps forward are always clear to see. The story of Bulembu is not a historic one, its future is going to be just as dynamic.

Josefsdal is the name of the border post on the South African side of the fence. To the north, the Kingdom's highest point at Emlembe summit (1863m) stands solid against the blue sky. The word "torturous" was used repeated by author TV Bulpin when describing the ancient prospecting and supply pathways that crossed this ridge. It led me to wonder who the Josef was who'd lent his name to this point. I joked that it was probably the cruel Russian dictator Josef Stalin - the hills and sudden precipices were certainly killers. The title banner on this blog shows the countryside south of this point.

[Note: my curiosity roused, I later tried to find out exactly where the name Jofesdal comes from via an internet search. I didn't ascertain its origin, however did discover that it is the name of the farm in the area and that this an extremely significant area that appears in hundred's of research papers about the origins of life on earth. The Josefsdal Chert samples have revealed significant details about the form of life that existed before the planet had an atmosphere as we know it today. I read that at some point billions of years ago these layers of chert were laid down on a beach covered by a thin layer of water. The lie of the land has changed dramatically since then!]

We'd climbed from 1164 metres altitude in the centre of town, through 1330m at the Swazi border, then 1398m on the SA side and finally up to 1477m on the ridge above. The question was raised as to whether Bulembu was the highest border crossing in Swaziland. It certainly felt like it should up there in those lofty peaks. We could see clear across the entire country. However, later that question was answered for us. The Ngwenya border at 1423m above sea level is even higher, but the label of highest border crossing goes to the tiny Lundzi-Waverley crossing that we'd passed on Day 1 of our trip. It sits straddling a height of approximately 1600m. Even Sandlane-Nerston is higher than Bulembu at 1500m, so it just goes to show that landscape goes a long way to altering your perception of altitude.

The road from the border to Barberton has been freshly tarred, and in fact so recently, that the strong smell of bitumen was almost overpowering. We were happy when the gravel turn-off to Diepgezet appeared and even more happy when we spotted a freshly planted roadsign that said Ngwenya/Oshoek was only 50km away. That was closer than we'd expected and we took off at speed. Some years back I'd driven up this gravel road with Anita and had commented that I'd give my left ball to cycle down it. Well, this was the day and I nearly gave both my nuts for the privilege. The road had been recently graded, probably even the day before, and its surface was totally loose. I felt like a snowboarder on a pisted ski run. It was not a comfortable feeling. I could feel front and back wheel slides from time to time as we hurtled down the road. The heavy backpack I was wearing was helping to keep my weight well back, which is generally the theory when downhill MTB'ing, but my front traction was marginal and I really had to concentrate to correct those minor wobbles that if allowed to progress could easy result in handbars crossing abruptly.

We whipped through Diepgezet, another asbestos mine ghost town, that is yet to have angels descend on it and then across the Komati River at 717m altitude. That was 758 m of vertical height loss - not a bad little section of downhill. The Komati was the second river that we were crossing on the opposite side of the country, having passed it on day 10 near Mananga. The other had been the Great Usutu.

And of course, whilst the saying goes that "what goes up must come down", the inverse also holds true and we put our heads down to regain all that height back to Ngwenya. The valley we passed through was wide and a little bleak in the washed out colours of winter.

In the middle of this, the township of Ekulindeni was one of those bizarre South African box towns. Rows of square houses in the middle of nowhere. Whether this was apartheid era forced settlement or more modern RDP planning, was uncertain, but the presence of so many people living in an area that had nothing but open space, towering mountains and... and...not much more begged the question - how do people live like this? This type of settlement is so different to Swaziland where people are widely spaced across the landscape with their own access to water, agricultural fields and a subsisistence lifestyle. Sure these folk had four solid walls and a tin roof, which may be considered a step-up from mud walls and a thatch roof, but a lack of vibrance and activity hung heavy in the air. That was until a kid did a somersault.

"Hey, do that again," said Johan. We stopped and dismounted. Four boys, probably 6 to 8 years old had put two concrete blocks together as a rudimentary springboard. They were running up and then launching themselves into a somersault with a side twist. A double hand clap was added for showmanship. It was a great display of making something from nothing. We shared our last packet of peanuts and raisins with them and then carried on.

To our left we could see Ngwenya Mine. The visible part is of the landscape changing iron ore mining that took place in modern times, but the mine is more significant for its red ochre (haematite) pit and the mining of specularite. Associated material found in this shaft has been carbon-dated back to 41 000BC making it the oldest known human mine in the world.

The final climb to Ngwenya border did not disappoint. It was real. We walked it. Ok - trudged it. It would have been a real grind if we hadn't picked a smart short-cut community path that carved a big superfulous loop out. We'd developed a real feel for gauging the value of footpaths on this trip and had seldom needed to backtrack.

At last we were there, it was a happy-sad moment. We shared out story with all who cared to listen. Senior Immigration Supervisor on the Swazi side, Mrs Gugu Dlamini, danced a celebratory jig with us. It was a spontaneous expression of joy, so typical of the interactions we'd had throughout our trip. Hassle-free and spontaneous.

Then we waited for our lift back to Ezulwini. This was the sad part - life was about to return to normal. Well - almost normal. Johan had a birth to look forward to. Although a second child is not as ground-breaking as the first - no doubt his freedom to roam will be constrained...until such time as the kids are old enough join us.

Kei, my 8-year old had hitched a lift with the Swazi Trails vehicle to the border. He gave me a real flying rugby tackle-hug that nearby floored me. I asked him if he was up for doing the trip again with me one day, "Sure," he said, "but then you'll be too old." Cheeky brat. I wrote that down to him not realising how fast he was growing up... not to him mis-understanding that I'm not going to grow old fast or peacefully.

Highlights - Day 12

Make Gugu Dlamini's little dance at the border. I've grown to love border post officials. They have the most mind-numbing job, dealing with often tired, irritated and rude people. But they relish the opportunity to laugh and be human more than anyone.

Stats - Day 12

52km at moving average of 10.4km/h.

Overall stats for the trip:

Our highest point on the trip was approximately 1621m on the flanks of Makwana kop. This is just south of Ngwenya. We didn't end up visiting eMlembe at Bulembu - that is officially Swaziland's highest point. Our lowest point was 64m above sea level in the Usutu Gorge.

Total distance covered according to my GPS was 693km.

Overall highlight:

Finding what we were looking for: Hassle-free Africa. It exists... just slow down, connect with people and it's there for anyone to enjoy.

Special Thanks

To Johan Radcliffe: a really special guy to do anything with. He takes risk in his stride and has uncanny ability to avoid crap. Always up earlier than everyone else, always quick to get a fire going, with coffee or food on the boil. Its like travelling with a personal butler.

To Anita & Jenny (our respective better haves). Thanks for letting us do the occasional crazy thing. It makes us feel alive.

To Karen Vickers: thanks for looking after us Day 1 to Day 3. We know you'd have preferred to be walking with us. Next time chick !

To Swazi Trails/Dirty Boots/Wydah Tours management & staff: thanks for holding the fort.

To Matt - great to have you along. Shot for joining in. Next year is my 40th - beware of the consequences.

To Policeman Emmanuel Dlamini (Sicunusa), Mgabhi homestead (Sandlane), Siyaya homestead(Mankeke), Kevin & Jackie Lincoln (Siteki), Mike & Tracy Ogg (Tshaneni), Tina & Colin (Bulembu) for hosting us.

To all the various owners of private property that we were able to traverse in such a hassle-free manner.

To Dr Jonathan Pons - for the consultation in Siteki. No offence intended for not taking your advice. Doctors need to err on the side of caution. Adventurers tend to err on the opposite side of the spectrum. I'll no doubt make a knee and hip replacement surgeon a weathy man at some point in the future.

To Capt. Thembinkhosi Dlamini - Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force (USDF). For arranging that the various army posts were aware of our presence along the border in such a hassle-free manner. Siyabonga.

To all those who gave us words of support - appreciated!


  1. How cool Darron! This must have been a spectacular journey. I think I only got to Day 5 before I left for the US. Will catch up on your adventures on my return. Well done for doing this - I know it has been on your hit-list for ages ;) Hi to Johan, Anita, Kei and Paige. Lisa

  2. Darron...came back to this again and wanted to thank you for such an interesting read. i like the spirit of hassle free, and hopefully no hassle finding it.

    incidentally, two of the freedom challenge guys were doing a circumnavigation round lesotho almost concurrently. jaco doesn't quite have your command of the english language, but nonetheless its a great read

    ps.i can't believe you gave away all these swazi XX route details so easily