Thursday, August 13, 2009
Day 3 - my kingdom, my kingdom, my kingdom for a bicycle
The road that set out from Sandlane border post and ran parallel to the border looked perfect for cycling, but plans to do this leg on the mountain bikes had fallen through. Johan and I however have a motto : "Never let planning get in the way of a good adventure".
We headed off through the Dwalile area, a local lad with only one leg keeping up with us on his crutches. The area appears to get its name from a nearby mountain across the border called Ndlovudwalile. This means something like "proud elephant" in Siswati. Any elephant who reaches these lofty highveld heights has every reason to be proud.
Johan and I upped the pace and raced down into the Ngwempisi Valley. The Ngwempisi River is one of the major tributaries of the Great Usutu and it passes through an incredible gorge which is the site of the Ngwempisi Trails hiking network, a community-run tourism project.
We overdid the descent a bit, averaging 5.3km/h for 3 hours. When we stopped near Gugwini School to re-assess the route south my legs seized up totally and I could hardly walk. We got some directions from a local schoolgirl, who was quite disturbed that we were wanting to get to St Stephen’s school. “U-le?”, she queried pointing to the top of some distant mountains.
“Yebo – yes” we confirmed and headed down to a rough crossing point on the river. Most community crossing points have a series of stepping stones to get across the water. We couldn’t spy one here. Then I saw a large Swazi lady heading towards the river just downstream of us.
“Downstream,” I called to Johan, “follow the large lady.”
We arrived to find her taking her shoes off. Alas, no easy crossing. One of the secrets to avoiding blisters is to keep your feet dry, something we were trying to do at all costs. However, here there was no choice. We waded across the slippery rocks. The large lady had a 3-year old child with her. After attempting first to cross luggage plus child all in one go, she then opted to leave the child on an island, dump her stuff and return. We were feeling far from chivalrous and weren’t able to be of much help at all. The cold water made the muscle seizures even worse and I called for Cataflam and a sandwich.
Slowly we started climbing the mountain weaving up dusty pathways between homesteads and mieliefields. We heard someone shouting behind us. Soon we saw the same schoolgirl we'd seen across the other side of the valley puffing up the path towards us.
“You must return and go this way,” she said. Apparently watching our progress from almost a kilometer away she had seen us take a wrong turn, not an impossible thing to do given the number of junctions and options presented by these community pathways. Busisiwe Mdluli, as we learnt her name was, was doing Form 2 at the nearby school. She had kind-heartedly run all this way to help us and indeed she did, leading us right to the bottom of the track which climbed the side of the Lushikishini Mountain. We were very grateful for this effort on her part and asked if her school had internet. She wasn’t too sure what internet was but said in Form 4 they started to use computers. We told her to google her name one day and that she would find the story of her helping us available for the whole world to read. She was confused and amazed at the same time.
As we climbed the mountain with the valley falling away behind us, we pondered how important it was to get computers and internet connections into these rural schools. The information age is not helping these rural people. In fact the gap between the have’s and have-not’s in Africa is just widening. I see it in my own business, www.swazi.travel which is entirely internet-based. Most school-leavers that come knocking on our door are almost unemployable, their skills totally inappropriate for the managing the demands of online marketing. That said, the likelihood of getting a rural school hooked to the internet anytime soon, is as likely as running car engines on water. At present the Swaziland Government is still struggling to implement the recent Constitutional obligation to provide free primary education. There are currently not enough schools, chairs or desks in the country and rectifying that first will take some time.
Thirty minutes later we reached the summit of the mountain, but lost the feeling of accomplishment when we saw the large lady and the 3-year old just ahead of us. How she had managed to power up escarpment, with a massive bag balanced on her head was baffling! The child, who was on his own feet, was equally impressive. We greeted again and headed on.
At a stream crossing we took directions from a woman collecting water in a 25 litre drum. Here we regained some dignity by being able to assist her to lift the weight of the drum onto her head. She was appreciative and we watched as she climbed out of the steep-sided donga (gulley in English) balancing the drum effortless, her neck moving left and right to keep her head perfectly poised. Getting water for household use is a daily chore in most areas outside of the urban water supply networks. We doubted that there was much that these rural folk could be taught about water conservation. In fact, a good way to ensure consciousness in urban areas where water resources are under pressure, would be to insist on a mandatory requirement to carry your water from the municipal supply into your home. Just a 50m walk would bring about a whole new mindset.
Sicunusa border was just an hour and a bit away and our target for the day. Here we were meeting Karen and Matthew Pitman, my brother-in-law. He was driving in from Johannesburg to join us for a day or two. Having completed the entire Kunene River expedition with us, he couldn’t resist the temptation to spend a day or two under the stars living simply again. We were looking forward to seeing him too, as he had been given strict instructions: “Bring bicycles!”
At the border we were re-directed to a nearby mission school at a place called “Bethlehem”. Whilst waiting at the border Karen had been befriended by Emmanuel Dlamini, a policeman on duty there. He was so concerned about where we were going to sleep for the night that he had called around and got permission from the school headmaster and the local pastor for us to camp on the mission premises. He even organized firewood for us in advance.
“That was possibly the nicest border crossing official that I have ever-ever met,” commented Karen.
“Welcome to hassle-free Africa!” I replied.
Later that night we sat around the fire with Emmanual . He had been a policeman for 19 years in various areas of Swaziland, but was glad to be back here in this area, as it was where he had grown up. He had a farm at Velesizweni, which is near the community-run Ngwempisi Trails. He was also keen to cater for tourists on his farm. It seems the seed of tourism development was well-sown in the surrounding area. One thing we all agreed later was that there was no-one who could teach him anything about good hospitality. He clearly had a doctorate in that already!
We went to bed happy, but concerned about the next few days. We had gained some bicycles but were losing Karen. She needed to return to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, where she has lived for the past 3 years. Her job is to lecture and supervise students for the Organisation for Tropical Studies, an American organization linked to WITS and UCT universities in South Africa. We were definitely going to miss her. Meals were going to get a lot rougher and our bags were certainly going to be heavier.
Cataflam – an anti-inflammatory that works wonders
Policeman Emmanuel Dlamini and schoolgirl Busiswe Mdluli – for underlining why we love Swaziland.
We walked 35km and in doing so clocked over first 100km. Moving average 4.5km/h and overall average 4km/h. We were active for 9 hours and Darron pushed his heart rate up to 184 max at one point, but had a gentle average of only 113 for the day. We burnt 3485 calories…. Then ate Reese’s Peanut butter cups for dessert.