The Nisela hot showers however made up for it. Our first encounter with soap and water in 6 days was almost a religous experience. There is a certain art to ensuring hot water is endless in a communal ablution block and Nisela had mastered this perfectly. Johan had got in early, but dilly-dallying around with trying to remove the plasters on my toes without removing the fragile skin underneath had meant I had lost 10 places in the shower queue to a combi load of French kids on tour. At last I entered the cubicle and rejoiced at the fact that the water was still piping hot.
After the hard day the day before day six was very casual. Matthew was heading back to Mbabane and then the four hours onwards to Johannesburg. Not even an easy stretch on the tar road could entice him back onto the seat of his MTB again. Johan and I tackled the revised route with with gusto, getting our heart rates right up with an hour long sprint through to Nsoko. Nsoko is a farming town at the junction between cattle ranching and sugarcane farming country. It is situated on the banks of the Ngwavuma River, one of 3 rivers that force a gorge or poort through Lubombo Mountains in Swaziland.
The topography of Swaziland is like an old novel lying upside down to dry after being soaked in water. The Lubombo Mountains form an almost dead-straight spine in the west with its similarly named district stretched out across a flat plain to the west. Thereafter the wrinkles and distortions start as the landscape rises into a series of low rounded hills in the central Manzini district. In the west the bent, torn and dog-eared outer pages throw up a range of distorted and jumbled peaks. We'd already encountered some of these on our first few days but the real stuff still awaited us in the Makhonjwa and Malolotja ranges.
Having dropped off our bikes with Anita at Nisela (and after another long hot shower - just for luck) we finally headed onwards on foot. Our target was the plateau of the towering Lubombos just north of the Ngwavuma Gorge. On the opposite side of the gorge was the Cecil Mack pass, a long-forgotten border crossing point to Swaziland from the northern areas of neighbouring KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
The border post may have been closed for decades, but the informal flow of human traffic was continuing as it had for hundreds of years. Based on the contours of the map we'd made an educated guess that there' d be a route up the almost sheer mountain face just behind the main Scheepers farm homestead. We were dead-right. After a courtesy call on old man Scheepers, whose family had been farming the area for more than a half a century, we picked up the ancient track.
There is a very different feel between new tracks and ancient tracks. Ancient tracks have well-worn feel. The earth itself has been re-shaped and compacted by thousands of feet and hooves, and the roots of trees and surfaces of rock show a wearing that cannot be achieved overnight.
Somewhere near to here the cruel Zulu King Dingaan had been murdered in the 17th century, giving up the powerful Zulu kingship in much the same way he usurped it from Shaka who preceeded him. In contrast the succession of kings in Swaziland has been much more orderly, reflective of the subtle differences in national character that differentiate the Swazis and their very closely related cousins, the Zulus.
The Lubombo's go from 200m above sea level at their base to 700m on the plateau in littl over half a kilometre. We were soon sweating like crazy. The route was a good a hiking trail is can ever be designed. We climbed the ridge of a finger of mountain that gave stunning views onto the sheer cliffs of the main range to the west and an unhindered view across Swaziland to the west.
Below us we could see the giant center-pivots and lay-out of the very orderly sugar-cane farm below. Sugar is Swaziland's #1 industry, with three mills in the lowveld and canefields situated where ever sufficient water exists for irrigation.
Previously an inland sea, the lowveld land is fertile and rich, described by some farmers in the past as "the best cattle-ranching lands in Africa." Slowly, and somewhat sadly from a biodiversity perspective, cane has replaced the bushveld grazing across large areas, with only pockets of natural bush still remaining. The advent of nature conservation in Swaziland has helped to preserve these remnant tracks of virgin bush and the likes of Mkhaya Game Reserve and nearby Big Bend Conservancy, together the large Lumbombo Conservancy to the north are hugely important to Swaziland's biodiversity conservation efforts.
As we trekked upwards we were aware that the famous Border Cave lay within 100metres of us. Border Cave.
Border Cave is a rock shelter discovered in 1933 and dug in 1940 by W. E. Barton. This site's deposits include material from the Middle to Late Stone Age (ca. 30,000 to 50,000 years).
It is a very important site as anatomically modern Homo sapiens skeletons as well as stone tools and chipping debris were found here. Susposedly academic debate continues about the age of the human skeletal remains. The most recent dating using electronic spin resonance shows elements at 74,000 ± 5000 years before the present. This is very early for an anatomically modern Homo sapiens.
However we were pressed for time and would need to return anpother time to visit this important archaelogical site. Ahead if us we caught-up with a group of kids, sent down the mountain to buy maize meal and supplies. They carried these on their heads, walking barefoot steadily upwards. Although they reside in KwaZulu-Natal, the pragmatism of human needs clearly allows them to traverse the border to buy food and other necessities.
We had spotted a kudu earlier and now we could here the rare Simango monkey calling in the gorge next to us. This wild mountain face was clearly also a refuge for wildlife. The vegetation was stunning and distinctly different to the bushveld of the plains below.
At last we reached the plateau. It was breath-taking, not just because of the climb, but because the sky was almost black with rain clouds approaching from the south east. Yellow late afternoon sunlight flooded in from across Swaziland in the east and hundreds of Coral trees, bare apart from a blossoming of red flowers, made the huge scene totally surreal. I would have killed to have had my proper Canon camera with me. It was one of those never to be repeated moment.
We found the main gravel road on the plateau and pushed on north as fast as possible. We were engaging in a bit of cross-border tourism here ourselves as this land was technically within KwaZulu-Natal. However speaking to people along the road, it was apparent that the area was still dominated by families who regarded themselves as Swazis.
Where to stay was a big question. As it drew dark we spotted a school. A classroom would be ideal. We didn't want to be outside tonight. The rain was coming and the wind was icy. We tracked down the principle of the school, a lady, who let us into her darkened house to escape the wind. We learnt that the school was a community school and that any decision for us to stay there would need the whole school committee to agree to. This was clearly not possible at that hour in the day, but the principles husband Mr Siyaya was quick to offer us a place to stay in one of his out houses. He provided us with a gas stove and a bucket of drinking water for cooking. This was ubuntu at its finest. Just think about it... how many of you, who are reading this blog, would warmly welcome two dirty and unexpected strangers into your house and provide them with a place to stay. Just think about it. We certainly did and really appreciated this.
We shared thge room with Mxolisi a high school student. He ironed his clothes with an iron warmed on the fire, then washed in a bucket of water. We had little inclination to get clean - tomorrow was going to be another hard day. We bedded down on the floor the wind howling through the cracks and rattling the corrugated iron roof. Two people were never happier to be inside than at that moment.
The hospitality shown to us total strangers, but a family who could easily have closed the door on us and said, "Sorry there is no place to stay.".
Stats for the day:
Cycled 28km at moving average of 26km/h
Walked 11km at moving average of 3.4km/h