An hour later a police siren sounded behind us. Ooops... well aware that we were bending the rules a bit, we walked on, not daring to look round. A Zulu voice on a microphone greeted us, "Ninjani madoda?" and then in the same breath continued with an amphified message to the community informing them to bring out their dogs for rabies injections. It was a veterinary vehicle. We laughed at our moment of panic, but hassle-free Africa was still being kind to us.
As in most places in the undeveloped world - water, and the daily need to source it, was clearly a dominant feature of everyday life. There were many different types of communal water point evident in this area with many innovative types of pumping apparatus. Some tap points were fed from unseen pumps far away. At these points there were long queues of 25 litre drums waiting for the magic moment when the pump was fired up. Others had mechanical pumps, such as a bicycle-style motion worked by hand and a merry-go-round that looks like a smart way to get kids to burn off energy in a productive manner. I know for a fact that my kids would be able to get a river flowing in no time at all.
It seemed that tourists were even more of a rarity up here in this remote corner of Ngwavuma than even in rural Swaziland. Everyone was curious about where we were coming from and going to. Drivers stopped their cars to chat and walkers altered their gait to ensure our paths crossed.
One such casual meeting was a blessing. We were now approaching the Great Usutu River again. On Day 2 of our trip, many kilometres to the west, our crossing of the same river had been easy, with a wide flat valley to negotiate. Now the river presented an entirely different story. The Great Usutu, swelled by countless tributaries, was a powerful force, one that had carved a 650m deep gorge through the Lubombo range. Our route was to follow the road down to the river, then trek downstream to pick up the track that descends from Mambane to Abercorn Drift, the place where the borders of three countries meet. It was a windy route, promised at least 50km on foot. Our lucky meeting was with a rough looking character, ragged clothes and a bushknife in hand.
"Niyaphi?" he asked.
"Mambane," we answered with a raised hand tracing our route on the road, curving right, descending down, crossing and then curving back up again. We had long learnt that the subtle movements of hands and fingers indicated more about the route ahead than words could, particularly when language barriers limited communication.
"No-no" he interjected with a dead-straight forearm and fingers. "Nansi Mambane. Ubone imiti lapho, jika ngesencele, hamba straight!"
Indeed we could see the characteristic clump of tall gum trees at Mambane, 10km away, but clear against the skyline. He proceeded to give us detailed desciption of a cattle path that descended the gorge and crossed the river to climb again to our target point back on the Swazi section of the mountain plateau.
We took the path left and quickly I estimated that we were going to save up to 20km this way. We were elated. It meant we could possibly make Siteki in the same day, especially if we could get our bikes to Mambane. Anita had dropped them in Siteki the day before at the home of Peter and his son Kevin Lincoln. A call to Kevin set up bike drop for 15h00. So easy. We had 6 hours to enjoy the Usutu Gorge. Little did we know that we would need the full 6 hours.
We picked our way down the cattlepath. It was fringed with rare Lubombo cycads. I was surprised to see these here, as cycads are highly sought after by unscupulous gardeners, and these ancient plants are a hot black market item.
Trouble started 20 minutes later. My left knee became so painful, deep in the joint that my whole leg was stiff and rigid. This wasn't ITB, an agony I have suffered before on multi-day adventure races. This pain was at the front of the knee, right inside. I hobbled like a 80-year old, Johan patiently walking behind. I decided to avoid taking pills to deaden it, in favour of being as careful as possible and not doing more damage.
Fortunately the rocky path, abundant birdlife and occasional view of the gorge took my mind off the pain. At last we reached the bottom. This is one of the most remote areas of Swaziland. Faint cattle paths criss-crossed each other. Ours appeared to head upstream, but it was not clear where the litibuko (crossing point) was. Nor was it clear where the path on the far bank was. This was a crucial point for us, a whole day could easily we lost here, with sheer cliffs and dense vegetation limiting options. The river was also full of crocodiles, so crossing was something to do once and not repeatedly. I sat to rest my knee whilst Johan scouted upstream. I studied the map intensely. Where would I walk if I was a cattle-herder? About 2.5km downstream there appeared to be slightly more gentle gradient lines, possibly linking to a path on a nose on the plateau above.
Johan returned from his scouting mission with unconclusive evidence. There was a lot of foot spoor going that way, but nothing nothing on the far bank that held hope of an ascending path. We opted to head downstream. I had estimated 2.2km from the topo map as the point to start looking for a crossing point. The walk down the banks was great with incredible birdlife - we wished we had time and binoculars. We heard a Fish Eagle calling, baboons barked and a trumpter hornbill flew from fig tree to fig tree ahead of us.
Exactly at the expected point a pair of boot prints and a barefoot print could be made out crossing onto a freshly smoothed sandbank mid-river. It looked like it was possible to cross almost to the middle of the river by rock hopping, but the first hop required a leap of faith. Johan eyed the rock - the distance wasn't an issue, but the surface of the rock was potentially slippery. He went for it and wiped out spectacularly. The rock was like ice and his foot hardly stayed a second on it before his shin made contact with the rocks beyond it. Pack, dry clothes, maps and food all ended up in the water.
I took the more cautious option and stripped down to wade across. The middle section of the river was waist-deep and flowing strongly. Crossing at regular crossing points does bring the risk that crocodiles learn to lie in wait here. Did the boot print person and the barefoot one we had seen this bank, also exit on that bank? It was a long minute until I reached the other side. A lunch stop was called, which provided an opportune moment for Johan to dry himself and his gear off.
Kitted up and ready to roll again, we now needed a path....mmmm, some local knowledge would help. No sooner had we muttered these words than a shout rang out from the opposite bank. Within a minute a cattle herder came past, driving some decent-looking Ngunis. He was bare from the waist upwards and burnt black by the sun. We greeted him across the river and he pointed out exactly which cattle track we should follow to climb the side of the gorge. Luck was on our side. The rest had been good for my knee and we watched the altimeter on the GPS slowly adding meter by metre.At a certain altitude the impact of Cromolena odorata was horrific. This alien plant, called the "Paraffin bush" because of its strange odour or sandanezwe in Siswati, is a major environmental hazard. It invades grassland and hillsides and forms thickets that reduce grazing for livestock and increase soil erosion as no other plants are able to compete against it. Our path upwards was a corridor through one of these thickets. Swaziland has an eradication program currently underway with manual removal, but when you see how entrenched and widespread this species already is, the prospects of making an impact by hand appear almost hopeless. Surely finding some form of biological control is the only way this plant will be halted.
At last we reached Mambane, the cooler air being a major relief. We called Kevin's driver who was due to drop off the bikes for us. We couldn't wait to get weight off our feet. It had been a hard 28km trek. The driver asked where we were and then went on that he hadn't left Siteki yet. Damn... the sun was already getting low and we'd have to keep walking - it was a painful prospect. Fortunately the driver had a wicked sense of humour and was in fact just around the corner. We happily changed in cycling gear and set off.
The happiness for me did not last long. The knee pain which had eased off on the walk out the gorge came back with a vengence. I could not even get myself cleated onto the pedal without shooting pain from the downward pressure. The cycling motion of going round and round was also close to impossible. After 30 minutes of pedalling with one leg only, I decided to hit the cataflam tablets, then waited agonisingly for the next hour for them to kick in properly. The sun set. Our progress was slow. And there is nothing flat about the Lubombo plateau south of Siteki. It was a long long day.
At last we made it into Siteki. Our base for the night was Peter Lincoln's home. Kevin and wife Jackie were awesome hosts. She had an endless supply of toasted sandwiches in front of us as we swapped stories. Kevin is also an avid MTB'er and was still recovering from a broken collar bone from a prang some months back. He'd done it properly and snapped it in four places.
Although the Cataflam was doing wonders for my general aches and pains, even it couldn't dull the pain in my knee. It felt as if bone was rubbing on bone. Siteki is a small place and Jackie soon had an appointment booked for me with Dr Jonathan Pons for 07h30 the next morning. I went to sleep hoping for a small miracle. We only just past half-way on the trip... and meant to be getting stronger, not weaker.
Birdlife in the Usutu Gorge
The great short-cut through the Usutu Gorge.
Daily Stat's:73km with 6.6km/h moving average
Overall average of 5.4km/h after taking all stops into account over the 13 hour day.