Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Day 8 - the day the fat lady sang

"My advice is stop now, come back and finish it another time " the Doc said.

Don't you just love the way that Doctors can deliver the bad news so slickly ? I bet they spend a whole year at Med-School just polishing this aspect of their skills. There is no beating about the bush. Bang. This is the problem, that is the solution. I guess that is why we place so much faith in them. They are straight-forward, honest and confident.

Dr Jonno Pons had very kindly agreed to see me at his home, just after the crack of dawn, and before his hectic daily schedule kicked off. Dr Pons is a bit of a saint in these parts of far-flung Swaziland, where basic medical services are few and far between. There are very few top-class doctor's who choose to work from a rural base like Siteki, but I'd picked the right place to break down.

The Pons family live in what is arguably Swaziland's grandest dwelling - Mabuda House. This may sound out of place in a run-down and struggling outpost like Siteki, but the fact is that Siteki was once THE place in Swaziland. It existed well before Mbabane,the capital of Swaziland, and has a fascinating history. Initially a hang-out for rather adventurous, rebellious and even decidedly criminal elements, it soon became the place of choice for European farmers and traders in the lowveld of Swaziland - its lofty heights being somewhat more bearable than the heat and the mosquitoes of the ranchland below. Mabuda House was built from huge blocks of stone carved by hand on the farm. Its massive chimney's, high thatched roof and curved staircase are something unmatched in Swaziland. The family run a B&B from the farm's cottage, under the name of Mabuda Farm. If you ever get a chance its a very worthwhile stop whilst exploring this part of the Kingdom.

Although famed as an eye specialist, Dr Pons had no problem in getting to the crux of the problem with my knee. After a few bends, twists and questions, he knocked the nail on the head:

"Its an over-use injury," he said, "you've simply worn the membrane out that covers the bone."

"We've got a day in hand to rest," volunteered Johan, who was listening in on this examination of his lame and limping partner.

"Ha ha... !" laughed the Doc, "this won't get better in day, this needs a month or longer. Come back in 6 months, or next year same time, what's the rush ?"

We were deflated -this despite the fact that his diagnosis only confirmed what we already suspected. It wasn't rocket-science. Sit for 6 years behind a desk, getting up occassionally to make a cup of coffee, put on 10kg of excess weight, then head off for 300km with hardly a day's training and certainly no endurance conditioning. Something was sure to give way. And it had.

"There's mind over matter, and that's drugs over matter," said Dr Pons, " you could carry on, but you'll just be inviting a much earlier chance of arthritis. Give it a break. Come back next year - enjoy it, why risk permanent damage."

Eish - you can't argue with that logic. We thanked Dr Pons and headed off.

"What now?" asked our affable host Kevin.

"Well - there is slim chance I'll be able to walk the north-western border of Swaziland," I replied, "those Makhonjwa and Malolotja mountains make the Usutu Gorge look like an irrigation furrow. We're stuffed, its just a question of whether to quit now or later. F*ck!"

We headed back to the Lincoln home, which is adjacent to Mpumalanga Royal Residence, His Majesty King Mswati's residence in Siteki, and home to Inkhosikati LaMagongo. Her Royal Highness is one of my favourite photographic subjects at traditional ceremonies and events. She has an almost mischievous smile, that is seldom flashed, but when it is - it really highlights how lucky a man the Swazi Monarch is.

It had been great staying at Peter's place. He is a real adventurer himself. He flies a helicopter and rides a touring motorbike. He was away on a 10-day bike trek across South Africa at that moment. For the past couple of years his generosity in assisting our layout of the Swazi Xtreme by helicopter has made it possible for us to pull-off some extraordinary adventure racing routes. In return we offer him the chance to sharpen his skills - asking him to fly and land in places that would certainly not feature on your average flight-plan. Kevin told us that his dad had arrived in Siteki by accident. Or to be more correct, by breakdown. As a 14 year-old in the 1950's, Peter had travelled down through Africa with a family friend Trevor Dyson. On their return trip they had mechnical problems near Siteki, had grown to love the place, and never left. Dyson & Lincoln, still their family business, is a very successful sugar packing enterprise, right in the centre of town.

"Let's cycle out to Mhlumeni," I said, "its only 30-odd km's. We can take it slow, just feel how it goes, and tick off one more border."

So we headed out. The route from Siteki to Mhlumeni/Goba border crossing is a brand-new road, beautifully constructed and a pleasure to cruise along. This route into neighbouring Mozambique is a tourist's dream. Compared to the bustling, hustling and often choatic scenes at the Lomahasha/Namaacha border further north, this crossing is quiet and peaceful. Its hassle-free Africa. Even coming from Johannesburg direction, I'd travel this route through Swaziland anyday, rather than the N4 through Komatipoort.

We soon entered the Lubombo Conservancy - a significant conservation area of over 60 000ha, plus quite a bit more surrounding ranchland. Below us to the left were the rich bushveld plains of Hlane Royal National Park, home to lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and much more. Immediately across the roadside fence was Mlawula Nature Reserve, a quiet breakaway famed for its birdlife and solitude. It certainly deserves the label "off-the-beaten-track" and if you're the type that likes the bush to yourself - well - don't tell anyone else about it.

We cruised into Mhlumeni and immediately grabbed a piece of Mrs Maziya's roadside braaied chicken. My order was with extra cartilage.

"Siyabonga Ma, better than Nando's!" we exclaimed. She beamed at us. Whether it was our appreciation or just standard service, but after we'd devoured the chunk of chicken she brought us a bottle of water to wash the grease off our hands. Such a simple understanding of customers needs. Not many restaurants get this right, but Mrs Maziya, tin shack + braai grid, on the dirt verge, in the blazing sun - she had it all worked out. I resolved that I would never-ever pass this point again without supporting her little informal business. I'm a customer for life.

"I'm gonna miss this," said Johan, referring to the casual banter and joking we'd enjoyed with the roadside vendors. I agreed. The beauty of travelling a country by foot or by bicycle is that you do it at a pace that allows for greeting, conversation and small interactions with people. Our journey had been one of constant waves, greetings, questions and jokes. We'd never grown tired of it, and instead I, in particular, was relishing ever opportunity to practise my still very basic grasp of the Siswati language.

"Check-check," gestured Johan suddenly. A pretty solid woman waddled past us humming to herself. I was lost.

"The fat lady is singing..." he laughed.

Yip - it was over. Although I had worked out that cycling like a duck with my knee out wide was fairly painless, the occasional jolt or careless dismount had easily re-ignited the pain of the day before. We called Anita to let her know. She was sad for us. However there was an easy lift departing the next morning for Johannesburg, which would get Johan back to his expectant wife a few days earlier, so the call was pretty clear: head home today, rather than delay the inevitable, and save on an otherwise expensive special trip a day or two later. I arranged for one of our company drivers to pick us up at the Mbuluzi Nature Reserve gate.

"Why there?" asked Johan.

"Just wait," I smiled, " we need to finish this on a high."

I called the Warden of Mlawula Nature Reserve, Ngwane Dlamini, and asked him if we could enter the park from the east and then pay our entry fees on exit at the normal gate entry point in the west. He gave the go-ahead and we back-tracked 10km down the road to the future entry gate at Magedzavane. We hopped the fence and then headed down the concrete road. The concrete road caused a lot of heated debate in conservation circles some years back. It's a short stretch of wickedly steep road with a few radical switch-backs that drops straight off the Lubombo Plateau onto the plains below. Its value and environmental impact were questioned heavily, but it went ahead. To all intents and purposes it is a bit of a white elephant, as is the lodge that was built at its head and never opened, but its a sure-fire way to get your brakes smoking and your heart beating. Johan and I weaved our way down it enthusiastically.

"You know," I called to Johan just after we bottomed out, "one New Year's day when we were staying at Mbuluzi, Paul and Linda Loffler and I cycled up this mother at midday, mid-summer, babelaas (hang-over) and all!" Johan shook his head.

"Then to top it, two years ago we rode it twice on New Year's day, again midday-and-all."

"After that the rest of the year is guaranteed to be a breeze," I added, to fill in the clearly missing logic.

The ride through Mlawula was magic. Not another soul. Impala, warthog, kudu, plenty birdlife and a wildebeest that effortlessly kicked up dust on the road ahead of us, as he swerved from side-to-side, were our sitings.

We exited Mlawula and headed to neighbouring Mbuluzi, another of the Lubombo Conservancy parks to await our pick-up. There we chatted to the current Chairman of the Conservancy, Matt McGinn, who is also the reserve's warden/general manager. He was equally bleak about our need to quit.

That evening back at home we tried our best to be positive. Johan pointed out that it was my 40th next year - a great opportunity to finish off the Circum-Swazi trip. We'd managed over 400km he pointed out. That's a fair effort for two middle-aged buggers. It still felt kak.


Mlawula Nature Reserve - enough space to lose yourself in.

Stats for the day:

64km total with a moving average 14.5km/h.


  1. Shit what a bummer! Been enjoying reading these! Shaun

  2. Shaun, it turns out that the fat lady was only humming. The tale continues !

  3. I do remember a chopper coming to look for a missing SwaziX team in 2005... Red, isn't it?

  4. was an interesting exercise in discovering how small a person is in a big landscape. We found the lost person when he waved his shiny emergency blanket...but when he put it away we lost him again...for a while. Chopper was white...the red tint must have been mud/dust on your shades.