One of the positives of having bailed from the Circum-Swazi mission was that I was back at home for this important occasion, even if we had engineered an early birthday for her some weeks before. A lot of bending of time and dates goes on in our household.
Johan's time of departure however was fixed and we got him packed, fed and to the door. Then we stood around a bit. My knee wasn't hurting much anymore.
"Maybe we should carry on?" I ventured.
"I'm easy," said Johan, "but best you walk up and down the stairs to really check how you feel. So I walked the staircase 10 times. My archilles tendons were like piano strings, my gluts were stiff and solid and my blisters still painfully evident. But my knee didn't hurt.
"Lets have a quick look at the map," I said, picking up the A4 size insert in the Swaziland Discovery magazine. "Yus...we are almost there, look we've got four to five days left and only this top bit to do," I indicated spreading my fingers across the northern curve of Swaziland. Its better looking at a simple tourist map - things look so much more manageable without the thick knots of brown contour lines that clutter the typical Swazi 1: 50 000 topo map.
"Johan, you're going to be late," shouted Anita from the car.
"It's your call, " said Johan, "Like I said - I'm easy". That is an understatement. Johan is Mr Easy, never confrontational, always joking, always willing, always doing 70% of the work. He'd never even been slightly negative about the fact that we'd been forced to quit... on his 40th birthday mission.
"Right - lets go back," I confirmed, as a rush of adrenaline made my head go dizzy, "let's finish it!"
There followed an emotional rollercoaster. Intense interrogation by Anita, then some emotional blackmail, some tears, more tears, some phone calls, more questions, more tears.
Johan was not spared either, "Eish, you've even made my wife cry," he said, "she says she hates you."
However at that point I couldn't have felt better. Adrenaline is addictive and this somewhat crazy idea to push on, despite the likely consequences was giving me a rush. We unpacked, then re-packed, scooped another Swazi Trails driver and headed back to Mbuluzi Nature Reserve.
The problem with adrenaline however is, that like drugs, it wears off. Half way back to the lowveld I was left feeling sick and weak. In fact, I am not ashamed to say: I was actually scared. Scared that I wouldn't manage to finish the effort and would be forced to a halt again. My knee was tender, no doubt about that, but my ego was probably even more tender. I hate quitting, I don't like being "normal" and more than anything I don't like being limited. This was my first real confrontation with age... or to be more accurate, with the lifestyle that my age was seeming to force on me... too much work and not enough play. Not enough time to keep fit.
We headed off on foot from the Mbuluzi Gate at midday. Not the ideal departure time given that we wanted to reach Tshaneni by the end of the day...but we were stoked to out again. Stoked to be doing something abnormal.
We walked across the Mbuluzi loop, bumping into giraffe around every corner. I tried to make out Shewula Mountain Camp on the Lumbombo Plateau above us. That was our destination. Our plan was hike back up the mountain, then pick up bicycles, which would have been dropped there by our driver and continue cycling through to Tshaneni.
In the 2004 Swazi Xtreme, I'd used a crossing point on the Mbuluzi River which feeds straight onto a trail that leads up the face of the mountain. Adventure racers are pretty fearless and I'd been worried about them straight-lining their way across the river and being munched by croc's. Hence the Control Point right at a shallow ford. A little bit of trial and error got us to the right point. We crossed carefully. Upstream and downstream were deep and dangerous pools. Only 10km from here Anita and I had been revv'd by a big crocodile who chased our inflatable raft downstream. Our romantic overnight paddle had been rudely shaken up. We were lucky. A week later a 19-year-old Swazi girl was less lucky and she was devoured at exactly the same spot.
Every year a handful of people are attacked by crocodiles in Swaziland, some survive, but fatalities are common. Its a reminder that we are not the undisputed masters of this planet. Croc's have been around for far longer...and in the pools and reedbeds of the Swazi lowveld, they are certainly still supreme.
We got to the other bank easily and then lent into the uphill slog. This was the 3rd time that we were climbing from the foot to the summit of the Lubombo Mountains.
Shewula Nature Reserve and its tourism camp is a community-run initiative. Its existence has a lot to do with the efforts of Peter Hughes, former MD of Tambankulu Estates and the driving force behind the development of Mbuluzi Nature Reserve. Conservation is not meant to exist behind a fence and to ensure good neighbourliness between Mbuluzi and Shewula, a vast Chieftancy on the Lubombo Plateau, he set about exposing the Chief and some of his libandla (councillors) to the what, how and why's of nature conservation and tourism. He also helped identify some donor funding, care of the British Council, to assist Shewula in exploring these opportunities. That was in fact the point at which I got acquainted with Shewula, way back in 1999. Plans for the Shewula Camp development had stagnated and the funding was about to be withdrawn. I had been asked to run a short marketing workshop for the community and arrived to find that marketing was the least of their worries - they had 72 hours left to draw down the donor funds, or accept that it would be lost.
Similar to this morning's rush of adrenaline to the head, I'd made an instinctive decision to help out. I'd sat up for 48 hours solid, drafting a development and funding plan that was submitted to the British Council. With a lot of positive will on both sides the situation was saved and the funds tranferred to me to act as a Project Manager. My plan was for a 3-month stint in the bush. How hard could it be to build three rondavels, an ablution and kitchen block? I'd conveniently ignored the fact that the cheapest contractor, who had earlier quoted on the job, had come in at twice the value of funds available and that the other contractors were all 3 to 4 times over budget. So started a very distinct chapter in my life. Using community labour, community tractors, community thatch and community thriftiness the camp was built in true Swazi fashion and time. I was paid for the 3 months budgeted and then volunteered for the next 15 months that it took to finish the job. I wrote this off partly to education - I learnt volumes about community politics, aspirations and prejudices - and partly to kuhlehla - voluntary feudal labour provided to a chief or king.
One gets a great feeling from doing something good, just for the sake of helping others and its no surprise that in the last 10 years volun-tourism has taken off in a big way worldwide.
So finally cresting the mountain and walking into Shewula Camp felt like a home-coming for me. The best part about Shewula is that it works. Many community projects fall flat on their faces due to a lack of capacity to sustain them... or just plain bad-planning or assumptions to start. I certainly can't take much credit for Shewula's on-going survival and success. Its survived because of the efforts of a few core staff members and community trustees who've grown with it. I remember clearly being asked to advise on salaries for staff, soon after it opened. I'd side-stepped this potential trap very neatly by insisting that salaries could only be determined by cash flow and not by industry norm's. First supplies, then maintenance, then salaries, if cash was left over. So for the first two years at least the Shewula camp staff worked for ZAR 100.00 per month, about a quarter of the minimum basic wage for basic labour in Swaziland. But they stuck to it and grew. Today they're doing much better...and the exposure that their efforts have brought to them have opened many other doors.
Shewula Mountain Camp has undisputely the best view in Swaziland. Almost the whole Lubombo Conservancy and neighbouring estates can be seen, the lazy loop in the Mbuluzi river, the carpet of green sugarcane and the mills in the distance...and even the mountain ranges of Piggs Peak and beyond. For a very modest fee visitors can stay in thached huts, eat traditional Swazi food and enjoy both nature-based and community interactive walks. If you consider yourself a responsble traveller, make sure Shewula is on your itinerary.
After Johan and I had refilled bottles and said goodbye to Thandi and Bheki in the camp, we'd cruised slowly on our bikes through the well-populated Shewula plateau. Having been away for quite a few years I was struck by all the changes and development. This community was looking and feeling really vibrant. I open myself to criticism in saying this because undoubtedly Shewula is still struggling under a huge burden of HIV orphans, erratic ground water supplies, regular droughts and limited access to shops, hospitals and job opportunities, BUT this community is miles further down the road of development than the community I encountered 10 years ago. The road, the electricity poles, vegetable gardens, the youngsters playing soccer in an organised fashion, the women returning from community meetings, the upkeep of houses, fences, fields. There was real energy evident at Shewula. It was looking healthy.
I'd like to think tourism brought a lot of this health. Before Shewula Mountain Camp, hardly anyone had heard of Shewula. It was a forgotten area on the wrong side of the foot and mouth red line. The camp and its success attracted a flow of NGO's and donors. These visitors wanted to do their bit too, an educational project here, a farming project there, help for orphans, blankets for the elderly. The Swazi Government did its bit too - a great road and electricity make so much more possible. I remember having to regularly walk 16km from the main tar road to the camp after rain made the road impassable... always in the company of a variety of folk who lived up there. Nothing was easy. There were real limits to growth. Shewula has now cast those aside. The ride along the plateau was a pleasure.
We stopped near Shewula Primary School to look eastwards. Against a blue background stood the white skyscrapers of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. My GPS said that they were only 55km away.
Our next stop was to be the Lomahasha-Namaacha border. Departing from Shewula we lost almost all our altitude as we dropped into the Nkalashane Valley. Then we climbed the Lubombo Mountains for a forth time...this time on our bikes. Its a mother of a climb to Lomahasha - that's all I can say. Johan and I crawled into the untidy little town just after sunset. We'd spent a lot of time pushing our bikes, as that seemed safer than overworking my knee joint. So far so good, no major pain.
I have never particularly liked Lomahasha. It always has a shifty kind of feeling. You can't slip unnoticed into the town. You're instantly pounced on by money-changers, approached by beggars, everyone seems to be sitting watching, waiting. Its not a relaxing space, its not a place I'd leave my bicycle outside a shop. Food is also much more expensive in border towns it seems. Johan and I had two expensive sandwiches and tucked another two away for later.
From Lomahasha we had a wee problem. I'd told Johan to leave map #8 at home by mistake, and also I'd inadvertantly failed to upload the map tiles for the area onto my GPS. It was also getting dark fast. Problem-o!
The easy way was just to cycle all the way down the tar road and then head via Tambankulu and Mhlume through to Tshaneni. We were still however enjoying the thrill of being back saddle, so easy options weren't on the agenda. It also knew that I'd written this route over Mananga Mountain into the 2004 Swazi Xtreme. If Adventure Racers could navigate this area at night with a compass and map, I was damn sure we could too, without the above, but with a bit of prior recollection and a few questions en route.
Our first question was to a group of soccer players just off the main road in Lomahasha.
"Likuphi le ndlela ku-fika e-Nkalashane School, " I asked, " si-hamba straight yini?" The nearest soccer player confirmed this, "Hamba straight," he said, his hand going out straight, then describing a huge curve round to the left. This caused much mirth for the players behind him, who mocked him in fits of laughter, "Ya-ya...straaaaaight!" they giggled, their hands also describing a far from straight motion. The humour was good and appreciated, and soon we were flying round the 180-degree turn and hammering it down into the valley below. Another great downhill, with the need to keep eyes sharply on the track ahead.
Darkness then caught us as we passed the school. Between us and Mananga Mountain was another stray finger of the Lubombo Mountains north of Mafucula. The dirt track that we followed has got to be THE steepest road in Swaziland. We could hardly push our bikes uphill without loosing traction on the gravel surface. We then dropped down into the next valley - carefully in the darkness. Very carefully in fact, as this downhill had claimed a Swazi Xtreme competitor 5 years ago, and on this occasion we didn't have a Traumalink Paramedic close-by.
Having stopped almost every pedestrian we met in the dark to confirm the mountain route to Mananga College we managed to trace the route perfectly without a single wrong turn. It was hike-a-bike up to the saddle and then hike-a-bike down the other side. I moved like a sloth placing each foot carefully, making sure that no excess pressure was placed on either of my knees. It paid off and soon we were flying up the road to Tshaneni - well - flying as best we could into a stiff headwind.
It was 22h45 as we turned off into the grounds of Mananga Country Club. We'd had another 11 hour day, but we were still totally stoked to be continuing with the trip. It felt good. We'd killed 8km on foot and 64km on bikes.
Holding up the bar counter we found a welcoming party of lowveld villains: Mike Ogg, Chris Jackson, Bruce James and Greg Greene. All apart from Greg, had participated in a Swazi Xtreme or two, so the sight of me in particular arriving way after the expected time of arrival, dirty and tired, brought endless smiles to their faces. This was definitely a bit of justice being meted out on the race organiser for a change. After a few war stories, we retired to the Ogg's residence, where the last of the lasses from an inaugural book club meeting were just preparing to leave.
Two nights in a row in a proper bed. Wicked.
The crazy decision to carry on.
Tracy Ogg's chicken pie
Total 72km, 8km on foot, 64km on MTB.