Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Swaziland Circum-navigated

In August 2009 Darron Raw and Johan Radcliffe completed a circumnavigation of Swaziland, on a route that took 693km and 12 days to complete. The image above is from their GPS track of the route super-imposed onto a Google image of Swaziland.

The full story of this first time adventure is contained in the pages of this blog. Go back to day 1 and hear what it was all about.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Day 12 - the horse turned and bolted for the stable

Like a horse in a hurry to return to his trough, Johan and I threw caution to the wind and bolted for home on Day 12. We had our last border post to tick-off and then an unknown distance back to Ngwenya/Oshoek - our original starting point.

There was no more walking the bike, no more being careful of injury. We charged out of Bulembu like shop-lifters in panic. Tina chased us and only caught us at the border.

"Hey, I thought I'd catch you guys earlier," she said, "I forgot to get a photo - that was sooooo cool having you guys pop by, I have to have a snap." Tina was talking kak, all she really wanted to do was jump on her bicycle for a little bit of a spin, re-live those care-free AR days we'd enjoyed before.

On our first race with her, she'd been an internet date. We'd met her at the start. It was a 250km Wild Coast Adventure Race organised by Mike Baker. At first we thought she was a bit highly strung. She gave us all sorts of issues about not wanting to use her new MTB on the beach or exposing it to corrosive salt water. I'd promised her we'd carry her bike across every river mouth and avoid salt water at all costs... then behind the back of my hand whispered to team members Mike and Tao: "24 hours of racing will kill or cure that attitude." It did...and she was a machine. We clocked almost 350km on that race... something that happens in AR not only because of navigational variance, but also organisational variance - what's an extra 100km when you're having fun?

Talk about extra kilometres - we'd done a few more than anticipated on this circum-navigation as well. For a 550km straight-line border, we'd thumb-sucked a distance of about 600km, adding for the zigzags of the tracks we were following, whilst subtracting for the inevitable corners that were missed. Well, leaving Bulembu we were already on 640km, so the likelihood of going past 700km was high.

We'd decided to do the last portion of our trip on MTB's using the Diepgezet road that runs just outside the border of Swaziland. The original plan had been to walk across Malolotja Nature Reserve which stretches from Bulembu all the way to Ngwenya. Malolotja has some exceptional scenery and great hiking trails. It would have taken us two days to walk across its skyline of ridges and peaks, using the deep north-south gorges as easy access routes. However, the dubious state of my knees, the lack of a tent or bivvy in our gear at that point and the logistics of needing to then send a vehicle to fetch our bikes at Bulembu had combined make the cycling option more attractive. We'd also be able to do it in a single day, which would score definite points with the troops back home.

The Bulembu-Josefsdal border crossing straddles the road between Barberton and Piggs Peak. On the Swazi side of the border the village of Bulembu has a fascinating history and its future may be similarly significant. Bulembu was previously known as Havelock and was a major asbestos mine in its time. The value of investment ploughed into this rough mountainous area is unbelievable. The village had houses for everyone, management and staff alike, it had tar roads, schools, a golf course, country club and sports facilities. It generated its own power. Asbestos was a wonder material in the early 1900's and at points was more lucrative to mine than gold. The world's longest cableway was strung up to transport the asbestos from Bulembu to Barberton - 22km away.

Then asbestos fell out of favour and the town scaled down and finally was liquidated. It became a ghost town and the scrap merchants descended on it like vultures to cut and chop up tons of recycleable material. The village was saved from total ransacking by two individuals who bravely bought the Bulembu Development Company from its liquidators. Buying a whole town, for not very much cash, might sold like a lark, but the fact of the matter is that its a bottomless pit of need and associated responsibility.

Fortunately Bulembu had fallen into the hands of some incredibly committed people. Shares were sold/passed on to Bulembu Ministeries who are now effectively owners of the town. The company is a non-profit organisation and has an incredible vision for the future. See Bulembu.
The organisation is primarily focused on the care and upbringing of orphans and every development in the town is designed to gradually increase the town's capacity to absorb, care and assist orphaned children. This commitment to provide an environment that allows these kids to overcome the cruel fate that has befallen them, is an exceptional example of what a group of people can do when united by a common spirit of service to mankind.

Tina told us that already the town was supporting over 200 orphans and that the target was 2000 in the next ten years. Her husband Colin is a vet and diary expert. He was pioneering the opening of the a diary project on the old Havelock golf course. The milk will be used primarily for the town's own needs as there is already a substantial population, as well as for the neighbouring Malanda community who are considered very much a part of the whole Bulembu micro-economy. Forestry, a honey project, bottled water and the Bulembu Lodge are other efforts in place to kick-start economic activity and chase out the "ghosts". I love Bulembu and everytime I return there is another building renovated, another sign of progress. It must seem painfully slow for those who have such great dreams to get things going, but to a occasional visitor the steps forward are always clear to see. The story of Bulembu is not a historic one, its future is going to be just as dynamic.

Josefsdal is the name of the border post on the South African side of the fence. To the north, the Kingdom's highest point at Emlembe summit (1863m) stands solid against the blue sky. The word "torturous" was used repeated by author TV Bulpin when describing the ancient prospecting and supply pathways that crossed this ridge. It led me to wonder who the Josef was who'd lent his name to this point. I joked that it was probably the cruel Russian dictator Josef Stalin - the hills and sudden precipices were certainly killers. The title banner on this blog shows the countryside south of this point.

[Note: my curiosity roused, I later tried to find out exactly where the name Jofesdal comes from via an internet search. I didn't ascertain its origin, however did discover that it is the name of the farm in the area and that this an extremely significant area that appears in hundred's of research papers about the origins of life on earth. The Josefsdal Chert samples have revealed significant details about the form of life that existed before the planet had an atmosphere as we know it today. I read that at some point billions of years ago these layers of chert were laid down on a beach covered by a thin layer of water. The lie of the land has changed dramatically since then!]

We'd climbed from 1164 metres altitude in the centre of town, through 1330m at the Swazi border, then 1398m on the SA side and finally up to 1477m on the ridge above. The question was raised as to whether Bulembu was the highest border crossing in Swaziland. It certainly felt like it should up there in those lofty peaks. We could see clear across the entire country. However, later that question was answered for us. The Ngwenya border at 1423m above sea level is even higher, but the label of highest border crossing goes to the tiny Lundzi-Waverley crossing that we'd passed on Day 1 of our trip. It sits straddling a height of approximately 1600m. Even Sandlane-Nerston is higher than Bulembu at 1500m, so it just goes to show that landscape goes a long way to altering your perception of altitude.

The road from the border to Barberton has been freshly tarred, and in fact so recently, that the strong smell of bitumen was almost overpowering. We were happy when the gravel turn-off to Diepgezet appeared and even more happy when we spotted a freshly planted roadsign that said Ngwenya/Oshoek was only 50km away. That was closer than we'd expected and we took off at speed. Some years back I'd driven up this gravel road with Anita and had commented that I'd give my left ball to cycle down it. Well, this was the day and I nearly gave both my nuts for the privilege. The road had been recently graded, probably even the day before, and its surface was totally loose. I felt like a snowboarder on a pisted ski run. It was not a comfortable feeling. I could feel front and back wheel slides from time to time as we hurtled down the road. The heavy backpack I was wearing was helping to keep my weight well back, which is generally the theory when downhill MTB'ing, but my front traction was marginal and I really had to concentrate to correct those minor wobbles that if allowed to progress could easy result in handbars crossing abruptly.

We whipped through Diepgezet, another asbestos mine ghost town, that is yet to have angels descend on it and then across the Komati River at 717m altitude. That was 758 m of vertical height loss - not a bad little section of downhill. The Komati was the second river that we were crossing on the opposite side of the country, having passed it on day 10 near Mananga. The other had been the Great Usutu.

And of course, whilst the saying goes that "what goes up must come down", the inverse also holds true and we put our heads down to regain all that height back to Ngwenya. The valley we passed through was wide and a little bleak in the washed out colours of winter.

In the middle of this, the township of Ekulindeni was one of those bizarre South African box towns. Rows of square houses in the middle of nowhere. Whether this was apartheid era forced settlement or more modern RDP planning, was uncertain, but the presence of so many people living in an area that had nothing but open space, towering mountains and... and...not much more begged the question - how do people live like this? This type of settlement is so different to Swaziland where people are widely spaced across the landscape with their own access to water, agricultural fields and a subsisistence lifestyle. Sure these folk had four solid walls and a tin roof, which may be considered a step-up from mud walls and a thatch roof, but a lack of vibrance and activity hung heavy in the air. That was until a kid did a somersault.

"Hey, do that again," said Johan. We stopped and dismounted. Four boys, probably 6 to 8 years old had put two concrete blocks together as a rudimentary springboard. They were running up and then launching themselves into a somersault with a side twist. A double hand clap was added for showmanship. It was a great display of making something from nothing. We shared our last packet of peanuts and raisins with them and then carried on.

To our left we could see Ngwenya Mine. The visible part is of the landscape changing iron ore mining that took place in modern times, but the mine is more significant for its red ochre (haematite) pit and the mining of specularite. Associated material found in this shaft has been carbon-dated back to 41 000BC making it the oldest known human mine in the world.

The final climb to Ngwenya border did not disappoint. It was real. We walked it. Ok - trudged it. It would have been a real grind if we hadn't picked a smart short-cut community path that carved a big superfulous loop out. We'd developed a real feel for gauging the value of footpaths on this trip and had seldom needed to backtrack.

At last we were there, it was a happy-sad moment. We shared out story with all who cared to listen. Senior Immigration Supervisor on the Swazi side, Mrs Gugu Dlamini, danced a celebratory jig with us. It was a spontaneous expression of joy, so typical of the interactions we'd had throughout our trip. Hassle-free and spontaneous.

Then we waited for our lift back to Ezulwini. This was the sad part - life was about to return to normal. Well - almost normal. Johan had a birth to look forward to. Although a second child is not as ground-breaking as the first - no doubt his freedom to roam will be constrained...until such time as the kids are old enough join us.

Kei, my 8-year old had hitched a lift with the Swazi Trails vehicle to the border. He gave me a real flying rugby tackle-hug that nearby floored me. I asked him if he was up for doing the trip again with me one day, "Sure," he said, "but then you'll be too old." Cheeky brat. I wrote that down to him not realising how fast he was growing up... not to him mis-understanding that I'm not going to grow old fast or peacefully.

Highlights - Day 12

Make Gugu Dlamini's little dance at the border. I've grown to love border post officials. They have the most mind-numbing job, dealing with often tired, irritated and rude people. But they relish the opportunity to laugh and be human more than anyone.

Stats - Day 12

52km at moving average of 10.4km/h.

Overall stats for the trip:

Our highest point on the trip was approximately 1621m on the flanks of Makwana kop. This is just south of Ngwenya. We didn't end up visiting eMlembe at Bulembu - that is officially Swaziland's highest point. Our lowest point was 64m above sea level in the Usutu Gorge.

Total distance covered according to my GPS was 693km.

Overall highlight:

Finding what we were looking for: Hassle-free Africa. It exists... just slow down, connect with people and it's there for anyone to enjoy.

Special Thanks

To Johan Radcliffe: a really special guy to do anything with. He takes risk in his stride and has uncanny ability to avoid crap. Always up earlier than everyone else, always quick to get a fire going, with coffee or food on the boil. Its like travelling with a personal butler.

To Anita & Jenny (our respective better haves). Thanks for letting us do the occasional crazy thing. It makes us feel alive.

To Karen Vickers: thanks for looking after us Day 1 to Day 3. We know you'd have preferred to be walking with us. Next time chick !

To Swazi Trails/Dirty Boots/Wydah Tours management & staff: thanks for holding the fort.

To Matt - great to have you along. Shot for joining in. Next year is my 40th - beware of the consequences.

To Policeman Emmanuel Dlamini (Sicunusa), Mgabhi homestead (Sandlane), Siyaya homestead(Mankeke), Kevin & Jackie Lincoln (Siteki), Mike & Tracy Ogg (Tshaneni), Tina & Colin (Bulembu) for hosting us.

To all the various owners of private property that we were able to traverse in such a hassle-free manner.

To Dr Jonathan Pons - for the consultation in Siteki. No offence intended for not taking your advice. Doctors need to err on the side of caution. Adventurers tend to err on the opposite side of the spectrum. I'll no doubt make a knee and hip replacement surgeon a weathy man at some point in the future.

To Capt. Thembinkhosi Dlamini - Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force (USDF). For arranging that the various army posts were aware of our presence along the border in such a hassle-free manner. Siyabonga.

To all those who gave us words of support - appreciated!

Day 11 - the Mganda Valley zig-zag

There was no time pressure on us now and we lounged around like lizards on the cottage verandah we'd commandeered at Wyldesdale. It was not too far to Bulembu, our next stop-over, although admittedly there was a bit of attitude gain to be dealt with. Our mission was to take it easy - no straining of muscles, no damage to joints, no accidents. The end was in sight and we could hardly believe we were nearly there already. It had gone so well since we had decided to carry on, back on Day 9, there was an almost an unspoken fear that Murphy may be lurking somewhere.

Wyldesdale is a fascinating place. Its a chunk of land owned by 4 partners, who are the shareholders of Rio Tinto. Well, Rio Tinto Swaziland that is, but imagine having that on your CV..."erh by the way I'm a 25% shareholder in Rio Tinto". The global mining company had previously mined gold here... and/or did a bit of prospecting - I am not sure. I don't think there was much gold mined...because I have been into the Lomati Mine previously and its not that extensive. The Wyldesdale Mine I believe is not much different.

The Wyldesdale property has a chunk of mountain on it called Lufafa. Lufa in Siswati means crack, chink, cleft or fissure, and when you look at this towering peak you can see exactly where it gets its name from, as there is a deep cleft in its face that is darkened by thick forest vegetation. At the Lomati river boundary of Wyldesdale the altitude is approximately 524m above sea level. Barely a kilometre and a half away the western corner of this property is marked by the mountain peak at 1432m. That's 908m of height to tilt your head back at.

I'd wacked a Control Point (CP) onto the summit for the 2005 Swazi Xtreme and then another one deep up the Shiyalongubo river, at the Shiyalongubo Falls - Wyldesdale's Eastern boundary. Now standing here, with 10 days of wear-and-tear in my legs...the thought of climbing up to that summit made me feel weak just thinking about it. Let there be no doubt about it - those competitors who've tackled the SX in years gone by...are people who are just not normal - they are XL - extra-large.

The walk up the Shiyalongubo (meaning "leave your clothes") is another of those magic experiences, which if you ever find yourself overnighting at Wyldesdale is a definite day outing. The waterfall is stunning, tumbling into a steep-sided box-canyon with a huge plunge pool at its base. Definitely a place to leave your clothes on the bank.

The almost inaccessible Shiyalongubo river valley and those of its tributaries have also been prized dagga-growing sites. If you ever wanted to walk through a field of dope plants taller than head height this is the place to do it. However, the tragic side to this is that pristine indigenous forest has been hacked open to allow sunlight to reach these illicit plants.We headed off at about 10am and tone of the day was definitely chilled. The route we were going to be following has about 20-zillion river crossings. The road, which later becames just a footpath, zig-zags from one bank of the river to the other, as if the grass appears constantly greener on the other side. Previously on one-day outings we've splashed our way through these crossings with much humour, as hidden rocks made the crossing a bit like russian roulette. Many an over-the-handlebars tumble is to be expected. However on a multi-day outing with dry bedding and food supplies on your back and feet that must be keep as dry as possible to avoid softening and blistering, the stepping stone option needs to be taken. All of these crossings had well-worn routes, one just has to look for the slightly muddied stones to know where the locals cross. Well - that's the theory. Locals don't wear cycling shoes with metal cleat attachments underneath. These cleats aren't compatible with rounded boulders. I provided humour for Johan and bemusement to a few locals...and my feet weren't dry for long.

We had negotiated a crossing or two when we were forced to duck off the track to let a Mr Bread truck pass. Now a bread truck thundering down this stretch of 4x4 turf was almost as out of place as Wyldesdale's red London bus. Mr Bread is a relatively new bakery in Swaziland but they've practically taken over the country. Whilst there may be those who disagree with their business tactics, there is no doubt that they've got a serious commitment to delivering bread. The staple food of Swaziland used to be maize-meal. It could be argued that it is now bread. Many rural households no longer bother to plough fields...relying instead on remittances from family members in the cities to help them get by on the baked flour option.

The bread truck stopped at green corrugated-iron shop with a lop-sided pool table outside. Johan and I christened it the Lomati Country Club and challenged the locals to a game. Alas, the table had issues and was unplayable, but the banter from the crowd was entertaining, including the dude who'd already cracked open his first quart for the day. He reminded me of a few similar spirits in my own neck of woods (12C, Ganda & Anus - stand up and be counted) whose enthusiasm for a dop or two gets many a legendary occasion underway.

The Lomati River departed Swaziland a few kilometres further on, its headwaters lost in the midst of the most broken patch of countryside anywhere this side of the equator. On a topo map the countryside looks like spiderweb of streams and contour lines all mixed up in an impossible jumble of amoebic shapes.

Our route lay up the Mganda Valley, which sticks to the Swazi side of the border. But first, a stop was required to say "hello" to Paul Pritz. Paul is a subsistance farmer. Whilst he may be poor in appearance, he is an individual who is extremely rich in spirit and passion for the natural environment. Paul owns the portion of land just west of Wyldesdale, his homestead stradling the confluence of the Mganda and Lomati rivers. Originally of Polish extraction (oops or is it Hungarian ??) Paul married a Swazi woman and took to farming in this remote corner of Swaziland many many years ago. He is now 72 years of age, walks with a swinging gait that indicates a stiffening of joints and characteristically cups his hand behind his good ear to hear better. His memory is razor sharp and sitting down with him for an hour is an experience to remember...and best you do remember, because he certainly will...and will recount to you many things you said to him on your previous visit, no matter how long ago it was.

I've been popping in on Paul on odd occasions for many years, once or twice on official business (Protection-worthy Areas Survey / Biodiversity & Tourism Corridor studies) and other times just out of the sheer joy of being able able to MTB through the Mganda Valley. If I haven't mentioned it yet - the mountain bike trail through the Mganda Valley is is is... beyond description. It is sheer joy. More than 20km's of downhill, singletrack, streams, jumps, gnarled roots...so sweetly interlinked that your face just aches from the smile that splits it.

Anyhow on this occasion Paul had some big news. For years he has been trying to get his land proclaimed as a nature reserve. Its been an ongoing saga... a lot of dead-ends, knocking on this door and that door, lots of consultants (self included) and generally a lot of hot air with no progress. For a self-sufficient person like he is, this must have been very frustrating. When a frontiersman needs something done, he takes an axe, a spade or a pair of pliers and he just gets the damn thing done. Fullstop. Now, as we know, the world is crying out for the protection of its natural areas and this man who owns a decent chunk of land wants to donate his property in perpetuity to the cause of nature conservation. You'd think there'd be rush to assist him do this...but up until a few days before our visit, it had taken more than 10 years of effort on his part to get this right.

"Its done, Darron," he said with tears in his eyes, "it was signed just a few days ago, my land is going to be a nature reserve, part of a transfrontier park". I was happy, his dream was coming true. I didn't probe the details, but I knew that this wasn't going to bring him much financial return, but possibly some real peace of mind.

Paul Pritz and his family live in a single 5mx5m army tent, their other possessions scattered under the tall trees that typically indicate that this is or was once a stately farm dwelling overlooking a swathe of farming land. Apart from community cattle overgrazing his hillslopes and alien vegetation growth, the greatest threat to his property has come from the neighbouring dagga farmers. Incensed at the damage that they've caused to the fragile riverine and cloud forests that transect his land, Paul has had an ongoing battle with them. Two years back, a small incident flared into open warfare and a mob stormed his homestead and burnt it to the ground leaving Paul and his family as refugees living out of the back of his pick-up truck outside the Piggs Peak Police Station. Everything he owned was destroyed...everything apart from his spirit. That someone with so little wants to give so much to future generations...it just boggles the mind. [If there are any benevolent souls out there who'd like to contribute something to making Paul's life a bit more comfortable and who many have a means to assist this fledgling nature reserve, please email me.]

After departing the Pritz premises Johan and I took in the full beauty of the Mganda Valley. Although we were cycling upstream and against the normal direction of this route, it was still brilliant MTB'ing fun. The Swazi families that live up here, appear to live in paradise, well...to the outside visitor it is paradise: crystal clear streams, grassy slopes, forested glades, no litter, no pollution, no noise. But the reality is no doubt less than picture perfect. We passed a family moving slowly through an old maize field picking fresh blackjack shoots - no doubt for making a spinach dish as umshibo (sauce) to wash down the phutu maize-meal porridge. I grew up knowing blackjacks only as weeds...not as a source of sustenance.

At the last homestead we were engulfed by a crowd of kids.

"Sicela ma-sweeti," they called asking for sweets. Johan and I had been puzzled by this repeated request. It is not unusual as a visiting white-face in a rural area to be asked for various things, "i-50c", "i-mali", "i-Cap" and the real chancers "Borrow me your bisikili", but the Mganda Valley had developed a definite over-riding interest in sweets. There seemed to be a real expectation that our backpacks and pockets were packed with sweets and that we were just waiting to dish them out. Johan and I decided to get the bottom of this perception. We questioned them in depth on why they were asking for sweets, who had given them sweets in the past, what made them think we had sweets? It drew a total blank? They seemed to have no real idea why they were asking for sweets, they were just asking!

The interrogation over, the kids then switched to other topics. A boy offered us some Monkey orange fruit. I've had this before, its delicious, but one has to be a bit careful about swallowing or chewing the seeds as this family of fruits under the name Strychnos gives rise to the poison Strychnine which is extracted from seeds of certain species. The kid did belately tell me this...but fortunately I already knew and had been spitting them out.

Amongst the group was a very well-spoken little girl. She had absolutely flawless light skin, perfect teeth and looked the picture of youthful health. It was apparent that she was being very carefully minded as she had a big straw hat on your head to protect her from the sun. We were impressed with her grasp of English and her cheeky questions. It turned out she was doing Grade 4 at a school in the capital of Mbabane, which explained things. Clearly she was the chosen one. In large rural families, parents are often forced to make the hard decision of which children to educate and which not. It seems to be a cruel roulette of life, but one child may be given everything to ensure they pass through school and university and on to a well-paying job, whilst other siblings are kept at home to tend goats and cattle. That successful child is seldom released from that debt however, and will be expected to make significant remittances back to the family for the rest of his or her life. Family bonds are very strong in Swaziland, however the burden of a maintaining responsibility for the needs of a large extended family is no doubt stressful to the extreme. One wonders what fate awaits the little straw hat princess.

The zigzag track up the Mganda Valley finally enters the commercial plantations of Peak Timbers. After a few kilometres of adherrance to contours it suddenly breaks off to zigzag straight uphill gaining over 400m in vertical height before cresting the ridge that overlooks Bulembu Village. Coming down it in the reverse direction it is an adrenaline blur. Going up - its an hour long push... unless you've got issues to prove in granny-gear. Johan and I took a gentle walk, conscious though that our easy day, just like the shadows, was getting fairly long.

Having gained the 400m in altitude, we burnt off 350m of these in a quick descent into the Mkhomazana Valley, a necessary loss in order to access the final climb into Bulembu Village.

The sun had set by the time we crawled into Bulembu Village. Our easy day had been stretched to 7.5 hours in the end.

I'm a regular visitor to Bulembu Lodge, which we use as a venue for Swazi Trails corporate team-building outings. I also have a number of good friends resident here. On this occasion another old adventure racing contact was our port of call. Tina had raced with both Johan and I previously...and Mike Ogg for that matter. She and her husband Colin are relatively new residents in Bulembu, together with their youngsters Leesha and Jake. Tina had invited us for dinner...but little did she know that once halted we weren't getting up again to go anywhere...so we took over her lounge floor for the night. It was a good night.


Tina's Lamb stew


Tina's Lamb stew


Tina's Lamb stew


38km at moving average of 6.9km/h

Day 10 - Onwards to a secret place - Wyldesdale

Finally we dragged ourselves away from the Ogg residence. We had slept really late the night before. Mike and I had adventure raced together as Team Swazi Trails some years back, so there had been plenty of war stories to be told.

Sadly Johan had had a really bad night with hot flushes and a stomach that was very upset. He had been up and down all night, and wasn't quite his usual chirpy self.

Our packs were now heavy as we had no logistical support lined up until we completed the route. We were aiming to finish on Saturday (3 days) or latest Sunday (4 days) time. Jenny (Johan's wife) had wangled a Blue Train ticket for their return to Cape Town. She was too far pregnant to be allowed to fly. This train was departing Monday morning promptly. A ride on the Blue Train is not something you miss. Messing an 8-months pregnant woman around is also something to be avoided at all costs. Swaziland may have been hassle-free, but our own lives had a less forgiving nature. We were under pressure.

First stop was Mananga Border Gate. Yet another friendly place. We pulled over at a small workshop to effect some repairs to our seat posts. Possibly it was the extra weight of our packs combined with the continual jarring of corrugated gravel roads, but we had both found our saddles slipping lower and lower on a regular basis. This put extra strain on tender knees so a lasting solution was needed. We roughened the posts, added sand to the clasp and cranked the posts tightly closed again.

We crossed the Komati River and headed off in the direction of Buhleni. We had decided to head for the new tar road that now links Balegane with Msahweni. It wasn't the shortest route, but the promise of a smooth surface was enticing to our long-suffering butts.

The first homestead that we passed was that of a Sangoma, a swazi traditional healer. Many years back I had visited this place with James Hall, an American who had undergone kutfwasa, the training to become a healer. Much had changed since those years. Back then we had walked across a rickerty wooden bridge, then followed a narrow dusty footpath that left from behind a giant marula tree. Now there was a major causeway across the Komati and a wide gravel road. Behind the sangoma's homestead there were now fields of sugarcane.

Sometimes progress is so slow that it is not noticeable. People in Swaziland, as in most developing nations, have been going through a phase of development that includes increased consciousness of their rights to better living conditions: water, electricity, transport, schools. Such consciousness often comes with disenchantment with the pace of development. When sitting under a marula tree, or waiting to fill a water container at a communal water tap, change must seem to be non-existent. However, for me this trip had been an eye-opener. There had been significant changes in the last 10-15 years. We had crossed many areas that I had last visited when preparing routes for the Swazi Xtreme or when undertaking consultancy work for various aid organisations. I had very clear memories of many of these areas, and the spread of development infrastructure was significant to say the least.

Johan and I had spent many hours already discussing what actions and areas of development speed improvements in quality of life the fastest. We had both agreed that good all weather roads were the starting point. The communities that had new or upgraded access roads in the past decade were those that also had the greatest visible change in other services: water reticulation projects, electrification, schools and clinics. Without good road access no other services could be installed or maintained. In this sphere the local roads department are both heroes and villians. We had seen examples of well-contoured and drained gravel roads and others that were an environmental disaster.The latter were clearly the result of wishful thinking and a bit of unauthorized use of Government machinery. Routes could be found that looked like a bull-dozer driver had taken his machine for a spin up the mountain carving his own route as he went. When he failed to cross a ridge or stream he would start again from a different angle, leaving a scarred and eroded landscape. One hopes that Swazi government is aware of the need to employ decent surveyors and to finish off bull-dozed routes with proper drainage. Doing it right the first time is what is needed and political pressure from chiefs and parliamentarians for rapid results should not be at the cost of the environment or ongoing maintenance into the future.

We also came across a million rand's worth of motorcar parked under a marula tree in the middle of no-where. Swaziland has surprises around every corner.

After 30km on gravel we hit the tar and the small town of Buhleni. We had ridden in silence for up to 20 minutes at a time, the first time on the trip we had not been constantly chatting, bird-spotting or actively route-planning. Clearly we were fighting our own internal battles, keeping legs moving, maintaining forward momentum, trying to ignore blisters, aching butts and strained shoulders. To make matters worse, the stiff headwind we had met the previous night into Mananga had now switched and was meeting us head-on again.

If you ever need a decent local meal in Buhleni, there is one little place that we found to be top class. Ayami Restaurant is a small general dealer, take-away, restaurant all rolled into one. It has only two tables, but very friendly staff and they are not shy to pile your plate.

Johan and I both opted for beef, pap (maize porridge) and the 3 salads option. Their plates are the size of a large pizza, and are piled to capacity with a small summit almost 150mm high in the middle. At first we thought the ladies had deliberately loaded us, after hearing where we had come from and where we where going, but as other customers wandered in, we realised this was the standard. Make not mistake, Swazis know how to eat and there is never anything left on the plate. These two plates, plus a coke each came to only E 42.00 (less than US$2.50 each). We did the meal justice, then had a chance to digest whilst fixing a puncture, the first bike issue on the trip so far. We then put our heads down for our second to last border post - Matsamo.

Matsamo is on the MR1 road across Swaziland and is the main tourist route. As we junctioned at Msahweni and picked up the pace to Matsamo, we were well-aware of this as campervans, rental cars and coaches zoomed past in both directions. We hoped that they were finding time to stop and experience hassle-free Africa, the way we were. Swaziland's real attraction is its people... and at 100km/h people are just a blur.

Matsamo is also called Jeppe's Reef, a reminder of this regions gold-mining history. Our intended overnight stop was at Wyldesdale, another old goldmine about 25km away.

We nipped off the MR1 immediately after the border turnaround and followed the Ntfonjeni road up the wide valley that heads to Piggs Peak. At the head of this valley 30km from where we were, we could just make out the Orion Piggs Peak Hotel and Casino. Built as part of the government's policy to stimulate tourism development hubs in various regions of the Swaziland, its hotel has never really achieved more than being a island of opulence in a sea of trees, but its casino has gone much bigger. As the land-base for an online casino business, the Piggs Peak Casino in recent years has been Swaziland's most prolific advertiser regionally and is arguably Africa's largest online gambling site. Saturation advertising on websites, on radio and in print has rewarded their first-mover advantage with an almost household brand-name.

Neither Johan nor I are fans of gambling, Johan's business having been almost bankrupted by a trusted manager with a gambling addiction. She is now serving 6 years in jail, a mother of two school-going children.

We both hoped that Swaziland's tax collection revenues from gambling were achieving a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. However just like the myth of Robin Hood, when in the company of bandits, its a little hard to justify the means to the end.

Talking about the end, our end to the day was always one hill away. We were no longer attempting to cycle hills and were enjoying the regular walks to stretch the legs and shift muscle use. At last we were at the base of Lufafa Mountain, the mountain with the gash or cleft.

"How do tourists get here?" queried Johan as we fought our way along a challenging track that would have had the average urban 4x4 owner sweating buckets.

"They don't," I replied, "this is a very secret hideaway known only to a very small circle of locals."

Wyldesdale has a campsite down on the confluence between the Shiyalongubo river and the Lumati, where a red double-decker London bus serves as a kitchen and cover from rain, as well as a scenic little camp with a few cottage rooms on the ridge up above.

Without the energy to climb the hill we had planned to sleep in the red bus, and ponder the energy and humour it must have taken to get it there. Our plans were somewhat disturbed by Mrs Bothma, who had moved into the bus, lock, stock, mattrasses, cooking pots, kid and barrel. Mrs Bothma told us a long long story about her husband was selling the farm next door and how she now had no place to stay, and that she was wanting to build a house in South Africa, but that she had no money.

This kind of stymied our plans a bit. Although Mrs Bothma appeared not to be the favoured wife of Mr Bothma at this point (Mr Bothma is a polygamist) we did not want to be found sleeping under her roof nevertheless. Mr Bothma, being a Swazi man, is likely to act first and talk in court later when confronted by unknown guest in his wifes abode.

So we pushed on up the hill....literally. Down in the lowveld this hill would no doubt be called a mountain, but being just the outstretched knee of a massive chunk of the Makhonjwa Mountain range just behind it, we bluffed ourselves that it was just a little hill. At last we reached the camp and a friendly well-fed dog. But all was locked up and dark and we prepared ourselves for a chilly night on one of the verandas.

Then our luck suddenly changed abruptedly and Philip, the elderly camp attendant emerged sheepishly from behind one of the locked doors. He was apologetic for missing our arrival, but we were far from perturbed. At his age forty-winks is a prescribed necessity for longetivity.

Within minutes we were in luxury. Hot water showers, towels, double beds, chairs, a table to sit at. The long dusty 89km that lay behind us was soon forgotten.

"That was my hardest day so far," said Johan, " I had nothing in me from the time we left Tshaneni this morning". Johan doesn't complain. He'd bitten the bullet and made it. It had been well-worth the effort to reach this secret spot.


Ayami Restaurant in Buhleni

Wyldesdale Camp


89km at a moving average of 11.8km/h

Day 9 - with age comes wisdom...or not !

There is nothing much better than sleeping in your own bed... even if your kids jump on you before the first hadeda call. This particular morning Paige was allowed to do this... it was her 7th birthday.

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.