Strolling Swazi summits

By | Category: Travel destinations
the lanscape changed - the gren hills of Swaziland

the landscape changed – the green hills of Swaziland

My night flight to Johannesburg provided few opportunities for real rest, but when I told my fellow passenger that my final destination was Swaziland he was encouraging; “the landscape is pretty boring for the first two hours outside Jo’burg, so you can get some kip then.” He wasn’t far wrong – endlessly flat grasslands seemed to stretch in all directions with little variation or undulation and I soon nodded off to the gentle hum of the bus’ engine.  The weather was looking a bit grim – it slowly dawned on me that the sunny scenes I’d had in mind were probably living down in Cape Town. Here on the other hand, summer meant rainy season and the temperature was a modest 18°C when I landed.

My initial impressions continued to slump, but that said I wasn’t actually in Swaziland yet. The view was meant to improve after the first two hours, but since we were then driving through pea soup, or what the road signs referred to as “dense fog”, I really couldn’t tell. Best to go back to snoozing. When I awoke we were approaching Swaziland and the landscape had changed. Gone were the flat, beige, monotonous grasslands and instead there was abundant greenery, mountains and gorges with fast-flowing rivers, thanks to the recent rains. We were driving through South Africa’s fruit basket, with peach, banana and citrus fruit trees lining the road and I was starting to get excited about the tiny country that I was pre-disposed to like, after finding out my birthday is a public holiday here. Sadly it’s not known as “Anna Maria Day”, but still I figured Swaziland had to be a good place.

traditional Swazi home

traditional Swazi home

By 6pm I arrived at the border after a long day’s bus journey. It was a blissfully quiet and unobtrusive border, with no noise and no hassle. Getting out of South Africa was easy and the somewhat fierce rain we’d been driving through on and off, had abated to little more than a drizzle. Our coach driver, a black South African named Elmon, with a limp and a friendly smile, kindly drove us between the border posts and I had reached Swaziland. My arrival, after quite some time in the pitch black, at the hotel in Piggs Peak, in the northwest, coincided with a rather rowdy Swazi tribal dance. It was probably an interesting highlight, but not quite what I fancied after a journey of 26 hours.

The following morning it was time to do what I’d come here to do – hike. Before that though, I couldn’t help but notice that the Ladies of Harley bikers were staying at my hotel and, all dressed in their leathers, they were quite a sight. Luckily so was the Swazi scenery, which did not disappoint. My first hike was a 14-km/8-mile ramble to the Gobolondlo Mountain. I wound my way up a gentle slope, following a dirt track across a river. At first the path was along the flat, with the remnants of a burnt down eucalyptus forest on either side. This might not sound that attractive, but with the forest burnt down, the views over the gentle, green hills were much more sweeping and majestic – not that that helped those who’d made their living from the forest, mind you.

Further away the landscape shifted and became ever greener, almost jungle-like with abundant plants and trees, but my botany was severely letting me down. I’d started out wearing a fleece, but it became increasingly muggy and I soon wished I’d been wearing less, especially as the path was climbing steeply uphill. It was definitely sweaty, panty time, despite the deep grey of the sky with rain threatening. The walk took me up from 850m to 1150m, taking me almost three hours to reach the top for wonderful vistas, spreading out before me from Gobolondlo Mountain. The way down was of course quicker, but a good four and a half hours’ hike on the first day seemed ample. After a paltry lunch I opted for trying to see the nearby Phophonyane waterfalls and despite the rains of the season, they proved a bit paltry too, not nearly worth the fight I’d had with the undergrowth just to get there.

the products of the Ngenya Glass Factory

the products of the Ngenya Glass Factory

After the energetic pursuits of the first day, I thought perhaps a bit of sight-seeing might be in order. Ngwenya glass factory, in the small town with the same name, was my first stop for the day. The scenery along the way was absolutely stunning; green rolling hills, rising more and more steeply on both sides of the road, a meandering river in the distance and small, traditional round huts, or square little cottages, dotting the landscape with cows and goats all around. The greenery was broken up by the brilliant violet-tinged blue of the flowering jacaranda tree, bright splashes of bougainvillea and the loudest of them all – the African flame tree, ablaze with deep blood-red flowers and leaves. The glass factory was excellent with beautiful glassware all made from recycled glass and I even had a chance to visit the glassblowers and see them in action from an observation deck, after seeing their handiwork in the shop.

From here my tour bus took me past capital Mbabane to the Swazi Cultural Village at Mantenga. After the cooler temperatures of the last few days, Mantenga was a bit of a shock at 34°C. A short walk led to the Mantenga Falls, more substantial than yesterday’s offering. Then it was time to take a seat for the cultural performance, involving a large group of colourfully dressed men and women, singing and harmonising beautifully. They proceeded to do a series of traditional dances and songs from across the nation and the whole performance was both lovely and energetic. I narrowly escaped getting pulled into the performance ring to do a Swazi dance reminiscent of the hokey-cokey, thank god. I always try and avoid the ritual humiliation of the visitor, although this was all very friendly and easy-going.

at the Swazi cultural centre in Mantenga

at the Swazi cultural centre in Mantenga

After a look at the traditional Swazi village, with, it has to be said, boob-shaped huts, it was time for a slap-up lunch. I ordered the iyasha inyama, the Swazi speciality at the Mantenga Lodge and after some rather poor offerings this was stuff-your-face delicious. Flambéed strips of rump steak (and my god, did they flame – the chef brought the flaming pan out), pap (maize meal) croquettes, white mushrooms, tomato and green salad, mango and pineapple chutney, fresh pesto and ginger and sundried tomato sauce. Another meal like that one and I’d never make it up any hill again. As I was too stuffed to walk far, I spent the afternoon in the Swazi National Museum and this being the only absolute monarchy in Africa, a suitably large area was dedicated to the king.

Next day was another hiking day, this time in the Malolotja nature reserve, something that turned out to be a very hard slog indeed. Despite only hiking 9 km/6 miles, the hike took well over five hours. Luckily gorgeous scenery of high, undulating, green hills as far as the eye could see, with pristine waterfalls and wonderful flora and fauna, made the hard work worthwhile.  Soon I was scrambling across the uneven terrain with loose stones aplenty, embedded in the red earth. Both the uphill and the downhill were pretty knackering and you mostly had to concentrate hard to keep from toppling over. The downhill parts were quite steep and unforgiving on the knees and thus I returned to my hotel thoroughly exhausted in the late afternoon, in severe need of a shower. Swaziland was nothing if not good exercise and very pretty too, even if according to Elmon, the driver, you could buy a virgin wife for 17 cows. Not sure why he thought I’d need one of those, but this was definitely a country to explore further…

For further information about Swaziland, click here.

Images © Anna Maria Espsäter

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