7 September 2015 by Justine
Cycling in Swaziland – February 2015
It only took 50km and 600m elevation to get freshness at night – oh man it felt good. We apparently got lucky because our two first days in Swaziland were comfortable. We then thought it was a normal weather… NOT. The third day, deep on a dirt road, the temperature climbed to thirty-five. Once again, we stopped between noon and three o’clock for the heat to go down. And then, something completely African happened… While we were resting under a mango tree on the side of a creek, thirty kids that just finished school came to sit across the creek in front of us and for two straight hours, they stayed there, under the burning sun, with no hat on, staring at us, asking us money, asking us sweets, asking us random stuff while eating mangos that fell in the creek, and signing songs. When they tempted crossing on our side, JP would stand up and run after them. Thirty kids. Two straight hours. Under the sun. In a dried up valley. That’s the African craziness we thought we had left in Mozambique.
We thought we had left it in Mozambique because as soon as we crossed in Swaziland, we noticed a huge difference: Perfect spoken English, nice schools, tap water and electricity in some rural areas, automatized irrigation in crop fields, brand new roads, welcoming and curious people. But still, we never heard as many complains then here: “the public transport is bad and insufficient” “the salaries are too low” “the country is so poor” and so on. Do they not know how bad the situation is in the neighbor country, few kilometers away? Without saying that the Swazi people have no reason to complain (they do), more than twice we got ourselves in interesting situations where local people would expect us to help them right away by buying them a car, a bus, a shop or by giving them a job on the spot. They were very much disappointed when they understood that we were living simply, without even a cellphone: “No cellphone? Impossible! Everyone has one! Look, these are my two cellphones. What do you do when you need to call?” “Call whom? I know almost no one in Africa, and it would cost too much to call my family in Canada” “I would have called you… I guess I won’t” “Ok, goodbye now!”
We slept in school yards the two first nights. Both times we got welcomed by the principal who was first surprised, but then very happy: “Next time you come, you sleep at my house. When my colleague told me cyclists wanted to sleep in the school yard, I thought you were as least twenty people. Otherwise, why sleep in a school?!”
We celebrated our exit from the dirt road with what they call “ice cubes” (home-made Popsicle made of frozen bagged juice). That last day had been painful: Sooo hot, soooo steep. On our way there was some bushman paintings. Too excited to hit the main road again, we didn’t see the sign – there was no way we were going back down there for some paintings. Don’t get us wrong: we love dirt roads. I guess we were eager to be surrounded by something else than a dried-up valley. Where were the mountains?!
Coming out of the dirt road, we saw them. At that junction, actually, we had to make a decision. In two days from then, there was the annual Marulla festival in Pigg’s Peak. That would be a detour, cycling up, up, up, and taking a right. We could also take a left, and cycle down, down, down to the Ezulwini valley, and go rafting. The Marulla Festival was the perfect occasion to know more about the Swazi culture. The King would be there, and every Swazi that is able to buy the traditional outfit that costs more than one hundred dollars (or to poach an antelope and make the costume out of it) will be there, with the traditional spear, shield, cape, fur ornament, neckless and hairband. We were now counting the days and the kilometers, making sure we would have enough days to cycle all the way to Cape Town. We would be tight. We would have to make choices. And choices were starting that day. We imagined a thousand people drinking Marulla, a strong wine made of little yellowish fruits that we had tasted before in a village (…). We took a left.
We were cycling downhill, feeling the breeze and cooling down. The sun was setting and we were looking for a camping spot. Only thing: we needed water. We had stop in a shop just before, and learned that the area where we were (and where twenty Ferrari drove by earlier) didn’t have running water and needing to fetch in a nearby well. We then needed a nice family.
We asked an old lady who welcomed us. She didn’t speak English but her neighbors did. They got so intrigued by our presence that they sat on their porch, in front of our tent, until we close our tent’s door – and even then. No possibility to take off our dirty clothes before entering our palace. No possibility to use the little water bin they gave us to wash ourselves for something else than our feet and face (not in that order). The next morning, no need of an alarm. Our neighbors took care of us. At 5:30AM sharp, Christian music was playing as loud as the neighbor’s little speakers could play. No need of a national festival to party!
On our way to the Ezulwini valley, the Maguga dam and the capital came across. We thought that the hills were only steep on the dirt roads… NOT. The ways down and up the Maguga dam are strangely very very steep. The way down was pure pleasure. And the way up, steep. Steep like… JP is fifteen meters in front of me but he can’t see me, and it’s not because there’s a curve. It’s because it’s too steep. I cycled to first twenty steep bends. And then, we legs cramped. Even on my lowest gear, standing, I couldn’t. Sorry JP. See you on the top for a break.
And on top, there was a perfect spot for a break, in front of a little shop. We were sitting on the grass, in the shade, happy to enjoy some chocolate candy and a cold box of milk, flipping through the local newspaper, The Times of Swaziland. Reading that newspaper daily made us understand a bit more about the country we were crossing. We could read that day that Swaziland had lost the right to some international funding because the King bought guns and helicopter (and built a new house for his new wife, as he takes a new wife every year) with the money of the last donation instead of reaching the set goals – not concerning national defense. “One of the richest Swazi women” was protesting in the article by saying that there was no such thing as corruption as “Swaziland was probably the most democratic country in the World”. Now… Take note that Swaziland is a kingdom where monarchy runs at its best and where the people can only vote for the ministers. The King is chosen by blood, and he is the one choosing the prime minister. The prime minister rules on the country with the advice of the King, and the ministers, with the direction of the Prime Minister. The Supreme Court has no power on the Monarchy. Couldn’t be more democratic. And as we were talking, we counted twenty red Ferrari drive past us in direction of the Maguga dam. Damn, Swaziland…
We got to Mbabane the same day. The way down was epic. Cycling in a three lane highway for a fifteen minute downhill between cars was epic, epic, epic – and a tiny bit dangerous. Once again, I voted for a quiet campsite outside the city, and JP, since it was Friday, voted for something a little more in the middle of the action. Oh, we got that all right! We got to Mbabane in the dark, which might be the capital, but not the biggest nor the most festive city of Swaziland. But when we got there, no guesthouse wanted us. The cheap ones were full and didn’t want us to camp outside, and the empty ones were too expensive for us:
A lady in a guesthouse: “I can’t let you camp here. But continue 20km and get to the valley! There, there is plenty of backpackers there”
Us, tired: “It’s nine o’clock at night”
The lady, trying to get rid of us: “One hour, you’ll get there. It’s downhill”
Us, skeptical: “…”
I don’t know why people think it’s normal to cycle in the dark on a highway, but even though we have done it before, we didn’t quite feel that last twenty k’s outside the capital in the dark. The second best idea we got was to ask the police station for a camping spot:
Us, desperate: “Where is the police station?”
A hotel’s night guard: “You see those lights in front? You go down there on that little street, and then you continue down, down, down when it becomes gravel and where there is no light, and then you’ll see it on your left”
Us, NOT even considering it: “…”
Out of options, we tried the central park. We looked around, and actually pitched the tent there. We couldn’t be quieter. One park guard came to wake us up at five the next morning. When she heard our North American English accent, she apologized for disturbing us and walked away.
That morning, we cycled the “20km downhill” to the valley, where all the tourists are. On our way, two huge shopping malls – with big clothing chains AND an Apple Store. An Apple store? What the… Having the presence of such luxury in such poor country seemed so off. We entered our very first huge commercialized air conditioned spotless supermarket… And got a bit crazy. Amongst all products, guess what we jumped on? … Cheese. And beer. Nothing better than a grilled cheese with chakalakah and a cold Kilkenny cream ale to celebrate our 9th country and our return in modern era. We chose Sondwela Backpackers to stay at, far away from any action and in the middle of a National Park. We ate our feast by a pool, surrounded by curious antelopes and a family of wild boars. Life was good. One more thing to make us happy: we read our favorite piece of local information, The Times of Swaziland, in which the Marulla Festival, where we almost went, was making the front page. We could see pictures of the few tourists who assisted, placed aside the crowd and well taken care of. We couldn’t be happier of our decision and cracked another Irish beer.
After a rest day – or shall I say, a cloth-hair-body-bike cleaning day, we cycled our last kilometers in Swaziland and stayed in that tiny unknown country one more night, this time with a family. When we started looking for a spot for our tent, we met a priest who flatly refused us to sleep in the bush and to this end, introduced us to someone he knew who appeared to be one of his most fervent servant. She was living not too far from the main road and had space for our tent in her backyard. Too polite to negotiate, too tired to escape, we followed the lady. She was living with her only son, she said. But there, she introduced us to nine kids between the ages of three to early twenties, along with some singing and dancing. No better way to finish our stay in the land of the Swazi. The next day, a new chapter to our adventures would begin… South Africa, here we come!