South Africa Travel Journal- Swaziland

The sun nearly peeled our skin off during the ride into Malelane, so we start very early in the morning when riding out from there to Swaziland. Johan the Shorter gives us a warm sendoff, attaching some purple ribbon to Robert’s handlebars. Crossing the border at Jeppe’s Reef proves uneventful, and afterwards we cruise the verdant hills, dotted with rondaval homes and occasional villages.Swaziland is a 900 square mile landlocked kingdom embedded within north-eastern South Africa. It was a part of South Africa proper until the later part of the 20th century, when King Sobhuza II wrestled away control through a series of political maneuvers and the buyback of land from the British. Swaziland is now peacefully (some say mellowly) run by King Msuati III, with opposition parties officially banned. Importantly, Swaziland enjoys a close, and, as we understand it, harmonious relationship with the much larger South African republic. It appears that with the exception of agriculture, logging and some tourism, most of Swaziland’s income comes from the money earned by Swazis at jobs in South Africa, to which they commute seasonally or daily. Famously, King Msuati has something like 10 wives (his father had at least 120), each chosen during a bespectacled “reed dance” ceremony, giving foreign tourists like us much to talk and giggle about during dinner time conversations.Once across the border, Mira found a riding partner. A wiry 12 year old boy riding a rusty BMX bike in long pants, sandals and a t-shirt. His name is Moose, or something that sounds like that. We seem to be riding through his territory, and he is very happy to tag along for about 15 kilometers. When we stop for some tea made on our gas stove, he flirts with Mira by doing a set of push ups and displaying karate moves. She’s interested enough to ask him for a primary language lesson, so when asked he teaches us a few words and greetings in Swazi. Sabona means hello is all Robert can remember of that.After another ten or fifteen kilometers, its time to find some shade, which we find in front of a small “General Trader” shop near Ngonini. It’s Sunday morning, so we simply join the dozen or so boys and girls who are out of school and who look to make a habit of hanging out underneath the store’s covered porch. The boys separate themselves from the girls, and the girls do the same, each on a different side of the doorway and each with equal interest in the foreigners and their bikes that just pulled off the national road. The boys are the first to start pounding us with absolute and curious questioning. “Why would you spend your holiday time riding your bikes all the way across South Africa?” and “What do you have in your bags?” were the predominant queries. We have no satisfactory answer to the first question. In an effort to demonstrate that we all do strange things with our time, I ask a few of them why they wait in front of the grocery all day. But they respond all too logically that they are waiting for it to cool off so they can start their weekly soccer game in the field across the street.Mira strikes up a conversation with the giggling and wide eyed girls in the other corner, each with short cropped hair and a colorful short dress. For Mira, to see them smile is a gift. They wanted to hear her sing a song, so she mustered up a rendition of Jesus Loves Me, This I Know (which Robert was surprised to hear). For this, the girls sing some in return, a song in Swazi and two Christian songs in English about soldiering for God. So innocently sweet. None of them would admit liking boys. Each said she cooks and cleans a home shared with four, five, seven or ten brothers and sisters. Each the expression, in shyness and sisterly mischievousness, of loveliness.Clouds roll in quickly later in the afternoon, making our ride toward the Swazi mountains pleasant. More children meet us on the sides of the road all day long. They wave from the yards at their homes, even chase us up hills, proving their interest. We hear “Hello, how are you?” all day long. We are then in each instance obligated to respond, “I’m fine, how are you?” which, after a moment gets a cheerful “I’m fine.” Mira laments the poverty, which she sees in the homes and the children’s clothes. Robert does not see poverty, at least not a poverty that should be felt sorry for. These children have very few possessions, but they seem very happy, well fed and living in permanent dwellings beside a well maintained road. Robert knows that most kids around the world, and certainly in Africa, have far less.Into the foothills we ride. The rain begins to fall and the temperature drops a bit, enough to soak our socks and give us an unpleasant chill. This topography is of a type most discouraging to cyclists, steep hills come one after another, the steep ups and downs mean a lot of climbing and not much distance gained by coasting. At the end of a day’s worth of climbing, no aggregate elevation gain is yielded. Logging trucks have become our companions on the twisty mountain roads, along with speedy mini-vans that are shared taxis taking workers home to their villages further up in the hills. Mira reached her breaking point about an hour after the rain started, and tears begin to flow like the rain. But we push on to Pigg’s Peak, a rough-around-the-edges logging town set against misty pine forested mountains, many of which have been logged, leaving a patchwork of green and brown. The view ahead does not interest us much, however. The task at hand is to find a place to sleep for the night.By the time we find the lackluster Highlands Inn in Pigg’s Peak, it has stopped raining. This gives Robert courage enough to suggest that we buy a camping space under a tree in the hotel’s garden rather than take a room. Even a camping space allows us access to a bath with water warmed on a wood burning heater. We then each dine on our own small chicken, broiled “peri-peri” style, with salad and chips. Our bellies full and our feet dry, we fall immediately asleep in our tent, which kept us dry this night.It’s Monday when we wake, so today when children greet us at the side of the road, they do so wearing snug wool school sweaters and white shirt and tie. The boys in grey slacks and the girls in short wool skirts. Hair trimmed closely to the scalp and scrubbed skin smooth and soft. Again they take great interest in us, where we are from, where we are going, and what we have in our bags? Spending time with them is a joy. Tour buses occasionally pass us on the road and Robert is reminded of how much richer an experience he gets on a bicycle.The rain and mist continue, so we make it a short day, stopping in the early afternoon at Hawane, a cluster of lodges near Forbes Reef. The Hawane Lodge, a few kilometers down a dirt road, gives us accommodation in its backpackers dormitory adjacent to the more upscale chalets and restaurant. It’s cutely designed to look like a horse stable, three beds in each “horses” stall, with a gated entry to each. But the real attraction here is the elegantly designed restaurant in a wonderful grass thatched roofed rondaval. The storm outside has generated enough lightening to knock out the power, so dinner was held by candle light.At our table sat two Dutch couples who had come to see the country together. One of the men had grown up in South Africa but immigrated back to the Netherlands when he was in his twenties. Now married to a Dutch woman, he has a career as a child psychologist. The last twenty years has seen quite a bit of migration out of South Africa by whites. Political and economic instability, rollbacks of political control by whites, and, most importantly for younger middle class whites, the effect of aggressive affirmative action in hiring policies favoring black Africans have meant that many whites have chosen to leave the country. Often times taking advantage of dual citizenship and ancestral visa rights in their European nations of origin, usually Britain and the Netherlands.Dinner time was spent talking about the Netherlands, never to be referred to as “Holland,” as we were told, and about our impressions of South Africa. Everyone had something to say about the barbed wire and electric fences. There seemed to be collective agreement that such is no way to live, but also that this beautiful country would be a miraculous place to live if it were more safe and stable. At some point in the conversation we were told that the US might today be in a social state similar to that of South Africa if it had the good fortune 200 years ago to kill off the native population with guns and disease. It does not feel good to have it put this way, but the Americans present could not argue the point.We also chat about the bicycle adventure we are on. Since we just started, and have so far to go, we make few claims about our final destination, preferring to say only that “we hope to get to Cape Town.” Nonetheless, the men at the table commend us for our ambition, and Robert can see a bit of jealousy in the eyes of the psychologist. He had toured the country years earlier with his wife, but by car. The main highway through the country is beautiful, modern and not too heavily traveled. But as the road drops into the __________ Valley, toward the capital of Mbane, it becomes much more congested due to rush hour traffic and road repairs. Nonethless, we snake our way to the valley floor, weaving around and between cars. Once in town, we have the first of what will become a dietary mainstay here . . . pies. They are purchased from one of the ubiquitous pie shopes, Pie City or King Pie, King Pie being preferred. But pies do not hold sugary fruit here. We talk of meat pies, for example, Rober’s favorite, Pepper Steak. Three is also chicken and mushroom and, the ill advised “mince,” which we think means hamburger. After this indulgence, we duck into a Pakistani run market area for some packaged food and a new pot in which to boil water while camping, and we are off, back out of the valley and into the picturesque and now sunny countryside.We are headed for the western border post at Sandlane, but before we get there we pass an awful looking paper mill to which all the loaded logging trucks passing us had been taking their loads. It smells terrible too, but such is the cost of the relatively high standard of life in this mountain kingdom. Just past the mess, the steepest part of the day begins. Trying to keep my spiriets up but a man we pass walking the other direction yells to us “you’ll never make it, it’s too steep.” The desolate border crossing at Sandlane closes at 6:00 pm, and we find the gates closed, arriving about 5 minutes later. Mira jumps into overdrive and offers a short chat with the lead Swazi border guard, Mr. Mbisi secures a ampsite on the lawn, giving us access to a toiltet and a campfire. While Rober prepares the only food we have, a mixture of Pakistani hair fine pasta and sardine sauce, Mira makes friends with the other visa issuing staff, Patrick and Jamison. Each is a young man from whom Mira pulls intimate like details, like when they will get married and how many children will they have. Rober refuses to eat his foul smelling culinary cxreation, but Mira has no hesitation offering it to Mr Mbisi, Patrick and Jamison over a roaring fire that they made for her. They accept the food with smiles, which Rober feels must have hid grimaces. WE are asleep soon after dark.It’s a short ride from the border crossing into the very small town of Amsterdam. At a small combined bakery and dairy we chat with the owner over breakfast sandwiches and locally made yogurt. She laments the crime that’s pounding South African society. She’s like most whies we meet here. She tiredly tells us of a recent break in robbery in which an old single woman was hurt by a gang of boys. One of boy’s father is a good mand known to the community. The story reminds rober of the novel “Cry the Beloved County,” which he is reading. When asked about her business, the proprietress laments the new (read “black”) government polcies, e.g., minimu wage rules, that make things difficult and don’t really solve their intended purpose, she says. Everything the woman says we will hear again an dagain on this journey, the warnings, the complaints, the policy disagreements, all conveyed in an almost exhausted tone. After five more hours riding through dusty farmland, we are in Piet Retif, a primary commercial and residential hub. We made a brief and less than wholehearted search for a campground with a swimming pool, we succumb to the cool and gracefully appointed LA Guesthouse. The gardens here remind me of the broad lawns found at the most upscale suburban homes in southern California. Each home here appears to have a small army of gardners and other staff who take care of the details. In a country with 35% unemployment, this is not difficult to arrange. Piet Retif is a town very much like many of the others we will see during the first half of our ride in South Africa. Decentralized, it includes a rough and tumble commercial center full of fast food shops, super markets and China stores, and one end of town the upscale homes, on the other end lies the lower rent area. After some searching we find a restaurant where we find hot sandwiches and a beer. Mira has a milkshake that she swears is the best she’s ever had.We are still looking for advice on our route, so we question the white restaurant owner about the possible routes.“We may ride up the Sani Pass through Lesotho, missing the central coast area,” Robert tells the host, “or we may skip Lesotho and made backtrack down after getting to the Sani Pass and head to the central coast.”“Oh, you probably don’t want to ride through the central coast area,” offers the man, “that place is called the Transkei. It can be dangerous. It’s best to avoid it. There is not much there, and the blacks there are harder to deal with. Best to play it safe and ignore them,” he says with well-meaning, if strangely worded, concern.” We take the information and store it away for later, when we have to make a decision about our route. The man’s advice sounds good, the problem is that in order to avoid the Transki, we’ll need to ride an additional five hundred kilometers through Lesotho, another mountain kingdom. This would mean a week and a half of additional riding.