Swaziland: the kingdom in the mountains


Day 77 – Nelspruit – 110kms, Monday 13th August, 110kms

I had booked a hotel in Nelspruit, for 3 nights, within walking distance of the motorcycle workshop that had ordered our tyres (Pitlane – very good place).

We arrived at the hotel around lunch time. It was reasonably priced, similar to an Ibis hotel budget, in term of set up, with a bunk bed above the double bed. It was clean, modern and totally adequate. We arrived early but the friendly staff gave us the keys. After dropping our luggage we rode to Pitlane and left the bikes with them, with a list of instructions:

* Leave the chains setting as they are ( mechanics always leave the chain way too tight);

* Do NOT jet wash the XT250, it is not waterproof anymore and water will cause problems with the electrics;

* Do not touch the oil gauge window on the XT ( it is glued and already fell inside the engine once!);

My bike was leaking oil, as the oil filler cap was not original to my bike, and the thread was now broken, hence it would not close properly, splatering my right boot with plenty of oil. Luckily, Pitlane found a good replacement.

Over the next day they did a good job. My back inner tube was damaged and they replaced it as well as filling it with green slime ( we told them we had slime inside our inner tubes – for punctures).

My stomach was not too good, Alistair was also feeling unwell, so we did not do much else that day.

Day 78 – Nelspruit, Tuesday 14th August

The morning was slow, still both under the weather. With our limited 150mb of daily free WiFi, I found few places within walking distance, to rent a car. We thought we could spend some time the next day, self driving in nearby Kruger National Park. Obviously, motorbikes are not allowed. Alistair walked to various places but either they did not exist, or they had no cars available. It was disappointing.

For a couple of weeks, I had been in contact, via the Wild Dog forum ( a South African motorcycle website) with a lad called Canzius, who kindly offered help to find tyres in Nelspruit. So we arranged to meet late afternoon in a pub downtown. The bikes were ready by 4pm so we walked to the workshop to pick them up and rode to the pub. The good thing being a biker is that everywhere in the world you go, you got friends! The motorcycle community is always incredibly welcoming and friendly, and so was Canzius. He advised us on places to visit the next day, on a loop north, and convinced us to cross Swaziland. It was not on our plans to cross Swaziland, but as usual, our plans keep changing as we go along.

My main problem with the new plan was that I had burn the pages on my guide book covering Swaziland! Not out of spite, but in Namibia, trying to start a fire! We were camping and been told about the lions roaming around and to have a fire at night! We used some pages of the guidebook, and plenty of petrol, to start the fire ( and failed!). Anyhow, the 5 or 6 sheets of paper on the guide were gone, and with very little WiFi, our plan would be even more vague than usual!

Day 79 – Nelspruit, Wednesday 15th August – about 180 Kms loop

In the morning, feeling a bit better, we rode north across Sabie and various other places. It was a great ride, at last some mountains.

Later in the afternoon, Alistair did some more work and maintenance on the bikes.

On a twist of fate, one of those most unlikely stuff to happen, we saw on facebook that the 2 lads we met in Luderitz, Namibia, 2 months before, and who were walking across Southern Africa, from coast to coast, were also in Nelspruit! We thought about meeting them at their backpacker place, but it got late as Alistair was still working on the bikes! So in the end we did not ride to meet them. It would have been cool, but we will meet them back in the UK!

So we packed, as we always end up doing. The bikes were in there best shape since we started this trip.

Day 80 – Swaziland, near Maguga dam – Thursday 16 August, 150 kms

We did not have far to go, so we took our time. We only left the hotel after 9:30. The ride to the border took us through stunning view through mountains, riding well above the tree lines and down again. The road was pristine and not busy, it was heaven.

The border crossing was probably the fastest and easiest we ever had! On the south African side, we were the only tourists, no scammers or people hanging around, only the staff. We were stamped out quickly and we had not need to get to custom as Swaziland is part of the South African custom union. Our carnet, stamped into South Africa, was valid in Swaziland.

Then we rode to Swaziland. Again, only border staff and us. The guys were friendly and gave us a newspaper issued for tourists. It had very good info, so I packed in bag. We were stamped in very quickly and we paid a tax of 50 rand per person ( or bike, not sure).

That done, we got into Swaziland, the mountain kingdom. The country is an absolute monarchy, so we expected great poverty. I was surprised at how nice the village over the border was. Not mud huts, well built houses, small but brightly painted. No women carrying buckets of water or taking the washing to the river anywhere I saw. So I assume they have running water nearby or in the houses. The road for the border was a bad track for about 18kms then the tarmac was good. Plenty of cars in good state, stunning views of mountains and farms, very little littering, a neat tidy little country.

Our initial destination was a lodge and campsite near the dam Maguga. The lodge was super expensive, and the campsite was down a mile, through a very nasty track, with no shade, nowhere to sit, no facilities other than the shower block. It was not ideal and as it was very early we decided to leave. The GPS was showing a backpacker place few miles away. So we rode to Sobantu Guest Farm and Bacpackers. It was a working farm. The little huts with en-suite bathroom were very affordable, about 28 dollars at current rate ( the rand is plunging at the moment ). So we took one instead of camping! We appreciate our comfort these days. The farm had stunning views of the surrounding mountains, a kitchen and all the stuff you need for a backpacker place, including lounges and TV! Ok no free WiFi, but free WiFi seems hard to come in the region!

In the evening we cooked a pot of vegs with noodles. We had a couple of glasses of wine as it was cheap! There were only another couple staying, French, so we spent a while chatting.

Day 81 – Miliwane wildlife sanctuary , Sondzela backpackers, Friday 17th August, 75kms

It appears that Swaziland has a lot to offer. The little touristic newspaper that we were given at the border described few interesting places to visit. And we also picked, at the backpackers place, a little free book called Coast to Coast, which list all the backpackers places in Southern Africa, with a nice description of what is around. The description of the Sondzela Backpackers was too tempting to resist: “ Sondzela overlook a Valley where wild animals roams and impalas, warthogs and zebras graze on the edge of the gardens. Campers are surrounded by fruit trees and roaming game”. With that description, we decided to spend a night there. As it was fairly close ( Swaziland is a very small country, barely 120 kms wife and 180kms long) we took our time. We still got there before lunch. We arrived at the game park entrance and stopped to pay the entrance fee. Just there, with no fence in between, were zebras and wildebeests, totally unfazed by us! Once in the park we saw many antelopes, zebras, warthogs and more wildebeest along or on the track! They were so close to us!

Once settled in the backpacker place, we went for a walk around the compound. Immediately we saw several antelopes, some very large, some smaller, and lots of warthogs, inside the camp, despite the fence. The warthogs managed to squeeze under the fence, and I guess the antelopes just walk in when the gates are open!

The views over the valley and mountains were stunning. We were glad we had decided to cross Swaziland, it is a beautiful country!

Later in the afternoon we had a walk in the reserve, as it is safe to walk around and hiking. Once again we got very close to zebras, wildebeest and many antelopes ( impalas etc…)

This backpacker place has probably the best views we ever had anywhere!

Later in the evening it’s started raining. We had a great night in our little hut. It had no facilities but the shower blocks were close by and very clean, with good pressure and very hot water in the showers.

Day 82 – same place – Saturday 18th August

The day was still very wet with constant rain and fairly cold, all of a sudden. We decided to stay an extra day. The place was so magical with all the wild animals wandering around and the most stunning views. We felt comfortable there. A large youth group left, another arrived. This time they were from the UK. The place was very busy, and with good reason. It is a great place.

Day 83 – Hlane National Park – ndvolu camp, Sunday 19th August – 105 kms

On Sunday it was time to leave the fabulous game sanctuary and ride to the main national park in Swaziland. The road was perfect, the towns and villages tidy and clean, people were often dressed in their best clothes or traditional warrior costume for men, with traditional tools and weapons at hand. It was a very cool sight. Maybe it is traditional on Sunday to dress like that, as we did not see anyone dressed in a traditional way before.

Swaziland is such a wonderful little country. I expect grinding poverty. After all it is an absolute monarchy. I expected a banana republic with the king leading an extravagant life while the subjects would be dirt poor. I don’t know about the king, and I have very limited WiFi to investigate, but people seem wealthy enough. I did not see, like in the rest of Southern Africa, women walking for miles and miles with heavy loads of washing, dishes, wood, water, balanced on their head. I saw no men hanging around waiting for a customer to taxi on their bicycle, no one walking along the road, or very rarely. Everyone seems busy, well dressed, lots of nice cars, lots of satellite dishes out of houses, no littering or garbage anywhere along the road. After the depressing sights in Mozambique, it was so uplifting to discover a happy country! And they don’t even gouge you with the accommodation and parks. Prices are reasonable and affordable!

So we rode to Hlane. It has lions. We wanted to see lions! The campsite and lodge had great facilities, but no electricity. We put the tent up and went to explore, as far as the bar. We had a late lunch of toasted sandwiches. We could see the edge of a water hole, lots of people looking and taking photos. As we moved closer, we saw what it was: 5 black rhinos. They were massive! And so close! The only fence between them and the public was 2 lines of barbed wire! Like if this could hold them, should they get angry! It was extraordinary !

We booked an evening drive as we were hopeful to see lions. It was a 2 1/2 hour drive. To start with, it was rather disappointing, as for about 1h 1/2, we only saw 2 elephants. And then we found the lions: 2 males and 3 females ( brothers and sisters and their mother – not sure where the father was!). It was amazing to see them!

We went back to camp in the dark. After preparing dinner ( a can of mix vegs and noodles!) we moved to the bar and celebrated with a bottle of Malbec! We caught up with a lad we met at Mliwane the day before and spent the evening around a fire camp, drinking wine and talking rubbish. The way it should be!

That was our last night in Swaziland. It might be small (120kms side and 180kms long) but it made a big impression on us: the superb landscapes, the welcoming smiling people, the Sanctuaries, the sense of optimism…. definitely if you come to South Africa, make sure to spend few days here!