A harrowing drive through Swaziland was the result of a planned shortcut through that country in order to eliminate 2-3 hours of driving time in South Africa on a road that gives a wide berth around Swaziland’s borders. We left Kruger National Park at 7 a.m. expecting to arrive at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve on the coast in about 7 hours. What we did not expect was the condition of a 50-kilometre stretch of mountain logging roads and how it would impact our schedule.
Our day started out with crippling views of a pair of Blue Wildebeests or Gnus,
and a healthy male Lion that was resting in the long dry grass off to the side of the road after having traveled upon it all night long.
A Giraffe browsing on leaves cast a curious glance our way as we slowed to snap a few photos, and at the same time, we asked ourselves why there was a heavy layer of sand covering the road’s surface. There had been no rain to flood the road and no wind to drive the sand into drifts. It turns out the sand was spread on the tarmac to prevent it from melting underneath the brutal heat of the sun.
In light of the long drive ahead of us, I snapped a few quick photos of the landscape in passing…
then we made haste for the Melalane Gate where we would say goodbye to Kruger National Park.
It was with a sad heart that we left Kruger but we made promises to one another to return again some day.
It was shortly after reaching a community called Jeppes Creek that we crossed the border into Swaziland. My former concerns about problems at the border had been unfounded. It was 9 a.m. and 27 Celsius already.
Over the course of the next 3 hours, Bob and I were stressed to the hilt. We struggled to find our way on the recommended route because road signs were non-existent, the narrow dirt road into the mountains was riddled with gargantuan potholes and exposed rocks that threatened to rupture our radiator, and we were completely off the grid.
An attempt to gain reassurance from a farmer walking in a field was fruitless because of the language barrier, and we had seen only one other vehicle. Bob and I felt totally isolated and completely vulnerable. I took no photos as we poked along. Instead, I had a white-knuckle grip while repeatedly holding my breath and hoping we would have no problems. I was praying that we would eventually come out where planned.
A few wrong turns prolonged the journey, but every so often, a small collection of buildings would spring up on a hillside so we knew we were not alone.
Traditional fences surround those small settlements, and the resulting kraals (corrals) are fashioned from twigs and small tree trunks of either the Umsinsi or Erithryna trees.
Once pounded into the ground, the branches will begin to sprout and grow into a living barricade.
When at last the dirt road descended out of the hills, it joined a paved road that brought Bob and me much relief.
Larger communities of thatched huts and simple rectangular dwellings with tin roofs were appearing in closer proximity to one another and dotted the hillsides. It is customary for families to erect their homes in close proximity to one another.
The traditional style of hut was once a basic beehive structure of grass on a sapling frame with the roof extending right to the ground. These buildings required copious amounts of work, so they are being replaced by dwellings with a wooden frame and a cone-shaped grass roof. As a result, the art of building such beehive-shaped dwellings is being lost.
We had occasion to observe one homeowner re-thatching his roof, so we witnessed the skill and know-how required to do a proper job.
In Madlangamphisi, we found a bustling hub of activity. Women had arrived by bus from outlying communities and were preparing to sell their wares. Carrying fruit-laden trays on their heads,
they and other vendors staked a claim on the shade of any large tree as a place to sell their wares. Lean-tos were set up as snack bars complete with over-sized charcoal pits, while simple wooden huts served as drink stands.
Further on, the sight of a young man in brightly-coloured clothing standing at the side of the road had Bob and me making an abrupt stop in order to chat with him. Sabelo Fakudze politely told us his name and explained that he was waiting for a bus. A rustic table under a shade tree served as the bus stop.
I was intrigued to learn that Sabelo is a member of the Swazi tribe, and his destination on that scorching hot day was a nearby mission. A paragon of patience, Sabelo seemed nonplussed by the fact that he still faced a very long wait for the bus.
Keen to tell us about his clothing, Sabelo explained that the colours are those of Swaziland, and the symbols on his necklace mean “love of the country”.
I was so pleased for Sabelo’s willingness to talk to us, and thankful for his command of English so that we could have that shared experience. We offered to pay him for his time, but he refused and felt honoured that we should be so interested in his story.
South of Big Bend, a flat valley of cultivated and irrigated fields is protected to the east by a never-ending range of mountains. It is there that we found a farmer and his wife wrapping up the day’s work.
This hard working couple only wished to spare a few minutes of their time in order that Bob and I could get a photographic record of their team of mules…
and the primitive plow pulled behind them.
In terms of the standards of Swaziland, a farmer who owns such a healthy team is considered quite well off. As the hours turned one into another, Bob and I began to wonder just how much longer this drive would be.
By late afternoon, certain sights had become familiar to us such as children walking miles to and from school sporting spiffy school uniforms and yet treading across hills and fields, along hot pavement or rocky terrain in their bare feet. Seemingly miles from nowhere, the children and locals alike followed unseen cowpaths that soon become hidden from view by rocky knolls or tall grass.
After a grueling 8-hour drive, our spirits were buoyed when we spotted a sign pointing us in the direction of the border gate into South Africa, and another hour later, the road leading us to the hilltop location of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve had us breathing a sigh of relief. At last, we would take some time to relax.