Swaziland and Drakensbergs

October 16-17, 2008

Leaving Kruger

We left Kruger through the southern gate (Crocodile Bridge). Immediately we noticed the scenary change. Inside the park the terrain was parched – yellow grass, trees that had a burnt appearance, termite mounds here and there. Outside the park it was suddenly green. It was culture shock for the eyes to suddenly see so much vegetation.

We drove south towards Swaziland. We didn’t originally plan to go there, but we heard good things about it from the Canadians on our Kruger trip, and we realized that it’s on the path to the Drakensberg mountains, which we also wanted to visit, so we decided to change our route – instead of seeing the country in a clockwize fashion, we’ll see it in a counter-clockwise fashion. That’s one nice thing about having a car and no specific plans.

About Swaziland

A few random things about Swaziland

70% of people in Swaziland are “Zionists”, a religion that mixes Christianity with local customs, and has nothing to do with the Jewish Zionism as far as we can tell.

It’s one of 3 remaining monarchies in South Africa. The previous king, Sobhuza, died in 1982. At the time he was the longest reigning monarch in the world. After his death there was a 75 day official mourning period that included a ban on everything except essential commerce. Even sex was banned. Choosing a replacement was tricky because Sobhuza had lots of wives and more than 600 children. It took six years to pick one of them, Mswati, as the new king. Swaziland also has a parliament, but we don’t exactly get how it works or how much power it possesses. On our way out of Swaziland we saw the border people intently watching a live newscast on TV. All of a sudden a few of them started cheering, one in particular. We asked what the fuss was about and they explained that the king had just announced the new Prime Minister (actually his 2nd term) and that the one guy was really happy because that’s his brother in law. Small country.

They have their own currency, but it appears to be pegged to the South African Rand, and they accept the South African currency everywhere (though they’ll give you their own currency as change).

HIV/AIDS is a huge problem. That’s true in various parts of South Africa but perhaps especially in Swaziland. Our Lonely Planet says that about 39% of adults have HIV and that life expectancy has fallen from 58 to 33 as a result of the desiese. AIDS is not only a health issue, it’s also an economic issue because many of the people afflicted by AIDS would otherwise be working, supporting their families, and paying taxes. At the Swazi border we noticed a free-for-all box of condoms next to the immigration desk.

People speak English quite well. They are also really friendly, more so than in South Africa (at least in our experience).

Remember the movie Coming to America? Well, we were pretty sure that the Eddie Murphy character was from Swaziland, but actually he’s from a nonexistent country called Zamunda, so nevermind that. The Swazi king does, however, have that haircut πŸ™‚

Hlane Royal National Park

In the northeastern corner of Swaziland there’s a big national park called Hlane. We drove through it, but we didn’t stop in. On the map it’s a big green splotch, but in real life it’s very similar to what we saw at Kruger – parched and yellow, and with basically the same animals.

Reaching Sondzella

Our real destination was the Mlilwane National Park, towards the west of Swaziland, and we were racing time to get there.

Around Manzini things started to get more hilly and we got a little lost. We got directions from a random guy at a gas station, and on our way back to the highway we nearly got into a car accident in a roundabout. Another car entered the roundabout, taking the inside lane, but then he suddenly decided to exit right in front of us. Luckily we slammed on the brakes in time. Whew.

We reached Mlilwane around 11 PM and were amazed to find that the gates weren’t closed. Inside the park there’s a backpacker hostel called Sondzella. We didn’t have a reservation but luckily they had room, so we rolled in and crashed for the night.

Mlilwane Nature Reserve

We woke up the next morning and took a look around. It was foggy. Here was our little bungalow:

After several days of intense driving, we were excited to finally exercise our legs. The nice thing about Mlilwane National Park is that they have no predators so it’s safe to walk around. We did see a few herbavors: antelope, zebra, warthogs, and wildebeast. They just hung around doing their thing (eating grass) while we walked by. And also we enjoyed the scenery:

Swaziland is a very pretty country. By the way, the tree to the left is a Jacaranda. We saw lots of them all around South Africa. The purple bloom is beautiful. One day we’ll have a Jacaranda in our yard! πŸ™‚

In the afternoon it got a little hot. Also, it was muggy. So, we decided to call it good. We grabbed some lunch in a nearby mall, a giant chunk of apricot ham. (Oddly enough, the mall was right next door to the field where the aformentioned new Prime Minister was being announced, but to us it looked like a big high school sports meet, so we didn’t bother to check it out). Then we left town.

Heaing to Bergville

The way out of Swaziland was hilly and the road was not always the greatest. There were a few stretches where the pavement suddenly gave way to dirt, with no warning:

It kept us on our toes. The scenery was nice except for a smelly paper factory near Bhunya, and long stretches of dead pine forest (we’re guessing the trees were afflicted by some bug).

Somewhere around Dundee we entered a huge lightning storm. At first it was just a beautiful show off in the distance. After each bolt we said “wow” in unison, then laughed. The lightning was also pretty useful because it was dark outside and the bolts kept lighting up the surrounding; it was kind of like having brights on all the time. But eventually we entered the actual storm and that’s when it wasn’t so fun. The rain poured down and our little Kia started hydroplaning here and there.

The rain stopped, then came the “locusts”. We went through this stretch where there were hundreds of moths in the air. Maybe they were attracted by our lights or maybe they were just there, but all we know is that our windshield was pelted and it took a while for the wipers to remove the goop. Lovely.

We arrived in Bergville, again at 11 PM. Our Lonely Planet guide didn’t mention specific accomadations – it just said that many backpackers use it as a launching point for exploring the nearby mountains. That’s the trouble with having a single book for all of Africa – you don’t get much detail for any given place, especially smaller towns. Everything was dark. All the stores were closed. We found one B&B, but its outer gate was closed and there was no bell to ring. We stopped at a gas station and asked the attendant if he knows of any other places to sleep. He sent us to a place just outside of town called Bingelela, a kind of B&B in the middle of a farm. Luckily its gates were open, but all the lights were off. When I tried to walk towards the reception area, I was chased back into the car by a pair of dogs. So we decided to just sleep in the car for the night. It wasn’t a great night’s rest, but at least we felt safe there. We left around 6 AM. As far as I know, the Bingalela folks never knew we were there πŸ™‚

Bergville B&B

We left Bingalela we went back into town. By now the Bergville B&B was open so we checked in and dropped off our bags. This B&B was run by a very friendly German couple. At 400 rand ($40) per night it was a little more than we wanted to spend. Also, it stank of cigarette smoke, and our dinner there gave Pnina an upset stomach. But it was definitely better than sleeping in the car. Later we discovered that Bergville does have some other B&B’s and even a backpacker place. Oh well.

We left our packs in our room and headed off to the mountains…

The Drakensberg Mountains

The Drakensbergs are a mountain chain that runs north-south on the eastern border of Lesothu. I’d never heard of them, but our guide book said that they are “so recognizably South African that they’ve become tourist-brochure cliches”. It’s a pretty big area so you have to choose. We semi-randomly chose the central Drakensbergs, and in particular a place called Cathedral Peak.

The scenery kept getting nicer as we approached the park. Quaint villages surrounded by mountains that kept getting bigger:

It was morning and all the kids were on their way to school, walking on the sides of the road, all of them dressed in uniforms.

This is a very typical South African scene. In some places we saw hundreds of schoolkids walking along the road like that. We never saw any school buses, but maybe we didn’t know exactly what to look for.

We parked our car by a very fancy hotel inside the park. Later we discovered that for the two of us it would cost $140/night, including breakfast and dinner. It’s more than we want to spend on a trip like this, but if you’re looking to splurge on a nice place, you should consider it. I mean, just take a look:

You can also get married in this chapel:

The hotel folks were nice enough to give us information about the trail to Cathedral Peak. This included things like “it’s too late now – you should have started at 6 AM” (it was nearly 9 AM), “I know a guy who attempted to reach the peak 11 times and never made it”, “be prepared for some serious rocks and sections with ropes”, and “by the way it’s going to rain today”. I was getting pretty nervous. Nonetheless, we headed off. At least the hotel folks also said “the trail is impossible to miss”.

Of course, we lost the trail right away. Rivers suck – the trail is easy to see when you have standard ground (dirt and some rocks), but it’s hard to tell where you’re supposed to go when you’re dealing with water and rocks. And there were no signs to help us out. We spent half an hour walking around on rocky bushy ground asking each other “does that look like a trail?”. Eventually we made it out of the riverbed and somehow found the trail.

After that, things were good. This hike to Cathedral Peak was really beautiful, one of the best hikes I’ve done, ever. I’ll let the photos tell the story:

As you can see, there were very few trees around, just grassy covered mountains all around. That means that we could always see the scenery. It also meant that we could keep eye contact with our point of origin pretty much the whole time.

One thing we never did see is the actual peak of Cathedral Peak. It was always surrounded by clouds. And you know how mountains can play tricks on you. You see what appears to be the actual peak but as you get close it turns out to be just a little dimple with the real peak behind it. Then that “real peak” turns out to be another dimple. For example, I was pretty sure this was the peak:

Nope, that wasn’t it either.

After 4 hours of climbing we were pretty beat. Also, the clouds started to roll in thicker, and we kept thinking about the words we heard earlier (“it’s going to rain today”) and the rock scrampling we had to do on the way up. So we decided to turn around. This is as far as we got:

And this is how things looked on the way down:

When we reached the riverbed we got lost once again. Sigh. But we eventually made it back to the hotel just in time to feel the first couple of drops. In the end it didn’t rain too hard, but it did get dark pretty quickly so it was probably a good idea for us to turn around when we did.

We didn’t reach the peak, but it was still an awesome hike, highly recommended. And it was great to do some real exercise for a change. We’ll need more practice like this before we take on the big mountains in Nepal.

Heading to Lesothu

So now our legs are jello but it’s OK because once again we’re driving all day. The next stop is Lesothu, a country that is like an island in the middle of South Africa.

We were planning to enter Lesothu from the eastern entrance (Sani Pass), but the B&B owners told us that our car would never make it because even some 4×4’s have trouble; apparently it’s worse than a dirt road and some turns are so sharp that you have to negotiate them as a 3-point turn. So we decided to be safe and head in from the north (by Ficksburg).

On the way we got a nice unexpected freebee: we drove through Golden Gates National Park. It looked similar to the kinds of mountains you’d see in parts of Nevada or Arizona:

Something Missed

When we were in the Sondzela hostel in Mlilwane, we met an English couple on their own world trip. They had just come from Sodwana Bay National Park, on the northeastern corner of South Africa, by Mozambique, where they did 4 days of scuba diving. They kept raving about the experience, especially about seeing 14-foot whale sharks. We toyed with the idea of heading there, in particular because Pnina love to scuba. But we decided to skip it because even 3 weeks is only so much time and there’s lots left to see in South Africa. Maybe next time.

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3 responses to “Swaziland and Drakensbergs

  1. Your blog continues to astound me. I can’t wait for more. All your pics are great, too. Cheers to Shahaf and Pnina!

  2. okay…you’ve convinced me. mike and i need to do the cathedral peak hike. so gorgeous!

  3. Pingback: Simien Mountains « Honeysun

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