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Africa Tour August 2011 - August 2012

08/09/2011 Swaziland

Days 7 and 8 - Swaziland
Our trip got just a little bit more exotic when we left the well developed South Africa and crossed the border into Swaziland near Bulembu. The border crossing was easy and straight forward, no more than 10min at the South African exit point and also no more than 10min to enter Swaziland. The difference in the road quality though was massive. On the South African side we rode on perfect tarmac all the way to the border. Once past the border the road changed to a narrow strip of steep dusty gravel road with lots of potholes and corrugations. The sort of road requiring 1st or 2nd gear max. However, the sealed surface started at the first town again, a town with the beautiful name of Piggs Peak.
Swaziland is close to South Africa in various ways. Many of the South African brand logos for banks, supermarkets etc. can be found here. The currency is at a fixed exchange rate of 1:1 to the South African Rand and in fact the Rand can be used to pay for things just as easily as the Swazi Emalangeni (beautiful name for money, isn't it?). There are some significant differences between the two countries though which move Swaziland more into the corner of the typical african stereotype country. In Swaziland life seems to take place on the road. There are so many people on the road just everywhere, in towns and in between towns. Kids play on the road, people stand on the road chatting. And it's not just people, it's also their lifestock. On a beautiful winding passroad we once came across a whole herd of cattle just standing on the road in one of the tight corners typical for mountain passes. It's quite a shocking surprise to find them there when zooming around the corner, enjoying the view down into the valley and suddenly you have to hit the brakes and stop just a meter away from a very happy and unsurprised cow. Which then slowly starts to move out of the way.
Lonely planet says that in Swaziland almost all people are Swazi. And sure enough we did hardly see any white people here. Even in the capital Mbabane we encountered the same as elsewhere. Lots and lots of people on the streets, no white people around. It somehow feels more like the 'true' Africa if compared to it's big neighbour.
Lonely Planet also says that Swazilands biggest problem is HIV, a staggering 39% of people between 15 and 49 years of age are infected which results in an average life expectancy of just 33 years. Being here in the country this is quite hard to believe. Swaziland does not appear to be a poor country. In contrary, you don't see any shabby townships, you see a lot of good modern western made cars, people appear to be happy, everything is very clean. But we too did notice that there are only young people around. An average life expectancy of 33 years seems to be true. But it is still a scary thought that I am already beyond that age.
Another interesting observation we made is the layout of the settlements. Apart from a few towns the map of Swaziland is pretty empty. However, in reality there are scattered square brick houses everywhere. You cannot determine which town they belong to but there's always houses, people, livestock, general stores, 'supermarkets' the size of a cornershop and handicraft stalls. It makes it pretty hard to find a quiet camping spot. We tried very hard and rode many km on bone shattering dirt roads to find one on our first night here. But no success. So we ended up camping near the geographical centre of the country in a field some 100m off a dirtroad. It took no more than 15min until we had a group of visitors. A very friendly bunch of people just as everyone else here, just checking out what we were doing. We learned that we were supposed to report to a 'chief' before setting up camp. A short mobile phone call from our guests to the 'assistant chief' quickly sorted out that we were welcome to stay where we were for one night. They just wanted to make sure we were not up to something evil or how they expressed it, we were not 'Gaddafies relatives'. Well, we obviously looked nothing like the Colonel, sitting in the grass and cooking our cheap roibos tea.
In terms of riding we did some beautiful passroads through Swaziland as well as some pretty rough dirt roads. Dirt roads of the kind with many rocks sticking out and corrugations to shake the poor bike to pieces. Which was another good training session for me. And I must say my confidence level of riding my little Suzuki has steeply risen. However, we have not encountered the two things that scare me most yet: sand and mud. So I guess we're still doing it easy here.

In Swaziland we also came in contact with the Police for the first time in this journey. It was pretty funny actually. We had in incredibly hot day. And when I say hot I mean this sort of hot when you start sweating even before sunrise. And for the rest of the day you're just boiling in your sweat. Usually I am wearing my motorbike jacket when riding but today I was just melting inside and just rode along with my T-shirt. Martin went one step further and rode topless. Before I am grilled about our attitude to safety here, I must say it was really really hot and the road quality made us ride really slowly and our bike jackets would have exhausted us in this heat to an extent that it would not actually have improved our safety. We needed full focus for this dirt road. Funny thing is that Police thought differently and fined Martin 60 Rand (=AU$ 8.50) for failing to wear protective gear which apparently is compulsory in Swaziland. I was not fined because a T-shirt is considered sufficiently protective. Makes total sense, doesn't it?
Much more exciting however was our visit to the Hlane Royal NP near the border to Mocambique. Usually National Parks where you can see any member of the 'Big 5' (elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo and leopard) will not let you in on motorbikes. At least in the touristy countries like South Africa, Botswana or Kenya. However, the Lonely Planet said about the Hlane Royal NP that even mountain bike tours are on offer. So no worries on motorbikes then. We thought. We thought wrong. They didn't let us in. Because the elephants would be too aggressive.
But we still had a Plan B up our sleeves. Leaving our bikes behind at the boom gates and asking drivers of the cars behind us if they would have room for two dusty smelly bikies to tag along for a self drive trip through the park. And amazingly success came with the first car - two Dutch girls in a tiny Chevrolet rental car, one of those small ones the size of a Toyota Yaris. But for the chance to see some big animals Martin and me, we were more than happy to squeeze into the back seat and the girls were happy to take us along.
And what an amazing little trip that was. There were rhinos so massive they seemed to be bigger than our car. Twice we surprised them sleeping on the road, just a huge mountain of muscles and fat blocking our path and shocking us just as much as we surprised them for none of us expected to come that close to each other. And there were elephants and various species of antelopes - all just metres away from our tiny car. And no fences or cages around them. It was just unreal and if we didn't feel 100% like it yet, than this park sure made us feel like we are in Africa. It is a weird sensation to be there, so close to those animals. It's a bloody hot day, the midday sun is burning your skin, the sky is blue but there is still this haze of dust and grass fires in the air, crickets and strange birds are the only sounds you here and there, just meters away is this massive rhino. Only moving in tiny slow bits every few minutes or so. Watching this scenery is so relaxing and exciting at the same time, I could have watched forever. And good thing is we DID have time to watch forever. And it was the rhinos who eventually left.
We are now camping just a few km away from the border to Mocambique which we will cross tomorrow. According to our information we get our visa at the border. But our two Dutch friends meant we need to organise it in advance at the embassy in Mbabane. So we give it a try tomorrow morning and hope it works out and saves us going back the 150km to Mbabane. Cross fingers for us!

We also chose a great spot for our 2nd night camping in Swaziland, again by sheer coincidence. It was a very quite spot when we got there, just near a railway line and next to some abandoned houses, a few hundred meters off a small road. Once it got dark there was suddenly this loud african music. It sounded like it's coming from right next door to us. So we had a quick look back to the road to where the music came from. And sure as hell - the only building up there was a pub. Small and cosy and only three patrons inside. But african style music playing from the jukebox. And believe me, after this scorcher of a day an icecold Windhoek Lager in a big 750ml bottle never tasted better.
What a great last night in friendly Swaziland.

08/09/2011 Swaziland pics

Okay, it's time for some pics again. Hope the upload works. These are some snapshots of our visit to Swaziland
One of the many passroads we took through Swaziland

Moonlight illuminating our camping spot

Swazi kid posing with my helmet

Sunrise at our camping spot where a phone call to the 'assistant chief' the night before secured us a place to sleep

Typical gravel road through Swaziland. A bit rocky and dusty in places but generally good quality.

Beware of lions and elephants on the road! Near Hlane Royal NP.

We saw a lot of rhinos very close in the Hlave Royal NP. I did not recall them being that big but they are just huge.

Impalas can be seen in great numbers in the National Park

This rhino just slept on the road with it's baby. So we had to reverse our way out of there.

Also this elephant did not seen to be bothered by our presence and calmly ate a few dry branches of a tree just meters away from our car.

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(c) 2012    marco hoffmann