Swaziland Adventure

23 April 2004

Flying to Manzini via Jhb after a week of playing catch-up, so quite liberating to be sitting on a plane with my cellphone switched off. But a flight is a flight is a flight, I suppose and by the time we’re buzzing through thunderclouds on the descent to Manzini, I’m thoroughly gatvol.

Thulani picks me up and we shuffle through to Simunye. He’s a Nxumalo and gives me the gen on the Swazi Kingdom and its 1.1 million inhabitants. Apparently the current ruler, King Mswati III, is a popular monarch, but there are problems with some of his advisors. Also, according to tradition, he was not supposed to have children with his first wife, but now there are two kids. Eishh!

I catch up with Darron and his sidekick Huge at the Simunye Country Club and discuss race strategy over thick slices of steak and a couple of cold beers. The Swazi Xtreme adventure race, now in its fourth year, is after all the reason why I am here in Swaziland. By midnight, I am ensconced within my room, drifting off to sleep while a wheezing air-con unit battles it out with the humid Swazi night.

24 April 2004

Up at 06h00 to meet the driver who is supposed to take me to Hlane National Park, but the bush telegraph misfires (as is its wont in Africa). Nothing too serious though and less than an hour later I’m having a quick coffee while warthogs snort around on the Ndluvu camp lawn.

My guide, a wiry young guy by the name of Ndumiso Nkambule, arrives and we set off into the bush on our Big Game tracking excursion. No briefing. No strategy. No big calibre gun to rock a charging elephant back on its haunches. Only a magic stick. “So what will you do if a rhino or elephant charges us?” I ask Ndumiso. “I’ll wave the stick at him,” he says. I have visions of a young Seswathi wizard shaking a thin branch at one of the Big Five while muttering strange incantations.

About half an hour later I am the one muttering under my breath as we bang head on into a huge rhino cow and her calf. She lowers her head and snorts questioningly and I check out the trees in my immediate vicinity, but she is a white rhino and therefore no-one needs to panic. This I know, but when you’re faced with a couple of tons of prehistoric animal with a very sharp end, you tend not to be in the most rationalising state of mind.

I get the shots and then we’re off again, legging it along game footpaths, through head high grass and stands of dead knob-thorn trees. The elephants have killed of hectare after hectare of these trees and we’re on their spoor. (Not because they’ve killed the threes, but because Ndumiso is intent on waving his magic stick at some large beast). Also, I suppose, because I’m keen to get photographs of them.

We don’t see the elephants (although we hear them once or twice deep within impenetrable patches of bush) but we do bump into a family group of giraffes. After two hours of tracking, we decide to head back to camp where Mr Mbata is waiting to take me out on a game drive.

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Not that I want to devalue my experience in Hlane (which means “wilderness” in Seswathi, by the way) but walkie-talkies have taken most of the fun out of game spotting. You barrel along narrow bush roads, charging past hoopoes and lilac-breasted rollers, zoning in on sightings relayed through to you courtesy of modern communication. Which means the adrenaline level dips down to being nearly on par with scanning the shelves at your local supermarket for corn flakes. OK, maybe not quite, but you know what I mean ….

Don’t get me wrong – this does not mean that there’s no buzz factor when you lock eyes with a big cat crouching five metres away from you in the tall grass. It’s just that it dips down from a megavolt jolt to a joy buzzer spark.

I still lose my soul when we come face to face with a trio of young lions though, watching them watching me watching them. “Step away from the car,” I can imagine them rumbling, “and we can take you before you can blink an eye, buddy.” I stare back defiantly through the lens, but needless to say I don’t put as much as my nose out that window.

Time to get back to the Homo sapiens circus, so it’s back to Simunye. By now the majority of teams have arrived and the excitement level fluctuates between quietly industrious and full-on hubbub. Top teams include Mazda (the undisputed top dogs in SA), Team Jeep (pretenders to the throne), Mitsubishi Centurion (two-time winners of the event) and a few dark horses of note.

The rest of the afternoon is very much taken up by kit checks, briefings, plotting and, of course, loads of speculation about the course. Sleep kicks in about elevenish.

25 April 2004

Three-thirty wake-up call, but at least without the pre-race jitters I know the competitors will be experiencing. The starter’s gun sets them off on their respective 120 and 220 km routes, while Max and I rush off to the waterhole where PC4 has been situated.

Unfortunately there are no rhino’s or other big game, but the racers cause enough of a spectacle as they barge through the muddy water in order to have their passports clipped. All runs according to plan and an hour or so later we’re trekking through the thorny brush in Mlawula, immediately coming face to face with Team Mazda, now in the lead with Jeep breathing down their necks.

A downhill MTB sprint along a plunging gravel road dumps down into the valley, from where I join Mazda on the hike up to the cave and scramble and abseil. Jeep is still on their tail and I decide to join them on the river scramble to Python Pool. This is one of the crux disciplines of the race – a 15m leap of faith off a rock ledge and into the pool shimmering below. Mazda’s 45 minute lead is cut down to 15 minutes when Michelle cannot bring herself to jump, but she is not alone. Many of the hardebaarde back down as well, rather opting for a smaller 9m leap.

We see three snakes on the trek down to the river and en route back to the bakkie, but at least none of them are mambas. (Mazda and some of the other teams have a few close encounters though). Time to leap-frog ahead of the front-runners again, so we jerk and jolt up a tortuous gravel pass to Shewula, a community camp overlooking the Umbulazi(?) River.

A steep hike takes me down to the river crossing and I shoot seven of the sport route guys as they slug it out with gravity along the hectic climb. It is dark the hectic climb. It is dark by the time I bump into Rubber Chicken, so I follow them back up the trail before checking in on some of the other teams in the transition area. The general mood is positive although Michelle Lombardi of Mazda is taking major strain.

26 April 2004

A few hours of snatched sleep later we hit the road once more. We’re on Mazda’s scent like a sniffer dog tailing a hare and we hit paydirt just before the turnoff to Sikhunyane School. Michelle is looking a lot stronger and is full of smiles as we follow them to the river put-in through tall reeds.

I need a water shot or two, so I strip down to my shorts and wade out into the murky river. Once there, I start thinking about flatdogs, casting a wary eye at every little ripple on the surface. After what seems like hours on end, the guys finally launch and stroke down-river to disappear into the morning mist. I hot-foot back to the bank with the pics in the bag.

By now, Mazda has built up a substantial lead over nearest rival Diadora who, in second place is leading Jeep by around 20 minutes. From the river the guys paddle on to a fast-flowing river canal, negotiating narrow tunnels beneath a succession of low-water bridges. At one of these, I dip down below the ridge with the team, shooting on a wide angle lens before following them through the tunnel.

The final leg, a crossing of the Sand River Dam, is reached after an hour’s hike through thick vegetation. This is Darron’s piece de resistance – a dark zone swim of around 40 minutes through a dam where monster crocks are not uncommon in the tall reeds. Mazda makes it through before the sun sets and Diadora squeezes through as dusk falls, but the rest of the teams are left to deal with their demons in the dark.

I spend most of the night working on images and taking pics of the middle of the field as they struggle in, depending on a dangerously high caffeine intake to keep me awake. By 04h00 I’m buggered though, and stumble off to the bakkie, crashing on the back seat until the sun rises a couple of hours later.

27 April 2004

The end of the race is in sight even for the few stragglers, who now cross the finish line looking worse for wear. Prize-giving comes and goes and everyone scatters to wherever they’re from. I get a lift with the Black Mamba Racing Snakes (the winners of the short course event) to Mlilwane National park, an expansive park between Mbabane and Manzini.

Darron has booked me into Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge, an historic old homestead with carved stone block walls and a broad veranda. Once the home of the legendary Reilly family, the stately old building nestles amongst a sprawling stand of ancient jacarandas and is surrounded by the National Botanical Gardens. Blue and red duiker, suni antelope, thick-tailed bushbabies and an incredible array of birds frequent the tranquil garden and it doesn’t take long for me to settle in.

After a short hike to the hippo pool, I settle down to dinner around a courtyard fire with the other guests. There are only five of us – two guys from Austria and two ladies from Holland and we chat like old friends far into the night.

28 April 2004

An early breakfast and I’m off to Mlilwane Main Camp to sign up for the mountain biking excursion. My guide for the morning is a young guy by the name of Knowledge and he is soon holding forth on anything from the gestation period of a zebra to the dietary habits of the local hippo population. Awesome light, clear skies, herds of grazing animals and mandarin red gravel roads equates to a leisurely morning ride. The terrain is unchallenging and the game incredibly tame, making this a perfect outing for the whole family.

I get home to an urgent message from Darron – “Get your kit ready – we’re off to climb Sibebe this afternoon.” He picks me up half an hour later and we cruise into the tranquil Pine Valley where this imposing russet granite inselberg looms against the sky.

A climb to the top of Sibebe, billed by Swazi Trails as the “Steepest Walk in the World” is one of the country’s must-do activities. The rock towers a good 300m high, often looming skywards at an incline of up to 60 degrees. You have no choice but to commit to a hairy scramble along the pock-marked face, while below you the world curves away to the glinting river.

I’m content to follow in Darron’s footsteps, occasionally bearing up a quick prayer to the Gods of traction. If there ever was a Stair Machine from hell, this is it, and I crest with my calves on fire. There’s not much time for resting though, as the sun is already nudging behind the horizon and the down-scramble is a bitch. We follow a different route plunging through the heart of a scree-tumble cave, watching throughout the tear of brambles and jumping from rock to rock to eventually reach the car way after dark.

Only two guests around the fire at Reilly’s Rock – a young travel exec from London – so we share a table and a bottle of red wine to swap travel tales while the coals shimmer against the Swazi backdrop.

29 April 2004

Meet up with Michael for a day of culture catch-up. He’s a local and knows exactly what’s cutting in and around the Ezulwini valley.

Our first stop-over is very much middle of the road tourist faire, with a visit to one of the better known Swazi cultural villages in the area. Traditional dancers, tribal drumming, crafters, sangomas – you see it all over Africa, but it still remains a quick (if slightly sugar-coated way) to get to grips with a culture.

Way more impressive is the performance arts venue Washa Mkuku, probably Swaziland’s hottest performance venue. This is Marvel Comic meets The Owl House, with a touch of Edward Scissorhands – oriental dragons, fertility symbols, avant garde art and cutting edge creativity will kick-start your imagination and synch your soul to the creative pulse of the Swazi nation. To top it all, Michael lines up a late lunch at an authentic Swazi restaurant managed by an acknowledged guru of African cuisine. We gorge ourselves on early textures and piquant flavours of African food at its best before heading back to meet Darron for a late afternoon run to Mkhaya Game Reserve.

30 April 2004

One of those mornings. Darron, the girl in charge of the luxury tent camp at Mkhaya and one or two other guests got way-laid by a few too many Scotches on the rocks. Babelaas hangs heavy in the air as we head for the game-viewing vehicles, but, come hell or high water, we’re going to find a black rhino.

Time is short though and we get way-laid by a thousand other animals keen on their share of the spotlight. Waterbuck, obstreperous elephants, big-jawed hippos and sleek sable antelope conspire to keep us away from our quest for black rhino until a couple of hours prior to our planned departure. And then it happens …

I don’t even see the rhino, but our guide convinces us that he’s seen one of these rare mammals disappearing into a dense thicket of haak-en-steek thorn. Much peering later without seeing horn nor hide it is decided we’re going in on foot. No shit! I still think it is a joke, but Darron peels off the back of the 4×4 to follow Elvis into the bush.

Sheesh!!! I can’t be left looking like a wuss, so off I go, tip-toeing in their wake. They’re the locals, so I’m just about sure they know what they’re doing but one thing I’m prepared to bet big bucks on is that I can outsprint them both. So there’s me, bringing up the rear, surreptitiously scanning escape routes amongst the hackled underbrush.

We’re onto him in minutes – or maybe it’s the other way around? Whichever way, here’s us checking a black rhino checking us. Less than 30m separate us and I snap a few quick shots, expecting a welcome retreat any second now. No such luck; Elvis creeps closer and I follow unwillingly. I’m just about to pat Darron on the shoulder to motion my quivering knees when all hell breaks loose. One minute the rhino is giving the odd confrontational snort, the next he is 15m away, barreling full tilt towards with his horn aimed straight at my sternum.

To this day I’m not sure whether I squeaked or Darron let loose with a high frequency fart, but I do know that I clean forgot my well-planned running line. Blind panic verging on an acute case of primal fear sees me barreling full tilt through raking branches, flailing my arms and whimpering as softly as possible.

When I eventually look around, I realize the thundering footfalls and heavy breathing behind me is Darron and not the rhino. (By now the beat is back in the shadows, peacefully snacking on leaves, leaving us to sheepishly exchange glances while occasionally letting loose with a nervous giggle or two.) On the positive side, we’ve got some great shots and have completely shaken any traces of last night’s babelaas.