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Published: November 1st 2015
After the excitement of leaving Johannesburg, it was nice to be on the open road. It had taken us a couple of hours to get out but now we felt free.
Gauteng, the province which contains Johannesburg and Pretoria, lies in the High Veld, a large flat expanse high above sea level. The road we travelled went mainly through endless farmlands. The landscape had gently rolling hills covered in yellowing grass or corn. The only exception was the sharply rising slag heaps, putting stark piles of rock in the midst of flatness. Some of these were well established and had bushes and trees sprouting. Tractors went up and down the green fields kicking up red dust as they went. I found the drive quite monotonous as the scenery didn't change that much.
About 50km from the Swaziland border at Oshoek, near the town of Amsterdam in Mpumalanga, the view did change. Slowly at first, and then more frequently, pine plantations started to emerge. After a while the whole area was covered in forest and we were starting to drive over small hills with small scattered settlements crowning them. The houses were distinctive rondavels with thatched roofs and developments of
identical council houses. Cattle and goats, which looked well fed, strayed across the road at regular intervals.
We had been driving for hours, watching the distances on the signs gradually drop but still it came as a bit of a surprise when we reached the border. A tiny village had emerged to serve the needs of any travellers. In front of us was a complex of gates and small buildings. This may have been my first proper land-border experience.
On the South African side the staff were professional but hidden behind tiny windows in a dark corridor. It took only a couple of minutes. Fortunately, I had overtaken a coach a few miles before the border - 60 elderly people now walked in and joined the queue right behind us.
We drove across the no-man's-land between the borders and I drove straight past the first Swazi official, an elderly lady. I got out of the car and went back, completely apologetic. She just laughed and handed me my paperwork. The Swazi border post was a much lighter building and we could see the staff arrayed behind large glass panels. The room was empty so we went straight
to the counter where the lady just ignored us before suddenly snapping at us that she needed to see our passports. She had been in the midst of a heated conversation with her five colleagues who were sitting doing nothing. She resumed this conversation as she tapped a few details into the computer. A transaction that should have taken seconds took over five minutes and we were getting frustrated. Eventually she gave us our stamps and let us go. We started to leave the building but then one of her colleagues called us back - unknown to us we had to pay a R50 road toll. We didn't mind this, it seems only fair, but it would have been nice if someone had pointed us in his direction.
We got back in the car and drove to the border. The guard, a young cheerful lady, asked to see in the boot. I complied with her request. She then asked me to open my well-packed rucksack. I was dreading that a bit as I'd never get it closed again but I went to open it. I spent a few minutes struggling with the lock but couldn't get it to open.
The customs officer then told me that I could go through but next time she needed to see inside. We were free to drive though and did so as quickly as we could before any more bureaucracy caught up with us. The whole process had been a bit arduous and confusing as there was lots of paperwork and no explanations or expectation setting.
We were in Swaziland! Before us lay a gentle slope down into a valley and beyond that lay other hills with scattered settlements. We saw sign-posts for the Ngwenya mines, the Ngwenya Glass Factory and a cultural centre. The cultural centre had signs for a restaurant and as we were starving we followed these. A couple of turns later and we were off the well made Tarmac road and going down a dirt track which I wasn't sure we'd get back up. The track came to a fork - to the left lay a quarry and to the right a locked gate. With no further signs we gave up. Then we followed signs to the mine but found no signs of life there either. That left us with the glass works... two minutes later we pulled
into their car park and headed straight for the café.
Fortified by a good meal, we went to see the glass blowing. We were surprised to find that next to where we'd been eating was a sophisticated industrial operation. We stood on a balcony and could look down into the factory below where about twenty men in red overalls were hard at work. Watching them was fascinating. One of the apprentices looked up and gave us a cheeky grin and started showing off by shaping a lump of molten glass. He was soon caught out though when a lump of glass fell off his rod and the whole process was held up. It was too hot to stay on the balcony for long so we went down to the shop. This was a place full of beautiful products... From tiny animal shaped bottle stoppers, all kinds of drinking glasses and larger figurines to huge bowls. The craftsmanship was evident. I really wanted a set of glasses but there was no way to carry them. We settled instead for a small swan. There were a few other craft shops on site which we visited and then we ended at the
chocolate shop where we had chocolate shots.
Leaving the glass works, we drove to the local village to have a look around. The village was small and the houses small also. There was a butchers and a town office but not much else that we could see. The only people around were children in British-style school uniforms.
The road beyond Ngwenya was of good quality and lead to the capital, Mbabane, and beyond. Mbabane is 13km from Ngwenya but we turned off just before and drove past the secured gate to a royal residence and through a small town. The road didn't look like the approach to a city, especially a capital! We drove straight through the busy centre of Mbabane and it took only a few minutes. There really is very little there except a small centre for shopping and a market. It feels more like a medium-sized town than the capital city.
We rejoined the highway beyond Mbabane and followed signs to the Ezulwini valley. This is a very pretty area. Beyond the large town of Ezulwini we arrived in Malkerns. Here we turned off the tarred road and onto a gravel track which started
flat though pebbly but soon became much more uneven. We stopped to take a few pictures of the setting sun, drawing attention from every local person who saw us. We crossed a concrete bridge and then beyond there the road became like a corrugated sheet of iron. The further we went up this path, the more attention we got from the locals. Further up the hill, the ridges in the road's surface widened and got deeper and more unpredictable - the whole road was undulating. Some of the dips were very large. It was getting darker and we were getting more remote by the second.
We came to a 'junction', where one road seemed to go up to a gate and the other dropped down into a valley. We took the valley trail but it turned out to be so deeply rutted that I doubt a 4x4 could cope with it. We reversed and took the gate road. This also dropped down, though we hadn't been able to see it. We were now on a good concrete road again which was a big relief. Soon we came to a little house with a bakkie parked outside. As we pulled
up, a man came out and greeted us. It was Muzi, the farm manager. Muzi led us up the hill to the farm before speaking the ominous words... "There's no electricity."
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