Venturing into Swaziland

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Africa » Swaziland
August 22nd 2009
Published: December 27th 2009
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I have finally made it to Swaziland!! Yesterday proved to be amazingly relaxing mainly due to the fact I woke up with a horrible cold and found the thought of sightseeing to be too much like hard work. I had a lie in and a leisurley breakfast and then asked in reception about my Swaziland trip. I was told there was no further news but maybe my pitiful sniffles did the trick as the second time I asked I was told everything had been organised. I spent most of the day shuffling around my room and the public lounge. I did walk to the supermarket for food but it was an uneventful trip as I now know the way and know not to trust the little green man! For the rest of the day I lounged in bed, read books, and caught up with friends by email... yeah, I'm such a hardy intrepid traveller!
I got up early today for the start of my trip. As I walked back to my room from breakfast a woman called out 'You're Anna, yes? We'll be leaving in 20 minutes.' The woman proved to be the wife of the owner of the hostel. Apparently the Swaziland trip usually only runs for large groups and while there were originally other people interested in doing the trip they have since dropped out leaving... only me! Since the company I've come with provides a lot of business for the hostel they were reluctant to let me down. The woman went on to tell me that since I was going alone she thought I'd be more comfortable with another woman, so instead of sending me with a driver, she was going to take me and had invited her friend along for the trip as well! So my guided tour has become more of a spur of the moment girls' weekend away!
I checked out and piled my bags into the back of a huge 4WD and we set off, introducing ourselves as we went. The drive was wonderfully relaxing and for such a bargain trip I can't believe the luxury treatment I was getting. After driving through nothingness for a long time the road passed through a small town, which seemed to consist of shops along a main road and a few residential streets around it. We stopped at a KFC for a drink and a snack, although my refusal of food meant I spent the next part of the journey defending my right to be vegetarian. My driver finally nodded in acceptance and said 'Ah yes, my mother-in-law went vegetarian a couple of years ago and says she has never felt healthier... so you are vegetarian for health reasons?' 'Ah... no, more for ethical reasons.' The two women exchanged a look of absolute bewilderment that I am inclined to think also meant 'We've got ourselves a cukoo here!'.
I moved the conversation back to the safer topic of where we were and studied a map of southern Africa and our plotted route. The terrain changed and eventually I noticed that the forest that had appeared on either side of the road was showing no signs of thinning out. The trees continued for miles, small groups of loggers felling trees in various places, and new saplings protected by plastic tubes growing in others.
We reached the border of South Africa and we walked into the low building to show our passports. We joined a ridiculously short queue, were ushered over to a glass window and then sent on our way. We hopped back in the car, drove across the border and got straight back out to visit the Swaziland immigration.
The room was dominated by large portraits of the King Mswati III; who ascended to the throne in 1986 after the death of his father King Sobhuza II in 1982 and a period of regency; and the Queen mother and again we were able to get through quickly.
We drove on into Swaziland, the scenery not so different from what we had just left, but very different from the landscapes of South Africa further beyond the border. If anything some of the moutains and rocky outcrops remind me more of northern England than anything I've seen in Africa, and my guide further established the parallel when she told me it's a shame it's currently so dry here as Swaziland is usually so green because it rains all the time!
We discussed possible activities for our short trip and I was keen to take the quad biking tour up into the mountains to visit the rural farms and villages. We drove to a backpacker hostel that arranges such trips, parked the car and looked for an entrance. We wandered through an open door into what was obviously a backpacker's kitchen and then back outside we found steps leading down to a garden area and the reception. Inside we met the sole inhabitant of the place, a young Zimbabwean girl called Lisa who told us the owner was out. I took that statement to include the rest of the staff and all the backpackers as well since we didn't see anyone else. Lisa was slouched casually over the register eating a chicken sandwich. She was dressed in fashionably layered vests and t-shirts none of which were high enough or had enough buttons to hide the fact she was completely falling out of her bra. The sandwich consisted of a whole chicken leg shoved into a roll and the bone slowly slid further out from between the bread as she punctuated her conversation by wildly waving the snack at us. We asked where the other staff were and she shrugged and said she'd been left in charge. She said she was waiting for a BazBus to arrive and then muttered about which rooms were free eventually staring at the register and saying with a shrug 'F*** I haven't written any of it in.' The explitive was accompanied by another wave of the chicken bone sandwich which caused a piece of gristle to fall out and land on the page. She licked her thumb and wiped it away and intently stared at a few faint pencil marks beneath the large chicken grease smear. We managed to get some details about the trip which includes a full day of quad biking through the villages and lunch with a local family. I pictured a large meat stew and hesitantly asked about vegetarian food on the trip. She looked confused for a moment. 'F***, you're vegetarian! F***. Are you English? I bet you're English. All you f***ing English girls are vegetarian. F***. Weird. Not for me' She grinned and waved the sandwich at me for emphasis... the sandwich by now seemed to be lacking any meat and appeared to just be a bone sticking out of the bread, a large lump of white gristle gleaming on the end. I wasn't sure how to respond to a complete stranger swearing at me, especially one threatening me with chicken gristle while simultaneously flashing me with more than just cleavage. I think I managed an apologetic shrug and smile while she continued to grin at me. I eventually got her to write down my name to pass onto the owner. We also got the owner's mobile number to call later as we weren't convinced Lisa would remember despite her looking at us fervently and saying 'No I will. I swear. I wouldn't let you down.' My guides asked for a quick tour of the backpackers as all the backpacker hostels across southern Africa are linked. Lisa led us around, sucking on the chicken bone that was all that was left of her sandwich. No-one appeared to have locked their rooms and we had a clear view of unmade beds and quilts casually slung onto the floor. It had the appeareance of a private residence after a large teenage sleepover party more than a hotel! We went upstairs and found ourselves in the kitchen we had previously entered from outside. We returned to the car and Lisa saw us off, waving her hand, and chicken bone, as we departed. Once in the car we all succumbed to the giggles we'd been holding back.
We continued en route to Milwane Wildlife Sanctuary. We briefly stopped at a farmstead my guides knew to enquire about horse riding trails and see if they offered an alternative quad biking tour. I decided the farm was absolutely idyllic. A few ramshackle buildings and stables, beautiful fields backed by woodlands, and domesticated animals and wildlife roaming freely all over the place. I exchanged greetings with a couple of friendly dogs and then we moved on to our first destination, a small collection of shops. The shops are obviously designed to make money and as most of the tourism in Swaziland appears to be landscape and nature based it obviously features on every guided tour as a place to visit. I watched candles being made in the Candle shop and then edged away before they could talk me into buying anything. I visited the Batiq shop and watched a woman making a cushion cover and then went to wait by the car for my guide who was browsing in the open air market outisde the shops.
We drove on, and briefly visited a very posh hotel so I could see what 5 star tourism looks like, and then stopped at a market area where I was all but told I had to buy souvenirs as we wouldn't now have time to visit on the last day as I needed to get straight back to the airport. The shops are a collection of stalls stretching on for a huge distance. I soon felt sorry for the shops at the far end. Instead of specialising in one craft each shop seemed to have a little of everything, wooden carvings, woven mats, fabrics, shawls, jewellery, and after the first 10-15 shops I felt I must have seen everything there was and didn't walk any further. The Swazi women in the shops were very welcoming and a lot less intimidating than their South African counterparts at the cameleon market. They sat by their shop and greeted me with 'Welcome sister. Please come look.' and then remained sitting rather than trying to force me into buying anything. I browsed for a while, although I did get a surprise everytime I walked into the back of a shop, or lifted a hanging and found a sleeping child there. Apparently the women literally live in their shops and a few kids were enjoying an afternoon nap while I shopped. I bought a couple of shawls and went in search of my companions who were buying hideous lime green place mats for the hostel back in Pretoria, woven bowls, and large amounts of farbic from which they apparently have the hostel staff's uniforms made. They argued prices with the woman in the shop insisting she could give them a better bargain and said they were not tourists and pointed out the fact they weren't wearing cameras around their necks. I looked at my own camera hanging in front of me and shrugged, at least I wasn't buying lime green dining room accessories.
We left and drove to our final stop, the 'House on Fire' art centre which is made up of art galleries, an outdoor theatre, gift shops and a guest house and restaurant. It looks like a children's fantasy playground. The theatre and surrounding buildings are a mix of arty styles, mosaics cover most walls and strange statues and carvings peek out from plant beds. Fairy tale towers are connected by curving walls and wooden faces look down from archways over the paved pathways.
House on Fire is the creation of Jiggs Thorne, a poet, sculptor and performance artist. He began a small business buying carvings from roadside Swazi stalls and selling them in Johannesburg. A small studio and gallery was built for the aritisans and then combined with the idea for a theatre and the architect Sarah Calburn was called in to help. The building continues to develop and the theatre now houses the annual Bushfire International Festival of Arts and has seen performances by Hugh Mesekala, Lady Smith Black Mambazo and Freshly Ground. We visited a couple of the shops, including Gone Rural where some of the local women make amazing grass crafts.
We finally left to make our way to our home for the night. We were stopped by fruit sellers as we passed through a market. They crowded around the car showing their wares. Eventually my companions opted to buy some fruit from a little Swazi boy because he was cute. Yeah that's not a selling ploy at all - I thought I was supposed to be the tourist!
We drove into Milwane Wildlife Sanctuary. The views around here are stunning. We drove along a wide red sandy road and passed a few zebras. We stopped by the lake and saw a crocdile lazily lying on a small island. We drove into the campsite, got our keys from reception and went to our 'rooms'. Our rooms are in fact individual beehive huts! We are staying in 'Nyala' village which is a circle of about fourteen traditional beehive huts surrounded by a stick fence. I LOVE my little hut. We dragged our bags into the village and I was handed my key to my hut. I had to kneel down and unlock the padlock on the low wooden door. The handle is the horn of some animal and the door slides open. I crawled inside and found a single bed, and a small bedside table in the centre of the space and an open frame wooden wardrobe on one side. There are a few additional modern comforts; electric lights, a kettle and tea and coffee supplies, and an archway that leads to a tiny white tiled bathroom. Tribal living with hot showers and tea... what more could I want?!
After settling in we went for dinner together in the onsite restaurant, walking slowly through the campsite by torchlight. The meal was mostly buffet but the service was excellent and at a request our waiter ran off to the kitchen and returned with vegetarian sausages for me, and didn't swear or exchange funny looks with anyone! We chatted the evening away and then returned to our seperate huts. I squatted by my front door looking up at the clear night sky and the stars framed by the dark outlines of trees around our village, and then backed into my hut to put the kettle on.


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