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06 May 2009 06:00
As Johannesburg strayed into autumn, I joined a group getaway to the Swaziland countryside. Our unofficial tour guide was David Fleminger, author of Swaziland: A Travel Guide.
The sun was getting tired as we drove through the border at Oshoek, or “Ngwenya” in SiSwati.
It was golden hour or, as the Swazis call it, “the light that makes everyone look beautiful”.
We moved south, skirting Mbabane, a capital city built between hills and cliffs, with incomplete office blocks and four-storey parking lots, some of which were abandoned years ago when funds dried up.
The outskirts of Mbabane were full of nightclubs and bars, a reminder of the district’s popularity during the colonial era. The colonial legacy was embodied in the Cuddle Puddle, now called the SwaziSpa Health and Beauty studio, where expats would loll in a heated swimming pool at dawn, after a debauched night on the town. Very Wah-Wah.
It was twilight by the time we reached Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a family-run resort in the Ezulwini Valley. The owner, Ted Reilly, has devoted his life to conservation. With the approval of the late King Sobhuza II, he instigated Swaziland’s Game Act which curbed the hunting of endangered species.
Sobhuza’s son, Mswati, is the last absolute monarch on the planet. He’s a controversial figure with a penchant for picking a new wife every birthday. But when it comes to conservation, he seems to be following in his father’s footsteps.
That night we dined around an outdoor fireplace before watching a traditional dance performance. Fun, yes. But was there was also something voyeuristic about a group of tourists with whirring cameras watching Swazi dancers do their thing? Perhaps, but my reservations were forgotten as I climbed into bed in my cosy (but potentially claustrophobic) beehive hut.
Saturday began with a sunrise game drive featuring sightings of cormorants, water buck and wildebeest. Crocodiles glided quietly towards a dead buck at the river’s edge, while the freezing autumn air cut through the grey blankets and into my hands, causing many blurred photographs.
After breakfast we headed to the Royal Swazi Sun and Spa for a quad biking session with Swazi Trails, which also offers caving and white-water rafting for the more adventurous. I went for what I thought would be the tamest option. But I’m afraid of heights and not very hardcore when it comes to speeding vehicles so I soon chickened out to swim in the hotel pool.
Later we visited a bizarre establishment. House on Fire is an open-air nightclub of sorts, with eclectic décor, in the middle of the Swazi bush. It boasts a collection of pop-art sculptures and phallic statues and a quaint restaurant. At night it’s a venue for parties and gigs, featuring artists such as Syd Kitchen. In July it will host the annual International Bushfire Festival.
After an adrenaline-filled day, Hawane Resort provided welcome relief. Set in a ranch-like landscape dotted with horses, the thatched chalets with their warm lighting and red-everything provided a romantic getaway waiting to happen. The reeds strewn across the bed and a bath big enough for three were wasted on my singleness.
Sunday morning saw us trekking north towards Phophonyane Falls, a nature reserve at the foot of a waterfall close to Pigg’s Peak. The gravel road up the mountain was hazardous, but do-able, albeit at snail’s pace. Not if you’re prone to car-sickness, though. But the views of the Makhonjwa mountains are worth the temporary discomfort, and the tropical jungle is straight out of an explorer’s fairy-tale.
There was one last place to visit before we rushed off to Josefdal border crossing. We’d all heard about Bulembu, but seeing it was something else. Once it was home to thousands of asbestos miners and their families. But the mines closed six years ago and it became a ghost town.
But not any more. Bulembu Ministries, a non-profit organisation, has turned the town into a haven for abandoned children. Swaziland has the highest adult HIV prevalence rate in the world and many of the new residents of Bulembu are kids who have been orphaned by Aids, or those who are living with the virus.
As we left the Kingdom, boys wearing skirts of dried banana skins danced for departing tourists, while stone sculptors sold their wares, and women in traditional attire celebrated the king’s birthday. We headed back to the pre-election tension of South Africa, grateful for our brief escape.
Contacts and details
Ilham Rawoot travelled to Swaziland as a guest of 30 South Publishers
Read more from Ilham Rawoot
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