Swaziland Transit, Take One

Leaving South Africa is always a breeze. It was a tiny and quiet border, which always seems to help. Entering Swaziland proved to be pretty simple, as well, with just a 50 rand (<$4US) road tax fee before I was on my way. There was an added bonus: all the staff were wearing silly costume hats covered in glitter. When I asked about them, they pointed at a sign on the wall that read “Customer Service Week.” That’s some serious bonus points, Swaziland.

Before we get to my time, some quick facts about Swaziland:

  • They use the Swazi Lilangeni as their currency, but it’s 1:1 with the South African Rand, and aside from occasionally be scoffed at for Rand coins, Rand is accepted.
  • Swaziland is one of the last “absolute monarchy” in the world. Oddly, a separate panel picks which of the king’s wives will be the “great wife,” and her son becomes next in line for the throne. Also, his first 2 wives (he has 15!) were chosen for him by national councilors, and their kids won’t become king. Confusing!
  • Somehow, Swaziland has the dubious distinction of having the highest HIV rate in the world (of course there were condoms at customs, a common thing here).
  • Along with sugar and textiles, Swaziland is locally famous for having great pot.

I’d also heard the gasoline in Swaziland was cheaper than South Africa, so I’d skipped the last couple gas stations, but the one at the border was under construction. I figured I had enough to continue my plan… I‘d had two recommendations for accommodation in Swaziland: one nature reserve near the border (thanks, Hennie!), and one backpackers closer to the capital (thanks, Sean!). The wildlife reserve was first on the list, and only about 40k from the border.

I was in eastern Swaziland, and the landscape was flat and mostly empty, with small trees and grass dotting the landscape. Mountains loomed to the east. Small spread-out villages passed by as I headed north. There was nearly zero traffic, though I’d heard warnings about speed traps. I followed the speed limit as it varied seemingly randomly between 40 and 100kmh.

I arrived at Nisela Nature Reserve in the late afternoon. It was a cute and rustic place surrounded by  For just a few dollars more than a campsite, they had traditional beehive huts, just like Hennie has told me. I hadn’t seen them, but I couldn’t say no. I booked in to beehive #2 and went to see my new home. It was adorable, right down to the need to lay nearly entirely prone and shimmy through the tiny little door. Inside was actually quite spacious, with two beds and some impressive weaving. You can check out the inside here.

I had my first delicious Sibebe beer at the restaurant/bar at the lodge, and eventually a lovely meal as well. I hung out, caught up on the news, read my book, and said hi to a cute zebra in a cage on the property. I slept like a baby in my beehive hut.

The familiar re-packing routine in the morning was amusingly complicated by the tiny door. I staged the things then had to crawl in and out to pull my things on and stack them back into my bike. Then I backtracked to the border and hopped on the highway heading west. I’d spent the previous day sweating in my jacket, so I’d removed the lining. Today, it was cold and ominous. A few kilometers west, the rain started. It would continue the rest of the day.

I stopped and put my waterproof lining back, and threw the rain cover on my tank bag. The road climbed up into the mountains. I was riding in dense fog. The road wound up and down, through tiny villages and mountain passes, but much of the most scenic parts were too cloaked in the clouds to see. I lamented my lost views while I rode, cold and wet. What was visible was light agriculture, small homes, and the greenest grass yet. I eventually came across the Rider’s Ranch, a large motorcycling event space out in the country. I stopped and took some photos of their funky motorcycle installations (including a sad shrine) and large castle-like structures before carrying on.

I carried on to the Sundowners Backpackers, just past the city of Manzini, that had been recommended to me by Sean, who used to run it. At the main gate, a large painted sign announced that the lodge and restaurant were closed for renovations. I started to drive off in search of alternate lodging when I spotted another smaller sign off to the side pointing up a steep hill announcing the backpackers (vs the lodge and restaurant) was up there. I rode up the steep wet bricks to another gate off the road, and was able to check into the backpackers.

The place was large, with over 100 beds, but it was also a ghost town. Not a single person other than me and the staff was there, and there were no vehicles in the driveway. I still figured it was worth a shot despite the staff being oddly unfriendly, and dropped my things off.  Since there was neither a restaurant or bar, and the place wasn’t walking distance to anything, I rode off to get some food in town and try to find some new padlocks (I’d lost a couple of mine).

After a quick meal, I rode around looking for cheap Chinese retailers for padlocks. In this part of Swaziland, the equivalent class of shops had a solidly Indian flare, including the staff. I’d just parked in the rain and walked into one of the shops when the car guard came in behind me and told me someone in a white car was looking for me. I was confused and immediately on edge. Since I didn’t know anyone here, my first thought was I was about to enter some sort of scam. I was wrong.

Out in the parking lot, a white truck sat with its wipers on. As I approached it, the door opened and a small woman in the driver’s seat said something to the effect of “You must be cold and need coffee.” I stared blankly for a moment, unsure of if this was a question, an invitation, or simply an observation. I told her I never say no to coffee if she was inviting me. She responded that they like motorcyclists, and that she was off to pick someone up, but would be back in 3 minutes and I could follow her back to her office.

I agreed and we separated, her back on the road and me back into the shop to look for padlocks. I was confused and amused, wondering what odd situation I’d gotten myself into this time. After striking out on locks, I waited outside and eventually followed the familiar white pickup truck around the corner to a large building directly behind where I’d just been. It was a paint factory. The woman invited me inside to the office.

The woman was a Swazi native named Ding, and she worked at the paint factory with her sister and mom. Her brother, crazily enough, ran the Rider’s Ranch I’d just passed through! She’d grown up riding motorcycles and liked to help bikers out when she found them. How do I keep finding these people?!

Over coffee, we chatted, and I told her about my plans. She invited me to stay with her, and I told her I’d love to on my way back through Swaziland in a just a few days (after going riding around Nelspruit with my future dentist friend). Both sisters were absolute sweethearts. We traded info and eventually parted ways back out in the rain.

Back at the backpackers, it’s still just me and the grumpy woman in charge. I decide to make the best of things. The place has a bathroom nearly the size of a shitty studio apartment in SF replete with a massive bath tub. I grab my laptop, a couple beers I’d bought, and have a glorious soak with a movie. It was transcendental.

No one showed up at the backpackers all night. I had an entire room full of bunks to myself. It was a very odd experience.

While the rain let up briefly overnight, it was in full force when I went to leave again. From Sundowners, I hopped onto the largest highway in Swaziland, a divided highway that would feel right at home in America, which cuts right through the capital of Mbabane. Unfortunately, Mbabane is a mountainous city, and I was stuck in fog so thick I could frequently not see the incoming lanes of traffic across the median. Hints of buildings and mountains passed by on either side. I hugged the edge of the slow lane of traffic, terrified while navigating this thick pea soup of an atmosphere that some irresponsible driver would come roaring blindly down the highway and spread me and the contents of my motorcycle across the road. I struggled continually with the visor of my helmet — down would bead with water and fog to become totally impenetrable, and up would allow driving and tiny particles of rain to assault my eyes. There was no winning. I took it easy.

The highway deadends at a large (by Swazi standards) border with South Africa. The line at the Swaziland side moved fast, though I was hounded by a fast-talking pollster with an iPad who asked me a million questions about my stay as I passed through it. Any annoyance there was quickly rectified when I set eyes on the customs and immigration officers, who were once again adorned with sparkling goofy hats. Seriously, more officials in scary bureaucratic positions should do this.

On the other side, a near-Sisyphean nightmare was unfolding in the only South African border I’ve had an issue with. A dozen windows fed by a dozen lines, all of which were struggling with a pilot program whereby all entering parties were digitally fingerprinted was causing a massive backup. I had a chat with a hoarse professional golfer returning home. I got stuck behind a family with kids having some sort of meltdown. I switched lines and watched multiple people mash a woman’s hands onto a fingerprint scanner while she barked angrily at the immigration agent on the other side of the glass. Eventually, my fingers were also mashed onto glowing green glass, the customs agent still grumbling about the woman who’d been in front of me, and I entered South Africa for what I believe will be my 4th and final stint.

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