A Leisurely Last Pass Through Swaziland

It was a Tuesday morning as I headed out to meet up with the Australian biker Corey, marking what I expected to be my last day biking through South Africa (for at least a very long time) and my first day traveling with a partner. Corey was meeting up with another motorcyclist bloke for breakfast, so I crashed their breakfast party at a local Mugg and Bean. We discussed our plans, and stopped by a local travel agency to get me a DriveMoz sticker (ostensibly, a membership in a Mozambican AAA-like service, but supposedly useful in preventing cops from messing with you there) on the way out of town. We were heading for Swaziland, and the first leg was backtracking to Barberton, SA, where I’d come from. From Barberton, we turned off of the main road and up into the mountains into the Barberton Nature Reserve, and towards Pigg’s Peak border crossing.

The weather was cooperating, which treated us to beautiful views of the mountain-hugging road. We passed a turn-off with some rock displays and plaques, as well as a killer mountain view, so we stopped to look at the display. The plaques along with some women in a car that had stopped as well informed us that we were on the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail, a winding mountain path with some of the best views of rocks from the Archaean period, over 3 billion years ago, when the air was full of carbon dioxide, oceans covered nearly everything, there was no vegetation, and volcanoes were belching lava far more than now. Apparently nearly all of the spots where these formations are visible are far-flung, and to highlight it, the route has turnoffs with information and examples distributed along the path.

Rocks rocks and more rocks… And a view of bigger rocks!

The road was full of twists, turns, and turnoffs. We passed exposed mountain rocks that really did look pretty unique and awesome, with pillowy igneous rocks, sandstone, and even a neat spotty-stone that formed with early small organisms in them, the fossilized remains of some of earth’s oldest life forms. My initial feelings that this was perhaps too geologist-nerdy for me was proved incorrect, especially when coupled by a fun, tranquil mountain highway.

We enjoyed the view
Even the cows loved it!

Eventually, a couple small buildings appeared in the distance, marking what may be the most tranquil border crossing to date. Clearing South African customs and immigration took about 10 seconds. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The 30 feet over to the Swazi side went like a breeze until the border guard insisted we fill out customer satisfaction surveys, being really pushy and not liking when I responded by filling it out quickly and putting “less surveys” in the “comments” section. I didn’t mention the condoms they, of course, had.

I want a hat like the guy on the dispenser on the right…

On the Swaziland side, we were dumped onto a bumpy dirt mountain road surrounded by forest. It was a blast. Corey and I took turns trying (to moderate success) to document each other’s rides through the twisty, occasionally muddy, but super fun roads. There was nearly no traffic. The sky had cleared up. The road was fun, as was having a motorcycling partner for the first time. It was a great day. We made it to Pigg’s Peak, a tiny little town, and made a turnoff from the main road onto another scenic tar road.

We stopped for lunch at a small intersection and had a lunch of $1 roadside rotisserie chicken. It was delicious. The road took us up through a mountain pass overlooking the Maguga reservoir and dam.  The sun was high and hot. We stopped at an overlook for some more ice cold Sibebe beers.

The Maguga Dam

My plan was to head to Ding’s office before she left for the day and crash with her if it worked out (my phone didn’t work in Swaziland, so I had no way to confirm with her, or see if she had room for Corey as well, but we figured we’d give it a shot. We’d also heard it was cheaper to get a Mozambican visa at the consulate in Mbabane, so we headed there first.

We caught up to the main road not far from Mbabane, and unlike my last trip through, the clear skies provided an unobstructed view of the city. Situated in the mountains, small buildings sprawled over the lumpy landscape, with not much high-rise or industry to identify the downtown. The Mozambican consulate was accessible only by dirt road, and was sadly closed to consular business for the day despite it being early afternoon. The guard gave us the required materials sheet, and told us we’d only save a little money by getting the visa there vs the border, and that it would take three additional days. We worked out it made more sense to just continue on and get it at the border, and headed to Manzini to try and catch Ding.

We rode down the main highway and into the paint factory at about 3pm, catching Ding and her sister moments before they headed out for the day. She said she’d forgotten I was coming that day (oops!), but in fact had bunk beds in her spare apartment for us! We followed the sisters to the local grocery store to pick up food for the night and then went back to their house.

The sisters lived in opposing homes on the same plot of land, and Ding had a small in-law unit in the back of hers. It was a cute spot, complete with homespun rainwater collection, and our hosts were incredibly generous and friendly. They cooked up several big meals at once, making one with chicken for us, a salad for them, and a big bowl of protein for Ding’s son, who swung by after the gym just to pick up food his mom had made. Adorable.

Our gracious hosts

We drank beer and whiskey, we watched the King’s plane take off from a nearby airport, and we chatted through the evening about all manner of funny topics before stumbling content back to bed. In the morning, we bid farewell to the sisters and packed our things. It was an easy ride to the border on the main highway, but we weren’t in a rush to get out, so we planned a route that would take us up north, and potentially through the Mlawula Nature Reserve (if they’d let us in), and through Hlane National Park if they wouldn’t. After a quick stop for Corey to try and source some convertible hiking pants at the local market (which he succeeded at), we jumped on the main highway for a hot second and headed north.

Things were super green and pleasant, but most of the day didn’t take us through the grandiose mountains we’d seen in the west. We stopped for a tasty lunch at the Mananga Golf Club around the apex of our route and managed to snag a little bit of internet to look for where we wanted to ultimately stay the night. Ultimately, we settled on the Mabuda Farm, an easy drive from us and the border. We settled up and headed out to try our luck crossing the Mlawula Nature Reserve.

We made it to the entrance of the reserve and from the gate could see a badass gravel road twisting off into the dense jungle. It looked fantastic… but the lady at the desk told us no bikes were allowed. Corey had interviewed for the position of Director of National Parks for Swaziland, and tried his luck sweet-talking us in, but it was to no avail, despite the lack of the “Big Five” animals that normally preclude motorcyclists. C’est la vie.

We rode down the road and through Hlane National Park, which actually *does* have “Big Five” animals (I really only saw a giraffe and some large birds from the road), and over to the town of Sitake. A 1km dirt road outside of town took us to the Mabuda Guest Farm, where we decided to camp at a beautiful site overlooking mountains, a valley, and coffee and banana plants. It was still plenty early, so we settled on heading to town for supplies and braaing for dinner. I rarely would set out to do something like this by myself. It was great to have company and a fellow cook to make it worthwhile.

Gotta love the head-carrying skills!

We snagged steaks and sausage, onions, cucumber, olives, peppers, and homegrown tomatoes. We cooked up a feast and I slept like a baby.

Breaking camp in the morning

The morning brought a thick layer of dew, which gave ample time to start the day while waiting for things to dry. From the farm, it was a short uneventful drive to the Goba Border, where it was time to switch languages (portuguese!), switch currencies (metical), switch directions (so much north!), and switch scenery (sand and beaches!).

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.