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Travel in Swaziland

The Joys of Plans Gone Awry

Sobantu in Swaziland.

Sobantu in Swaziland.

It’s always nice to arrive at a new place in the daylight so you get a feel for the land and layout, but it was dark when my delayed flight reached Manzini Airport in Swaziland. Heiso and Amos were there to meet me as planned, and we chatted comfortably together during the 1-plus hour drive to our destination, a backpackers’ hostelry.

Little did I know that their meeting me at the airport was just about the only thing that would go as planned during my month-long adventure. Even the land itself was unexpected. What a surprise to wake up to rolling green vistas more like New England than my image of Africa. A true metaphor for this trip. Even though it was not what I anticipated, I had a grand experience nevertheless.

Most visitors to Swaziland pop in for just a few hours or a weekend en route to or from South Africa for game-viewing. But in fact this country—smaller than the state of New Jersey—is a little gem, a tribal monarchy tucked away between South Africa and Mozambique. I love visiting off-beat destinations, and Swaziland qualifies to be more than just a stopover between better known sites. 

Much of my travel incorporates volunteer experiences, and this was no exception. It was through Global Vision International, a British agency, that I found myself here. I met my four fellow volunteers that first morning. From England, Germany and Canada they had come, like me, eager to pitch in on a range of work, from construction to crafts, all supposed to “uplift” local community life. But it turned out that local lack of organization and leadership meant that there was little actual work for us. Now what?

Our backpackers’ guest house was in the countryside about half an hour from the nearest hamlet, simply known as “The Junction.” That in turn was another half hour from the capital, Mbabane. We certainly didn’t want to spend weeks—adequately fed and housed—simply killing time with books and card games in this isolated spot. We learned that by standing patiently by the road at the foot of our hill, we could sooner or later get a cheap ride in a “combi”—an unscheduled taxi headed to town. Or sometimes standing there brought us a ride with a friendly neighboring planter.

We ventured into Mbabane fairly often, before we found more exotic destinations. A compact modern metropolis, this capital city has an extensive shopping mall and well-stocked “Spar” supermarket. Having been a British colony, English is widely spoken in Swaziland and, in fact, one often saw British retirees sipping coffee and chatting together at a favorite coffee shop. So, no need for us to learn siSwati, although we readily adopted an all-purpose word of greeting, “Yebo.” Also, the ubiquitous exclamation “Ish” proved useful whenever you wanted to say “Imagine that” or “Wow.”

Fortunately, as it turned out, another one of my expectations for this project was not met. I thought we might be housed in African rondavels--traditional circular “beehive” huts with woven mat walls. But on my first day, when I checked out the five picturesque beehives on the hillside above the lodge, I discovered they had concrete floors but no windows, no lighting and no amenities whatever. I was glad to be in a simple room in the volunteer house down the hill from the main lodge. When the rains came—as they often did--our corrugated roofs turned out to have many leaks, but my little room stayed cozy and dry. Kiwi, the cat, often visited me in the night, dropping in through my open window, sometimes sleeping on the upper bunk, sometimes nestling in with me. Once, an afternoon squall brought hailstones the size of fat cherries shooting in through my open door.

Some distance beyond the endless green rolling hills, we discovered a well-run orphanage. There we occasionally dropped by to play games with the kids or to build simple furniture. That, plus a bit of gardening in the “mandala” permaculture garden behind our volunteers’ hostel, was virtually the only actual work we did during our designated stay. So we put our heads together and found one adventure or another to give zest to our Swaziland commitment.

I have learned that connections with friendly locals and staff can be invaluable in opening the door to experiences that are off the beaten track, not to mention a little off beat. This trip was no exception. When our first Sunday rolled around, Heiso took us to The Junction to attend a Zionist church service, the likes of which I have never seen. First, we were interviewed by a church elder as to why we wanted to attend. We women had been warned to wear skirts, but I didn’t have one, so simply draped a length of bright African cloth over my jeans. The Swazi churchgoers wore cotton “church coats,” rather like lab coats, over their normal clothes. Leaving our shoes at the door, we sat on a bench inside the small bare room while the faithful marched around in a tight circle. A leader pounded on the floor with a pole to set the pace, which grew to an alarmingly frenzied level before abruptly stopping. The marchers seated themselves, and talks by church elders and hymn singing followed. After an hour and a half—and no sign of an end in sight—we left some money on the altar and quietly departed, after checking with Heiso for permission.

On another day we were escorted to the same village to get an inside look at a “homestead.” Charming young Dudu showed us how to cook a typical meal, while her niece, 7-year-old Sihle Kuneno, watched our every move. After long cooking, a traditional meal of “pup” (cornmeal porridge) and a potato and greens mixture were served. The greens were young pumpkin leaves—delicious. We were provided spoons but they ate with their hands. We were also treated to a bottle of merula, a sour local beer, not to be confused with the heavenly liqueur amarula for which I had developed a taste in Namibia.

Gradually we became more resourceful at cooking up excursions to fill the time. One weekend we visited Hlane Royal National Park in eastern Swaziland and slept in tents on hard ground. Although it couldn’t compare to extensive Etosha Park in Namibia, we did see a variety of game, including my first white rhino. (They’re not white at all.) En route home, we attended a fantastic concert by one of Africa’s real musical stars, Oliver Mtukudzi. I had heard about him from a friend in Zimbabwe but never dreamed I would be watching him live. Such a compelling performer, a charismatic singer.

The younger volunteers grew eager for some physical activity, so one day we all went to Maguga Dam for some abseiling—a new term for me. This involved rappelling down a steep abutment, one at a time. Ish! I was content to take photos of them and of the colorful local women who stopped by the roadside to watch this crazy sport. I may be adventurous but I am not foolhardy and had no desire to plunge to my death from a Swazi cliff.

We found plenty of handicraft markets by the roadside or in the city, where we bought inexpensive small carvings and Batik pieces. And then there was Mantenga Cultural Village, a replica of a traditional Swazi community with authentic beehive huts and cattle kraals. If I had lived there, I—as the oldest--would have had the largest rondavel. Custom says it took 17 cows to buy a good wife back in the 19th Century.

One final outing took us to the King’s merula festival at his Ebuhleni Palace (Beautiful Place), north of Pigg’s Peak. He periodically gathers his many wives and retainers at one or another place in his small kingdom for festivities that bring the whole region together. Vendors abounded, swarms of colorful dancers lined up, there was great excitement even though the King was nowhere to be seen yet. We were told that the Queen Mother was late to appear because of the heat. We finally decided to leave at 4, just as the large playing field filled up with performers. Half an hour down the road, we saw the King and his cavalcade headed to the merula festival. So that’s the closest we got to His Majesty. And thus my month in Swaziland finally drew to an end.

A few days later I packed up for my flight to Johannesburg. From there I would take a long distance bus to Cape Town, an 18-hour overnight ride. This early morning drive to Matsapha was lovely, the sun just rising as we zipped around one hill after another on fine roads. My month was nothing like I had expected, but it proved the old adage: “When traveling, expect the unexpected.” It was a lesson in adaptability. I recommend Swaziland as a tucked away treasure of a country, with friendly charming people and more to see and do than you might guess.

All I can say is Ish!