Swaziland: Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
4th June - 11th June 2002
I hitched a ride into Swaziland from Maputo with Lou and Fran the owners of The Base Backpackers in the city; they were just going to the country on a day trip and offered me a ride. We reached the Mozambique border town of Namaacha at about 08.00 in the morning. It wasn't busy and it didn't take long to go through immigration formalities in the new, very modern looking immigration offices on both sides of the border. I was impressed. I was expecting something a bit more low-tech. We continued into Swaziland passing through a few more roadblocks, one for foot and mouth control and another manned by the army, for what purpose I don't know but they checked our travel documents anyway. We continued on our way to Manzini through the scrubby lowveld landscape and past endless sugar cane plantations. Sugar was once the largest export from Swaziland and is still today a major export crop. The road also passed through the Hlane Royal National Park, Hlane meaning wilderness, a 30,000 hectare conservation area in the lowveld. We passed by a troop of baboons sitting beside the road and also some small herds of impala.
Lou dropped me off at the Swaziland Backpackers on the western side of Manzini near Matsapha, just over the Lusushwana River. Manzini was the combined administrative centre for the British and the Boers between 1890 and 1902 and today is the country's largest city and industrial centre. Downtown Manzini is small and there is not a lot to see or do so I didn't bother stopping. The hills around the city are covered in factories and warehouses and the sprawl seems to go on forever, this was not what I was expecting to see in Swaziland. On the nearby Matsapha Industrial Site is a large Coca Cola plant. It is only one of seven concentrate factories in the world and supplies concentrate to over thirty countries in Africa and Asia. Today Coca Cola is the countries major revenue earner, replacing sugar, which also happens to be the major ingredient in the concentrate.
The Swaziland Backpackers was not what I expected after reading their leaflet in Maputo. It was a mistake to stay there and looking back on it I should of just left after Lou dropped me off, the country is small enough to easily get to the next town within an hour. For a start the hostel was in the middle of nowhere at the edge of this huge industrial sprawl around Manzini; the only place you could walk to was a rather tatty looking out of town retail park. The accommodation was not much better, both toilets were broken, pipes dripping water into a bucket and the management didn't seem bothered about anything except their own party they had going in the 'bar' area. When I arrived I was the only guest, later that evening two more people checked in. I really could not work out how this awful place stayed in business. A clue came when I found out that the Baz Bus, a backpackers bus that ferries travellers door to door between hostels across South Africa, stopped here. Later I found out that the Baz Bus had bought this hostel and used it as an overnight stop; suddenly everything began to make sense. The passengers on board the bus did not have a choice of where to stay if they were transiting through Swaziland because surely if you had a choice you would not stay at the Swaziland Backpackers. Some time after returning home I heard that this place had been taken over by a new management team.
I left as soon as I could the following morning and by 08.30 I was on the road and hitched a ride the short distance along the MR103 to the Malkerns junction. From here I walked to Malendela's restaurant and phoned the Sondzela Backpackers Lodge to come and pick me up. While I waited on this clear, warm, sunny morning I reflected on how good it felt to be away from last nights hostel. Many people I had met while travelling through this continent had recommended the Sondzela Lodge to me, it must have a reputation as big as Africa itself. It is situated in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and is a converted private house complete with a swimming pool on the lawn. Mlilwane is a small reserve created by Ted Reilly during the 1950's in the middleveld, characterised by rolling grasslands and more fertile soils than that of the lowveld to the east. The reserve is in the Lobamba Valley and is dominated by the ragged Nyonyane Peak to the west.
The Sondzela Lodge didn't disappoint me and lived up to its reputation. The location was wonderfully peaceful and quiet; there was also a bar with a satellite television (essential equipment while the World Cup is on), a fully equipped kitchen with even a small shop to buy some basic supplies. If you didn't want to cook you could order dinner, which would be served outside by the fire. Alternatively you could walk about twenty minutes to the main camp that also had a good restaurant. As soon as I arrived I walked to the main camp and sat down to a fried breakfast and pot of tea. The view from the open air restaurant looked out across a waterhole, famous for it's hippos, although all I could see was one crocodile lying on the mud basking in the sun. Throughout the camp impala and warthogs roamed freely, not bothered in the slightest by any human activity.
Between watching football in the mornings I went on hikes around the reserve. As the reserve is quite small it is feasible to see a lot of it on foot, although it is also possible to rent a mountain bike, ride a horse or take a tour in a Landrover. I enjoyed a long walk around the park, stopping frequently to watch the wildlife, mostly zebra, many species of antelope and troops of grey monkeys in the woods; it was nice to once again be out of the towns and cities and back in the wilderness. One of the main reasons, apart from the Sondzela Lodge, for coming here was to see the hippos. I wanted to record a sound bite of the hippos for my website and this was one of my last chances on this trip to see them. The hippos are famous at the restaurant as they feed them at 15.00 each afternoon and entice them out of the waterhole by leaving grain on the banks. I thought that this would be my ideal opportunity, but the hippos were no longer around. I walked up to the hippo pool, a lake created by a dam in the valley, but once again there were no hippos, just a couple of large crocodiles lazily swimming along the far shore. In the end I never saw a hippo, let alone heard one at Mlilwane, they had gone missing.
After watching the England, Argentina match on Friday, which finished at 15.30, I left the Sondzela Lodge and made my way to the capital, Mbabane. I walked back to the main road passing by pineapple plantations on the way and quickly managed to hitch a ride back to the junction with the MR103. From there it was a short minibus ride to the capital and I arrived at the bus station next to the Swazi Plaza just before 17.00. There are only a couple of travellers hostel in this small city, I chose The Chillage on Mission Street. When I arrived the owners were out but one of their friends was there and made me welcome.
Mbabane must be the smallest capital city I have ever visited with a population of just over 50,000; it would be a competition between Mbabane and Banjul in The Gambia. The city was founded in 1880 by Mickey Wells who built one hut as a canteen. By 1903 the city became the capital of the British Colonial administration, although still the city was nothing more than a collection of huts and small houses nestled in the valley between the mountains. The British choose this site for the capital because of the cooler mountain climate as the city sits at an altitude of 1,200m. Today I found a compact city with most of the facilities I would need, including two large shopping malls, the Swazi Plaza and across OK Road, the Mall. The people were all very friendly and helpful and I didn't feel threatened at all during the day, although I heard that at night it is a different story and crime is a problem.
I settled in at the Chillage and after an hour the owners, Des and Liz arrived with their young daughter, Ava. Des and Liz are originally from Britain and have been running a backpackers hostel in the city for about the last eight years. Previous to that they had been living for a couple of years in the north of Mozambique. Their hostel has a long reputation as a place to sit back, relax and, as the name suggests, chill out. I was the only guest staying that night and I felt more like I was staying at a friends house back home than a travellers hostel in Swaziland. Before I left Maputo I had agreed to contact Mandela, who was from Mbabane but was working in Maputo, who said he would be in the city this evening to see a band play. The phone at the Chillage was dead so I couldn't phone and Liz only had enough credit on her mobile phone to send a text message. It turned out that Des and Liz were also going to a party that night at the French Cultural Centre where the Black Roses were playing. The Black Roses are billed as Swaziland's best reggae band and this being a small town, I guessed was the place that Mandela would be at. We drove a short distance across the city to the French Cultural Centre where the party was already in full swing. Almost as soon as I walked into the building I saw Mandela in the crowd. I had only been in the city for a few hours and already Des, Liz, their friends and Mandela seemed like old friends to me.
Continue reading this journey: Palaces to Caves