Swaziland: Palaces to Caves

4th June - 11th June 2002


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There's not a great deal of interest for a visitor in Mbabane, but I found it a pleasant enough city to use as a base to explore the surrounding area. I went on a day trip to the Ezulwini Valley, the Royal Valley, and boarded a minibus in Mbabane that hurtled down the smooth, four-lane MR3 highway that stretched downhill in wide sweeping curves into the valley. The Ezulwini Valley, which means Place of Heaven, is a very scenic valley that is the centre of royal life in Swaziland. It is here that the royal residences of Lobamba and Ludzidzini are found, the main tourist attractions in the country. I have to admit that I was very disappointed with what I saw along this valley, it had more the feeling of a cheap American tourist strip, the road lined with motels, hotels and campsites. There were also casinos, which used to make a lucrative trade catering for South Africans until gambling was legalised in South Africa. It may be that I was visiting during the low season but the whole valley seemed to have the air of an amusement park that has gone out of fashion.

The royal residences are not open to the public, they were not marked on my map and apparently it is forbidden to take photos of them if you do find them. Instead, after stopping at a large roadside craft market, I made my way to the parliament building and the Swaziland National Museum next-door. The museum was small and had a varied display covering archaeology and traditional Swaziland life including traditional costumes and household items. There was also an interesting display of old photos of the royal family over the years. In a separate room were three of King Sobhuza's limousines, all classic American motors. The curator showed me to the room and told me that they were taking donations from visitors to help pay to restore them to their former glory.

Opposite the museum is the King Sobhuza II memorial park. King Sobhuza II reigned from 1921 to 1982 and was one of the world's longest reigning monarchs. The previous king, Bhunu reigned from 1894 to 1899 and when he died his son Sobhuza II was only five months old so his mother, Labotsibeni, became Queen Regent, a position she held until 1921. This park is where Sobhuza II lay in state before being buried elsewhere in the country. The present gardens were built with money donated by the Taiwanese government and are guarded twenty-four hours a day as they hold spiritual power. The current King, Mswati III left the country in 1982 to receive an education at an English public school before returning to the country two years later for his coronation. Just before my visit to the country the King had just married his ninth wife, only about a week after marrying wife number eight. Also situated in the valley is a cultural village, a reconstruction of an 1850's chiefs village designed to give tourists an idea of what traditional Swazi life is like. I didn't visit, I prefer to find the real thing rather than a show just put on for tourists; I took a bus back to Mbabane and made myself at home again at the Chillage.

I still felt that I had not found what traditional Swazi culture was about after visiting the Royal Valley, which for me was full of disappointments rather than insights into the culture of this kingdom. I talked this over with Des and Liz at the Chillage and they suggested that I take a trip out into the rural, northern region of the country with their friend Skinny, the taxi driver. I wasn't too sure what I would see on this trip as Skinny normally just drives passengers around the city, rather than taking tourists around the country sightseeing. The day started late when Skinny finally arrived at the Chillage with his car that had a leaking heater under the dashboard. Hot water was pouring out from under the dashboard and steam misting up the windscreen. We drove out of town to one of Skinny's friends who was a mechanic who disconnected the water pipes from the heater. After stopping at the mall downtown to pick up some snacks and drinks for the trip we finally got going at around 11.30.

We drove out of Mbabane and turned off onto the Pigg's Peak road at Motshane, 15km north of the city. We stopped along the way at a homestead of one of Skinny's school friends and had a brief look around. The huts were circular and built of mud with a thatched roof, this type of building had replaced the earlier bee-hive huts that were made entirely of reeds. We continued along the road through the highveld landscape of jagged, short mountains covered in grass and dotted with homesteads and farms. We turned off at Nkhaba and drove down to the new Maguga Dam that looked like it had just been completed, the lake still filling up behind this huge concrete structure. The road continued on to Pigg's Peak past large pine forest plantations. Once we reached Pigg's Peak the day felt like it was losing direction so I asked Skinny if he knew where the bushman paintings were, which I had read were somewhere along the Pigg's Peak road.

Skinny asked around town and we were soon heading back towards the Maguga Dam and took a turning off to the left down a small dirt road. From the directions we were given the paintings were 6km along this road alongside the Komati River. Along the way we stopped and asked directions from a couple of villagers who hopped in the car and showed us the way. Skinny parked the car and the two villagers lead us up onto a ridge overlooking a valley and the Komati River. They pointed out the rock to us where the paintings were, about halfway down the slope of this valley covered in bush. It looked easy and the villagers left us as we walked down the valley towards where we thought this rock was. Once we were in the bush though we soon lost our bearings as we tried to find our way through the tangle of undergrowth and trees. Soon we were almost at the bottom of the valley and had completely missed the rock and so began to climb back up, stopping to inspect every large rock on the way. Back on top of the ridge again, sweat dripping from us, we spotted the rock again, we had missed it by just a few metres. Now I knew where the rock was, we walked straight to it and at last found the paintings under a large overhang.

It was great to see these paintings that consisted of depictions of men hunting, some human figures with wings and animals that they hunted. This was the first time that Skinny had seen these paintings and he too was very impressed; so impressed that he wished he had something to write on the rock, 'Skinny was here.' I groaned and begged him not to come back with a can of paint. Unfortunately some villagers had already been to the site and in their attempt at helping out tourists had painted around many of the images in orange paint. For me this desecration with bright orange paint ruined the beauty of this ancient, remote site, but it was still worth the adventure finding the place. By then the sun was getting low on the horizon so we headed back to Mbabane, the mountains glowing orange in the setting sun. It was dark once we got back to the Chillage on Mission Street.

I could of spent quite a few more days in Swaziland, relaxing in the friendly atmosphere. Nevertheless, the days kept passing by and soon I would have to start thinking about making my way back home. My travel was still governed by when England were playing in the World Cup, the next match was against Nigeria on Wednesday, so I either had to leave on Tuesday or wait until Thursday to travel to St Lucia in South Africa. I decided to leave on Tuesday morning and Des and Liz gave me a lift down to the bus station by the Swazi Plaza. As I was saying goodbye Mandla walked past, Mbabane is a small city, and he showed me to a bus to Manzini and said goodbye. On the way to Manzini a local girl started chatting with me all the way and gave me her address. I never found myself sitting on a bus for long until someone, or the whole bus, would begin talking to me. I waited around for a while in Manzini for a Durban bound minibus to fill and depart. After an hour or so waiting around in the Manzini bus park I was back on the road again heading for the Golela border post in the south of the country via Big Bend.

This had to have been the friendliest minibus I had ever travelled on. After a while the man in front of me began chatting with me. It wasn't long until everyone on the bus was listening to our conversation and adding questions of their own to me. Everyone was interested in how I perceived life in Southern Africa and Swaziland and how it compared to life in England. Questions ranged from what staple foods we ate back home, did we too eat mealie meal, to AIDS and if it was a problem in England. We reached the border post and we all filed through completing the necessary paperwork. There was a television on in the Swaziland immigration office showing the football and we were able to catch up with the latest scores and the news that the current world champions, France, had been eliminated in the first round of the competition. We crossed into South Africa the conversation now all about football.

This journey continued in South Africa.

Continue reading this journey: St Lucia Wetlands