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August 21, 2013 / samwilson60

The royal mountains of Swaziland

The border crossing from Mozambique into Swaziland had the makings of an easy one. We needed to change money to pay the road tax but got annoyed with the money changers offering what we thought at the time was a rubbish rate. The Swazi lilangeni is interchangeable with the South African rand and we were, or at least Cat was, adamant we knew the dollar to rand rate. Luckily for us, we coincided at the border with another British pair (the only other people using this supposedly major crossing point). They had plenty of rands and were more than happy to exchange some of them at whatever rate we threw at them, it seemed. Apologies to both the money changers and the generous passers-by we diddled out of a dollar.

On leaving the building, we were feeling quite upbeat about having ‘got one over’ on the money changers, so upbeat in fact that we didn’t even consider the possibility of a vehicle search at the exit gate. We’d seen the boards about the vet fence (along the lines of “No animal, alive or dead, shall pass this point”) but as we don’t have a fridge we don’t tend to carry fresh meat. What we hadn’t reckoned with was the additional fruit embargo. Out of nowhere, the poor official on duty told us we’d have to dump the pineapple we’d bought as a border day treat! Despite all our pleading and all his laughing, there was no getting around it. The pineapple had to go. The saving grace was that he hadn’t noticed the oranges and apples and stopped looking after all the hoo-hah about the pineapple.

Still reeling from the fruit theft and simultaneously feeling a little guilty at the overreaction, our first few kilometres in Swaziland whizzed by. After our brief foray into southern Africa’s other mountain kingdom, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of road networks but nor were we aiming to get far. As it happens we found ourselves on pristine tar (the likes of which we’d actually have to try hard to avoid) and were at our mountain campsite within the hour. It was a little more full-on than we’d expected. Forcefully friendly is how we’ve taken to describing the very welcoming but slightly overbearing people we met there. They also had two large school groups to deal with so, which the views were stunning and the villages interesting, we chose not to hang around. It was a shame to use such a place as a stopover but they clearly had enough on their plates and were happy with the wad of euros thrust in their hands the following morning (erring on the cautious side of the exchange rate this time).

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The first place we hit on leaving the mountainside was a purpose-built sugar-company town, complete with three banks and an entire shopping plaza. Predictably, the only bank that could, in principle, change money for us inexplicably couldn’t that particular day, so we maxed out our cards at the ATMs, bought a pineapple to replace the one we’d had confiscated at the border and checked out the local library, before dashing off to find some more mountains.

The drive was pleasant and we soon saw various places we could wild camp but, without meaning to sound jaded, we couldn’t shake the feeling that it could get better. Turns out we were right. We knew we’d found our home for that night at least when we turned down into a dry riverbed near a reservoir. It was early and the place was littered with goats and cattle, but after a cuppa up on the hillside (advertising our presence to anyone and everyone and thereby giving them a chance to object or join), we pitched up on the dry side of the dam wall and settled down to an afternoon of odd jobs. There was a constant stream of passers-by along the dam wall but not one seemed the least bit fazed by our presence and most greeted us warmly and offered us sugar cane. After socialising for a bit, changing the oil in the Tinker Beast, catching up on photos and blog notes and fretting about how to make best use of the next week, we sat back to enjoy the silence and the stars.

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The next morning we went for breakfast at another reservoir, just a few kilometres down the track. This had been our other potential wild camp spot and we were glad we hadn’t needed it. It was beautiful, no doubt, but it was also full of hippos and slap bang in the middle of a sugar plantation. How they reconcile the two is anyone’s guess but somehow they must. We saw the sugar plantations and we sure as hell heard the hippos!

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The rest of the morning was an education in sugar production but by the time we’d popped out the other side of the estate we were very excited about swapping the sugar cane for a cross-country drive into some of the most spectacular mountains of the whole trip.

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It was way too early to even think about making camp so we simply meandered slowly, stopping lots and eventually continuing to another mountain nearby. Since we were looking to camp in this second mountain, we weren’t expecting to be anywhere near as lucky with the views. In truth it wasn’t as mind-bending as the last but still it offered a cracking camp. We knew we were exposed even before we saw the goats surrounding us but we liked our spot and it was a long way from any of the surrounding homesteads. Nevertheless, we soon had a visitor/one-man welcome party. “Don’t worry, I’m not a thief!” were Peter’s first words as he emerged from the next-door hillside. A herdsman in his early 20s, he told us that, like everyone else on the mountainside, he’d seen us coming a mile off and wondered what was going on. After reassuring himself that we weren’t any form of officialdom and then unnerving us about the snakes, he said we were more than welcome to spend the night where we were. We were understandably quite a novelty and Peter a very inquisitive and opinionated guy, which made for an interesting (if slightly exhausting) evening.

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We tried to drive out the other side of mountain the next morning, to make another loop, but before long our path was cut by the heavily secured gates of a conservancy. We could see the track continue on the other side (a maximum of a few metres had been eaten up by the conservancy) but with no way around we had to turn back and retrace our steps. By leaving the mountain the same way we came in, we were soon back on the tar and made very good time to the border (remembering to cash in all of our emalangeni before entering South Africa).

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