Cycling Africa – Swaziland

Swaziland border to Nisela

I continued on past the border post with the aim to reach Nisela Game Reserve, 40km’s away. The tour guide I had met at the service station in South Africa told me it would be a good place to camp.

I was fairly tired by now so stopped for a half hour rest at the border town and bought some water. I had another funny chat with a local guy who couldn’t understand why I was doing this and then got back on the road.

The roads are equally as nice as South Africa along this section, well paved and with a wide shoulder. I was surrounded on all sides but what must be sugar cane fields, as loads of broken bits of sugar cane filled the road.

The locals walking this section didn’t appear to be as friendly as in South Africa, often not responding to my waves or greetings. They were likely just confused as to what I was doing.

After about an hour I took refuge in the shade of a bus stop and rested for a while to cool down. By now I had cycled over 120km’s and was quite exhausted so the last slog to Nisela was a tough one. I kept checking my Google Maps, wondering how I’m not there yet!

Eventually, a sign for Nisela appeared around the last corner and within a few minutes, I saw the entrance come up on the right. I cycled into reception, sweaty and exhausted, and checked in for a camping spot.

They had a function on in the main bar and dining room that evening so I had to quickly shower and get food before 6pm. I had a beer and sandwich and then ordered another beer to take away.

While sitting by my campsite two park rangers came up to me and for a moment my guilty conscience assumed I had done something wrong but they just wanted to borrow my bicycle pump.

Seeing as there wasn’t much else to do, I took a photo with a zebra and then got to bed very early, around 8pm.

Day 6: Short cycle to Big Bend

It was Monday now and I needed wifi to work but Nisela only had these ridiculous vouchers that give you 15 minutes of Internet with 100MB data limit.

I was still exhausted from the day before and didn’t want to cycle too far but luckily discovered that there was a backpackers called Entsabeni only 30km up the road near Big Bend. The receptionist kindly called them for me to confirm that they have wifi before I headed off.

As I’ve since learned, Google Maps is not very accurate in Swaziland so I missed the turn-off and ended up in a small village settlement where the backpackers was reported to be.

I really didn’t want to waste the day looking for the place so I decided to cycle back to a place called Lismore Lodge I had passed a few km’s back and see if they have wifi and a cheap bed. On the way, I thought I’ll quickly check one more side road and to my luck I discovered Entsabeni.

Unfortunately, Entsabeni is not actually a backpackers but more of a guest house, with only private rooms. They did have fast wifi though and I couldn’t be bothered to check elsewhere so I decided to spoil myself (and my budget) for one night.

I was the only guest so I had the entire place to myself and spent all day catching up on work. Around about 3pm they told me they would be closing the kitchen for the night, so I ordered dinner to be kept for later and at 4pm everybody went home, leaving the entire house to myself.

I hadn’t watched TV in months and they had satellite, so I ate and watched stupid sitcoms until eventually getting to bed a bit later than planned at 10pm.

Day 7: Uphill to Lobamba

Nodoby was around when I awoke at 5am but I had already paid the evening before so I packed had some coffee and got back on the road by 6am.

I knew today would be difficult because it was 100km’s, almost entirely uphill. It began off fairly calmly with a cycle through Big Bend and a minor incline that steadily became steeper throughout the day. It was still early morning so the first few hours weren’t too hot.

Around about 10 am it began to get hilly and hot, so I stopped to get some breakfast at a small roadside shop. I bought three cream donuts, water, Energade, chocolates and biscuits all for only R40 ($3).

After a half hour rest and feeling re-energized, I got back on the road. Quickly the hills began to come in succession, one after the other with each getting bigger than the last. It was now only 25km to Manzini, my planned lunch stop, but it was also 38 degrees Celcius and I was forced to stop at the rise of each hill and find some shade to cool down.

It took me almost two hours just to do 15km’s and get within the final, huge hill before Manzini. Here the shoulder was almost entirely gone and what was left of it was often filled with sand or scrub from bushes. As a result, I was often having to cycle in the road a little bit.

Around here many people stand on the road waiting for taxi’s, which hoot to indicate they have space to pick you up. Unfortunately, trucks also hoot when they don’t have space to pass you and need you to get off the road. In one case I didn’t move off the road, think it was a taxi hooting, and very almost got killed. The truck passed me so close its trailer scraped along my arm but it made no effort to slow down. I wobbled off the road briefly into some sand but didn’t fall and continued on.

From there on I was being very cautious to stay within the shoulder which at times wasn’t possible. I often had to stop and wait for a gap in traffic and then cycle quickly through sections that had no shoulder.

Eventually, a friendly guy stopped and offered me a lift, saying that this section is too dangerous to cycle and anyway, it’s far too hot. I didn’t argue. He even offered to let me stay at his place that night and take me into Manzini the following day. I should have accepted but I really wanted to try to get to my planned destination of Lobamba today as I was very short on time, needing to get home for Christmas.

As we drove he asked if I had seen any other cyclists in Swaziland and after thinking, I said no. He said that’s because nobody cycles here and as a result, the drivers probably don’t think to look out for cyclists. There aren’t even any scooters or motorbikes, so he makes a good point. He told me I was the only cyclist he had ever seen in all his time in Swaziland… and that I’m definitely crazy.

He took me about 10 km’s over the final huge rise into Manzini and went out of his way to drop me on the other side of town so I was closer to Lobamba. I thanked him profusely, gave him the address of this blog, and then headed off to find somewhere with wifi to have lunch and do some work.

The nearby KFC didn’t have wifi so I cycled a bit further and found a bar called Saltees. Although it showed up as having wifi on my phone, none of the staff knew the password. I stayed for one beer anyway and spoke to my waitress about my trip. Again, as with everyone, she struggled to believe me and told me I was crazy. She kindly helped me out by calling a nearby backpackers, Sondzela, to see if they had camping space and wifi – both of which they said they had.

I continued on in an effort to get to Sondzela but stopped along the way at a small, touristy looking restaurant since I was now starving. I ate a bacon and avo salad, drank two much-needed cold beers and since they had wifi, got some work done. Eventually, at around 5pm, I headed off on the last 3kms to Sondzela. However, upon arrival, the gate staff told me I can’t use that entrance unless I have a pre-booking. They said apparently there is another entrance around the other side, 10km’s away, that I must use!

I told them it’s getting dark and I don’t have lights (although I do) but they wouldn’t listen and sent me on my way. I couldn’t believe the stupidity of it – Sondzela was right there but I must cycle around to another entrance for no reason? Needless to say, I wasn’t going to give them my business and won’t be recommending Sondzela to anyone. The most annoying part is that the route I took is the only route that Google Maps shows to get to Sondzela – the route they described doesn’t appear anywhere on the map that I could see.

Fortunately, my friend had just told me about another decent backpackers called Legends that she stayed at previously but was a fair distance away. I had no choice but to push on through and luckily it was mostly flat until the last few hundred metres, so I arrived before dark.

The backpackers offered camping for R100 ($6) so I checked in and set up my tent in their very decent, shaded campgrounds. I cooled off in the pool for a bit and then grabbed dinner and few beers from the nearby store before heading to bed, exhausted.

Day 8: White water rafting

After checking some maps, I realized I wouldn’t have enough time to cycle through the mountainous regions of Swaziland and still make it back to my family home in South Africa in time for Christmas.

Since I was now in a relatively popular tourist area, it would be one of the few places I could potentially catch a bus from over the worst of the mountains and back into South Africa, so I decided to do that.

It was unfortunate because the mountains look lovely and I’m sure there are some amazing cycling routes, but the time of year was also not ideal – with high temperatures and flash storms. I chose to spend a day exploring Lobamba before heading off and resolved to return to Swaziland to explore further when I had more time.

I firstly arranged for a bus to take me and my bicycle to the nearby town of Nelspruit the following day, and then decided to do a half-day white water rafting trip.

The trip was decent and well organized although surprisingly short considering the R1,000 cost ($70). We only did four rapids, of which only one could really be considered a graded rapid (3+). The first two ‘rapids’ were essentially just fast flowing water and the second just a sluice down a weir.

We then reached the final rapid which was impressively big and my
paddling companion and I were thrown out of our raft, with me smashing my elbow into a rock fairly hard. Despite the pain, I was glad to have had the opportunity to face a rapid that was an actual challenge.

Afterward, we had lunch and beer provided by the tour group on the riverside and then headed back to the town. As an introductory taster course, it’s probably acceptable and the drinks at the end were a nice addition, but I still felt it was a bit over-priced for what it was.

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