Swaziland: Time for Healing
I dedicate this post to my Mother. After several years of breast cancer she sadly passed away in February. The following month was spent at my family home in England sorting out all to be done. As spring arrived in our rural corner of the Westcountry’s Dorset I begun the long journey southwards to Cape Town once more. While sitting in Doha airport in the dark and early hours of the morning, a plan was hatched. We were going to Swaziland for Easter.
Protea roupelliae subsp. roupelliae
A couple of days later, still feeling rather bug eyed, flights were booked, my bag was packed and I was on my way to Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, economic hub and “City of Gold”. I was flying Blue Crane, one of South Africa’s newest airlines, named after South Africa’s national bird. Given nobody I knew had yet flown with them, I didn’t know what to expect: “Don’t worry, Blue Cranes are excellent flyers, if they were called Albatross airlines I would be concerned….” assured an ornithologist friend of mine.
We were flying in a tiny plane to Johannesburg, travelling via the remote Northern Cape Town of Kimberley, in the middle of the Kalahari Desert on the banks of the Gariep River. I was seated right at the front of the plane, which earnt me my own personal safety demonstration and amazing views. We flew up and away, over the Cape Mountains, the Tanqua Karoo (South Africa’s driest desert) and north-east into the Kalahari Desert when Succulent Karoo gave way to red desert sand and Acacia trees. We touched down briefly at the tiny airport at Kimberley and then flew onwards to Johannesburg, where the dry red desert sand dunes gave way to green Highveld grassland and urban-scape. As we arrived at OR Tambo International airport pink carpets of Cosmos lined the fields beside the runway. This popular garden plant from the States, Mexico and South America has naturalised and made itself very much at home up here.
Top: Aloe cooperi. Above: Watsonia watsonioides
Shortly afterwards I experienced my first journey on the Gautrain across Jo’burg. This shiny new rail network was built when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010. I was a little disconcerted that according to the signage the line I was supposed to be taking had not yet been built, but there were plenty of friendly locals to point me in the right direction. In Rosebank I was reunited with two close friends of mine, with whom I was staying for the night and travelling.
The following morning we headed east from Johannesburg to Swaziland via the ‘scenic route’ through Mpumalanga and into Swaziland via one of the smaller, more remote border posts near Barberton and Pigg’s Peak. We travelled through some of the largest coal mining areas of the country before reaching the beautiful mountains adjacent to Barberton. Numerous padstals by the side of the road were selling citrus fruit and there were fields of macadamia nut trees as far as the eye could see.
Top: Swimming at Matenga Falls is a bad idea… Above: Xerophyta retinervis
We headed up towards the Swazi border via the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail. The pass winds upwards steeply over 40 km through the montane grasslands, dotted with Protea roupelliae subsp. roupelliae, via a series of interpreted viewpoints that guide visitors through more than three billion years of geological history. To visit this area and the Barberton Greenstone Belt takes one back to a time during the Achaean when Earth had no vegetation, volcanic eruptions filled the sky with ash and volcanic debris rained down far and wide.
At the other end we reached the Swazi border, when the rain started. The border crossing went smoothly but there the potholes started and soon we lost the tarmac, as we wound our way along more than slightly terrifying slippery and muddy dirt roads. It was with great relief that we eventually emerged on the only stretch of freeway in the country, built so that King Mswati III could travel easily and unimpeded between his palatial residence and the airport.
Top: Ceratotheca triloba. Above: Matenga Falls
The Kingdom of Swaziland is one of the smallest countries in Africa, no more than 200 km in length and 130 km wide. It is governed by an absolute monarchy, ruled by King Mswati III. It has a diverse topography and climate, varying from cool and mountainous highveld around the capital Mbabane down to hot and dry lowveld in the eastern parts of the country. The country has a diverse flora with more than eighty endemic or near endemic plant species. Swaziland is a low-middle income country, and its currency the Lilangeni is pegged to the South African Rand as part of trade agreements.
We spent the week on a friend’s family farm adjacent to Mbabane. The farm has a mix of timber plantations with some beautiful highveld grassland on the upper slopes. It was the perfect base from which to explore and relax. Our first priority the next morning was an expedition to the shops in Mbabane to make sure the hungry faces would all be well fed. We ended up coming home with no less than 38 of the biggest avocados I have ever seen…..
Top: Gladiolus serpenticola. Above: On top of Sibebe near Mbabane, the world’s largest exposed granite pluton
One of the tasks of the week was a warehouse full of boxes that needed to be cleared out. Oh so straightforward I hear you say. Until it is mentioned that said warehouse contains a hive of African wild bees. They are also known as killer bees and are far more aggressive than the Cape honey bees that we know from further down at the tip of the continent. Luckily the mention of honey was enough to galvanise the troops and around seven kilos was harvested from the hive and divided up among those who assisted and the rest of us staying on the farm.
One of the highlights of the trip was our ascent of Sibebe. Sibebe is the largest exposed granite pluton in the world and the world’s second largest monolith. It lies just outside Mbabane. Sibebe Beer, a premium local lager, is named after the mountain. Sibebe rock is more than three billion years old. We started our ascent early in the morning, heading upwards along the steep and winding trail into the mist.
Stinkhorn (Aseroe rubra) growing in one of the Eucalyptus plantations on the farm
As we climbed upwards we encountered a diverse variety of Ceratotheca triloba plants hunkered down in between the granite boulders from gnarled trees to the Natal Wild Banana (Strelitzia nicolai). In the case of the latter contrary to its name it does not have edible fruit, nor is it related to the true bananas and it is thought that it was named owing to the similarity in appearance of the leaves to its edible counterpart. In areas of shade in between the rocks Plectranthus was flowering in profusion. A butterfly rested for long enough for me to photograph it and it was later identified as a Wandering Donkey Acraea.
Hiking near Mantenga Falls
As we ascended upwards the mist cleared and the views across the grassy plateau on the summit opened up to the mountains beyond. There were vast granite boulders scattered across the landscape and various grassland species in flower including Watsonia, Gladiolus and Protea parvula. We reached the summit viewpoint and enjoyed a leisurely lunch with spectacular views down over the sheer granite faces of Sibebe and beyond. On the way back we explored several caves within the granite boulders, providing valuable shade from the heat of the midday sun.
We also hiked fairly extensively around the farm through the plantations up into the highveld grassland above. Despite the drought there seemed to be much in flower to be seen, including fields of the beautiful white Watsonia watsonioides and various other species. Within the forestry plantation we found some very curious looking fungi including the stinkhorn illustrated below. By the time we’d made it back that evening we’d definitely earnt our homemade pizza, piled high with as many toppings as we could fit on.
Sundowners on the farm
On the second day of the trip we took a drive down ‘The Valley’ to go and visit the spectacular Mantenga Falls. The falls lie within Mantenga Nature Reserve and are Swaziland’s most well known waterfalls, and are the largest by volume of water. We also visited the Swazi candle factory and various other handicraft shops. The glass factory at Ngwenya (meaning crocodile) was also well worth a visit, with an extraordinary array of handmade glassware made from recycled glass.
View over Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland
Our final morning of the trip was Easter Sunday. Tempers were slightly frayed as we crawled out of bed at 5am and went to go and watch the sunrise from the mountain top. It was bitterly cold as we bumped and rattled and dodged our way along the rutted track through the dongas and the muddy puddles. First light broke as we settled on the granite, armed with coffee and nibbles. A warm glow reflected upon the mirror perfect calm of the water of the dam far below. We sat quietly as the sun slowly broke above the horizon, casting its light across the landscape as it rose above the mountains. Sun came, daylight came, another day came. It was an emotional moment, spent with important people. A moment I will always remember. A time to reflect and a time to heal a little.
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