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Slow Start, Adventurous Finish in Swaziland

Written on: Tuesday April 7th, 2009

Ready to depart Mozambique, I loaded myself into a bus full of locals and headed for the border of Swaziland.  The trip there went smoothly; however, the fact that I did not research my new destination prior to arrival cost me.  I did not know where to stay, or even the layout of Manzini, the centrally-located town where the bus spat me out.  So when a taxi driver suggested a reasonable sounding place to crash nearby, I had few other options.  He brought me to a cute little B&B on the outskirts of the city.  Unfortunately, the cost was high and the excitement low.  There is no way that this is gonna do...I need to find something better fast! 

I read through the local tourist pamphlets and found one that caught my eye...it was for a company called SwaziTrails, and they seemed to be perfectly situated for providing a few adventures.  The next day I phoned them and set up transport to their site.  It ended up being fantastic!  With Legends Backpackers next door, cheap accommodations were now in place.  And with a diverse repertoire of adventure activities being offered by SwaziTrails, I was in for a fun week!

White water rafting was the first activity at the start of a ridiculously action-packed day!  We paddled our way down the class III/IV river (yes, it was low water) in two man rafts.  They were easily maneuverable and handled well through the tricky spots.  After successfully navigating the most challenging set of rapids, the guide (and also my raft-mate) asked if I wanted to go back through this section solo.  Are you kidding?  Of course!  So we hiked back upriver across the granite boulders that lined the shores.  Hopping in the raft alone was a bit unnerving at first, but soon I was into the chutes and having a ball, and picked up the guide after paddling into softer currents. 

Next up was individual white water tubing.  The support van drove us back upriver, where we jumped into the drink on personal intertubes. As you might imagine, the sections of rapids were trickier and significantly more fun as we were essentially IN the water instead of on top of it. 

Exiting the river a second time, we headed for the cliffs.  A twenty meter granite wall existed just down river, and served as the location for abseiling, the next activity of the day.  We secured our tie off points and jumped into the harnesses.  Soon we took turns in a controlled descent down the cliff. Although I had done this before, the first couple steps as I went over the edge were adrenaline-filled.  Before long I found a comfort zone and made my way easily to the bottom.  Of course we all wanted to do it again, so we climbed back up for one more descent.

The final adventure of the day also took place on the cliffs...well, at least it began there.  Kloofing is the local term for cliff jumping, and the cliff we lept from dropped us right into the gnarliest rapids of the river!  The 35' free fall into the chilly waters was a blast, and immediately brought back memories of Jamaica and taking plunges off the rocky Negril coastline. We made two jumps before reluctantly scampering back to the 4x4 and driving to the hostel.

That evening I met Darren, the owner of SwaziTrails.  An significantly accomplished adventurist in his own right, we clicked immediately, to the point where he offered me free activities in exchange for taking part in the promotional videos that he was currently shooting for his company.  Hell ya! 

So the next day was another round of excitement!  We started with a cultural mountain biking tour through town, taking in local neighborhoods, farmlands and townships.  It was interesting to see the ladies walking the streets, babies strapped onto their backs with colorful sarongs.  The school children raced alongside our bikes, smiles stuck permanently to their cute little faces despite the vigor with which they panted for breath.  The men crowded the football fields, anxiously awaiting their turn to take on the winners of the match currently being played.  It was cool.  And it blended into the next activity: a mountain bike safari!  We rode into Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a fantastically gorgeous park surrounded by lush mountains, and also the first wildlife conservation location in the Kingdom.  We rode past impalas, gazelle, zebras and warthogs.  We spotted an enormous crocodile sunning itself at the banks of a lake.  Even hippos and wildebeest took an odd glance at us as we rode by on our Trek Cycles.  Stopping at a lodge within the park, the other riders and the film crew decided to head back to camp via the support van.  Fortuntately, Darren was willing to take me onto some more advenced trails, so the two of us (along with Darren's new biking guide) headed into the bush to tackle some fun single track.  It was quite exciting, and actually fulfilled a personal goal of mine, as I had always wanted to go mountain biking in the African wilderness!  A long ride home up some killer hills capped a brilliant day on the bike.

That evening I went to the resort next door for dinner, only to be astounded by the incredible food that was served.  A beef fillet was complemented with garlic and chive potatoes as well as butternut squash and a green salad.  Add to that a bottle of fantastic South African red wine, and one had the makings of greatness.  Afterward, a nightcap in the bar with the manager made for the final touch to a fabulous meal.

The following day's activity was appropriately called 'adventure caving'!  We set off through the jungle in the waning hours of daylight, decked out in white, canvas overalls, a hard hat and head torch.  The 45 minute hike up the mountain to the cave entrance was the perfect warm up before the spelunking began.  The cave system was sweeeet: bats flying everywhere and absolutely zero manmade support devices.  From the initial entrance chamber, we slithered our way deeper into the darkness.  Two hours of climbing and crawling ensued, occassionally taking us through openings that we swore we'd never fit through.  We were sweaty, we were muddy and we were happy!  Everybody was in good spirits as we made the trek back down the mountain to the 4x4.  Traditionally after the activity, the tour proceeds to a natural hot springs, where all the spelunkers enjoy the spa-like conditions while feasting on pizza and beer (also included in the cost of the tour).  Sadly for us, the springs were closed on this particular day, leaving us with only the pizza and beer to be enjoyed back at Legends.

The following day I had intended to rest.  But how can one rest when there are so many beautifully accessible mountains to trek?  So I punched a few caches into the GPS, grabbed a fellow traveller and started for the rock.  Although my legs were a bit sore from the biking and caving, the two of us managed to spend six and a half hours trekking in the mountains, despite the best attempts of thorns, mossies, ticks and wasps to stop us.  We went straight through the bush for the first few hours, startling a serval and some rather aggresive baboons.  But soon we met up with a trail and the walk became decidedly more manageable.  We bagged two caches on the mountain, as well as the glorius summit that had been staring down at us all week.  Another evening at my favorite restaurant ensued, with tonight's meal even outdoing the previous dinner.  Drinking wine with the manager until well after closing time was the reward for yet another day of physically challenging adventure.

The next couple days were chill.  Darren had invited me to head into the mountains with him, as he organized the Swazi Extreme, a 72 hour adventure race in the local mountains and valleys.  He needed to set waypoints for the race that was to occur just two weeks later.  I was completely intruigued with the idea of helping establish orienteering waypoints for one of the coolest events on earth, but ultimately decided to pass on the offer.  Although I did not join Darren on this adventure, I could not express my respect enough for him and the incredibly cool activities his company offered.  

So instead of heading back into the mountains, I chose to chill.  I balanced exploring the local club scene with fellow backpackers with more adult conversations at the restaurant, sipping wine with the manager and chef.  It was a laid back couple of days, which was just what I wanted befor plunging back into South Africa.


From Maria on May 2nd, 2009

Wow Shawn!!