Saturday, 9 April 2011

Lesotho and Swaziland

Swaziland - What would it be like? What did I know of the place? Well, I knew it was a land locked country granted independence by Britain in 1968, it's one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world and has a horrific HIV/AIDS problem. The HIV infection rate in Swaziland is the highest in the world at about 26% of all adults,and over 50% of adults in their 20s. This has stopped possible economic and social progress, and is at a point where it endangers the existence of its society as a whole. Swaziland could become the first country in the world to actually collapse because of this an AIDS epidemic. Swaziland's HIV epidemic has reduced life expectancy to only 32 years as of 2009, which is the lowest in the world by six years. What else. Oh yeah, Richard E. Grant grew up here!

I went online to improve my Swazi-knowledge. I should have known better. I read this online! Swaziland also has one of the highest numbers of people struck by lightning per capita in the whole world and it is common to know (or know of) somebody who has been struck by lightning. Oh that's just great.

Swazi police - look British

I crossed my shadow today. Since I started this trip in Alaska last July I have never been anywhere where I've been before (that's the whole point of this trip after all) but today I crossed my shadow. Two years ago I led a sixth form school trip to South Africa/Mozambique and the road I went up today was the same one we came down then. I only mention this as I didn't have an altogether positive experience of South Africa on that trip. But now I'm having a much better time. Must be something to do with being alone on a motorbike rather than in a coach with twenty six 16-18 year old boys from my school and twenty four 16-18 year old girls from another school - and a driver who didn't know where he was going - and a back window smashed in my drunks near the border... Ah those were the days....

So Swaziland - First things first. The border. All in all it took less than 30 minutes to leave South Africa and enter Swaziland. No photocopies of anything needed, South Africa even refused to cancel my carnet (I didn't even show it to the Swaziland side). I assume it's because I'm going back in but it wasn't very clear so we shall see what happens. It was all so quick, hassle free and easy (£5 road tax was all I paid to enter) Those 3- 4 hour Central America crossings seem a long time ago now.

Swaziland is a small country, nothing is more than 150 km away so I wasn't in a rush and chose to stop at a small game reserve that Tom had told me about. Because there are no dangerous animals bikes are allowed in, there's a camp site and you can walk around. I turned up early afternoon, paid my £7 camp site fee and road through the reserve. Tom had told me that they had seen giraffes on the way down to the camp site and as I turned one corner....

Giraffe pretending to be a tree

Amazing. Obviously the noise of the bike scared them a little and just for a few moments I was riding along on my bike next to two galloping giraffes. It was quite magical. Giraffes are so big that when they run it almost looks like slow motion and riding along next to them even for a few moments was new motorbiking experience for me and something I shall never forget. I'm truly in Africa now.

I was the only person camping and had the whole reserve to myself that night. I went for a two hour walk (not going too close to the river as there are crocodiles apparently,) and although I didn't see any more zebra or giraffe I did see lots of impala and numerous colourful birds (including several toucans). When I got back to the camp site I had been joined.... by some vervet monkeys and a family of warthogs. What a great day. Incidentally, I saw the local paper today. There was a notice of someone who had died. Instead of saying “Dom Giles has passed away” It said “Going Home notice. We announce that Dom Giles is going home...” I like that.

Camping alone in Swaziland

Motorbike safari!

Next stop the Ezulwini Valley. Swaziland's capital (Mbabane) has no attractions at all but nearby is the Ezulwini Valley – Swaziland's royal heartland and tourist centre. Lush green hills, wooded game parks, the National parliament, football stadium and museum. Not to mention a brand new shopping mall and casino. This eclectic mix seems to sum up the country quite well. I stopped off at the national museum (I was the only visitor) and scrubbed up on my Swazi history and culture. Go on ask me something I bet I know?

In the museum I stumbled across this..

The beginning of abstract thinking?

Its a stone spear point dating back 75 – 80,000 years. The description says “ Many Archaeologists argue that these spear point demonstrate the earliest form of abstract thinking anywhere in the world. The points are so fine and beautifully made they could never be for hunting. They were made to be beautiful and this has symbolic value and meaning. But to have symbolism we must have language and abstract thinking. Therefore these points demonstrate abstract thinking.” Quite a find then for a small rarely visited museum.

I then headed for the Sondzela Backpackers Lodge which was going to be home for the night. It offered me a space to camp (for £5), wonderful views, a resident warthog family and the chance to walk through the Mlilwane wildlife sanctuary in which it was situated. I went for a walk and saw deer, zebra and warthogs. Swaziland will, for me, always be the land of motorbike and walking safaris. Something I didn't think I'd be able to do at all on this trip to Africa.

There's only four of us staying at Sondzela's. A South Koran who's been on the road for 22 months and has visited 80 countries. And an Italian/S. African couple who live in London. They told me that last night there was an enormous storm. Thunder and lightening and torrential rain. The South Korea guy, who is camping, moved indoors. Today he's put his tent away. As we spoke it started lightening outside. No rain or thunder just flashes of light across the sky. Very spooky. They certainly get interesting weather in these parts.

I've been looking around. As I've been travelling through Swaziland I've been looking at all the people. I don't think I've seen a single person who looks older than me. Maybe it's just because I know life expectancy is only 32 but it does seem that the population is very young.

The road out of Swaziland had some great views - apparently

Ah History. What would do without it eh? What's a holiday without a tour of a battlefield or a trip to a massacre site or a traipse around a war cemetery? There hasn't been enough history on thdomwayround and I'd decided to put this right. So on my way from Swaziland to Lesotho I was going to stop off at Dundee and visit some battlefields.

The Boer War or more correctly the Anglo-Boer wars. It all began in 1881 when the Boers beat the British and declared the South African Republic. (The Boers by the way are Afrikaan speaking descendent of the Dutch settlers. Boer means farmer in Dutch).

The British didn't think this was cricket and decided on a replay. War broke out in 1899 and by 1902 Britain had won. The British distinguished themselves by inventing concentration camps and over 26,000 Boer men women and children died of disease and starvation. I believe just over 7000 British and 7000 Boer soldiers actually died in the fighting.

Between these two Boer wars however the British had also been annoying the Zulus, or more importantly the Zulus had been annoying the British. Zululand is (very roughly) that part of South Africa between Swaziland and Lesotho. In 1879 the British Army fought the Zulus (who were presumably not supposed to be armed with anything more viscous than some Guava halves*). For more details watch the 1964 film Zulu staring Michael Caine. In the Battle of Rorke's Drift 139 British soldiers successfully defended a small mission station from around 4000 Zulu warriors. The much less commercially successful, Zulu Dawn (1979) recalls the Battle of Isandlwana where the British were annihilated by 25,000 Zulus.
Isandlwana - can you see the white cairns in the distance?

I detoured off the main road into Dundee to visit the site of the Isandlwana battle. The British (mainly the 2nd Warwickshire) were camped by the hill and ambushed (if you can be ambushed my 25,000 Zulu warriors!). As a battlefield site it was, in my experience, fairly unique and quite moving. Large white cairns had been placed on the spot where the British had died. It made a striking and evocative point and I was quite moved by it. I feel a little embarrassed to have joked about Guava halves now(which was a quote from Blackadder by the way)

I found these cairns quite moving

At the battle of Isandlwana, 1357 British soldiers died, around 1000 Zulus also perished. The Zulu Nation won the Battle but not the war and within 10 years the British Empire had annexed Zululand. Swaziland took heed of this and negotiated a peace with Britain which, I think, is the main reason Swaziland remained a country.

At the Isandlwana museum I found a list of all the British who had died in the battle. (We Brits. may not be good a winning things but we are bloody good at keeping score). Tracy will tell you I do this a lot and I don't really know why but I just had to look down the list to see if there were any Giles'. I know that Giles is only my fathers fathers fathers surname and over one hundred years ago I must have had eight surnames if you see what I mean. But I looked down the list and found one: Sergeant Edward Giles of the Ist Battalion, 24th Regiment of the 2nd Warwickshires.

I've always wondered why Lesotho wasn't part of South Africa, Now I know. In the late 19th Century the Boers and the Basotho (people of Lesotho) squabbled a lot and the King of Lesotho (Mosheshoe) asked Britain for protection. Strictly speaking he should first have asked the British administration at Cape Colony but he bypassed them for the imperial government in London. The British viewed continual war between the Orange Free state (Boers) and Basotholand (Losotho) as bad for their own interests and annexed the nation. One unexpected benefit of this was that, when the Union of South Africa was created in 1910, Basotholand was a British Protectorate and was not included; had Cape Colony retained control, Lesotho would have become part of South Africa. So, now you know too.

Heading to Lesotho I read this in the Lonely Planet. Several lives are lost each year from lightening strikes; keep off high ground during an electrical storm and avoid camping in the open.

How can you keep off high ground. The lowest point in the county I still above 1000 metres.

Approaching Lesotho I passed through some South African roadworks. The tar was wet and the bike got covered...

Would I find a jet wash in Lesotho?

The 100 miles from the border to the capital was lovely rolling hills, rural settlements but it was getting cloudy and dark up above. I won't bother going over old ground again. Needless to say it started raining as I got close to Maseru (capital of Lesotho) and then the lightening. I dived into the first car wash I could find.

These guys were over the moon to have the chance to wash a motorbike and boiled up a fresh pot of hot water and worked at scrubbing the tar off for around an hour, whilst the thunderstorm moved on.

I printed out the previous photo and gave it to the boss.

I spent two nights in Maseru, not especially because it required it. I don' think I've ever been to a capital city that has less to offer. The Lonely Planet has no suggested sites to see, the main centre comprising of one street which, as far as I could tell was home to shops celling mobile phones. Maseru's industry seems to be built on the notion that South Africans need a conference centre and the few hotels there were were set up as such (I stopped at one which was asking for £110 a night – I moved on)

The reason I had a whole day in Maseru was to catch up with an ex student. I had taught Lerato when I working in Ethiopia and through the power of facebook, email and mobile phones I'd just managed to get in touch with her the day before I arrived. It was wonderful to catch up with someone after 8 years of no news whatsoever. Lerato was born with spina bifida and has had more trials and tributations to deal with in her life than I can imagine. And yet she is a positive, enthusiastic and strong woman and a true inspiration.

I was in Maseru on the day Spurs played Real Madrid in the quarter final of the Champions League. I managed to find a room in the backpackers I was staying in that had a TV.

The result was Real Madrid 4 Spurs 0
Attendance: 3. Me a bucket and a mop

and I'm sure the mop and bucket were supporting Real.

I left Lesotho under a cloud

Graaff-Reinet. No not a disease but the next town on my way back to Cape Town. Set in the Great Karoo, a vast wilderness area of South Africa Graaff-Reinet is a throw back to Dutch/Boer days and the architecture is very colonial. All the white people in town talk Afrikaans and the town's main church is a Dutch Reform church. The only other interesting thing about the place was that I found it quite hard to find somewhere to stay. There were 6000 Methodist Nuns in town and all the cheap hostels had been booked up! Thinking my chances of pulling that night were lower than usual I turned in for an early night.

In the morning I caught up with two motorbikes on the lonely road through the Karoo. Neil and Di are from the UK but have a house in South Africa and had hired bikes for a week. It was great to ride along for the day with other bikers – I realised that although I'd met a couple of bikers I hadn't actually ridden with anyone since Tracy and I entered Honduras with Chris and Alan in December.

Getting closer to Cape Town I stopped at Oudtshoorn, the Ostrich capital of the world. I arrived on a Friday afternoon just in time to coincide with some sort of street festival. I later found out it was the 16th annual Afrikaans festival. Celebrating all things Afrikaans. Now I must admit at first that filled me with some dread. I expected a sort of neo-Nazi parade of the AWB and a town full of fat men with long white beards. Actually I was quite shocked at how racist I was being. I walked thorough town and sure enough there were lots of white people about and they were ALL speaking in Afrikaans but I had no reason to believe they were any more or less racist than anyone else. I guess my opinion of Afrikaans has been solely formed by living through the 1980s. Every time white South Africans appeared on TV it was something to do with apartheid. (I'm also in the middle of reading Nelson Mandela's Autobiography.)

But the real reason I'd come to Oudtshoorn was for this...

The Swarzberg pass. 24 km long and up to 1600 m. Not as hard as the Sani pass and perhaps not quite as spectacular but still an excellent saturday morning ride out.

Right, that's it for this week. It's taken over 2 hours to load this, and as I move towards Namibia I assume wi-fi will become less and less common and I'll be able to load a blog but with fewer pictures.


  1. Thanks Dom, I enjoyed this post immensely. Thanks for not labeling all of us Afrikaners as racist, as you expected in Oudtshoorn. Most of us are just like everybody else. I have the same hobbies as you- just an Aprilia in stead of a BMW. I actually grew up 60 km from Isandlwana.

    So there you know- one of your readers is a nonracist Afrikaner from South Africa. Enjoy your trip! (We do have some of the nicest biking routes in the world, dont we?) Route 62, Chapman's Peak, the Transvaal Lowlands...

  2. Thanks Ekke. I do hope I explained myself properly and it was ME who was stereotyping people based on my own upbringing and bias. I have experienced nothing but kindness and help from everyone I've met in South Africa. And some of the roads are certainly excellent. You didn't mention the Swartzberg pass. Second onyl to teh Sani Pass.
    I'm going to miss South Africa...

  3. Nah- all cool! I hope you had a good stay in South Africa! Enjoy the ride further on through Africa, I will be following your blog. Just maybe not in June- then I am on the Camino in Spain!