Back on the road the following morning, and more rain as we headed for Swaziland and our second attempt at a border crossing. There was some apprehension as to how our amended visas would go, but it was all smoothe sailing, we were through and we had successfully negotiated our first border crossing. The kingdom of Swaziland is another small country landlocked by South Africa and not dissimilar from Lesotho I imagined. In fact other than that I knew very little about the place. It has a few game reserves of note some nice scenic walks that were our target areas of interest and 1 real city, if you could even call it that. We arrived late afternoon and it was again raining. We had planned on staying at the Milwane game reserve in the Ezulwini region, but the one access road had been chopped up by the rain and we wondered whether we would need to change our plan. Part way along the road we pulled aside as a small congregation of people and cars had gathered near a causeway. We hopped out to take a better look and discovered it was not the causeway that was causing the issue but the mud hill immediately before it. A bunch of locals had gathered for a bit of afternoon entertainment to watch vehicles try and tackle the steep mud track, we figured this was exciting as things got in Swaziland. The immediate car had failed miserably and was being towed up the hill by a tractor, but the tractor driver had shared enough good will and the next car just sat there spinning it wheels and digging itself in. To the rescue came handfuls of local kids, no doubt eyeing this as a potential revenue raising opportunity. They clambered all around the vehicle, I wouldn't have been surprised if a couple were trampled into the mud and never seen again, but they managed to push the car clear before mobbing the driver for some change for their troubles. As interesting as it was to sit and watch the locals attack the hill in their 2wd's, we knew needed to move on. We threw Kal in low-range and slid down the hill with ease.
We arrived at the park to hear it had been closed to protect the roads, another stroke of luck, but fortunately the backpacker accommodation on the edge of the park remained open, we just had to return the way we came and approach the hostel from a different direction instead of through the park. But was it worth hanging round, if the park we were there to see was going to be closed? We figured we had nowhere else to go, we were sick of driving and so opted to stick with it. We returned along the boggy track to find the cars still queued up to tackle the hill. The kids had lost interest and the road had gotten worse but Kal was no average vehicle and we had little choice but to give it a go anyway. Again we engaged low-range, gave ourselves a run-up and ploughed straight on. Mud flew everywhere, but we were through. We found our hostel, which seemed nice enough and after the biggest local feed we could imagine we hit the hay and hoped for some better weather.
We finally awoke to blue skies, and the park was open again so we figured a self-guided safari walk was on the cards. It was extremely steamy after all the rains but the animals were out in force and it was highly enjoyable to wander through the boggy paddocks (that is essentially what they were) and to see the zebra, antelope and warthogs frolicking about. They seemed to be enjoying the change in weather as much as we were. There was plenty of wild animals to see, but we were hunting hippos and so headed to the rest camp where they supposedly frequented daily. I say supposedly because on this day they eluded us, although we were fortunate enough to see some crocodiles and tortoises close up thanks to a few local feeders. We had plans for the afternoon and so returned to camp over the swollen creeks and dilapidated bridges.
Through discussions with some US peace corp locals who had holed up at our hostel for a few days, we had discovered that by chance, today was the beginning of the major traditional festival of the Swazi people, Incwala. They, and in turn us knew little of the detail of the festival except that it had to do with the first fruits of the season, and was aligned with the moon phases somehow. The festival would begin today when the warriors returned from their annual journey on foot to collect water from the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. What this symbolised we did not know, but our Peace Corp friends were aware that anyone could attend the festival as long as they adhered to the dress code, that being basically anything you wanted to wear as a male, but as a female a skirt our sarong was the only attire considered non-offensive to the king. We drove up to the gates of the presidential palace, and the guards seemed a little confused as to why a car load of white folk were attending, but after checking what the girls were wearing they told us to return in an hour as things hadn't got going yet. We returned in time and were scrutinised once more before being passed through. Most of the locals were on foot and dressed in traditional Swazi costume, covered in animal skins, mainly leopard and goatand holding traditional spears and shields not dissimilar to that of the Zulus. Of course being the 21st century the traditional get up would not be complete without a mobile phone tucked in their pelts, something I could not get over no matter how many times I saw it. We had been informed cameras were a no no in the presidential grounds, but they seemed unphased at me taking a few shots outside the main arena and a couple of the locals were happy to pose for a photo. A large round krall had been erected in the grounds and consisted of thousands of vertical sticks that created a circular wall perhaps 15ft high. There were 3 main entrances, one for males, one for females on the opposite side and adjacent was the royal entrance. Us guys were split from the girls and in typically African style asked to go through the security check. One by one we followed the locals with their spears and knives through the solitary metal detector, which stood in the middle of a paddock adjacent the krall, and of course it wasnt plugged in. Like many times in Africa I found myself asking "what was the point", I don't even think anyone was watching. Moving on, we had survived the security check, just like the guy with the handgun tucked in his traditional skins, and proceeded to the arena. At the mens entrance, just inside the gate several dozen cattle had been herded that would take part in the ceremony. As we traipsed through the calve deep (no pun intended) cattle s*** and mud in our bare feet we were not prepared for what we were about to join. Perhaps 100m diameter, all the men in their traditional attire rimmed half the circular krall, 10 men deep in places. The men chanted and danced on the spot at the opposing groups of females, the queen mother (after the king the most important person in Swaziland- as the one who gave birth to him) in the middle flanked by her guards, the kings dozen wives to her left and the Swazi princesses to her right. Further to the right rows of womens danced and slowly walked forward to the men before returning and allowing the next wave forward. Whilst the bulls with their big horns unsettlingly roamed around trapped between back of the men and the stick wall, both us guys and the girls were encouraged to join in the festivities, this was not a tourist show, we either participate or leave. As if we did not stick out enough in our civilian clothes, we were the only white people there and did not understand the songs or know the dances. Although most were a little baffled by our attendance, we were made to feel very welcome without taking the focus of the actual event. The occasional person explained in broken "swa-nglish" the significance of certain dances and stepped us through the moves. We were welcomed by some important looking figures as they walked past, and were later told they were important ministers, members of the royal family and a couple of the kings brothers. We were all blown away, this was a real traditional African ceremony, not some show put on for the tourists, and yet somehow we were immersed in the whole thing. Its hard to explain how we felt, it was a pretty special thing to be a part of, totally surreal and possibly the biggest cultural highlight of my travels throughout the past few years. The ceremony continued, with same half a dozen dances and chants repeating over and over. This continued on for hours, but we were part of it all, rubbing shoulders with the Swazi royal family and being immersed in their culture, it truly was a incredible moment for the 6 of us. On dusk, the King arrived, he was situated on the far side close to the girls and Karen and Susie got a good look. Tradition states that once the King enters the arena on the new moon he must stay there as a warrior and without contact with women or the outside world until the full moon arrives. During this time, he will interact with the warriors as one of them, participating in daily ceremonies until the final Incwala in 2 weeks time. As darkness encroached, all but the warriors were ushered from the arena and although the dancing and chanting continued outside in a circular pattern around where the king sat inside, our involvement was over. The girls farewelled their new found royal friends and we headed back to the hostel to wash our stinking feet.
The next day and unfortunately it was time to move on, we had barely been in Swaziland for 2 days but what we had encountered were an extremely welcoming and friendly group of people. We had loved our time in this little place, and would thoroughly recommend it if ever out this way, and especially during Incwala.
The long drive back to South Africa through endless logging territory, we were heading for Nelspruit to re-stock and prepare ourselves for Kruger and eventually Mozambique. This was going to be our last piece of decent civilisation for some time, or so we thought.