The Royal Kingdom of Swaziland (Dec 8-10)
We left Dundee in the same weather as we'd entered it, in the rain and headed for the border into Swaziland at Mahamba. As we approached the border I was a little bit nervous, Kaz and Dave were sorted now but would there be any issues on the Swazi side with the vehicle, thankfully as it turned out everything went very smoothly. Paul had to pay 50 rand in road tax which was the only formality for Kal, they weren't really interested in the Carnet de Passage. We drove along one of the recommended 'scenic' routes to Mlilwane where we'd be spending the night but with the weather as it was we couldn't really see more than a couple meters past the edges of the roads so on this day at least we were not going to get too see much of the landscape. As we took the turn off to the Mlilwane Nature Reserve the road turned into dirt (up until this point the roads had been excellent tar), a better description might be very red mud! We had to stop just after the turn off as a truck had gotten stuck coming back to the main road on the climb and was being slowly dragged up the muddy slope by a tractor. This was pretty much complete as we got out of the car to have a look but a red Astra was about to have a go and was cheered on by the local kids! It made a valiant attempt but started to slip and slide as it neared the top, for a couple of rand the local kids got behind and helped push the car the last couple of meters.. We hadn't really done anything like this in the packed up defender, would it do well? Paul started Kal up and we headed towards the down hill section, all went well though with just a slight slip as we hit the thickest mud patch - would it be a different story on the way back up, only time would tell!! After that the road to the entrance to the park didn't seem too bad but when we got to park reception they weren't letting anyone in as the river had risen too high, thankfully we were told there was a different approach to Sondezela but it would mean attacking the muddy hill again today!! When we got to the hill there was a queue of cars waiting to give it a go - there was an old banger giving it a go so we stopped to watch, it wasn't getting anywhere just making the road worse. After it's 3rd attempt we thought we'd try to skip the queue, the cars in front were not 4-wheel drives. As we drove to the bottom the drivers smiled at us with envy, one joked that he'd need our help, maybe it wasn't a joke but with the rain and our fully packed Kal we didn't think we'd be much use. As the other car backed to the bottum again after only making it half way we took our chance, Paul enagaged low gears and the front and rear diff locks, were at the ready and off we went - no worries Kal moved up the hill as though we were on tar although we got a rather nice red mud coating for our efforts!! We made it to Sondezela, at first look we weren't quite as impressed as we'd hoped to be, there was one double room in the main building which we played rock, sissor, paper for, Kaz beat Paul so they got the inside room - with the rain still pouring this would mean the toilets and showers weren't a soggy walk away. Paul and I had a small rondeval which was very nice although only had a sink, they looked like they were set up to have bathrooms but maybe the money hadn't quite stretched far enough! That evening we couldn't be bothered cooking ourselves so signed up for the dinner. Dinner was outside in a large shed, everything had been cooked in camp ovens on a huge open fire - it would be filling meal! On the menu the veggie option had been 'beans' - what would it be?? It ended up being a bean stew which was very nice. The cooks served it up with mealie rice which was good but after she lumped a huge spoon on my plate I tried to take my plate away but she was having none of it I had to have another spoon - Kaz said my face was a picture!! Managed to eat most of it but I think we all had left over mealie rice!! That evening we met two US Government Peace Core Volunteers, Ian and Virginia. Virginia was a volunteer in Swaziland and Ian in Mozambique, they had some great insights for us about traveling and the local cultures. These guys were amazing, they had given up all of there home comforts and were living and working with the locals helping educate the communities - it sounded amazing but a very challenging commitment! They were on a short break, normally they live in the communities miles away from other volunteers so the backpackers was a welcome luxury, running water, toilets etc!! Virginia being the 'Swazi' local let us know they were going to go to the Incwala Ceremony the following afternoon. I'd read about this in the Swaziland brochure but didn't think we'd be lucky enough to catch it, it happens some time in Dec/Jan every year but the exact date changes based on astrologers and phases of the moon each year. The ceremony lasts for about 3 weeks so we'd just catch the start of it but I was looking forward to it already!! Quoting the Swaziland brochure "The Incwala, or first fruits ceremony, in which the King plays a dominant role, is the most sacred of all the Swazi rituals". It would be a good day tomorrow! We finished up the night with some beers and a couple of games of ping pong and pool. The following morning the sun was out and we decided to go for a walk in the national park before heading to the Incwala later that afternoon. It was great to get out of the car and into the country side, not long after we started we saw Blesbok and then lots of Zebra, a bit further on we were able to get very close to some warthogs with three young and some Nyala, click, click, click went my camera. We then headed up to the rest camp run by the park which was supposed to have a hippo pool near by, we never quite found it but saw some small crocodiles and bigger terrapins in the water next to the restaurant. We then headed back for some lunch and to meet up with Ian and Virginia as we were to try to squish them into Kal for the journey to the Kings local residence. I'm not sure what I expected, but did think we'd be just watching, not taking part and hadn't realized we'd be split up from the boys. I think Kaz and I were very happy that we were with Virginia who could speak some of the local language but it was not long before we were taken under the wing of a local lady. Everyone was extrememly friendly. We entered a huge cattle kraal from the opposite end to the boys but not before we'd been through a security gate which was interesting, it was in a middle of a field and you could see that the thing wasn't plugged in! Shoes off before we entered the royal kraal, I'm not that good on my bare feet but I was glad to see there was lots of grass inside but not so happy to see all of the cow dung!! As we entered the ceremony was already under way and the Queen Mother (really the Kings mother but the most powerful women in Swaziland - she had ruled before the King reached the age of 18) was already taking part in the dance - for us we were told that no one gets to watch everyone has to dance! All of the women had sticks which we were told they brought from home and were of significance, the dancing involved standing in rows moving these sticks up and down so to begin with we felt even more out of place in that we were just moving our hands up and down with nothing in them! It was not long though before we were approached by two women who told us they were from Swazilands tourist info and were here to help us and make sure we knew what was going on - one of these ladies (a daughter of one of the late Kings son's - we were surrounded by royalty) went and found a small boy who sold us a stick for 1 rand each - now it would only be our white white skin and our lack of rhythm that would make us stick out!! As we danced away at the other end of the kraal were all of the men, everyone but Paul, Dave and Ian in warrior outfits with spears and shields - anyone with a red feather in there hair you know was part of the royal family! The men would chant back to the women's song, still have no idea exactly what was going on when we asked they just said it was tradition. Then we had to move towards the men each row of women moving forward at a different time, left, right left pause stick up then down then again, I don't think I got the chance to see the warriors up close because I was busy concentrating on staying in time and avoiding the big cow pats!! As we passed the other women they were very friendly always smiling and commenting on how well we were doing!! At the back of the men we caught glimpses of the boys who after wards told us they handn't been looked after quite as well but had repeated requests that they must keep dancing, no watching allowed - the men didn't seem to have quite such a formation dance so I guess it would have been harder and they were standing in deep cow poo and pee, I was very glad we were stationed at the grassy end! It's very hard to describe the full experience especially since we were not allowed to take any photo's but it was amazing and after the initial feeling of being very different everyone was friendly enough and wanted to share there culture that we were quite relaxed by the end. Since it was the start of the ceremony the King didn't play much of a roll although we did see him come into the back of the kraal behind us and go into a smaller more sacred kraal - the women pointed him out but couldn't point and to this day the women still have no idea of what goes on in this little kraal!! It was an amazing day, the high light of the trip so far and the rain had stayed off! Our time in Swaziland was nearly over the next morning we'd head towards Nelspruit, but we we'd fallen in love with Swaziland, anyone thinking of a visit should definitely follow through, if we get the chance in the future we will definitely be back! Next morning we hit the local fruit and veggie market where we picked up lots of lichi's, mango's, a pinapple, carrots, onions, tomato's, some mealie's I can't remember the rest but we were packed up and it was all delicious!! We then headed on another scenic drive heading for the Bulembu gate in the north west of the country, the countryside was beautiful if a bit over cultivated in places but I guess if you've only got a small country and need to feed your people that's what happens to any good land!