Crossing into Swaziland was easy, but a police officer at the border stopped me before I had officially crossed the gate and entered the country.
“What do you have in your bags?” he asked me.
To which I replied, “Clothes, camping gear, food. Nothing important.” I didn’t want to let him know I was carrying a laptop computer, two expensive cameras, an external hard drive and a whole host of similar high-tech equipment.
“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” the officer then asked.
“I’m not exactly sure,” I told him. “Do you have a recommendation?”
He went on to explain that I should cycle about 20 kilometers down the road, turn left and then inquire at the local police station. I told him I would do exactly that, even though I had no intention of doing such a thing.
The man finally lifted the gate for me at this point… and I rolled my bicycle onto the dirt road in front of me. I looked up and saw nothing but dirt. I was in Swaziland!
The sun was setting already setting by the time I entered the country. I needed to find a place to camp for the night, and I needed to do it quickly. But I didn’t want to camp too close to the border. That’s always a big no-no. So I cycled about 10 kilometers down the road, cycled up a small hill, descended into a small, yet crowded valley, and then began looking for a place to sleep.
Like Lesotho, there were people almost everywhere in Swaziland… and this made finding a private place to camp for the evening extremely difficult. Where there were not people, there were cows, barbed wire fences to keep the cows inside, or people tending to their cows.
During my first two hours in Lesotho, the sun set quickly and I made my way through several small villages. I stopped and spoke with the locals and took photos of some of the street kids.
Just before nightfall, I saw a path leading through the bushes to my left. There were houses and people on the hillside to my right, but the land on the left side of the road looked like it was seldom traversed by the locals. When no one was looking, I pushed my bicycle off the road and made my way through the thorny bushes on my left-hand side.
Now out of sight from the road, I wandered around for a short while looking for a place to pitch my tent. I settled on a spot deep in the underbrush. There were thorn bushes everywhere and I scratched myself repeatedly while erecting my camp for the evening.
As soon as my tent was pitched, I climbed inside and the sky fell dark.
I was woken early the next morning by the sounds of the local villagers. They were up and wandering around just as soon as the sun came up. I, however, was a little slower to get out of bed.
Not wanting to be discovered, however, I soon rolled out of my tent and began packing up. When my bike was loaded, I listened for footsteps in the area and when things seemed clear, I walked my bike back through the thorn bushes and onto the main road. I was spotted by a young man on my left as I emerged from the bushes, but by that time it was too late. I was on my bicycle in no time and cycling down the road, heading north and not knowing when, or if ever, this dirt road would end.
Cycling on this bumpy, rocky and sometimes sand-covered dirt road was not easy. I was going extremely slow, sometimes even having to get off the bike and push because I couldn’t cycle through the soft sand.
Even though it seemed as though I was out in the middle of nowhere much of the time, there always seemed to be someone walking up or down the road with me. Every bend in the road seemed to produce another person. I wondered to myself multiple times while cycling through Swaziland where they were all coming from.
After passing through a small village where 50 or so people were simply sitting around and doing nothing, I was followed by a small group of boys. Running after me with no shoes on their feet, the young men eventually caught up to me and asked about my travels. Some of the boys asked me for food at this point, but I told them I didn’t have anything to give. Still, the boys chased after me on my bicycle.
One of the boys quit running after a while. Then another. Soon there were only two barefoot runners left. They ran fast, stepping on large rocks and shards of glass as though they couldn’t feel a thing. I felt bad for the boys, but knew that I could do nothing in the moment. I just wanted them to stop chasing me. “I have to go,” I told them. “You better go back home.”
I picked up the pace and in a few seconds they were gone.
The dirt road I was riding on was long and confusing. At multiple points throughout that second day I would come across a fork in the road and not know exactly which way I should go. There were no road signs and asking the locals for directions proved pointless. They’d ask me which village I was going to. I didn’t know the names of any of the villages, so I didn’t know what to say. But in the end I chose the correct paths. I simply headed north whenever the road split in two. This was sometimes more difficult than you might think.
At one point during the day I saw three young boys emerge from the bushes on the left-hand side of the road. They had obviously spotted me coming and they ran to the roadside to get a better look at me.
As I approached, I planned on stopping to talk to the young men, but as I drew nearer I saw that one of the boys had a massive machette-like knife in his hand. The thing was 16+ inches long and gnarly as hell.
Instead of stopping, I pedaled faster. I moved away from the young boys, picked up the pace and dashed down the road.
I knew that the young boys were probably just carrying the knife to cut their way through the thorny bushes that are all around the country. Or maybe to kill snakes? But I’ve heard of travelers (and even other bicycle tourists) in Africa being hit in the arms and legs by people carrying machettes in Africa, and I did not want to become the victim of another story like this. My rule is this: if you are carrying a gun or knife, I don’t go anywhere near you (although I do sometimes break this rule – I try not to).
So I dashed away from the three young boys, but as soon as I cycled past, they started chasing after me!
The started chasing after me… and they started yelling, “Give me money! Give me sweets!”
I sprinted up the road to a point where I was far out of their reach, slammed on the brakes, turned around, and quickly took the boys’ photo. See below. The boy on the left in carrying the knife that I was so afraid of. After snapping this picture, I returned to the bike and sprinted as quickly as I could down a nearby hill, across a small river, and then up the embankment on the other side.
These boys were just one of many people in Swaziland that I encountered on the road carrying large machetes and sometimes even bigger weapons/tools.
It was a long, but relatively enjoyable day on the bike, but I was getting extremely dirty.
At some of the river crossings in Swaziland I would look to my left or my right and see small groups of boys and med washing themselves clean in the river water. They’d just be standing there though, completely naked, not caring at all if the other men near them, people on the road, or even I saw their private parts. I saw more penis in Swaziland than I have seen in any other country. But strangely, I didn’t see even a single naked woman. “Maybe the women shower in private?” I thought to myself.
It was a long, slow day on that dirt road in Swaziland. And I’d stop frequently to stop to the locals who wanted to know where I was from, where I was going and where I was sleeping at night.
While I was never truly alone, because there seemed to be people everywhere, I was able to get a little bit of privacy on the road at times. This was something I had been unable to do in Lesotho, and it made my time in Swaziland much more enjoyable.
That long, dirt road in Swaziland was fun for the first 50 kilometers or so. But after that I began to get kind of sick of it. My bike was handling the road just fine, but the progress I was making was so incredibly slow. The road was washboard and sandy. There were cars and trucks passing all the time that blew dirt and sand into my face and eyes.
Trucks hauling cattle emitted a terrible smelling heat. A heat so awful it nearly knocked me unconscious on a few occasions.
The truck in the photo below was going so slowly that I was able to pass it on my bicycle. The boys riding on the back had a grand old time looking at me as I cycled past.
I hadn’t showered now in more than three days. My skin consisted of several lays of sweat, sunscreen, dead skin cells and dirt.
On one particularly bumpy stretch of road I campe across a large bus that had obviously broken down. All of the bus’ passengers were spread out on the roadside and no one seemed to be doing much of anything. Maybe they were just waiting for another bus to come and save them?
When I pulled up on my bicycle, everyone in the area stopped what they were doing and starred. A man with shaggy hair approached me and said something. I couldn’t understand him and I told him so.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you.”
This got a big laugh from everyone in the crowd.
The man continued talking to me, but I had no idea what he was saying. It seemed, however, that I was the brunt of some kind of joke. So instead of sticking around much longer, I just jumped back on my bicycle and continued on my way.
The people starred at me as I continued down the road and I thought to myself, “I’ll probably get to my destination before you do. At least my bicycle is working – unlike your bus.”
A few kilometers down the road, I spotted an opening in the bushes to my left and even though I could have easily cycled for another two hours or so before it got dark, I thought that I had better take the opportunity to camp right now. I might not get another opportunity like this further down the road.
So when no one was around, I pushed my bicycle off the road and into a thick maze of bushes on the left-hand side of the street. Several hundred meters back in the thorn bushes, I found a flat piece of ground on which to pitch my tent, and this is where I spent my second night in the country.
In the morning, I was woken by the sound of people in the area. Before they got too close, I went to the restroom on a nearby tree, packed up my bicycle and returned to the dirt road. According to my map, I probably had no more than 15 kilometers in front of me before I would hit the main highway leading into Swaziland’s capital city of Manzini. Surely this road to the capital would be paved!
But the last 15 kilometers on this bumpy dirt road were far from easy. They may have been the longest 15 km I have ever ridden.
At one point, I pulled to the right side of the road, hoping to take a food break in the shade of a nearby tree. As I moved to the right side of the road, I hit a large patch of sand and the front wheel of my bicycle took a sharp turn to the left. I could feel myself falling, but for whatever reason, I was unable to get my left foot out of the clips on my pedal. My entire body slammed to the ground on my left-hand side and my entire body was instantly covered in sand and painful little pebbles. When I stood up to clean myself off, I realized that I had cut open my knee rather badly. I had blood dripping from my knee to my ankle, but I didn’t have any extra water on me to clean the wound. I needed every drop of water in my water bottles to drink. I was extremely dehydrated and my goal from here on out was to simply find some water.
At the next little village I encountered, I went inside a tiny roadside market and asked whether they would accept South Africa Rand, instead of the local Swaziland money. I hadn’t seen an ATM machine or a bank since entering Swaziland, so I didn’t have any of the local currency.
The young girl behind the counter (probably no older than 14) said “No.” They did not accept South African Rand.
“Do you have any water that I could have?” I asked. “I really just need some water.”
Without saying a word, the woman walked to the other end of the store and then bent down behind the counter so I couldn’t see her. A moment later, she emerged again, holding a small cup (the size of a large tea cup) filled with water she had pulled from a basin.
It appeared as though she expected me to drink directly from the cut. Maybe that is how she and the rest of the people (her family) working in the market drank their water.
Instead, however, I told her I would be right back. I ran outside to my bicycle and grabbed two of the water bottles off my bicycle, then ran back inside.
I handed the girl my two water bottles and without saying a word, she quickly went about filling up my bottles.
The young girl had saved my day… but as you will discover in an upcoming blog post about my stay in Malalane, South Africa… this water may have come back to haunt me.
No longer fearful of dying of dehydration, I returned to my bike for the last few kilometers of dirt road cycling.
On a short, but steep downhill, I let the bicycle coast at high speed while a large commercial truck passed me on my right. The truck kicked up all kinds of dirt and as I passed through its cloud, I closed my eyes and ducked my head, doing my best to keep the flying particles out of my eyes. I wasn’t really watching where I was going.
It was at this moment, flying downhill at high speed with my head tucked and my eyes practically closed, that I hit a large patch of sand. In an instant, the bicycle came to a complete stop. I was lifted off the bike, flew over the handlebars, did a complete 360 degree flip in the air and amazingly, unbelievably, landed on my feet, but running downhill at full speed, almost falling on my face.
When I had recovered, I looked back at my bicycle laying in the sand behind me. The back of the bicycle had lifted itself almost entirely over the front, then landed on its right side. I had scratched the material on the top of my handlebar bag and twisted the bar end shifters on the bicycle’s left side, but other than that, the bicycle was fine. I too was okay. I don’t know how I did it, but I had done a total front flip and landed on my feet. If only I had had the accident on video. I’d have a million views on YouTube by now for sure!
Taking it rather slow after that, I finally crossed a long concrete bridged and then rolled onto the pavement in the tiny town of Siphofaneni. The photo below shows where the dirt road ended and the paved road began. When I hit the paved road, I felt wonderful!!!
After stocking up on food and water in Siphofaneni, I continued north. I cycled up the MR8 toward Manzini, turned right on the MR3 (which was a very busy highway with no shoulder in several parts), and then turned left on the quiet MR5.
About 15 kilometers down the MR5, I found an open spot that looked ideal for camping. When no one was looking, I pedaled my bicycle through a small gate and into an area where cattle were obviously tended.
I pitched my tent in an area surrounded by trees and thorn bushes and climbed inside just as soon as it began to rain.
When I woke the next morning, the wind and rain had passed, but the sky was dark and overcast. It looked like it might rain at any moment, but I wanted to press on. I knew that if I cycled hard, I could easily be out of the country by the end of the day.
While I was enjoying Swaziland much more than I had enjoyed my time in Lesotho, I still felt a extreme lack of privacy. Privacy, as I would learn from my experiences in these two countries, is something I value quiet a lot – probably more than most other people.
The people in Swaziland were nice and friendly and mostly just curious. Some of them had asked me for money or saw me as nothing more than a white man with money, but they approached in a much more down to earth way when they did approach me for cash. They weren’t nearly as threatening as the people I had encountered in Lesotho.
Even so, I wanted to return to South Africa. I was tired of answering the same few questions about my bicycle touring adventures and I was mentally done with my bicycle tour in South Africa. Once I reached Kruger National Park (which I would reach by the end of this day), my bike tour would be officially over. This day in Swaziland would be my last official day of bicycle touring in southern Africa.
But before I could hit the road, I had to patch my bicycle’s front tire. I had a flat! I had run over a giant thorn.
At the end of the MR5 I turned left and filled up my panniers with food and drink at a local supermarket where I snapped this photo of these two boys playing pool. Pool is a popular game in South Africa (and apparently in Swaziland too). I have seen pool tables all over southern Africa. Many of them outdoors and in terrible condition.
Further up the road I stopped to make an adjustment to my bicycle’s left pedal. While doing so, the boy in the photo below came over to me and watched. He didn’t say a thing until I spoke to him… and even then it was difficult to get him to say very much.
When I stopped to take a photo of a goat, the woman in the photo below called out to me from a distance, “Why are you taking a picture of that goat?”
It was a good question. A question I wasn’t sure how to answer.
“Just to document my travels,” I told her. That seemed to satisfy her.
After taking a picture of the goat, I took this picture of her… and her shoes (which were made from the fur of a springbok).
Further down the road I saw this middle-aged man carrying a heavy pile of wood on the back of his bicycle. He smiled as I snapped his photo.
Later, these two young women called out to me as I cycled past. The girl on the right did a little dance that I failed to catch on my camera. It was a really beautiful moment… and I missed it. Like so many of the experiences I had in Swaziland, South Africa and Lesotho, the experience was captured not on film, but only in my head.
No more than 10 kilometers before exiting Swaziland, I snapped this photo of these three women walking toward me in the shoulder of the road.
After taking their photo, the women approached and asked for money.
“What can you give us?” the woman in the blue shirt said.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” I told the women, “But I can tell your story when I get home.”
I’m not sure if they understood what I was saying, but that seemed to make them stop their requests for Swazi cash.
Five kilometers before the border I met this group of barefoot boys. They said they were going to go play soccer somewhere nearby. None of them were wearing shoes and their legs were filthy with dark red dirt.
Three kilometers before the border, the road fell away completely and I had to carry my bicycle over a small creek that had washed away the road. Motor vehicles were being sent several kilometers around the obstacle, but because I was on a bicycle, I was able to simply leap over the small stream that was now running through the middle of the road.
At the border I had to wait in a short line to have my passport stamped. Once it was stamped by a large 300+ pound woman, she handed my passport back to me and asked for my vehicles license plate number.
“I’m on a bicycle,” I told her… even though I thought that would be obvious seeing as I was wearing a bicycle helmet, a bicycle jersey, and my bicycle was in view in the distance behind me.
“Okay,” she said… and then pointed me out the door.
I returned to my bike, grabbed it by the handlebars and then pushed it past the gate. My time in Swaziland was over… and I was back in South Africa!
It was another 30-40 kilometers from Swaziland to the city of Malelane, where I hoped to spend the evening. So even though it was already well past 2 PM and it looked like it might rain at any moment, I continued on with the goal of making it to Malelane by nightfall.
The first ten kilometers were flat and easy, but the last 30 km seemed to stretch on forever. There were some small hills to climb, I was extremely tired, and the wind was beginning to blow. I was sure that every turn in the road was the last, but each new bend produced another turn. The mountains never seemed to end and the traffic was increasing.
Finally, I hit the highway, turned left and sprinted into Malelane. I had made it! I was at the southern-most entrance to Kruger National Park. I had successfully cycled through Swaziland and my bicycle tour in South Africa was officially over.