As we drove out of Kruger National Park, my wife had one thing on her mind and I had another. The sun was precipitously dropping over the rolling green hills and Heidi’s concern was where we would stay the night. My mind was pre-occupied by a sense of excitement that we were about to cross another international border and would soon be in Swaziland. Shelter? Eh, we’ll find something.
The border post came upon us suddenly—a modest barricade with an office to stamp out of South Africa adjacent to it. The formalities took mere moments and after presenting a just-obtained gate pass to a group of officers standing around chatting, we drove into a brief stretch of no-man’s land between the two nations. We came upon another gate and a small concrete building on the right. Inside, we were stamped into Swaziland, paid a 50 ZAR (~$5) highway tax, and were on our way again.
South Africa has areas of extreme poverty, but crossing into Swaziland felt like crossing into another world. The temperature was cool and masses huddled up on the other side of the border, trying to enter South Africa before the 8pm border closing. A roadside market offered fresh produce but beyond that came farmland and very modest housing structures, many without doors or windows.
The roads were paved—somewhat—but pot holes were frequent and sometimes unavoidable. As the sun finally set, rain began to fall…just a drizzle…and suddenly the most beautiful lighting storm I have ever witnessed began. Streaks of lighting pummeled the sky every 30-40 seconds, intense and bright, sometimes horizontally, lighting the dark sky as if it was day. But there was no sound of thunder.
Speaking of lightning storms, Heidi was not at all happy—it was now dark, we were in a strange country with bad roads and no place to stay, and she was hungry and tired.
It was 90-minutes to Mbabane, the administrative capital, and I figured we would find lodging there. We passed several casinos on the way – that seems to be a fledgling industry – but they all looked dodgy or too far off the road.
The highway is one series of steep hills followed by sharp declines followed by steep hills. Traffic was thankfully very light, so though only two-lane roads, we never got stuck behind a slow-moving truck.
We drove and drove, up a hill and down, and as we neared the capital we came to a small city with a nice-looking inn. We pulled over and I ran inside to check on availability. Written on chalk on the wall was a price list, with double rooms going for 400 Rands but there was no one at the front desk. I peered into a nearby bar where a couple Pakistanis in religious attire were smoking and drinking (fruit juice, of course). I waited a few more moments than returned to the car and began driving again…the capital was now only 45km away.
The roads truly were empty and as we neared the capital, we entered a six-lane highway that was brightly lit…and also empty. I had a lot of fun driving up and down hills the last 10km with a perfectly paved road and just a handful of cars over the stretch. It felt like a strange horror movie somehow, like everything was too calm…lightning but no thunder, a freeway but no traffic. The navigation system was totally lost – I assume the freeway is a recent development.
We reached the outskirts of the capital and pulled off the road toward a guesthouse advertised at the border. It turned out to be a small home with a man sitting on the porch puffing away at a cigarette. He said there was no room and suggested a guesthouse down the road.
Down the road we saw the guesthouse sign, but it led down a dirt road that suddenly turned into deep mud. Reverse.
We returned to the highway and climbed one more hill into central Mbabane, the administrative capital (we had passed Lobamba a few KM back, the royal/legistlative capital city and home of the corrupt King Mswati III, who recently purchased seven custom Mercedes from Germany while per capita income in his country is about $3800/year).
Following signs toward the city center, suddenly and swiftly a bank of fog rolled in, so thick that we could not see more than a few meters in front of the car. I slowed to 20km as we inched along the deserted city streets. Now I really felt like I was in a horror flick.
Heidi spied a sign reading “Hotel, 400m” and we followed it, bearing left and winding down a small road till we came to the Mountain Inn. A guard lifted the barricade to the small parking lot where a din of light flowed out of an Irish pub. Around the corner was the hotel entrance and then came the big question…was there room, or would we be forced to continue on?
There was room, and we stayed the night.
Next morning the fog was lighter but still present. Pulling out of the hotel, we travelled down a road toward a craft market recommended by the hotel. A little local culture and we had gifts to purchase anyway–
We found the market and though it looked (and must have been) touristy, we purchased several wooden handcraft items, bartering down the price from $65 to $50. The look on the woman’s eye as she took our money was priceless…a huge smile followed by a cell phone call and a hurried conversation with someone. I think she met her quota for the week…but I thought the exchange was fair…enough.
Across the street, a group of uniformed school children were practicing(?) farming.
That was it. We got back on the empty freeway and followed it to the South African border, where formalities were much the same as on the trip in, but took mere minutes. We began the drive back to Johannesburg thankful for what we had seen and thankful the blessings we take for granted.
Oh yeah, one more diversion.
I recommend a trip to Swaziland…we were there for 18 hours and drove through half the country. It’s a small place with kind people and well worth a visit.
Read More of My Month in Africa Trip Report
Introduction: A Month in Africa
Review: Houston to Lagos in United Airlines 787 Business
Transit in Lagos: Bribing My Way Out
Review: Oasis Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Review: Gabfol Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Lagos to Johannesburg in South African Airways Economy Class
Setting Up Shop in Pretoria
How to Obtain a South African Police Report
A Safari in Kruger National Park
Review: Nkambeni Safari Camp
Driving Through Swaziland
Review: Mountain Inn Mbabane, Swaziland