My friend Mike and I left from Lesotho early in the morning for the long drive into the small Kingdom of Swaziland. The southern border entry was about an eight hour drive the way we were going and we had planned to drive up to the Ewulzini Valley between the only two cities in Swaziland, Manzini and the capital Mbabane. We had heard wondrous things about the Sondzela Backpackers, which was the famous hostel in the valley. We thought it would be a nice way to spend a few days getting in touch with nature in an obscure place like Swaziland.
We arrived at the border from South Africa at the Mahamba crossing in the south of the country. Upon entry into Swaziland, you immediately notice the difference from South Africa. The roads are rougher and skinnier. Additionally, the landscape becomes a lot more rugged and there are no houses or buildings. You will pass a lot of mud huts and the occasional store with a metal grate roof and a Coca-Cola sign in front. Finally, you will see a lot of Swazis just walking the highways. We thought to ourselves, where could these people possibly be going? We drove for miles and saw absolutely nothing. It became a running joke between us that all the Swazis do is walk around aimlessly.
In southern Swaziland there is a whole lot of nothing but the scenery is very pretty and the mountains can be treacherous. We were there in January, in the middle of the summer season. However, in the mountains there was snow on the side of the road even though the temperature was still hot. On the afternoon that we arrived, it was starting to get dark very early and it looked very ominous.
About 30 minutes into our drive through the mountains of southern Swaziland, it started to pour. Since the roads were so bad and we were in the mountainous, we were going to drive very slowly. It also became very dark and we had the lights on bright and windshield wipers going as fast as possible. Our Toyota Echo rental car was not very well equipped for steep roads or bad weather, but we had to make do with what we had.
As we kept ascending the mountains, we kept noticing the Swazis on the side of the road trying to flag us down for a ride. We felt bad but there was no way we were stopping to pick anyone up. As we continued, the Swazis randomly walking on the side of the road started jumping out in front of the car to get our attention and we almost hit a few of them. It was ridiculous. The rain was relentless and my sight was limited.
As we continued, we were greeted by another obstacle. Giant moths in flocks of thousands were flying everywhere and our windshield started looking like a moth burial ground. It was unbelievable how many moths hit our car. The worst part was that they didn’t come off the windshield easily. As the wipers were barely managing to combat the rain the moth carcasses made visibility almost zero. It was awful. Now we had to deal with the torrential downpours, the steep mountain roads, Swazis jumping at our car, giant moth bodies on the windshield, poor visibility and the fact that we had no idea where we were going.
We had a map from our Let’s Go book, but it wasn’t too helpful, especially mixed with all the other factors. It’s hard to stress exactly how dirty our windshield became. It was almost brown even with the rain and we still puttered along.
The moth pelting and rain continued as we finally saw a sign for Manzini and it was 30km away. Normally that would take me 15 minutes but on this night it would take an hour and a half. After driving so slow for so long, we finally arrived in Manzini, or so the sign said. Manzini was the size of a small village with a few lights. However, it did have the roadway linking it to Mbabane and the Valley.
By this time we were so fed up from our ride thus far that we were starving and looking for someplace to eat. In the rain, we found a gas station complex with a few stores in it. We drove in there and looked at what there was to offer. We couldn’t even fathom eating any of what they had and there were a large amount of Swazis just loitering outside the station, staring right at us. Needless to say, it made us a little nervous, considering we were dodging them left and right while they were trying to get at our car while we were driving on the highway. Mike and I kind of looked at each other and collectively agreed to get out of there and try to find the hostel which we thought was somewhere around where we were.
We continued on the same road toward Mbabane and through the raindrops we didn’t see any signs for anything remotely close to what we thought we were looking for. We were approaching the capital and figured we overshot the exit and just missed it. We circled back and looked again from the other direction and again we saw nothing. By this time we were both irritable and starving and after another run down the highway we decided to continue into Mbabane.
We got off the road into the city and there really wasn’t anything at all worth seeing and/or doing. It was getting late at this point and we couldn’t find the hostel and we didn’t want to get stuck in Mbabane. So we consulted our trusty guide to figure out what we should do. We noticed that there was nothing highly recommended in the city and I know better than to take something that the book doesn’t say is good, especially in a poor third world country. I started looking closer for other options and noticed all the border points with South Africa closed at 4 or 6pm. However, there was one about 50 km up the road that didn’t close until 10pm. It was 9pm at that point and I said, “Let’s go for it.”
Mike agreed and we set off full speed for the border. Granted, we had no idea what we were going to do once we crossed the border but we both agreed that our options were better in South Africa than they were in Swaziland. We made the border at Oshoek with 15 minutes to spare. As we stood at the immigration station for South Africa, the guy said to us, “You guys came up into Swaziland today and you are leaving the same day?”
We replied, “You have no idea how miserable our experience in Swaziland was.”
We told him the story and he chuckled. You could kind of tell that he was thinking, “stupid Americans”. We laughed about it as we got back into the car and started driving into South Africa to who knows where late at night.
Of course our gas tank was almost on empty and we had nearly 80km on a secondary road until the closest city of Barberton. Our fears were that we would run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and be stranded where nobody ever travels. However, reflecting on our miserable four hours in Swaziland made the fear subside a bit and we rode the fumes into Barberton around midnight. We ended up the night, exhausted and weary, in a town called Nelspruit, the gateway to Kruger National Park at 2am.
Our hellish day was finally over and our memories of Swaziland are forever skewed with visions of rain, killer moths, steep mountain roads and renegade Swazis jumping in front of our car. It was definitely the worst four hours I have ever spent in any country, but it makes for a good story and I would tell anyone to visit Swaziland because you couldn’t possibly have a worse time than we did.