Eswatini or Swaziland?
My time in Swaziland (nowadays called Eswatini) was unforgettable, not only in a positive way…
Eswatini means “land of the Swazis” in the Swazi language. This was partly intended to prevent confusion with the similarly named Switzerland, but the name change was also driven by the desire to break with the country’s colonial past.
Staying with Mama Liz
I had a wonderful welcome once arriving in Eswatini. I was picked up by a local lady called Liz, who treated me like her daughter and a princess. She took time to show me the country and meet her friends, and I felt so grateful that I could be a part of her daily life. After a few days I affectionately called her Mama Liz. Her house in Mbabane, the capital of Eswatini, was huge and clean. I lived on the ground floor while she lived above me on the first floor. I reckon she and my friend Anna are the main reasons why I would come back to Eswatini anytime.
Easter Sunday Hike
I was in Eswatini around Easter time. Three guesses as to what I wanted to do in the country… yes, of course: being in nature and hiking!
I definitely have a penchant for small countries like Taiwan, Sri Lanka or Eswatini. I am in love with countries which have mountains, and the best would be with access to the sea.
Eswatini- A little gem
Eswatini is a little gem and so beautiful! It has national parks to hike in and people are helpful and just extremely friendly! It’s clean and I felt safe walking around, even at night. I made good friends in the country, so all in all a great and easy country to travel in Africa with good infrastructure and intact roads. But the rural areas are a little different in terms of living conditions and infrastructure, and the country is very small.
You could travel easily from north to south in less than 4 hours, and from west to east in less than 3 hours, which gives you an idea of Eswatini’s size. The weather can vary depending on where you stay – in Mbabane for example it could get more chilly due to higher elevation than other cities in Eswatini.
I got in touch with Anna, a smart and wonderful woman who established the first local hiking company in the country. Her goal is to preserve the beautiful nature of Eswatini but also to give locals the chance to see the beauty of their own countries. Part of the income from her hiking trips she invests into conservation work and projects to empower women. So I decided to go with Vaya Trails for an Easter Sunday hike!
Malalotja National Park
On Easter Sunday we went to Malalotja National Park to hike to the potholes in the National Park. The rocks beneath Malolotja are among the oldest in the world, at over 3.6 billion years – the park is thought to be one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, too.
The day started out cold and the hike was lots of fun for me at the beginning. We had a great international and mixed group (I remember in total we were 14 or 15 people) and I made new friends along the way! My feet were happy to be back in my flip flops to hike up and down in the National Park. We crossed a few rivers, advantage and a hallelujah to my flip flops!
Most of us enjoyed it but it was not an easy hike for everyone. I immersed myself into nature and felt full of energy as usual. At noon we arrived at the picnic place close to the potholes and had a break. Another group of rangers hiked in front of us and set up a delicious lunch for us to take a break.
What happened next… I have to be honest, at the beginning I was reluctant to share my stories of Eswatini. But yes, I want to, because I do think it is important to share.
On that day Anna was our hiking guide, but you can’t enter the National Park without a ranger. A ranger named Sandile joined us for the trip and protected the group and led the way, Anna stayed as the last person. I talked to him a few times and I thought he was such a great person with lots of knowledge about wildlife and plants in the national park. He was kind and a great hiker!
After lunch time we went all to the potholes. One of the potholes is huge and you can go for a swim in it (you can see the pictures in this blog post), and it was only a few minutes hike away from our picnic resting area. Anna stayed with some people at the picnic area, while Sandile and a few more people including me went to the pothole.
Where is our ranger?
One Taiwanese guy decided to go for a swim, and the next moment our friend Sandile also decided to go. While I talked to another person and watched Sandile swimming, I thought he was definitely not the best swimmer. Somehow he couldn’t swim forward much compared to the Taiwanese guy who eventually had to teach him. I talked to my Dutch friend, and three girls who went with us took photos while the Taiwanese guy sat down on the shore bank of the pothole.
After some chit chat, my Dutch friend suddenly said, “hmm, weird, where is our ranger?” I looked around – the girls were still taking photos, the Taiwanese guy was still swimming around in the pothole, but no sign of Sandile. We waited for a while but we couldn’t find him. After another five minutes we called Anna.
Anna came and she told us maybe he tried to get out of the water on the other side of the pothole – we would leave and come back in 5-10 minutes. Maybe he was shy and since rangers are actually not allowed to go for a swim, he might be frightened to see Anna. We all went away and 10 minutes later we returned. But no sign of Sandile.
Did the Ranger left us or is he drowned?
All the clothes and valuables he left on the shore before he went swimming were still there. I was extremely worried. Anna looked through his valuables: his phones, lots of money, everything was still there. My friend Jose who I met on the hike shared his theory: maybe he was depressed or wanted to feign his own death for whatever reason. It was hard to believe for me because he was such a happy, talkative and kind person when I last talked to him.
Anna was skeptical at the beginning but then admitted maybe he missed home and disappeared through the bushes and just left us? Due to corona, he was not at work for months and had only recently resumed. Her theory was that he got homesick and just left, but she was not sure about it and was clearly confused and worried. I can’t even imagine how she must have felt at that moment, being the organizer of our Easter Sunday hike.
We waited for more than an hour at the pothole hoping he would somehow come back. But we had to return all the way back, as sun was setting in a few hours. We eventually gave up waiting and looking out for Sandile. Then started the hike back to our initial starting point – I tried to keep mentally calm and suggested to Ana I stay behind and take care of the group while she led us back.
The way out of the National Park
I supported her the best I could, while I felt strange carrying Sandile’s backpack and belongings on the return hike. Most of us didn’t talk anymore, totally worried and confused about what just happened. The youngest hiker in the group went hiking for the first time and injured her back, but it was very difficult for me to motivate her to keep moving. And I was afraid we would still be in the national park after daylight. Luckily, a rescue 4×4 came later and the girl with the back pain could leave the park with her family before it got dark. Accompanied by my new friend Jose, I just made it out of the park before darkness loomed over.
In the evening, there was still no news from Sandile. I stayed in touch with Anna and came home very late, drained and weary. I went to bed and couldn’t stop crying. The next morning after a long sleepless night I finally got a message from Anna.
To make a long story short:
Anna found Sandile’s body with a dive team the next day. Evidence shows that he dived into the water while we were all distracted, hit his head and died instantly. What we didn’t know or expect is that the pothole has a huge tunnel complex deep down. When he dived and hit his head, he sank and got sucked into one of these holes in the ground. We didn’t think much about the possibility that he drowned because he was able to swim. And all of us waited so long that we would have seen his corpse floating on the surface… but we were all wrong and I know deep in everyone’s heart we didn’t want to believe it.
When I read the message I felt traumatized. It took a while to sink in what happened on the hike. A feeling of sadness and helpless emptiness overcame me. I didn’t talk to Mama Liz but she was smart enough to follow the local news and knew later what happened on our hike. Eswatini is a small country and news spreads fast – I would compare it to a huge village where everyone knows each other.
A weird and bad feeling for me was knowing I took the last picture of this great man called Sandile M. standing in front of the pothole with Anna.
Anna, if you read this, you are truly an amazing woman for what you have gone through (she had to come back the next day after the hike and helped the divers to recover our beloved ranger’s body from the pothole). I never had something like that happen to me ever in my life, being with someone in their last seconds. The saddest part is he was the breadwinner for his family, and left behind children and a wife. May he rest in peace!
Shea’s Breast Mountain
After these events I met up with Jose to mull over what happened and to share grief. We met at House on Fire in Ezulwini, which I highly recommend if you ever have the chance to visit and travel to this beautiful little county.
I always feel much better if I can be in nature when I don’t feel well or very low. Therefore it is very important for me and I do deeply believe for the next generations to come to preserve our nature.
Thanks to Perfect Corp. and Cyberlink to support me on my sustainable projects to show that the beauty of our world is collateral. I am delighted to share more in my next posts about other natural wonders of our world.
It always feels like nature soaks up all my pain and sadness, and then I can move on. Therefore, a few days later I decided to hike Sheba’s Breasts Mountain alone. The twin peaks are 2,298 m (7,539 ft.) tall and the views on the top are unmatched. What I love about hiking in Eswatini is that there are many and various twisting trails and caves as you explore wherever you go. The mountain peaks indeed look like breasts from certain vantage points and are referred to in some colonial-era books.
Due to the traumatic event, my friendship with Anna grew stronger. She organized a memorial walk later in the national park for Sandile. Talking to her, I feel the warmth and understanding of someone like-minded, who is a strong environmentalist and tries to help her country with education, taking locals to see and hike their beautiful country’s nature.
In good memory of our beloved ranger Sandile, we decided to hike together with a New Yorker, Sanjay, at one of the most famous nature attractions of Eswatini: Sibebe Rock. Why? Sibebe is a granite mountain in Eswatini. Believe it or not, this wonderful rock is the second-largest monolith in the world and the largest exposed granite pluton. By the way, the largest one in the world is Australia’s famous Uluru Rock – Sibebe just lags a little behind. It rises 350m above the valley of the Mbuluzi River, and you can hike on it! Locals also refer to it as ‘Bald Rock’. If you see pictures of it you will know why.
In Memories of Sandile M.
This was definitely my favourite hike in Eswatini and probably one of my most memorable ones on the African continent. I walked up the steep monolith with my flip flops and somehow felt like I was in a Mission Impossible action movie. The view from the top is stunning, with an abundance of twisting trails and caves in the surrounding area. Without Anna I wouldn’t have known where to hike to those gems, let alone know they exist. The hike was a balm for my soul to move on again, and to remind myself of two things:
Life can be short. Follow your bliss and then the whole universe will conspire in helping you get what you want. Be kind to others, because this is who I am and who I want to be. And I truly want to share kindness and happiness to everyone I meet on my walk of life.
Thank you Anna, thank you for being there for me to help me move on from my trauma of Sandile’s sudden death. Thank you for being just a friend to me when I needed someone who experienced the same. To go through all the emotions together. And thank you for showing me this beautiful natural wonder and one of my favourite hikes in Africa: Sibebe Rock!
Cultural traditions in Eswatini
I want to share some random and political facts about Africa’s little gem. There’s a reason Eswatini is among tourists’ favourite countries on the continent. Eswatini is actually Africa’s last absolute monarchy (one of the few remaining in the world) with constitutional provision and Swazi law. By tradition, the king reigns along with his mother who is known as the Indlovukazi (She-elephant) in Swazi. The King is referred to as Ingwenyama (Lion).
The longest reigning monarch in history is King Sobhuza II, the present King’s father. He reigned from 1899 to 1982 and spent 82 years on the throne. Mbabane is the administrative capital of Eswatini, but the seat of King Mswati III and the houses of parliament and other national institutions are in Lobamba, the “traditional” capital. In late June this year though, pro-democracy protests broke out across the country, sparking riots and looting as a result of years of anger towards the lack of reforms and the direction of democracy – the government reportedly banned of the submission of petitions in the past!
There is one tradition I would like to share. It is well known to visitors of the country – I don’t agree with it, but I do respect traditions. A large number of people of the Kingdom remain patriotic about their traditions and the festival. But in recent years, it has drawn criticism for its treatment of women and is beginning to focus more on preserving cultural heritage.
The name of it is Umhlanga, an annual reed dance and a cultural event celebrating chastity and virginity.
The Umhlanga – or reed dance – festival is held annually in Eswatini and involves tens of thousands of women from across the country. Dating back centuries, ten thousand girls dress in traditional attire which is bright, short, beaded skirts with colourful sashes. Taking place at the royal residence, the girls head out in groups to the riverbanks to cut tall reeds, later to be presented to the Queen mother to use the reeds to repair the royal residence’s reed fences, as far as I understood.
After parading back with the reeds, they dance and celebrate which goes on for like a week. At the time of writing, King Mswati III has 15 wives and 23 children.
Bye Eswatini and welcome to Mozambique
It was time to say goodbye to Eswatini. I am doing fine now. Writing down what happened on my travels in Eswatini really helps me fully process the little trauma I had. But without any doubts I would return to Eswatini anytime, even just for another hike on Sibebe Rock.
Let’s move to another country which I love! Where I went diving almost every day, they have great cuisine and where I freshened up my Portuguese since it got rusty the day I left Brazil.
Welcome to another gem in Africa: Mozambique!