I set off cycling towards the border. As the kilometres went by, the land became less intensely farmed, as forests replaced fields.
I stopped at a shop in a village to buy some biscuits, and some chips from the stall outside. This was the first time since entering South Africa that I’ve had to use cash! A middle-aged woman asked where I’d cycled and, incredulous at the answer, declared that she would join me. Laughing, I said sure.
I asked if there was somewhere I could fill up my water bottles. Another woman said they had no water, but then the first woman went to fill them for me. The other woman joked “your wife has decided to help you.” Thanking her for the water, I cycled away, abandoning my new wife.
I rode through a region on the transition between the highlands of South Africa and the lowlands of Eswatini. The road went along a ridge, and there were good views on both sides.
A short descent brought me to the border. On the South African side, I handed over my passport and PCR certificate and was stamped out, no questions asked. The Eswatini side was a out as fast, though my PCR was here checked by a health official. The only delay was while he tried to figure out what film star I reminded him of. It was a very modern and professional border post. There was a tourist information centre, free wifi and even a KFC!
Past the border, the road climbed up slightly. After that, the real descent began, which would eventually leave me over a thousand metres lower.
The road went past Mbabane, one of the country’s two capitals.
I missed my intended turn, and decided to take a shortcut to get to the road I wanted to be on. I went over a pedestrian overpass then followed some tracks back to the road.
I stopped at a ShopRite and sat down outside to eat my food. After a couple minutes a security guard told me I couldn’t sit there, and had to go. I rode on and found a shady spot to sit. However, this turned out to be near the American embassy and I was again told to go away. Third time lucky, I sat under a tree and ate my food undisturbed.
I next rode through Lobamba, the second of Eswatini’s two capitals. This one is the royal capital. Eswatini is often called one of the world’s last absolute monarchies, but it is then noted – often in the same paragraph – that the king signed a constitution in 2005. So that seems a bit of a contradiction in terms: a constitution is the acknowledgement of a limit to royal power, the antithesis of absolute monarchy. There was also a parliament building in the “city,” as well as the national church.
I rode on and, not long after took a turning which I expected to be unpaved. I was surprised to find good tarmac, but it only lasted a few kilometres, until a big farming complex. From there it was dirt, but still with a fair bit of traffic.
Another turnoff took me onto a dirt road that was much quieter – very few cars, mostly just people out walking. At one point I saw a bus coming up a hill, empty. Behind it walked a group of 20 or so people – the passengers. The bus driver clearly didn’t have much confidence in his vehicle! After a couple of hours I passed out of the populated area and into dense bush.
Late in the day I was surprised to reach tarmac again. I continued along for a while before taking a track away from the road, then an overgrown footpath into the woods before setting up camp. I was now all the way down at around 300m. The temperature was correspondingly high. Thankfully there weren’t many insects around so I sat around outside the tent for an hour or so, as I waited for it to cool down.
The tarmac ended again just a few kilometres and it was back to dirt, on steep rolling hills.
A little while later I reached a village and the road was suddenly full of children walking to school. They, along with the other people I’d met in eSwatini, were friendly. There was no hassle, just smiles and waves.
Past the village, a long climb began. I climbed 700m over the next 7km, despite the occasional flat or even downhill section. It was hot and very humid, so my sweat could not evaporate and I was soon drenched. I opted to walk some of the longer 20%+ grade sections as the effort required to cycle up would have had me overheating in short order.
Shortly before the end of the climb were some houses, where the residents kindly let me fill up water from the tap. When I set off again, a child followed along for a few hundred metres.
After the climb, the road dropped down to a high valley.
From there another climb began, though this was much easier. The gradients were gentler, and the altitude meant it was not so hot nor humid.
Back down the other side there were no more big climbs, just constant ups and downs between 1000m and 1200m.
I reached a more major road and had a choice of which way to go. There was a border 10km north, and from there it would be 20km to Piet Retief. The border to the south was 45km away, and a further 30km to Piet Retief. However, I was more confident that the southern border would be open.
There was a shop at the junction and I asked the shopkeeper there. He was adamant that the northern border was open. Since it was close, I decided to give it a try – though, not putting much stock in local advice, I accepted there was a decent chance I’d have to turn around.
A dirt climb led me to a tarmac road and a 5 kilometre road to the border which was indeed closed. The guy there filled up a water bottle for me and then I turned around and returned the way I’d come.
I passed the junction and the shop, and continued on a rare flat road. There was ongoing construction so at times I was able to ride on tarmac.
Alternating between dirt and tarmac, I rode along. Although not flat, this was much closer to it than the rest of the day had been. I was able to ride a bit faster, as I passed huge managed forests.
This made for easy wild camping so I rode until it started to get dark, then went and set up my tent among the trees.
I started early the next morning. After a few kilometres on the dirt road, I turned off to a shortcut along some tracks. Some dogs came and barked aggressively at me but thankfully didn’t follow.
This shortcut led to me to a tarmac road just a couple kilometres from the border. I stopped at a shop to use up the last of my eSwatini currency. Like Lesotho and Namibia, eSwatini has their own currency which is pegged 1:1 to the rand. Rand are accepted in each country, but change is given in the local currency, which is not accepted elsewhere.
Now carrying a few more bags of biscuits, I headed to the border. The border took a few minutes, which is long by recent standards! They manually entered my passport into the computer systems on both sides. Officially South Africa requires a PCR done within 72 hours – the one I’d taken to enter eSwatini had been done 71 and a half hours earlier. No one commented on that!
The road climbed up a few hundred metres on the South African side. It was now a Saturday, and there were a few recreational cyclists out on the road. I got to chatting with one, Linda, and she very kindly invited me to stay! She and her husband, Jan, run a guesthouse and they let me stay in a chalet for free.
The occupants of a neighbouring chalet were a nine year old boy, Janrich, and his mother, Madeleen. Janrich is very keen on cycling and was absolutely fascinated by me. We went and did a few laps of a nearby bike track.
I took a rest day at the guesthouse, where I was looked after very well by Jan and Linda. They kept bringing me food – no complaints here!
Jan 24: 158 km
Jan 25: 99 km
Jan 26: 52 km