Hikers in the Mist

by Marie Dahl (October 2014)

One a Friday morning in October six bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hikers took off towards the Lubombo Mountains in Swaziland. We left central Swaziland and began the haul down towards the lowveld – we had about an hours drive ahead of us. It was drizzling and threatening to rain properly, when we left the Ezulwini Valley; but Swaziland’s weather varies greatly geographically, so we were all confident that the lowveld would be hot and dry as always. As we approached the small town of Siteki close to our destination it became evident that this was not to be the case. The whole town had disappeared in a thick layer of mist, and we crawled slowly on our way through the town. Further up in the mountains it cleared somewhat, and shortly after we had turned onto a remote and little used dirt track, we passed what appeared to be a football match. People, who must have gathered from miles around, were cheering the players on and from behind a fully kitted off-road vehicle appeared Kingsley Holgate, a famous South African explorer and adventurer. Kingsley Holgate explores the most remote places all over Southern Africa, so we felt like we were on a pioneer track, when we continued and went even further than Mr. Holgate himself.

After driving past several rural homesteads (traditional Swazi family residences) the dirt track turned into more of a path than a drivable track. This was as far as the vehicle was able to take us. It was time to put on the backpacks and hit the trails ahead. We followed mainly cattle tracks, as we had not yet entered any of the reserves that we would be hiking through over the next three days. Cattle are abundant in Swaziland, as people will rather invest in a good cow, than put money in the bank. Overgrazing is big problem in the rural areas, as there are not sufficient grazing areas available. Herders have often been caught cutting holes in the fences marking the protected areas, as they are desperate for their cattle to feed. This is an issue all over Swaziland, but especially in reserves, where funding is limited, as patrol and fence repair are often costly.

This day we followed the cattle tracks and we were grateful that creatures had trod the trails for us, making it easier for us to make progress. Our goal was to reach an old ranger post just within the boundary of the government run Mlawula Nature Reserve. The modest ranger post was based on top of the Lubombo Mountains at approximately the same altitude as we were at the time, but we had a deep gorge between it and us, so down we went. At the bottom of the gorge we found rock pools fed by the surrounding catchment area. The water was murky and did not look inviting for a swim nor a drink, but the cows did not seem to mind, and I suspect they were the cause of the murkiness.

By the time we started the ascent we had all become considerably warmer, and scarfs, fleeces, and hats were gradually removed. Most of us kept on the raincoats, as it continually drizzled. In a situation such as this it’s actually difficult to assess what is best: Keep on the raincoat and be protected from the rain, but at the same time get completely damp from sweat unable to escape or take off the raincoat and get wet… The result is pretty much the same. As we walked the weather cleared and we were blessed with views over the Swazi lowveld to the West and the Mozambican floodplains to the East – at the same time forgetting the discomfort of previous weather.

As per arrangement the rangers had left an unofficial gate open for us to enter into Mlawula Nature Reserve, which we locked securely after us. We found the ranger post vacant, but locked, thus we had the area to ourselves. We set up camp, boiled the kettle for tea and spent the evening chatting by the campfire. What a lovely day it had been!

The wind made great efforts to tear my tent apart that night. Luckily it didn’t succeed. But then the rain took over and decided to try and break into my tent at every possible sealing. Unfortunately the rain did succeed, and I could feel the drips landing on my sleeping bag and on my up on till now dry things. It rained most of the night with only a few breaks. It was a night of being awake between a few uncomfortable naps of short duration. As day broke I was tired and slightly damp all over. I could hear no sounds from the other tents, but what I did hear was rain dripping on my tent, so I decided to stay put a while longer. Finally, I heard one of my fellow hikers had plucked up the courage to venture out and start a campfire. I peeped out of the tent and saw nothing but a thick white blanket of mist. Gone were the views of yesterday. Luckily, we had been clever the night before and put spare firewood under cover, so we could start a fire and begin the day with a steaming hot cup of coffee.

Our backpacks must have weighed an extra 3 kgs each with all the wet tents, damp mats and wet crockery we were now carrying. We continued our way through the reserve – still on top of the mountains, where we had to imagine the beautiful views, as we were completely covered in a thick layer of mist and could see nothing but what was right in front of us. While walking my mind wandered to Dian Fossy’s book, Gorillas in the Mist, and although I felt kindred, I hoped our ending would be happier than hers. So gloomy were my thoughts, as we made our way through one of the most beautiful reserves in Swaziland. However, the dark thoughts completely vaporized when we began the descent into the grand Siphiso Valley – all of a sudden the mist lifted and we were granted views reaching as far as the eye could see. Bush and wilderness — Africa, as it was born. Despite my wet and heavy backpack I felt like I could bounce my way deep into the valley – there were certainly enough spring in my step to rupture one of my shoelaces and for me not to care.

We had lunch at the Mahogany Room, where wraps with tuna pesto and a steaming hot cup of tea was served. The Mahogany Room is a cave deep in the most remote part of the reserve and the serving of lunch was purely on our own initiative. The grand name comes from a beautiful Pod Mahogany tree that towers over the entrance to the shallow cave. We enjoyed a bit of dry ground and rested our backs from heavy packs, before we continued through the reserve.

Through deep gorges, over ridges, and along rims we trekked all day. The feeling of being sent back in the time of the great African explorers crept up on me and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk and the scenery. We saw zebras running and heard baboons expelling their characteristic bark nearby, but otherwise we saw little game. The rainy season had only just begun and most of the area we walked in had been recently burned and in turn had driven game to other parts of the reserve.

Our end destination that day was a large koppie – a fee standing rocky outcrop. However, before heading to our next campsite, we had to refill our water reservoirs, which had to be carried to the top. It felt like an impossible haul after a long day of walking, but we made it to the top before dark. Our new campsite had a 360-degree view of the reserve. Green riverine vegetation slicing through the dull grey/brown winter bush looked spectacular. The sunset was covered in clouds, so once again we had to use our imagination. Tents were pitched and luckily they dried faster than expected and we all had a dry comfortable night’s sleep.

One of the first things I remember about the third day is someone saying: “Look! There’s a bit of blue sky”. The weather had finally changed. We enjoyed a leisurely morning, before heading back down to the river we were to follow into an adjacent reserve – the private Mbuluzi Game Reserve. A big gab between the fence and the ground allowed us to crawl under into the next reserve, where we followed the splashing river. The temperature was rising quickly and a swim in the river sounded more and more appealing by the step. We knew there was safe rock pool close to our end destination, so we resisted the urge to splash into the crocodile infested river for a little longer.

The final sting of the scorpion, as one of my fellow hikers described it, was a massive hill that we had to cross. The trail went directly up the slope and each step in the now sweltering heat was felt with pain and exhaustion.

But true to form after descending on the other side of the hill the rock pool was waiting, and none of us hesitated before jumping in and letting the cool water cleanse the last three days’ muck and sweat. Between several cool dips, we basked in the sun and gone were all accounts of mist, wind and rain. I can only speak for myself, but I was ready for another three days right there and then. What an incredible trail it had been!