Excerpts from "A Traveller's Guide to Swaziland" by Bob Forrester.
MAHAMBA GORGE is a dramatic mountain gorge where the Mkhondzo River winds its way into the country. This is on the south-western part of Swaziland, quite close to Mahamba Border Post which is near Nhlangano in Swaziland and Piet Retief in RSA. The surrounding area has been set up as a wilderness preserve and has numerous hiking trails. The gorge itself is really beautiful and unspoiled, there are endless rock platforms for clambering on and at the heart of the gorge the rest of the world simply disappears and water, rock, mountains and sky fuse. The water is clean and ideal for swimming. Trails have been laid out from the lodge, these vary from half an hour to a days long hike.
The turnoff is less than a kilometer from the border, on the northern side of the road and is signposted clearly. The road is less than five kilometers of good quality dirt, suitable for all cars. On the way you will pass close to a stone gothic church, the oldest church in the country, built in 1911 by Wesleyans. The combination of vestigial stone spires, gothic windows, bare earth and skinny dogs is a little surreal. This mission was the first in the country, started nearby in 1844, and was the scene of the massacre described in the Kings entry.
You pass the mission - now mostly re-abandoned - and enter wide flat lands, the gorge becomes clearly visible ahead, the mouth is you destination. Mahamba Lodge is really four attractive stone chalets, each with two rooms, all with private bath and attractive if rather small balconies facing the view. The rooms are furnished and have bedding, they are clean. There is a communal kitchen, guides for the hiking trails if you wish them, and privacy if you do not. This is an excellent place to chill out because once you have turned the first bend in the gorge, which is very close, you are cut off from the world. For more information and bookings, go to www.welcometoswaziland.com or call them at 617 9880.
NGWEMPISI COMMUNITY PROJECT The Ngwempisi community own a massive river gorge carved out by the Ngwempisi River which lies hundreds of meters below the rim. The gorge is almost twenty kilometers long and until recently was a major obstacle for the community who would have much preferred nice rolling countryside that was easily ploughed and where you could find your cattle at the end of the day with going mountaineering. Instead they ended up with one of the most dramatic geological formations in the country. Of course this also meant that the gorge formed a natural barrier and as a result the slopes and bottom have been left almost completely untouched. What was once a major hindrance to the community is now turning in to an asset in an increasingly urbanized world. People seek grandeur, space, solitude, physical freedom – and Ngwempisi offers them all.
Basically the community has formed a wilderness area of the gorge and provided access to the wilderness through three lodges, one on the rim, one at the entrance to the gorge and one buried deep within it.
KOPHO LODGE is in a spectacular setting. It is built in a koppie (a rocky outcrop) and is difficult to describe because the architecture is unique. Perhaps something like the fortress at Zimbabwe ruins crossed with the Flintstones crossed with a minimalist aesthetic would describe it. In any case there are winding stone stair cases, trees growing through the roof, it has multiple levels, because that is how the rocks are, and sweeping views over the gorge. There are outdoor showers and the toilets are approached by perilous paths. There are few safety features whatsoever in a pleasant break with our nanny society, and in various places you are free to plunge over the edge of the building to the rocks below. This is definitely not a place for people with small children or people who like to combine wilderness with heavy drinking. There are two main dorm areas with rough wooden beds and canvas covered mattresses, they sleep twelve altogether. Because the place is open plan it is best to fill it if you want privacy, otherwise you might be sharing it quite audibly with others, there is no sound insulation whatsoever.
The community people who service it are pleasant and helpful, they will provide you with firewood, paraffin lanterns, and reconnect the water supply when cattle stand on it. The lodge is kitted out with a two burner gas stove top, pots and pans, cutlery etc. At time of writing one half of the buildings roof has been recently sealed against water, the other is still to be done at the time of writing and it leaks in heavy rain.
There are trails from the lodge along the rim to dramatic viewpoints, and one trail right down into the valley itself and to the river. Other trails are part of the gorge network, these are indicated by stone cairns and maps are usually available from reception.
To get there first you should go to the Tourist Office in the Swazi Plaza opposite the entrance to Nedbank. They should have an A4 map of the route, if not try the Swaziland Tourism Authority, fourth floor of Lilunga House, an office block just up from the junction of Somhlolo and Gwamile streets. They have a wide selection of brochures on anything touristic in the country and the receptionist is helpful. Their site is www.welcometoswaziland.com.
From Mbabane or Manzini you take the tar road to Luyengo, which is past Malkerns and then carry on towards Bhunya. Just after passing the agricultural campus of the university on your left you will pass a bus rank and then there is a tar turn to the left. Ngwempisi is prominently signposted. Follow the signs to the top of the mountain range ahead, turn left onto the dirt and follow the map, You may have to stop and ask people, not all the turnoffs are signposted, but basically you pass between some large colonial style farm pillars marked Horseshoe Estate and proceed until you see the estate farmyard ahead.
Just before it you turn left and proceed to Etjebovu School, a well known landmark which anyone around will know. Pass the school on your left, the track rapidly deteriorates and not long afterwards you will end up at a homestead on the edge of the rim, with game fencing to your right. Although the track continues, it is not a good idea to drive further, it gets very steep in places. The homestead will look after your vehicles in safety and this is the place where you pay the bill when you leave. They will give you a receipt. Do not try this road in a car, it is rough, you need a bakkie or probably a 4x4 in wet weather, it really depends on your off road driving skills. Highly recommended.
KHELEKHELE is another lodge in the Ngwempisi project, at the entrance to the gorge. The lodge itself is series of stone walls in wire cages, technically gabions. The walls are composed of gleaming white crystalline quartz and partly black dolorite chunks, these are formed into geometric patterns. The buildings are on the flat and you can drive right up to them.
The interiors are plain, but have rough wooden beds with mattresses, pots and pans, a sink etc, there are showers and toilets behind and above the lodge. The lodge is on the edge of Swaziland’s only known beach, at least one hectare of deep soft river sand that has been deposited in front of the lodge. This is a perfect place to bring kids because the pools are sand bottomed, shallow and there is no fierce current in this area where the river is broad and slow flowing. Unlike Kopho there are no potentially dangerous drops for kids. The beach is very exposed to the sun, you might think of bringing shade and sun screen if needed.
The beach is at the entrance to the gorge, there is a path on the north bank that meanders for kilometers downstream. In winter the water is clear and a pleasant jade green colour, one can sit on the bank and watch schools of fish moving about or simply move from pool to pool, in a leisurely swim-walk. It is quite easy to go farther than you realise because it is so pleasant and then face a fairly stiff walk back. Ultimately the route can take you right through the gorge and you come out at Siphofaneni, but most people would never go that far. You can certainly go as far as the area beneath Kopho Lodge, high on a promontory above you and back in a day without much strain. Take lunch and water. You could also walk from one lodge to the other, if you have organised a pick up. The easier direction is from Kopho to Khelekhele.
All Out Africa offer an interesting adventure experience in Ngwempisi Gsorge: tubing. They drop you off at Khelekhele with a car inner tube, lifejacket, helmet etc and you float down the beautiful river. At times the experience is slow and mellow, at others, when the current picks up, there is a very real thrill. You go downstream for about five kilometers in this way, passing superb scenery, majestic trees line the banks in places, offering deep green shade. At other times the walls of the gorge are towering rocky cliffs. Just below Kopho you deflate the tube, climb up the hill to Kopho Lodge to a welcome beer and spend the night in the unique rock lodge setting before going back. firstname.lastname@example.org Phone 602 3694. Highly recommended.
To get there you should contact the tourism office or Swaziland Tourism Authority listed above for Kopho, or contact All Out Africa. Note that Khelekhele is some distance from the other two lodges and is not on the same map. Check that you have the correct map before leaving, the directions are clear until you leave the main road, after that there are a series of tracks through the bush. You can find your way there by asking, but set aside some time for this. Generally most teenagers and young adults in the country speak English, many older people in the rural areas do not.
MHLABENI LODGE lies deep within the Ngwempisi Gorge. The lodge is a series of thatched huts that lie close to the water in a secluded setting. Here you can chill out, swim, whatever is your pleasure. The lodge can only be approached by hiking, the time from the road depends on your speed and fitness, but is usually about two and a half hours, going downhill. This is handy because it means that you are not carrying your food uphill. There is an option to climb up to the Gorge View point on the way to Mhlabeni, resist it unless you are very fit, it is easier to simply carry on along the river bank. The lodge is marked on the map from the Tourist Office or the Swaziland Tourism Authority, details are listed above.
Because Mhlabeni is so remote it is also rich in birdlife and small mammals. If you walk along the rails at night you can hear bushbabies calling to each other in the trees just above your head, if you shine a torch softly you may well see the gleam of eyes everywhere around. All three lodges are basically backpackers or hiking lodges with interesting architecture, they are priced accordingly and provide bargain accommodation for around E100 per person per night, they offer student discounts as well.
SHEWULA MOUNTAIN CAMP is on the top of the Lubombo mountain range that separates Swaziland from Mozambique. It can be reached by car from Mbabane in just under two hours. The dirt road section to the lodge is about ten kilometers and is well signposted. The turnoff is on the road to Namahacha Border post, some three kilometers beforehand, on the right going down a hill. All turns are clearly signposted and the destination has attractive stone roundhouses on the edge of a vast escarpment with spectacular views across the lowvelt hundreds of meters below. At times on a clear day you can see right across the country to the high mountains of the central African plateau.
The Shewula Mountain Camp is the most visible aspect of a project that includes a whole community. Shewula Mountain Camp near the Mozambican border is the focus for a range of community based activities run by the Shewula Trust. The stone and thatch camp dramatically perched on the lip of the Lubombo escarpment has sweeping views over the lowveld. The camp has been built by the Shewula community and is open to visitors.
Accommodation costs E100 for bunks, four to a room, distant ablutions. (About double that per person in a twin with own bathroom, students get 20 % reduction.) You can cook for yourself or have food made for you, either traditional Swazi cuisine or Tuscan food – this may seem bizarre, but one of the project founders was from Tuscany. If you stay for a few days you will be able to see their many faceted operation. A visit to the community is sometimes the only way that westerners can actually meet rural people and see and understand the daily challenges of their lives. At Shewula this is not a question of integrating with the community, it is the community. There is no strained formal meeting with a "model" family, all smiles and sticky buns, it is the day to day reality.
For instance their approach to conservation within the 2600 hectares that the community has set aside as a nature reserve is nothing like neighbouring reserves. Instead of clearing the area and declaring it "sacred" they use traditional African rules for management with community support. The increasing numbers of parentless and vulnerable children has led to a program of strengthening and optimizing resources, both traditional and modern. Using traditional solidarity and modern schools, they are building classrooms and setting up food programs etc. They set up social structures to make orphans useful to the community by building houses for elderly widows and so on. This raises the orphans self-esteem, gives them a useful role in society and provides food and shelter. The aim of all these programs is to reduce dependence on outside help.
There are also numerous other activities that range from education, to a nursery growing traditional medicines for healers to a school for orphans. The basics have not been neglected – there is an HIV/AIDS clinic, support for the ill and counseling. The school gets donor funding, there is an internet connection and perhaps most ambitious of all are the water projects. These have been funded by the Japanese, the EU and COSPE, the Italian NGO that is most present in Shewula. The water projects collect water from springs in the region and made it flow into through sand filters into underground cisterns where it then trickles by gravity to taps that the community use. This may not sound much, but it is crucial because is separates the cattle and goats from the water, allowing people to have clean drinking water for the first time, making a major difference to people’s health and well being. You can see all of this from their mountain bikes which are for rent, or if that is too energetic, you can view it all from the sedate pace and comfort of a donkey cart. For bookings call Nomsa at 605 1160, you can also leave a message. www.shewulacamp.com. Recommended.