After deciding some months ago that hiking was in order, I researched all the little pockets of Swaziland that promise to be an outdoor-lover’s paradise. I read about mountains and rocks and valleys and rivers. I read about villages and caves and rock art and animals. I read about Sibebe and Ngwempisi and Mlawula. Swaziland is a little country, with a lot to offer. That much became clear. After all this, we settled on Malolotja Nature Reserve, one of Swazi’s least-visited parks, set in the western part of the country, in some of the oldest mountains in the world.
For us, it felt like the Holy Grail of Swaziland.
We arrived at Malolotja with packs loaded down with extraneous items: cosmetics and extra clothes and beach stuff for a later leg of our trip. We debated if we wanted to backpack down into the valley with all the extra weight. But, determined to fill that little spot in our mountain-lovin’ hearts, we decided on an overnight backpacking route, and left all our extra stuff in a big plastic bag in the visitor’s center office, behind an old TV.
A little after noon, we set off for Camp 9. The route had us switching between trail and road, following a low-quality, sort-of- topographical map and some basic signage.
We were happy to be hiking with vistas in front of us, the mountains looking like mere blue shadows of themselves in the afternoon light.
After taking a brief detour (read: missing a trail turnoff and, subsequently, bushwacking), we began to descend toward the river. And after a bit more uncertainty (read: signs that said we were going toward Camps 7 and 8 when, according to the map, we were certain we were heading toward Camp 9), we reached the river. Finally, after a small confusion (read: walking one way along the river when the site was the other way), we reached Camp 9, a shaded site on the riverbank, with nothin’ more than a fire pit and a few logs.
I would recommend Camp 9 if you need a night in the woods.
I would also recommend taking photos of the nice topo map in the visitor’s center before setting out.
We stretched a bit, had a snack, and stashed our bags behind some trees before heading further down the trail, along the river in search of The Potholes. We had heard about this natural wonder, where the river disappears underground and then reappears, from a Swazi man we had a met a couple of days before. However, we failed to find this spot along the river, but found instead a waterfall, where we sat for a bit in the fading afternoon light before heading back to our camp.
A splash-off in the river, a good stretch, a campfire, a dinner of trail-mix and beef jerky, a fleece hat, a tent, and a sleeping bag.
My mountain-lovin’ heart was full.
The next day, Alex’s 27th birthday, we rose early, wanting to get our big climb out of the way before the heat of the day arrived. Happily chilly, I packed as much as I could while remaining halfway in my sleeping bag,and then put some thick socks on my hands and faced the day.
Up and up we went, until we were out of the valley and enjoying the vistas once again. We stopped for a snack, some water, some jumpy pictures, and were delighted when a car full of rowdy passersby – including the Israelis we had made friends with a couple days before- dropped an ice cold beer out of the car and raised their own in a drive-by cheers to us. Happy Birthday Alex!
We arrived back at the visitor’s center around lunchtime and, after retrieving our plastic bag of personal belongings…., headed down the hill to the quiet campground. We took advantage of the big sink, washing our dusty clothes, and of the hot showers. We rested and napped and read, and then went back up to the restaurant at the visitor’s center for some spicy birthday chicken, stopping on the way to watch the sun set.
Again, a campfire. A tent. A sleeping bag. Sore hips from a pack. Sore legs from walking uphill. A mind at peace, all recent frustrations sufficiently hiked out.
Happiness is this.
Photo Credits to Alex Romanyshyn, mostly.
For more information about travelling in Swaziland, visit http://www.thekingdomofswaziland.com/
For more information about Malolotja Nature Reserve, visit http://www.sntc.org.sz/