Swaziland’s answer to the Potemkin Village?

To get from KwaZulu Natal up to Kruger, we left South Africa and drove north through Swaziland. It was a bit of an adventure in parts: “Climb up Sibebe Rock? We’ve bl***y well driven up Sibebe Rock” said Mark……

Overview: 2.5 days, 498 km

Starting from Bushbaby Lodge & Camping, where we’d spent the previous two nights, we had an easy drive on Sunday morning up the main road to the border between South Africa and Swaziland. The border facilities were very shiny and new, and also very quiet, so we got through in no time at all.

Swaziland gained independence from Britain back in 1968. We didn’t see any signs of British influence. You certainly wouldn’t see this approach from HMRC, for example (we saw a few of these signs):

Poor Swaziland seems to be in one of those chicken and egg situations as regards tourism. They complain that tourists pass straight through the country, possibly stopping for a maximum of one night. There’s a reason for that – there’s not really a lot of infrastructure to support longer visits. In terms of our trip through Swaziland, we’d point out that the country seems almost totally devoid of camp sites….

One place that does have a camp site is Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, one of three parks under the “Kingdom of Swaziland Big Game Parks” banner that we could get into for free with our South African Wild card.

The reception building was very swish…..

… as were the camping facilities. The toilet / shower block was enormous and absolutely spotless. We were soon parked up:

These looked fun:

We had a drive round the park on Monday morning. It’s not huge but has a reasonable range of antelope, wildebeest etc, and the scenery was stunning:

A few more bits and bobs of wildlife:

As this park has no lions etc, you’re allowed to walk around in it freely, and most people there seemed to be doing walking tours, with and without guides. To be honest, some of the folk we saw were looking pretty hot and bothered, and the place isn’t that packed with wildlife – you could end up walking quite a way on a hot day to see a blesbok, for example.

Some of the more popular paths (e.g. the one above) run close to the camp; this one goes from the camp to the “hippo pool” (below). Notice the bit of a drainage ditch running parallel to the path.

We watched a large croc come across the pool carrying some prey (which we haven’t managed to identify), go through a drainage channel under the (narrow) causeway walkers were milling about on, and disappear up the drainage channel. “That really makes you think how careful you need to be” said a somewhat pale Mark…..

Tourists visiting Swaziland seem to stay in one small area, Ezulwini, between the capital Mbabane and the largest town Manzini. A seemingly obligatory stop on all tourist itineraries is the “handicraft market” – so much so that whenever Mark saw a tourist coach, he would start chanting “we know where you’re going”. We didn’t partake of any handicrafts; what offerings we could see from the road did seem to be the standard African souvenirs made in China…..

We decided that, in an attempt to do some tourism in Swaziland, we’d visit Sibebe Rock. Sibebe Rock is apparently the second biggest free-standing rock in the world (after Ayers Rock) or the biggest exposed granite plug in the world, depending how you look at it. It didn’t go according to plan….

I’d found a place called Sibebe Resort online that seemed to have one of the few camp sites in Swaziland. The website didn’t give a lot of information about the camp site, but the photos of the reception building with swimming pool in front and some of the lodge rooms looked nice and came up on all the main hotel booking websites:

The place only opened in March 2018, so everything should be nice and new, I thought. Also, it claims to be the first Swazi-owned resort, which is worth supporting…. I emailed to ask whether the camp site stands had electricity and what the price per night would be for two adults travelling in a camper…..

I got a very quick reply confirming that yes, the camp site has electricity and giving a price that, although more than we’ve been paying most nights, was OK.

The first thing they didn’t mention was that the place is on top of a mountain up a single track unpaved road (there is now way that any “camper” other than one mounted on the back of a 4WD pickup is going to get up there. I was surprised they hadn’t mentioned this in their email – or had they not seen any of the 7+ metre Maui motorhomes that are getting about the place?). 4 wheel drive was engaged, then low ratio 4 wheel drive…. (bear in mind that Mark has been driving a 4 wheel drive pickup for many years as his main vehicle, so he is no novice at this……). His remarks started with his usual “tum te tum te tum….”- style whittering and singing as we turned off the tarred road at the signpost for Sibebe Resort, moved on to “where the hell are we going?”, through “are you sure we’re going the right way?” to “they’re having a laugh” – as the NAVI-SOK climbed ever uphill….

Eventually we arrived… to be greeted by a crowd of very confused -looking workmen. To cut a long story short, the way to set up a hotel / camp site here seems to be:

1) do just enough that you can take some photos (build reception building, swimming pool, and exterior shell of some lodges). Fit out the interior of a couple of rooms so as to be able to take photos.

2) advertise! get a website done and list the place on booking.com and all the other main hotel booking websites.

3) take it easy! There must’ve been fifteen to twenty guys on site, but we never saw them doing any construction work.

Oh, and the campsite? The one where yes, all the stands do have electricity? It doesn’t exist! Their idea was that we could park up and that they’d pass an electric cable out of a window. In lieu of a toilet / shower block, they’d give us the keys to one of the rooms…..

So we parked up……. The building we’re next to is split into two rooms, with a door at either end:

We couldn’t get the key straight away as “the lady must come”, so we figured we’d have a bit of lunch, sort out the key, then do the walk to Sibebe Rock. The lad on duty (who to be fair was very nice and clearly doing his best) waved very generally in the direction of one of the lumps of granite, then told us that there’s a gate, you have to pay, and we needed to do that at the bottom of the hill….. No way we were driving back down there again! Maybe that little problem could be fixed somehow….

What about the free wifi, I thought….. I could catch up on some emails while we wait. I could see a network, so asked for a password. You know where we’re going here don’t you? They’d got a router and plugged it in, but there isn’t actually any internet connection as yet…

We think this might be Sibebe Rock:

Finding a solution to enable us to pay for the walk at the Sibebe “Resort” was soon taken out of our hands anyway as, out of nowhere, a storm arrived with thunder, lightning, and hail stones the size of golf balls…

Still no key – now it was “the lady must come and the road is bad”. She was at the bottom of a steep mud road in a downpour and we were at the top. No walk to the rock – from the reviews I’d read, this clearly wasn’t one to do in the wet (it seems to involve clambering over steep bare rock in places). We couldn’t even just leave as the road would certainly now be treacherous and in any case, Swaziland seemed to have no more camp sites to offer. After an hour or so, the rain stopped and we prayed it’d hold off so we’d be able to escape sometime this year.

… and then the electricity to the whole place went off. Young lad A had now disappeared and young lad B appeared. He talked a good book about the very heavy rain etc, but we could see on his face that the lack of electricity was no great surprise and that it was highly unlikely to come back on again anytime soon. He asked if we were going to the rock. We said maybe in the morning if things dry out: we’d been told not to do the walk in the wet. He nodded. When asked which was the actual rock, he waved in a somewhat different direction to young lad A. Whereas lad A had said it took 40 minutes to walk to the rock, lad B said an hour and a half each way….

We resigned ourselves to an afternoon of reading books, but then “the lady” arrived with a key and a whole new world of entertainment opened up…..

You’ll notice the number 5 on the door in the previous photo and recall that the building is split into two rooms. Well guess what? The other one has a 5 on it as well! I guess the Swazi equivalent of B&Q didn’t stretch to an A and a B…..

Inside it got better. The game was that if you went in there, you came back with the observation “have you seen …” then recounted another example of shoddy workmanship. This may be the first Swazi-owned resort, but they definitely haven’t gone off and sourced tradesmen who’ve worked on hotels elsewhere….

As an example, Mark reckons that whoever fitted these taps lives in a hut without running water (no, I couldn’t get it to go to “shower” mode, so the issues aren’t wholly cosmetic).

Awww bless ’em…. they’ve got towels and little tubes of toiletries with “Sibebe Resort” on them, but they’d have been better off spending the money on a joiner. If you thought the plumbing was poor, the joinery was beyond anything you’ve ever seen….. Maybe it was the hailstones, but by this point the whole thing was so ludicrous that we spend much of our time howling with laughter. “ah, but the lady must come” announced Mark solemnly on a regular basis, “and the road is bad”.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep, we were up early and ready to dice with death on the road down. As we needed to leave Sibebe in the morning to reach the next camp site up at Kruger, hanging around to attempt to walk to the rock would have meant another night at Sibebe Resort and we felt that we’d probably exhausted all possibilities for amusement by now. In any case, surely it didn’t matter which of the various lumps of rock surrounding us was the actual Sibebe Rock, them all being part of the same great big lump of granite? The reviews online had spoken of it being hard to find the way, there being no clearly marked path etc, so if we hung around another day to try to do the walk, it would only be more of the same Sibebe experience…. So we decided to cut our losses and run away before the rain started again.

As it turned out, Sibebe Resort had one parting shot of amusement to give us….. As we left, I headed towards the reception building, the one that features so prominently on all the internet advertising, to look for someone to give the key to (the pool, by the way, doesn’t look as if it’s been cleaned out since the photos were taken). Even at this point, I did not expect to find that the reception building is a bare shell. There were about ten builders sat around in there (who looked quite startled to see me) surrounded by piles of building materials. Swaziland’s answer to the Potemkin Village?

I snapped a couple of photos out of the window as Mark negotiated the long road down. They really don’t seem to have realised that this might be a problem for tourists in shiny hire cars unused to mountaineering in vehicles. I did try to gently point out that when the place is fully up and running, they will have people departing and people leaving (at present, “the lady” seems to be pretty much the only user of the road, apart from idiots like us), and that there are precious few passing places…..

Would you like to have to reverse either up or down any of this? In their minds, the concrete strips they’ve laid down on the steepest bits have improved the road no end! When we asked about the road, Lad A did say that they were trying to get a contractor to do some more work on it. From the way he said it, I don’t think he’s envisaging tarmac with a white line down the middle! Let’s just hope the road contractor is better than the joiner. He also admitted (when we’d had the conversation about the electricity going off, Mark had said that we’d managed fine as we had head torches to visit the loo, and I’d commented in my most kindly tones that it might be a bit more of a problem for them when they’ve got a resort full of tourists) that they might have to think about getting a generator for when the electricity goes off….. I wouldn’t quite call it “penny dropping” but I think lad A is definitely the place’s main hope….

We did make it to the bottom in one piece (phew!) and headed on towards the border via a very scenic road (the one that goes through Piggs Peak). This border post was much more ramshackle than the last one, with a hand-operated barrier across the road, but the staff were very friendly and we made it through without any problems.

It was, in some ways, a relief to have left the slightly parallel universe we call Swaziland and return to the familiarity of South Africa. It was only a short drive to a shiny supermarket and then on to the welcoming clipboards of the uniformed SanParks staff at the Malelane entrance gate to Kruger National Park…..

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