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Current Location : Livingstone, Zambia. I'm heading north tomorrow to Lusaka via the Kariba Lake where huge culture and infected malaria patients will be met with big love from Binks!

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Summer in Swaziland

It was way back in April 2006 when I first visited Swaziland on my way to South Africa to catch a plane to my brother’s wedding and I was so impressed with it I just had come pay it another visit with all the fancy Panasonic video equipment. To read the journal from the first trip, click here.

So after a getting my feet wet in Mozambique with my new expedition setup I was eager to return to the country that made me feel more at home than anywhere on the African continent. I was able to record some amazing live music performances in Mozambique on Friday night and was optimistic that I would be able to find some action in Swaziland so I made a last minute dash via minibus on a Saturday night with a fellow Bay Area traveler Jackie to the town of Manzini. The plan from there would be to capture some live music and then adventure down to the Malaria zone of Big Bend to pass out some medication and dive into the new area of Swaziland I had yet to explore.

Jackie was on her way to Cape Town and was not planning to travel to Swaziland until I told her about the magical experiences I had there. We arrived on a Saturday night when the town was just heating up with action. We landed a super sweet deal at a local hotel but were a bit upset to hear that the crime in Manzini was the highest in all of Swaziland and that there was no live music anywhere in town! We poked around all we could, but for once the hotel staff was actually right. Manzini after dark was not a pleasant place to be—drunk and disrespectful guys all over the place and a pretty dark vibe.

The next day we pedaled our way about 35K to one of my favorite backpackers in the Milwane Park called Sandeza and boy was it a hot one. We got a late start and ended up pedaling the uphill ride in 38 degree heat. We took a sunset ride in the park with zebra, warthogs, kudu and impala before dinner and got a good night sleep to rest up for my expedition into the mountains.

I was up early to beat the summer heat but knew it was going to be a scorcher as it was already warm and sunny at 6AM. I bid farewell to my Bay Area travel buddy and pedaled back into the town of Malkerns where I had befriended half dozen guys my last visit. I was tempted to look them all up again but I had limited time in the country and wanted to see some new turf.

I made my way out of town to a rural dirt road where I would begin my journey to Big Bend. The scenery was nothing short of breathtaking with endless mountain views dotted with small villages with round mud huts and thatch roofs called Rondovals. There was not a car in site, and also no sign of potential guest riders. So I threw on the Ipod and pedaled away waving at people tending to their small farms and starting a typical day in Swaziland.

I had no topographic map so I had no idea how steep the hills would be. But after talking with some locals on the road I knew I was up for some hills. They looked at me, my huge tandem and trailer, and laughed while motioning with their hands that there were steep hills coming my way. The fact that four people refused m invitation to ride, a rare occurrence in Africa, brought home the reality that I had some challenges ahead.

These guys were not kidding. In about 5K the hills started, and it was just about then that the summer heat of Swaziland started to really heat up. I’m always up for a challenge, but I had no idea what was in store for me that day. It’s helpful to have a really small 20 tooth grannie gear and a 34 tooth rear cassette (bike terms, I know. But it just means that should technically be able to climb just about anything), but with a 300 pound load it was still going to be painful. The hills started gentle, but then got downright brutal.

My plan for the day was to ride only 50KM or so. I had only ridden this big load with a strong guest rider Mohamed back in Mozambique so I had no idea how difficult it would be going solo. I was conquering the hills just fine until about 11AM when the heat was getting up into the 40+ degree zone and the hills hitting 15+ degree slopes. As much as I love to ride, it was getting hard to enjoy myself. Even cranking my favorite music on the Ipod could not cheer me up.

I got a short reprieve at summit with endless views over the entire country and a long decent that cooled my core body temperature down a bit. At the bottom of the hill I hit a crossroads—one way continued down and the other straight up a nasty, steep, endless dirty road climb. I asked some locals the way and, like the other roadside stop, they laughed and give a wide-eyed motion of “that way, up that mean hill, you crazy white boy” response in Swati (the local language--my interpretation, which might be right).

I was getting hungry so after I bit off a large chunk of the climb in the sweltering heat I saw some folks sitting in the shade in a small house and decided to pull my beast of a bike onto their property to grab some food, water and shade. My memory of Swaziland was super hospitable people and assumed these folks would be the same. But for some reason, for the first time in Africa, I was treated as an intruder and did not feel very welcome at all. I chomped down some bread, biscuits and bananas as my smiles were met with straight faces. I wanted to capture their afternoon activities on camera but was denied. My day was not off to a very good start.

I saw no reason hang out there much longer after my lunch so decided to carry on. The hills and heat were relentless and I resented not having a topo map to at least know what I was in for. I finally got to a point where I could not go any further. I pushed my massive load up steep dirt roads just to reach the top and get greeted with a hot headwind that felt like a hair dryer. I started to question what the hell I was doing there in the first place. I collapsed under a tree feeling defeated and very alone while little kids came in sucking frozen ice pops and asked the standard questions that I usually was happy to answer. I could barely muster a response; I was knackered as the Brits put it, dead to the world.

After about a half hour in the shade I decided I had endured enough suffering for the day only having ridden 38KM and all I wanted was about 10 of those ice pops the kids were sucking on and a gallon or two of cold water. The boys told me about a small store about 3K up the road so I hopped back on my steed and pedaled my way with a new goal—ice pops, water and rest. The 3K ride seemed to take an eternity as I realized that dehydration and a bit of heat stroke had indeed taken its toll on me.

I finally made it to the store and was told they had sold out of ice pops but did have plenty of cold water. Sitting in the shade of this little store, in some village not even on the map, I had a good feeling that my luck was about to change for the better. The water did my body a ton of good and my strength and attitude grew to new heights. There was only one guy there who spoke decent English and his name was Muzi and he was super friendly and welcoming.

I told Muzi about my rough day and that fact that I had chosen his village as my home for the night and was looking for someone show me around a bit. He eagerly invited me to stay with his family and we were soon pedaling down a wild dirt road towards his grandmother’s house where he was visiting from the capital town of Mbane for the Christmas holidays. He was confident his grandma would be more welcoming than the last family and was excited to show some real Swazi hospitality I had expected on my return trip.

It did not take long for Grannie to warm up to me and I was soon part of the family, relaxing on the porch, playing with the kids, exploring their farm, and even lending a hand in the kitchen preparing a chicken dinner. It’s hard to put into words how good it felt to be sitting amongst this lovely family of 11, playing cards with the kids, saying a long pre-dinner prayer of gratitude, and eating the most delicious home cooked meal I’ve had in a long time. My rough day in the saddle became a distant memory in the matter of minutes!

After dinner I invited Muzi to come ride for a few days on the way to Big Bend. He accepted the invitation and we were both extremely excited to ride together the next day. As if it could not get any better, they offered me my own room, huge bed, and plenty of space to organize my stuff. Turns out one of Grannies daughters Balanle who I just briefly met decided to stay on the floor of another family member and gave me her whole place for me to enjoy! I even had a fan to keep me nice and cool and I slept like a baby!

We woke up to overcast skies, which were very welcome to help fend off the mean heat brought on by the sun. Grannie cooked up a huge meal of porridge, which was made of the same corn meal our dinner was made from the night before except with more water to make it runny. She added tons of sugar, butter and fresh milk and boy was it yummy! We had a few of the Muzi’s brothers try to run the cameras to capture our departure but I’m not sure they captured much but a ton of running and laughing—lesson learned, teach them to use the tripod next time.

I was and still am learning how to self document this trip to share with others, and I filmed very little with the family the night before due to my fear of rejection fear from the lunchtime stop on the way to Muzi’s place. But I soon got over it the next day and Muzi loved to be on the camera so we caught a bunch of our adventure including steep climbs, river crossings, a bonk session (where we both were totally out of energy) and more. Stay tuned…

The ride with Muzi was what Peace Pedaling is all about. Two total strangers connecting with a common goal, having to work as a team, overcome challenges, communicate through language barriers and arrive with a memory we’ll never forget. The hills did not stop but with no heat and a 24 year old engine on the back we were moving right along. The air was fresh and cool, the vegetation diverse and ever-changing, and there was almost no traffic so we could chat away in the middle of the dirt road without having to worry about cars.

We passed a few remote villages but for the most part we were mountain biking in the bush. We burned through the porridge pretty fast and were both pretty hungry after about two hours of steep, hilly terrain. We crossed a few stunning rivers and eventually made it to a small crossroad down where we fueled up on a bunch of bananas and bread. Our plan was to ride the remaining 30K back to Manzini and get a place to stay together there before riding down to Big Bend.

The dirt road turned to pavement and we both assumed we would be back in Manzini in no time at all. But, once again, without a topo map you can’t make any assumptions, especially in Swaziland! We were both excited to enjoy a long decent after our lunch stop but then were hit with an endless hill for about 15KM out of the valley and our cloud layer has burnt off. It was soon déjà vu from the day before and I was soon dripping in sweat pulling Muzi up the hill as he was out of energy not being a real athlete and having pushed real hard for the first 25K of dirt riding.

The friendly conversation from our morning ride turned to huffing and puffing and we had to find shade every 20 minutes to cool down. At one rest stop I noticed he was barely sweating and told him that I expected him to be sweating as much as me the next rest stop. That was just the motivation he needed and I soon noticed some increased power on the climb, but it was still tough. The scenery was amazing, but I found it hard to keep my head up as we were going so slow I had to work hard to keep the bike from falling over and cars were starting to fly by as we moved closer to the city.

We finally made it to the outskirts of the city and we were both dead tired and extremely hungry. We were told we were no more than 5K from the city but it was then that the hills turned downright brutal. I’m talking about 15 degree grades, busses flying by with diesel fumes going into my lungs as my heart pumped at 180, and the temperature was at least 40 (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit). I felt my legs beginning to cramp but I knew the city was just around the corner, or the next corner, or the next. Then we both bonked at the same time, totally out of gas, nada, done.

When I got off the bike in front of some strangers house I sent Muzi in to get some water as we had run out again. My muscles in my legs were all contracting and dancing, and I could barely keep the bike from falling over. The guy said there was a store just 1K up the hill so we pounded some water and made the final charge for a store to get some fuel. We rolled up, ignored every local guys common questions and ooohhs and ahhhhhs and bolted into the store for 2 one-liter bottles of good ole Coca Cola, more water, and a few bags of potato chips and snack foods. It took about 15 minutes for me to be able to speak, but we both recovered and were able to laugh about it. I vowed to find a way to trim the weight of my bike—this was just out of control.

After our snack food we pedaled into town for a proper meal and a cold beer. After 3 days of hard riding I was in no mood to ride the next day with Muzi to Big Bend as planned. I told him I needed a day off to let my legs rest and decided to take some transport down to Big Bend and take my break there and not in the dirty, noisy city of Manzini. He joined me on a short bus ride and we landed a cheap pad overlooking the river in Big Bend.

I treated Muzi to a huge victory meal and we both hit the sheets early as we were dead tired. The next day Muzi went back to his village and I spent the day charging my batteries, both personal and electronics, did some yoga, ate, wrote, read and chilled by the river. I also went to work trying to find a female guest rider as I had yet to have a female African woman the entire time in Africa. My efforts were futile. They all had to work, while the guys were fighting for a seat. Only in Africa!

I ended up meeting a security officer before bed named Chipo and he and I made a plan to ride the next day about 50KM on the rural road towards the Mozambique border. We met overlooking the stars and he came out to tell me his story how he was so poor and wanted to start a business but had no capital. We had an hour conversation about business and I told him I would get him started the next day on the bike and even help him find money if he was serious. He was excited to learn more, so I thought. He didn’t show up.

Our plan was to meet “Under the Big Tree at the Mill”, which is a huge mill for sugar cane, which grows everywhere down at the low elevation in Swaziland. I was there at 8AM as planned and waited until 8:30, but had to get moving to beat the heat. I took a back road through the sugar cane but ended up back tracking due to the massive amount of dust from the sugar cane trucks. When I came back to look for the paved road another guy was sitting under the tree and waved me down. Turns out Chipo could not make it and sent his buddy Henry to come ride with me. He was all dressed up in a track suit and obviously ready to ride—Chipo or Henry, I don’t care. I just wanted to meet another local and connect on the bike. So off we went!

By the time we got rolling it was already starting to get pretty hot, but Henry had some strong legs and the headwind actually kept us pretty cool. We were now in the lowlands and the scenery changed to continual sugar cane on one side and a lovely “African Wilderness” on the other. Henry spoke very little English, but there was a friendly vibe about him and we got along great with our 7 year old conversations. Henry was out of work like many folks on the continent but was actively looking. He lived with his family in Big Bend and was the only bachelor left in his family of 8.

So bachelors Binks and Henry were teamed up, moving along at about 20km/hour, and beating the heat with stops in the shade to relax and chat. Just as both our stomachs were starting to rumble we smelled a braii (a term used throughout southern Africa for barbeque) and made the turn into a cute roadside store with a jolly Swazi chap cooking up some chicken. His name was Raphy and we hit it off right away. It was about a dollar for a plate of food including ½ a chicken and all the maize meal you could eat. We ordered 3 plates between Henry and I and not a crumb was left. The shade of the tree and a Thermarest chair became my home during the afternoon heat and we were soon part of the family in this small Swazi village.

I noticed a guy giving hair cuts under another tree and, after examining my own hair and beard, decided to inquire about my having my very first open air hair cut and shave. Turns out Vusani, an older guy I had been talking to for several hours, was the owner of both the store and the hair cutting business. He cut hair there and had several barber shops in Swaziland, and was eager to treat me to some of his magic for a whopping 50 cents.

I was soon doused with some kind of antiseptic tonic, which I was told keeps one from getting a disease if you get nicked. He also doused the blades and washed them for a long time as he saw my nervous face after his last comment. Here I am in Swaziland, with an AIDS rate of about 30 percent, and I’m getting a haircut with clippers that likely have nicked others. What was I thinking? But after I saw how much he cleaned the clippers I took a deep breath and gave him one last request, “Please, take your time, and just don’t cut me.” “I won’t cut you. I promise”, he answered. I trusted him, and walked away with a stellar haircut and not a single cut of any kind.

The sun started to go down and I decided it was time for me to let these guys in on the fact that I had no plans or idea where I was going to sleep. I told them I was very enthusiastic to experience real Swazi culture and ways of life and that I wanted to meet the chief and hook the village up with plenty of Malaria medication to save some lives. During our lunch and shade session I discovered from the locals that several people in the village have died in the past few years and that Malaria is a huge problem in that region.

Their eyes lit up about all my requests and Raphy took me in as his son and said he would ride with me to the chief’s house to introduce me and find me and Henry a place to stay that night. Raphy also decided that I needed a real Swati name and I soon became Mduduzi, which means “Comfort” in Swati. Swati is similar to Zulu, which I had learned a bit of in South Africa, so I was able to give some greetings and say basic phrases right from the get go.

Raphy and I rode down a long dirt road as the scenes of rural Swazi living rolled by with mud and thatch huts, donkey-drawn carts and shoeless kids chasing the bike laughing. We arrived at the large housing compound of the chief and Raphy yelled something and I was told to sit and wait until we got a response. No response came and Raphy went to investigate and soon told us that the chief was out of town but that one of his four wives was there and she gave me permission to spend the night in the village.

I was soon taken to my own house! Yep, I got styled out with a huge room, queen size bed, and a bathing bucket that I was told would be filled with hot water whenever I wanted my bath for the night. I felt welcome and at home. There was another twin bed in the room as well for Henry so we were set. After dumping all my gear off Raphy took me down to the house of his friends and I spent the evening meeting dozens of people, trying local foods like barbequed intestines (not good) and drinking home made beer made from a local fruit that was, well, interesting.

My plan was to leave the next day and continue my journey but the family and all my new friends rejected my planned departure date with vengeance. They said they wanted to organize a meal, more friends and a ride with my first FEMALE African guest rider Thabsille the next day. Thabsille is a beautiful 22 year old woman who is the only one in the family who is not married, and everyone seemed to join in on the group strategy for us to get together. This made me a bit uncomfortable as the night went on as it seemed to get more and more serious, to the point where they were calling Thabsille’s mom my “mother in law” and forcing us to sit together and pose for photos as well. But I ran with it, and my intention was for no hearts to be broken.

The next day I picked up Thabsille up for our ride together through the villages and we had a blast! It’s not easy getting African women on the bike as they seem to lack confidence and also have far more chores to do then the men. Not to mention that fact that most adult women are married quite young and don’t feel comfortable riding with a single guy. But Thabsille and I hit the trails and rural dirt roads hard for 3 hours and shot some great video footage, which you’ll see one day.

We returned back to Thabsille’s house and her mom had an enormous home cooked meal ready for us. The temperature had soared into the 40’s and the shade, cool water and food hit the spot. Our meal was the staple maize meal with a runny, sticky, green veggie side dish that tasted great, but had the consistency that made you struggle getting it down. The homemade beer was soon to follow, and Thabsille and I took a long nap in the shade to let the heat die out before the evening events they had in store for me.

That night Raphy came back from buying tons of food, drinks, snacks and treats for the kids and Tahbsille’s dad Themba came back from his week working in the city of Big Bend at the sugar mill away from his rural home. It was a huge celebration when papa came back as he only spent 2 nights a week at home and everyone jumped for joy when he got dropped off. After a quick introduction Themba and I took a spin on the tandem and he was ecstatic. He brought a huge steak from town and told me we would share it. Bonus!

We had a lovely meal of steak, maize meal and more slimy green stuff washed down with local beers and sweets as the family continued to try to put Thabsille and I together every possible place we sat. Thabsille and I liked each other, but we were both laughing at the “grown ups” trying to be match makers. I knew I was heading out early the next morning to make my way to the border of Mozambique so I resisted the aggressive attempts by everyone to get me totally hammered on the local beer. We all sat under a huge tree, chatting, laughing, chasing the kids, and just enjoying simple pleasures until the sun was down.

Raphy and I went back to my place where I gave a few midnight tandem rides around the village with my drunk buddies. They brought me a tub of hot water and they all seemed quite content watching me bathe naked in my room. We were all sad when I finally told them I was off to bed and leaving at 6AM to beat the heat as we all knew that it would be a long time before I came back. They could not believe that I could leave them, Thabsille and the great life they were offering to me. But, with all the compassion I could muster up, I told them my life was on the road right now and I had to be moving on.

I slept like a baby but woke up to pouring rain and some stomach pains so decided to spend an extra hour in bed. I packed up the bike and made my way to the main road, bidding farewell to the early birds up tending their fields. I was soon pedaling towards the Mozambique border as the sun peaked through the clouds. About half way there I stopped to take an emergency bathroom break but struggled to find anywhere private to do so. I sat there in pain, legs crossed, waiting for half dozen people to stop starting at me and allow me a moment to take care of business.

Turns out I caught some diarrhea eating and drinking the local food for two days but it was not a serious case. I was just re-mounting my bike when a dreadlocked man came running up to me, sweating and breathing heavy, telling me he just had to talk to me before I rode away. His name was Shesifiso and he told me he was a singer and song writer. I invited him to pedal with me towards the border and he hopped on with enthusiasm.

Shesifiso was a fascinating man with a huge smile, progressive thoughts and lyrics, and we built a great friendship that afternoon. He ended up hopping on the bike and singing me dozens of songs he wrote for about two hours all the way to the main road to Mozambique. I can’t begin to put to words the feeling of spinning along with smiling villagers waving and cheering outside their charming homes and farms while being serenaded by a new friend on a tandem bike in Swaziland! I was grinning ear to ear, and the tail wind was the icing on the cake!

By the time I made it to the main road it was about 3PM and my plan was to hitch a ride to Maputo to catch the music scene on Saturday night. It was getting late and I was not sure how I would pull it off, but I managed to catch a lift to the border, get into Mozambique, and then hitch another ride from some Dutch missionaries all the way to the backpackers before sunset. And I was able to clean up, shower and was soon out dancing and recording live local musicians in Maputo. Life is good!

So my short but sweet return to Swaziland was more than I could have hoped for. Aside from my day one blues it was a blissful trip loaded with unforgettable experiences. As I write this journal now up in Zambia, I still have yet to experience a country with such warm, inviting, genuine people as Swaziland. But I’m just getting started…stay tuned!

I’m off tomorrow to pedal about 600KM of rugged terrain along Lake Kariba to Lusaka. I’ve been off the bike with bike and camera equipment challenges for long time and itching to ride! Over and out!

Live Big. Give Big.

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