I had just boarded a coach to Manchester airport from Wolverhampton after which if all went well over the next two weeks would see me climb four more country high points in Africa taking me to 78 country high points. En route to the airport, I managed to find a stream on my phone for the Wolves v Aston Villa game. The result was a thoroughly deserved and convincing 2-1 win. A great start to my trip! My Ethiopian airline’s flight was from Manchester to Addis Ababa with a short stopover in Brussels. As always, I had asked at the check-in desk about the availability of window seats for my flight, which thankfully were available, meaning I had the option to get some sleep if needed. The flights went well, good food and in-flight entertainment and the always useful USB power point to keep my phone charged.
The following morning, we landed in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia where I needed to catch my connecting flight to Johannesburg. The airport was busy with long queues and no order or system which just left everyone pushing past each other in all directions. I only had a few hours until my flight to South Africa and was soon boarding my next flight. Addis Ababa is the main hub for Ethiopian airlines serving many destinations worldwide. I was pleasantly surprised that after I had taken my window seat the same man that had sat next to me as the previous flight sat alongside me once again. Crazy. The flight again went well, I landed with plenty of time before needing to catch my next mode of transport.
I walked towards the passport control lines where a man with a heat-detecting gun was pointing it at everyone who went past, I assume checking for people with a temperature or generally unwell. There were about 6 counters open and maybe 70 people in the queue ahead of me. Many were Asian, each carrying a spool of paperwork with each taking ages after having their paperwork scrutinised and answering a multitude of questions. It took over 1hr30 to finally get through the queue whereupon finally reaching the counter they just asked how long I would be in SA, stamped my passport and waved me on, quite frustrating. Thankfully I had made an allowance for delays or cancellations so still had plenty of time to spare.
I needed some SA Rand so headed to a nearby ATM, it’s always difficult guestimating how much money I will need along with the fact that there is usually a service charge for every transaction, so if I still have money left over after my trip I get a poor conversion rate, so I, therefore, try to be as accurate as possible looking into the prices of taxis, buses and local food beforehand. I decided 2500 rand should be enough, The machine started spitting out notes, then more and more. It was like winning on an ATM slot machine. I was finally allowed to collect my winnings and put my hand into the collection tray, they were all 50 rand notes, 2500 rand in 50s! Brilliant.
From the ATM I had a wander around the airport and spotted a Wimpys restaurant upstairs. There hasn’t been a Wimpys near to me for 20+ years so I couldn’t resist. Had a lovely massive cheese and bacon burger with a running egg on and fries, perfect. My next task was getting from the airport to Nelspruit, which is a town near to the Eswatini boarder. I had arranged beforehand a guest house in Barberton, a town closer still to Eswatini. I had originally planned on just flying to Nelspruit but during my research, I noticed a City Bug bus runs straight from JNB airport directly to Nelspruit for around 7 times cheaper. The only downside was that it would take around 3hr30. The coach arrived on time and the journey went quickly with a short stopover at a service station en route. It was 19:00 and dark by the time we reached Nelspruit, but I was pleased to see the guest house owner already waiting for me upon my arrival just as I had planned.
After the usual greetings and him asking where my luggage was, I jumped into his car, bought some food and drinks from a nearby garage and headed to his guest house along with a very informative tour of Barberton by my host, at times accompanied by a several families of Baboons at the side of the roads as we headed through the town. We soon reached the guest house and I could relax for the evening after many hours of travelling. My room had everything I needed for a few days, It was in a great location and I spoke to the owner asking if it would be possible for him to give me a lift to the border the following morning along with picking me up again at 16:00 when the border closed. After coming to a price that was beneficial, it was agreed. Good news, everything set up nicely to climb the highest mountain in Eswatini the following day.
After a good sleep, I met Lukas the guest house owner outside at 06:30 as we had agreed the previous evening. The Josefsdal border crossing between SA and Eswatini was just over an hour’s drive away but was only open between 08:00 – 16:00. So, I knew the maximum amount of time I would have in Eswatini to get through the border, climb to the highest point in the country, get down and cross the border back into SA. Otherwise, I would have no choice but to stay in Eswatini and wait until 08:00 the following morning when it would open again. It was a dull and overcast morning as we gained height and wound up into the mountains heading towards the border. There is a geological trail along the way as the area as Emlembe, the mountain I will be climbing consist of some of the oldest rocks on earth. As we climbed higher it started to rain, I had brought my coat as the forecast was drizzle but it was still pleasantly warm. As far as views would go it was probably looking like one of those cloudy mountain climbing days.
We arrived at the border at 07:45, I waited in the car as it was raining and spoke to Lukas for 15 mins before spot on 08:00 they opened the gates, I said to Lukas I will be back here at 15:30. He said no problem and he would be here to meet me to take me back to his guesthouse. I headed to the passport control offices and they asked where I was heading and staying? I said I would be heading back through this afternoon after climbing the highest point in Eswatini. They looked at each other and asked me to say it again. I showed them my intended route on my phone and also on a physical map I had printed out. They stamped my passport, said good luck and waved me on. It was a surprising distance downhill to the Eswatini border from there, After 5 or so minutes I arrived at the Eswatini passport control and was asked the same questions, it was still overcast and drizzling so there was no point in even pointing towards where the mountain I intended to climb was as it was currently hidden well above the clouds. I told him I had a hotel in Barberton, SA and would be crossing back this afternoon. He smiled, stamped my passport and again wished me good luck and shook my hand while shaking his head.
It was a noticeably lower quality road/track compared to the nice road on the SA side. But I was on foot, so this was no problem. I continued walking down the road until reaching a small town called Bulembu. Between 1939 and 2001, Bulembu operated as a chrysotile mine producing Asbestos. Most of the population had moved to the area working in the mines but during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the mines owners went bankrupt. Upon liquidation, the 10,000 residents of Bulembu soon deserted the town in search for employment elsewhere and the town became a ghost town with little more than 50 people remaining there. This was during the time that Eswatini was (as it continues to be) ravaged by the HIV/AIDS virus. Despite its small population size, eSwatini has the highest HIV prevalence in the world and has been greatly affected by the epidemic. Currently, 27.3% of the adult population are affected resulting in a continued nationwide orphan crisis.
There were only a few locals around as it was still quite early, it was drizzling and dull. After walking through Bulembu I used my GPS to find the correct track that led uphill toward Emlembe, the highest mountain in Eswatini. I passed a few small local shops and a bakery before it turned into farmland and the track started to wind uphill heading through more forested areas. I past several more farmhouses and was now properly heading uphill. The clouds were still low, so the visibility was poor but it was easy going following the 4×4 kind of track. After a while, the track turned rocky and the morning dew highlighted many large spider webs en route. The track ended abruptly upon reaching a saddle where there was a concrete square and a few radio masts, the track was built just for access purposes I assume but useful for my climb.
From here I turned left at the saddle and contoured around a grassy hill before climbing uphill quite steeply in the direction of the SA border. I went in and out of a few forested areas, there were the usual jungle noises were heard but despite it being overcast It was a pleasant and cool climb so far. There were a few grassy areas with cattle grazing on the slopes, they didn’t take much notice of me as I passed. The cloud started to break up as I reached 1500m and I was able to see across the lush green valley below to my left. The view was soon lost though as I continued to climb higher up the mountain.
There was a rocky section with some larger boulders for several hundred meters along the ridge where a local man was sitting down. I said hi and he asked what I was doing up here? I told him I was heading to the highest point, he was also heading up to the summit but he was hoping that the clouds would lift for a nice view. I continued uphill on a faint trail in the grass, a large hill appeared out of the clouds to my right. From there the route continued up and over small steeper hill and from there it became less steep up to the summit ridge. I could see the radio mast appear up directly ahead, my GPS was showing I was around 40m below the true summit. I had a quick look around and took a few photos but the battery on my new Go Pro was saying 0% when it had said 82% moments earlier. As it was still misty with rain in the air I headed inside the radio tower building to shelter, I removed and reinserted my battery, it was back on 82%. Strange! Satisfied that my camera was back up and running I continued the short distance along the ridge to the left of the way I had ascended and onto the true highest point in Eswatini and my 75th country high point.
There was an old derelict small building on the top surrounded by rusty razor barbed wired that was all tangled up in weeds and spread in over the place. There was a fence running downhill which was the SA and Eswatini border. I took several photos and videos before heading back along the ridge to the mast the same way as I had climbed up. On the descent, while still in the clouds I saw the same man from earlier in the distance, but he was now descending. I quickly caught him up and we spoke most of the way down. I asked if he had been to the mast but he just said that he would come back up on a clear day as he lived near to Bulembu at the bottom of the mountain. While descending with the local man who was wearing a shirt, trousers and black shoes he said he was going to round up some cattle for the dairy farmer that he knew as they have trouble locating their cows on the mountain but he had seen them on the way up. I had made good time getting to the top from the border so went along with him to usher the cattle further down the mountain. Suddenly as we were descending the clouds parted and offered us a stunning view. By the time I had reached the saddle I could see I was surrounded by hills and greenery comparable to being in the Lake district back home.
Not long after rejoining the track the man headed into a church and we said our goodbyes. I continued back down towards Bulembo taking several photos now that I had good visibility. I passed a group of young white adults in the centre of the town who were erecting a fence on a property, I assume they were on a placement project. They waved and said hi as I passed, there were certainly a lot of Hydrangeas in properties throughout the town that made it really picturesque. I still had plenty of time before Lukas was due to pick me up at the SA border, so I chillaxed on a nice seat shaped rock at the side of the road in Bulembu, took my shoes off and listened to some music in the warm sun. A group of young school kids and their teacher walked past after a while and all said hello, I said hello.. hello.. hello to all of them and the last lad gave me a high five to the amusement of his friends. The smell from the Bakery was making me hungry, I rummaged through my bag and found a stray melted chocolate bar which I slurped before slowly headed up the steep road towards the Eswatini border post in the now hot and blazing sun.
When I arrived at the Eswatini border the man at passport control asked, How I had got on? I told him I had been successful and climbed to the highest point in Eswatini. He said, Are you sure? How do you know you got to the actual highest point? I whipped out my phone and showed him my maps with the contours and GPX route marked on them. He said no way and called a colleague over who also showed interest. Then another man who I had said hi to earlier came over and also asked about what I had done all day and where I had been. After getting my exit stamps I set off uphill for the 300m steep walk to the SA border post. They also asked how I got on with the climb but quickly let me though after flicking through my passport. I had arrived at the SA border earlier than planned with Lukas not due for 30+ mins. I headed towards a small building to sit in the shade but a guard starting waving and calling me as I was sitting outside their main office. I said about the shade and he said, wait here a minute and came back from the office with a plastic chair and said I could sit under a tree in the shade. Lukas turned up on time and we headed back to his guest house stopping en route at several interesting rock formations and viewpoints which as the morning mist and clouds had now lifted offered fantastic views. We picked up two guests in Barberton who were waiting for Lukas. I popped into a shop on the way to resupply and then we all headed back to the guest house. The owner has a small dog which the male guest was terrified of at first, He squealed.. which was quite amusing as he hid behind his girlfriend. I spent the rest of the day relaxing as I had quite a busy schedule over the next few weeks.
The following morning as planned Lukas gave me a lift to the CityBug coach station in Nelspruit where I would be catching the coach back to JNB airport. The journey went quite quick as I was listening to music, we stopped at a service station again around halfway to have a break and I brought some sweets. A girl was sitting next to me who had sat down before I had got back onto the coach. I had the window seat next to her but instead of standing up she just turned to her left instead of getting up off her seat. I looked at her, but she just looked away, So I thought fair enough and I squeezed in past her. My arse was no doubt right in her face and in doing so I smashed off not only her water bottle holder but also mine, but I thought fuck it. The miserable get! Any normal person would have stood up or moved as it was a tight gap, So I just sat down and listened to music while she rummaged around on the floor looking for her drink that had by now rolled away down the coach. Simply too lazy to stand and let me get to my seat.
It didn’t seem to take long to get back to JNB airport from there and I had another Wimpys double cheeseburger before getting the free airport shuttle to my airport hotel. As we pulled out of the airport for the short 10 min ride it raining started raining heavily with several loud claps of thunder and lightning lighting up the sky. I soon arrived at the hotel, the driver was talkative and pleasant as was the receptionist. The hotel and room were nice and the perfect place to relax before another country high point in Botswana tomorrow.