Sweet Tooth

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After sweating through a crippling traffic jam leaving Maputo (2 km in 2.5 hours!), a bribeless border crossing and a R50 Swaziland road toll fee we looked forward to our main objectives in the Kingdom of Swaziland: hiking in the Highveld and white water rafting the Usutu River.

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Although the river was not flowing at class 4 and 5 as we’d hoped we thoroughly enjoyed hiking in the western Highveld. We hitched a ride to the trailhead, hiked up, across and down the largest exposed granite pluton in the world – Sibebe Rock near the capital city of Mbabane. A classic day hike that nearly ended when Michel narrowly avoided stepping on a brown, unknown species of snake we were certain was lethally poisonous. Luckily, Michel stopped mid-step and wobbled around until he could place his foot clear of the ready to strike serpent. The previous day we also had a fantastic time hiking in the Malolotja Nature Reserve despite not locating our intended destination amongst the beautiful vistas and lush terrain.

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The overall Kingdom of Swaziland highlight was a three-hour personalized tour of “The Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation” sugar mill led by the plant manager a Mechanical Engineer with 18 years of sugar mill experience. Although tours are normally booked long in advance and the plant was in the middle of a shutdown preparing for the upcoming processing season, we were able to persuade our way past two sets of gate guards and a few receptionists. Unfortunately, as with most industrial operations photography was not permissible within the plant. The technical tour was spectacular and significantly increased our appreciation and knowledge of the four-day process involved in converting sugar cane into raw sugar. With the plant not in operation we obviously didn’t taste any of the 220,000 tonnes of raw sugar shoot out the back-end but we were able to get up close to all the processing equipment. The cane harvesting season runs for 30-35 weeks beginning on April 1st. The sugar cane harvest and mill employ 7,000-8,000 field and plant personnel. The majority of the cane is still manually field cut by hand. Although the mill has procured mechanized harvesting equipment to ensure a constant and even supply into the plant, labour unions are strongly opposed to their use for fear of job loss. We left with an open invitation to return in April or later to see all the action while staying with the plant managers family. A generous offer we’d gladly take up depending on our whereabouts.

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Although handmade crafts can be found all over the world, Swaziland’s were certainly impressive. Many programs have been established to support artisans and market their hand-made products. We had the opportunity to meet many of the local craftsman while visiting some of the local shops and factories. Walking through a roadside market we saw many nice soapstone carvings and although we looked at 100’s of rhino’s we quickly noticed that one artist, a second generation carver, had an incredibly keen attention to detail. Tremendous skill, a knife, hatchet and hacksaw blade as well as some sandpaper and shoe polish yield a gallery ready piece. We purchased a white rhino carving for R90 (9 CAD). The 24 man hours required to complete the piece translate to a salary of 0.33 CAD per hour.

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We had the opportunity to visit the Ngwenya Glass Factory which began in 1979 as a result of foreign aid via Sweden. The factory was built, machinery was imported and expert glass blowers trained local Swazi people on the art of glass blowing. The process begins when glass collected from all over the country is brought to the factory where it’s purchased per kilo and hand-made into 100% recycled artwork. Although we’re sure there have been more, this was one of the first encouraging signs of recycling we’ve seen in Africa – congratulations Ngwenya Glass Factory on setting such a positive example of environmental stewardship!

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We hadn’t run out of petrol since trip day 1 heading to Kruger so karma decided it was time to spice things up. Knowing we were running low since last fueling up our 80L tank some 450kms ago, we ran out of gas after driving straight past a Total station manically searching for an Engen that readily stocks the Lead Replacement Petrol (LRP) the Yster Ratel’s non-hardened valves demand. Despite Tamaira’s anxiety we managed to coast a few kilometres right back down to the Total stopping 6’ from the pump! Thank you gravity.

Let’s hope the Yster Ratel keeps running strong. Next destination: Sodwana Bay – one of the top diving destinations in South Africa. Can’t wait to get wet and compare to the dives in Mozambique with loggerhead turtles, blue spotted stingrays, guitar shark, box fish, octopus, trumpetfish, lionfish….

Cheers, Tamaira & Michel

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