I’ve been an admirer of Hollywood heartthrob Patrick Swayze for decades, and was crushed when he was tragically killed during a breakdancing competition several years ago. So when I discovered that there’s an entire country where Swayze fans congregate, I hopped in my 1965 Buick Rivier, blasted the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and headed over to check it out. Swayzeland, I assured myself, would be as awesome as watching Road House and Ghost back-to-back with a bucket of choc chip ice cream (otherwise known as every Tuesday at my place).
I expected the border to be full of handsome white folk with big hair and acid wash jeans, and was shocked to see large numbers of black people who certainly didn’t look like Swayze’s regular audience (unless his films have found unlikely popularity with people who cook chicken in the burning wrecks of cars). It was then, like a kick to the stomach, that I realised I was actually entering Swaziland. I bet it’s a common mistake.
Swaziland is geographically close to Lesotho, but a world apart in most other ways. Instead of steep, barren mountains, I was greeted by rolling green hills. The capital, Mbabane, is easily bypassed on the impressive road system, but looks tidy and prosperous. It was certainly a gentler welcome than the culture shock of the comparitively bizarre Lesotho.
I was cruising through the spacious valleys of inner Swaziland when I saw a sign pointing to a concert for one of my favourite black rapping men, the face-tattooed, hat-wearing, buck-toothed singer of Bitch Wat A Ho, Bitch, Yo, Lil Wayne. Seeing him ‘spit fire’ on stage would ease my Swayze disappointment, so I turned up a dirt track and followed the signs. However, instead of finding the finest voice of our generation, I was ambushed by a herd of zebras. Turned out I’d actually ventured into the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Sometimes I think I’m not very smart.
It’s a quiet and peaceful park in a gentle and welcoming country, and offers plenty of hiking opportunities, so I laced up my boots and got out there. Antelope and weird horny cow things grazed in the wide open paddocks that I sauntered through, and birds flapped around me. I just hoped I didn’t bump into the park’s resident hippos, which are known to plod around like they own the place.
Before long I found myself surrounded by dozens of zebras, and they really are goofy-looking things. Fat horses with short legs and mohawks, really. They’re very tame here and I was able to hang out just metres from them, which was a much better experience than watching them from my car in Addo. I was able to get so close that I can confirm they’re not just ponies with spray-painted stripes, so the Swazis are one up on the Chinese in that regard.
Nyonyane Peak dominates the skyline around Mlilwane, so I got my legs moving and powered up there. It provides an incredible look out over the park and a good portion of the tiny country of Swaziland. Even though the park is only 20km out of the capital, the valley it lies in is quiet and rural, with fertile farms and surprisingly tidy villages. This country is certainly a surprise after the shambles that is so much of South Africa, and the barren wastelands of Lesotho.
Now, if they can just stop naming everything after my favourite celebrities, we’ll be fine. What next, Garyglitterville?