Sibebe Rock

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This is a real throwback to November of last year, but I kept getting side-tracked before writing this. At this point I had only been to a few countries (Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia), but I think visiting eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland) continued to show me the vast diversity within Africa in terms of culture and geography. To get there we took a bus to Johannesburg, rented a car, and drove the rest of the way to the capital, Mbabane. South Africa is such a beautiful country- the rolling hills of fertile farmland is a stark contrast to the flat desert I’d become accustomed to. As we started to near the border of our destination, the topography started to change. The rolling hills gave way to taller, rounded mountains and valleys covered in green. The temperature was comfortable; I no longer felt like sizzling on the pavement, which was my default description of walking outside in Botswana at that time.

The first night we met our Airbnb host, then met up with a friend of a friend for dinner. His name was Thulani- he’s from eSwatini originally but studied engineering at Penn where he met a med student who I was working with in Botswana. The restaurant was lovely- we picked out all the meat we wanted at an ice bar, then they grilled it for us on the spot and served it to us in a huge bowl with the sides as well. We all just reached in with our hands for the sausage, beef, pork, chicken, pap, and spinach in a truly family style way. Our server was so friendly that we invited him to sit with us and have a bite to eat if he wanted. He ran off to finish a few other things then joyously obliged, digging in with his hands with the rest of us. I think this pretty well encapsulates my impression of the place. People are so open and kind, there aren’t interpersonal barriers you’d typically expect to find in a new, foreign place. Crime is also very low here- it feels like one of those places where trusting a stranger is not likely to get you into trouble.

View from Airbnb

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House on Fire

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The next day we had breakfast at a place called the House on Fire. It’s a spectacular venue. Good, cheap food in an eclectic environment with a backdrop of rolling hills and mountains. It’s also the venue for a huge annual music festival called Bush Fire, where thousands of people come to camp on the lawn and spend time in the interesting structures which all become stages for various bands. It was quite calm when we were there but I could imagine it becoming quite busy during that time.

Later we went to hike Sibebe rock, the second largest exposed granite face in the world (first is Uluru Rock in Australia). The local guides welcomed us with the typical, “welcome to the Kingdom,” as eSwatini remains a monarchy. It took a few hours for us to all get to the top. On the way, we passed some vast pastureland for cows, a resort for the rock which looked very nice and was remarkably inexpensive, and a number of rock formations with passageways. It was said that long ago these rock formations were used as shelter from inclement weather by the local people. I think all of it was so impressive to me especially because of the geographic contrast to where I was living at the time. Apparently when the rock was being named there was a competition to race straight up it from the bottom, rather than taking the surrounding paths like we did. The story goes that one of the contestants or one of his accomplices who was going to lose became upset at the state of things and threw a stone at the leader (Sibebe), who was knocked off by the stone and sadly tumbled down the rock to his death.

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Later Thulani was so kind as to invite the group of us to his home in a rural part of the country. The drive was a bit challenging for our sedan (not always the highest quality dirt roads near where he lived), but we made it! His family was so incredibly kind to us. They rearranged their sleeping situation so we could have our own beds, fed us with their own meat and vegetables, and even went out to buy roasted corn for us because we mentioned it looking tasty when we drove past vendors on the way in. They took some interest in my photography, especially my fairly extensive efforts to get a good star picture. I loved seeing the lights from all the houses spread throughout the area when the stars were out. While we were walking around we found a couple of his neighbors who were dressed in some very unique garb who came and talked to us. They wanted us to take their picture, so I did! It was a Sunday so I believe it was related to religion.

Thulani's Home

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We tried to see a few things on the way back, but after another night in Mbabane we had to start driving back to South Africa for the long ride home. I can’t precisely describe it but eSwatini was a very special place to me. Something about being so welcomed in a new place by a new friend, though I think my impression of it would have still been very positive without such an amazing host. I really hoped to get back during my time there but unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity.

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