23 hours after getting into the taxi in Sunninghill, Elizabeth was able to start her shower in our room at the lodge in Bulembu. It took us about 6 hours to get here from Johannesburg.
47 members of the International Community Church hopped onto a flight at Heathrow last night, arriving in South Africa this morning. After collecting our bags, and having some fantastic coffee at the Woolworth, we sorted ourselves out into 5 large Toyota vans (with small engines). 4 of the vans pulled small trailers (small, covered trailers are ubiquitous here), and by putting a few of the suitcases in the back of the vans, we were just able to squeeze all our luggage in. After some consultation with the staff, 5 white vans pulled out onto the motorway, following the bright red pickup truck belonging to LeeAnn McPharland, the woman our church supports here in Bulembu.
Heading directly east towards Maputo, Mozambique, the first half of the trip was a very modern and large motorway through relatively uninteresting scenery. We stopped once for lunch, and a second time to tank up and empty out. On the other side of Middelburg, the road narrowed from a highway into a 4-lane with no median. As the terrain became hillier, and the mountains were visible, the road narrowed to 2-3 lanes. We left the Maputo road at Nelspruit, turning directly south, and heading into the mountains on a twisty 2-lane. We were climbing into the clouds, and had to put the wipers on intermittent, and our little vans started to struggle with the grade. They not only couldn’t make it up any of the hill in 4th, but a couple times, I had to downshift into 3rd. I’ve driven stick all my life, but never with the shifter coming out of the dash. There must have been a long and tortuous linkage between the shift knob and the gear fingers, because it was not always easy to find 4th on my way back down.
We passed through miles and miles of tree plantation, apparently servicing the local paper mill. Reaching Barberton at about 3pm, and were concerned that we wouldn’t make the Swaziland border before it closed at 4. This last 46km was a steep and twisty road that switchbacked up and down a mountain range, most of which was pasture. At least the road was in excellent shape, being relatively wide and recently paved. We spent a lot of this part of the trip with the vans struggling to make it through the steeper parts of Saddleback Pass in 2nd gear. We finally reached a sort of quaint and African-looking border crossing at 3:50PM. It seemed to take forever for South Africa to process us back out of the country that we’d only arrived in earlier that day, but Elizabeth is convinced it was less than 15 mins. Having left the headlights on, it was enough time to run down the battery. I couldn’t start the van, so we pushed it backwards to the road, and I bump started it in 2nd.
I kept the engine running when we briefly stopped at the Swazi border crossing, which consists of a woman and a long red & white pole that she lifted to allow the vans to enter the country. The road was much narrower on this side, mostly only a single lane. Where the South African side had been cleared and grazed, this side is forest. After about 10 minutes, we pulled into the outskirts of Bulembu. Carefully threading our way through the steep, narrow and potholed streets, we reached The Lodge. I backed the van into a parking spot so that if necessary, it would be easy to push it to a steep hill.
Bulembu was a company town built for the Havelock Asbestos Mine. One of the 5 biggest asbestos mines in the world, it closed in 1991 after a 10 year decomissioning process, turning Bulembu into something of a ghost town. A group of Christians (mostly from the US and Canada) essentially bought the town in 2006, forming Bulembu Ministries Swaziland. The plan is to make the town self-sustaining by 2020, at which point it should be supporting 2,000 orphans. With the highest AIDS rate in Africa, such support is desperately needed. The Lodge contains tourist accomodations, the former golf course now supports dairy cattle, and former company warehouses are now used in the production of honey. The Christian school in town is considered one of the best in Swaziland.
A GoogleEarth map showing the final part of our drive into Bulembu appears below. You can zoom in, and also see the satellite view.