One of the main attractions in Swaziland is adventure sports. Our group booked three activities in advance to do over the long weekend: cycling, white-water rafting and quad-biking. The tour operator was Swazi Trails, located in the Mantenga Craft Center in the Ezulwini Valley.
Unfortunately, our cycling trip was thwarted by a massive tropical downpour. Thankfully the rains started about 5 minutes before we were meant to leave the Swazi Trails headquarters, and not halfway through the activity. This stroke of luck was only possible due to the fact that we were running about 30 minutes late on our drive in from Mozambique. Had we arrived on time, we would have suffered through a very wet, muddy bike ride. Part of me was very relieved, as I had agreed to go cycling with the rest of the group despite knowing all too well that biking - in particular mountain biking on rugged trails with a group of enthusiasts - is not an activity I find particularly enjoyable. The prospect of a "cycling safari", however, was enough to make me sign up anyway in hopes of seeing game up close as promised in Swazi Trails' brochure. Maybe next time, though I doubt I'll be foolish enough to sign up again for an activity I know I don't enjoy.
This was by far the highlight of the trip to Swazi in my opinion. We piled into an old kombi along with 3 guys from Johannesburg and drove down the valley to the Usutu River. To be honest, I thought the guides could have been a bit more professional in their explanation of how to manage the river, and in particular in ensuring enough quality, properly-fitted life-jackets and helmets for everyone. In the end we all made it safe and sound, but I would have appreciated a helmet that didn't jiggle around on my head and a life vest that was slightly larger.
Unlike other rafting trips I've done, this one was on 2-man "croc" rafts, making the experience much more personal and exciting. In large rafts with 4 to 6 people sitting on each side of the boat and a guide in the back to steer, you get the adrenaline of the rapids but not necessarily the feeling that your own contribution and skill determine the success (or lack thereof!) of navigating the river. With the 2-man rafts, whether you and your partner manage to stay in the boat is wholly determined by your ability to work as a team, steer the boat, problem-solve when you veer off course, and in general paddle like mad.
Rico and I were a team, with him in the back acting as captain (the stronger rower who is responsible for steering the raft) and me in front as navigator (responsible for identifying the best course around obstacles and shouting out directions to the captain). We performed exceedingly well as a rafting team, and were the *only* boat where nobody fell into the river over the 8km downstream trip! I couldn't believe it, especially considering that on one particularly difficult series of class IV rapids, we got stuck on a rock at the top of a small waterfall, spun around after freeing ourselves from the obstacle, and went down the rest of the run backwards!
Other teams were not so lucky. One particularly funny incident was at a 7-meter artificial waterfall created by a reservoir project on the river. We had to paddle like mad, then essentially do a vertical free-fall and hope to land at a good angle at the bottom as to not flip over. When our friends Jenny and Paco were going down the drop, poor Paco went sailing out of the back of the raft unbeknownst to Jenny as she continued rowing from the navigator's position. The rest of us were waiting in a group at the bottom of the waterfall, and began whistling and shouting at Jenny to indicate there was a problem. In her adrenaline rush, she raised her arms in a victorious salute, then went on paddling without looking back. Only after a minute or so did she notice that Paco was missing! The look on her face when she realized what was going on was priceless!
After our half-day rafting adventure, we had lunch on the river bank, then hauled the rafts for some 500 meters over extremely rocky, muddy terrain back to the kombi. This was an unfortunate and honestly uncomfortable end to a great experience, though Swazi Trails did state in the brochure that we would be responsible for portage of the rafts. I just never imagined it would be such a schlep, especially since we were all barefoot.
Our quad-biking trip departed from the posh golf-course parking lot of the Royal Swazi Sun hotel, but quickly turned into serious 4x4 terrain as we headed into the property behind the resort. I suppose the name of the trail - Devil's Cauldron - should have tipped me off that perhaps this was not the ideal activity for me. Nonetheless, I figured that quad-biking would be more like driving a car and less like cycling, and that as a result I would probably enjoy the activity.
I was dead wrong.
After 10 minutes, I was having such a miserable time that I asked to get off my own bike and ride on the back of the instructor's. It was a wise decision, as not only was I not enjoying myself, I was holding up all of my quad-bike enthusiast friends as we had to all ride in close proximity. I don't know exactly what it is about cycling/quad-biking that I dislike so much...something about the lack of control of the equipment coupled with speed and a general feeling I'm going to hurt myself.
Riding on the back of a quad-bike while on a serious adventure trail is no easy feat. I had to cling to an iron bar on the back of the vehicle with all my strength, and concentrate on my core muscles to stay balanced while the guide flew up insanely steep hills and swerved around mud pools, tree trunks and other obstacles on the forest trail. I ended up with massive blisters on my hands, made worse by the fact that they were already a bit raw from the rafting the day before.
I was relieved when the hour was up, but all of my friends loved the experience and said they would have liked to continue for another hour as they were just getting the hang of how the quad-bikes handled. They also said - and I agree - that they would have benefitted from a bit more instruction from the guide regarding how to ride the bike prior to hitting the 4x4 trail.
So I suppose I've learned my lesson for next time: stick to white-water rafting!