Recently, I woke up needing to ride, somewhere, anywhere – you know the feeling! And my standard 'go to' place is Mpumalanga and Swaziland, so I naturally pointed my bike in that direction and pretty soon after escaping the mad rush of Gauteng, I was enjoying the open road and the expectation of yet another great trip to the ‘Lowveld’.
After a brief breakfast stop outside Middelburg, I soon reached Machadodorp where I turned South towards Carolina on the R541 – and what a pleasure this little-known route is. The road flows into a green valley paradise and offers some lovely high speed open road and slow sweeping corners - just what I needed to clear some cobwebs. All too soon sadly, the road ends outside Badplaas and after turning towards Barberton on the R38, I found myself on what is well and truly one of the most beautiful roads in the Lowveld! Wow, Bothasnek Pass offers majestic, long, sweeping corners through forested areas and fresh pine scent in the air from all the logging operations going on - this is biking Nirvana folks! A quick stop at a few lookout points at the top of the pass, a few pics taken and then down through the tight bends and then onto the last stretch towards Barberton.
I reached Barberton in no time, and decided to stay on the R40 and on to the climb up the incredible Saddleback Pass which leads to the Swazi border at Bulembu/Josefsdal. If you have never ridden this road, you don’t know what you are missing. It offers endless vistas and incredible scenery at every turn, and while the urge is there to stonk it along the route, take it a little slower and enjoy the sheer magnificence of the route. There are many viewpoints and interesting geological sites along the pass as you climb through tight corners and overgrown verges almost a thousand meters straight up. A true ‘bucket-list’ road for sure!
‘The King’s Road Tax’
Unlike the more popular border posts into Swaziland, I got through in no time and after paying the ‘Kings Road Tax’ of R50.00, soon found myself on the logging road that leads to Piggs Peak. This dirt road is only 18km long, but because of the logging vehicles that tend to use it, it has deteriorated quite badly and should not be tackled unless you are confident on gravel and rutted routes. But having said this, I felt it was a small price to pay for the absolute joy of getting to the border and I found the museum in Belembu which is dedicated to the aerial cableway, quite fascinating. Although one see the cableway pylons along the route from Barberton, it is only when visiting this small village that one appreciates the sheer engineering achievement of a cableway that was erected to transport the gold and timber between Barberton and Swaziland in the early part of the last century. This cableway has a colourful history but it now stands in disrepair covered in vines and creepers as a stark reminder of how tough and innovative the early miners were in this area.
But back to the road itself. The ride to Piggs Peak will probably not suit the majority of riders as it is quite challenging with ruts and washaways and it hasn't been scraped in a long time. Definitely not suited to tourers and street bikes, and even the hardy dual-sport and off-road enthusiast will find the road technically challenging and unless you like picking your bike up and don’t mind the repair bills, use the lower Jeppe’s Reef crossing! A great pity though, because the road to Bulembu is awesome!
After reaching Pigg’s Peak, I followed the MR1 towards Maguga Dam, turned off onto the loop road around the dam, and found a great route worth the detour. Following the recent good rains we have had in the region, the dam is now at 75% of its capacity and I stopped at the lookout point just below the main spillway and enjoyed much needed 'refreshment' at the little store. As luck would have it, another gentleman standing admiring the dam was an engineer on the dam project back in the eighties and he promptly regaled me with all the stories of how challenging the dam was to build etc etc...(another story later perhaps!)
Feeling energised and refreshed from the discussion and refreshments, I soon made my way back onto the MR1 and proceeded down through Mbabane on the 'Kings Highway', a lovely four lane road curving down into the Ezulweni Valley. My first overnight stay was at a backpackers lodge (another story of interesting people met there) and in the morning - after a great Mugg & Bean brekkie in the local Mall, I was soon back on the road towards Mbabane and then onto the MR19 loop road towards Mhlambanyatsi and my next stop at the 'Foresters Arms' - one of our designated overnight stops for Southern Cross tours.
Foresters Arms Hotel
The Malkerns loop road to Foresters Arms has deteriorated in the last few years and is quite bumpy in sections from all the potholes that have been mercifully, but badly filled, and one needs to pay attention at all times for gaping potholes along the route as well! Foresters Arms is an institution in Swaziland - dating back many, many decades, and what a lovely green oasis of peace and quiet this place extends over the hill where it presides in all its glory. This old, dignified and stately hotel still offers wonderful accommodation and meals around a swimming pool and immaculately manicured gardens. While there, I also took the opportunity to visit the Swazi Craft market down the rather bumpy Malkerms road from the hotel, and found various shops offering everything from traditional Swazi Crafts to food and drink stalls and a large Candle shop which offered thousands of stunningly crafted handmade candles and other intriguing offerings for tourists
Back on the bike the next morning – after a really relaxing stay at Foresters, I retraced part of my route back through the highlands and through Piggs Peak, heading back to South Africa through the Jeppes Reef post. Again, formalities were dealt with quickly and soon I was in Malelane and on my way through to Nelspruit along the N4. I decided to make a short detour along the way and found myself on a rather marvelous side-road through a conservancy along the Crocodile River – again, a detour that was well worth it.
My journey – no, ..time, was almost over, so I headed home via Barberton and the irresistible Bothasnek Pass along the R38 for another ‘fix’ of the twisties. I went through Badplaas this time and on to Carolina before the big smoke of the Highveld tried gallantly to damp my spirits on the way home. But the last two days had been an absolute thrill and strangely cathartic. And just like the feeling you get when you first leave your parents home, I knew I would soon be back to enjoy the magical and incredible experience they call the Lowveld and Swaziland.
If you want to experience this incredible ride in the company of great people, join Southern Cross on their weekend ride to Hazyview and Swaziland this June! You owe it to yourself.