Emlembe – 6,109 ft
Eric Gilbertson and Katie Stanchak
Date: September 20, 2015 (Eric), September 17, 2016 (Matthew)
The road ahead of me was looking worse and worse. What had started out as broken pavement had now turned to rutted mud with big rocks poking out as the road started to weave steeply up the hillside. My tiny little 2wd VW Polo did not seem like the right tool for the job to make any further progress. We had just driven across the South Africa – Swaziland border into the small village of Bulembu and were trying to climb the highest mountain in Swaziland, Emlembe, that afternoon. I pulled over to the side, just as a big group of 20 locals started rounding the corner walking down the hill.
“Let’s ask them if it’s ok to park our car here,” I said to Katie.
The man in front was holding a big stick with a cross on top, and it looked like a church had just let out. I rolled down the window and stuck my head out.
“Hi, do you know if it’s ok for me to park my car here?” I asked. “We’re hiking up Emlembe and will be back soon.”
A few of the guys looked at each other like they didn’t understand me, but the guy with the cross spoke English.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he responded. “This is somebody’s farm here. But a man named Benjamin would know about Emlembe. I can show you to his house.”
“Thanks!” I replied. “Do you think my car can make it there?”
“Yes, no problem, no problem.” The man replied.
I hopped out of the car and cleared out some space in the back, then the priest and two of his friends got inside while the rest of the congregation continued down the road. The wooden cross didn’t quite fit, so we had to roll down the window and let it stick out.
I nervously started up the hill again, and after rounding a steep muddy turn where my wheels slipped a little the road gradually leveled out again. I somehow managed to not scrape the undercarriage at all. We passed by some forest that was being cleared to make farmland, then through a small cluster of mud-brick houses. The road ended at a gate going up to a small school.
Here I pulled over and we all got out. The priest walked down a footpath for a few minutes and came back with a friendly fellow who I learned was Benjamin.
“So you want to climb Emlembe? You’ve come to the right spot,” Benjamin started, pulling out a little pamphlet with a map of the town and pictures of Emlembe and handing one to Katie and me. “I usually guide tourists up Emlembe. But how did you find me? Usually the tourists go to the Bulembu lodge and the lodge arranges for me to meet them.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “We were just looking for a safe place to park our car while we hike up. We have a GPS track of the route, and we’re very experienced, so we don’t really need a guide.”
“Oh no, you can’t go without a guide,” Benjamin replied. “It’s not safe, and with this fog and the sun setting soon you might get lost. Why don’t you wait until tomorrow morning and I can lead you up?”
I really, really don’t like taking guides up mountains. It takes away any sense of adventure, means someone else is making decisions, and is generally expensive and not as fun. The only times I make exceptions are when a guide is required by local law, such as on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, or Pico Turquino in Cuba. In the case of Emlembe, I hadn’t been able to figure out in advance if a guide was required or not. There wasn’t a whole lot of information available for this peak, so I had planned to just show up and figure things out.
It was still a little hard to determine exactly what Benjamin meant by “you can’t go up without a guide.” He may have just meant we ought to have a guide for our own safety, or he might have meant it’s required by law. I didn’t really want to get into an argument right then on semantics with him, though. English was obviously his second language, and he really wanted to guide us up Emlembe. I looked down at his little pamphlet, and it said the price for a guide was 150 Lilangeni per person (about 10 USD). It also said most of the money went to fund orphans in the town of Bulembu.
I turned around to talk it over with Katie. It was indeed pretty foggy and if we went up now we’d likely be descending in the dark and relying completely on the GPS to get back. There would be no views today. So it definitely made sense to go tomorrow. We agreed it would at the very least be quite rude now to tell Benjamin we were hiking up tomorrow but not with him. Given that it was so cheap to have Benjamin as a guide, was giving him income, was possibly required by local law, and part of the money was going to help orphans, we decided to agree to have him guide us up Emlembe the next morning.
“Ok, we’d like to go up Emlembe with you tomorrow morning,” I said to Benjamin as he smiled widely. “When and where should we meet you?”
“Great!” he replied. “You should stay at the Bulembu Lodge and I’ll meet you there at 8am. We can start walking from there. That is what tourists do. I led a couple from Germany just a few weeks ago from there.”
“Ok, see you tomorrow,” I replied. We shook hands, then everyone including the priest and his friends got back in the car and I carefully drove back into town. I dropped off the priest and friends in town, and then we talked over where we were going to sleep. I usually like just camping in the woods and not paying anything, but in this case there were really no uninhabited woods nearby. The village spread out in all directions, and the last place I remembered seeing a good stealth campsite had been back across the border in South Africa. But the border was now closed. We decided to go ahead and stay at the Bulembu Lodge. It was the only actual lodging in town, and we hadn’t really had a shower in a few days anyways.
The lodge was actually really nice. It was a converted residence of the past owners of a mine near town, and overlooked the whole village from a hillside. The owners, a Dutch couple, stopped by as we were checking in and told us a little about the history of the town. Bulembu used to be a town of 10,000 people centered around an asbestos mine. In 2002 the mine closed up and all but about 50 people left the town. This was around the time Swaziland was being ravaged by HIV/AIDS. In 2006 Bulembu was converted to a town to care for orphans of AIDS victims, using the old houses used by the miners.
There was a push to attract tourism in the area, with the Bulembu Lodge, hikes up Emlembe, and other attractions. Much of the proceeds from this income would be then used to help the orphans in the town and fund schools. It sounded like it was working pretty well, with European tourists visiting regularly, and we felt happy to be contributing to this cause.
We learned that the usual procedure to climb Emlembe is to show up at the lodge, reserve a room, and the people at the lodge will call up Benjamin on his cell phone and arrange for the hike. Then the tourists pay the lodge, and the get Benjamin his cut of the payment and give the rest to a fund to help the town.
That evening in the hotel room we washed all our dirty clothes in the sink and had a tasty dinner of ramen noodles cooked in the water boiler device we found in the corner.
Benjamin met us promptly at 8am the next morning at the front of the hotel, and we started walking through town back to the place we had met Benjamin the previous night. Benjamin is kind of a funny character, and I think everyone we walked by in town knew him and said hello.
“You know,” Benjamin said, “the children in town used to see snakes crawling around and just kill them, but I say to them ‘Don’t do that! The tourists like the animals and you don’t want to scare the tourists away! They are good for our town.’”
“Yeah, we definitely like animals,” I said.
“And I teach the children ‘don’t stare at the tourists, it’s not nice. And don’t beg for money; they don’t like that,’” Benjamin continued. “We have to make the tourists want to keep coming back and we can’t scare them away.”
We passed by some young children on our walk and they all waved at us and smiled. I felt a little awkward, with us being obviously the only white people in town and everyone treating us so nicely. At least we were contributing some money to the town through the lodge and the guide fee.
We could see the summit of Emlembe now – a grassy hill that perhaps used to have trees but had been cleared for cattle grazing. We continued to the east edge of town, then turned up the rough mud road I’d driven up, and went all the way to the gate where I’d turned around. Here we walked past a small school that was in session, and stopped to say hello to the principle. He told us how the school situation was pretty difficult in Bulembu. There was only funding for school up to 6th grade, and students who wanted to go the middle or high school had to travel to Piggs Peak, a town down a rough road with no bus service. Many families didn’t have enough money to send their kids there, and the kids then didn’t continue their schooling. Hopefully funds raised from tourism and donations can help the situation out.
Past the school we walked through another small collection of mud houses, and then the trail weaved into a small section of young forest. We passed back into open grazing land above the forest as the trail steepened, and came across a group of five cattle.
“Those are my cows,” Benjamin said, pointing and smiling proudly. “You know, in Swaziland a man needs ten cows to buy a wife. If you want to marry a girl, you have to give her family ten cows and then they will allow you to marry.”
“Are you saving up for a marriage?” I asked, jokingly.
“No, I am already married,” Benjamin replied. “But cows are also like banks. When you need to buy something, you sell a cow.”
Above Benjamin’s cows we saw a small barbed-wire fence that was half knocked over, near the ridge top.
“That’s the border with South Africa,” Benjamin said, pointing to the fence. It looked like the cows were crossing back and forth freely here. “If people have passports and want to go to South Africa they cross down there at the road,” he said, pointing to the valley. “But if they don’t have a passport then they cross here no problem.”
Katie and I exchanged looks and laughed. It sounded like no big deal here sneaking across the border. It was just a little bit inconvenient if you happened to not own a passport, but not really a big deal.
After about an hour of walking we crested the ridge at a big communications tower and were met with a huge pile of rocks.
“This is it!” Benjamin said. We were right on the Swaziland-South Africa border, and according to Benjamin were on the summit of Emlembe. But it looked like a slightly higher point to the northwest. We snapped some pictures here then continued along the ridge. Indeed, this second point matched my GPS coordinates of the highpoint and now we were truly on the highest peak in Swaziland.
A rough barbed-wire fence cut across the summit, though it wouldn’t really stop anyone other than a lazy cow from crossing. Forests stretched out to the north in South Africa, and farmlands and a giant reservoir were visible to the south in Swaziland.
We stopped for a quick snack, admired the view a bit more, then headed back down the mountain. In all our hike was about 2-3 hours round trip. We stopped at the bakery in town on the way back to buy some Swazi pastries and get some Swaziland currency, then got back in our car and headed towards South Africa for our next adventure – Kruger National Park.
If, like me, you don’t like paying to sleep or hiring a guide I would recommend camping just on the South African side of the border. There are several wooded side roads there that have no houses and would be perfect for stealth camping. It should be pretty straightforward to hike up Emlembe on your own if you park in the middle of town (perhaps at the bakery) and just walk up. Email me at email@example.com if you’d like my gps track. It is still unclear to me if a guide is required by law or not, however it is cheap to hire Benjamin and the money goes to a good cause.
If you are ok with paying to sleep and hire a guide, the standard practice is to drive to the Bulembu lodge, reserve a room, and have the receptionist arrange a hike with Benjamin.
Alternatively, there are logging roads leading almost to the highpoint from the south africa side. It appears based on satellite imagery that it would be easy to hike from this side, though I have not personally done this.
Trip report from Matthew and Amanda’s trip
We had three and a half days left in Africa and had positioned ourselves in Johannesburg, South Africa – a convenient hub for travel to and from regional destinations. It was our fifth time entering South Africa within the past month.
Those days had been set aside for the clear task of seeking reliable schistosomiasis treatment (available in South Africa, not in other places we were traveling). We were undecided about the rest. We could climb country highest mountains – Otse Hill in Botswana and Mt Emlembe in Swaziland – or visit Kruger National Park.
When Matthew mentioned Swaziland, I had no prior concept of it. At his mention for the first time, I traced its border and became aware that this small country was situated southeast within striking distance of Johannesburg
. Botswana was in the opposite direction at a similar distance.
Although we didn’t know if we had time to cross the border into both Botswana and Swaziland, when the helpful Indian rental agent at Hertz asked us if he should prepare the paperwork for both, we said yes and paid the necessary 87 US dollars. That cost applied just to stricter Botswana, while Swaziland paperwork was free.
I was a bit nervous about the responsibility of and safety w the car. The US Department of State website had warned about driving around South Africa:
“Violent crimes, such as armed robbery, rape, carjacking, mugging, and “smash-and-grab” attacks on vehicles affect visitors and residents alike. Crime can occur anywhere, but you should exercise particular caution in the central business districts (CBDs) of major cities, especially after dark. Avoid visiting informal settlement areas unless you are with someone familiar with the area. Never walk alone after dark.”
The rental agent reassured us, “That only happens like one in a million,” he said. “People always think we have lions behind our desk too, and I just tell them, we are humans just like everywhere else.”
The maneuverability of our small, automatic, aqua blue Ford Fiesta on smooth tar roads was freeing compared to our month-long drive with our large (yet spiffy) manual white Toyota Hilux truck on the gravel roads of Namibia. We accelerated and zipped toward our hotel, trying to beat the dark.
However, because of our late flight, we didn’t leave the rental agency until close to sunset. Furthermore, our hotel City Lodge Sandton, which was right across from our scheduled travel clinic appointment, was about a hour’s drive across the sprawling city.
After dark on the urban streets to Sandton, the presence of other cars comforted us like traveling in a convoy. Still, we passed metal slums with roaming people illuminated by the dim orange glow of a street lamp, car headlight, or bonfire. It was then we realized our car didn’t have a manual lock button inside. Circling the block, we finally relaxed upon reaching the hotel’s secure, gated parking lot in a posh part of the city.
Then next morning, we focused on the priority at hand, namely healthcare. Much to our pleasant surprise, it went smoothly. First at the travel clinic, the female doctor about our age was agreeable in providing prescriptions as well as lab requisition forms. Second, the medications were in stock. Third, the lab phlebotomist was well-trained, showing me that she was opening a clean needle. We were out of the hospital within an hour and a half.
With so much unexpected daylight, we realized that we had a chance of reaching both high points. We checked out of the hotel and hit the pavement.
In contrast to the flat and dusty desert of Namibia/Botswana, the South African national highway swooped through fertile agricultural hills and dense logging forest. Sometimes, though, there was the familiar sight of blackened soil from recent fires.
We had chosen a major toll road expecting to get to the Swaziland border at Bulembu before it closed at 4 pm, but with frequent construction zones there was no chance. Highway signs I learned to dislike were “Stop and go ahead” and “Your highway dollars at work”.
Without access to cellular data or wifi, we lacked information about towns that lay between us and the border. While this would not be an obstacle to some travelers, it concerned me given the US State Department’s warning: “Avoid visiting informal settlement areas unless you are with someone familiar with the area.”
To our relief, an offline navigation app called “maps.me” imported names of hotels and their ratings. With names like Queen Sheba Hotel, Fountain Guesthouse, and Bushwhacked Barberton, the town of Barberton seemed to have an appealing array of options.
Barberton was an inviting town with its lampposts adorned w giant soccer balls left over from the World Cup in South Africa. Blooming purple jacaranda trees lined its avenues. An equal mix of white and black families socialized in the supermarket parking lot.
At the edge of town at the foot of grassy mountains, the tarred road diminished to an uneven, dirt road that was reminiscent of (but tamer than) the roads in Namibia. It meandered with limited signage to the home of Bushwhacked Barberton.
The barefoot host Pete appeared. Raised in Kenya by British parents, Pete built the guesthouse, showcasing his love for Africa and his British roots. The property overlooked a breathtaking view of the valley and was sheltered by indigenous trees that he planted. Accessories in the parlor included warthog tusks and graceful line drawings of wildlife. The kitchen looked like it came from the English countryside. As related by many in the guestbook, we wished to linger longer.
Yet, the Swaziland high point beckoned even as a cold front began to move through. The next morning at the low key border patrol, the agents wore long, thick coats. We were the only car there. Without any hassle at all, we crossed and the polished buildings and shiny signs of South Africa gave way to more fade and rust in Swaziland.
At the first town across the border Bulembu, we met our guide Benjamin for Mt Emlembe. He had been arranged through the Country Lodge, which had once been the estate of the asbestos mine manager. Other western tourists were in the reception and dining room.
Eric and Katie’s previous trip report* had described Benjamin as a “funny character”, and indeed he was. Introducing himself, Benjamin removed his hat, bowed his peppered gray head, and smiled, missing teeth. He was voluble about being a good guide, being sensitive to tourists with different walking paces, teaching the youngsters not to frighten tourists with talk of money (although he unsurprisingly did), and not fearing foggy weather.
In the fog, we drove to his 80-year-old mother’s house (remarkable longevity in Africa), which was at the base of the mountain. Dressed in a warm hat, she let us park our car within the shelter of tall sticks around her yard. Up a little ways, we passed a family gathering sticks, looking still and ghostly in the fog. Just a little further, two soccer goal posts emerged on a narrow ridge, where countless balls must have been lost. Higher, we passed a man with a bowsaw cutting branches. We ascended steeply, stepping into holes in the dirt that baboons had dug. A cow appeared then disappeared seemingly off a cliff in the fog. Soon the terrain began to level out, and we realized that we had reached the summit plateau.
The wind picked up, and it grew colder. The temp was probably 45F with wet 30 mph winds, making it seem more like drizzly April in Boston. Matthew checked the coordinates and altitude w his GPS. Just as Eric foretold, the rock cairn did not mark the spot. The true summit was a little higher through the fog. Upon making it there, we tiptoed one step further over the downed barbed wire fence (which marked the boundary between South Africa and Swaziland) to the shelter of the abandoned guard house, which watched over illegal immigration. There, we hunkered, eating lunch.
On the way down, the fog thinned. Across a ravine, cows grazed on a steep cliffside. A panorama of the valley opened up before us. The whole scene of green pinnacled mountains and misty clouds reminded me of Chinese paintings and Irish landscape. I could not believe that all this elevation and beauty had been around us the whole time. The greatest revelation was: had I been able to see how high I was or how much higher I had to go, I might have been afraid and discouraged, but the fog helped me to see I could make it up just fine.
Back in the valley, Benjamin was proud to show off the school that had featured in Eric’s story too. Almost exactly one year prior, Eric reported: “He told us how the school situation was pretty difficult in Bulembu. There was only funding for school up to 6th grade, and students who wanted to go the middle or high school had to travel to Piggs Peak, a town down a rough road with no bus service. Many families didn’t have enough money to send their kids there, and the kids then didn’t continue their schooling. Hopefully funds raised from tourism and donations can help the situation out.”
Adolescent boys were stirring a fire at the edge of the complex as we entered. After a brief wave to Benjamin, they returned to concentrating on the fire. The school buildings were getting a new layer of paint as several men from the community were renovating it. It was Saturday, so the classrooms were empty except for desks pushed to the side (perhaps for cleaning) and scattered math and English textbooks. Through a window, I could read one Table of Contents. The final unit was entitled, “Swaziis are beautiful”.
After a successful descent, we discussed: Kruger national park or Botswana high point? Several factors favored the high point. It was cold; I had a head cold; and there were no indoor accommodations in Kruger during a weekend. Also, I didn’t want Matthew to have to come back this way by himself.
We positioned ourselves halfway back to Botswana in the small town of Machadodorp at the Old Mill Inn. The owner was a retired South African who built the hotel to preserve the town’s heritage. In industrial hallways on the butterscotch yellow walls, there were assorted black-and-white photos from the city archive. We liked the historic, small town ambience, and the place sheltered us during a severe lightening and thunderstorm that evening.
A full day of driving later at the Botswana border, the immigration officers expressed disbelief, you’re going to [that small, nondescript town] Otse for just a few hours then you’ll be back? “I can’t wait to see you back here tonight!” Fortunately, the borders here were open until midnight.
“We’re going to pull off at a dirt road that should appear on our left in less than 0.5 km,” Matthew instructed based on the homework he had done on Eric’s GPS track. Once we turned, there were about a few unlabeled dirt tracks to choose from. Matthew steered into one with decisiveness, and I asked, “How do you know?”
“I studied the satellite images,” Matthew said.
Following Eric’s accurate description of the landmarks, we then parked as far as the dirt road would take us, turned at the sign for the Manganese mine, and bushwhacked toward the ridge.
Although Eric’s report had mentioned the absence of a trail, I didn’t picture how the actual experience would go. Thorny, low-hanging branches pulled at my hair, clothes, and backpack. Loose rock caused my feet to slide backward on the steep incline. Looking upward and seeing cliffs, I didn’t know if we were heading toward a dead end, and the sunset didn’t help matters.
This situation unleashed some grumbling from me. “Why do I always feel like I’m in some Bear Grylls survival situation?!” The pursuit of high pointing had led me through infected waters of Madagascar and now on a steep scramble as darkness threatened in Botswana. I introverted into moody, reflection mode.
The good parts about high pointing were many… my husband and his brother had a wholesome sport that others could share. It kept us in shape. It led us off the beaten path, which often revealed genuine, un-touristy side to places. It fostered adventure. It made Matthew happy.
The main complaint I had was the surprise element, i.e. “I didn’t know it was going to be his hard!” My analysis led me to conclude the following. The very fact that high pointing was associated w going to remote locations meant that information could be scarce. That meant whatever info was available was probably written by alpine awesome crazies, who might consider hard things easy, and despite being experts in getting to the top, might not be familiar about other hazards, such as an invisible microbe lurking at stream crossings. I felt the onus to do my own homework to make informed assessments about safety down the road.
We got to the top, and I tried my best to smile. Matthew, a true leader, acknowledged my sentiments then refocused us. “I’m sorry this has been harder than we realized. I found a better way down the ridge. Now we’ve got to focus on safety. We are going to take it slow and make sure each step is secure.”
Next, he did something I consider to be one of his most life-giving qualities – enjoying the present without doubt or anxiety. He coached me about how to bushwhack and lifted my gaze from internal ruminations to the beauty around. “See that lake down in the valley? We pick that spot then navigate to it… This will be our last sunset in Africa.”
We got ourselves back to the intact car then to the hotel in Zeerust back in South Africa. It was late, but the Avanti Guesthouse night watchmen were still there. They offered, “How about the honeymoon suite?”
We chose to venture outward, away from home, knowingly accepting the risk. We wanted to see the world. We chose to do it together to share it as a couple. My quality of desiring stability and security and worrying about the future (as well as medical background) helped us know and manage the health risks of one particular high point. Matthew’s spontaneity, positivity, and bravery helped us to go forth to others and cope in another way. We were complementing one another and fulfilling what we set out to do – experiencing the world as two.
Eric’s trip report of Otse Hill: