I was ambitious in thinking I could tell this story in three parts. I’m expanding it to four.
Our stay in Swaziland began peacefully. We crossed the border at Bulembu, a tiny town northeast of the busier border crossing at Oshoek. Rather than jostling around in long lines and dealing with surly immigration officials, we sauntered into a one-room building and chatted with the three women behind the counter. They crochet lace to pass the time – I bought a piece for R100. They stamped our passports with a smile (no paperwork required) and we were off.
The skies were slightly overcast but it was warm and pleasant.
We soon learned why few people cross the border at Bulembu. The dirt road was rough – lots of ruts and gullies and mud puddles. Nothing the Landrover couldn’t handle though. After about an hour we reached the town of Piggs Peak (known for its casino as well as its catchy name), got on the main road, and reached the capital, Mbabane, by early afternoon.
A quick note on the purpose of the trip. Joe and I went to Swaziland to document a family affected by HIV, as part of a news story for World AIDS Day (which is tomorrow, December 1). I don’t want to go into detail about the story — it’s gotten some publicity and I want to protect Joe’s identity (and mine, to some degree).
But for the purposes of this blog, it’s important to know that this was an emotional assignment. Joe and I worked with this same family on World AIDS Day last year and became very emotionally involved with them.
Also, it was my World AIDS Day trip to Africa one year ago that led to my becoming 2summers. A year ago, in Swaziland, I realized that my feelings about Africa (and about Joe) were personal as well as professional.
And now I’m here.
So. We arrived in Mbabane, had a short business meeting to plan for the next day, and then headed to the Mantenga Tented Camp. Joe stayed at Mantenga last year and had been raving about it ever since. It’s in a nature reserve adjacent to Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, on the banks of a rushing river and waterfall. Last year Joe stayed in Tent #6, at the top of a ridge looking out at the falls. We hoped to get Tent #6 again this year.
It was not to be. The first thing we discovered when we arrived at Mantenga Tented Camp is that it is no longer a tented camp. The tents are being “refurbished” – which means torn down and replaced with safari-chic wooden cabins.
But our room was neither a tent nor a cabin. It was a thatched-roof cement hut – unit 9B. It looked dreary on the outside, but inside it was luxurious – huge, with a 19th-century African explorer feel to it. I could tell it was recently renovated. There was a massive bathroom suite with a walk-out shower. (The shower perplexed us because there was no lock or latch on the door, and there were eager-looking monkeys prowling around outside. What would keep them from cruising right in? First signal that things were amiss.)
When Joe made our reservation, he was told the lodge was nearly booked. But we had the odd sensation that we were the only people there.
Still disappointed about Tent #6, we unloaded the truck and piled all our things (clothes, computers, cameras, etc.) next to the bed. We headed off to dinner.
Just up the road from Mantenga is a strip mall called the Gables. Our first stop there was the Pick and Pay, where we piled a cart full of maize meal, beans, sugar, oil, and other staples for the family we’d be seeing the next day.
As we wheeled the food out to the truck, the skies darkened.
We ate dinner at Kanimambo, a Mozambican-Portuguese restaurant in the Gables. Peri peri chicken (roasted chicken with a spicy sauce) for me, creamy prawn curry for Joe. (Sorry, I forgot my camera again. I need to get better about this. But it’s a quaint little place with good food. Go there if you’re in the area.)
The heavens opened as we ate. Thunder boomed and lightning streaked across the sky. We paid our bill and thought about trying to wait it out, but there was no end in sight. Joe ran to the car and was instantly drenched. Neither of us had an umbrella or rain jacket.
We drove slowly to the lodge. The Mantenga gate was padlocked. We sat there for a few minutes and a rain-battered man on a bicycle appeared from the wet wall of darkness. He struggled to unlock the gate and waved as we drove through. I felt for him.
It was about 300 yards from the parking area to our hut. We looked at each other. One…Two…Three.
I was instantly submerged. I followed Joe, who I think was about six inches ahead of me. I don’t know if we ran, walked, or swam. But somehow we made it to the door of unit 9B.
We stumbled inside, and found a waterfall. Water was leaking — almost pouring in some places — through the new thatched roof. The heaviest leakage was occurring on the left side of the bed, right above our stuff.
We pounced, tearing open camera bags and computer cases. They were sitting in puddles. Miraculously, the insides of the bags were still relatively dry. If we’d tried to wait out the storm at Kanimambo, all might have been lost.
New leaks were springing every moment. We agreed that I would hold down the fort and Joe would wade back into the monsoon to find help.
I waited. I put a waste basket under the heaviest leak; in five minutes it was overflowing.
After what seemed like hours, Joe appeared with the manager. She apologized profusely and helped us move our things to unit 9A, which was just steps away. The roof was leaking there too, but fortunately just a little and only in one spot. Heaven.
Just as I set down the last of our bags, the room went black. Power failure.
I fumbled around and found my flashlight. There was a candle in the room but no matches. The manager left and sent one of her minions back with a matchbox.
Between the flashlight, the candle, and the light on my cell phone, we could see just enough to survey the carnage. Joe was soaked to the bone and shivering. Our bag of clothes was wet but the cameras and computers seemed okay. We put on the driest clothes we could find and spread things out to dry. I made Joe some ginger tea using hot water from the tap.
I looked at my watch. It felt like midnight but it was actually 8:30. At some point the power came back on – I’m not sure when.
We had a busy day ahead so we collapsed into bed and tried to sleep.
Next up: On assignment in Swaziland.