Students circumnavigate eSwatini in 15 days

Posted on 23 July 2019

Two students from the University of Cape Town recently circumnavigated the border of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) in a tough 15-day running trek to raise awareness about healthcare access in rural communities.

On 17 June, Kevin Dornbrack (medical anthropology Honours student) and Matt te Water Naude (medical student) began running from the Oshoek Border Post at Ngwenya and completed the route on 2 July after 15 days, four hours and 46 minutes, setting the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for circumnavigation of eSwatini by foot. Both students are avid trail runners, but their academic interests and a desire for social justice spurred them on when their application for funding to the UCT Mountain and Ski Society wasn’t successful.

Along the way, the men experienced a warm generosity from the people of eSwatini. Locals opened their homes, shared their stories and knowledge of the land and trails and also explained some of their difficulties with accessing healthcare due to lack of transport, and the struggles of traversing muddy roads in the rainy season. These very roads are some of the ones Matt and Kevin walked and ran along over the course of two weeks.

The pair were on their feet for five to ten hours a day, and stressed that being mentally prepared for the challenge, eating properly and a good night’s rest were key to keeping on track with no rest days in between.

At night they lodged with local community projects offering accommodation and a few guesthouses. ‘Many of the places we stayed along our journey along the border offered us discounted or free accommodation in support of our project. The aim of staying at local community projects was to reach slightly further out into more rural communities as well as allow us to promote these projects along our journey, but we also received so much in return for staying at these places. The Royal Jozini Private Reserve was one of the highlights, and where we were kindly offered accommodation.’

The settings they found themselves in were incredible; they experienced uninterrupted views from the Lebombo Mountains to the lowlands below, witnessed the sun setting over rolling blue hills in areas like Shewula Mountain Camp near the Lomhasha Border Post, and visited the Mhlumeni Bush Camp near the town of Siteki and the Mahamba Gorge Lodge, just outside the Mahamba Border.

Primary school children practiced English with Kevin (pictured) and Matt, who in turn got to work on their limited SiSwati.

Planning your trip

Even though the border is 550 kilometres long, eSwatini is not flat and not all the roads are straight. The pair planned for this trip months in advance, poring over maps, researching the terrain and climate from Google Earth map prints. Challenges include successive steep hills, thick bush, long grass, the threat of wildfire and running out of water, as well as animals, snakes and ticks.

The guys got some help and gear from Ultimate Direction, USN and Inov-8.

Matt told Getaway how the two prepared for their trail-run trip: ‘Multi-day running requires a significant amount work, mental- and physical preparation as well as appropriate gear. Planning should begin well in advance, with end-to-end planning being ideal. Particular attention to precise GPS route plotting and accommodation found in advance will make the paths feel easier, and the more meticulous the planning is, the better, as things inevitably go wrong, change or take new courses while you are out there en route.’

Describing the experience of being in eSwatini, Matt said, ‘eSwatini is a place that everyone should visit – for South Africans, it is literally a driving distance away and has so much to offer and experience. What stood out for both of us was how friendly the people of eSwatini are. Every person has a smile and greets you with sincerity and is more than happy to help if you ask.’

The duo’s FKT tag points (GPS locations) are available to anyone and they challenge others to attempt the route and better their time.

Matt and Kevin’s favourite spots:

– ‘The Malolotja Nature Reserve on the western side of the country showed true African beauty with its grassy hills rolling away into the distance and the view down through the Mganda Valley stretch of the route was incredible and some of the most idyllic trail we have run – green and getting greener.’

– ‘On the morning of our third day of running we summited Emlembe, the highest peak of the country, standing 1,862m tall, and looking back down over the Malolotja Nature Reserve and seeing the string of hills that marked our route behind us was an impressive sight.’

– ‘At another point, on our route up to Mhlumeni Bush Camp, we were well behind schedule for the day and it was sunset as we were climbing the escarpment of the Lebombo Mountains, and with the sun setting behind us, the grasslands below seemed to be set alight with the redness of the evening light.’

– ‘Royal Jozini Private Reserve is set deep in the veld, with nothing around but the stars and buck that wandered through the property.’

Find out more about Kevin and Matt’s journey on Instagram @around_eswatini.

Images: Supplied

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