Wheels

Last week I tripled the number of wheels I own to get me around Africa.  Adding to my beautiful two-wheeled green machine, is gas-guzzling Honda CR-V, ironically chosen for its ability to fit my bike so I can cycle down faraway mountains. 

As for specs, the seatbelt states it’s a 1997 model, but the sacred “blue book” of ownership says it’s from 2003, and the previous owner mentioned something about 2001.   The odometer reads just over 100K, which is probably more an indicator of how much I should bet on it being stolen, than of how many kilometres it has actually travelled.  At the end of the day, though, the key spec is that it gets me where I need to go.  And where I need to go is weekend getaways and freedom after dark. 

Yet despite the new potential for fun and excitement, my emotions following the purchase resembled more embarrassment and fear. Embarrassment because while I paid less than $5000 Australian dollars for freedom – a bargain by Australian standards – I calculated that it would take my colleagues 26 years to earn the same amount.  More disgustingly, it would take our artisans 200 years.  I paid it off in a day.  The fear results from a spate of recent road accidents that have seen friends, and friends of friends, fighting for their life in hospital.

So, it is with a mixture of emotions that I have taken to Swazi roads.  Fortunately, British colonisation means that many of the road rules are, in theory, the same as Australia.  Africanisation means that, in practice, road rules can be quite different.

The first hump to get over is, well, the speed hump.  Thousands of them.  Everywhere.  Some brilliant Swazi clearly saw this as the nation’s answer to traffic calming, but failed to realise that a bump without warning does little for driver calming.  In the two days that I have driven, I have experienced first-hand the decisively “un-calming” effect of flying over bitumen bulges at full speed, and hearing the screams of passengers being thrown from their seats along with a crunching sound coming from under the car. There goes my investment.

The notion of stopping is also a little hit-and-miss in Swaziland.  Take, for instance, the humble stop sign.  I can get over the fact that “stop” really just means “decelerate slightly”.  The problem for me, though, lies in the fact that stop signs are not placed to facilitate continuation of through-traffic.  If one road leading to an intersection has a stop sign, usually all roads leading to that intersection feature the sign.  So if every car is stopping, or giving way, to every other car, who goes?  The Swazi answer is that the first car in the intersection goes first and so on, but what happens if you arrive at the same time?  It all becomes too much for me, so I just stay put until someone honks me.  So far that method is working a treat.

The stopping saga continues with traffic lights, or “robots” as they’re called here.  Stopping for a red light seems fairly self-explanatory and harmless enough….unless you’re turning left….at particular unmarked intersections….when no-one’s looking.  What’s more, we have actually been warned in briefings NOT to stop at a red light at night, unless there’s car coming, in order to avoid a hijacking.  Glad that’s cleared up.

You might be starting to think that Swazi drivers are fairly against the idea of stopping.  Not true.  Introducing the hazard lights: a Swazi driver’s solution to all poor driving habits.  Want to stop in the middle of the highway to pick someone up?  No problem – just put on the hazards.  Want to stop at an intersection to buy some fruit off the street vendor?  It’s easy when pop on the hazards.  Can’t be bothered parking a car further away and walking?  Never mind – just park wherever you like the turn on the trusty hazards. 

Just when you think you’ve got these idiosyncrasies sorted in your head, you’re then faced with the problem of knowing where you’re going.  Navigational aids are a pipedream in Swaziland.  With a distinct absence of road names, it’s hard enough, but without a single road map available to help (except one showing major highways and KFC stores), you come to rely on descriptions such as “turn left past the green tree, then right at Make Dlamini’s”.   

Despite all the mayhem, though, Swaziland does try to instil a bit of order and tidiness to its roads.  I have heard that it is illegal to have a dirty car, and while I am currently putting this assertion to the test, the presence of a car wash on almost every corner lends some fairly persuasive evidence to this claim. 

So as I write this blog and really think about what it is to be a driver in Swaziland, it makes me think that driving here is not really much different from what it’s like to live here:  it’s not always about what actually goes on, but rather how it looks on the outside.

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