Close to the South Africa border, nestled among the Swazi mountains, lies a little village called Ngwenya. Ngwenya’s not exactly a happening place, yet is known around the world for one small thing: Ngwenya Glass. Started in 1979 through Swedish Aid, this factory applies Fair Trade principles to create handblown masterpieces using recycled glass and, because of its reputation, has attracted scores of like-minded organisations to also set up shop there. Ngwenya is now a complex for all things Swazi, handcraft, Fair Trade and, more recently, mountain biking.
The Ngwenya Mountain Bike Classic is now in its second year and is partly for fun and partly to fundraise for the local community and SWIFT: Swaziland International Fair Trade (Association). SWIFT is a project being piloted in Swaziland to help grassroots designers and handcrafters to build their business, market themselves and gain worldwide notoriety (or at least try). There are now more than a dozen organisations being supported through SWIFT, with my organisation being one of them. So it was with great pleasure that I was invited to be the token girl on the four-man SWIFT cycling team.
As this was only my second mountain bike race in Swaziland, and my second mountain bike race ever, my sole hope was to do better than the 19th place that I achieved at Imvelo a month before. I felt this was a reasonable expectation given the enhanced preparation including:
- Overpriced cycling gloves to protect my dainty hands from the elements
- A water bottle that fit in my carrier (plus 2 weighty litres on my back for extra measure)
- A designer Ngwenya buff to keep my head and neck warm (free in the race’s goodie bag)
- Knowledge to start at the front of the pack so I don’t get boxed in on the single track
- Confidence / stupidity to avoid braking on the downhills
My pre-race enthusiasm, however, was unlovingly knocked out of me on race day by the freezing cold temperatures and 5:30am wake-up that was needed to get to the starting line on time. Fortunately, the sun decided to show just in time for the 170 riders, and myself, to take to the hills.
Unlike Imvelo, Ngwenya’s 35km track made its way through rolling hills and past traditional homesteads, providing a spectacular (passing) glimpse into Swazi life. With homesteads, of course, comes people, and the locals had come out in droves to watch the mad pack of cyclists ride up hills in the name of fun. Of course, no gathering of Swazis is complete without the obligatory “Hello, how are you? I’m fine” every five metres, or the high-five every ten metres. What made it even more enjoyable, however, was replying in siSwati and seeing the look of shock on their faces, followed by an outburst of laughter.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. The route seemed to comprise of never-ending climbs, including an 8km stretch (at least) that made me question my sanity. These climbs were where you made your breaks, though….or lose them, as was my case in the final 2km of the route. Meanwhile, the downhills had some tricky technical areas, with loose granite stones down steep drop-offs and bumpy, corrugated grassy patches that made it difficult to maintain any grip on the handlebars. In fact, I am certain my entire body – hands, feet and bum – had completely lifted off the bike at one point. We also had to contend with a fire along the track, challenging us with intense heat, smoke inhalation and stinging eyes – only in Swaziland. But, again, the downhill single track made it all worth it, especially with so many ending in creek crossings and a cold, muddy wash down.
By the end I was exhausted, but proud with my effort, being the first SWIFT team member to finish and knowing that I had improved leaps and bounds since Imvelo. While waiting eagerly for my time and placing, I did what any dirty and exhausted cyclist would do after riding 35km: Shopping! With so many Fair Trade handicraft shops you’d be mad not to. Finally, the timesheet was posted, and can you imagine my disappointment when I discovered they had no record of me??? As luck would have it, I had decided to take a token “Mum” shot after I finished the race, which I managed to use as rough evidence of my finishing time.
It wasn’t until prize-giving time that I actually found out I had come 2nd in my category (Female sub-veteran) and 8th overall, with some nice loot of six Ngwenya wine glasses to prove it. The rewards didn’t stop there, though. I also won a spot prize of a handmade Swazi candle and a 200 Emalangeni gift voucher to Sheba Weavers, with which I purchased a nice new (currently white) rug to cover my beautiful green and brown lounge-room floor.
Yet, when all was said and done, after the jumping castle had been deflated, and after the crowd had dispersed, I was still waiting: waiting for the last two of my SWIFT team mates who hadn’t arrived from their 65km route. Quite concerned, we sent out the call for help and soon after received the feedback that one of them (Niall) had broken his chain four times, while the other (Sam) had a puncture then lost the ball bearings in his front wheel. While Niall couldn’t ride uphill, Sam couldn’t ride down them, yet they were determined to finish the race. Seven hours and 30 metres after starting, my team mates finally crossed the finish line (or rather, passed through the gate, as the finish line had already been packed up). Tired, but triumphant, the SWIFT Team had conquered Ngwenya, and managed to raise E5,000 in the process. Go Team SWIFT!