Swazi setbacks and Bulembu

After a fantastic time in Kenya, my return to Swaziland didn’t start out so well.  Firstly, as we entered Swaziland on our way home from the airport, I happened to pass by my car being towed in the other direction.  I had lent my car to some acquaintances over the Christmas break and it seems that on their way home from Mozambique, the distributor decided to commit suicide.  The only solution was to tow it the 1,000km+ back to Swaziland, which then wreaked havoc on the shocks, and so began a whole lot of expensive repairs, with my car still stuck in the garage 3 weeks later, and no definite answers as to the problem.

Secondly, my brief reunion with the ocean in Kenya had the undesirable effect of making me crave water even more.  Luck was on my side in this regard, however, as the day after returning to Swaziland, I was invited up to Liphohlo Dam to try my legs at wakeboarding for the first time.  I think I found my new hobby.  Only problem is now I need to find a local boat owner to befriend.

My third setback of January 2013, was the cancellation of my week-long holiday to the Drakensburg mountains, thanks to my car now being in a coma.  So instead, I spent the final week of holidays immersed in work and, in particular, two big funding proposals that were to consume me entirely for the next three weeks (In fact, I started writing this blog at 1am because I had just finished working on the proposal and was too wired to sleep).

Still determined not to let an entire week of holidays go by without some fun, I sought a local and “easily accessible” alternative, which took my friend, Maureen, and me to Bulembu.

Bulembu was originally named Havelock, and was a mining concession bought by a consortium of 32 businessmen during the Southern African gold mining boom of the 1880s.  In 1887, the Nottingham Peak deposit was discovered but was not as promising as expected.  The company went into liquidation in 1893, and gold mining essentially ceased in the 1940s without any major gold deposits found.  What was found, however, were long mineral fibres identified as asbestos.  At the time, there was no large market for asbestos, but by 1930 a market had begun to emerge.

The stock market crash of 1929, combined with the mine’s remoteness, made it a risky investment that was taken on by the world’s largest asbestos mining company, Turner and Newall.  In 1937, surface mining began and by 1938 the world’s longest aerial cableway (20km) was constructed between Bulembu and Barberton (in South Africa) to enable exportation – no mean feat given that all materials (steel and cement) were carried by hand over valleys and gorges.  The mine became the 4th largest Asbestos mine in the world.

The asbestos found at Bulembu is known as Chrysotile, which is generally regarded as less dangerous than Amphibole.  However, there are 318 confirmed cases of asbestosis coming from Bulembu (out of ~3,500 people).  This would be due to repeated exposure with no masks or ventilation in underground mines, as well as the use of huge fans in the 1980s to separate asbestos fibre from parent rock, thereby blowing fibre all over the town in the process!  Turner and Newall, the mine owners, accepted responsibility for causing asbestosis yet declined to do anything about the separation method, largely because the amounts of compensation they were paying for a lifetime’s disability were so small that it made no appreciable difference to profits.

Increasing asbestosis suits and lower asbestos demand, combined with bribes to extend prospecting rights, led to Bulembu mine going into voluntary liquidation in 1991.  A South African company mined the remaining reserves until prospecting rights ceased to be granted in 2001.  The steel was sold off and, in 2003, two Swazi entrepreneurs bought the forested land and started a timber mill.

In 2006, a non-profit Christian organisation took title and management of Bulembu, establishing an orphanage and attempting to regenerate the abandoned town into a sustainable community.  These days, there are over 300 orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs), with one carer for every six kids.  The community has a swimming pool, a cinema, pre-school, primary school and secondary school, training bakery, store, dairy, honey processing factory, and a hospitality training centre.  From the surface, it looks like an idyllic place, far removed from the mud and stick houses that many Swazi kids grow up in.  Yet, stories soon emerged creating a slightly different picture: one where kids run away to avoid abuse, security guards get young girls pregnant; and where residents grow up in a world so removed from the rest of Swaziland that when they do graduate into the real world, they struggle to survive.

Maureen and I quickly realised that Bulembu wasn’t as accessible without a car as we thought.  After being told the bus would leave about 9am, we waited for an hour before being told by someone else that it probably wouldn’t leave until 1pm, if at all.  We quickly abandoned that method and instead found hitchhiking a much quicker and easier alternative.


Not knowing where we were going, exactly, we were dropped off near the town’s handicraft workshop where we took a look at their pieces before heading down to where a group of the town’s OVCs were participating in “Bulembu’s Got Talent”.  We spent a couple of hours watching the entertainment before grabbing a pastry at the town’s bakery and heading up the hill toward the lodge.   Walking through Bulembu was like stepping back into 1930’s British-colonised Swaziland.  The streetscapes were beautifully manicured with flowering hydrangeas, agapanthus and daisies.  The street names came straight from a London directory.  The houses were colonial style, with noisy wooden floors and fireplaces.

We were keen to have a tour of the town and discover its history, but were soon advised that no tour guide was available.  My ultimate reason for coming to Bulembu, however, was to climb Emlembe – Swaziland’s highest peak.  When I inquiried about this, however, I was told I needed a guide and, yet again, no-one was available.  The next alternative was to seek out some beautiful waterfalls that I had heard about.  Naturally, one can only visit these with a guide……who wasn’t available.  We eventually discovered that the guide had been caught defrauding the organisation three months earlier, and no suitable replacement had been found.

Despite this setback, we did manage to get directions to a waterfall only 5 minutes walk away, so headed there, through the eucalypt plantations, for a quick dip.  As the waterfall came into view below us, we saw the wooden walkway leading to it barricaded and in a state of disrepair.  Having come this far in the Swazi summer heat, Maureen and I were not prepared to give up and started carefully making our way down the rotting wooden planks only to discover, half way down, an alternative and much safer route.


With no tour of the town possible, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the newly-opened Bulembu museum.  I was very impressed with the exhibition, despite being surrounded by buzzing bees from the honey processing factory next door.  That evening, we had a quiet night sipping wine and eating at the restaurant, being served by extremely genial waiters trained at Bulembu’s own hospitality training centre.

The following morning, we awoke to see the rolling hills and forest plantations shrouded in mist, creating an even stronger sense of being in England.  With not a lot to do, we decided to finish off the parts of the museum we had missed and, at the same time, got an impromptu tour of the honey factory.  With more than 800 hives, Bulembu only has one beekeeper and two support staff who pack and label all the honey bottles by hand.  We then headed toward the town’s exit in the hope of catching a ride back to Piggs Peak, stopping on the way to do a self tour of the dairy factory.


While Bulembu presented a unique side of Swaziland and a very chilled night away, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the lost financial and social opportunities and slightly unsettled by its glistening, sugary coating.  Still, it is early days and Bulembu has the potential to become a Swazi icon, yet again.

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