Nyonanye (Little Bird)
The poetic name of the 1110m high peak overlooking Mlilwane Nature Sanctuary and the Ezulwini valley has a fascinating and macabre origin. Walking up the steep path to the summit, the scenes that were played out here vividly come to life and I can’t help feeling uneasy.
Access to Nyonyane is through the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary from where there’s a number of ways to approach the mountaintop. The easiest (my choice) is to drive up the steep, twisting track reserved for 4×4 vehicles in dry weather.
The most difficult but undoubtedly the most scenic route is to pack a day-pack with food and plenty of water and follow the marked hiking trail to the top. Between easiest and most difficult are the options of either renting or using your own mountain bike or booking a guided horse-ride.
Whichever way you choose to approach Nyonyane, there’s only one way to the very summit and that’s on foot. And this is where I came face to face with those ancient ghosts of the past.
Although the mountain is officially called Nyonyane, it is commonly referred to as Execution Rock. In days of old this is where those sentenced for criminal wrongdoing were brought to atone for their misdeeds. The accused were marched to the summit and “encouraged” to step off over the edge. Should they choose not to voluntarily take the last step, a few prods from sharp spears would leave them no choice. Legend had it that if you died you were guilty as charged. If you survived, you were innocent. There were never any innocents, evidence of the effectiveness of the system.
From the parking area the footpath ahead is clearly visible. As I walk, it becomes chillingly clear there will be no return except along the same path.
Far below, rhythmic sounds of traditional dancers performing at Mantenga Cultural Village drift up. Meant for the entertainment of tourists, the beating drums take on a sinister air. It’s easy to imagine they’re beating for an unfortunate soul embarking on his last walk up this path.
Rising gently at first, the track leads over a lower crest before revealing the steep climb to the summit. Down a short dip then the final ascent begins. Becoming steeper, the path splits and re-connects as the easiest route is sought over or around large boulders. A short breathless scramble and suddenly I am at the top. All thoughts of executions and darkness are instantly banished by the sweeping view! As far as the eye can see, the land, like a map, lies spread out below.
Mlilwane meaning “Little Fire” is fittingly named for the frequent fires started by lightning strikes on this very mountain. Up here fresh vegetation was sprouting bright green through the blackness of a previous fire. Down below embers of a more recent fire still smouldered and a grey haze hung over the landscape.
Northwards, beneath the twin peaks of Sheba’s Breasts, I have a clear bird’s eye view of Mantenga Nature Reserve. The dancers are still performing but the sound is no longer ominous.
Finding a comfortable rock to lean against, I sit down and gaze at the unbroken view over Mlilwane Nature Sanctuary. Far beyond, I’m sure that on a clear day I could pinpoint all the places I’d been to in this lovely little country.
Taking a final look at the precipice where so many lost their lives I visualise their final moments, flailing arms resembling a little bird, giving Nyonanye it’s name. Thankfully only birds now fly over Execution Rock.