Bulembu: Abandoned Asbestos Mining Ghost-Town

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    Dilapidation and abandonment.
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    The whole asbestos shipping system.
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    These buckets to be filled with asbestos.
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    Tracks to move carts of asbestos to the factory.
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    It is pretty and green here.
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    Asbestos warehouses.
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    Asbestos tailings.
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    That is a very unhealthy mound.
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    Asbestos mine.
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    The cables heading out over the hills to Barberton, South Africa.
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    There is a forest growing in this one.
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    My friend Sizolwethu.
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    Workers going to the pulp mill.
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    Ah, that is why our ride was late.
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    My ride from Bulembu.
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    Making charcoal.
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    Ooooh, something tells me our ride is going to be late...
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    Even when it was in use, it was probably a pretty unpleasant start to your morning.
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    The road to Bulembu.
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    Bulembu, the asbestos mine houses.
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    Terraces of homes.
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    Growth moving in. But, there is life on the hill behind.
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    Community washing basins.
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    Great, a new trash heap. That will keep the rats away.
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    Nature wants to end you!
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    That is quite a place of business.
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    Porch and kitchen.
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    One room shack.
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    A spacious kitchen.
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    Two room shack.
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    The colors are great.
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    Homes with electricity!
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    The cable car.

March 23
Swaziland is far more developed than I ever would have guessed.  It sort of feels ahead of South Africa, though it has its crazy, charming traditional ways that it hangs onto.  I was expecting grass skirts and grass huts here.  Instead, it is huge supermarkets, strip malls and restaurants that could be in Europe.  Yea, in Swaziland.  I know.  It is weird for me too…

Oh, and another weird thing for me is how people call money “bucks” here like we refer to dollars in North America.  It seems strange somehow to hear locals say, “That will be ten bucks,” but “ten bucks” in their bucks is less than a buck in my bucks, so it all seems bizarre.[su_pullquote align=”right”] Another weird thing for me is how people call money “bucks” here…[/su_pullquote]

If the money was comparable value I could handle it better, but at outrageously different exchange rates, I feel like someone should have asked permission to use “bucks” slang. Then, permission could have been denied as the currencies are un-relatable for duplicate slang.  Yea, it bugs me…

But, people here tongue-click to talk here and make certain words, so that makes up for it.  Way awesome!  I met a guy today who told me his name and part of the name involved a tongue click.  I have no idea how to spell what I heard, so you are just going to have to take my word for it!  The tongue click is sort of like the sound that people make when they are disappointed, but here they wrap words around that sound.  There are different pitches of tongue clicks for different things that have different meanings.  It is freaking cool!

That is quite a place of business.

That is quite a place of business.

At the hostel someone approached me and asked me if I had been to Victoria Falls in Zambia.  When I confirmed that I had, they nodded and said, “I recognized your curls.”  Good job hair, you are Travel-Famous!

At about 10:00, I caught a convi-van to Mbabane for 10 rand ($0.65) and then I caught a bus to Piggs Peak for 35 rand ($2.28) where I waited around for three hours (explanation coming) in the busy bus parking lot for another convi that was to take us to Bulembu.  Bulembu was the target because it is a 60 year old abandoned town that had been an asbestos mine.

Ooooh, something tells me our ride is going to be late...

Ooooh, something tells me our ride is going to be late…

But, back to Piggs Peak – When I arrived at the square area where the bus was supposed to arrive at, I took note of all of the oil drippings on the pavement.  No other area had so many drippings except the square where the bus we were waiting for was supposed to park.  It made me assume that I was going to a very difficult area to get to and the vans were likely not in good shape.  From the oil mess, I assumed that the van was probably going to be late.  My premonitions were accurate and I waited with a growing group for three long hours for a van to appear.

I made friends with a young man named Sizolwethu who told me, “Sometimes the bus breaks and they have to fix it.  So, you have to have patience.”  Meanwhile a local man wearing a dress and a hide, that looked like it was once an impala, came to the parking lot playing a home-made flute.  I found that entertaining, but did not have small enough change to give to him in appreciation because that would mean he would receive some of my supposed bulging pockets of white money.

[su_pullquote]I…am…not…that…stupid…[/su_pullquote]Some hustlers came along, one of them had three cards (two black and one red). He would show you the cards and then mix them in front of you and you just had to pick the red card.  It was incredibly staged, poorly, for me, the only white guy in the parking lot.  Perhaps they assumed I had never seen such a thing before and that I obviously not only grew up on another continent, but likely under a rock…on another planet…

The hustlers were speaking English to converse in front of me, but they were acting a staged plan, so their voices were funny.  They just happened to stand right beside me.  They did their card thing.  The guy picking the card chose a red one.  A winner!  Unbelievably easy!  Anyone could win!  Then, the winner-guy wanted to put 200 rand on it.  Obviously, smart betting when winning is so easy!

However, I cannot actually imagine anyone ever risking a 200 rand bet on a card game here.  But, the guy rolled out 200 rand and asked the man who shuffled the cards if he could cover the 200 bet.  Yep, he could.  Game on.

They played the game and when the guy who had placed the 200 rand bet went to choose his card, he chose the wrong card and lost.  Poorly played…  It was this deflating air balloon anti-climax as that was absolutely not supposed to happen in front of me.  The hustler who was not supposed to blow it, totally blew it.  Then the guy with the cards looked at me and asked, “Do you want to play?”

I looked at his face and slowly said the words, “I…am…not…that…stupid…”  My really forward and dry response caught him by surprise, and after about two seconds, one of his hustler friends burst out laughing at my remark.  His laughter was the first reaction after the delay.  They group of guys realized that I was a dead end despite their amazing show and moved on…

[su_quote]Every moment of Africa is an adventure in one way or another, no matter what is going on and what you are doing, even when you are doing nothing.[/su_quote]

I got bored and decided to win fellow “team-convi-waiting” strangers over. So I went to the grocery store for a drink and a package of cookies that I shared with the group.  That made for a lot of smiles and before long a man in the pack organized a rogue van to take us to Bulembu.  He was one of the first people I gave a cookie to and when he got the van in order, he came to get me, brought me to the front of the line-up that had formed and put me in the front seat of the vehicle.  The price of the regular convi was supposed to be 15 rand, but for our rebel van it was going to cost us 20 rand.  My friend told me, “We must contribute extra as a team.”  No problem.

Ah, that is why our ride was late.

Ah, that is why our ride was late.

It took 45 minutes, to get to Bulembu.  On the way, we passed a convi-van that had been rolled and was laying on its side in the ditch at the bottom of a hill.  Well, that would explain things…  It turns out that Bulembu has two vans: the one in the ditch had been rolled a couple of days ago and the other had broken down today.

But, we made our way and pulled into Bulembu.  Finally.  It really turned out to be worth the wait.  The town is really beautiful in its abandonment.

Bulembu, the asbestos mine houses.

Bulembu, the asbestos mine houses.

The houses that were for the miners were painted in vibrant colors that shone out from the side of a hill.  Most of the houses are empty, but a few have been refurbished and people are living in them who work in the pulp mill just down the road.  I walked directly to the houses on the side of the hill with Sizolwethu in tow.  It is incredible how fast mother-nature reclaims what is hers.  She sends weeds to grow through the sidewalks to crack them, lays vegetation on roofs to cave them in, and does her best to dismantle mans unattained work in such a short period that it never fails to amaze me.  There are trees growing through and inside of some of the houses.  I am talking about trees growing out and above the caved in roofs.  In 15 years, this has happened.

Actually, that roof had to cave in first for the tree to even begin seed and grow.  It all happens so quickly.  I always complain that time is in too much of a hurry, but it is not just my life that seems to want to move at an unreasonable speed.  The whole world is doing that.  Maybe I need a girlfriend again that I have to wait for all of the time…. just to feel time drag sometimes…

Once a thriving town of 10,000 people, Bulembu became a ghost town of 50 people after the mine closed in 2001.



The worker hierarchy (actually lower-archy) is clearly in place here.  The highest houses that the workers had to climb to after a long shift of mining asbestos on the side of the hill are one room shacks where a stove is in the porch that doubles as a kitchen.  The toilets and all sources of water for these shacks are grouped away from the small homes.  Those were the houses for the unskilled labourers.  I made friends with a man employed at the pulp mill who is living in one of the small shacks.  He showed me the inside of his home that he told me he lives in rent free.

One room shack.

One room shack.

Down on the next terrace is where the man who organized the rebel convi-van lived.  He had a house with a bedroom, a living room, and connected to the house was a separate room for a wood stove kitchen and on the other side of that was a toilet and a shower.  Robert, was in a house likely of a foreman’s rank.  In the soil, in front of the house, my friend was growing a garden of vegetables.

A spacious kitchen.

A spacious kitchen.

Down the next rung on of terraces were fairly nice houses that had electricity.  Yes, it took three levels of rank before electricity came into play.  They were the houses for managers and they were on the flat in the bottom of the valley.

Homes with electricity!

Homes with electricity!

Beginning an ascend up the other side of the valley were the luxury houses.  The homes were large and a few of them had built-on garages.  Sizolwethu told me that some of the houses had swimming pools.  These homes were the homes of the engineers and the project managers.

You could actually see life rankings from anywhere you stood.  As an unskilled labourer, you could look at the next row of houses as a goal and then the next row as your goal after that if the corporate ladder worked here, which I assume it did not.  Nonetheless, it was set up as psychological leading…

I met Sizolwethu’s father, Moses, and talk to him about the town.  He is head of security in the village and they live in the former postmaster’s house, though they do not have anything to do with the post.  I asked Moses about industry to which he told me, “We have dairy over on that hill.  There is a bakery here.  There is the mill where they make charcoal, pulp and planks.  And, we have the bakery.”  He had mentioned the bakery twice.  I liked how proud he was of the bakery business that was wafting out the glorious smell of fresh bread.

There is a museum, formerly the finishing factory, on a hill attached to a giant cable system that runs out of the town.  At the museum are giant buckets that were once attached to the cable system and were filled with asbestos.  Once full, the buckets travelled via cable for 15 miles to Barberton, South Africa.  Fifteen miles of cable travelling asbestos!

It was a pretty remarkable system.  But, it sure makes one wonder about the effects of the asbestos of the workers.  It would be fascinating to know the life expectancy of those who devoted their sweat, tears and lungs-bottoms filled with asbestos to the company before it went into liquidation and terminated their work and their town in 2001.

In 2006, the ghost-town was sold to Bulembu Ministeirs Swaziland where a home for 2,000 children orphaned by HIV/AIDS was set up.  The town is now trying to regenerate itself as a tourist mecca.  It is very green, and very beautiful.  However tough is it to think of a vacation and an asbestos mine in the same thought-frame, that is the goal of Bulembu.  The people of the town are extremely friendly and I truly hope a prosperous future will find them.

Getting home to Lobamba just outside of Mbabane was something of a chore from Bulembu.  The convi (to no surprise) did not come and the convi that was supposed to later bring the children home from school, my last resort to leave the area, did not arrive after an hour.  Eventually, three men and I got into the back of one of the only passing pick-up trucks that hauled us in the box to Piggs Peak.  The last bus from Piggs Peak to Mbabane was leaving at 19:00.  I arrived in Piggs Peak at 18:40.  Lucky.  From Mbabane, there were only a few convis in the bus park as it was so late, but one of them happened to be the ride I needed to get back to Gable’s Shopping Center where Legends Backpacker Lodge is proximity located.  I was too late for the supermarket that closed at 20:00, so I went to a bar, ate a meal that I chased down with two beers and headed back to the hostel.

It was a long one today…

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3 Responses

  1. José Filipe Chemane says:

    Good day!
    I leaved and worked at Bulembu asbestos mine as a vigilant guard, 1996-1997, and i have good memories of it, the good view around it of mountans, eucaliptus and the beautiful green land.

    During my stay i have met a woman named phumzile who also worked at bulembu asbestos mine company, with whom i had a love affair with. After i left to South Africa i totally lost her contact.

    Would you help me to meet her, and put me in touch!

    • harrishog1 says:

      Wow José,
      That is amazing. I would love to be able to help you but and only a journalist and I do not have connections that would be able to help you. But I sure hope that you can figure out a way to track her down. Places like Facebook are a really good place to start if you can remember her full name. And I sure hope you fine her. I am so pleased that you took the time to find this article and share your story with me. That is amazing. I wish you luck José, and thanks again for writing!

      • José Filipe Chemane says:

        Thank you so much for your time…!

        i will keep looking with hope that one day i meet her again.

        Kind Regards
        José Chemnae

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