A little African Kingdom with a lot to offer
As a South African, I’ll admit that I used to only think of Swaziland as just an obscure little country that was almost completely engulfed by my own, and I hadn’t considered it to be much of a travel destination. Perhaps because of its small size, Swaziland often tends to get overlooked when people are planning a trip through Africa. However, when Swaziland Tourism recently sent out an invite to join them on a media trip, I jumped at the opportunity to get off the beaten track and find out more about this unexplored treasure. I soon discovered that this Southern African country may be little but it’s limitless.
As soon as we drove across the unassuming Ngwenya border from South Africa, I could feel that we were in a completely different country. And I was struck by how the yellow of South Africa’s plains gave way to an eruption of pea green hills and sandy red roads.
Swaziland’s diverse landscapes consist of magnificent mountains, gorges, rivers, waterfalls, lush valleys, typical African bush, and unique rock formations. Our five-day whirlwind trip saw us exploring both the glorious natural beauty of Swaziland, as well as the heritage and culture of its proud population.
Our journey started at Hawane Resort, not 30 minutes from the border. Nestled in Swaziland’s rolling hills, we had the chance to get close to nature on horseback in this idyllic setting. Walking, trotting and sometimes unintentionally cantering through the grassy wilderness was a fantastic way to experience the expansive beauty that the country has to offer, and I immediately fell in love.
While our group leader, Star, sat nonchalantly astride his mare with his cowboy hat tipped partially over his eyes, the rest of us wiggled in our saddles through the first half of the ride. But as soon as we had gained some confidence and crossed the road into the grasslands, we were blown away by the view that lay before us. The crisp air, combined with the scent of morning dew, made for a heady combination, and my horse, Mystery, and I became fast friends as we strolled through our stunning surroundings together.
Once we had been filled with our fair share of wonder, we returned to the resort with aching legs and headed off to the Malolotja Nature Reserve where we substituted our saddles for harnesses in preparation for a whole different kind of adventure. Malolotja covers some 18,000ha and offers a diverse landscape of wetland, woods and highvelds. And it was here in this mountain wilderness that we set off on a bumpy game drive, during which our guide regaled us with safari stories and pointed out the different antelope and far-off baboon troops that inhabit the reserve. We also crossed paths with two women who were gathering grass to create brooms and other household items, and this encounter served to highlight the strong connection that the local rural communities have with nature.
Our driver soon dropped us off at the starting point of a hike to the treetop canopy tour. As we hiked down into the valley, rolling grasslands gave way to a dense forest of rich greens and the occasional ‘whoop’ of a calling primate. This tour is arguably one of the most beautiful of its kind, and it is a fantastic way to view the park from up high, thanks to a wobbly bridge and 10 ziplines that offered some unforgettable scenes as we whizzed through the trees.
Exhausted after a day filled with activities, we were then ready to leave this leafy paradise and unwind at the stunning Maguga Lodge, which presented the opportunity to round off the day perfectly with a sunset cruise on the Maguga Dam.
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A Southern African sanctuary
The next part of our trip took us to the unforgettable Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, where our accommodation came in the form of beehive huts – a magical experience for someone whose sleeping quarters have always involved four walls and a roof. However, traditional elements were combined with a welcome level of luxury that included running toilets and a comfortable bed, rather than a traditional sleeping mat.
Prying ourselves away from the novelty of our new bedrooms, we explored the camp and park. Mlilwane is a secluded sanctuary situated in Ezulwini Valley, which is also aptly known as the ‘Valley of the Heavens’. It is Swaziland’s pioneer conservation area and the name ‘Mlilwane’, meaning ‘little fire’ in the local SiSwati language, holds particular significance as it is considered to be the metaphorical spark that started a large conservation movement in Swaziland that resulted in over 22 species being saved from local extinction.
Adding to the charm of Mlilwane, many of the antelope found in the park wander into camp each day, and I came face-to-face with a startled looking impala several times while wandering back to my hut. Another treat is the warthog family that have made their home under the restaurant’s deck and that spends its mornings warming up by the continually burning campfire, which is rumoured to have not been extinguished in three decades.
After a late arrival the night before, our group was excited to partake in an early morning cycling safari to shake off the cobwebs. Mlilwane offers a host of different ways to experience the bush – from game drives to horseback safaris, but we had the chance to practice our pedalling on some rather professional looking mountain bikes.
After a wobbly first ride around the camp, we set off on the trail, but soon stopped to gawk at a nearby crocodile sunning itself less than five metres away from the track. This was the first of many stops along the trail, and I soon got up to speed when I didn’t want to be left behind with the croc!
If you are moderately fit, which I’ll quite readily admit that I’m not, a mountain bike is a great way to experience a safari. Much like on horseback, you are able to get closer to the wildlife than in a vehicle, as they aren’t scared off by the sound of an engine, and it offers the chance to easily stop to inspect termite hills and animal tracks that offer a richer experience of the bush.
After spending the first half of our trip absorbing the natural beauty and wildlife that Swaziland has to offer, we chose to spend the rest of our tour exploring the cultural heritage of which the country is so proud.
Swaziland upholds and embraces its ancient traditions. The different clans in Swaziland are all part of a single ethnic group that is united under the last true monarchy in the world, meaning that the current King and the Queen Mother have indisputable authority when it comes to governance. And while some people might be surprised to learn that King Mswati III has 15 wives – a number that increases every year – the people seem to really love the royal Dlamini family.
As each king tends to have many wives and many children, the heir to the throne is selected based on his mother’s status. The king, who is referred to as Ngwenyama (lion), has to be her only son and, once crowned, he is expected to choose wives from multiple clans to ensure national unity.
The Swazi nation hosts a number of ceremonies throughout the year in celebration of its heritage, but the most well-known is the Reed Dance – an eight-day ceremony during which young women honour the Queen Mother, who is known as Indlovukazi (she-elephant), by presenting her with freshly cut reeds at the royal homestead, before the dancing and singing begins.
While our visit didn’t coincide with the Reed Dance, we did have the opportunity at the Mantenga Cultural Village to see some of the country’s traditional dances, along with many of their other costumes and customs. The performances were powerful and you could feel the passion in the dancers’ movement, as grown men and young boys moved with the grace of ballerinas before stomping down with a thud.
While the people are ferociously protective of their culture and way of life, they also love welcoming tourists and can be master negotiators, which we discovered firsthand on our trip to Mbabane Market. This market is a great place to pick up curios and handcrafted gifts, but it is best visited by those who are ready and willing to haggle. Excited calls in SiSwati welcomed us as we clambered out of our bus and, a few hundred Rands later, we left with some stunning trinkets and a slightly dazed sensation at having encountered so many keen saleswomen.
Finally, the last stop on our trip was in the country’s capital of Mbabane at the prestigious Mountain Inn, which has played host to many delegates over the years and overlooks the stunning valley below. It was here that we ended our tour of Swaziland – with a glass of wine in hand, a content feeling of discovery, and a new appreciation of this marvellous part of the continent.
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When and how to get there
While the country has great weather all year round, it’s widely agreed that the best time to visit Swaziland is during the annual Reed Dance ceremony, which is particularly remarkable to watch as about 40,000 young women take part in the colourful celebrations. This event takes place around the last week of August or the first week of September, but the exact dates are based on ancestral astrology so are confirmed each year closer to the time.
While Swaziland is a beautiful country in its own right, flying straight into the international airport is rarely recommended, as it is very far away from the country’s main attractions. As a result, a preferred option is to drive to Swaziland from South Africa or Malawi and, as it’s just over four hours by car from Johannesburg, it’s a great excuse for a roadtrip!
What to do
Swaziland offers a host of attractions to appeal to different travellers, and its diminutive size lends itself easily to exploration. That said, you still need to know what you’re looking for in order to uncover all of its hidden treasures. A guided tour of the country is one of the best options to make sure you don’t miss out on anything, and hiring a Swazi driver affords you the chance to learn firsthand about the rich heritage and wilderness. The Swaziland Tourism Association is situated on the Ngwenya border and can help guide your trip from there.
If you’re a bush enthusiast, a safari in one of the country’s game parks is a must, whether this be on horseback, bicycle or game drive. There is also the fantastic option of combining a trip to the reserves in Swaziland with a holiday at the Kruger National Park to make the best of two Southern African worlds.
If birds get you reaching for the binoculars, Phophonyane Falls Nature Reserve near Pigg’s Peak not only offers beautiful riverine walks surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, but over 250 species of our feathered friends make it an ideal place for avian admirers. Especially if the Narina trogon or crowned eagle are still on your bird list!
Those wishing to unleash their inner historian should pay a visit to Nsangwini Rock Art to see some of the world’s most diverse bushman paintings, which date back 4,000 years. It’s also worth making a stopover at Sibebe Rock, a famous execution rock used by ancient Swazi lawmakers, before hiking to explore the unique ‘Potholes’ rock formation at the Gap.
Shopaholics will also be in paradise as there are a number of shops to splash some cash, including Ngwenya Glass where you can watch the glass blowers make beautiful curios from recycled glass. This is an entrancing sight to behold and any purchase will support a great community project. A stop-off at the famous Swazi Candles to watch the candlemakers craft unique mementos won’t go amiss, and a walk through Mbabane Market is the perfect place to brush up on your bargaining skills.
Where to stay
Swaziland’s accommodation options are varied. What’s more is that they’re extremely affordable compared with other leading safari destinations in Africa, and most also offer discounted rates during winter, which is their dry season. As the country is so small, you can stay almost anywhere and still have access to the different attractions. This said, there’s nothing quite like waking up in the wilderness to the sound of wild animal calls, so a stay in one of the country’s three big game parks is highly recommended.
Most parks offer a range of options from rustic camping to luxury lodges. Depending on your preferences you can find unique accommodation in beehive huts in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary or choose to pitch your tent at Malolotja Nature Reserve, which is an unparalleled choice for campers. Visitors here can hike into the hills and set up camp in a number of designated spots, where they are quite likely to be the only people for miles.
About the author
Katherine Verhoeven is a Saffa through and through. Having studied Journalism and English at the University of Cape Town, she set her sights on the digital world and has since joined the Africa Geographic editorial team as Community Manager, working hand-in-hand with lodge and tour partners to celebrate the continent.