A small, scenically diverse country poised at the edge of the southern Africa’s eastern escarpment, the Kingdom of Swaziland is sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, just a few hour’s drive from Johannesburg. Its dramatic topography is rugged and undulating, with numerous steeply-rising mountains, volcanic hills and ancient rock formations, plunging green valleys and majestic waterfalls. And inhabiting this verdant world is a nation with strong ties to colourful cultural traditions.
There was a time when the only people visiting Swaziland in any significant numbers were South Africans slipping across the border to try their luck at casinos, banned back home under apartheid. The casinos are still there, along with the spa resorts, but these days visitors from farther afield are discovering less morally-vacuous reasons to visit, especially in its easily-accessible game reserves.
Besides the peculiarity of being Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy, Swaziland also boasts such unlikely titles as having the world’s largest granite dome (which you can hike to the top of), the world’s most vertical walk, and the distinction of being the smallest non-island country in the southern hemisphere. Because of the country’s size, it’s possible to see a lot of it with relatively limited time. The key, though, is to time a visit to coincide with one of Swaziland’s incredible multi-day celebrations.
Most impressive amongst its traditional ceremonies, and regarded as one of the most exciting cultural events in Africa, is the annual Umhlanga, or reed dance festival, which takes place over eight days at the Ludzidzini Royal Residence in late-August or early-September. Many consider it Africa’s most colourful traditional event, and it’s certainly one of the biggest. Tens of thousands of girls and young women – all unwed and childless – present themselves at the royal village of the Queen Mother where they offer up fresh-cut reeds to her before singing and dancing wearing sashes in vibrant colours and beautifully-crafted beaded skirts. The reeds are traditionally used to rebuild the fence around the Queen Mother’s home, and the king, Mswati III, joins celebrations on the final day. The Umhlanga is also an opportunity for the king to select new wives, should he so desire.
Mswati III is also seen at the annual Incwala (Kingship Ceremony), at which he and his military regiment perform a ceremonial dance outfitted in elaborate warrior dress. The celebrations concern the arrival of the first fruits of the season, akin to a royal harvest festival. During the festival, which has several sacred, private components, the king honours the tradition of being the first to taste the new season’s harvest, while Swazi boys collect branches used to rebuild the royal kraal. The Incwala happens late-December, early-January.
Swaziland’s royal heartland is also called the Valley of Heaven – or Ezulwini – which stretches for some 18km from just outside the capital city, Mbabane. Near Lobamba in the Ezulwini Valley is Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, the country’s oldest protected wildlife area, started on a family farm in the 1950s. Besides games drives and on-foot safaris, you’re able to explore the park on horseback and mountain bike, making it a wonderful adventure if you’re looking to stay active while cruising through lovely terrain. Although free of Big Five species, there are plentiful antelope, wallowing hippos, and crocodiles. Also in the sanctuary are accommodations in the form of beehive huts – traditional grass domed structures – installed with en suite modern bathrooms. And on the park’s Nyonyane Mountain is a notorious nub of exposed granite known as the Rock of Execution, where wrongdoers were once put to death.
Swaziland has gained a reputation for its successes with conservation projects, such as the anti-rhino-poaching programme at Hlane Royal National Park. The park has lost only three rhino to poachers in the last 22 years – a massive success in light of the ongoing poaching crisis in southern Africa. At over 30,000 hectares, Hlane is also the largest wildlife reserve in Swaziland, with most of the species you would want to see, including lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant, hippo, hyena, and of course, rhinos. Exhilarating walking safaris through the park are offered by armed rangers, who accompany you for your protection. The park is also good for birding, with some 250 species including Africa’s highest density of white-backed vultures and a nesting colony of marabou stork.
Also offering excellent rhino sightings, Mkhaya Game Reserve is a specialised sanctuary or refuge for endangered animal species, and particularly well known for the protection of both white and black rhino. Strangely, back in 1979, the reserve was initially established for the preservation of Nguni cattle, a domestic species threatened with extinction. These African pure breeds can still be seen along with the other non-predatory species protected in the reserve.
Considered the world’s largest chunk of granite, Sibebe Rock is popular with hikers who come not only to conquer a record-breaking rock, but also for the incredible views on the way up, and the chance to see Swaziland’s wild horses. The rock’s summit is in fact a vast, flat plateau through which a stream runs and horses are sometimes spotted grazing at a distance.
For a bit of a rush, the Malolotja Canopy Tour, a zipline adventure above the Majolomba River Gorge in the Malolotja Nature Reserve is a thrilling way to take in some of the country’s beautiful terrain while zooming through the treetops. The tour involves 10 slides between 11 elevated forest platforms. Malolotja is known for its raw, unspoilt beauty, excellent hiking trails and nearly 300 bird species, making it among the most important birding regions in southern Africa, with several endangered species. Some of the bigger birds to look out for include the blue crane, bald ibis, and Stanley’s bustard.
Requiring a bit more energy, another great Swazi adventure is white water rafting on the Great Usuthu River, organised by the country’s original adventure travel company, Swazi Trails. The waters are varied, with Grade II, III and IV rapids – nothing too scary – and trips pass through wild countryside. You can ramp up the experience, adding other extreme activities such as abseiling and cliff jumping into the mix.
Swazi cultural villages are touristy, but for the time-strapped traveller, provide close-quarters insight into traditional life. At Mantenga Cultural Village, located in a nature reserve, a recreated mid-19th century Swazi village comprising beehive grass dome huts and reed fences serves as a kind of living museum where demonstrations of Swazi crafts, performances of singing and sibhaca dancing, and everyday activities such as maize-grinding and grass-plaiting are showcased.
Another of Swaziland’s major celebrations, Bushfire (29-31 May 2015) offers a rather different sort of cultural experience. The annual three-day festival of world music, theatre, dance and poetry is now considered one of the best cultural gatherings in Africa. Artists, performers and thousands of revellers from across the continent get together at House on Fire, an innovative and acclaimed art gallery and performance centre with a beautifully decorated amphitheatre and studio space.
Located just outside Malkerns, House on Fire is part of Malandela’s – an excellent place to stock up on the crafts for which Swaziland has developed a particularly good reputation. Its boutiques sell imaginatively carved wood sculptures, hand-woven natural fibre baskets, batiks, and decorative pieces in brightly coloured “˜Zoggs Dots’ patterns, meaning it’s unlikely you’ll leave the country empty-handed. And if you don’t get to Malkerns, there are many more craft stalls across the country.
What are your top tips for visiting Swaziland? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain