For such a tiny nation, Swaziland has a certain notoriety. Wedged between its massive neighbours South Africa and Mozambique, news reports emanating from the scarcely 17,000km2 country tend to focus on the opulence of its king (Africa’s last reigning absolute monarch) and its prevalence rate of HIV – the world’s highest.
What the media reports don’t tell you is that notwithstanding its problems, Swaziland is a delightful place to visit: laidback and friendly, safe, affordable and picturesque. Having spent a fair bit of time getting to know the kingdom over the past two years, here are the five things I think you should experience.
Situated in a lushly forested paradise home to some 240 bird species, this gorgeously secluded eco-lodge offers a range of accommodationoptions – from cosy cottages for families to traditional beehives and safari tents for couples. Once you’ve admired the majestic waterfall that gives the place its name, take a ramble along well-marked paths that traverse a stunning array of vegetation – from dense woodland to aloe-studded ridges. Then cool off in the natural, rock-lined swimming pool (pictured above). The lodge restaurant offers hearty, unpretentious fare, opening out onto a garden terrace that overlooks distant farmland far below. You won’t want to leave.
Considered the birthplace of Swazi conservation, this scenic reserve a short drive from the capital offers birdlife and antelope aplenty. You can explore it in your car or on foot, but the best way of appreciating it is from the saddle.
Chubeka Trails offers a range of guided horse safaris here – from several hours to overnight – allowing you to discover more about Swaziland’s history and ecology from your guide en route. I spent a wonderful morning riding up to the imposing Execution Rock where, in less forgiving times, criminals were thrown to their deaths. Today, the summit is a peaceful spot where you can soak up the views of sugar cane fields, pine forests and granite mountains rippling all the way around you.
Mlilwane has beehives, a backpackers, camping and self-catering cottages. But if you really feel like treating yourself, indulge in the nostalgic comforts of Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge for a night. Once the home of conservation pioneer Mickey Reilly, the sprawling stone house is surrounded by lush garden where duikers graze each morning. Expect wholesome farm-style fare, big, comfy bedrooms and breakfast with a view on the terrace.
Swaziland has a thriving fair trade design scene that not only produces covetable homeware, jewellery and fabric – but has a positive impact on thousands of Swazis too. At the Ngwenya Glass factory close to Swaziland’s largest border post, watch recycled glass be transformed into elegant stemware (based on mid-century Swedish moulds) and adorable transparent animals. Then browse the shops forming the rest of the complex for gorgeous gifts to take home – from hand-woven scarves to earrings made with recycled magazine pages.
Other great design destinations are the Piggs Peak Craft Centre (on the Matsamo-Piggs Peak road) and the Swazi Candles Complex in the Malkerns valley.
The community-owned Shewula Mountain Camp, a cluster of cosy thatched cottages, sits atop the Lubombo mountains in a 2650ha nature reserve close to the Mozambican border.
Get a better understanding of rural Swazi life from a cultural walk and a visit to the sangoma (witch doctor), or get your nature fix with a walk down to the Mbuluzi river. You’d be forgiven, though, if you decide to relax with a book and admire the endless views of the plains below you instead.
Majestic and mysterious, Malolotja nature reserve has grand mountains, grassy hills, hidden forests and tumbling rivers. A network of 200km trails runs through it, though sadly the paths are badly maintained and poorly signposted: they’re best not attempted without a knowledgeable local leading your hike.
Happily, though, visitors can still get a taste of Malolotja’s magic without getting hopelessly lost – and in the most exhilarating fashion too! Stretched between soaring cliffs, its canopy tour’s ten ziplines take you gliding at dizzying speeds over montane forest. The views are as breath-taking as the slides – and by the time you’re finished you’ll be wishing you could do it all over again.
Swaziland is best explored by road – these mostly vary from the shiny-new to the slightly-potholed. Jet in from Joburg to King Mswati III International and hire a car there, or just drive from Joburg (it takes about five hours). Even better is to combine a visit with exploring the Kruger National Park (just to the north) and, if you’ve got time, the bush, battlefields and beaches of Zululand (to the south).