Tiny as it is at only 17 364 square kilometers, The Kingdom of Swaziland has managed to slowly but steadily establish itself as a formidable contender for a quick, affordable and enjoyable cross-border break for adventurous South Africans.
Despite being a relatively young nation, only gaining independence from the UK in September 1968, and surrounded by South Africa on all sides (apart from the tiny border it shares with Mozambique in the east), the country has a strong cultural identity of its own, largely formed by a loyalty to the monarchy, which is set on preserving age-old Swazi traditions and customs.
During a recent five-day trip around the country, I got to immerse myself in various aspects of Swazi culture and found it to be a destination absolutely brimming with that rare quality all travellers are searching for: authenticity.
I found it in the friendliness of the locals and the dedication with which the game parks approach conservation. I found it in the cozy simplicity of the accommodation offerings we experienced and in the stylishly understated manner in which most attractions are run. I found it in the national pride and the breathtaking natural landscapes. And, yes, I even found it in the curio market we visited in Manzini and can't help but feel that in many ways Swaziland has been successful in being completely African, but also entirely unique.
Perhaps it also helped that we had an excellent tour guide accompanying us. Contracted by Swaziland Tourism Authority, Nhlanhla 'Lucky' Mavuso helped us tap into local knowledge, ferried us safely from point A to point Z and back to point B as we criss-crossed the country and shared his unique humour with us. However, there was one 'Lucky moment' that stands out more clearly than the rest:
After explaining how important it was for Swazi people to name their children appropriately, he gave each of us a Swazi name of our own, unkowningly bestowing a travel memento - intangible and immeasurably precious - upon each of us.
"You, Nadia. Hmmm... I think I will call you Senanile. It means 'all is well'. Because you are cool with everything." Grateful for his laid-back perception of me, I have found myself tapping into my Swazi name ever so often since the trip, especially in moments where it feels like all is definitely not well.
If you're curious to explore Swaziland yourself, here are a few tips and suggestions for the South African traveller.
Getting there - While you can fly into the brand new and beautiful King Mswati III International Airport from Joburg (there are three SA Airlink flights a day), doing a self-drive across the border might be a simpler option.
There are 11 border posts to choose from, of which Oshoek is the most accessible for anyone travelling from Gauteng along the N17. It does, however, also tend to get quite congested, especially over long weekends and holidays. Alternative gates include Jeppes Reef (which is great if you're coming from Kruger's side), Josefsdal (from Barberton), Golela (from Durban) and Houtkop (from the Drakensberg).
All you need to cross the border is your passport (obviously) and R50 road tax for an ordinary vehicle.
Check out the Swaziland Tourism Authority's website for gate times and more information
Money - The local currency, Emalangeni is on par with the South African Rand and there is no need to exchange money before you leave, as Rands are accepted everywhere.
Now, for such a small country, Swaziland really has a huge tourist offering. These were our favourite 8 experiences:
Malolotja Canopy Tour
We hadn't even been in Swaziland for an hour when I found myself suspended way above the ground, zipping along from one wooden platform to the next, far too quickly to take in any of the scenery speeding by me.
Located in the very heart of the breath-takinglly beautiful Malolotja Nature Reserve, Swaziland's first and only canopy tour forms part of the South African franchise that finds its roots in the Tsitsikamma forest. While zip lining is the main attraction, getting to the first platform is quite an adventure on its own, starting with a bumpy 4x4 drive, followed by a short hike. Even though I revelled in every second of the experience, I have to say my favourite part was the scenic drive - I couldn't tear my eyes (or my camera) away from the yellow grasslands gently rolling on into the seemingly endless sea of blue and purple mountains.
The Malolotja Canopy Tour is open every day of the week from 07:00 - 16:00 in the summer and 08:00 - 15:00 in the winter. While they do take walk-ins, we recommend you book your spot to avoid disappointment. It costs R595 per person and is open to all ages.
Check out the Malolotja Canopy Tour website for more details
Visit Mantenga Cultural Village
Now, as a South African tourist you might feel like visiting a Swazi cultural village is kind of lame. But, believe me, you will not be sorry for popping in at Mantenga. Starting with a series of traditional dances, the tour gives you a glimpse into the rural roots from which the modern Swazi people spring. It takes you through a home compound consisting of beehive huts and the guide will explain exactly how the pecking order works. For example, the oldest and the youngest sons are expected to remain within the compound, while all the rest of the siblings are free to head off into the world. The paternal grandmother is also the absolute Queen Bee, and has to be consulted in all family matters. If you have a burning question about your future, be sure to visit the onsite Sangoma who will read your fortune through his throwing bones.
After visiting the cultural village, take a short drive up the road to view the spectacular Mantenga waterfall.
Read more about Mantenga Cultural Village on the Swaziland Tourism Authority's website
Sunday buffet at Forester's Arms
Set amid magnificent pine plantations, the quaint and rather colonial Forester's Arms is an absolute delight any day of the week, but even more so on Sundays with their lunch buffet. They offer an incredible array of dishes for all tastes - from hearty curries to crisp stir fries, dainty pastries to cold meats and salads, freshly baked breads and dreamy desserts - and you can eat as much as you like for only R150.
We repeat: ONLY R150. Apparently, the lunch is so legendary it draws South African day visitors from as far afield as KZN on a weekly basis. Hey, if I lived closer, I would be there in a heartbeat every Sunday too! Check out the Forester's Arms website for more details
Go for a horse ride at Hawane Resort
You've never really experienced freedom in the true sense of the word, until you've trotted through a field of waving grasses on horseback. We spent the night in delectably cosy accommodation (they have the BEST beds in the world, we all agreed) at Hawane Resort then woke up early to meet our trusty steeds at the stables.
Home to at least 12 well-schooled, obedient and beautiful horses, Hawane is a popular spot for equestrian adventures, offering everything from short 1-hour rides to adventurous all-day outings. I was struck by the range of personalities the horses possess and how endearing they are - my chocolate-coloured mare, Mystery, had a sweet feistiness about her, while we nicknamed fellow-journalist, Anel's horse Swazi Gold for his half-mast ears and eyes. Sarah had a serial farter, Johan, a stubborn white steed who insisted on walking at half the pace of the rest, Lucky, a compulsive eater and Shelley, a horse with the perfect blend of placidity and pluck.
Check out the Hawane website for more details about horse riding
Spot lions at Hlane Royal National Park
Swaziland is home to three national game reserves run by Big Game Parks, of which Hlane is considered the flagship and also the first choice of the King. Home to four of the Big 5, Hlane is the only one of the three where you are able to see lions and elephants. The park is divided into a number of large encampments - one exclusively for herbivores and one where herbivores and lions roam together. While guests are free to do a self-drive through the herbivore section, in order to the see the lions, you have to book a game drive with the park... which is a total treat!
After an evening of rain, thunder and lighting, we got up long before the sun and headed out on a crisp dawn game drive. Typical cat, lions are not fond of wet grass and we quickly came across a troupe of four females accompanied by one of their teenage sons. The stately ladies ignored us flat, but the curious cub kept a close eye on our open game viewing vehicle, trotting off and then returning for a closer look a few times over. Hlane's lions are the picture of good health - lean, glossy-coated and bright-eyed, speaking volumes about Game Parks' fierce conservation strategies!
Check out the Big Game Parks website for more details
Soak up the beauty at Summerfield Botanical Gardens
Even though Summerfield is situated in the very heart of Manzini, Swaziland, entering the gardens and resort feels more like you've landed in some tranquil and tropical corner of Bali. A canopy of Acacia trees guides you along a compressed gravel driveway that comes to an end at a restaurant complex, featuring outcrops of thatch-covered seating dotted along a smooth-as-glass pond and connected by various wooden boardwalks. We sat down for a round of G&Ts followed by a scrumptious lunch of fresh salads, surrounded by rolling lawns, towering trees and the chatter of birds all round.
While meals are by no means cheap (expect to pay between R80 and R100 for a dish), splashing out a little bit to experience something totally unique is definitely worth it.
Check out the Summerfield website for more details
Visit House on Fire
Probably most well-known as the venue for the insanely popular Bushfire Festival, House on Fire is a magical world of picturesquely twirling towers, fantasy-like sculptures and dreamy visions. Created by owner and master-mind Jiggs Thorne with the help of local artists, his desire was to create something reminiscent of an African-style fairy castle. Apart from hosting the Bushfire Festival, House on Fire also plays host to plays, music and poetry performances throughout the year.
If your visit doesn't coincide with any official happenings, no worries! It's still a great spot to visit and spend some time exploring. Be sure to pop into the Malandelas Restaurant on the property as well for a beer and a snack!
Check out House on Fire on Facebook and the Malandelas website
Check out the Nsangwini Rock Paintings
Getting up close to 4 000-year-old bushman paintings is pretty surreal in any situation, but in Swaziland's Nsangwini Valley it feels like you've stepped inside a time capsule. Located in a cave at the end of a steep and slippery, albeit relatively short, hike, the Nsangwini rock paintings are perfectly clear and extremely well-preserved. What makes the outing even more special is the fact that tours are run by the local community, who have a rotating schedule of guides ready to assist tourists and regale them with explanatory tales about the artworks.
Check out Swaziland Tourism's website for details about and directions to the rock paintings
Travel writer Nadia Krige was hosted as a guest of Swaziland Tourism Authority.