Nestling between South Africa and Mozambique, the small landlocked kingdom of Swaziland is often overlooked by tourists, but has a surprising amount to offer
A relatively small, landlocked kingdom, between South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland has a wealth of attractions crammed into its diverse countryside. It’s often included as a brief stopover on tours in this part of Africa, but I was keen to spend some time and explore it in more detail.
I had booked a room for part of my stay at the delightful Foresters Arms Hotel, a short drive southwest of the capital, Mbabane. I hired a car on arrival, and planned my week using the excellent road network.
Mbabane itself is not particularly inspiring, although quite pretty and with some reasonable shopping centres. I enjoyed a brief wander around, and took the chance to visit the local markets, with all manner of tourist-orientated handicrafts. However, the hills in the background kept reminding me I needed to head south to my hotel in Mhlambanyatsi. Even though the sun was beginning to set, it was clear the countryside outside the capital was wonderful. I arrived at dusk, and was extremely pleased at the standard of the accommodation. The water here is directly from a fresh spring, and the rooms and public areas were suitably comfortable.
The next morning I sat on the open-air terrace, and had trouble working out which was better: the superb panoramic view, or the exquisite food! I had planned to see the country by driving circular tours from here, and my first was north to the Hhohho Region.
My route took me via Motjane, and the Hawane Dam, to the highest part of Swaziland. This is a stunning landscape of mountains, tinged in red from the iron ore that has been mined here since ancient times. The Malolotja National Park is a rugged natural wilderness, where large groups of antelope run, and there are apparently more than 200 different species of birds. There are a variety of marked treks, including one I took to the stunning gorge cut by the Komati River. The river then continues on to the huge Maguga Dam, where I stopped briefly on my way to Piggs Peak.
If you were dropped into this place blindfolded, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Canada or Alaska, as it's home to a busy logging industry. Vast tracts of pine trees cover the surrounding hills, and huge trucks carry the cut timber along rutted dusty roads. To increase the similarity, Piggs Peak gets its name from a prospector who discovered gold here in 1884. Don’t be fooled by its outwardly industrial aura; this is a tourist town, pretty in the centre, and with more than enough craft shops along all the main roads. The main highlight is just to the north, where I found the picturesque Phophonyane Falls. The drive back south was equally magnificent, with the setting sun casting deep shadows on the mountains, and the amazing chorus of night creatures that is a feature of sunsets throughout Africa.
The next day I planned a much shorter drive, visiting the area closest to the hotel around the Ezulwini Valley. Roughly translated this means ‘Valley of Heaven’ and certainly it was full of heavenly views. The pretty route heads south towards Lobamba, home to the Swazi royal family and its associated pageantry. I wanted to visit the wildlife sanctuary at Mlilwane, which, although being created artificially back in the 1950s, has an impressive array of animals and birds. I joined a small, guided horseback tour, which, even with the admission fee for the sanctuary itself added in, was still surprisingly cheap. We saw hippos, crocodiles, warthogs, antelopes, giraffes, and lots of zebra. Above me, I also spotted a black eagle and many smaller, prettier species. It was a wonderful trip, enhanced by a superb meal at Malandela’s Restaurant, in the Malkerns Valley.
My final trip out was to the Lubombo region, which occupies the eastern areas near the border with Mozambique. This is too far to do in a day, and there is also too much to see, so I planned to stay there. My first stop was the historic small town of Siteki, which sits high on a hill from where, I’m told, on a clear day you can see the Indian Ocean. Sadly it wasn’t clear enough on the day I was there, but who am I to argue. I enjoyed the vibrancy of Siteki after the more relaxed, laidback atmosphere that I’d encountered elsewhere.
A drive south through more beautiful rolling countryside, found me at Big Bend, where the Great Usuthu River has – ahem – a big bend. Nothing if not obvious! The craft centre here is pretty typical, but no less interesting for that. I always prefer craft markets where you can actually see the items being made. I was also in a particularly good frame of mind, after a very acceptable meal in the Riverside Restaurant, and because I was now heading for what I had planned as the highlight of my visit to Swaziland.
The Mkhaya Game Reserve, near Siphofaneni, is a real first-class reserve: well-organised, well-stocked, and very friendly. If you are planning to come here, you must book in advance. I’d reserved one of the wonderfully atmospheric 19th-century-style stone cottages in the middle of the bush. Staying in the reserve not only gives you the authentic feel of the wild, it was also much more convenient for the morning game drive. As well as elephants, white rhino, antelopes, and a host of smaller breeds, I was delighted to see my first-ever black rhino in the wild.
I would have come to Swaziland just for that one moment, but in truth I had been more than pleasantly surprised at this amazing country, and vowed to return one day to explore further.