Just a speck on the map of Africa, Swaziland could easily be missed when one is planning a safari or trip to this region.
Despite being one of the smallest countries in Africa – with a land size of 17,363 sq km, it is smaller than Johor – Swaziland boasts a rich culture and traditions, stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife.
We would have overlooked this landlocked monarchy in Southern Africa had we not been planning our route from St Lucia to Kruger National Park in South Africa. Driving through Swaziland proved to be an attractive option and a few days would allow us to experience Swazi culture, wildlife and natural scenery. (By now we had seen quite a bit of South Africa, after spending a week in Cape Town and another in the eastern cape, exploring the Drakensberg region and St Lucia estuary. We would wrap up our last week in Kruger.)
We set off from St Lucia shortly before 6am and reached the border at around 8am. It was the most efficient border crossing ever, probably because traffic was thin at the South gate of Golela.
With our documents all checked out, we were on our way to our lodge in Mbabane. Flanking the main road are community farms and clusters of villages with circular-shaped huts and thatched roofs made of grass. We saw villagers, both young and old, transporting buckets of water either on wheelbarrows or balancing huge containers on their heads. Upon seeing us driving past, they would break into smiles and wave cheerfully.
Upon checking into our hotel, the slower pace of life in Swaziland kicked in as we sauntered over to the restaurant overlooking thick forest reserve. A family of vervet monkeys surfaced and skirted around the edge of the veranda and entertained us while we ate our brunch leisurely. With black faces and silver hair, they remained oblivious to our interest and attention.
At a distance loomed a striking mountain with its exposed granite peak. The Nyonyane Mountain with its peak called Execution Rock was the place where ancient execution rituals were held. At spear point, criminals were forced to walk off the edge to their deaths. Now it is a popular trail, with hikers striving to reach its 1,110m peak.
We left for Mantenga Cultural Village to watch a performance shortly after. A living cultural village displaying the life of the Swazis in the 1850s, it has its own permanent troupe that performs twice daily at 11.30am and 3.15pm. We read that the troupe has toured Europe and the Americas, and even performed at global festivals and events such as the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
We had high expectations and felt great excitement as we sat in a small, tiered, open-air arena, awaiting the arrival of some 20 bare-footed performers clad in traditional wear and colourful embellishments. The women were dressed in two-piece outfits featuring red, white and black bold prints called emahiya. The top is a large piece of cloth securely tied at the shoulder, with another piece of cloth wrapped around the waist like a sarong. Additional jewellery and adornments would dictate an individual’s marital status, socio-economic status as well as lineage to Swazi royalty.
The rhythmic drum beats, melodious chants and shrill catcalls from the performers added to their spellbinding performance of high-kicks and stomping. The sibhaca dance was strenuous and fast-paced, with each group of maidens and men coming forward to execute high-kicks above their heads, accompanied by chanting and singing in the background.
After the performance, we followed a group of 10 and a guide for a tour of the village, which holds 16 “bee-hive” huts and other structures such as kraals and byres for cattle and goats, and reed fences that serve as windbreaks. We went inside the hut of the matriarch – Grandmother’s hut – all 15 of us, standing inside comfortably. The hut was surprisingly airy and cool in the sweltering heat of summer.
The adjacent Mantenga Falls provided cool respite as we hiked down the trail to the largest waterfall in Swaziland in terms of volume at 95m high. As it had not rained in three months, the water volume was low. Still we found the area serene and tranquil, being the last few to arrive.
Now, no visit to Swaziland would be complete without picking up its fine handicrafts. Manufacturers such as Ngwenya Glass and Swazi Candles are synonymous with world-class quality glassware and candles, respectively.
Since 1987, Ngwenya Glass has been making glassware in Swaziland from 100% recycled glass. We found a vast range of quality tableware and African animals in their showroom. We adjourned upstairs to their viewing gallery for the glass-blowing process. We stood on a deck overlooking the glassblowers and marvelled at the skilled transformation of recycled glass bottles into wild animals and glasses.
Swazi Candles also boasts fine artistry in candle-making since 1982. We were spoilt for choice, gawking at their colourful handmade displays of wax-encased LED lights and African animals. We observed artisans crafting animals from blocks of paraffin wax at the workshop located in Malkerns Valley.
The artisan lineage runs deep in this kingdom. Everywhere we went, we saw artisans engaged in wood or stone carving by the roadside in their makeshift stalls beside major roads. At the popular Ezulwini Craft Market, we chatted with an elderly woman stringing beads who told us stories of how she honed her skills from her mother. Needless to say, we bought her beaded bracelets!
Two days certainly did not do justice to Swaziland. We opted out of game-viewing as we were going to Kruger. Swaziland is also renowned for its beautiful wildlife reserves, such as Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and Hlane National Park, to name a few.
Now that Swaziland is on our map, we don’t have an excuse not to return when we’re in South Africa!
Facts to know before you go
Most international flights land in Johannesburg, South Africa. From here, you can fly to Swaziland’s Manzini airport. Or you can drive. (In our case, we flew from Cape Town to Durban and picked up a rental to explore the Drakensburg region, St Lucia, Swaziland and Kruger National Park before departing for home from Johannesburg.)
If you’re picking up your rental in South Africa, inform the agency to prepare documents for border crossing. Surprisingly, there are no surcharges for cross-border permits to Swaziland (and also Lesotho, another small landlocked country).
Car rentals will request for international driving licences. However, the Malaysian driving licence is accepted, provided it has English translation.
Travellers with children under 18 need to produce original birth certificates at immigration or they may be denied entry. Each time we entered and exited South Africa and Swaziland, we had to show proof of our children’s birth certificates. We were told that this practice would curb child-trafficking.
Carry sufficient cash. Hotels and major shops, such as Ngwenya Glass and Swazi Candles, accept credit cards, but artisan markets only accept cash. Swaziland’s currency, Lilangeni, is pegged to South Africa’s Rand and both are widely used.
Is Swaziland safe? We never felt threatened nor unsafe in Swaziland. It felt safer compared to other areas of South Africa, such as Johannesburg. Just exercise the usual caution on personal safety and with your belongings.