Swaziland may be the smallest country in the southern hemisphere, but it’s big on experiences. Landlocked on all sides by South Africa and Mozambique, its 17,364 square kilometres pack some punch whether you’re a wildlife fan, adrenaline junkie or culture vulture.
Considering the country’s location, you might be surprised to find out that very few South Africans choose to holiday here. In fact tourism in the country is still small-scale, but for me that’s what makes it an even more intriguing destination.
Recently there’s been a buzz amongst the world’s travel experts, many of them suggesting Swaziland could soon become Southern Africa’s latest adventure capital, so how could I refuse an invite from the Swaziland Tourism Authority?
My second tour of this fascinating country, I was eager to rediscover its traditions, explore its parks and reserves, and — top of my bucket list — make another visit to the village Sangoma.
Known as a diviner and traditional faith healer, the Sangoma’s role is to locate the cause of misfortune or disease and prepare medicines. For a small donation they will also look into your future.
Of course, you may be an unbeliever, but the reading at my last appointment was scarily accurate. The Sangoma told me I was going to marry and gave me a date. Only a few weeks later, my now-husband proposed, and we married in the exact same month. It’s amazing to think all this knowledge came to him from a single bag of bones and dice thrown to the ground, and even sceptics can’t help but sense their energy during the readings.
Culture on tap
One of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, the culture of Swaziland is almost timeless. The Mantenga Culture Village in the Ezulwini Valley (‘Valley of Heavens’) is well worth a few hours of your time and it will only set you back around $14 USD (R100). A living, open-air museum, the lifestyle you’ll experience here dates back to 1850, but the people are actually residents in this community so the encounter is anything but staged.
The village comprises huts, kraals and byres for cattle and goats, reed fences and other structures. It’s an opportunity to peer into the heart and soul of Swaziland — you can listen to stories of their villagers’ ancestors, plait grass, grind maize and — best of all — visit Sangoma Dumisane.
During the stay we also immersed ourselves in the rhythm of Africa. No small-time affair, the internationally acclaimed dance troupe has made an appearance at several festivals in Europe and the Americas, and is a household name in South Africa as they performed at FIFA 2010. Yes, you can also learn some of the moves if you’re willing, though I suspect I might still need more practice.
The never-ending safari
If you thought you’d be confined to a 4X4 on your safari, think again. Well, at least if you’re heading to the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary — the pioneering conservation area in the Ezulwini Valley.
Here, you’ll have the chance to gain a more intimate appreciation of your surroundings as there are plenty of hiking paths. Viewing the animals on foot, by mountain bike and on horseback adds something special to the whole experience. Caving and rafting is also available nearby.
For mountain bike hire and a guide you can expect to pay around US$20. It’s worth every cent as cyclists are far less obtrusive than vehicles. Aside from seeing game out on the trail, warthog, zebra and gazelle might be found roaming across the gardens or near the campfire. And there’s nothing quite like sipping a sundowner at the aptly named Hippo Haunt, the restaurant overlooking a waterhole where the hippo pods and birdlife congregate.
Another highlight at Mlilwane is staying in the traditional Swazi beehive huts, the rounded frame made of poles covered with thatch and bound with plaited ropes. As this is how some of the locals live, it’s an eye-opener on the cultural front and you’ll spot the familiar buildings as you travel across the country.
Swaziland’s currency is the Lilangeni, which is pegged to the South African rand. Rand is accepted everywhere and you can bring cash in when you arrive, or you can draw money from the ATMs after you arrive. Remember you will receive the local currency which can only be used in Swaziland, so be careful how much you draw out. Otherwise all of the activities available at Mlilwane can be paid for by credit card.
A playground for the imagination
Partway through our group tour we made a stop at House On Fire. A mere 14km from the Ezulwini Valley, the venue is set in the beautiful farmlands of the Malkerns Valley with the mountains of Mlilwane as a backdrop. HOF is adjacent to a farmhouse restaurant, B&B and boutique artisan shops. Get ready to soak up the culture as you’ll also get a great introduction to reed making here too.
A destination in itself, it’s like being transported to another world. Even when the venue isn’t hosting public events showcasing the finest local and international musical and artistic talent (including the spectacular music and cultural MTN Bushfire Festival held annually at the end of May) you can literally spend hours just walking around this place — it’s magical. The architectural landscape consists of beautiful fantasy statues and unique artwork and you’re bound to uncover something new.
From the restaurant you’ll be treated to spellbinding views across the valley and the food is ‘delish.’ Cheaper than South Africa and definitely good value for money, I ordered a whole stuffed rainbow trout, chips and salad for a mere R100 (around US$14) and I couldn’t finish it.
Overall, I’d say Swaziland fits perfectly in the budget safari category. Plus, it puts the idea of a digital detox on a whole new level, as there’s an underlying sense of peace and happiness wherever you go.
The strong community spirit amongst the locals is also pretty overwhelming. Our guide told us that the King sends his wives all over the country to live and take notes of any complaints about the state of the roads and the villages. Money is then re-invested where it’s needed.
Not only that, the King assists with the financing of shared equipment across the country and this shared understanding of each other’s needs filters down on a local level — it’s genuinely evident in the warmth and friendliness of the Swazi people.
As with all African safari destinations, when you choose to visit really comes down to personal preference and what you want to see and do during your visit. Green season (November to April) is better for birders, travelling in off peak season will still ensure you see the lion’s share of plains game and predators.
Remember those soaring summer temperatures could cause havoc with your hiking plans and white-water rafters might be best to avoid the rains when the rivers flood and become too dangerous to tackle.
Michelle Lewis-Loubser travelled as a guest of the Swaziland Tourism Authority.