Swaziland is a small landlocked country surrounded on three sides by South Africa, with the Lebombo Mountains separating it from Mozambique on its eastern side. Once a British Protectorate, it became independent in 1968.
Today it has a population of just about 1.25-million people, and the main languages are English and Siswati. You’ll find the Swazis to be a very friendly and relaxed people, and whether you’re in Mbabane, its laid-back capital, high in the mountains, or deep in a rural area, you’ll be met with warmth and courtesy.
Swaziland is known for its excellent wildlife conservation and is home to a number of national parks and game reserves that reflect the country’s geographical diversity, ranging from the Malolotja Nature Reserve in the north-west – a paradise for hikers with its towering mountains (at 3 500-million years old some of the oldest in the world) – to Swaziland’s largest, Hlane Royal National Park, once a private royal hunting ground. Here you’ll find four of the Big Five – elephant, lion, leopard and rhino – and you’re almost guaranteed a good rhino sighting.
Near to Mbabane in the Ezulwini Valley is the popular Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, known for its herds of plains game, including zebra, antelope of all kinds and one of the “Ugly Five” – the comical but charismatic warthog.
In the Mkhaya Game Reserve (a sanctuary for the endangered black rhino) in the east of the country you can tackle some of the best white-water rafting in Southern Africa on the Great Usutu River amid gorgeous scenery, while there is also great white-water rafting in the north of the country along the Nkomazi River.
Visitors should be sure to try the Malolotja Canopy Tour, on which they will glide through the forest canopy of the Malolotja Nature Reserve in the north-east of the country, experiencing fauna and flora, beautiful landscapes and towering mountains – a truly unique experience. The Malolotja Nature Reserve is also home to the spectacular natural rock formation known as the Potholes.
Swaziland is also a superb birdwatching destination with about 500 species of birds.
Excellent accommodation, from five-star hotels, upmarket lodges and B&Bs, to self-catering options, campsites and traditional beehive huts is widely available, but it’s best to book in advance as the parks get very busy, especially in the holiday seasons of July, August and December.
The Ezulwini Valley is home to the Royal Palace, the Houses of Parliament (where cows graze in surrounding fields) and the National Museum. Swaziland is famous for its royal festivals, including the Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, when every August/September thousands of young maidens in colourful traditional dress dance and sing before the king and the Queen Mother.
The Reed Dance is a ceremony that promotes chastity among maidens. The maidens gather reeds that are then presented to the Queen Mother to use to renovate her kitchen yard. The ceremony is also seen as a way of pledging allegiance to Her Majesty. More recently, the Reed Dance has been used as a platform to address issues such as HIV/AIDS and circumcision, among others.
Be sure to visit to the Swazi Cultural Village in the Mantenga Nature Reserve, also in the Ezulwini Valley. A living museum, the village replicates a 19th-century Swazi homestead with beehive huts, kraals or byres, reed fences and various other structures – all built in the traditional style. Take a tour round the village with an enthusiastic guide and visit a traditional healer (inyanga), who will throw the bones and read your fortune.
Afterwards, watch traditional dancing and demonstrations of different crafts. Make a point of taking the short trail to the 95m-high Mantenga Falls, where you can cool off in a crystal-clear rock pool and enjoy a picnic.
The attractive Mantegna Craft Centre is a great place to buy classy curios, carvings, fabrics and jewellery, as is the funky Malandela’s Homestead in the Malkerns Valley, an arts and crafts venue with lovely local handicrafts, live music and exhibitions.
There’s also great shopping at Ngwenya Glass, whose unique products made from recycled glass by highly skilled artisans are exported all over the world.
You’ll discover that Swaziland – the “Place of Kings” – royal and small, scenically beautiful, with a variety of game and nature reserves, great shopping, friendly people and ancient cultural traditions, is a worthwhile and memorable destination.