Being a complete fan of Swaziland I thought it might be a good idea to do my Top 10 Reasons to Visit this incredible Kingdom. Swaziland is in essence ‘Africa in a nutshell’ where you can see and experience a little bit of everything with short driving distances, great wildlife, incredible culture and also that little bit extra…
No 10 – Voluntourism
Many people want to be constructive and give something back, and working on a project is the ideal way to do this. There are a number of organisations in Swaziland that can cater for this and these include All Out Africa and Shewula Health Integration Project which take volunteers from 2 to 6 weeks. There are also longer term projects in other areas ranging from helping to manage schools, assisting with aids orphans and vulnerable children as well as administration for other charities based in Swaziland. Alternatively, if you have a group already then do get in touch with African safari specialists as some provide bespoke itineraries and trips for project groups, whether it be adult groups mixed with a holiday or School Expeditions. Again this could involve building of kitchens, staying in local communities and generally supporting the local population.
No 9 – Golfing Safaris
You wouldn’t really expect Swaziland to have decent golf courses, in fact there are two very good ones and international competitions are played on them! Royal Swazi Sun and Nkonyeni are both wonderful 18-hole golf courses, with the added extra of wildlife on the fairways! I was recently out there when a monkey came onto the golf course and robbed a couple of golf balls… Local rules do allow you a free drop here! And the delight of Nkonyeni is that the wildlife have right of way and nine of the holes weave their way through a small game reserve where you have to wait for antelope to cross the fairway. Extraordinary! The beauty of golfing in Swaziland is that it allows you to immerse yourself in the African culture and way of life as well. If you are looking for a more relaxed approach to golf, and may even be travelling with non-golfers, then you may want to try a golfing safari.
No 8 – Genuine Africa
When visitors go to Africa they want to experience the real Africa and not something that is put on for especially tourists. Swaziland prides itself in giving a genuine experience of Africa, making it an ideal destination for first-time visitors to Africa. Swaziland may not be up to the luxurious standards of its nearby countries but it certainly has lots of charm and is certainly a destination to explore real Africa whilst off the beaten track of mass tourism.
There are a number of community run projects that highlight this and I would highly recommend a visit to Shewula Mountain Camp. This is a community run venture in the north-east of Swaziland. I first visited here in 1999, when the accommodation had recently been opened. Over the years it has grown to be able to support the community’s AIDS orphans and vulnerable children, through tourism, as well as providing unique experiences for visitors. The beauty of a visit to Shewula is that the guided tours around the community is not set in stone, you are taken where things are happening in the community that day; people working in the fields, local beer making, spending time at the nearby schools, watching children practice their traditional dancing and sampling local wares. I often find that a visit to the local community is the top of people’s memorable experiences whilst on holiday.
No 7 – Adventure
Swaziland has a reputation for being paradise for the outdoor lovers and the associated adventures that can be had with it. So if you are looking for that added extra adrenaline or doing something a bit different whilst in Africa, then Swaziland is your destination. This makes it ideal for family holidays as a number of activities can be woven in between safaris and cultural excursions. Activities range from the high adrenaline ones such as a zip wire in Malolotja (which I love), white water rafting the Usuthu River, climbing Sibebe Rock and adventure caving in Gobholo Cave to the less demanding activities such as mountain biking in game reserves, horse riding among a ‘dazzle’ of zebras, trekking in Malolotja and camping out under the stars in Hlane. If you would like to book any of these activities then see Swazi Trails for more information.
No 6 – Explore on your own Terms
Unless you are part of a group I recommend travelling around Swaziland on a self-drive. Yes, it is safe to do so and it also gives you the opportunity and freedom to explore Swaziland on your own terms. I often recommend the odd bit of self-catering as well, but that is entirely up to you. Hiring a car is really easy and the driving is pretty easy as well – Swazis drive on the same side as we do in the UK, signposts are clearly marked throughout the country and even if you do get lost everybody is very obliging and helpful. You can even do your own safaris in the smaller reserves and this allows you to have your own mini adventure.
One of the places that I absolutely love, probably my favourite game reserve in Swaziland, is Mbuluzi Game Reserve. Mbuluzi is probably the best place to see giraffe, so much so that you can actually walk within the game reserve and amongst a ‘journey’ of giraffe. What a pleasure! Of course there is other wildlife such as zebra, nyala, wildebeest, impala, crocodile and a plethora of birds to keep you occupied. Mbuluzi is privately owned and there are a number of different lodges in the reserve that you can self-cater at, these range from tented camps to luxurious lodges, most of which have their own plunge pools. All the lodges are discreetly situated along the river bank so your view in the evening overlooking the water as you sip your sundowner is magical. Not that many people visit Mbuluzi, which makes it even more special as you may find that you’re the only person staying in the reserve, or it will at least feel like it!
No 5 – Hiking and Walking
There is nothing more rewarding than seeing wildlife whilst on foot, whether you are walking in the highland forest trails or tracking animals in the lowveld, it will be something that stays with you forever. Swaziland encourages walking in many of its game reserves – but only the ones that do not have the Big 5! Having said this, there are guided walks to see rhino on foot at Mkhaya, but only if you are staying there for more than a night.
You can walk many day trails which range from less than 40 minutes to a full day’s excursion. There are extensive trails for self-guiding in Mlilwane where you can walk past zebra, wildebeest, hippo and crocodiles, all from a safe distance of course. There are also day trails from Shewula, in Mlawula and also trails from Mahamba Gorge, another community run venture where the elusive bald ibis can be seen. There also some wonderful trails around Maguga Dam and these include the Nsangwini Rock Art, which contains an incredible diversity of subject matter than many rock art areas in Africa. Well worth a visit, you can combine a breath-taking hike with some of the world most renowned rock art, creating a truly unique trip. And of course there are the day trails in Mbuluzi Game Reserve to see the lovely giraffe. Where ever you decide to go, it is a privilege.
Swaziland also caters for overnight trails too. There are some spectacular trails in Mlawula, many of which are day trails but if you are considering an overnight trail then it is advisable to take a guide. In Malolotja there are myriad of overnight hiking trails but you must have all your equipment with you and be warned, the camp areas are pretty small and quite often not that flat! However, this is true wilderness walking and highly recommended for two or three days. You do not necessarily need a guide here but certainly need to have experience in unsupported trekking and know your safety backup. And there are also overnight guided walking in Hlane, where you can walk with their rangers and learn in detail about the ecology of the area and have the luxury of sleeping out under the stars. This has a minimum group size of four and only operates from May – Sept, it is just too hot to walk in the middle of the day during the summer season.
No 4 – Safety
I recently had some guests who were travelling in Swaziland and they got a puncture. Within a couple of minutes to guys appeared from the bush, one carrying a machete, and they tapped on the driver’s window. My guest tentatively rolled down his window and the guy with the machete said “Where is your jack and spare wheel?” Within 10mins my guests were on their way having had a chat with some random locals who had efficiently change their wheel. Better than the RAC me thinks!
Whilst driving, animals are probably the most dangerous thing to keep an eye out, especially cattle and goats that wander across the road. The above sign is not really applicable, there are no lion and elephant that cross this road through Hlane, although do be aware of warthogs and impala.
No 3 – The Scenery
Swaziland has four completely different ecosystems which in turn has the associated wildlife, birdlife, accommodation, activities and of course the scenery. In the western side of Swaziland is the highveld with its wonderful mountainous scenery and if you saw a dragon pop-up from behind the mountain you wouldn’t be completely surprised. It is that magical. Stay at Foresters Arms here and enjoy there delicious food. Then there is the middleveld with its granite boulders and more open spaces for wildlife and where the rich colours are ideal for photography. This forms a band down the middle of the country running north-south. The third ecosystem is the lowveld of typical African savannah with acacia trees dotting the horizon, home to lumbering elephants, roaring lions and the endangered black rhino. And lastly there is the Lubombo escarpment, an enormous plateau covering the eastern border of the kingdom which simply drops off creating incredible views over the whole of the lowveld of Swaziland. Watching the setting sun whilst sipping a gin and tonic is a must from up top!
No 2 – The Culture
Swaziland’s culture is woven into everyday life and simply travelling through this kingdom you will see people in traditional dress, dancing on the side of the road and retaining their unique identity. Ask any Swazi about their culture and be prepared to sit down for a couple of hours to hear all about it. They are passionate about their traditional dance, their songs, and their traditional food and their way of life, if you do not see any of this during your stay in Swaziland then you must have had your eyes close for the duration.
In order to learn about the culture we would recommend a visit to Mantenga Reserve where a traditional village has been constructed and you get guided around learning about Swazi life. There is also the opportunity to see traditional dancing, the Sangoma (traditional doctor) and listened to their harmonious singing. The singing and dancing happens at 11.15 and 15.15 every day, so it is wise to time your visit to coincide with this spectacular show. You might think that this is a tourism set up, it isn’t. It is set up to educate the masses about Swazi culture and when I stayed there recently, most of the visitors were local school groups and even one of the teachers got up to do a little dance, much to the absolute delight of her pupils and everyone else. She got a resounding applause at the end!
You can also see the traditional singing and dancing at Mlilwane, Hlane and Mkhaya, seeing this underneath an African starlit sky and around the fire is wonderful.
If you’re wanting to see something on a more monumental scale then there is the Swaziland Reed Dance, which happens each year at the end of August saw the beginning of September. This is went up to 60,000 maidens from all over the kingdom converge on to Lobomba to show their respect to the Queen Mother. I have to say this is a spectacular performance and well worth seeing.
No 1 – Wildlife and Photography
Swaziland is not often associated with the Big 5 so you may be surprised to learn that there is a chance you could see all five, although a leopard sighting is rather rare. The reserves that have the Big 5 are Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve. Hlane has lion, white rhino and elephant whereas Mkhaya has white and black rhino, elephant and buffalo. The great thing about the wildlife here in Swaziland is that you can get up close and personal with them. You are practically guaranteed, I say practically, to see rhino and elephant if you go on the safaris in Hlane or simply you could sit by Ndlovu waterhole and wait for the game to come to you. The opportunities for fantastic pictures is pretty high and this is partly due to the no hunting policy in these reserves meaning that animals are not skittish and are tolerant of vehicles.
Moving on from the Big 5 there is also the opportunity to see nyala, a rare antelope that is pretty common in Swaziland and if you do not see one of these then you probably would have been asleep. There are black wildebeest in Malolotja, roan antelope in Mlilwane, sable antelope in Mkhaya and blue cranes in Mlilwane as well, so much wildlife to see.
The birding is also incredible in Swaziland due to the fact of there being four different ecosystems so if you are a twitcher you can rack up quite a few species in four or five days. The Narina Trojan is a very good sighting!
Despite its size, Swaziland has a lot of wildlife on offer and as reserves are small, in comparison to Kruger, you are more likely to easily see the wildlife.
There are many reasons to visit Swaziland, what are yours?