A tiny landlocked kingdom, Swaziland lies in the spanner-like grip of South Africa which surrounds it on three sides, with Mozambique providing its eastern border along the Lubombo Mountains. Although South Africa’s influence predominates, Swaziland was a British protectorate from 1906 until its full independence in 1968, and today the country offers an intriguing mix of colonial heritage and homegrown confidence, giving the place a friendlier, more relaxed and often safer feeling than its larger neighbour.
During the long years of apartheid, white South Africans regarded Swaziland as a decadent playground, where sinful opportunitie, forbidden by their Calvinist rulers, were freely available. This image is fading fast, and though Swaziland still feels a lot more commercialized than, say, Lesotho, its outstanding scenery , along with its commitment to wildlife conservation , makes it well worth a visit. With a car and a bit of time, you can explore some of the less-trampled reserves, make overnight stops in unspoilt, out-of-the-way settlements and, if you time your visit well, take in something of Swaziland’s well-preserved cultural traditions .
In recent years, Swaziland has become something of a draw for backpackers , with useful transport links to different parts of South Africa as well as Mozambique, some good backpacker lodges and plenty of adventure activities from horse-riding to whitewater rafting.
Swaziland has six national parks , between them exemplifying the country’s geographical diversity, and all offering good-value accommodation. While not as efficiently run as South African National Parks, the Swazi reserves are less officious, and many people warm to their easy-going nature. The best-known are those run by Swazi Big Game Parks : Hlane Royal National Park in the lowveld, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary near Mbabane, and the upmarket Mkhaya Game Reserve between Manzini and Big Bend. The Swaziland National Trust Commission, based in Lobamba, manages Malolotja Nature Reserve in the northwest highveld, Mlawula Nature Reserve in the eastern lowveld and the tiny Mantenga Nature Reserve in the eZulwini Valley.
Despite encroaching political dissent, Swaziland remains one of the world’s few absolute monarchies, and King Mswati III , educated at Britain’s elite Sherbourne College, regularly appears in the country’s sacred ceremonies, bedecked in the leopard skins of his office, participating in a ritual dance or assessing the year’s crop of eligible maidens as they dance before him. He might even choose to add a few to his collection of wives, carefully drawn from a wide selection of clans in order to knit the nation more closely together. If you can, plan to come to Swaziland for Ncwala (around the end of December or the start of January) or Umhlanga (August or September); both ceremonies are as important to the Swazis as New Year is to the Chinese.
Laid-back Mbabane , the country’s tiny capital city, makes a useful base from which to explore the attractive central eZulwini Valley , home to the royal palace and the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary . With your own transport, or a bit of determination and public transport, you can venture further afield, heading into the highveld of the northwest, and up to the fantastically beautiful Malolotja Nature Reserve , with its fabulous hiking country, soaring valleys and cliffs.
If you are trying to get between northern KwaZulu-Natal and the Kruger National Park in South Africa, Swaziland offers a good, fully tarred through route via the Matsamo border in the north and the Lavumisa and Mahamba borders in the south, passing by the Mkhaya Game Reserve and Big Bend. Approaching Kruger this way is a far more attractive option than skirting through the eastern parts of Mpumalanga.
Summers are hot, particularly in the eastern lowveld. Winter is usually sunny, but nights can be very chilly in the western highveld around the Malolotja Nature Reserve and Piggs Peak. In summer, rainfall is usually limited to short, drenching storms that play havoc with the smaller untarred roads. Note that Swaziland’s eastern lowveld, including Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Nature Reserve, is malarial during the summer months (November to May).