Eswatini – Swaziland until recently – is a tiny country hidden in between South Africa and Mozambique. Small, but with a lot of experiences on offer. You can walk through beautiful landscapes, enjoy exciting cultural events and even go on a big-five safari. Trot Op! travelled the country for two weeks taking pictures and came back with eight absolute highlights that should be part of any trip to Eswatini. Enjoy!
Rejoice dear friends! After two years of having to stay in Europe with the rest of you losers, I was finally allowed to reenter the African continent this summer. This was of course a welcome opportunity, as all my previous trips to the mother continent were quite exquisite. Just like six years ago, I was invited by the Eswatini Tourism Authority to shoot photos for their image library. They would get a whole new bunch of unsurpassed works of art (duh) and I would get to see almost all of the country’s highlights in a short time – a winning deal for both. There’s a lot to photograph in Eswatini after all.
Eswatini is hardly larger than our own Flanders, but has an amazing variety of landscapes on offer. Because it’s so small, you can easily do everything by car from one homebase of choice. Moreover it’s safe and the majority of the population speaks English. Add to that a number of affordable safari parks and a few colourful cultural events and you get a package worth the trip. Eswatini (just like Malawi, for example) could be the perfect Africa-for-beginners destination. Yet most tourists only stop here for a day or two on the road to South Africa or Mozambique. That’s a shame, because the country is worth much more than an extended weekend. Eswatini is a full-fledged destination offering everything that makes a trip to Africa a unique experience, in pocket size.
Eswatini: discover the 8 greatest highlights of a trip to Swaziland
Eswatini is a special case in multiple respects. It’s the only absolute monarchy on the continent for example. This has a several consequences, all of little use in a travel article, but perhaps the most remarkable is that the country is almost a monoculture. In contrast to say, South Africa, where dozens of different tribes live together, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Swaziland are simply Swazi (hence the name). This creates a strong and recognizable national identity and a deep sense of cultural pride.
“Eswatini offers everything that makes a trip to Africa a unique experience, in pocket size.”
The biggest obstacle for Eswatini as a tourist destination is probably that many people simply don’t know anything about it, let alone know where they can find it. It doesn’t make many international headlines or World Cups. On top of that, once you do know where it is, it will take a little effort to actually get there. Eswatini has a new and modern airport, but by plane you can only fly through Johannesburg. The other option – which I took – is to get out of the airport in Joburg and just take the bus. I chose the splendid services of SiyeSwatini Transmagnific, and after four hours of driving, a few snacks and a toilet stop at a gas station where you can see rhinos grazing from behind the urinal (quite a pleasant pee indeed), I was met by Ntsikie at the Ngwenya border post: the world’s most enthusiastic guide. It was time to embark on a new adventure, and here is the result: eight absolute highlights of Eswatini, starting with…
1. Meet a whole lot of rhinos in Mkhaya Game Reserve
Rhinos are damn hard to spot on safari. This is because of their horns, which are worth an insane amount of money because a couple of idiots think they can grow their wieners with them. As a result rhino poaching has been going through the roof for years. Not so in Eswatini, where the parks are smaller and thus easier to guard. They hardly lose any animals. The logical consequence is that you’ll have to have some serious bad luck not to spot a rhino on any safari drive you’ll take here. In Mkhaya Game Reserve – a beautiful, secluded park where you sleep in open stone cottages in the forest – you can encounter both white and black rhinos. Of the latter only 6,000 remain in the wild, and this is one of the best places in the world to spot them. In the larger Hlane Royal National Park there are a lot of rhinos as well. Often there will already be a number of them sunbathing near the waterhole opposite the restaurant when you’re having lunch. Both reserves offer rhino walks, where you’ll hike through the park with a ranger. Six years ago, a mother with calf came idling right by us, and this summer I came face to face with four adult ones dueling. They were white rhinos in both cases, which are generally quite chill. Should you ever spot a black rhino on a hike: find a large tree and pray you can climb it fast enough.
2. Hike through overwhelming landscapes in Malolotja Nature Reserve
Eswatini can be geographically divided into three large zones. The Highveld is mountainous, wooded and can get quite chilly, the Lowveld is hot, dry African bush and the Middleveld is subtropical and somewhere in between. As far as I’m concerned, Swaziland’s most beautiful landscape can be found in Malolotja Nature Reserve. This is the largest protected area in the country, and full of wind-shaped rock formations, vast mountain plains and the occasional waterfall. It’s full of antelopes and birds, and the ideal environment for a brisk hike. Want to keep it a bit more adventurous? Take the canopy tour and soar through the treetops from rock face to rock face. Another shorter but worthwhile walk in the area, is the one to the Nsangwini Rock Art. You’ll descent a mountain path in the middle of nowhere until you get to an overhanging rock. On it, you’ll find original rock drawings older than Christ. Worth the trip.
3. Find the rest of the big five in Hlane National Park
We talked about rhinos above, but the other members of the big five are also present in Eswatini. Cape buffalo – the meanest things in Africa that will charge your jeep unprovoked – can be found in Mkhaya. For elephants and lions you’ll have to go to Hlane Royal National Park, but the chance you’ll see some there is very high. Leopards – the fifth animal on the list – can be found all over the place (they can jump the fences) but you’ll have to get incredibly lucky to spot one. In most parks, you’ll find giraffes, zebras, entire herds of antelopes, hippos and crocs. When I slept in my open cottage in Mkhaya, I found hyena tracks leading up to my tiny three foot gate. They assured me no one ever went missing, so I guess it was fine. In short: Eswatini offers just about everything your little safari heart could desire, and unlike in some of neighboring countries, most overnight stays are quite affordable and you’ll never be gawking at the same annoyed lion with five other tourist filled jeeps at the same time.
4. Immerse yourself in the Umhlanga Reed Festival
The Umhlanga Reed Festival is the biggest cultural event of the year in Eswatini, and because I visited early September I finally got to experience it. The whole thing lasts a week. Young maidens from every corner of the country travel to the Royal Residence in Eludzidzini with a sturdy bunch of reeds under their arm, which they will present to the Queen Mother. Legend has it that if the reed is carried by non-virgins, it would wither in their hands (this is why all my plants keep dying). The next day, everyone moves to the national stadium nearby to perform dances for the royal family and thousands of spectators. This is done in traditional, colourful and quite revealing attire and is very impressive to witness. What makes this truly special is that these are not the typical little shows performed for tourists. No, this is an expression of true culture, and you are just a casual spectator. Admission to the stadium is free by the way. Why are you still here?
5. Put the pedal to the metal on the Swazi Rally
Another surprising event – especially for leather lovers – is the Swazi Rally organized on the same weekend. This is more of a festival like we know them at home, with entrance tickets, food stalls and music. It does have a theme though. Hundreds of bikers from all over Eswatini and the surrounding countries come together to fraternize, eye each other’s bikes and watch a bunch of demonstrations by stuntmen and racers. The atmosphere is great, the beers cold and the audience fantastically dressed. Think a mix of Mad Max and the Hell’s Angels. It’s not your usual pottery at the local village.
6. Support the local community in Shewula Mountain Camp
Speaking of pottery in local villages: the majority of people in Eswatini live in small rural communities, and many of them are struggling. I’ve stopped participating in so-called poverty tourism, but in Eswatini you can visit the locals without it becoming exploitative . The Shewula Mountain Camp in the east of the country does this best. Shewula is a camp built on an impressive cliff from which you can see half the country, and where you sleep in traditional stone houses. Lindiwe – the woman who runs the camp and grew up nearby herself – will gladly take you to a nearby village (or to a medicine man if you so desire). There you can talk to people at your own pace and with mutual respect. If you made any new friends, you can choose to support a family through the camp – I’ve been doing so for six years (the girl below is part of it). Every year they will get new school supplies, food and other basic necessities, so they are less dependent on the harvest. You’ll see exactly where your money is going, and you keep in touch with those benefiting from it. I got their school report cards by email. www.shewulacamp.org
7. Feel like a Disney princess in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary may not be a big five park, but it’s the most popular reserve in the country. Here you can head out on your own without a worry. You can pull a Snow White and go skipping through herds of zebra and wildebeest, you can explore various mountain biking tracks or you can discover the park on horseback. If you have your morning coffee near the campfire, you’ll be joined by a family of resident warthogs warming up by the flames. You sleep in traditional bee hive huts (with bathroom and electricity) and when you take a look outside after sunset, you’ll often see nyala and impala antelopes walk right by your door. Apart from a snake or two, you won’t come across anything dangerous here. In the past you had to be back in camp by 6pm because of the hippos, but they’ve been shipped to Hlane. There are a couple of very large Nile crocodiles in the pond, but don’t be an idiot, stay away from the water and you’ll make it home in one piece.
8. Relax in a pine forest at Foresters Arms
Eswatini comes with some lovely locations to spend the night in – hearing lions roar from your safari hut will always stay impressive – but my favourite is Foresters Arms in the Highveld pine forests. This is a classic hotel in cozy English cottage style. It’s not the world’s most modern venue, but it exudes an honest charm and homeliness. They take care of you here. The kitchen is one of the best in the country – a different menu every day and what’s left over you’ll get for lunch – and the majority of the staff have been working here for many years. Chill out by the pool, go horseback riding through the woods or enjoy the birds chirping in front of your window. The world will soon look a lot better. www.forestersarms.co.za
Hotels in Eswatini and further information
My trip to Eswatini was made possible with the help of the Eswatini Tourism Authority. For more information about the country and its attractions, surf to: www.thekingdomofeswatini.com.
Vaccinated people no longer require tests for trips to Eswatini or South Africa. Masks are no longer used. Depending on your airline, you may still have to wear one on the plane. Visas are available on arrival.
I stayed in Eswatini in the following places:
Pigg’s Peak Hotel: large classic hotel with a swimming pool, casino and decent Wi-Fi. www.piggspeakhotelandcasino.co.sz
Foresters Arms: beautiful cottage style hotel in the woods with delicious food. www.forestersarms.co.za
Hlane Royal National Park (in the Ndlovu Camp): this is the larger of the two available camps. Here you don’t have to self-cater and the food is tasty (especially the burgers).
Mabuda Farm: cosy self-catering bungalows in the Lebombo Mountains. www.mabuda.com.
Shewula Mountain Camp: traditional stone camp on a plateau, near a number of wildlife parks. Beautiful but you probably need a 4×4 to get here on a long and rocky dust road.
Malandela’s: very nice BnB in the center of the country, where a popular restaurant, a festival site and a number of hipster shops can be visited. Popular expat spot. www.malandelas.com
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary: this reserve has a large campsite with traditional bee hive huts, a big restaurant and lots of activities.
The Royal Villas: this is probably the most luxurious place to stay in Eswatini. Here you can book a whole villa with x number of people. The restaurant is great as well, but more expensive than you’re used to in the rest of the country. www.royalvillas.co.sz
There, this should help you on your way if you ever get to Eswatini yourself. Anyone with personal questions about my experiences can always reach me by mail or via my Instagram profile.