Is his holiday in Swaziland (Eswatini) a success?
Now ‘rebranded’ Eswatini, there are not many people think of taking a holiday in Swaziland. Mark Huggins from Undiscovered Destinations went to discover what they were missing…
Why take a holiday in Swaziland or The Royal Kingdom of Swaziland (now known as Eswatini)
I must admit before I found out I was going to check out a holiday in Swaziland I didn’t know much about the country apart from that it is small, around the same size of Slovenia in fact.
The small country expectations I had in my mind were backed up on arrival at the tiny but ultra shiny modern King Mswati 3 airport built recently and seemingly in the middle of nowhere but as I was to learn nowhere is too far away from somewhere in Swaziland and there is much to enjoy and appreciate.
I met my guide Henrietta from the Swaziland Tourism Authority and we were off on our way to the first stop Milwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Probably one of the most popular attractions in the country with visitors, Milwane offers opportunities to walk, cycle and horse ride in beautiful scenery in amongst small game such as Zebra, Impala, Nyala and Wildebeest.
For the more energetic the imposing and menacingly named Execution Rock looms over the valley and can be scaled over a few arduous hours from the bottom of the valley or it is possible to drive part way up and walk the rest of the way.
As my time here was short we went for a gentle walk of around 1.5 hours in the valley in the late afternoon sunlight. There is a picturesque lake within the sanctuary where more potentially hostile creatures reside such as Hippo and Nile Crocodiles but one can easily observe them safely from a distance.
The camp at Milwane offers a number of atmospheric beehive huts which are quite comfortable and surprisingly spacious. If you prefer your accommodation with a view over the valley then the Rondavels are a good option. The restaurant overlooks a large pond where herons nest and kingfishers fire themselves like missiles into the water for a bite.
The camp has picnic benches scattered around the site in amongst the trees and don’t be surprised as you sit, a family of warthogs or an impala or two meander by. In the evening an outdoor log fire crackles and traditional dancing adds to the atmosphere on the cool winter evening.
After a comfortable night in my beehive hut and a hearty breakfast we visited a nearby community to meet some local people.
The village elder was a real character and insisted on having us sing and dance and learn some of the language. Most of the kids were orphans but their smiles beamed as we spent time chatting to them and getting the obligatory selfie to show them.
Next we visited some cultural attractions such as Gone Rural set in lovely grounds and also the host site of an annual music festival which I was told is very popular in Southern Africa. Gone Rural offers stunning Swazi made crafts and well worth a look if one is in the market for a quality souvenir.
Similarly the nearby Swazi Candles offers hand made beautifully designed and decorated candles – a great momento from your holiday in Swaziland.
Next it was time to head to our next nature experience. Hlane National Park is prefixed with the word Royal as it is the favourite nature retreat of King Mswati 3. We drove into Ndlovu Camp to check in and the wildlife viewing was impressively immediate as at least half a dozen huge White Rhino were gathered at the watering hole that the camp overlooks.
A spectacular scene to greet us indeed.
We had lunch at the restaurant overlooking the waterhole. The waterhole also has lots of loungers where you can relax and watch the comings and goings of the wildlife between game drives. After lunch our Rondavel accommodation was ready. Simply but attractively appointed inside and right on the edge of the reserve in lovely grounds. There is no electricity here and lighting is by paraffin lamps.
Soon it was time to board the safari vehicle and head out into the park. It didn’t take us too long before we came across around 10 white rhino all bathing in the soft afternoon sunlight. White Rhino we are told are usually quite relaxed and non aggressive and these impressive beasts didn’t seem to bat an eyelid at our presence. It was a magnificent scene one to rival most wildlife experiences I have had.
Later on the game drive we spotted a couple of lone bull elephants from a distance. The park looks quite haunting in a strange way as the elephants have changed the environment by turning many of the trees into skeletal remains and thus resembling a kind of forest graveyard but in a way it adds to the drama of the place.
To top it all off as the sun dipped below the horizon we met one of the prides of lions (Hlane is the only park in Swaziland where you can see them). We watched in silence as they yawned trying to stir themselves from their daytime slumbering mode and to transform themselves into ruthless predator mode.
Winter in Southern Africa at dusk is akin to someone turning out the lights and we returned to camp in darkness enthralled by the sightings experienced. During the night I was woken by the distant roaring of the pride. I had never really heard lions roar before. It was incredible and very loud. I’ll admit it took me a while again to drop off!
The next morning we took to the reserve tracks again. The atmosphere very different this time under leaden skies and drizzle giving some relief to the parched soil. It rarely rains in winter which makes it a better time to see the wildlife but the lack of rain has been particularly punishing the guide says this year with some grazing animals who rely on the grass, sadly not making it.
Once again we met the lions and had more close up sightings of elephants. As we left the park a lone giraffe scoured an Acacia tree for food. I loved the Hlane experience and could see why the King gives it his royal approval. Note is it also possible to cycle and walk in the reserve but of course not in the Lion areas.
Next we headed up into the Lebombo Mountains close to the Mozambique border. On a clear day it is impossible to see Maputo and on a sunny morning see the shimmering Indian Ocean far off in the distance. Our destination was the Shewula Mountain Camp a community eco tourism venture owned and run by the local community. The setting for the camp is utterly spectacular.
The camp seemingly clings to a ridge which drops off to views of the lowveld immediate in front and to the left the contours of misty mountains. Below the camp a river meanders along the valley and community members take guests on guided walks. Birdwatching here is also particularly good.
We visit a local family and through the community guide I see how the family grind maize on machinery which originates from Maldon England! And also how they brew their own beer. We sit in one of the mud huts on the floor and talk to the kids about their names and their meanings. The chief unfortunately recently passed but his wife is a real character wanting to know all about England.
As we walk back to the camp for lunch we meet ladies probably in their 50’s carrying water from the river uphill in large containers on their heads. I offer to lend a hand and they laugh as i struggle to carry the load. Their strength is amazing. Sometimes they have to do this 2 or 3 times a day.
The lunch at the camp is home made dumpling, sausages and veggies. Delicious.
We bid farewell to the camp and head back down to the low veld for another wildlife experience. The third of the main game parks we visit on this holiday in Swaziland is Mkhaya Protected Reserve, renowned as a successful conservation hub for the much rarer Black Rhinoceros.
We arrive at a small village off the main road and apparently we have to wait until 4pm to be met by the ranger in his vehicle and then we are to be guided in convoy into the park.
We were a bit early so I played the beautiful game with the local kids. They didn’t even have a proper ball but no matter it was still great fun and as the makeshift ball was miss-controlled by me the kids fell about laughing.
Before too long the ranger came and we drove into the park. Gate after gate was opened and closed and it was clear that security is taken very seriously and poaching an ever present and real danger. Eventually we got to a house where we registered and left our cars and boarded the safari vehicle.
The game drive was on and we saw the rare Black Rhino. Unfortunately it was a badly injured bull who had been attacked by another bull. The stab wounds were agonising to see. The park guide explains that Black Rhino are extremely aggressive rather the opposite to the White Rhino. We also see plenty of antelope of various species and hippos wallowing in one of the few waterholes not yet dried up.
We headed to our camp to check in and what a place the Stone Camp is. Set next to a river (dry at this time of year) paths scatter through the bush to amazing cottages. The accommodation is open on all sides to the bush and your bathroom looks out onto the wild as well. There is no electricity here and your cottage will be lit by paraffin lamps as are the pathways through the bush.
Dinner is served under candlelight around a log fire. The food is magnificent and to top it off the staff after dinner put on a display of traditional Swazi dancing and singing, their faces lit up by the dancing flames. I retire to the murmurs from the bush.
We head into the bush at 6am and our first sightings are of antelope and quite a number of giraffe. Perhaps not the most sought after species when on safari but I can’t help marvel at their physiology and awkward beauty. The highlight was still to come though. After an hour or so we saw a White Rhino quite a way from the track. The animal
Was not looking as though it was going to approach us closer as it was happily grazing. Amazingly the guide declared that this was no problem and ordered us out of the vehicle for us to get closer on foot!!!! We were all incredulous at the very suggestion that you can walk up to a wild Rhino. But that is just what we did!
The animal was relaxed and calm and we still kept a respectful distance but what a thrill to see such magnificence standing on your own two feet sharing the territory with the Rhino. Then if things couldn’t get more exciting we then surprised two more Rhino who were standing in the middle of the track as we turned a corner.
It startled one of the Rhino and it made to charge the vehicle but soon settled back to its more placid nature. We all just sat in stunned silence as the Rhino was no more than 2 metres from the vehicle! Incredible.
After a hearty bush breakfast it was time to leave Mkhaya. On the way out I asked how many Black Rhino were in the park but the ranger could not tell me for security reasons. He joked that if he told me he would have to kill me! The Swazis have a great sense of humour.
I left Mkaya feeling that the Black Rhino despite its fragile status is in good hands here.
We head up into the Highveld for the last part of the trip. We drove to the outskirts of the attractive city of Mbabane to Siebebe (crocodile) Rock said to be the second largest rock in the world. Who can guess the biggest ? Clue. It is big and red and can be found slap bang in the centre of Australia!
We arrived at the stunning setting of Silverstone Falls Lodge as dark set in. I took the opportunity to get up early the next morning and walk up to the falls which were in light flow due to the low winter rainfall but from the top the views are lovely and you are surrounded by relaxing cascades. Once the sun had lit the scene I descended back for breakfast.
We drove through the pine forests to the wonderful Foresters Arms. This place has a rich history and lovely grounds rich with colourful flowers and good bird life. It is a calming and relaxing atmosphere with a certain old world charm, the bar for example looks straight out of an old English country pub complete with a piano. The lounge has a log fire and old chairs ideal for musing.
The restaurant and food served is outstanding with so much delicious choice. Things get even better for dessert if you have room to fit any in. The rooms are cosy and look out over the gardens from a patio, perfect for a date with a good book or to study the bird life with a pair of binoculars.
The owner Ruth is so friendly and will happily chat with the guests.
We continue into the Highveld and visit Ngwenya glass factory. A fabulous place which has been making quality glass products since 1979. Locals get paid to collect unwanted bottles and give them to the factory. A visited is highly recommended as you can also see the process from a viewing platform.
We then headed up to our highest point in the trip at around 1500m to Ngwenya Mine and the Lion Cavern reputedly the oldest dated mine in the world. It is known that the San people mined Hermatite here around 40000 years ago. More recently mining was for Iron Ore and this ceased in 1979.
Now their is a short trail to the Lion Cavern with utterly spectacular vistas across the Highveld and an interesting visitor centre giving the history of the area and the mining.
Our journey continued with a visit to the Malolotja Reserve. This is a vast Highveld reserve with hiking trails and 4wd tracks to spellbinding Viewpoints and picnic areas. From here you can see for miles around and towards the highest peak in Swaziland. There is also small game here to add to the attractiveness. The elusive Leopard also
Stalks the mountains but is hardly ever seen. There is a restaurant here with some outdoor seating to enjoy the scenery and also some self catering chalets for those wishing to linger here longer perhaps for some hiking. The reserve is also home to a canopy zip line tour for the adventurous and those seeking some adrenaline fuelled activity.
My final excursion was to see some ancient rock art. The drawings are small and some are more well preserved than others. One can clearly make out the animals and also pictures of a Shaman figure apparently trying to entice the rains. The walk down to see the rock art is quite steep but short (around 15 minutes down and probably 20 -25 minutes uphill on the way back) and good footwear is needed.
My final night on this holiday in Swaziland was spent in luxury at the Summer-field garden Resort not far from Mbabane. The cottages/rooms here are luxuriously appointed and the restaurant is mind-blowing. There is also a lovely pool for those that fancy a dip.
So whilst Swaziland might be small in size it packs a rather larger punch in terms of things to see and do. Easy game viewing, some interesting accommodation, lots of history and culture to enjoy as well. So many people pass through Swaziland en route from Kruger to Durban and I met people who were only in the country for 1 night.
But I suggest that you linger a little and enjoy the warm and friendly hospitality of the Swazi people.
Mark Huggins took a holiday in Swaziland from 3rd – 11th August 2017. Undiscovered Destinations offer a 12 day small group tour and also can offer tailor made and private tours in Swaziland. It is easy to combine Swaziland with South Africa and in particular Kruger National Park if you wish to extend your trip for more game viewing.
For something different perhaps consider combining Swaziland with Madagascar with easy connections through Johannesburg.
The best time for game viewing in Swaziland is the winter months of March – September which also when temperatures are pleasant but can be cool in the Highveld. If you prefer the scenery to be more lush and green then you can consider the summer months but expect more rain and temperatures can be extreme.