I might be writing a travel blog but it doesn’t make me a geography expert. Far from it. There are many places on Earth that I have never heard of, let alone know how to locate them on a map. Swaziland is, or rather was, one of them. Luckily, to make up for my overall ignorance, my curiosity comes in and saves me from total embarrassment -sometimes.
In addition to being curious, some of you who know me could say that I can be a little ‘intense’ in my approach to travelling and exploring countries and places… Thus my ambition for our first time in Swaziland to sleep in 5 different lodges in just 5 nights!
We used to do it a lot in Turkey where we lived for 4 years before Mozambique and, to be honest, it was an amazing way to see the country. Despite what you might think, it is a very easy thing to do, especially when you have small kids, as lie-ins are part of your past! You get up, have breakfast and visit the city/antique ruin/forest/whatever you want to see in the morning, have a nice lunch somewhere there, visit a bit more in the afternoon and then move to your next destination that you’ll reach before dinner. It’s all about evaluating distances and times – and praying not to get lost on the way!
Back to Swaziland. Now I’ve been there, I understand why people call it the Switzerland of Africa (not that I’ve been to Switzerland – yet!!): it’s very green and hilly and has lots of cows. Except that it has rhinos and zebras too. And Swazi people. And it is very small, like 200 km north to south and 130 km east to west. So you see, my challenge to sleep in 5 different places in 5 nights was not much of a feat.
A few facts: The Kingdom of Swaziland is a sovereign state in Southern Africa, neighboured by Mozambique to its east and South Africa for the rest. It is an absolute monarchy, currently ruled by King Mswati III who happens to be polygamous and has at the last count 15 wives. The estimated life expectancy is appallingly low, around 50 years, with a major health issue, HIV/AIDS (27% of the population live with HIV). There are consequently tons of posters and pictures everywhere on building walls, at bus stops and stacks of condoms scattered in different public toilets to remind people of using them to protect themselves from the virus.
As for the journey, we decided to cross the border at Naamacha, the easiest option coming from Maputo, then go down along the main road which crosses the country in the middle, go up north and then a bit down again to leave via Bulembu gate, which is a tiny border on a tiny tortuous and difficult gravel road in the middle of a forest on the way to Nelspruit via Barberton. Very bumpy and never-ending, but oh so scenic!
Our first stop in Swaziland was a few kilometres away from the Naamacha border. The Shewula Mountain Camp is the first community eco-tourism project in Swaziland (no electricity except for the kitchen/dining area, but hot showers in the shared bathroom) . The camp is fully owned and run by the community. It is therefore a vital source of income and employment for the community and is a proud achievement for all. The bungalows are very comfortable, the food they prepare is delicious and the panoramic view of Swaziland beautiful. And Maputo can be seen on clear day just 100km away!
We relaxed there and took a stroll to visit the countryside around and the village nearby with a lovely guy from the community. We wanted to meet the local healer but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be as the poor man was off sick and had gone to hospital to be looked after!
Our second stop was at Hlane Royal National Park. Home to the largest herds of game in Swaziland, you’ll see lions, elephants, white rhinos, giraffes and a range of other species. You feel a bit cheated when you realise that the lions are kept in a special enclosure though, but at least, you are sure to see one if you book a space in the safari car that goes there every afternoon.
We stayed at Ndlovu Camp which is very easy to find just after the main gate and where the activity centre is, in one of their self-catering group cottages a few metres away from a waterhole frequented by elephants and white rhinos. The cottages are very close to the restaurant too, which serves delicious stews and is lovely to go to at night since there is no electricity and the path is only lit with lanterns. A member of staff will come to install lanterns in each one of your rooms and one out your front door too around dusk as the cottages do not have electricity either. A gas fridge and oven do the trick. Still hot water in the bathroom ;). I have to say that I was really impressed by the cottage. It is a beautiful house.
On our way to our next lodge, we stopped at House on Fire in Malkerns for lunch and to visit the place. When you live in Mozambique, and probably when you live in all of southern Africa I suppose, you will hear about this place very quickly. It hosts the famous BushFire festival every end of May and has become the place to be and to see, regardless of the programmation.
Must see crazy, mystical, psychedelic haven of love and spirituality with a lovely pub, a quirky art gallery, an Internet café and a few very good craft shops.
To stay in the mood, we then drove to our next destination, Wide Horizons Retreat. The “lodge” is located inside a private estate, owned by a lovely and kind woman called Rose. She arrived in Swaziland with her late husband many years (decades!) ago and decided to stay and create this wonderful piece of peace and quiet, hidden in a beautiful wildlife conservation area with zebras and deer living in harmony. She restored a stone and thatch farm, built outbuildings around it with beautiful gardens and a hidden contemplation chapel, opened a weaving workshop, Rosecraft (which is still in function but will be transferred to a place closer to Mbabane in the near future by its current owner), set up trails with spring water running along in trenches that she dug with her own hands in the forest next door, one of which being a sculpture trail very much appreciated by big and little ones…
A home away from home, I know one who could have happily stayed for a week there, just looking at the nature around him and feeding the goats!
We stayed in the tents, which are comfortable and pretty like the rest to be honest. Kitchen area and open bathroom, all was well thought and there is always a pretty decorative detail everywhere you look. You can really see the heart and dedication put in every aspect of this very charming place. It is self-catering but you can still arrange for meals to be prepared for you. Perfect!
Our next destination was the Swazi Cultural Village that I was curious to visit even though I knew it clearly was a tourist trap. It was still a very good insight into the local customs (and our only way to get a bit of folklore during our trip). Our guide was great and introduced us to their proud culture and traditions (let’s say it’s not very fun on the woman’s side and involves a stick when the husband wants to have sex – not that it is still happening, hopefully!). The performance was good, with lots of singing for the women, pretend hunting and being the strongest and bravest for the men, and lots of leg throwing in the air.
One of the cool things about going to the Swazi Cultural Village in the morning on that particular day of our trip was that we saw and visited their habitations which are called beehive huts and on that same night we went to Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and slept in one! It wasn’t planned on my part for once but the combination of both was fun and enjoyable, especially when we saw the comfort of our beehive hut compared to the ones in the Cultural Village!
The great aspect of this reserve is that there are no dangerous animals on it (except for crocodiles but they just hang out in the sun) so you can go for a stroll on foot on your own. And you wake up to see impalas and warthogs munching on grass around.
After Mlilwane, we headed to the Ngwenya Glass Centre on our way to the north. As its name indicates, it is a glass factory that makes all kinds of items made from 100% used and recycled glass. There is a beautiful shop right next to the factory, selling everything in glass going from simple glasses to proper glass artwork. From the first floor, you can see the process of the glass blowers and the furnace. There is a nice coffee shop and lovely small shops in the garden around the corner, many of which selling craft and jewellery made from recycled materials too.
Lastly (we stopped once more on the way though to walk and see the Nsangwini Rock Art) we drove to Phophonyane Falls Ecolodge and Nature Reserve to spend our last night in Swaziland. I didn’t know it (yet I could have guessed it from its price) but the place was stunning. Beautiful tents with wood decking in a luscious garden with little monkeys playing in the trees. Walk to beautiful waterfalls, good food, swimming pool. Lovely place.
We then left Swaziland to go to South Africa for a couple of days. We had a very good friend coming from Turkey with us and thought we might as well go to Kruger too on the way back to Maputo.
All in all, this trip to Swaziland was great and full of fun, adventure and laughter (and involved at one point extracting a tick out of my friend’s thigh!).
Thank you so much to Kerry and Alex for helping make Swaziland so special 🙂