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Swaziland is the smallest country in the southern hemisphere; it emerges on world maps as a mere dot on the South Africa-Mozambique border. But Swaziland is living proof that sometimes great things come in small packages. Boasting a host of excellent wildlife reserves, the country affords some of Africa's best opportunites for getting up close with zebras, giraffes and white and black rhinos, as well as crocodiles (though you might want to avoid getting too close - just a suggestion). Swaziland's adherence to nature's demands is remarkable, considering its economical impoverishment; granted, hardwood forests in the west are victims of the logging industry.
Swaziland is a monarchy and Swazi culture identifies the king as a central figure of importance. Major national festivals revolve around honoring him or displaying potential wives for him; we'd recommend you try visiting Swaziland while one of these festivals is going on, because it's an amazing and proud cultural exhibition.
Artifacts indicating human activity dating back to the early Stone Age 200,000 years ago have been found in the Kingdom of Swaziland. Prehistoric rock art paintings date from ca. 25,000 BC and continue up to the 19th century. The earliest inhabitants of the area were Khoisan hunter-gatherers. They were largely replaced by the Bantu tribes during Bantu migrations who hailed from the Great Lakes regions of Eastern Africa.
The country derives its name from a later King, Mswati I. However, Ngwane is an alternative name for Swaziland and Dlamini remains the surname of the royal family, while the name Nkosi means King. The autonomy of the Swaziland Nation was dictated by British rule of southern Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1881 the British government signed a convention recognizing Swazi independence. However, controversial land and mineral rights concessions were made under the authority of the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890 in terms of which the administration of Swaziland was also placed under that of the then South African Republic (Transvaal).
At the start of the Anglo Boer war, Britain placed Swaziland under its direct jurisdiction as a Protectorate. Repeated representations, especially relating to land issues, by the King and his Councilors were rebuffed.
Nevertheless, the Swaziland independence Constitution was promulgated by Britain in November 1963 in terms of which a legislative Council and an Executive Council were established. This development was opposed by the Swazi National Council (liqoqo). Despite such opposition, elections took place and the first Legislative Council of Swaziland was constituted on 9 September 1964. Changes to the original constitution proposed by the Legislative Council were accepted by Britain and a new Constitution providing for a House of Assembly and Senate was drawn up. Elections under this Constitution were held in 1967. Since 1973, Swaziland has seen a rather quiet struggle between pro-multiparty activists and the monarchy.
A small, land-locked Kingdom, Swaziland is bordered in the north, west and south by South Africa and by Mozambique in the east. Although Swaziland has a land area of only 17,364 km2, roughly the size of Wales, it contains four separate geographical regions. These run from north to south and are determined by altitude. Swaziland is located at approximately 26°30'S, 31°30'E. Swaziland also offers a wide variety of landscapes, from the mountains along the Mozambican border to savannas in the east and rain forest in the northwest. Several rivers flow through the country, such as the Great Usutu River. Along the eastern border with Mozambique is the Lubombo, a mountain ridge, at an altitude of around 600 metres. The mountains are broken by the canyons of three rivers, the Ngwavuma, the Usutu and the Mbuluzi River. This is cattle ranching country. The western border of the country, with an average altitude of 1200 metres, lies on the edge of an escarpment. Between the mountains rivers rush through deep gorges making this a most scenic region. Mbabane, the capital, is located on the Highveld. The Middleveld, lying at an average 700 metres above sea level is the most densely populated region of Swaziland with a lower rainfall than the mountains. Manzini, the principal commercial and industrial city, is situated in the Middleveld. The Lowveld of Swaziland, at around 250 metres, is less populated than other areas and presents a typical African bush country of thorn trees and grasslands. Development of the region was inhibited, in early days, by the scourge of malaria.
Swaziland is divided into four regions.
The Hlane Royal National Park is one of the highlights in Swaziland if you want to see abundant wildlife and the good thing is, you can explore parts of the park on foot together with a local ranger. It is located around an hours drive from Manzini and you can travel by your own car or charter a vehicle once in the park. Wildlife includes elephant, rhino, hippo, lion, cheetah, leopard, giraffe, zebra and many species of antelope. Birdlife is plentiful as well.
Mkhaya Game Reserve offers the best opportunity in Africa to see black rhinos in the wild and can be easily reached from Manzini. The reserve also contains white rhino, elephant, leopard, hippo, zebra, giraffe and various antelopes, though not in anywhere near the quantities visible in East Africa. The guides, though, are excellent. The cost of a day safari to the reserve is E475 (Sep 2009) - you have to book in advance either by phone or at the Big Game Parks office in The Gables shopping centre in Ezulwini.
This park protects both a very spectactular mountainous landscape as well as a wide variety of flora and fauna. It is located in the northwest of the country and is one of the wildest areas in the country, with mountains (highest peak over 1,800 metres), waterfalls, bushveld and grassland and walking is excellent here. Some parts are accessible by car as well, but you will need a 4wd if you want to the more remote areas.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is Swaziland's oldest conservation area. It contains leopard, hippo, giraffe, crocodile, zebra, and various antelopes, plus other animals and birds. There are various self-guided walks available. A big attraction is the accommodation within the sanctuary itself.
The Reed Dance or Umhlanga takes place in Lobamba every year around the end of August/beginning of September, when dozens of young maidens travel to dance for the king and queen. The dance is lead by the royal princesses. The girls wear short skirts and traditional jewellery, looking very bright and colourful.
Swaziland’s annual marula season begins in the middle of February with this lively festival which the locals call Emaganwini. These exotic green fruits grow for several months and are most commonly used to make Swaziland’s famous marula beer. Swaziland’s royal family participates in the country’s largest song and dance event at their Ebuhleni palace, while another celebration takes place at the Queen Mother’s family home in Hlane village.
Swaziland’s most unusual open-air art gallery and nightclub, House of Fire, hosts the country’s biggest performing arts festival each May. Dozens of musicians, poets, dancers, and theater groups from around the world perform at this spacious Malkerns Valley venue alongside food and craft fairs. Film screenings are also part of this fascinating three-day festival.
Mbabane Mbuluzi’s Rotary Club sponsors this annual July charity trek to the summit of the world’s biggest exposed granite dome, Sibebe Rock. Participants are encouraged to bring their own bottled water. Those who make it to Sibebe Rock’s summit are rewarded with breathtaking views. Breakfasts, prizes, and certificate presentations take place adjacent to the Mbuluzi Clinic. Only 4,000 walkers can participate each year, so early registration is essential.
Some of the 100,000 dancing Swazi maidens who present tall reeds to the Queen Mother during this eight-day traditional Swaziland festival are genuine princesses, who are easily identified by the red feathers in their hair. Only the final two days of the festival, which takes place between the end of August and early September, are open to the public. The reeds the Queen Mother receives from the brightly-dressed girls are used to repair the palace and make windbreaks.
Each October, the Simunye Country Club hosts this three-day, family-fun weekend filled with beer tents, circus acts, live music, amusement park rides, and entertainment for children. Goat races and a snake handling demonstration by the manager are among the fair’s most unique events.
No Swazi festival is more culturally important than this annual tribute to the nation’s royal family. This festival, which takes place between the end of December and the beginning of February, is also called the ‘Festival of the First Fruits’ because it takes place during the beginning of Swaziland’s harvest season. The festival’s first sacred rituals take place under a full moon before costumed warriors try to impress the king with their dancing performances at Lobamba’s royal palace. The king is also presented with the harvest’s first freshly-picked pumpkin.
Swaziland generally has a warm and tropical climate, with high temperatures and high humidity but because of the elevation temperatures and humidity are somehow tempered. December to March is summer with high temperatures of 26 °C to 32 °C during the day, sometimes even warmer and around 20 °C or just below at night. This is always the wettest time of year. June to September is the cool and dry season with average temperatures of 20 °C to 25 °C daytime and around 8 °C to 12 °C at night, but temperatures close to zero (or even below in the mountains) is not uncommon. Snow is rare though.
Swazi Express Airways has a number of international flights to and from Matsapha Airport (MTS) near Manzini. Destinations include Durban, Maputo, Vilanculos and Johannesburg. Airlink Swaziland flies to Johannesburg as well.
Travelling to and from Swaziland by car is pretty straightforward and most car rental companies allow you to cross into Swaziland from South Africa (though not to and from Mozambique!) for free. Main roads are tarred, but off the beaten track crossings may not be as good.
Buses and minibuses travel between Manzini and Johannesburg and Durban in South Africa, as well as Maputo in Mozambique. It takes around 4 hours to Johannesburg and over 3 to Maputo. Baz Bus operates has buses three times a week between Johannesburg/Pretoria to Durban, via Mbabane and Manzini.
There are less frequent departures from Mbabane to Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces in South Africa though. There might be services to Maputo as well from Mbabane but check the local tourist office first.
As there are no plane, train or boat connections, your ways of getting around are limited and include all land travel by road. Most cities, towns and parks are within a few hours range of eachother.
Many people who travel around by car in Swaziland, rented a car in South Africa. You are able to rent a car on the international airport or some offices in the capital Mbabane. Most roads are generally in a good condition and even the secondary roads (usually gravel roads) are mostly accessible, but some require a 4wd. Traffic drives on the left and to rent a car you will an international driving permit.
Minibuses are the way to get around by public transport in Swaziland. They are however crowded and can be uncomfortable. They usually are a bit pricier than coach buses and travel shorter distances. However, the bigger buses usually are slower and less frequent.
Foreign nationals of the following countries/territories do not need a visa for a stay of 30 days or less: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lesotho, Lithuania, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Monaco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Russia, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovenia, Solomon Island, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay, United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Citizens of Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and holders of British passports can obtain a visa free of charge on arrival.
See also Money Matters
The Swazi currency is the lilangeni (plural emalangeni), which is equivalent in value to the South African rand and the two are interchangeable in Swaziland. Note, however, that once you leave Swaziland then it's very hard to change emalangeni so try to convert them to rand before you go - your accommodation should be happy to do that.
English is the official language of business. It is advisable that travellers learn a little of the local language, SiSwati (also known as Swazi) which, in rural areas, is spoken almost exclusively.
Maize-based dishes are popular, and mealie or pap (similar to porridge) is a staple. Beans, groundnuts, pumpkin, avocado and sour milk are also common ingredients. Dried and cooked local meats, such as antelope (often called 'wild meat' by locals), are widely available at tourist restaurants.
"Chicken dust" is a cheap local bbq meal; basically chicken grilled in the open served with a salad and mealie. It is popular both with locals and absolutely delicious. Of course, take appropriate precautions as it is a street vendor food.
Sweet breads, vegetables and fruits are often available from roadside merchants. If you're craving pasta, imported olive oil, Nestle chocolate, Herbal Essences and Carlsberg, head over to the Hub, at Manzini: a huge Spar with everything you could need (at an appropriately inflated price).
If you're watching the pennies, head to Veki's Guesthouse or Grifter's Backpackers in Mbabane, which costs around SZL120 per night for a bunk. If you want to push the boat out, book a room at the Mountain Inn which has outstanding accommodation, facilities and leisure opportunities.
The most sought-after hotels in Swaziland tend to be located in Ezulwini Valley between the two major cities, Mbabane and Manzini.
If you're heading down towards the Mozambique border, you'll find comfortable, well-appointed country clubs at Manananga, Mhlume and Simunye.
Marula is locally brewed during the marula season. It may be difficult to find; ask locals as it is home-brewed.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Swaziland. There is one exception though: you need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Swaziland) where that disease is widely prevalent.
Still, it's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Swaziland. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in the country year round. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. Also note that Southern Africa and thus Swaziland as well has a high percentage of people with AIDS.
See also Travel Safety
Swaziland has a much lower crime rate than other countries in the region. However, try to stay in locations where there are other people.
Hippopotamuses are found (rarely) in the country's rivers, and are one of the more dangerous animals you are likely to come across. They are actually quite fast animals, as well as being extremely strong and with large, powerful jaws. They often stay submerged in shallow water during the day, but come out at night to graze. They can be unpredictable, territorial and very protective of their young. Do not stand between a hippo and the water.
Crocodiles are a more common danger when swimming in rivers.
Swaziland also has one of the highest numbers of people struck by lightning per capita in the whole world and it is common to know (or know of) somebody who has been struck by lightning
Whilst physical violence is not prevalent (save on weekends when many may imbibe copious quantities of brandy or marula, a highly intoxicating alcoholic beverage), wandering around alone after dark is not advisable, particularly outside Mbabane and Manzini where there is little or no street lighting. Keep your money hidden and, if you are working or travelling in impoverished rural areas, do not eat expensive foods in front of the locals, particularly the children, who, especially if they are AIDS orphans and fed as part of the Sebenta school program, do not get to experience luxury items.
See also International Telephone Calls
Swaziland's international telephone code is 268.
Cellphone coverage is similar to South Africa, even in most nature reserves there is coverage (although it might be weak). There is only one wireless operator in Swaziland, namely MTN-Swazi. SIM cards from South Africa do not work here, unless it's MTN and roaming has been enabled. It's easy to buy a starter pack with a MTN-Swazi sim card pretty much at every gas station or grocery store.
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I frequently travel and organise Guided Safaris to: Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique from South Africa.
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