Thursday, September 18, 2008


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 opportunities (gambling, interracial sex and porn movies), 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).


The history of Swaziland dates back to the Dlamini clan and their king, Ngwane , who crossed the Lubombo Mountains from present-day Mozambique in around 1750. Pushed into southeast Swaziland by the Ndwandwe people of Zululand, the clan eventually settled at Mhlosheni and then Zombodze in the southwest, where Ngwane reigned precariously, under constant threat of Ndwandwe attack. His grandson, Sobhuza I , was forced to flee north from the Ndwandwe, but they in turn were defeated by the Zulu king Shaka in 1819. Sobhuza then established a new capital suitably far from Shaka in the eZulwini Valley, and made peace with the Ndwandwe by marrying the king's daughter.

Sobhuza's power grew as he brought more and more clans under his wing. His alliance with the newly arrived Afrikaners, forged out of mutual fear of the Zulu, was pursued by his son Mswati II (after whom the Swazi people are named), who stretched his kingdom north to the Sabi River and sent raiding parties as far as the Limpopo River and east to the Indian Ocean.

Europeans arrived in greater numbers throughout the 1880s, after the discovery of gold in neighbouring Transvaal and at Piggs Peak and Forbes Reef in Swaziland. Mswati's son, Mbandzeni , granted large chunks of his territory in concessions to the new arrivals, emboldening Britain to ignore his claims to most of the rest, and by the time Swaziland became a protectorate of South Africa in 1894, there was precious little land left. After their victory in the Second Anglo-Boer War, Britain assumed control of the territory and retained it until 1968.

After World War II the British invested in their protectorate, establishing enormous sugar plantations in the northeast, and an iron-ore mine at Ngwenya in the highveld (today, the country's major export is sugar). Meanwhile, Sobhuza II , who had become king of the Swazis in 1921, concentrated on buying back his kingdom, and had acquired about half of it by the time independence came in 1968. The Swazi aristocracy managed the transition to independence skilfully, with its Imbokodvo party winning every parliamentary seat in the first elections. In 1973, a radical pan-Africanist party won three seats, prompting Sobhuza to ban political parties and declare a state of emergency which has technically been in place ever since. A parliament governs Swaziland today, but final authority rests with the king, who continues to name the prime minister (who, by tradition, is always a Dlamini) and approve or veto important legislation.

After Sobhuza's death in 1982, a period of intrigue ensued, with the Queen Mother Dzeliwe assuming the regency until deposed by Prince Bhekimpi, who ruled until 1985, purging all the opposition he could. The current king, Mswati III , the son of one of Sobhuza's seventy wives, was recalled from an English public school to become king in 1986, and parliamentary elections were held in 1987. New opposition began to emerge, most notably the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), which has strong support amongst Swazi workers, though in general Swazis are proud of their distinctive kingdom, and as a result calls for change are tempered by an unwillingness to show disloyalty to the king, or to expose Swaziland to what many see as the predatory ambitions of South Africa.

Thus the maintenance of tradition and appeals to broad nationalism have been key components of Swazi royalty's strategy to retain power. Relations with the new South African regime are uneasy: the ANC remembers the expulsion of its activists during the Eighties and wants speedy political change. Although Mswati III is sometimes said to favour reform, so far none has materialized. The authorities work hard to keep dissent bottled up, by means of sporadic police repression; opposition leaders are prevented from speaking freely in the media, and poor turnouts marked the "elections" of 1993 and 1998. Currently, Swaziland is the only country in southern Africa not practising multiparty democracy. It seems only a matter of time before it is coerced by the other regional powers into doing so

Getting there in Swaziland

Of the twelve border posts serving traffic from South Africa, the main ones are Ngwenya/Oshoek (7am-10pm), which is closest to Johannesburg and is the easiest route to Mbabane; Jeppe's Reef/Matsamo in the northwest (7am-8pm), which is handy if you're coming in from Kruger Park; Mananga in the northeast (8am-6pm); Lavumisa/Golela in the southeast (7am-10pm), close to the KwaZulu-Natal coast; and Mahamba in the southwest (7am-10pm), off the N2 from Piet Retief in the KwaZulu-Natal interior. The northern crossing via Bulembu (8am-4pm) to Piggs Peak is perhaps the most spectacular in the country, but the bad road makes this journey hard going in an ordinary car. Crossing the border is usually very straightforward: you simply have to show your passport and pay the token E5 (R5) road tax .

Transtate buses from Johannesburg enter Swaziland through the Ngwenya/Oshoek border, stopping at Ermelo en route to Mbabane; and through Mahamba, stopping at Nhlangano and Hlathikulu. The Baz Bus runs eastbound from Jo'burg to Durban via Mbabane and then Manzini on Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, departing for Durban the next morning; westbound, from Durban, it arrives on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday and sets off for Jo'burg the next morning.

Swaziland has one international airport , Matsapha (often referred to as "Manzini"), between Mbabane and Manzini. Airlink Swaziland (a partner of SAA) flies three times daily to and from Johannesburg. Swazi Express Airways flies in from Durban daily except Saturday.