Swazi-ception: the country within a country
Last weekend 4 people stumbled into a small Ford Fiesta and drove off in the early morning hours in the direction of one of South Africa’s many borders with Swaziland.
Never heard of Swaziland? That means it’s time for a PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) lesson!
Swaziland is a landlocked country and it shares its international boundaries with Mozambique in the north-east and rest is surrounded by South Africa. Swaziland is one of the smallest countries of Africa Continent and smallest in the southern part of Africa.
Swaziland got its independence from the UK in 1968 and the government type of Swaziland is mixed between an absolute monarchy and a constitutional monarchy. The head of state is the king and he appoints the prime minister and a small number of representatives for both chambers of parliament. Like South Africa, Swaziland is a member of the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, and the Commonwealth of Nations.
Growing up, Swaziland sounded like an uninteresting and unlikely getaway destination. But somewhere along the line, I started to feel embarrassed that I’d been to so many countries around the globe but hadn’t visited the two countries within South Africa’s borders. So after a trip to Lesotho in 2013, I was waiting for my chance to visit Swaziland. And when it finally arrived, I wasn’t disappointed at all!
Here’s why you shouldn’t skip Swaziland when you’re visiting South Africa OR why you should spend a few days in Swaziland if you’re fortunate enough to live in South Africa:
1. For South Africans, there is NO admin required whatsoever
We set off from Durban and it was literally the easiest drive EVER. Jump on the N2 northbound and 3 hours later you will see a sign saying Golela. There is no need for a GPS or map of any sort. South Africa is a country made for road trips and our signage is still unparalleled in my opinion. Nothing better than catching a sunrise when you are en route!
Tip: Just after the right turn for the Golela Border, you will drive on a road between Pongola Game Reserve. If you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll spot giraffe, zebras, monkeys and who knows what else?
We were informed that we needed the following documents for our trip:
– Certified copies of drivers license, car insurance and passports
– Money for bribes
– A sticker with our country code on it to put on the car bumper
– A letter from the bank saying that they approve of the car going over the border (takes 1 day to obtain via email)
Let me tell you what we actually used:
– R50 ($4) fee for crossing the border in a non Swazi vehicle
It was even quicker and more painless than Lesotho. Just a perfunctory look at our passports and we were stamped in with no questions. No one asked for or glanced at any other paperwork. If you are visiting South Africa then check the visa requirements for entering Swaziland here. Swazi people are sooooo chilled (even more so than us Durbanites and that’s saying something).
2. You can feel a part of the culture
Swazi culture is ingrained deep into the hearts of Swazi people. When you visit Swaziland you can EXPERIENCE it fully. I’m normally not really into cultural villages with tour guides but this time I was pleasantly surprised- Matenga Cultural Village is an absolute must-do. For R100 per person you are treated to three absolutely worthwhile experiences:
– Swazi cultural village tour: The guide, Trevor takes you around the village and explains every aspect of Swazi life from building homes to marriage to executions. It’s an interactive tour so you’ll be asked to participate in all the customs which makes it both entertaining and informative.
– Swazi Cultural Dance: This is the Africa you’ve been waiting for me to showcase. The colours, the singing, the beads, the spears and the dancing. It all comes together in this 30 minute show which is also interactive so at the end, prepare to put your dancing shoes on!
– A leisurely walk to Matenga Falls: Although you can drive to Matenga Falls, it’s a very pleasant walk through the shade of the forest (provided you don’t get lost like we did!). There are three small waterfall and a lovely grassy area where you can have a picnic so bring along a basket.
Worth a R100 ($8) I think?
3. A visit to a hot spring swimming pool
For R40 ($3), you gain entrance to a hot spring called The Cuddle Puddle. Just the cute name was enough to entice us 😂
The water is a tropical 22 degrees and for a real treat, stand under one of the two fountains for a shoulder and back massage.
This is a local hot spot so plan your timings carefully. We headed here around 4pm which was when the masses were heading home. That means we had the place to ourselves with plenty of space to take a million pics!
4. Architectural Wonder at House on Fire
House on Fire is a popular Swazi festival venue and if I can use three words to describe it, I would say,
Very few things in this place make sense for example, gold walls and all of these random sculptures in the middle of a field…
But they make for some fun pictures!
House on Fire is worth a walk through just to marvel at this peculiarity of it all. I imagine it would be amazing during a festival (although I dont do music festivals so maybe I would send Fox with my camera).
5. Mogi Botique Hotel
It’s absolutely rare that I would dedicate a paragraph to a hotel but this hotel was a gem. Most people (including us) look at staying at a big resort like Lugogo Sun or, if your budget extends further, Royal Swazi Sun. While I’m sure both places are lovely, I I always like and appreciate a smaller place with a homely feel. Mogi Botique Hotel was exceptionally luxurious with tasteful aesthetics and to be honest, I would probably dedicate an entire paragraph to the amazing bathroom!
The hotel is built at the base of the Sheba’s Breast mountain and offers a large garden, private pool and various walking trails. The staff are attentive and it’s intimate enough to feel that you have the entire property to yourself. Fox and I had the pool to ourselves one afternoon while our friends napped peacefully; and the next night we all enjoyed some making a fire in the fire pit (pity we forgot the marshmallows!). Seriously guys, if you’re planning a romantic getaway or a chilled weekend away with friends, this is the place is to stay. The owner even called us to tell us that we forgot some stuff after we had left so we could go back and collect it.
Swaziland has A TON of things to offer especially if you love nature and the outdoors. From hikes up the popular Sheba’s Breast mountain and the more well known Sibebe Rock to game drives in Hlane National Park, you can pick and choose what activities appeal to you. Personally, growing up in South Africa, I grew up seeing at least some of the Big 5 at least once a year during school holidays so I don’t see the point in doing game drives anywhere else I go! But there is seriously something to offer everyone in Swaziland. Remind me why it took me so long to visit this little gem of a country?
– You DO NOT need to exchange South African rands for Swazi Emalangeni. Rands and Emalangeni are interchangeable and both can be used to pay for things. The exchange rate is 1:1 so there’s no need to exchange money at all.
– Dear readers, please don’t email me asking me what to wear at a holiday destination! Unless I’ve specified a dress code (like modesty is key in the GCC), you can wear whatever you like! Especially in Southern Africa where we really don’t give a flying broomstick about what you wear as long you’re comfortable!
– Winter in Swaziland means warm temperatures during the day (23 degrees Celsius) and chilly at night (11 degrees Celsius).
-Remember when I said the Swazi people are super chilled and relaxed? Well that didn’t always translate well when it came to eating out. The Sunday lunch we had at Matenga Falls came over an hour after we placed the order (and was mediocre at best) and the food at The Great Taipei was slow and unappetizing. Stick to South African restaurant chains like Ocean Basket, Spur etc or try to find a more local establishment further away from Ezulwini.
-Remember, Africa is not a place where you visit one attraction after the other as you probably would in Europe or Asia. It’s a place you experience by interacting with locals and taking your time to be somewhere without too much of an agenda. Spend several days in the same town to really absorb the vibe.
Traveling in Swaziland, like most of Africa, is very rewarding; it lifts your spirits and opens your eyes to some important issues the media hardly ever talk about. There are so many unspoilt spots that simply take your breath away. People are generally welcoming and excited to have a conversation with you. Let yourself get swooped off your feet by the laughter and rhythm in the air.
An African adventure has to be experienced to be truly understood; there’s nothing that can be compared to sitting by the fire under the huge starlit sky after an exciting day climbing mountains or being surrounded by a myriad of wildlife. You will want to make sure you bring plenty of memory cards for your camera as you won’t be able to take enough photos during your trip. But no matter how many pictures you snap, you will always have the irreplaceable memories of your time spent on an adventure in Africa, a simply unforgettable experience that will stay with you forever.