Eswatini — the tiny kingdom with a big heart
The destination for a quick road trip to kick-start Janu-worry 2024 was Eswatini, a country you can cross in a day – so you can do a whole lot of things in a short time.
My road tripster friend Hugh Fraser and I left Barberton in Mpumalanga for Eswatini, along the Geo Trail, a maddeningly beautiful mountainous route showcasing the Makhonjwa Mountains World Heritage Site and crossed over the tiny, friendly border post at Josefsdal, along with a pig, who was also apparently heading for Piggs Peak. This town is Swazified to “Spiggy-speeg” and gets its name from French prospector William Pigg, who discovered gold here in 1884. His son, it is said, married a woman with the surname Hogg. The peak refers to nearby Emlembe, at 1,862m the highest mountain in the land.
To a drama of ancient green landscapes, we wound our way gently down to Hawane resort and overnighted cosily in charming, traditional thatched beehive-shaped huts, drinking in views and good Swazi vibes.
They say the tiny mountain kingdom has a big heart, beating to a slower rhythm, though the Swazi people are so good looking it often quickens and leaps. Eswatini has a fine tradition of artistic excellence, great music and craft, and has long pulled like-minded people together.
Kingdom for a boat
Next morning, we headed for the wide waters of the Maguga Dam, where we climbed aboard a houseboat.
Fish Eagle sleeps four, has a kitchenette, bathroom and viewing deck on top.
We were warmly welcomed aboard by Kingdom, who drives the boat for those who can’t, moors it when the day is done and then discreetly disappears in a small speed boat, leaving you to the wonders of Maguga Dam and its surrounding forests, waterfall, birdlife and tiny island.
What a great Swazi jol, rocking gently on the waters, quaffing vino, gazing across the waters. Lots of people come here to fish, said Kingdom, especially for bass. There are signs saying, beware of crocodiles, but he hadn’t seen one in 12 years.
From the boat, you can see the thatched Maguga Lodge tucked into trees high on the slopes and, below it, a forested campsite and self-catering houses. What a soul spot. Across from the dam is a small tourist centre and restaurant with a viewing deck that looks onto the hydro-electricity project and the dam sluice gates. Maguga Dam was built in 2001 as a joint development between South Africa and Eswatini.
We headed for Mbabane, passing more mountains and the famous Malolotja Nature Reserve, one of southern Africa’s most gorgeous highland reserves. High hills, wild forests and deep gorges; this is where the Malolotja River rises then plunges more than 95m on its way to the Nkomazi River, which cuts east to the Indian Ocean. There’s hiking, biking, birding, ziplining and chilling; and happy memories of parts of my misspent youth in then Swaziland.
It was raining as we drove through the capital, a small, hilly and impressively neat city (billboards say litter is disgusting and a crime) with no obvious urban squalor despite the country’s high unemployment, great inequality and King Mswati’s net worth of R10-billion, according to Forbes.
Up and up
Mbabane feels quite old-fashioned, but it has electricity and character. The temperature dropped as we headed through Pine Valley towards Sibebe Rock, looming out of the mist like a big bald head. Sibebe, the second-biggest granite monolith in the world after Australia’s Uluru, is a three-billion-year-old volcanic dome that rises up 1,488m and gives its name to the local beer.
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There’s information in these rocks. I first climbed Sibebe when I was 17, but, as Tony Ferrar writes in his book on the Barberton Makhonjwa Geo Trail: “Our individual lives are much too brief, and even all of human history is far too short, to allow us to grasp the vast abyss of time between when these rocks were formed and the present day.”
We drove up and up, curving and twisting all the way to the top, to Sibebe Resort, a proudly Swazi-owned spot offering accommodation and family activities.
From Mbabane, the Kings Highway heads south towards central Eswatini, with off-ramps to Lobamba, the country’s parliamentary headquarters, and to Ezulwini Valley, “place of heaven”, which has long been deliciously decadent.
Ezulwini is where tourism began in Swaziland and it’s peppered with guesthouses and hotels, a casino and the famous Cuddle Puddle (tarted up considerably since the misspent youth), craft markets, art galleries, horse riding and golf. Sheba’s Breasts rise high above the valley, along with Execution Rock or Nyonyane Mountain, keeping guard over Mlilwane, one of Eswatini’s most popular eco-destinations.
We took the Malkerns Valley off-ramp, and slid into Willows Lodge before a Swazi storm crashed and raged. Willows was lovely, set in farmlands with subtropical gardens, prolific birdlife and a friendly cat.
Next day we checked out the Swazi Candle Centre, where the craft market and shops are coming back to post-pandemic life. We listened to the chatter of a busload of Brazilian and French people, clucking and cooing over the fabulous products.
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KwaziSwazi is a great bookshop, Simbane Cafe offers hearty meals and good coffee, Amarasti sells hand-beaded and embroidered handbags, purses and homeware. They provide employment for the rural and peri-urban women of Eswatini. The Swazi Candles factory, going since 1982 and an institution here, produces and exports gorgeous candles around the world. Blackout-weary South Africans snap them up.
Malandela’s Guesthouse is the snuggliest spot in the heart of Malandela’s Centre, next to House on Fire, an extraordinary Afro-Gaudiesque indoor-outdoor venue famed for its annual Bushfire Festival. Malandela’s is a fantastic weekend getaway with rooms tucked into greenery, a restaurant nearby and small shops selling craft, coffee, clothing, and baskets.
Malandela’s is a creative hub and attracts all sorts of visitors. We met people from the American embassy in South Africa, an English family, French travellers, ex-Capetonians who had fled to Badplaas. We met a German who’d apparently enjoyed a little Swazi gold and two okes from Edenvale who told us Eswatini had signed up to Elon Musk’s Starlink, though no one could understand why the internet seemed so slow. DM
What you need to know
- South African passport holders do not need a visa for Eswatini.
- The rand is acceptable currency and trades one to one with the Eswatini lilangeni.
- Check out the Kingdom of Eswatini tourism website for information about Maguga Dam Houseboat, Hawane Resort, Malolotja Nature Reserve and Sibebe Rock.
- Willows Lodge.
- Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary.
- Barberton Geo Trail.
Along the way
The Geo Trail from Barberton to Bulembu on the R40 showcases the Makhonjwa Mountains World Heritage Site. With an estimated age of 3.5 billion years, these mountains represent some of the most ancient landscapes on the planet. They contain an outstanding record of some of the oldest, most diverse and best preserved volcanic and sedimentary rocks on early Earth, as well as fossils of earliest life forms on Earth.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.