Swaziland, what a jewel! The tourist guide proudly proclaims Swaziland to be “a tiny country with a big heart and warm, friendly people: a kingdom which embraces and upholds its unique and ancient traditions, carefully guarding and proudly celebrating them”. We’re not lucky enough to be here during one of the major cultural events but we feel the pride people have for their country and enjoy their welcome everywhere we go. Land-locked with South Africa on three sides and Mozambique on the other, it is only 180 km north to south and 130km east to west. Lush green mountains surround the country with flatter fertile plains in the centre. Its hard to find a spot without a magnificent view and we certainly found every camp site we stayed at and every road we drove down (or up) to be surrounded by beauty. Most people who visit Southern Africa either skip Swaziland or at most spend one or two nights here on their way through to other places. They are missing out and we have been lucky enough to have four weeks to explore some of the many facets of the country and also to relax and enjoy the laid back ambience.
We entered the country from Mozambique in the far north east at the Lomahasha/Namaacha border post. Immigration was easy and we’re given a free 30 day visa. There was no problem with the vehicle, just a small road tax. Customs was not as straight forward as we’d hoped though. We saw a sign saying no uncooked meat beyond this point but hoped it wouldn’t be enforced as we had filled our freezer in Maputo and we hadn’t expected any problems. It’s a foot and mouth control point though as Mozambique has a problem with the disease and quite rightly Swaziland want to keep it out of their country. We just wish we had known that before we shopped. We get to keep our fish and chicken but those lovely steaks, mince and pork fillets were confiscated. With our permission they could be given away so at least somebody would get to enjoy them rather than them being wasted. Oh well, there’s a shopping centre not too far away and we’ve got plenty to eat in the meantime.
Mbuluzi Nature Reserve is one of many private reserves in Swaziland and it’s our first stop in this country. It is less than half an hour from the border and we descend from the top of the Lebombo Range to reach it. We check in at the office and are warmly welcomed and given a map and information about the park and the surrounding area. The camp ground is a few kilometres from the entrance and we are the only campers at present. There are no predators in this park, it’s over 3,000 hectares but that is still too small to support any of the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) but we are delighted to see a couple of impala and zebra and about eight giraffe on the short drive to the camp.
The camp ground has a small and basic amenities block and three bomas for campers to use. These are semi-circlular reed fences about two metres high which provide privacy and a wind break. While the camping area is not large the bomas are well spread out so it feels very spacious. We’re relying on solar power here so we need a combination of shade for our comfort and sunny areas we can reach with our solar panel leads as well as the normal requirements of flat land and a pleasant view. The boundary of the park is the Dark Mbuluzi River and across the river the land rises steeply to the Lebombo Plateau. It makes a great backdrop to the view from our ‘verandah’.
There is a network of tracks throughout the park and we drive along some of them viewing the wildlife and enjoying the scenery. We see plenty more giraffe, in fact its hard to drive anywhere without seeing them and they are great to watch. Zebra, warthogs, impala, kudu, and more are also around. After the dry landscape we have been travelling through while we were in Kruger and Mozambique it is a delight to be surrounded by lush green growth. The rains have been below average here as well but it is not obvious from what we are seeing. Its hot most of the time we are here but we do get a couple of storms passing through, hopefully they will have a good wet season this summer.
On our second evening we see a giraffe just below our camp site between the river and us. He peers between branches and appears to be wondering what we are doing in his normal pathway to the thorn trees in the campground beyond us. We move slowly trying not to startle him but then we realise he is just as interested in us as we are in him and provided we don’t approach closer than about 6 metres he will happily stay where he is. Over the time we are camped here we see him almost every day and we christen him Fred.
The other wildlife prolific around the camp and the park are the birds. Cheery chirrups are a pleasant way to start the day and we constantly see flashes as they dart in an out of the foliage around us. Woodpeckers knock and a fish eagle calls as it flies above the river. Driving back to camp one afternoon a flock of at least 30 European Bee-eaters take dust baths on the track in front of us. Near the front gate is a small dam with trees growing over the edges. One of the trees is a favourite of the Weaver Birds and we see them weave their nests commencing from a circle of green grasses and building that out to an orb with an opening at the bottom of the nest. Within a day or two the nests turn from green to pale brown as the grass dries and the males hope their nest building skills are good enough to entice a female to join him. The tree is festooned with scores of nests but they change frequently as the unsuccessful suitors tear their nest to bits before starting again. Most of the birds are a bright yellow but occasionally a red-headed weaver appears. These are more solitary and they build their nest on a tree apart from the other weavers.
As part of our entry into this park we are able to visit two other game reserves in the area which jointly form the Lebombo Conservancy. Mlawula Reserve is a National Trust Commission Reserve and we drive the length of the park from the north gate to the south gate. They also have a camping area, it is far larger than the Mbuluzi camp but to our mind it doesn’t have the same charm. The effects of drought are more obvious here with a dry riverbed below the bird hide and dry grass throughout the camping area. There appears to be less game as well, we see a few buck but little else on our trip through. The main attraction in this park is the scenery. The park includes low lying flat lands and also hills which form part of the Lebombo Range. Walking tracks lead to waterfalls or caves although we doubt there is much water flowing over the falls at present. The road weaves between hills presenting lots of great views then it rises steeply, very steeply, up the range. We’re glad we aren’t towing the trailer as although we would probably make it, the trip would be exceedingly slow and hard on the car.
From Mlawula we drive to Hlane Royal National Park. This is one of the Big Game Parks and as well as the smaller beasts it is home to lion, leopard, rhino and elephant. Most of the larger game however are in a separate section not open to self driving and after our fantastic experiences in Kruger we do not feel the need to go on a group tour. Instead we enjoy our lunch in the restaurant overlooking a dam then follow some of the tracks through the section where we are allowed to self-drive. There is also a camping area here but we leave satisfied we are staying in the nicest camp in this area.
We’ve also found all of the staff at Mbuluzi to be friendly and very helpful. Tal is the Game Reserve Manager and he has given us tips and contacts for other places to stay in Swaziland and was happy for Paul to use their Internet to keep posting his photos. Mandla who works on the park reception and helped us organise where we could store the trailer is unfailingly friendly and helpful. After a stay of eight nights we pack for our next camp but because we are only planning to spend one night away and we will be passing by here after that we decide to leave our trailer at Mbuluzi securely parked in the staff housing area and we’ll collect it later.
At the top of the Lebombo Plateau which we have been gazing at every day is the community of Shewula. They operate a community camp comprising round stone rondavel huts with thatched roofs, a small camping area and a communal kitchen where you can self cater or traditional meals can be provided by the local people. We passed the turn off to it on our way down from the border post so we are re-tracing our path about 15 km then taking a steep dirt road up the mountain for another 15 km, all this to end up a couple of km in a direct line from our camp in Mbuluzi but much higher up. When we reach the camp perched on the edge of the plateau the views are all that we hoped for. We’re planning to camp using the roof top tent but out of interest we ask to see the rondavels. They are charming, and cheap, so we decide to take one of them instead. We get to choose which one we want as there are no other guests at present. We particularly like the shower which has a large open section to give a view over the escarpment but which still provides privacy. It will be nice to go to sleep looking at the thatched roof high above us instead of canvas just above our heads. Instead of electric lights we have a kerosene lamp although there is power in the communal kitchen.
Before evening we are very glad we chose to stay in a rondavel as a storm rolls in with thunder, lightning and ferocious winds. It certainly would have been a rocky night in the roof top tent. Instead we can simply appreciate the light and sound show. The sky is covered in clouds as the sun is setting but the thickness of the clouds varies and for a brief period we see patches of brilliant pinks and yellows in the midst of the dark storm clouds. Its a dramatic sight but difficult to capture on camera even if we had the cameras out ready as it only lasts a brief time and the rain is bucketing down. The communal kitchen is much appreciated, it is open on one side but we are sheltered from the winds and rain and the temperature is still very mild.
We have just finished our meal when we hear a car horn. Paul goes to investigate and returns with two young women from Johannesburg. They had booked but they arrived much later than expected and the security guard had left for the night so there was no-one to show them where they could stay. After our earlier tour of the place Paul was able to show them their options and they were able to choose one of the other empty rondavels. They had not realised this place was so isolated and had just driven up that steep and potholed dirt track in a small car expecting to be able to buy dinner here. We are able to provide them with some chicken and salad and a glass of wine so at least they don’t have to go to bed hungry.
In the calm morning we make a leisurely pack up and return to Mbuluzi to collect our trailer and to say goodbye to Tal and Mandla. We’ve shelved our initial plans to tour around the southern section of the country as the small park we were planning to visit has apparently been hit hard by drought. Instead we are heading for the centre of the country to the Ezulwini Valley and the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Today’s drive is mainly through flat country but we’ll see plenty of hills on future trips. The soil looks rich and fertile, a deep red colour. Sugar cane is grown in large areas and later the land in the trip we see more varied agriculture with maize (corn) and vegetables grown both in small plots and larger fields.
Manzini is the largest city in Swaziland and used to be the country’s capital. While the capital has been moved to the cooler Mbabane, Manzini remains a busy and bustling city with far more cars and people than we have become used to. We try to park in the main section of the city so we can go for a wander around and get a feel for the place, and some lunch, but after several loops around side streets without finding anywhere to park the car and trailer we stop across the river at a modern shopping centre. It doesn’t have the atmosphere we were hoping for but at least we can use the free wifi while we eat. A spice shop near the restaurant tantalises us with its aromas while we are eating and we happily stock up our spices before leaving.
As we leave Manzini a high mountain range rises on our right, this marks the start of the Ezulwini Valley, the ‘Valley of Heaven’. Another range soon rises on our left and tucked into this valley are many of Swazi’s tourist attractions including numerous souvenir or curio shops, craft markets, the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mantenga Nature Reserve and Falls and lots of accommodation and restaurants. We’re a little concerned it may be too busy for us so we’re not sure how long we will stay. There is a camping ground in Mlilwane and we plan to stay at least two nights but it ends up being seven. Like Mbuluzi there are no predators here and you are free to walk around as much as you like on the many walking trails. There are numerous animals here including blesbok, which I hadn’t seen before, impala, kudu, wildebeest, zebra and warthogs. What we find amazing, and beautiful, are the number of young animals, many of the babies are born while we are there. The young impala seem to have impossibly thin legs and the baby warthogs are even funnier to watch than their parents. We even see a baby croc in the dam, mum was a very impressive size.
Accommodation here is mainly in bee-hive huts but there is also a camping area. It is well serviced with a barbecues and power on every site and very large, and immaculate, amenities block and under cover area. There are great views over the slope down to the river and numerous animals wander through the camping area between the thick forest behind us and the open grazing land in front. Some nights there are a couple of other sites occupied and one night there was a whole convoy of motor homes driven by a visiting group from England but the rest of the time we have the whole camping area to ourselves so we needn’t have worried about the crowds.
A restaurant provides meals for many of the guests staying in the huts and it is very well located next to a large pool of water. We visit a couple of afternoons to enjoy the late afternoon light on the pond while we watch the many weaver birds, ibis and herons and the occasional hamerkop. A smallish croc lumbers between the birds one evening and slides into the water, the birds didn’t appear to be at all fussed by him. Lots of very large turtles pop their heads up and a huge catfish swims along with its feelers above the water, strange. One evening we have our meal there, a buffet, which was pleasant but unfortunately not up to the standard of the buffet we had in Maputo. (But it was also considerably cheaper.)
There is a lot of variety in the driving tracks around the park. Most of the animals are grazing on the open plains and are best viewed from the tracks across these plains. A couple of creeks wander through the park and some sections of the park are thick bush which would provide shelter for the game but also makes them very difficult to see. We follow a track one day and after passing through a couple of gates enclosing a large herd of roan antelope we end up on a track for overnight guests of Reilly’s lodge so we backtrack and take a different trail. This one leads up to the back of the lodge but we don’t pass any no entry signs and on our way back we pass through a beautiful patch of forest with mosses dripping off trees so that was certainly worth going the ‘wrong’ way.
A few of the tracks are 4WD only and we take a drive up the mountain track one day. It is steep on the way with a couple of slightly tricky bits and we can certainly appreciate why these tracks are closed after significant rainfall. Its a lovely drive up the mountain and the view from the saddle between two peaks is superb. What a pity we didn’t bring our thermos and coffee with us as it would have made a great place to stop for a while. We descend the other side of the mountain and that is when things get tricky. The track itself is not too bad, but the bush has grown so thickly around the track we often cannot see much at all. There are no signs of anyone else using this track recently, apart from the occasional bicycle track on the odd open section. There is certainly no room to turn around so we aren’t pleased to see a low branch down across the track. Normal vehicles would pass beneath it but our roof rack storage box and the roof top tent made things decidedly tricky. We do carry an axe, but it is back at camp in the trailer, we definitely need to learn from this experience and carry it and a small saw in the vehicle. I stand on the side step and with a bit of pushing and shoving while Paul inches forward we manage to slide beneath the branch and can continue down the hill.
We are only a short distance from the capital of Mbabane and we drive in one day to have a look around. It is certainly a very small capital, much quieter than Manzini and after a brief drive around the streets we stop at a gallery to view the art and to enjoy a coffee and cake at the attached cafe. Because we have spent so little time in town we decide to drive north to Sibebe Rock, a huge granite rock surrounded by a reserve which is popular with hikers.
After admiring the scenery we could retrace our route to Mbabane and back to camp but we decide to continue on the road we are on and follow country roads around in a loop to the Ezulwini Valley. We’re on top of a range here and hill tops stretch in all directions with dirt roads rising to the peaks then dropping to cross small streams. Small communities are scattered with houses and small farms making good use of the land. Each small community has a soccer pitch on whatever flat piece of land they can find. Often it is not much more than rough wooden posts and cross bars at the ends of a patch on the top of a hill and grazing cows appear the major means of trimming the playing field. We love the views as we drive but the trip turns out longer than we expected as some of the roads on the map have fallen into disuse and our ‘short cuts’ end up in backtracking on several occasions. The extra kilometres give us more time to admire the scenery but it would have been even better if we’d filled the fuel tank before we left town.
I had hoped to do some walking here but my energy got sapped by a spider bite which gave me a nasty reaction. I thought it was just a mosquito bite at first and by the time I figured out what it was I was starting to slowly get my energy back so I didn’t bother going to a doctor. Paul kept himself busy with taking photos of young animals and working on his computer so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.The bite is still ugly but the infection has passed and I’m feeling much better by the time we leave.
Our next destination is in the far south of the country and we are looking forward to the drive so we are very pleased to have a clear and sunny day. After returning to the outskirts of Manzini we turn south and before long we leave the central plateau behind and begin our journey through the spectacular Grand Valley. Fantastic view follows fantastic view, steep hills and deep valleys and mountain views stretching far into the distance. We’re slow going up the hills but we’re not in a hurry and the traffic isn’t too heavy and our morning coffee spot gives us plenty of time to admire the magnificent scenery.
The road leads to the border post at Mahamba but immediately before the border we turn right and drive a few kilometres to Mahamba Gorge. This is another community run chalet and camping area and it is another beautiful place to stay. We are given a warm welcome and told we can camp where we like. It is very hot when we arrive and there is not a lot of shade so we take a look at the chalets. These are built of stone but are a very different design to the rondavels at Shawula with a more modern appearance. They don’t have quite the character but the deck out the front overlooking the gorge and the kitchen in each unit are a good substitute and once again we are persuaded to take this option.
During the afternoon the weather changes and another storm rolls in, another good night to be in doors. This time the wind is not as fierce and we are able to leave the doors on to the deck open all night so we can enjoy the fresh air and views. Paul takes some early morning photographs and we take a short walk down to the river before moving on again to our next destination.
We cut across along a dirt road to another highway where we can drive north once again. Most of the way we are driving along a side track as a big new road is under construction. We assume it is to service the timber industry as there are many forestry plantations around here. Back on a main road we only have another short drive until we reach the turn where we need to leave the highway and head toward another wilderness area.
We are planning to spend the night at Khelekhele camping area which is a bush camp beside a river at the bottom of a very deep valley. Directions are sparse but it is marked on our Tracks for Africa map so we figure the GPS will lead us to the right place. We reach the place where we need to leave the dirt road and follow a track down to the river. There are two possible tracks but neither look quite right so we ask a guy walking nearby. His English is limited but obviously much better than our knowledge of any of the other languages he speaks. We manage to communicate where we are trying to go and he offers to come with us to show us the way as there are a couple of gates to go through. There end up being four gates as we are passing through what appears to be private properties. He tells us the names of each of the families who live along the track, this is obviously a small and well knit community. Kids wave as we pass and their parents work in their fields. There were two different routes on our map to reach the river and it appears the one we were trying to find is no longer in use so he is taking us on a short cut to reach the other track.
Once through the final gate he assures us we can camp by the river and leaves us to continue his afternoon. We follow the now rough track down toward the river. Cattle are grazing in the scrub and when we finally reach the river we find two vehicles and a group of locals including half a dozen children and their parents as well as quite a few more cows. They indicate where we can camp but after reaching the area we decide camping amongst cattle is not what we want. Derelict buildings show this used to be a managed camping area but it is obviously no longer maintained. It appears our Tracks for Africa app needs updating. This has been by far the roughest track we have taken the trailer over so it has been a good test and the Land Cruiser came through with flying colours, but I must admit I was very glad it was Paul driving and not me.
Time for Plan B. After a long slow haul up from the bottom of the valley we return to the main road, up the usable side road rather than through the private properties, and continue north. There are no camping spots or caravan parks nearby so we decide to look for alternate accommodation for the night. Foresters Arms Hotel is on our road and has a good write up so we decide to try that out.
It is late afternoon when we arrive at the hotel which is nestled in a patch of forest in the middle of old pine plantations. The hotel has been here for more than a century and has obviously been a place of respite for people escaping from the city of Mbabane, less than an hour away. The buildings are beautifully maintained and additional accommodation maintains the old world ‘colonial’ style. We have a very pleasant room looking over the lush green lawn and across the pool to the forest beyond. It is drizzling and quite cool so we aren’t tempted to have a swim but if we had more time the sauna would have been a much bigger temptation.
After a pre-dinner drink in the cozy bar we move to the restaurant where the owner explains the menu. Two starters are followed by four main courses and two desserts and there is also a central table with home baked breads, salads and cheeses. The dishes are small so we are welcome to have as many selections from each course as we wish, we could have the whole lot if we wanted. Everything is presented beautifully and it is lovely to have small portions of different offerings but we are full before we have sampled half the menu and after sharing one of the desserts, with me having all bar one mouthful, we retire to the room, weary but relaxed.
Paul is up early to take photos in the mist and drizzling rain. It looks like we will have a wet drive today. Breakfast is included in the room rate and once again there are plenty of choices of cooked meals as well as a buffet for cereals, fruit and breads. We are certainly well fed and rested before we set off to our next destination.
We have another week to spend in Swaziland and we have saved the north west section of the country for this time. This is where the mountains are the highest and there are several spots we definitely want to visit. We make a small detour from our route to call into Ngwenya Glass where they make both functional and decorative glassware. The work is beautiful, it is a shame it is a weekend as they are not running the furnace so we miss the opportunity to watch the glass being blown.
Malolotja Nature Reserve is our next stop. We had planned to stay here but when we reach the camping area the mist is so thick we can barely see past the bonnet of the car, not ideal sightseeing weather. This is one of the highest areas so maybe it will be clearer at other places and we can return here another time. Continuing on we descend into a valley and take the road to Maguga Dam. The water level is very low so it is not as scenic as it could be but at least we are below the mist and we decide to spend two nights here and make some headway with our writing and processing of photographs.
Further north is the town of Piggs Peak. Tal, from Mbuluzi Nature Reserve, has given us a contact for camping in this area. Tommy Stephens has a property about ten kilometres north of the town on the Phophonyane River which is now a conservancy and he offers camping beside the river. We meet him at the nearby Peak Craft Centre where his wife operates a shop which sells fine woven products. The camp site is delightful, a bubbling creek is lined by trees which provide deep shade. A seating area with a timber deck and an undercover area with a fridge and power point is ours to use and there is a small block with toilets and a hot shower. While we are here we will have sole use of the area and we settle in happily prepared to spend the next week here. Paul is able to set up his computer in a cool and protected area and apart from one very stormy and windy evening we cook and spend our leisure time on the deck just using our camper trailer for sleeping.
It is such a delightful place to stay it is hard to tear ourselves away but there are places we definitely need to visit while we are here. One visit is to the town of Bulembu which is high in the mountains on the border with South Africa. It is only about 20 km from Piggs Peak but it is a dirt road and quite potholed in sections. Much of the surrounding area is taken up by tree plantations but there are still some areas of local farming and there are plenty of tall peaks which remain in their natural state. The town of Bulembu was established as a mining town but apart from a few very small operations the mining has ceased. If it were not for the forestry operations the town would have completely died but it is neat and well maintained even though there are many unoccupied houses. The houses are set in rows along the side of the hill and many are painted in different colours, very pretty.
On our way back to Piggs Peak we explore one of the side tracks which head deeper into the mountains. We are about to drive up one track when a young guy by the side of the track approaches us to have a chat. He is a watchman for the radio tower up the track and offers to accompany us to the end of the track. Here we find an abandoned army camp right on the border with South Africa. It is used as a temporary shelter for some of the forestry workers but no-one is around when we arrive. We take a walk across the grass and a faint line marks the border, we are now in South Africa. One peak rises above us but we are above many of the other peaks and can see for many kilometres, fantastic!
Another outing is to the nearby Phophonyane Falls Nature Reserve. There is a lovely lodge nestled into the side of the hill here, but unfortunately no camping. We meet the owner, Rod, as we are about to set off on a walk and we chat about his life and the operations of the lodge. He recommends crossing the border back into South Africa at Bulembu rather than the busy border post on the main highway which we had been planning to use. As well as magnificent scenery we will be more likely to get a longer entry permit into South Africa here.
The walk down to the Phophonyane falls is steep but not too far or too hard. My bout with the spider bite means I’m pretty unfit as I haven’t done any walking for quite a while. We return to the lodge and after a coffee Paul heads off for another walk and more photography but I’m ready for a rest and relax in the shade enjoying the magnificent views from beside the pool.
We had planned to return to Malolotja and spend a night there on our way out of the country but based on Rod’s advice we will leave from Bulembu so we decide to visit Malolotja on a day trip. Because we aren’t travelling via Maguga Dam we follow the main road directly to Malolotja. We begin amongst the mountains near Piggs Peak then cross a very wide valley with the Nkomati River flowing through the centre. This river commences in the highlands of South Africa as the Komati River before entering Swaziland where it passes through Malolotja to feed the Maguga Dam and eventually returns to South Africa and then flows into Mozambique where it changes name once again to become the Rio Incomati.
At Malolotja we are given a map of the park and we set out to explore. There are lots of walking tracks here but they are all fairly long and we don’t have the time today so we confine our exploration to driving. We head for one of the view points but stop at the picnic site on the way and we are blown away by the views from there. After coffee, and many photos, we continue on and take a 4WD track to the Nkmomati Viewpoint. The scenery along the way is great and the views from the end are even better. From here we can easily see across the mountains into South Africa. We really feel like we are on the roof of the the world. When we can tear our eyes away from the mountain views we are delighted by the wildflowers scattered all around us. We follow this up with another drive and another viewpoint then it is time to make the return journey to our camp by the river for our final night in Swaziland.
The first part of drive back to Johannesburg is through the mountains and will be slow and we don’t know how long we will need at the border post. After the mountains we will still have a long distance to cover so we need to make an early start. We retrace the scenic drive from a few days ago and reach Bulembu before the border post opens so we have time for breakfast in a park in the town. We were told by the South African Consulate in Maputo that as we had already had a three month entry permit for South Africa we would only receive a seven day transit visa unless we returned to our country of residence first. Obviously a short trip back to Australia is prohibitive so we are hoping we will get a sympathetic border control officer otherwise it is going to be a very short visit, just long enough for Christmas in Johannesburg with Paul’s Mum and sister then a dash for the border with Namibia. At the South African border post we are initially told we can only get the seven day transit visa but after we explain how much more of the country we want to explore he leaves us to make more enquiries. After a twenty minute wait he returns and stamps our passports for a three month stay, great news. We assume he must have had to ring for an exemption of the normal rules, most helpful of him and certainly no way would we have got this good a result if we had crossed at a busy border post.
After such a good start to the day our journey continues well and we are treated to even more amazing views along the way. We travel through forests, both natural and plantation, amongst more peaks until we finally descend to the pretty town of Barberton. We have more ranges to cross but none as high or steep as those we have left behind . We stay off the freeways and make the return journey through rural towns and finally reach Sue’s home by mid afternoon. We are in Johannesburg for Christmas and a few days either side and then we will be back on the road to make the best use of our three month entry permit.