Eswatini – or Swaziland, as it used to be known – is celebrating 50 years of independence today. Mike Unwin picks the highlights of the tiny southern African kingdom.
Fifty years young
This year marks a double birthday for Swaziland: in 1968, the nation not only achieved its independence from Britain (on Sept 6) but also saw the birth of King Mswati III, who in April this year officially renamed his country the Kingdom of Eswatini. The powers and conduct of the monarchy have attracted controversy, given the poverty of many Swazis, but the king remains popular among traditionalists. Visit and judge for yourself.
Nowhere else in southern Africa does tradition on quite the scale of Swaziland (or indeed Eswatini). The Umhlanga, or reed dance, takes place every August/September, setting the scene for a week-long festival of dance, which this year will end on Monday. Officially a celebration of chastity, the reed dance involves thousands of girls travelling from every corner of the kingdom to present reeds to the Queen Mother for the symbolic rebuilding of her “kraal” (enclosed village). They then parade before the king. thekingdomofswaziland.com
For a full immersion in the delights of Eswantini’s largest river, grab a paddle and a life jacket and raft the churning white waters of the Great Usutu. A grade III (medium difficulty) river for most of the year, the rapids liven up during the November-April rainy season. And don’t worry about the occasional croc: most are only toddlers.
“Heaven” is the literal translation of Ezulwini, the picturesque, meandering valley that links Eswatini’s cool highlands with its dusty lowlands. A notorious honeypot during the bad old days of apartheid South Africa, this is now Eswatini’s tourist hub, with hotels, golf courses, thermal spas and handicraft markets.
For the birds
Purple-crested touraco, buff-spotted flufftail, pink-throated twinspot… Eswatini’s bird life trips temptingly off the tongue, and with some 500 species to spot, birders should keep binoculars raised. Every corner of the kingdom has its specials. Try the delightful Phophonyane Falls Nature Reserve for an excellent selection. phophonyane.co.sz
Rock of ages
Eswatini’s rocks are among the world’s oldest, some dating back 3.5 billion years. And none is more impressive than Sibebe. Numerous trails wind up and around the bare slopes of the world’s largest granite dome, just outside the capital, Mbabane, leading to a wonderland of giant boulders on top. swazitrails.co.sz/walking-trails/sibebe.
Eswatini’s muscular, rolling hills are the perfect place to perch yourself on a muscular, rolling horse. Trails leads over the high grasslands of Malolotja, through the pineapple fields of the Malkerns Valley and among the game herds of Mlilwane, where zebra and wildebeest eye your mounted progress with curiosity. swazi.travel/hawane_resort
Around the horn
Do you take your rhinos black or white? Eswatini serves up bothoptions, with Mkhaya Game Reserve one of the best places in Africa for close encounters. These horned behemoths are now highly endangered – which is just how you’ll feel when creeping up to one on foot. biggameparks.org
Eswatini proves it does contemporary culture too by throwing its own mini Glastonbury. May sees an explosion of music and dance at the heart of the pastoral Malkerns Valley, when Bushfire – voted one of Africa’s top seven music festivals – leaps into life. Featuring top names from across the region, the action centres around House on Fire, a unique, African-style Shakespearean Globe. bush-fire.com
Tired of tramping? Hook yourself up to a zip line for an easier, if queasier, view of the rugged wilderness. This white-knuckle ride descends along a steel cable down the wild forested Majolomba Gorge in Malolotja Nature Reserve. Wooden platforms let you catch your breath, scan for baboons and wonder why. malolotjacanopytour.com