Small size, big appeal

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It might be a small, landlocked monarchy, but Swaziland has a lot of appeal. From its peaceful, friendly softly-spoken people to its many conference venues and wide array of leisure activities, this little country has more to it than some may think. Kate Kennedy spent five days discovering what Swaziland has to offer.

Make no mistake, Swaziland is small.

In fact, it doesn’t take long to get from one end of the country to the other, which is no surprise, considering it’s only roughly 200 kilometres ‘long’ and 130 kilometres ‘wide’.

“You can get almost anywhere in 90 minutes,” says Xoliswa Mhhonta, Public Relations Officer at Mantenga Cultural Village.

Well, just about.

It takes about two hours to drive from the Oshoek border post with South Africa in the west to the Goba border post with Mozambique in the east, and three-and-a-half hours from Jeppes Reef in the north to Golela in the south.

So yes, the country is small, but it’s brimming with charm and opportunity.

Airports & Airlines

King Mswati III International Airport – located an hour’s drive east of Mbabane in the lowveld hamlet of Sikhupe – has been operational since October last year, after an 11-year construction period.

Swaziland Airlink – a joint venture between the Swaziland government and South Africa-base Airlink – is currently the only airline making use of the facilities with four daily flights between Swaziland and Johannesburg. Flying time is 50 minutes.

“We are in discussions with various other airlines to start flying into Swaziland,” says Sabelo Dlamini, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority.  “We are looking at regional airlines that would connect Swaziland directly to Durban and Cape Town, with additional flights to Johannesburg as well as a connection to Mozambique.”

Volume, flight costs and affordability will determine which airlines will start flying into Swaziland.

The new airport is situated 55 kilometres from Manzini, at the end of a newly-built highway, making the drive a pleasant one.

“The location of the airport was selected for the land and topography, taking future expansion into consideration,” says Dlamini.

The airy multi-purpose terminal building holds both arrival and departure terminals, an Avis Car Hire desk, a small coffee shop, and a Swaziland Airlink counter. There is complimentary parking for up to 200 cars and a shuttle bus runs daily from Mbabane, with four stops along the route to collect passengers.

Matsapa Airport, 10 minutes from Manzini, has been designated to servicing the royal family.

Driving

The roads in and around the cities are in good condition, and road works speak of further development. Expect to find tarred roads, traffic lights, traffic circles and pedestrian crossings in the cities. Four-wheel-drive vehicles aren’t necessary for urban driving, but do come in handy if you plan to head out to the game parks for a self-drive safari.

Cattle and goats are important parts of Swazi culture and can frequently be found grazing on the side of the road.

“When you see cattle next to the road, please slow down,” says Sonnyboy Dlamini, assistant Camp Manager at Hlane National Park. “The animals are unpredictable, and your safety on the roads is more important than saving a few minutes of travel time.”

Before leaving South Africa, I used Google Maps to map out my journey, but was disappointed with the results. The destinations I wanted were available, but the directions were extremely vague. The free maps available at the tourist offices were much more helpful in getting me to the hotels, national parks and other points on my itinerary. Asking for directions at fuel stations or hotel receptions are other good options – the people know their way around and are happy to assist you.

Safety 

“Petty crime is something all visitors should be aware of, although Swaziland is a politically peaceful country,” says Chantal Nieuwenhuizen, Account Manager for Swaziland Tourism.

Not once during my time in the country did I feel unsafe or threatened, even when driving at night, or lost in the middle of nowhere. There is a distinct lack of animosity in the people of Swaziland. They are proud of their culture and heritage, and it binds them together as a nation.

Hotels

Sun International is the only international brand currently present in Swaziland, with the Royal Swazi Sun and its sister property the Lugogo Sun. There is talk of the Royal Swazi being rebranded in the near future, following the announcement of Sun International’s strategic partnership with the Thailand-based Minor Hotel Group last year.

The Royal Swazi Sun, situated in Mbabane, has been operating for almost 50 years, and will celebrate that milestone in March 2016. It boasts the country’s premier 18-hole championship golf course, which plays host to two South African Sunshine Tour events annually.

Sibane Hotel has 30 rooms and extensive conference and event facilities.

Mantenga Lodge is situated alongside the Mantenga Nature Reserve, with 40 rooms offering a view of either the Sheba’s Breasts Mountain or the gardens. This is a great venue for team building activities or smaller, more laid-back conferences.

The Royal Villas Hotel offers 57 rooms in a secure estate just off the main road running through Mbabane. Along with accommodation, the hotel has conference and event facilities for up to 250 guests.

Summerfield Botanical Gardens is a truly 5-star experience, good enough for royalty (the Prince of Swaziland was in residence during my stay). The 25 thatch-roof suites and three-room private cottage are set among rolling lawns interspersed with mature trees, ponds, pathways and green vegetation. The conference facilities can host up to 40 delegates, and the Palm Cascades Restaurant is set away from the rooms, ensuring you can escape to a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere whenever you choose.  

In Manzini, The George Hotel offers 53 rooms, conference facilities and an onsite spa. The hotel is expanding, with the construction of an additional 60 rooms nearing completion. The rooms that are in operation are a little run down and old-fashioned in some areas, but everything works.  

Swaziland doesn’t have an official star grading system – all stars are self-bestowed – but the hotels I visited appeared to be just about on-par with the equivalent you would find in say South Africa, for example.

In the Swaziland hotel development pipeline, Hilton is set to build a 130-room Hilton Garden Inn in Mbabane in the near future. Located on Mhlambanyatsi Road, the main arterial route serving the city centre, the hotel will be situated in the CBD. The hotel will also feature 245 square metres of dedicated event space, with 105 square metres of pre-function space, as well as a large fitness centre and outdoor swimming pool.

Swaziland International Convention Centre

There is no shortage of conference facilities in Swaziland. Almost every hotel offers something in the conferencing space. Rates are competitive, with so many players vying for a piece of the action. But, while many hotels have capacity to host conference guests in their hundreds, the number of hotel rooms available doesn’t match up.

That’s why the country is excited about Swaziland’s first international convention centre, currently under construction in the Ezulwini Valley between Mbabane and Manzini. Once complete, it will offer a 500-room, 5-star hotel, a trade centre, a 1,500-seat theatre, VVIP holding rooms, restaurant facilities and space to host up to 4,500 delegates at a time. No time frame has been given for the expected opening, though.

Eating Out

There are a number of great places to enjoy a meal, including many of the hotels. You’ll find quite a few South African restaurant and fast food brands in Swaziland, such as Mugg and Bean, Steers and KFC. But the local eateries are worth a visit. Most menus offer a selection of western and traditional Swazi dishes, with chicken, beef and fish featuring widely.

The George Hotel serves a dish of beef medallions with a cherry and cheese sauce that is absolutely delicious. The peri-peri chicken is perfectly spiced, with just the right level of ‘heat’. Mantenga Lodge’s veranda offers beautiful views of the Lubombo mountain range and the food is excellent. I sampled the Mantenga Speciality – strips of tender beef flash-fried over a gas flame that sets the whole pan alight, served with pap croquets and a garden salad.

“If you’re looking to eat away from your hotel, The House of Fire, Summerfields and the Calabash are all great restaurants,” says Karol Joszkowski, General Manager of the Royal Villas.

“eDladleni serves traditional Swazi fare – goat and free-range chicken,” says Mhhonta. “If you want to get a good sense of what the locals eat, this restaurant is a must-visit.”

The Palm Cascades at Summerfields offers elegant dinner dining and an extensive menu. Alongside steak, chicken and fish, there is a choice of Indian, Thai and Chinese dishes served inside or out on the deck overlooking clear ponds and tinkling waterfalls.

“Foresters Arms, in the Mhlambanyatsi  area, has outstanding food and service,’ says Nieuwenhuizen. “Planters, at the Royal Swazi Sun, has a menu that covers all tastes. In the Malkern’s valley, you can enjoy a leisurely pub lunch at Malandela’s Farmstyle Restaurant and Bar.”

Card Acceptance

There are a couple of South African banks doing business in Swaziland, including Nedbank and Standard Bank, as well as a couple of local banks. ATMs are prolific in the towns and cities, although more scarce in the outlying areas. Machines dispense emalangeni (local currency) and rands, although you can’t specifiy which currency you’d prefer. Cashiers will often change currencies for you on your way out of the country, so that you don’t leave with useless money.

Credit card machines are widely available in the malls, hotels, restaurants, and more established craft centres. However, the service isn’t guaranteed to work and it’s advisable to carry some cash in case the power is out or the network running the machine is down. Before filling up with petrol, enquire whether the card machine is working, to avoid problems when paying.

Visas

Citizens of Botswana, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Reunion, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe do not require a visa to enter Swaziland. If you take a vehicle into the country, you’re subject to a $5 entry fee, payable at the border post, although entry for South Africans is free of charge.

I entered and exited through the Oshoek/Ngwenya border post on the N17. It was a fairly quick and simple process, however I did travel outside of peak hour in both directions. This border post is one of the main entry points for goods into the country, so it can become congested with large trucks carrying heavy loads.

“There are plans to build a railway line from South Africa, just outside Carolina through Oshoek,” says Joszkowski. “When this is complete, it will help reduce the number of truck accidents experienced as the vehicles negotiate the steep decline into the Ezulweni Valley.”

Connectivity

MTN is the country’s sole cell phone service provider, although Swazi Telecoms does offer fixed line services. Hotels do offer wi-fi, but it’s not always part of the room rate. Public wi-fi hotspots are not widely available. During my five days in Swaziland, I was only able to connect twice – once at Sibane, which offers wi-fi as part of the room rate, and once at The George, for a $3-per-hour fee. Technical difficulties and stolen cables are a reality in Swaziland, even for hotels that do offer connectivity, so if having access to your life online is important, I would make a point of getting a local sim card and data bundle.

Leisure

It’s well worth your while to stay an extra day or two in Swaziland once your business is complete. There’s something to appeal to just about every taste, whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or prefer a quieter experience.

For the first group, Swazi Trails can arrange a spot of white water rafting, abseiling, caving, quad biking or even a canopy tour of the Malolotja Nature Reserve.

Learn more about the Swazi culture at Mantenga Cultural Village. Dancers will perform various routines, each with a story behind them. Either before or after the show, a guide will share some of the historical culture and show you around a traditional homestead.

The Hlane National Park, about an hour’s drive from Manzini, is certainly worth a visit if you enjoy the bush. Early morning and late afternoon game drives will take you into close proximity with lion, rhino, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, among a whole selection of other wildlife. A watering hole next to the reception and restaurant attracts rhino, hippo, and a host of antelope.

“The wildlife is really relaxed,” says Joszkowski. “The last rhino was poached over two years ago – there’s zero tolerance – and the animals are fairly laid-back about the presence of humans.” Indeed, the nyala and waterbuck I came across on an afternoon drive through Hlane were virtually unfazed by the slow meander of my vehicle, some not even looking up from their grazing.

For those wishing to get even closer to nature, the park offers guided walks and mountain bike excursions. The smaller size of the park, and the higher concentration of animals on the property, means you’re almost guaranteed good game viewing in a relatively short visit.

“Swaziland has some of the most beautiful hikes, mountain bike trails, 4×4 trails, campsites, and horseback trails,” says Nieuwenhuizen. “The Ngwenya glass factory is certainly worth a visit to experience the live glass blowing.”

If you’re the mood for a little shopping, there are a number of craft markets and malls that will offer something suitable for your taste and budget. House on Fire, while being primarily a theatre and restaurant venue, has a small selection of retail outlets that are worth a visit. The Swazi Candle Craft Market is another great place to pick up a souvenir or two (I certainly did). At a one-to-one exchange rate with the rand, Swaziland is cost effective, whether you’re booking accommodation, conference packages, or want to do a bit of shopping.

“You can experience so much in just three days,” says Joszkowski. “Swaziland is really the ultimate compact Southern African experience, and well worth a visit.”

That’s certainly a sentiment I’ll happily second.

FACT FILE
Population:
1.1 million
Time: GMT+2
Plugs: South African 3-pin
Dialling code: +268
Currency: Swazi lilangeni (emalangeni plural), South African rand $1= E12.80
Language: siSwati, English

Swazi Culture
Polygamy is part of Swazi tradition, and a man can have as many wives as he can afford – the minimum lobola (‘bride price’) is 17 heads of cattle. The practice of multiple wives is slowly dying out, however. “It’s expensive,” says Mbongani Khumalo, Sales and Marketing Manager at Summerfield. “Keeping one woman happy is enough for me, and many of my friends feel the same.”

Each wife is given her own home, with the newest wife living closest to the man. Unmarried girls over the age of six live in the house opposite the cattle kraal at the entrance to the homestead, as a distraction to potential raiders intent on stealing livestock. The doorway into a home is low, forcing everyone to bend over to enter, meaning an intruder can be dealt a swift blow to the head with a knobkerrie (short stick with knob). It is also a sign of respect to bend a knee, so a low entrance allows all visitors to show respect for the host.