Although local is lekker (and cheaper), almost local can be just as lekker. Swaziland might be just a trip across the border, but it’s a whole new world. There is something in the clear mountain air of Swaziland that makes you forget South Africa is only a heartbeat away.
The country’s network of recently tarred roads makes the journey even more enjoyable. The Swazi kingdom’s rather limited linear road system has been expanded into a network of loops that allow you to explore the beauty of Swaziland. You can visit every region of the country almost without driving the same road twice.
Before you start exploring this mountainous kingdom, you must decide whether to base yourself centrally and adventure outwards in a series of petal-shaped loops or to enter at one of the 13 border crossings and zigzag back and forth, taking in the distinctively different highveld, middleveld and lowveld.
If you decide on the zigzag route, a popular entry point is Matsamo, 60km south of Kruger National Park. Head south on the MR1, which runs next to the Makhonjwa mountain range, a natural boundary between Swaziland and South Africa. The scenic climb up to Piggs Peak is framed by the Phophonyane and Sibetsemoya nature reserves. A peaceful retreat among mature indigenous forests and cascades of water is the Phophonyane Falls Lodge.
A stop at the Peak Fine Craft Centre will give you an early introduction to Swazi handcrafts, such as award-winning sisal baskets by Tintsaba Craft, which has found a niche in the jewellery market by incorporating tiny woven coils into silver necklaces and earrings.
Next stop is boom-or-bust town Piggs Peak, where money is won or lost in seconds at the roulette wheel and card tables.
The first of many route options lies in the winding descent through the Komati River Valley. Or take the equally scenic route that crosses the Maguga Dam wall. The Tjolotjolo Restaurant and the new Maguga Lodge provide welcome pit stops. A visit to the Nsangwini bushman paintings stretches the legs for a while. If you’re more adventurous, pre-book a canoe and abseil safari with operator Swazi Trails.
Passing the Malolotja Nature Reserve – a hiker’s paradise – the MR1 comes to an end and joins the MR3 highway. This road is an impressive feat of engineering, featuring the world’s deepest road cutting.
The sweeping carriageways bypass the capital city of Mbabane, the tourism hub of Ezulwini and the commercial centre of Manzini, removing congestion from these fast-developing urban areas.
An 80km loop to the west of Mbabane accesses Mhlambanyatsi and the quintessentially English country-style hotel, Foresters Arms. The road then plunges down to the valley of the Great Usutu River for a backyard entry into the delightful Malkerns Valley. This farming area has plenty of B&Bs and a wealth of art and craft attractions, such as Swazi Candles.
It’s from the Manzini region that you have to decide on which touring route to take. The tarring of the MR5 opened up the lowveld of Swaziland, with a looping north-south route that takes in Mananga Country Club and its nine-hole golf course and superb yellowfish and tilapia fishing in the dam. The vast Lubombo Conservancy, around which this route meanders, offers rewarding safaris and accommodation in the Hlane, Mlawula, Mbuluzi and Shewula nature reserves. The bush walks, guided open-vehicle tours and self-drive options – with plenty of big game on view – are among Swaziland’s best-kept secrets.
Heading south from Manzini provides an alternative game viewing option in Mkhaya Game Reserve. Also on this route is Nisela Safaris and Reptile Park, which is home to many of Africa’s most dangerous snakes. If reptiles make you shudder, grab your binoculars and enjoy the birdlife instead.
Looping to the west, the MR11 introduces travellers to the Shiselweni district, home to the Mahamba Gorge and Grand Valley. Mahamba Gorge Lodge, a new self-catering spot perched on the banks of the Mkhondvo River, is a good base for riverbank rock-hopping. Next door is Mahamba Church, the oldest Christian structure in Swaziland and the site of many historical tales.
Returning to Manzini you cross the Great Usutu River where, just upstream, the Nkonyeni Golf Estate features a challenging 18th hole on an island in the river, and downstream white-water rafters take on the grade IV rapids of the Bulungapoort Gorge.
Back in central Swaziland, it’s time to ponder the compact beauty of this tiny kingdom. Measuring just 176km long and 133km wide, you may find there is time to do another quick loop through the friendly Swazi countryside before heading home.
Self-drive is made easy with the advice and services of a good local operator to organise accommodation, cultural encounters, adventure activities and anything else you need. Swazi Trails comes highly recommended. Tel +268 416 2180, email: firstname.lastname@example.org website: http://www.swazitrails.co.sz/strails.html