Although this article, Swaziland Tourism for the Off-road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in Swaziland, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Geography of Swaziland
Taking up only 17,363 sq/ kms, of which 160 are water, the terrain of Swaziland consists of mostly mountains, a great many hills, and a few gently sloping plains, with the lowest elevation being the Great Usutu River, at 21 metres, and the highest being 1,862 metres at Emlembe. The country has three distinct geographical regions- Lowveld, Midveld, and Highveld.
Completely landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland has a shared border with these countries totalling 535 kilometres.
Climate of Swaziland
The climate, and average temperatures of Swaziland varies according to elevation, but is generally tropical, to near temperate in nature with most rainfall which can be as high as 2 000 mm, falling mainly during violent thunders storms on the Highveld.
Rainfall decreases progressively toward the east, with an average of only about 700 mm per year in the Lowveld. Due to the great differences in elevation, average temperatures during both winter and summer vary greatly, with highs in excess of 400C routinely recorded in the Lowveld, while the higher elevations of the Highveld seldom, if ever experience uncomfortably hot conditions.
The average temperatures at Mbabane, the capital are arranged by season as s follows:
Spring: September – October 18 °C (64.4 °F)
Summer: November – March 20 °C (68 °F)
Autumn: April – May 17 °C (62.6 °F)
Winter: June – August 13 °C (55.4 °F)
Scenery of Swaziland
The only scenic attractions lacking in Swaziland are deserts and oceans, but this hardly matters in a country that is world famous for its abundance of scenic attractions. With its eastern and western extremities less than 200 kilometres apart, the space in between is packed with rivers, scenic streams, spectacular mountain views, magical waterfalls, and lush, fertile valleys carved from some of the most ancient rock formations on the planet.
Even though much of the original vegetation of the Highveld has been replaced with timber planta-tions, much of what remains is protected by the Malolotja Nature Reserve, which goes some way towards preserving the most dramatic and scenic parts of the region, which is well worth visiting especially during the wet season, when the almost perennial mists confers a somewhat mystical aspect to the mountains, valleys and waterfalls.
National Parks and Reserves
The conservation areas of Swaziland comprise a mix of sanctuaries, national parks, game reserves and protected areas range from state-owned and managed entities, to community ownership, to private land given over to wild life conservation, and perhaps unique- in the sense that the man-agement structures of state-owned parks are directly accountable to the Head of State.
However, game reserves in Swaziland tend to be small, but to compensate they are well managed, well maintained, and the conservation practises followed by them compare favourably to the best practises of the most successful parks in the world today. Although there are many wildlife conser-vation areas in the country, the three biggest parks are also the best known, and they are:
Hlane Royal National Park:
Taking up 30 000 ha hectares of bushveld that is dominated by ancient hardwood vegetation, this park is home to lion, elephant, white rhino, giraffe and a large variety of smaller species, including dozens of bird, and reptile species. Hlane Royal National park also accommodates the highest population of breeding white-backed vultures in all of Africa.
Accommodation in the two rest camps, Ndlovu and Bhubesi, consists of campsites, chalets, and self-catering cottages- all within easy reach of a restaurant that overlooks a large pool in which hippo have taken up residence. This park is well worth a visit.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary:
Located between Mbabane and Manzini, this sanctuary offers 24-hour access to registered guests, making it possible to visit and enjoy the many and varied attractions of near-by Ezulwini and Malk-erns, while staying in the sanctuary.
Mlilwane covers 4,560 hectares and comprises distinct southern and northern sections, with the south being dominated by grassland, and the north being dominated by the striking Nyonyane Mountain that culminates in the equally striking ‘Rock of Execution’. All accommodation and dining facilities are located in the southern section, and the only access to the northern parts is by guided trails. Other attractions include horse riding, mountain biking, hiking trails, guided game drives, and self-drive tours.
Mkhaya Game Reserve:
This park recently received the Automobile Association’s “Travelers Value Award for Top-End Lei-sure Travelers” award, which goes a long way toward explaining its popularity with both local and international tourists. Home to four of the Big Five, which include black rhino, the Reserve also of-fers visitors the opportunity to view purebred Swazi Nguni cattle, tsessebe, white rhino, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, crocodiles, and abundant birdlife, among which is the exceedingly difficult-to-spot Narina Trogon.
All quoted rates include entry fees, exquisite bush dining, all activities, including game drives, and accommodation that comes highly recommended by the AA. This is true value for your money, which makes a visit to this reserve a must-experience destination.
Circular Ramble (1–3 days)
Starting and ending in Mbabane, this circular route that takes in Piggs Peak, the spectacular scenery around Malolotja, and the Maguga Dam, before swinging south towards Manzini through the Nko-mati Valley for an overnight stop in Malkerns, is a must-do route even in a country that is renowned for its scenic attractions.
From Malkerns, the route back to Mbabane follows the “Tea Road” loop, which is one more oppor-tunity to experience the rural lifestyle of the local people, but this time, the view includes an excel-lent view of the magnificent Mdzimba Mountains that overlook the Royal parade Grounds. All ac-counts agree that this route is exceptionally scenic in a country that abounds in natural attractions, which is saying a lot.
Ten kilometres outside the capital, Mbabane, you will find the second largest exposed lump of granite in the world, with only Uluru in Australia exceeding it in terms of sheer mass and volume. However, unlike Uluru, this rock does not suffer from tourist overcrowding, which makes the 4-hour climb to the top of this 3-billion year old relic from the Earth’s past a more than rewarding experience. If you time your visit right, you could be only one around this overwhelming lesson in geology, which is an unforgettable experience.
If you have ever wanted a unique, one-of-a-kind glass bowl or decorative glass focus piece for your home or office, Ngwenya Glass is the place to go to get it. Aricles from the most prestigious (and famous) source of hand-blown glass objects in Africa can be found in some of the best galleries and craft shops in the world, and the best part is that you can get your dream-piece at wholesale prices, and have it shipped home too. Watching the artisans follow ancient glass-blowing techniques is an unforgettable experience, and well worth the trouble and effort getting there.
White Water Rafting
The white water rafting trip down the Usutu River is the only one of its kind on offer in the entire country, and only one tour operator offers it, which is why advance booking is essential if you need the rush of adrenaline white water rafting offers. Both half-, and full day excursions are offered, and all tours, that are suitable for all ages and skill levels, are accompanied by trained guides at all times.
Caving at Malagwane Hill
Located between Mbabane and the Ezulwini Valley, is the only known cave system in Southern Afica that consist entirely of water-eroded granite. Although no prior experience of caving is needed, progress that requires crawling, body-jams, and stooping very low is generally slow and exhausting, but the experience of crawling through a unique cave system nearly 100 meters below ground level is ample compensation for skinned knees and aching joints.
However, although all tours are led by experienced guides and all equipment is provided, the excursion is limited to persons between 8 and 65 years of age, assumed fit, and not overweight. Total duration of the experience is about two hours.
Swaziland has no mountain passes worth mentioning, except for two across its border with KwaZulu-Natal- Sabana Pass, and Cecil Mack’s Pass However, neither pass allows access into Swaziland, but worse, Sabana Pass is impossible to find. A recent (November 2014) attempt to locate the pass failed and all trace of it has been lost to the wilderness. Nonetheless, for the benefit of off-road travelers with a sense of adventure and a penchant for lost causes, we provide Sabana Pass’s GPS co-ordinates, even though the local population living in the area has no recollection of a pass, or even a trail in that location.
GPS START: S27.152657 E31.958786
GPS SUMMIT: S27.166267 E31.977732
GPS END: S27.166267 E31.977732
Cecil Mack’s Pass
This pass that is blocked to vehicular traffic halfway through right on the international border with South Africa, demands a high level of technical driving, a 4WD vehicle with low range, exceptional ground clearance, and suitable protection against large rocks. This is a demanding grade 5+ drive, and the pass should not be attempted by inexperienced drivers with unsuitable vehicles.
GPS START: S27.094500 E31.982532
GPS RIVER: S27.073573 E31.990588
GPS END: S27.065382 E31.977981
AVE GRADIENT: 1:14
MAX GRADIENT: 1:4
ELEVATION START: 668m
ELEVATION RIVER: 155m
ELEVATION END: 234m
HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 513m
DISTANCE: 9,03 km
As far as the towns of Swaziland go, all are small even by African standards, and the highest population for a Swaziland town is about 110 000 for Mbabane. The capital of Swaziland has been described in many ways and as many things, but the most fitting description is perhaps the observation made by historian and writer James Hall when he said that Mbabane is-
“…. a city, but with a languorous small town feel. A brisk walk from one end of downtown to the other, from the traffic circle opposite the golf course to the bridges spanning the river, takes all of fifteen minutes.” , which is also a valid description of almost all human settlements in this small country.
Located close to the South African border, Mbabane is perhaps best viewed as a place to get some business done, such as restocking your expedition for a trip to the rest of Southern Africa, or maybe doing some banking. The only real attraction here is the traditional Swazi craft market and shops.
Unless you have an interest in industry and commerce, Manzini holds no attraction for the tourist, off-road or otherwise. However, it is an important transport hub due to its close proximity to the Sikhuphe International Airport. The only other possible reason to visit Manzini is to explore the trade possibilities offered by the very lively craft markets held twice a week on Thursday and Friday mornings.
Although describing this charming little town as “Olde English” may be a little ambitious, it is never-theless worth a visit, even if only to experience the “olde” English charm of the Foresters Arms, the main hotel there that offers excellent dining on Sundays, when it’s famous Sunday Buffet is on offer.
The reason for the town’s existence is to serve as the administrative centre for the timber industry, which is driven by the Usuthu Forest- among the largest man made forests in the world today.