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“Where in the world is Swaziland?” said pretty much everyone I know when I rattled it off between Paris and Cape Town on the Round-the-World #9 itinerary.
Sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, the tiny nation of Swaziland has been independent since 1968. Known for its natural beauty and friendly people, I decided no 3-week trip around southern Africa could be complete without at least a brief stopover.
But first, a recap of how I got to Africa’s last remaining monarchy…
When last I left off, I was boarding the world’s largest aircraft, the Airbus 380, in Paris. Now, flying on the A380 is awesome, it’s just a behemoth. Unfortunately, loading and unloading that behemoth takes about twice as long as any other plane. As a result we departed Paris late and a comfortable ninety minute connection in Johannesburg turned into a mad dash through yet another airport.
Luckily, my flight to Manzini, Swaziland was an international connection, meaning I didn’t have to clear customs in Jo’burg. Both times I’d connected here before I’d been headed to Cape Town (a domestic connection) and had to wait in long immigration lines before heading to my gate.
With the A380 unloading passengers from upper and lower levels at the same time, the immigration line was growing fast. I was grateful I didn’t have to join it since I’ve yet to get the connection time in Johannesburg right.
On RTW #1, I gave myself (I thought) plenty of time but the flight from Paris was late and I missed it. Luckily, there are frequent flights to Cape Town so I was able to get a seat on the next one without too much hassle. On RTW #2, I gave myself more time, my flight from Paris was on-time and I ended up with nearly 3 hours to kill at the airport. The moral to this story? Don’t fight Johannesburg, you can’t win.
But back to my mad dash through the airport…I arrived at the international transfer desk just 40 minutes before departure and was worried the flight had closed but they checked me right in and I exhaled and headed for the gate at a more rational pace.
Arrival in Swaziland
After a quick 40-minute flight, I landed in Manzini on a perfect summer day. Since my hotel was about an hour from the airport, I’d decided to rent a car with RentalCars.com for my two-day stay. I figured it would give me more flexibility with my limited sightseeing time and everything I’d read online about Swaziland said the roads were in good condition and driving was fairly painless.
I cleared immigration and customs in a flash and arrived at the Avis rental counter to pick up my wheels. The two young ladies running the counter couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful which is always a nice first impression of a new country. In no time at all I had keys in hand and was ready to hit the roads of Swaziland.
Driving on the opposite side of the road is a bit like riding a bike; even if you haven’t done it in a while it comes back to you pretty quickly. But while I managed to stay on the correct side of the road as I headed toward the highway, I freely admit to spending the first half hour or so awkwardly signaling lane changes with my windshield wipers. I figure at least I got the important stuff right.
After a bit of a struggle to get to the highway (my directions from the Avis agent were a bit loose and there were no signs to speak of), I was finally on my way to the hotel. Once I reached the main highway, driving really was easy – if you could take your eyes off the scenery and focus on the road.
I was surprised by the lush, green landscape. Mountains and rolling hills surrounded me as I made my way north along the winding highway toward the South African border. It was a very pleasant drive and in just under an hour I was making the turnoff along the dirt road leading to Hawane.
The Hawane Resort
In my research for where to stay in Swaziland (it probably won’t come as a shock that there are no Starwood hotels here!), I happened upon the website for the Hawane Resort. Twenty-three “Africa-Disney-esque” thatched-roof chalets and views over the mountains for miles…I was hooked the minute I saw pictures of the place. At $50 a night the price was certainly right and the Trip Advisor reviews were encouraging so I booked it.
And when I arrived it was just as I hoped it would be – a warm welcome at reception and my chalet (#12) was absolutely adorable. It was a bit like staying in a modern version of a Swazi traditional round beehive hut. The chalets are basic for sure, but tastefully decorated and exactly the kind of place you want to stay in a destination like Swaziland.
It was nearly 5pm by the time I got to my room and after spending the past two nights on assorted airplanes I was exhausted. So I decided to head back to reception to get a little sightseeing advice and map out my plan for the next day. They were extremely helpful and with a solid plan in place, I next adjourned to the restaurant for dinner. One glass of wine and a delicious lamb curry later, I was back to my chalet and sound asleep before 8pm.
Sightseeing in Swaziland
So, what happens when you fall asleep at 8pm? You wake up at 4am! And that’s just what I did…wide awake with no hope of sleeping any more. Luckily, the sun started to rise just before 5am so I wandered the resort property for a bit taking sunrise photos. This resort is seriously photogenic.
By 7am I was out of things to do in my room so I headed for breakfast at the restaurant and then hit the road to start my big day of sightseeing. My first stop for the day was the Ngwenya Glass Factory. The only factory of its kind in southern Africa, highly-trained glass blowers use 100% recycled glass to create handmade glassware and artwork. Visitors can watch the process from an upstairs balcony and, of course, there’s a large shop selling anything you can imagine made from glass.
But, though I was definitely interested in the glass factory, their adjacent café (complete with free wifi) was my actual goal for the morning. The internet at Hawane had been down for several days and I had some work I needed to do, Ngwenya was the place the hotel recommended.
After an hour with my laptop, I was caught up and ready to get back on track with the sightseeing. The glass factory was actually very interesting and I watched the hot, sweaty process for a while from the safety of the balcony before finally retreating from the heat and heading into the shop.
My next stop, and where I planned to spend most of my day, was the Ezulwini Valley. Considered Swaziland’s tourism mecca, the scenic valley is home to many of the country’s top tourism sights including a wildlife sanctuary, nature reserves, a museum and a cultural center.
I began at the Mantenga Nature Reserve where I’d been told there was a traditional Swazi dance performance at 11:15am each day. I arrived just in time and it was a terrific show. Dance plays a major role in Swazi culture. The most sacred ritual is the annual Incwala Ceremony where the King gives the people permission to eat the first crops of the new year.
The Umhlanga (Reed) Dance is performed in late August or early September each year by young maidens and is somewhat of a week-long debutante ball for marriageable Swazi women. And the Sibhaca is an energetic dance done by men and boys. The show featured a little of each traditional dance and was quite entertaining.
After the dance show, guests were invited to do a guided tour of the nearby Swazi village. While most have moved into western-style housing in the main cities, many rural Swazis still live in these traditional umuti (homesteads). As we wandered between the beehive huts thatched with dry grass and surrounded by reed fences, our guide explained the difference between sleeping huts and cooking huts and where men slept versus women and children. I was fascinated by the social complexity of such a seemingly simple lifestyle.
The final stop in the Mantenga area involved a hike up to Mantenga Falls. At this point in my day, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Moses and Tipsy, a South African couple from Kimberley on their first visit to Swaziland. They were accompanied by a gentleman from their hotel who had offered to serve as their guide for the day (that’s Swaziland for you, anyone’s happy to hop in the car and show you around for an afternoon).
The road up to the falls was drivable but only with a 4-wheel drive. I didn’t have one, but Moses and Tipsy did and they graciously offered me their 4th seat saving me a long, hot walk up to the falls. We spent some time taking pictures of the gorgeous dual waterfalls and then they drove me back to my car.
On my way out of the gate of the cultural center, the guard flagged me down and asked if I would mind giving his wife and child (who were sitting nearby in the shade) a ride to the shopping center down the road since I would be passing by it on my way to the highway. I said, sure! (What else do you say?) So they climbed in the back seat and off we went down the road. The little girl (probably 9 or 10 years old) seemed mesmerized by me and kept a solid stare going while I chatted up her mother. A few miles later I pulled over in front of the shopping center and they hopped out and said goodbye with an appreciative wave (little girl still staring).
I can’t imagine picking up strangers in any other country I’ve been to but in Swaziland it just seemed perfectly normal. Of course, we were talking about a woman and child – I’m sure I would have declined if a couple of strange men wanted to hop in the back seat.
Into every hut, a little rain must fall…
After a full day of oppressive summer heat, I was ready to take a break for a late lunch so I headed back to the glass factory’s café to check e-mail again while I ate. As I finished my lunch, a major thunderstorm moved in and the skies filled with lightning and torrential rain. Luckily the resort wasn’t too far away and the dirt road leading to it was still navigable by my little compact car.
When I got back to my chalet (soaking wet), I discovered the power was out. Not a huge surprise considering the severity of the electrical storm still happening outside. What was a surprise was the tiny waterfall happening over my bed. Apparently the thatched roof wasn’t entirely waterproof in these conditions. Surprising, because it had rained the night before and I’m sure I would have noticed if water had been dripping on me in the middle of the night.
With no power and a wet bed, there wasn’t much I could do in my room so I threw my jacket over my head and made a break for the restaurant where I knew I’d find a few members of the staff. They explained that if the power didn’t come back on before dark they would start the generator (problem #1 solved) and were very alarmed to hear about the new indoor shower in Chalet #12. But, it was easily remedied with a seamless move just across the babbling brook to Chalet #9 (problem #2 solved), after which I called it an early night since I had to make the drive back to the airport in the morning.
The next day I made it back to the airport in plenty of time for my 11am flight (despite less than adequate signage off the airport exit) and was virtually alone in the tiny terminal waiting for the only flight of the morning. While I waited, I was approached by a woman with a clipboard from the Swaziland Tourism office who asked if I would be willing to answer a few survey questions about my stay in the country.
I said, yes, of course and after a few routine questions about where I stayed, what I visited, what I liked and didn’t like, she closed with, “What made you want to visit Swaziland, how did you hear about us?” To which I replied simply, “I saw it on the map.” I think I stumped her because she laughed and said, “Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever gotten that response!” But it just goes to show that sometimes throwing a dart at a map on the wall is just as good a way to choose a travel destination as any other. You never know what you might find.