Swaziland: Africa on foot up close and personal

By Chris Pritchard

Abseiling was a bit much for Chris Pritchard, but Swaziland had many other exciting - and sometimes sweaty - attractions.

Some of the hiking and climbing on a Swaziland holiday can be hard work - but the views are fantastic. Photo / Thinkstock
Some of the hiking and climbing on a Swaziland holiday can be hard work - but the views are fantastic. Photo / Thinkstock

It's a sweaty business, hiking. My guide points his stick at a steep trail leading to a mountain summit.

"It's a just short hike down the other side - nothing to it, really. But first we have to get to the top."

My legs scream in painful protest, but I decide not to admit failure.

"Let's get on with it then," I say, pretending to be nonchalant.

I've spent a week exploring Swaziland on foot. Some hikes - like this one - have been challenging. Others were - almost literally - a walk in the park. Most are somewhere in between.

At breakfast in the Foresters Arms Hotel - one of Africa's most famous - I share a table with a German couple. They tell me Swaziland's growing fame as an adventure tourism destination made them choose it for their holiday.

They were torn between it and nearby Zambia's Livingstone, at the edge of the Victoria Falls, which is also wooing action travellers.

The German couple decide to split up for the day. He has his heart set on following an expert guide on a caving trip along the 880m subterranean course of an ancient river.

She, admitting to claustrophobia, has signed up for a tour on which zip-lines will zoom her above the treetops of 1800ha Malolotja Nature Reserve's jungle canopy. The reserve's most famous feature, Malolotja Falls, plunges 90m down a forest cliff.

"We split up yesterday, too," she reveals.

"He went whitewater rafting and can't stop telling me about being bounced through the Usutu River's awesome gorges with beautiful countryside on both sides.

"But even though whitewater rafting is Swaziland's most popular adventure tourism experience, I ended up picking something less thrilling and more relaxing, tubing down the Ngwempisi River. I floated downstream in a large rubber ring, through gorges and over rapids - it was a great day."

Swaziland's number-two action option, after whitewater rafting, is abseiling down tall cliffs with a river flowing gently at the bottom.

It seems a long way down so, chickening out, I escape to an enjoyable afternoon of mountain-biking (other available choices include quad-biking, fishing, boating and golf - as well as indoor exercise of the mind and wallet with casino gambling.).

But I happily devote my week to hiking. After all, aficionados say Swazi hiking is Africa's best - and rural locals in low-crime Swaziland couldn't be friendlier.

My least demanding hike involves ambling along trails to see the Phophonyane Falls which plunge 80m in a small nature reserve crossed by level trails.

My most memorable scramble takes me up Sibebe Rock - second only to Australia's Uluru (from which it is geologically different) as the world's biggest exposed rock. Several climbing routes are available, ranging from super steep rock-scrambling to easy. The reward is great African hinterland views. Border officials tell me some of the million-plus visitors arriving annually are turned away because they come without passports, not realising Swaziland is a separate country from South Africa. (New Zealanders don't need visas for either).

Small, mountainous and landlocked, Swaziland is one of Africa's 53 independent nations. Occupying only 17,346sq km, the former British colony is wedged between South Africa and Mozambique and stretches only 200km north to south, struggling to reach 130km at its widest.

The 1.3 million Swazis, cousins of South Africa's Zulus, are ruled by King Mswati III - last of Africa's absolute monarchs, an urbane leader schooled in Britain and with 13 wives.

Tourist-welcoming cultural events are many. Best-known is the annual Reed Dance, in August-early September, at which several thousand traditionally-dressed and bare-breasted young women dance before the king in the hope of being invited to join the royal family.

Swazis call their king the "lion of Swaziland" and his politically powerful mother the "great she elephant".

Swaziland makes a big noise about its small size, turning it into a plus. It has cultural richness and varied wildlife, and impressive infrastructure (good roads and telecommunications). Officials say it has everything except beaches.

Visits are often made as add-ons to South African trips - Johannesburg is only five hours by road from Mbabane, the capital, and 40 minutes by air.

Swaziland's three game reserves have Africa's Big Five, lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes. Not all inhabit each park, but short distances make it practical to visit at least two.

Other animals include hippos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, numerous antelope varieties and multitudinous avian species.

Adventurous tourists are offered on-foot animal encounters - including with rhinos which have been adopted as a symbol of Swaziland. As well as the more common white rhinos, the country has a small population of critically endangered black rhinos.

Time forces me to chooses between the Hlane, Mlilwane and Mkhaya parks, and I select Mkhaya because it's closest to my exit point from the country.

Barely 4m ahead of our 4WD, four enormous rhinos clamber unhurriedly from a pond and lope lazily across the track.

My morning drive through Mkhaya yields sightings of a dozen other rhinos.

"It's a pity you don't have more time," says my guide.

"I could show you so many rhinos here. I think God has blessed us."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: South African Airways operates between New Zealand and Johannesburg, with connections on SA Airlink and Swaziland Airlink to Swaziland's Manzini.

Accommodation: Swaziland's options include game lodges, upscale hotels, mid-market lodgings, low-priced home stays and B&Bs. The best-known hotel is the Foresters Arms.

Further information: See thekingdomof-swaziland.com.

Chris Pritchard was a guest of Swaziland Tourism Authority, South African Airways, SA Airlink and Protea Hotels.

- AAP

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