Swaziland – the verdict

You know, I’m not going to mince my words on this one.

Never, have I ever visited and left a country with a more “nothingy” view of it than Swaziland. We’ve spent 6 days here – we’ve really, really tried to find an exciting highlight, an “aha” moment of Swazi tourism, but alas… there is just nothing to recommend this place.

Leaving South Africa, we were looking forward to visiting this quirky little monarchy. We had nearly a week to poke around, see the sights, and immerse ourselves in the country’s culture. We couldn’t wait.

Day one, we headed straight to Ezulwini – the “royal valley”. Billed as a beautiful valley between the rolling mountains, favoured by the royal family, and littered with quaint craft markets and artisanal stalls.

Well, even on arrival this seemed a bit hyperbolic. We drove past the “Houses of Parliament” (a tiny white-stone building with no pomp about it at all) on the way into Ezulwini, into the “valley” (a slight dip between some pretty low-level hills). We were less than spellbound.

We had arrived quite late, so after checking in to our hotel (free upgrade!!!!), we went to do a little work in the bar before dinner. Here, a little social surprise awaited us. Among the men in suits and ladies in high-heels, mingled men in traditional local attire – red cloths tied around their bodies, loin cloths visible, and otherwise naked as they were born. Sitting at the bar, sipping their beers, chatting to “plain-clothed” people. I’m still not convinced they weren’t royals.

In the morning, we took advice on what to do at a local tourist information centre. Visit a cultural village for a show, walk to the waterfalls, visit the candle-making and glass blowing workshops, take in the culture of it all… we were told.

Feeling dubious, but nonetheless willing to try anything, we set off around the Malkerns area, to visit some of these little artistic gems. Well, in total it took about an hour.

Underwhelmed, we headed off to visit the cultural village. We arrived at the Swazi village to much hand-shaking from the tour guides, and were promptly showed to our seats for the dance show.

In fairness, this was probably the highlight of Swaziland. We were treated to a 45 minute dance spectacle – and by the end they had managed to drag me up to “learn” Swazi dancing. (Note, it only really entailed stamping my feet a bit, and waving a horn around a bit).

Following an interesting tour of the Swazi village – a polygamous village featuring huts made of branch and grass; we set off to walk to the waterfalls nearby. It took about 5 minutes, and… was no great shakes.

Trying to remain positive, we headed back for dinner, focusing on the nice show and tour we’d had – there must be more things like this to see.

Next day we had planned to move hotel – to a cheaper option. We drove over to the backpackers we had booked, but to our dismay, found a dilapidated old house covered with dog poo courtesy of the three big dogs who attacked us every time we left our room.

We quickly escaped, and drove over to a different backpackers we had spotted on the road. Asking to see the rooms, the friendly owner – albeit slurring his words – showed us the bright and spacious room.

“The bathrooms are just over there,” he pointed to the bushes in the garden (literally), and here is the kitchen, he announced, rounding into another room. In the “kitchen” sat a group of around 10 people smoking bongs, so totally baked they could barely sit up.

“Go check out the best room of all,” he directed, pointing to the living room. We wandered in, to find a 12 foot snow white python slithering around the room freely.

“So, here are your keys,” the owner proffered. “We’ll just go and get our things first,” we replied. Running back to the car, we drove straight back to the original hotel – the extra money was worth the sanity.

On the afternoon we set out to visit the museum, and THE BIG CRAFT MARKET. So big, it was specially marked on the country’s maps. It had to be good, right, and we’d be able to buy souvenirs to take home.

The museum attendant positively leapt to attention, such was her excitement at the prospect of a visitor. There were exhibits on Swazi tradition, culture, regal and colonial history, and natural history, she announced. “It’s an interactive museum with so many features, but actually only this one screen works,” she squeaked, looking embarrassed.

We made our way through the exhibits – one whole wall of which was dedicated to the different types of cows. (Black, black with white spots, brown, brown with white spots… I’m not joking). The history room was in all honesty very good, the rest, farcical.

The big craft market, well, there were roughly 30 stalls, granted. Pushy salesmen and women jostled us into each of their stalls to show off their wares. Which were EXACTLY the same tat sold in tourist markers continent-wide, from Kenya’s Masai markets to Cape Town’s craft sheds. This was supposed to be artisan central!!! I did alight upon a small figurine, an inch-sized little elephant, that I would have liked. The salesman tried to charge me a tenner! “We can bargain,” he grinned. We left.

Oh well, we went back to our hotel, and decided we must just need to go further afield. So we set out planning a trip to the North-West of the country, to visit the world’s oldest mine, lovely walking, and a world-famous glass blowing factory.

Next day, we set out on our day trip, bickering over whether to visit the mine (Tom) or the glass factory (me) first.

We pulled up to the mine gate, to find an unmanned post, and a shabby gate hanging off its hinges. By this point, we weren’t turning back. We drove through the gate, up along the mud path, finally finding the visitor’s centre, where we were looking forward to the guided tour.

Closed, derelict, eery.

So we set off in the derelict mine to fine the so-called “Lion’s Cavern” – the oldest mine in the world, at least 43,000 years old, where the Bushmen first mined. As we walked through the vast overgrown empty mine, the backs of my hands prickled and my heart raced – the place was simply so eery, it felt almost haunted.

We climbed up to the highest point – with beautiful views – and found the cavern (a hole in the rock), before retreating back to the car and getting out of there.

Next was the glass factory, which admittedly piqued our interest. From a viewing gallery we were able to watch the factory full of men and women hand-blowing glass, and making everything from vases, to wine glasses, to intricate little figurines.

Outside, there were a cluster of little stalls, one of them a chocolate workshop, so we went in to look around, coming out with a piece of chocolate covered coconut ice, and pecan dark chocolate which we nibbled in the car on the way home, subdued.

Next day we set out on another adventure – to the Hlane Royal National Park, on the far east of the country, and reputed to be brilliant for game-viewing. We had booked a forest chalet, and stocked up on food supplies for 24 hours in the bush.

On arrival, we were informed tourists were only allowed in certain areas of the park. The lion, rhino, and elephant enclosures were charged at a much higher additional fee. Feeling glum, we proceeded to our chalet, spotting the odd lone deer or kudu.

At the chalet, big signs informed us to beware of the snakes, and gave us the number to call in “snake emergencies”. There was no phone signal. And so we spent the early evening sat outside in the dusk, sipping our warm beer and listening for hissing.

By 7pm the darkness – surrounded by invisible snakes – was so suffocating that we retreated indoors to play cards, and cook up our “rustic” spaghetti, tuna and tomato sauce dinner.

We spent the next morning at our chalet, drinking cups of tea outside, by this point actively looking for snakes. Having spent the whole night quaking, we at least wanted one photo!! But we were evaded, and we started our drive back to our next destination with only one elephant viewing to cheer us up.

Today was a sad day, as we had to give back our dutiful little car – a nippy little Hyundai, which has served us so well since leaving Cape Town.

We’re now on our own, onwards to Mozambique. So I’m spending tonight writing this post, looking back over our week in Swaziland before our departure tomorrow. And I’m genuinely astounded, and feel a little guilty. You see, we spent the whole week here trying really hard to find something local, something special. And it just wasn’t here. I didn’t even know places like this exist – a whole country of small towns with nothing to report. It really makes you think.

See you later Swaziland, ahem… I probably won’t be back.

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