A Travellerspoint blog

Swaziland

Eswatini (Swaziland)

Route: Nelspruit – Piggs Peak – Ezulwini – Big Bend – Hlane National Park – Hazyview – Johannesburg - London

sunny 25 °C

JUNE/JULY 2019

As our relaxing stay in Nelspruit came to an end it was time for something quite different, a different country in fact. We continued our journey east then south into the small landlocked country of Eswatini (Eswatini is its new name but most people still know it as Swaziland). The border crossing was swift and straightforward, and we were in. This process fulfilled a pledge we made 16 years ago, that we would return to Eswatini (then Swaziland) and explore it further. We were impressed with the country on our first visit in 2003 and were pleased to be back again in 2019.
The initial impression was that Eswatini was poorer than South Africa but this may have been because of the very rural area we first encountered. What was immediately noticeable though was the number of big speed humps on the road, which did their job of keeping the traffic flowing at a more sedate pace (see “Traffic Claiming Swazi Style” below).

Eswatini village centre

Eswatini village centre

Eswatini shops

Eswatini shops

Traditional Housing

Traditional Housing

From the border we drove south through the mountains to the town of Piggs Peak. Piggs Peak is the largest town in the north west region but you would hardly known it, just one main street with all the services and a few residential streets either side. We were staying in a guesthouse on the southern side of town, in a self-catering cottage with views of the mountains from our rear patio, and our two-night stay was to allow us to explore Eswatini’s northwest region.

We had identified two attractions to check out whilst in the area, and our first day found us on the road to Maguga Dam. Our route took us over small mountain passes, past rural communities with people dressed in their Sunday bests and through a vast timber concession. The hills in this part of the country lack the indigenous trees of the region, and in their place stand rows upon rows of Pine and Eucalyptus, something we had begun to notice the previous day as we approached Piggs Peak. Then as we rounded the last bend a vast blue oasis appeared in front of us, Maguga Lake buffered by its dam. The lake has been formed by building 115m high dam on the Komati River, and now provides the water for Eswatini’s sugar cane industry. It also has a small hydroelectric power station that provides power to the local area.
We first stopped a viewpoint to get a good look at the dam and its slipway. The slipway is supposed to be very impressive when water is spilling out of the dam, which it wasn’t on our visit, and happens very seldom according to a local at the information office.

Maguga dam and slipway

Maguga dam and slipway

Komati River after the Maguga dam

Komati River after the Maguga dam

From the viewpoint we crossed the dam and visited Maguga Lodge. The lodge advertised many activities but we were just interested in two, its hiking trail and San rock art. Upon enquiry we discovered the hiking trail was the walk up to the rock art, so two activities in one. As it was now very hot we didn’t mind combining the two and headed off up a steep slope to find the art. Thankfully the return trip was only a couple of kilometres and after initial disappointment we did find the rock art. The drawings were of animals and created using the usual okra soil paint, they were quite faded after several thousand years but still visible.

Spot the Rock Art

Spot the Rock Art

Rock Art

Rock Art

Our activity for the second day in the region was to visit the Phophonyane Falls Nature Reserve. This is a private reserve and accessed via the Phophonyane Lodge. Being a luxury lodge we expected the access road to be good, but this wasn’t the case, a 5km bumpy dirt road needed to be negotiated before we arrived at the lodge.

Access road to Phophoyane Nature reserve

Access road to Phophoyane Nature reserve

With the road negotiated, with the assistance of a local guy we picked up on our way, we were ready to start our hike. And what a beautiful hike it was. Our path took us across rivers, through forests, along mountain slopes, eventually depositing us at our goal the Phophonyane Falls. Well worth that difficult drive to the lodge.

Phophonyane Falls

Phophonyane Falls

Phophonyane Nature Reserve

Phophonyane Nature Reserve

Phophonyane Nature Reserve

Phophonyane Nature Reserve

Phophonyane Falls

Phophonyane Falls

Having got a flavour of the northwest, the following day we left Piggs Peak and headed south to check out some of the attractions of southwest Eswatini. Our base for the next few days was a modern one-bedroom apartment in the Ezulwini Valley. We didn’t know quite what to expect, especially as the address referred to a township, which produced images of those we had seen on the edge of both Johannesburg and Cape Town. But this was nothing like those; our apartment was an annexe to a big house in a posh neighbourhood, shared with other big houses and even an embassy, very comfortable.

Entrance gate to our accommodation in Ezulwini valley

Entrance gate to our accommodation in Ezulwini valley

Our accommodation in a township of the Ezulwini Valley

Our accommodation in a township of the Ezulwini Valley

Ezulwini Valley is the cultural centre of the country and home to the royal family. It offered us the opportunity to investigate the local crafts and to visit some important protected natural environments in the area.
Our first activity was to visit one of those protected areas, the Malolotja Nature Reserve. The Malolotja is an 18,000-hectare mountain wilderness with a number of demanding hikes crisscrossing it. It was one of the less demanding hikes that we selected, but before we could start we had some tough mountain roads to negotiate. Some twenty minutes after leaving the reserve office, and well shaken about by the road, we were ready to start walking. Our goal was to reach one of the many waterfalls in the reserve and we set off down a path marked with a waterfall sign. A steep decent took us into a valley, followed by a steep accent up to a ridge, where we met two other hikers. They confirmed what we had began to fear, the signage was wrong and this trail led to a viewpoint not the waterfall. Undeterred, and following a further decent and accent, we arrived at the viewpoint. From there you could see the waterfall in the distance, but what was more impressive was the great view of the stunning scenery that surrounded us.

Malolotja NP

Malolotja NP

Malolotja NP

Malolotja NP

Bontebok in the Malolotja NP

Bontebok in the Malolotja NP

Already quite tired by this point we weren’t looking forward to the return journey, but being no other option we turned around and trudged back. Two and half hours after leaving the car we were back, exhausted but very pleased with our adventure.

The following day we decided to take it a bit easier and check out the local craft markets. A tour around the area allowed us to see the various Swazi crafts on offer. Particularly interesting was the visit to Swazi Candles, where we could see the candles being made together with the finished article on sale.

Production of swazi candles

Production of swazi candles

Swazi candle shop

Swazi candle shop

Swazi Candles

Swazi Candles



Rested and ready to tackle more strenuous activities, the following day we visited the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Mlilwane is Eswatini’s oldest protected area and is situated not far from the residential area of the Ezulwini Valley. It covers an area of 4,560 hectares and has been set aside to protect the wildlife that was once abundant in the area. The wildlife it protects are generally not a danger to humans, provided you don’t venture into the lakes or rivers where Nile Crocodiles reside, so you can walk in safety throughout the sanctuary.

Nile Crocodile in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

Nile Crocodile in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

Croc Island in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

Croc Island in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

The sanctuary has a number of marked trails, so we choose one not too demanding but encompassed a variety of habitat. However, in the end we encountered more types of habitat then we had planned, due to missing one of the turnings and heading off in the wrong direction. In the end, although we didn’t follow the intended route, we still had a very enjoyable walk and were able to observe a good variety of wildlife. Our day was completed with a short drive in the sanctuary, which gave us the opportunity to see more of the landscape and its wildlife.

Roan Antelope in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

Roan Antelope in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

Our last day in the Ezulwini Valley was another day of art and craft visits. Our first port of call was a vast complex of corrugated iron huts each selling very similar products; carvings, batiks, wood and stonework, jewellery and much more. We would have liked to buy something from each trader, but with over 50 of them, that wasn’t possible. We therefore selected a few and made sure we bought something from each.
Next stop was the Yebo Art Gallery, where local artist are able to display and sell their work. A small unit packed with unusual items, many of which we would have liked to buy, but it was impractical to do so. In the end we couldn’t resist and bought a few small items that would fit our luggage.

Continuing our anti-clockwise tour of Eswatini, we left the Ezulwini Valley and the western timber forests behind and drove east into the sugar cane plantations of the southeast. Our base for the next couple of days was a B&B in the town of Big Bend. Big Bend is named for its location, on a big bend in the Usutu River. It is the largest town in the area and is totally dependant on the Umbombo Sugar Cane industry. Sugar cane plantations surround the town, and the sugar mill is in the middle.

Sugar cane truck

Sugar cane truck

Sugar cane packed in truck

Sugar cane packed in truck

Most people visiting the town are there for business, so we were a novelty being tourists. We were asked; why come to Big Bend there are no tourist attractions? To which we answered, we wanted to visit all of Eswatini and this was the best place to explore the southeast.
At this point on our trip we were no longer self-catering and needed to find somewhere to eat each night, so enquired what were the best places in town. The response was “best places? There is only one, the Umbombo Country Club”. So that is where we went each night. Owned by the Umbombo Sugar Cane Company, as is most of the town, it wasn’t the easiest place to access. You first had to get access to the Umbombo village, via the security gate and then into the Country Club itself, via another security gate. This we negotiated each night without any problem and we were treated to some good food and drink, all at an exceptionally reasonable price. It was never busy, sometimes just us dinning, and we again got the same questions “what are you doing in Big Bend”.

Saturday Night in Big Bend, fine dining in the only restaurant in town

Saturday Night in Big Bend, fine dining in the only restaurant in town

View from our accommodation in Big Bend, on the other side on the mountain is Mozambique

View from our accommodation in Big Bend, on the other side on the mountain is Mozambique

So what did we do in Big Bend? Well, as usual, we had done some research, not enough as it turned out, and had plans for each day.
Day one was a visit to the Nisela Nature Reserve, about 30km south of Big Bend, where we planned to do some hiking. We found it easily and was all set for our hike, when we were informed that no activities could take place in the reserve at the moment as it was hunting season, and would be too dangerous. So with those plans cancelled we just chilled out at the B&B instead, but not before we took a slow drive back, to observe the work going on in the sugar cane fields. Some fields were freshly planted, some were almost ready for cutting, some were being cut and in other fields the stumble was being burnt. We were told that they try to do the cutting in the winter, because a lot of it is still done by hand using a machete, and it is too hot to do in the summer. In fact two workers died of heat exhaustion last summer, when the temperatures regularly got up into the 40C’s.

Road between sugar plantation in the south of Eswatini

Road between sugar plantation in the south of Eswatini

Not deterred by our first disappointment, day two took us further afield to the Jozini Private Game Reserve in the far south east of the country. The Jozini is part of a Transfrontier Reserve with the Pangola in South Africa, and because it is relatively new the northern section is still free of dangerous animals and open to hiking. So our plan for the day was a hike in the north and a game drive in the south. Unfortunately we were unlucky again, this time on two counts. Firstly, two bull elephants had recently made their home in the north stopping all hiking, and secondly, the reserve is only open to overnight visitors not day visitor like ourselves.
This caused a change of plan, and as we had seen a lot of birdlife along the road, we thought we would do a bit of bird watching instead. This activity filled several enjoyable hours, and we also saw very unusual event as well. When I say we, it was actually only Anne, as I was driving.
We were just passing a small community of houses when Anne said, that’s a leopard. The leopard was strolling down the path that led behind the houses and appeared to be a short cut in to the Nisela Nature Reserve, where his or her lunch was waiting (the Nisela is stocked with lots of small antelopes). We stopped the car turned it around, hoping to get a better look but it had gone. When we relayed our story to our host, he confirmed that there had been several leopard and hyena sightings in the area recently, there had even been a couple of elephants in the sugar cane fields (probably having got out of the Jozini).

Glossy Starling

Glossy Starling

Common Bulbul

Common Bulbul

Southern Double Collared Sunbird

Southern Double Collared Sunbird

Our next and last location was in the northeast of the country, in the Hlane Royal National Park (see below). To get from Big Bend to Hlane, our most direct route was along a road under construction, not a long drive but dusty and bumpy. Our accommodation in Hlane was in one of their new Rondavals, very comfortable and in an attractive setting on the edge of Ndlovu Camp.
As there is limited access to the park for self-driving visitors, we decided to explore using the parks’ guided game drives. Our first game drive “a Sunset Drive” spent most of the time in the Rhino section, which gave us very good sighting of White Rhino, some very young, together with a few Elephants and Antelopes.

Mother & Baby White Rhino

Mother & Baby White Rhino

Close up of White Rhino

Close up of White Rhino

Rhinos in the mist

Rhinos in the mist

Rhino sunscreen application (factor 50)

Rhino sunscreen application (factor 50)

But we did have some time in the main section as well, which was great as we got to see one of the two lion prides in the park. This was a very lucky sighting as they had just made a kill close to the boundary fence where we had entered the section. Once having made a kill, Lions will often remain close by while they sleep and digest their food.

Male lion on the move

Male lion on the move

Fully fed and chilling out

Fully fed and chilling out

Sunset in Hlane National Park

Sunset in Hlane National Park

Our second game drive, the following day, was in the early afternoon and this time concentrated on the main section of the park. We first visited the area where we had seen the lion pride the previous day, and our luck was in, they were still there. Provided the kill is big enough, lions don’t need to eat every day. Although we could see some remains in the tall grass we couldn’t tell what they had killed, so we assumed it was a large antelope of some sort.

Post-dinner clean up

Post-dinner clean up

Brothers

Brothers

Lioness in Hlane NP

Lioness in Hlane NP

After spending some time with the lion’s we moved of to see what else we could find. A good variety of wildlife was sighted during the following two hours, with only the newly introduced black rhino eluding us.

Yellow billed hornbill

Yellow billed hornbill

Our stay in Hlane wasn’t all wildlife watching, it was also quite sociable. We got to meet the other travellers who joined us on the game drives, a mixture of Dutch, German, French and Taiwanese. In fact, at times we turned into assistant guides, using our wildlife knowledge to compliment the guides. Anne also translated for the French group, who were struggling with the guide’s accent and hearing him at the back of the Land Cruiser.
We also got chatting to a school party that were on holiday from Abu Dhabi. They were a group of teenagers from a variety of different nations, partly on holiday and partly doing some environmental volunteering. It was very interesting hearing about their life in Abu Dhabi and what they had been up to during their time in southern Africa. They also seemed to be entertained by our travel stories and had many questions for us.

We had now completed our tour of Eswatini and headed back into South Africa for the last week of our trip. Our base this time was a very comfortable one-bedroom chalet in the town of Hazyview. We had chosen the town because of its location, close to the Kruger National Park to the east and the Drakensburg Mountains to the west, so lots of things to keep us busy during our stay.

For our first day, we went into the Drakensberg. Our prime goal was to visit the Graskop gorge, now made easier by the lift that takes you in and out. So it was at the lift that we started, then following a 51-meter descent, with great views out of the glass windows, we arrived on the gorge floor. From here a system of walkways allowed you to explore the otherwise inaccessible pristine environment of the gorge. Information boards kept you informed as you progressed the route, before the circuit brought you back to the lift and the ascent to where you started. This completed a fascinating experience, very well done, and sympathetic to the unique environment.

Graskop Gorge

Graskop Gorge

Graskop Gorge Lift

Graskop Gorge Lift

Graskop gorge lift

Graskop gorge lift

From Gaskop it was only a short drive to visit some of the other natural wonders of the area. “God’s Window”, a cliff top view of the surrounding landscape and the sheer cliffs below as, and the “Pinnacle Rock” a 30-meter high quartzite rock outcrop left isolated by the erosion all around it.

The Pinnacle

The Pinnacle

God's Window

God's Window

Pinnacle Gorge

Pinnacle Gorge

Then it was a quick stop at African Silks for Anne to pick up a couple of her favourite shawls, made locally and sourced from local materials, before heading back to Hazyview.

African Silk workshop

African Silk workshop

We relaxed on the second day, enjoying the chalet and in particular it’s outside space. The chalet had very comfortable outside furniture, shaded from the sun by an awning, and ideal for watching a variety of birdlife going about their business in the garden and field beyond. It was also an ideal place to enjoy a cold Savanna Cider or Gin & Tonic or Whisky & Coke, or try them all during the course of the day.

Black Collared Barbet

Black Collared Barbet

Amethyst Sunbird

Amethyst Sunbird

Common Waxbill

Common Waxbill

White Bellied Sunbird

White Bellied Sunbird

White Fronted Bee-Eater

White Fronted Bee-Eater

The final two days in the area were spent in the Kruger National Park (see “Interesting Facts” below). With the Phabeni Gate only 15 minutes drive from Hazyview, access to the park was easy and convenient. We took lunch with us on both days and our perseverance paid off with some great sighting.

Kruger NP road

Kruger NP road

Lilac Breasted Roller in flight

Lilac Breasted Roller in flight

Lilac breasted roller at rest

Lilac breasted roller at rest

Steenbok

Steenbok

Leopard on the move

Leopard on the move

Leopard in tree

Leopard in tree

Leopard

Leopard

Rhino in charge of the waterhole

Rhino in charge of the waterhole

Hyena pup

Hyena pup

Female Spotted Hyena

Female Spotted Hyena

Bath time for elephants

Bath time for elephants

Water play

Water play

Ground squirrel

Ground squirrel

African Fish Eagles

African Fish Eagles

Giraffe

Giraffe

Cape Buffalo

Cape Buffalo

Impala

Impala

For our last night in Hazyview our hosts invited us for dinner, together with some good friends of theirs. With great food and drink, and lovely company, the evening was a very pleasant way to end our stay in Hazyview.

All that remained of the trip was a drive back to Johannesburg, an overnight and a flight back to the UK the following day.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

The Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)
In 1968 Swaziland gained independence from the UK and in 2018 changed its name to Eswatini, the name by which most of the Swazi’s people know their country. The country is landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, and is one the smallest in Africa. It is only 200km from north to south and 130km east to west, with a population of around 1.3 million. The majority of the population are Swazi and descend from the original inhabitants that formed the kingdom in the 18th century. The official languages are eSwati and English, and it has its own currency. The Swazi lilangeni is pegged to the South African Rand, which is also legal tender in the country.
For such a small country the climate and topography is very diverse, from the cooler mountainous regions of the west to warmer lowland in the east. This provides for a varied flora and fauna, and it is said that there are more bird species in Eswatini than in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
The government is an absolute diarchy, ruled jointly by Ngwenyama ("King") Mswati III and Ndloyukati ("Queen Mother") Ntfombi Tfwala since 1986. The former is the administrative head of state and appoints the country's prime ministers and a number of representatives of both chambers (the Senate and House of Assembly) in the country’s parliament, while the latter is the national head of state, serving as keeper of the rituals of the nation and presiding during the annual Umhlanga rite. The Umhlanga, held in August/September and Incwala (the kingship dance) held in December/January, are the nation's most important events.
Eswatini is a developing country with most of its employment being in agriculture and manufacturing. Although the king has great plans to move this toward a more High-Tec base. However, education and health will need to be addressed before this is possible.

Traffic Claiming Swazi Style
Firstly, when locals refer to Swazi Traffic Lights they are not referring to the red, amber and green lights mounted on a pole. They are referring to the livestock that wonder on almost all roads except the highways. Knowing that you could encounter a cow, pig or goat at any time focuses the mind to keep your speed down, or at least it should.
Secondly, and if the above doesn’t do the trick, there are Swazi Speed Bumps. The same as what we encounter in the rest of the world, a raised semi-circular road surface, but often without any warning of their presence. To be fair, warnings are provided in many instances, either with advance rumple strips or conventional signage, but when they are not you better watch out. Sometimes when the yellow lines have warn off and a tree shades the harsh African sun, they are almost impossible to see. Or when the warning markers don’t follow the normal convention, three wooden posts in the ground opposite the bump, you could be in trouble.
Not matter how hard we concentrated we were still caught out every so often. It was a good job we had hired a robust SUV for the journey.

Cattle on the road

Cattle on the road

Goat by the road

Goat by the road

Donkey crossing

Donkey crossing

Hlane Royal National Park
The Hlane Royal National Park is the largest national park in Eswatine, covering an area of 300 square kilometres, when the adjacent wildlife dispersal areas are included. The name Hlane means wilderness in the local eSwati language. The park is held in trust for the nation by the king, and it is said that he has an active role in its operation. Most of the main park, which accounts for about half of the total area, is not open to the public but where the wildlife roams freely. That is with the exception of some controlled areas. There is a large fenced section for the white rhino, although it does contain other wildlife, which is necessary to safeguard them from poachers. There is another smaller section that is designated for new arrivals. Then there is the main section, which accommodates the rest of the wildlife.

Kruger National Park
The Kruger National Park is one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It covers an area of 19,485 km2 (7,523 sq. mi) in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in northeastern South Africa, and extends 360 km (220 mi) from north to south and 65 km (40 mi) from east to west. It borders Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the east, and incorporates the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. With no border fences to restrict animal movement, the combined protected area is known as the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
It is home to vast herds of antelope and has got a good size population of elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, rhino and many other iconic southern African wildlife. As with all African game reserves it does suffer at the hands of poachers, but has a professional anti-poacher team that manages to limit the damage.

Posted by MAd4travel 07:18 Archived in Swaziland Comments (0)

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