Spend more than a day or two in eSwatini, I soon discovered, and you’ll find that all those Africa-in-a-nutshell clichés ring irresistibly true.Mike Unwin, author of eSwatini: the Bradt guide
You may be able to drive across it in less than three hours but the tiny kingdom of eSwatini packs plenty into its borders. From the misty mountains of the highveld to the wild big-game country of the lowveld, this panoramic land is made for adventure-lovers. And with spectacular ceremonies such as the Umhlanga, and a heritage that spans traditional healers and Stone-Age rock art, culture-seekers will be captivated.
Food and drink in eSwatini
There is no shortage of choice in eSwatini when it comes to filling your belly. Standard Western fare is widely available, courtesy of numerous South African supermarket chains, and served at all hotels and guesthouses. Many large hotels offer themed and international menus. Buffets are common and, for those who like their home comforts with cholesterol, the Full English Breakfast is ubiquitous.
eSwatini’s top restaurants have renowned chefs, imaginative dishes and excellent service. Among the most popular are the Calabash, Foresters Arms, Ramblas and Malandela’s. A cosmopolitan span of restaurants is available in Mbabane, Manzini and the Gables shopping centre, including Thai, Chinese, Italian and Spanish, plus a growing number of trendy little bistros and sandwich bars. A local speciality is Portuguese/Mozambican fare, with numerous restaurants serving excellent seafood fresh from the Indian Ocean, including the famous LM prawns (‘LM’ being Lourenço Marques, the old colonial name for Maputo).
In town, US-style fast-food joints offer burgers, pizzas, fried chicken and the rest. Among the mostly South African chains are some familiar Western names, including the ubiquitous Kentucky Fried Chicken, although Swaziland is one of the few countries as yet uncolonised by McDonald’s (‘Hooray!’ or ‘Boo!’ according to taste). For a cheaper meal out or a bite on the hoof, locals tend to visit any of the many street cafés and snack bars that serve hot meals of the stew/curry with rice/pap variety. A popular variation, inherited from South Africa, is ‘bunny chow’, which consists of a hollow half-loaf filled with hot stew: highly tempting, but with possible spillage disasters for the unwary. Also popular is the ‘dagwood’, a triple-decker toasted sandwich or burger. Like any responsible travel guide, this one must – of course – warn against the health risks of eating street food. Were it less responsible, though, it would recommend the pap with chicken gizzards, and especially the Swazi oxtail, as absolutely delicious.
To eat traditional Swazi food you really need to stay with a Swazi family, visit a homestead or attend a local event or celebration (such as a wedding). A few lodges and backpacker hostels hold regular Swazi food nights. For a classy take on traditional Swazi cuisine, with authentic ingredients and recipes, don’t miss Edladleni, just outside Mbabane.
The cost of eating out is reasonable by overseas standards, although prohibitive for eSwatini’s rural majority. At mid-range restaurants, which include most hotels, you can expect to pay around US$10–15 for a main course, with a steak typically around US$12. The priciest dishes tend to be fresh fish and seafood, with a seafood platter for two typically around US$30. Cheaper options, such as burgers, will set you back around US$6, with toasted sandwiches (which come, like other ‘light meals’, with chips and salad) generally the cheapest option at US$2–3. Starters and desserts are generally around US$3–5. A discretionary tip of around 10% is the norm – although failure to observe this practice, like many imported conventions, does not always trouble locals. Typical restaurant opening hours are 12.00–15.00 and 18.00–22.30.
Braai – for the newcomer to southern Africa – is essentially the Afrikaans term for barbecue and short for braaivleis (‘grilled meat’). The ritual of slapping flesh on a charcoal grill has a powerful grip on local culture, white and black alike. As with barbecues anywhere, you’ll generally find the men setting the world to rights with beer in one hand and tongs in the other, while the women beaver around in the wings, buttering rolls and preparing salads. Cooking and eating al fresco is a big part of African culture generally and eSwatini is no different. Most self-catering accommodation – including campsites – comes complete with metal grills for braais and often a pile of chopped wood to make a good blaze. Favourite meats include boerwors (a long roll of spicy sausage) and steak. Veggies might prefer to keep their distance – although it’s worth remembering that mealies, par-boiled slightly first, do very well on a braai.
Most alcoholic drinks are available in eSwatini, including many wines from South Africa. All towns have a bottle store of some kind, often beside a hotel, and hotel bars tend to attract local drinkers. Beer is mostly lager, with the local Sibebe, brewed by eSwatini Brewers in Matsapha, competing with South African stalwarts such as Lion and Castle. Home-brewed mealie beer, known as tjwala (or, in South Africa, umcombotsi), is sold in cartons. And if you’re going local, you might want to try buganu – a home-brewed liquor made from fermented marula fruits, which appears seasonally in February/March and prompts some epic local boozing.
Non-drinkers will find a range of soft drinks in stores and filling stations, including some exceptionally tooth-rotting local varieties. In rural stores the relatively high price of soft drinks is mitigated by a deposit system – ie: return your empties and get a discount on the next. Supermarkets sell a good selection of delicious South African fruit juices. A popular local drink is a kind of sour milk called emasi, often sweetened with sugar. Tap water is fine to drink across eSwatini, unless you are told otherwise.
Health and safety in eSwatini
First-timers to Africa often worry about tropical diseases, venomous snakes and other hazards popularly associated with the ‘dark continent’. In fact, eSwatini is generally a safe and healthy place in which to travel. Much of the country lies at high enough altitudes to enjoy a temperate climate and none of it is tropical (eSwatini lies south of the Tropic of Capricorn), so many ailments associated with tropical Africa are either rare or absent entirely. Those that do occur are generally confined to the lowveld. A much greater risk than any disease to the average traveller is road accidents, which can be minimised by a few sensible precautions.
Visit your doctor or a specialist travel clinic to discuss your requirements, if possible at least eight weeks before you plan to travel. Check your immunisation status: it is wise to be up to date on tetanus, polio and diphtheria (now given as an all-in-one vaccine, Revaxis, that lasts for ten years) and hepatitis A. Immunisations against rabies may also be recommended for some travellers. Proof of vaccination against yellow fever is needed if you are coming from a yellow-fever endemic area, though a yellow-fever vaccine is not needed for eSwatini alone. Immunisation against cholera is no longer required for eSwatini.
Hepatitis A vaccine (Havrix Monodose or Avaxim) comprises two injections given about a year apart. The course may be available on the NHS. It protects for 25 years and can be administered close to the time of departure. Hepatitis B vaccination should be considered for longer trips (two months or more) or for those working with children or in situations where contact with blood is likely. Three injections are needed for the best protection; for those aged 16 or over, they can be given over a three-week period if time is short. Longer schedules give more sustained protection and have to be used for those under 16. Hepatitis A vaccine can also be given as a combination with hepatitis B as ‘Twinrix’, though two doses are needed at least seven days apart to be effective for the hepatitis A component, and three doses are needed for the hepatitis B. Again this schedule applies to those over 16.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
eSwatini is, by-and-large, a safe country in which to travel. It does not have South Africa’s alarming crime rate, and tourists are seldom targeted. Equally, it does not have South Africa’s history of racial tension, which means that visitors are unlikely to encounter any antagonism on that basis. Indeed, hospitality is a cornerstone of Swazi culture and the average visitor’s experience is overwhelmingly a friendly and relaxed one. The most serious hazards for the independent traveller are on the roads (see opposite).
That said, some South African crime does sometimes creep over the border. This includes occasional ‘car-jacking’ – the hijacking of drivers, often at gunpoint, for the theft of their car. Armed robberies of wealthier urban residences are not uncommon, and inevitably street crime such as pick-pocketing occurs in busy parts of town. Manzini has a worse reputation in this respect than Mbabane.
In general, the basic guidelines for safe travel are the same in eSwatini as anywhere else. Be alert, avoid obviously compromising situations, and don’t play the tourist too conspicuously. It’s common sense, really.
The Foreign Office also advises against giving strangers a ride. Offering a lift, however, is part of life in rural eSwatini and can be an interesting opportunity to meet local people. Common sense and experience will enable you to judge when it is safe to do so: a single driver picking up a group of young men after dark on the edge of town is asking for trouble; a car full of tourists picking up an elderly woman with a heavy load in a rural area is a nice gesture. If in any doubt, of course, don’t do it.
Women travellers are unlikely to encounter any problems when travelling around eSwatini – at least, none that is not already familiar from back home – and sexual harassment is less prevalent than in many Western countries. Traditional Swazi culture is strongly patriarchal, but Swazis are used to female visitors travelling independently. In rural areas, it is best to dress with due sensitivity to local culture by not baring too much flesh. Wearing a wrap or sarong over shorts or a short skirt is a good idea – you are unlikely to encounter overt disapproval for failing to do so but it shows respect. In urban and tourist areas people are more cosmopolitan. Be aware, though, that single women in bars may attract unwelcome attention, especially given the local history of prostitution.
Travelling with children
eSwatini is a great place to take your kids, and local children will enjoy any opportunity to interact with your own. In traditional society, children are expected to be respectful of their elders – which, in rural communities, may extend to not addressing them directly or making eye contact. There are countless exciting things for kids to do. A few, such as whitewater rafting and guided bush walks, have a lower age limit, typically of 12 years, although exceptions can often be made on request. Half-price discounts for children are the norm with many operators. Children are more vulnerable to some health risks, so ensure that you take all medical precautions.
Male homosexuality in eSwatini, as in many African countries, remains a strong social taboo. There are, of course, gay Swazis, but there is no ‘out’ gay culture in the country and thus no gay clubs or meeting places for travellers. By way of illustration, in 2011 the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Magwagwa Gamedze, dismissed a recommendation by a United Nations working group on human rights that eSwatini enact a law to protect gay members of society. ‘It was difficult for government to formulate a policy on homosexuals or enact a law to recognise them,’ said Gamedze. ‘Their numbers do not permit us to start processing a policy.’
Travelling with a disability
eSwatini lags far behind South Africa in promoting travel for people with disabilities, and visitors will not find the same range of facilities that they might expect in developed countries. In town, for instance, you should not expect level-entry public buildings and curb cuts, while few hotels offer adapted rooms and no disability-specialist operators currently run dedicated trips to eSwatini. That said, with advance notice many hotels and tour operators can meet the needs of disabled travellers and will ensure that accommodation, facilities and itineraries are chosen and/or adapted accordingly. Disabled travellers will find friendly and enthusiastic help wherever they go, though they should remember that helpers may not be trained so will need clear instructions.
Travel and visas in eSwatini
All international visitors to eSwatini require a passport valid for at least three months after their intended departure date and with several blank pages remaining on arrival. (As a rule of thumb in Africa, it is a good idea to have at least six months to run on your passport.) Your passport will be stamped on your arrival.
A tourist or business traveller may visit eSwatini for up to 30 days. Nationals of the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, South Africa, British Commonwealth countries and EU countries do not require a visa. You can apply for a further 30-day extension at the Ministry of Home Affairs. You may find it easier, however, simply to slip over the border to South Africa for a day or two; your 30 days will start again on your return. If staying longer than 60 days, you will need to apply for a Temporary Residence Permit (TRP) at the Ministry of Home Affairs.
As of 2012, the only way to reach eSwatini by air is from Johannesburg to Matsapha (aka Manzini) International Airport on Airlink, the sole carrier that flies this route. The much larger Sikuphe International Airport, which is planned to replace Matsapha Airport, is currently under construction but has suffered significant delays since work began in 2003.
Driving into eSwatini couldn’t be easier, provided you have checked the opening hours of whichever border you are heading for. Note that border posts have different names on either side: the main border on the road from Johannesburg, for instance, is known as Oshoek in South Africa and Ngwenya in eSwatini. Drivers approaching eSwatini – especially first-timers in Africa – should take extra care on the final stretch before the border, as it passes through the old KaNgwane ‘homeland’, where orderly farmland gives way abruptly to ramshackle settlements with pot-holes, pedestrians and wandering livestock.
Swazi company Siyeswatini Transmagnific runs a luxury minibus service between Mbabane and Johannesburg, stopping at Witbank, OR International Airport and Sandton. It departs every morning at 08.00, reaching Sandton at 12.45 (return departs Sandton 13.00, arriving Mbabane 17.45). A new twice-daily service both ways is scheduled for introduction by the end of 2012. Fares are from SZL500 one-way and SZL950 return. You will find Transmagnific at the Engen garage opposite Mbabane Plaza, next to Imperial Car Rental.
Most Swazis get around the country by taking a bus or kombi or by walking – often a very long way. Visitors (at least those staying for no more than a couple of weeks) may find it easier to drive.
Traffic in eSwatini drives on the left, as in the UK and the rest of southern Africa. Drivers will need a UK driving licence or an international licence in English. Good, tarred roads link main towns, tourist centres and most borders. The MR3 highway from Ngwenya border to Mbabane and on to Manzini is a good dual-carriageway for most of its length, and well lit at night. Away from towns and main routes you will generally encounter gravel roads (‘gravel’ meaning dirt, rather than the kind of small pebbles that line an English suburban driveway). These are indicated on most maps. Most are in reasonable repair and regularly graded.
Some tourism and travel authorities services advise against using public transport in eSwatini, as they do for many African countries. Their concern is that vehicles are often poorly maintained and overloaded, and this represents an unnecessary risk for visitors, who usually have alternatives. They have a point. Certainly local buses are often very crowded and can be unreliable. Nonetheless, this is how most Swazis travel, and it offers the visitor a chance to get a little deeper under the skin of Swazi life. It’s your call.
eSwatini is well served by its extensive bus network, which connects every main town. There are no government-owned buses but plenty of private operators vying for the main routes. Mbabane and Manzini both have large bus ranks and all other towns have smaller ones. Departures are frequent and follow a fixed timetable, although this is not usually on public display. If in doubt, ask a local. You buy your ticket as you get on board. Seats are padded and journeys reasonably fast, although you should not expect the same standards of comfort, safety and punctuality as you would on equivalent transport in Europe or other more developed nations.
Minibus taxis, locally known as kombis, carry up to 14 people and ply most of the same routes as buses but at a higher speed and for a slightly steeper fare (eg: SZL15 for Mbabane–Manzini). There are no set departure times: a kombi leaves when it is full and then races to its next destination – often at hair-raising speed – to pick up another full load of passengers as soon as possible. Each kombi is licenced to travel only between certain destinations and may not deviate from its route. These destinations are painted on the front and rear of the vehicle.
When to visit eSwatini
Meteorologists describe Swaziland’s climate as ‘temperate subtropical’, but there are significant regional differences. Broadly speaking, the higher you go the cooler and wetter it becomes – so the highveld experiences the heaviest rainfall and lowest temperatures, the lowveld experiences the opposite, and the middleveld strikes a happy medium. Visitors from northern climes may need reminding that this is a southern hemisphere country, so the seasonal pattern is the reverse of what they are used to. Summer lasts from October to April, when conditions are generally warm and humid, with temperatures sometimes touching 40°C in the lowveld. Winter lasts from May to September, when it is dry in the east and in the west can be decidedly cool at night. (Once every 20 years or so it even snows.) Annual rainfall averages 1,000–1,600mm in the highveld but less than 700mm in the lowveld. These rains do not quite conform to the dry season/rainy season pattern of tropical Africa, however, with the picture muddied both by altitude and latitude. In the highveld, rain may fall in any month – though it often takes the form of mist and drizzle, which may last days at a time.
February: Marula Festival
The Marula season begins each year in mid-February and continues until early march, bringing with it a celebration of the harvest of the marula fruit. The Swazis hold an annual Marula Festival celebrated at the Royal Residence of the King at Ebuhleni and Hlane Royal Residence in the Hhohho Region of Swaziland between February and March. Both the King and the Queen Mother are presented with marula beer from each household, in keeping with it being a ‘fruit fit for kings.’ Only afterwards can Swazis drink their home brew.
April: King’s birthday
The 19th April brings nationwide celebrations for King Mswati III’s birthday.
May: MTN BUSHFIRE Arts Festival
MTN BUSHFIRE is Swaziland’s answer to Glastonbury. This annual performing arts festival is one of the biggest and best of its kind in southern Africa, held over a long May weekend at House on Fire, it offers music and theatre, film, workshops and a global food fair.
Imvelo is an annual mountain biking competition held every June at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary sponsored by Nedbank Swaziland and Big Game Parks. It comprises a series of races over different distances, the longest being 64km, and is followed by a party for all cyclists.
August: Umhlanga/Reed Dance
This is Swaziland’s best known cultural event. Running from late August and on into September, this eight-day ceremony sees young girls cut reeds and present them to the Queen Mother (Indlovukazi) – ostensibly to repair the windbreak around her royal residence – and then dance in celebration. Up to 40,000 girls take part, dressed up in brightly coloured attired – making it one of the biggest and most spectacular cultural events in Africa. Taking place over a week, it is largely private; however, its final two days are open to the public. Dates for the event are announced relatively close to the time as the precise timing of the event is determined using ancestral astrology.
October: Simunye Country Fair
This three-day weekend of family fun is held every year at Simunye Country Club and attracts thousands of visitors from around Swaziland and beyond. There are games, rides, children’s entertainers, beer tents, goat races and circus acts. A line-up of bands take the stage and manager Thea Litschka even gives a snake handling demonstration.
This is Swaziland’s most important cultural event. A ceremony that has lasted for hundreds of years, it is one of the last remaining examples of what was previously common practice in many African countries. It has a spiritual power that is largely lost on outsiders, and indeed many of its inner workings remain shrouded in secrecy. Although often translated as ‘first fruits festival’, the tasting of the first of the season’s bounty is only one part of this long rite. Essentially this is about cleansing and renewal, and – above all – celebrating kingship. Although not a tourism event per se, visitors with an interest in Swaziland culture are always welcomed. Respect for total privacy is required on certain special days when the nation gathers for its own focus, without outside interference. Taking place late December or early January, dates for the event are announced relatively close to the time as the precise timing of the event is determined using ancestral astrology.
What to see and do in eSwatini
Ezulwini means ‘place of heaven’, and the valley that bears this name certainly has its share of hedonistic delights. This is where tourism in eSwatini began, and today its attractions include hotels, restaurants, hot springs, casinos, craft markets, art galleries, riding stables, a nature reserve, a golf course and a cultural village. Most visitors pass this way, and those who spend just one night in the kingdom will probably spend it here.
Heading east out of the Ezulwini Valley, the MR103 crosses the Lusushwana River – a tributary of the Great Usutu – and rises up a gentle incline. At the top, a broad avenue on the left leads to the National Museum, Somhlolo Stadium and King Sobhuza II Memorial Park. On the right, beyond the ramshackle cluster of Lobamba village, is the royal kraal at Ludzidzini, ringed by the plains on whichthe nation gathers for the annual Incwala and Umhlanga. This whole area is known as Lobamba and has been playing host to Swaziland’s royalty for over 200 years.
The far northeast of eSwatini is the country’s big-game hotspot. This is where the largest herds and the most large mammals are to be found and, with the exception of Mkhaya, the only place where safari-goers have a realistic prospect of meeting any of the Big Five. The low, flat bushveld terrain, rising to the rugged Lubombos, is just like that of the southeast Kruger Park a little to the north. Indeed, before roads, borders, sugar estates and other impediments, this region was just as wild and teeming with big game as the Kruger is now.
You have a choice of reserves in which to experience this wild Swaziland of yesteryear. Hlane Royal National Park is managed by Big Game Parks and home to abundant wildlife, much of it reintroduced; Mlawula Nature Reserve is an SNTC property, with pristine bush that reaches to the top of the Lubombos, but is more challenging in terms of both game-viewing and accommodation; Mbuluzi Game Reserve is effectively a small slice of Mlawula but, under private management, has easier game-viewing and better facilities; Shewula Mountain Camp is a community project high in the Lubombos, where visitors can combine wild nature with local culture.
The historic Mahamba area lies at the very south of the MR9 and has both eSwatini’s first church and an impressive river gorge. It is also the location of eSwatini’s main southwest road border with South Africa, from where it is a short drive to Piet Retief. Both church and gorge are reached by a dirt road that turns north from the MR9 just short of the border.
Malolotja Nature Reserve is the big green blob that occupies most of the map between Ngwenya and Piggs Peak, to the west of the MR1. It is not only eSwatini’s premier natural attraction but, to those in the know, one of the very best highland reserves in southern Africa. Its 18,000ha of grasslands, peaks and gorges may seem modest by African standards but the reserve offers a genuine wilderness in which hikers can lose themselves for days. Like eSwatini itself, its diminutive size on the map belies the great sense of space you experience once inside.
The reserve dates back to the 1970s, when it was one of the first areas identified by the eSwatini National Trust Commission as worthy of protection. A subsequent petition to the late King Sobhuza II got the royal thumbs-up once the king received assurances from local chiefs that the area had little agricultural potential. Once the reserve was declared, some 63 families living within its borders were re-settled on good farmland outside.
Seen from the MR1, Malolotja appears to be nothing but high rolling hills. But as you enter the reserve and crest the first ridge you will see the land fall away dramatically to the west, where a series of valleys have carved a toast-rack of mountain peaks that stretch away into South Africa. The reserve’s altitudinal span, ranging from the peak of Ngwenya (1,829m) to the floor of the Nkomati Valley (640m), accounts for its variety of habitats, from short grassland on the tops to riverine scrub in the gorges, bushveld in the valleys and Afromontane forest in the deeper clefts.
Few people visit eSwatiniwithout passing through Mbabane, its capital city, and the Ezulwini Valley that lies immediately downhill and to the east. Mbabane itself has few major attractions, although there are some good ones just outside. Indeed, perched on the edge of the escarpment, just a short drive from the South Africa border at Ngwenya, the city feels rather like the threshold of eSwatini: a gateway to greater riches beyond. Tourism begins in earnest, however, once you leave town and descend to the resorts and cultural attractions of the Ezulwini Valley. Meaning ‘heavenly place’, this valley has long been eSwatini’s playground. And with Ezulwini and Mbabane no more than ten minutes apart by road it is perfectly possible to move between the two on a whim. Many residents of Mbabane nip down to Ezulwini for a night out while residents of Ezulwini, conversely, nip up to Mbabane to do their shopping.
Mkhaya Game Reserve
This private reserve is the crowning glory of Big Game Parks and eSwatini’s most exclusive safari retreat. Here you will be escorted around the bush by expert guides in search of big game, then return to your private camp to dine beneath the stars, before drifting off to sleep in your chalet to the noises of the night. The ambience is pure bush, the wildlife in-your-face and your creature comforts fully taken care of.
The reserve comprises around 10,000ha of undulating bush to the north of the Umzimphofu River. Its habitats are chiefly acacia thornveld in the south – mkhaya being the siSwati name for the knobthorn tree (Acacia nigrescens), which flourishes on these lowveld soils – and broadleaved woodland in the north, with magnificent stands of riverine forest along the watercourses, notably in the vicinity of Stone Camp. Big Game Parks acquired the reserve in 1979. The idea then was to protect eSwatini’s last herd of indigenous Nguni cattle but as the reserve expanded so did its ambitions. Today Mkhaya is a sanctuary for endangered species such as black rhino and sable antelope, and home to other large mammals that once roamed eSwatini freely. Most were translocated from elsewhere in eSwatini or South Africa, and have since established self-supporting breeding populations. Security was a priority from the outset and by the late 1980s, when an onslaught of poaching swept eSwatini, the heavily fortified Mkhaya became the last refuge for many of these animals, notably rhinos.
Nsangwini Cave Shelter
Nsangwini preserves eSwatini’s best bushman paintings and is one of the country’s most impressive cultural attractions. The site is a community project and reached from the Maguga Dam Road via a signposted turn-off 7km north of Maguga Dam. From the turn-off, follow a well-maintained dirt road 7.5km to reception, passing along the northern rim of the Nkomati Valley. Opposite the small, secure car park is an information hut with some leaflets, a few snacks and drinks for sale, and a comment book for visitors. This is where you pay your entrance fee (SZL20) and collect your guide. If no guide is in evidence, ring the bell and he or she will quickly appear from a nearby homestead.
The caves were discovered in 1955. Dating the paintings has, however, proved trickier: they could be anything from 400 to 4,000 years old, and were probably created over hundreds of years. Whatever their age, this was the work of the San and pre-dates colonial times. On the rock you will see various animals clearly delineated, including elephant, lion and the only rock-art wildebeest south of the Zambezi. More intriguing are the human figures. Some are clearly hunters, walking in line bearing spears. Others are more bizarre, apparently floating on raised legs and embellished with feathers and, in one case, the head of a mantis. To the right of a vertical fissure in the rock the figures are supernaturally tall.
Sibebe Rock, just north of Mbabane, is one of southern Africa’s most impressive geological features. This immense three-billion-year-old volcanic slab, which rises to a height of 1,488m and covers some 16,500ha, is the world’s largest granite dome. Only Australia’s Uluru pips it to the title of ‘world’s largest rock’. Uluru is actually an eroded sandstone inselberg – in other words, formed of layers of sediment. Sibebe, by contrast, is a batholith: it welled up through the earth’s crust in one great molten bubble before cooling to form a massif of sheer granite.
It is hard to appreciate the scale of Sibebe from below. That’s partly because there is no single spot from which the whole rock is visible; and partly, also, because large areas of it are vegetated, with patches of grassy hillside and forested clefts – like toupees on a balding pate – that break up the bare rock into what appear to be discontinuous outcrops. The best way to see it is, of course, to climb it. There are many routes up and over, some starting from private properties on its lower slopes. Unless you are in the company of locals, however, you are best off following the official route via Sibebe Hiking Trails, a community project that manages the rock. From here, you can follow a well-marked and manageable path to the top – either alone or with a guide. The going is steep in places, but it’s a hike, not a climb, and will take you about an hour to get up.
A word of warning: Sibebe can be dangerous, and serious accidents have happened. The granite slopes are very tempting to the compulsive clamberer – and, with their natural traction, climbing is easier than it might appear – but they are very steep in places, and it is easy to go too far and find yourself in trouble. Always allow enough time for your hike (at least three hours, ideally), keep off the bare rock faces if it is or has just been raining, and consider calling off your trip if you see storm clouds gathering.
For more information, see our guide to eSwatini:
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