© Courtesy of eSwatini Tourist Board
Just a stone’s-throw away from the capital, the world’s largest granite dome rock sits atop a panorama of boulders and wild flowers.
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. More of a proper rock, I like to think.
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 (2416 2180; www.swazitrails.co.sz), 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.
Trails radiate in all directions, leading to caves, waterfalls and hidden pockets of indigenous forest.
On top, you will find a wonderland of huge sculpted boulders and gleaming slopes of exfoliating granite. Trails radiate in all directions, leading to caves, waterfalls and hidden pockets of indigenous forest. There is even a large meadow where – amazingly – a small population of wild horses roams the lush grazing. The flora is impressive, with orchids and other wild flowers carpeting the grasslands from October to December, and wild bananas (Strelitzia nicolai) fluttering their tattered, flag-like leaves in the forested clefts. You might also spot highveld birds, such as jackal buzzard, buff-streaked chat, ground woodpecker and – if you’re lucky – even a Verreaux’s eagle or blue swallow. But remember that this is Swazi Nation Land, not a nature reserve. You will also meet wandering cattle and their herdboys, and on the eastern slopes you’ll spy the small homesteads of those who live up here.
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. After rains, the rock glistens silver with countless streams running down its bare face – a magical sight from afar, but slippery and dangerous when you’re up there. It is also a very exposed place to be caught in a lightning storm, which is a regular occurrence on afternoons during the rainy season. 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. Also make sure you take plenty of water and suncream: it gets hot on the exposed slopes.
(Photo: © Mike Unwin)