Mdzimba Mountains © Mike Unwin
I’ve grown used to this question over the years. And by way of an answer I’ve perfected my back-of-the-envelope sketch map of South Africa, complete with shield-shaped eSwatini thumbnail in the top right-hand corner.
‘Oh yes, that place in the mountains,’ comes the reply. And patiently I explain that no, eSwatini is the other country; the even smaller one. It’s surrounded by South Africa, yes, but lies a little further north and also shares an eastern border with Mozambique. More blank looks – until I mention the king. ‘Of course!’ they exclaim, as the penny drops. ‘The one with all the wives.’
Ignorance is excusable. After all, this tiny country – the smallest continental nation in the southern hemisphere – is all but engulfed by its enormous neighbours. It also lies close to the cluster of former ‘homelands’ – puppet states created by the South African authorities during the apartheid era – with which it is still often confused. Indeed, it is not unknown for overseas post addressed to eSwatini to end up in Switzerland, unless ‘southern Africa’ is spelt out on the envelope.
For the record, then, eSwatini is not part of South Africa. Neither is it some fictitious Victorian creation from the pen of H Rider Haggard. It is, in fact, a sovereign nation, proudly independent ever since shrugging off the mantle of British Protectorate in 1968.
For the record, then, eSwatini is not part of South Africa. Neither is it some fictitious Victorian creation from the pen of H Rider Haggard. It is, in fact, a sovereign nation, proudly independent ever since shrugging off the mantle of British Protectorate in 1968. It is also Africa’s only absolute monarchy: a fact that explains the spectacular pageantry and royal extravagance for which it is best known, and which has given it a certain sore-thumb political notoriety in a region that has otherwise – nominally, at least – embraced democracy.
Whatever its status, this peculiar little nation offers treats aplenty for the visitor. Most African travel staples are well represented: big game, traditional culture, picture-book panoramas, wild hiking, adventure sports and exquisite handicrafts. They may not all be on the scale of larger destinations, but come conveniently packaged in a space so small that none is more than a couple of hours’ drive from the capital. They also come sprinkled with a beguiling eccentricity that is all eSwatini’s own.
Best of all, perhaps, you can still have the place largely to yourself, because eSwatini remains – at least, in the language of international tourism – mainly a ‘transit destination’. In other words, most visitors are simply passing through en route between The Kruger Park, Zululand, Maputo and other bigger-hitting attractions over the border. In 2011, tourist board statistics confirmed that the average number of nights per visitor was 1.3. And the fact that this book is the first UK-published guidebook devoted exclusively to eSwatini tells its own story about the country’s tourism profile.
At this point I should declare an interest. I lived in eSwatini from 1993 to 1998, working with an educational publisher to help produce textbooks for the nation’s schools. Although the quirks of life in the kingdom at times drove me to distraction, those five years were more than enough for me to develop a deep affection for and allegiance to the place that has since seen me return whenever possible and follow its fortunes avidly.
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. Take the people: my work led me from the ministerial corridors of power to the most rural communities – sometimes literally from prince to pauper in the course of a morning. And the land: eSwatini may be minuscule on the map but it opens up like the Tardis once you enter, revealing massive, muscular landscapes that belie its bijou dimensions. I was constantly amazed by just how far off the beaten track you could wander in a populous place barely one-third bigger than Yorkshire.
Along the way, I learned enough of the language to discover that, when it comes to making friends and breaking barriers, a little in eSwatini goes a long way. And I discovered – mostly by trial and error – something of what it means to be Swazi: how, for example, well-meaning foreigners like me may come and go but the land is always there; how nothing is decided until everyone has had his or her say; how there is no such thing as an accident; and how not to be surprised if your dinner party guests show up three days late and at two in the morning.
The final writing came together during the general euphoria of the London 2012 Olympics. While I was disappointed not to see a Swazi take the podium, it struck me that the country punches far above its weight in terms of breaking records. It has in Sibebe, for instance, the world’s second largest rock; in the mountains of western Malolotja, arguably the world’s oldest rocks; in Ngwenya, the world’s earliest known mine; and in the late King Sobhuza II, the world’s longest reigning monarch (and, with 210 children, surely the most prolific). Not bad, I thought, for a country that ranks only number 187 by size.
Unfortunately, eSwatini has other, more unenviable records. During the late 1990s, the country languished at the bottom of the global heap in terms of life expectancy (31.8 years) and HIV infection (50% of adults in their 20s). Recent years have seen improvements, but a generation of orphans and a depleted workforce have not helped the nation’s ongoing struggle out of poverty. Neither, argue critics, has eSwatini’s undemocratic system of governance, in which the royal elite sometimes seem merely to fiddle while Rome burns.
I do not pass judgement on eSwatini’s politics, however, nor on any other of its anomalies and anachronisms. Few outsiders, I found, can make worthwhile prescriptions in a place that lies so far beyond their own cultural experience. Rather, I have aimed to describe the country, warts and all, in a way that is most helpful to the visitor. Explore for yourself and draw your own conclusions. And, if you can find room in your itinerary for more than just the 1.3 nights, you might enjoy it as much as I did. You might even stay five years.