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eSwatini - Travel and visas
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 (Ministry of Home Affairs & Ministry of Justice Bldg, Mhlambanyatsi Rd, Mbabane; Tel: 2404 2941/5, 2404 5880/1).
Nationals of other countries must apply in advance for a visa from their Swazi embassy or consulate. Visas cannot be obtained on arrival at the Swazi border, regardless of advice published in some quarters.
For onward travel to South Africa the same visa situation prevails, with no visa required for UK, USA, Australia and Canada, South Africa, British Commonwealth countries and EU nationals. For Mozambique, however, nationals of all these countries require a visa. You must obtain this in advance from a Mozambique consulate or embassy. The Mozambique Embassy in eSwatini (Embassy of the People’s Republic of Mozambique, Princess Dr, Mbabane; Tel: 2404 3700) will process a fast-track 24-hour visa application for a fee of 2085 Mozambique meticai (around US$75); simply arrive at 09.00, complete a form, leave your photo and passport and collect your passport with visa at 14.00.
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.
The standard route is around 350km from the airport or city centre to the main Oshoek/Ngwenya border and takes around four hours. Most major car hire companies have a desk at Jo’burg airport (though you will get the cheapest deals by booking online in advance). Jo’burg (O R Tambo) airport lies east of the city, so you are effectively already on the road to eSwatini. Take the R21 south, signed to Boksburg, then head east on the N12, signed to Witbank. This coal-mining town was officially renamed Emalahleni in 2006 but some road signs still refer to Witbank. The N12 (which becomes the N4 at Witbank/Emalahleni) is the main highway to Maputo and the southern Kruger Park, and takes you halfway to eSwatini. Look out for the old mine dumps as you pass through Jo’burg’s outer suburbs.
At Witbank/Emalahleni, 130km east of Jo’burg, the N12 crosses the Olifants River and merges with the N4 from Pretoria. Some 10km later you reach Middleburg Plaza, where you must pay a road toll. Just 1km later is a major service station (Shell UltraCity), which is your first convenient opportunity to refuel and take a break. Its curio shop can prove useful for last-minute gifts on your return journey. If you miss this, you’ll find a Total service station after Middleburg and before your next turning.
After Middleburg, turn right off the N4 onto the R33, signed to Carolina. The next stretch is lined in summer with flowering cosmos and is good for birdlife: I have seen secretary bird, long-crested eagle and, among other waterfowl in the roadside pans, large seasonal flocks of flamingos. In summer this route often experiences terrific electrical storms. After passing through the sleepy little dorp (small town) of Carolina – which has shops and filling stations – turn right on the R33, signed to Amsterdam 100km, then left at the next T-junction onto the N17, from where you are signed to Oshoek (62km). You are now on a straight road to eSwatini, and after passing through large forestry plantations the mountains of Malolotja swing into view on the left. The last 10km or so feels more African, as the road passes through the former KaNgwane. Be careful of stray cows here, especially should you be travelling after dark – which is best avoided. The border is open 07.00–22.00. You are now just 20 minutes from Mbabane on the MR3 highway.
From the north
Visitors arriving from the Kruger Park or Mpumalanga direction can choose between three borders – each of which may also be reached from Johannesburg by continuing along the N4, although this would take much longer than the standard Ngwenya route.
The Jeppes Reef/Matsamo border (08.00–20.00) lies around 40km due south of the Kruger Park’s Malelane Gate on the R570. A pleasant drive takes you through wild hills and extensive fruit orchards. Beware of cattle and pedestrians in the final stretch. From Matsamo, it is a 30-minute drive south to Piggs Peak on the MR1 and another 45 minutes to Mbabane.
Southwest of Matsamo is the Josefsdal/Bulembu border (08.00–16.00), which sits in the mountains at the top of a hairpin climb from Barberton, with spectacular views of Songimvelo Nature Reserve and the old Havelock mine cable car. The road is fully tarred on the South African side but, after passing though Bulembu, degenerates on the Swazi side into a rutted dirt track. This is driveable in a normal vehicle but tricky after rains, and it may take you nearly an hour to cover the 18km to Piggs Peak. The border itself is tiny and closes early. This route is an adventure in itself, but not for those in a hurry.
East of Matsamo is the Mananga border (08.00–18.00), some 75km south of Komatipoort along the R571. This is a convenient route to Swaziland after exiting the Kruger Park Crocodile Bridge gate or leaving Mozambique via the Lebombo border post. It also gets you quickly to eSwatini's Lubombo Conservancy. A sign on the left directs you to the Samora Machel monument, commemorating the spot where in 1986 the Mozambique president died in a plane crash.
From the south and west
Visitors from KwaZulu-Natal can enter eSwatini via the Golela/Lavumisa border (07.00–22.00). Simply follow the N2, the main Durban highway, towards eSwatini and, after crossing the Pongola River, make a right turn for the last 11km to the border. Look out for game, such as reedbuck, as you pass through the Pongola Nature Reserve. Lavumisa is 400km from Durban. From the border it is 60km to Big Bend and 150km to Mbabane.
The N2 continues west around eSwatini's southern border past several more border posts. From Pongola, a right turn takes you to Onverwacht/Salitje (08.00–18.00). Some 90km further west is Piet Retief, a larger town, from where you reach the Mahamba border on the R543 (07.00–22.00). Mahamba is 10km from Nhlangano and 150km from Mbabane. Two minor borders closer to Piet Retief are Bothashoop/Gege (08.00–16.00) and Emahlathini/Sicunusa (08.00–18.00), both of which are closer to Mbabane, via Mankayane.
From Piet Retief the R33 skirts north around eSwatini to Amsterdam, from where it is 18km on the R65 to the Nerston/Sandlane border (08.00–18.00). This is one hour from Mbabane, and passes via the Foresters Arms hotel in Mhlambanyatsi. Between this border and the main one at Oshoek/ Ngwenya, there is also the small Waverley/Lundzi border (07.00– 16.00), which includes a stretch of dirt road on the Swazi side.
eSwatini has two road borders with Mozambique, both in the far northeastern Lubombo Mountains: the Lomahasha/Namaacha border (07.00–22.00) is at the end of the MR3, some 30km north of Simunye; it is on the EN5, the main road to Maputo. The Mhlumeni/Goba border (24hrs) is 30km north of Siteki; a minor road leads from here to join the EN5. If travelling from Mbabane, Manzini or Big Bend, Mhlumeni is the quicker option. Either way, it is no more than 80km to Mozambique’s capital. Mozambique border crossings can be more time-consuming than South African ones and you will need to pay for a certificate of motor insurance. Make sure you have your Mozambique visa.
Swazi company Siyeswatini Transmagnific (2404 9977; 7605 9977; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.goswaziland.co.sz) 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. Flight Connector (+268 7626 9498/268 7713 0948; email@example.com) is a new service offering daily transfers between Swaziland and O R Tambo in comfortable mini-buses. Arranges direct drop-off and pick up at the Bushfire festival.
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. Drive slowly (not above 60km/h), and beware the dust clouds left by other vehicles. For remote tracks in rural areas or some nature reserves, you may need a 4x4 vehicle – or at least one with high clearance. Gravel roads can become treacherous during the rains, with deep ruts and loose surfaces. Beware low-level bridges at this time, when the road may disappear underwater. In general, if heading off the beaten track – especially during the rains – take local advice.
It can’t be overstated that eSwatini has a very high rate of traffic accidents, whether on tar or gravel. So always drive with care and vigilance, wear your seatbelt (which is a legal requirement) and avoid driving at night if at all possible.
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. Typical fares include SZL13 for Mbabane–Manzini and SZL25 for Mbabane–Piggs Peak.
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. To pick up a kombi, either go to a designated stop – usually beside the town bus rank or at a roadside shelter (ask any local) – or flag one down along the route. To do the latter, simply put out your hand and waggle it as though bouncing a ball. If the kombi has space it will pick you up.
Hitchhiking is not recommended in eSwatini, particularly for solo travellers, for the same reasons that it is not generally recommended anywhere – ie: you might draw the short straw and hitch a dodgy ride. Nonetheless, many budget travellers choose to get around in this way, and with regular traffic on most roads they don’t usually have to wait too long. You can expect to pay a small fee towards the cost of the ride; it’s a good idea to establish how much before you get in.