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Swaziland - When and where to visit
Swaziland’s weather can be spectacular. Summer brings violent electrical storms, usually in the late afternoon, when cataclysmic flashes light up the landscape.
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.
Swaziland’s weather can be spectacular. Summer brings violent electrical storms, usually in the late afternoon, when cataclysmic flashes light up the landscape. Indeed, Swaziland has one of the highest incidences of electrical storms in the world and lightning is a very real danger at this time. Powerful summer rainstorms can transform dirt roads to unmanageable torrents in minutes and turn city streets into rivers, with dirt and debris swept down side roads into the centre of town. In the highveld, rain may suddenly turn to hail, battering cars with marble-sized pellets of ice (‘golf ball-sized’ is often claimed, but I have yet to see this). Heavy mists descend like a blanket, posing a serious hazard to road users, and hikers heading off into the hills are best advised to wait for a clear day.
Choosing when to visit Swaziland comes down to personal priorities. This is not one of those African destinations where the seasons force your hand: most roads are perfectly navigable all year round and the wildlife does not all exit the country at certain times. Tourism numbers peak around the Christmas holidays but the place is never congested.
The warmest months are from October to March, when it may become too hot for some people’s comfort in the lowveld but remains bearable in the highveld. Conversely, the coolest are from June to August, when it is chilly at night in the highveld but remains pleasantly mild in the lowveld. In other words, because temperatures vary so widely across the country, you can always go where it is warmer – or cooler – according to taste. The rainy season brings violent electrical storms, generally in the afternoon, and mist often swathes large areas of the highveld. In general, however, Swaziland’s weather can never be forecast with the same certainty as a little further north in Africa, where the rainy and dry seasons are more clearly defined.
Similarly, from a wildlife-watcher’s perspective, there is not the same peak/off-peak seasonal pattern of many safari destinations. The dry season, when vegetation dies back and water sources dwindle, is best for game-viewing in the lowveld. But Swaziland’s parks are small, so the game is never hard to find. The rainy season is best for birds, with everything singing and displaying and, from September to March, all the summer migrants – including such rarities as the blue swallow – joining the residents. The rains also bring out reptiles, frogs and insects, which may or may not be your thing but certainly makes a night in the bush much noisier. Mosquitoes and other biting irritants are more prevalent during the rains but never a serious deterrent. For plant enthusiasts, the highveld floral display peaks in October/November.
Seasonal factors do influence certain activities. Hikers should bear in mind that summer brings sapping midday heat and violent afternoon storms, so it’s a good idea to make an early start to the day. Heavy downpours also have an impact on whitewater rafting and caving, leaving some rivers too swollen to tackle. For photographers, however, there is no doubt that the rainy season brings the best light, with lush foregrounds and dramatic skies. Dry-season bushfires produce a dusty haze that is not conducive to landscape photography.
As for price, your biggest consideration comes down to international flights. These are available to Johannesburg daily, year round, from numerous airlines, but fares shoot up during the European school holidays – particularly Christmas – when availability is also reduced. Onward flights into Swaziland do not present the same problem – and if they do for any reason then you can always drive. Some places in Swaziland raise their rates in peak season but not by a prohibitive margin.
If you are visiting Swaziland on a regional tour, you may also want to consider a few other factors. Game-viewing in the Kruger National Park and KwaZulu-Natal is easiest during the dry season but nonetheless good at all times, with extra birds an additional attraction during the rains. The coast of Zululand and Maputoland becomes too humid for some tastes from November to March. This summer season also brings heavy storms and sometimes flooding to these coastal regions, which tend to peak in February/March.
The final consideration is Swaziland’s key events. The Incwala, for instance, takes place in late December/early January, the Umhlanga in late August/early September and Bushfire in late May. Unless you are hell-bent on making it to one of these, however, you can plan your trip in the sure knowledge that whenever you decide to come it will not be the wrong time. Wildlife, culture, landscapes and adventure are all on the menu all year round. Just adjust your choice of hat accordingly.
The list below is a brief alphabetical selection of 18 good reasons to visit Swaziland, comprising key destinations, events and activities. It is by no means exhaustive: you’ll find plenty of other attractions scattered through the guide section of this book and, quite possibly, discover a few of your own that I have overlooked entirely. Either way, if you manage to tick off just half a dozen of the following, you’re guaranteed a memorable trip.
Phonphonyane Falls Nature Reserve is located north of Piggs Peak © Leksele, Shutterstock
The Ezulwini Valley is Swaziland’s tourist hub. Located between Mbabane and Manzini, and just a ten-minute drive from either, it means ‘Valley of heaven’ and is flanked on both sides by a ridge of rocky hills. Here you’ll find hotels, restaurants, backpacker lodges, handicraft centres, a thermal spa, a golf course, a casino, riding stables and the country’s only cinema. Mantenga, at the eastern end,has a craft centre, waterfall and cultural village. The valley is the most convenient base for a longer stay in Swaziland and, if you have just one day, offers a whistle-stop tour of many key attractions.
(Photo Ezulwini craft market © Mike Unwin)
Hlane Royal National Park
This former royal hunting ground in the northeastern lowveld is Swaziland’s largest protected area and managed by Big Game Parks. Explore the self-guided trails in search of white rhino, elephant, giraffe, zebra and a variety of smaller wildlife – or, to see lions, book a guided game drive with a ranger. Ndlovu Camp offers self-catering accommodation with waterhole viewing; Bhubesi Camp in the north is a secluded bush retreat. Guided walks are available and birdlife is excellent, especially raptors.
Swaziland’s most important cultural festival celebrates kingship and the tasting of the first seasonal fruits. It takes place over six days in late December/early January on a date determined by astrology. Royal regiments march to collect water from the Indian Ocean while boys collect branches to rebuild the royal kraal. The sacred rites take place in royal seclusion, while the public joins in the festivities outside. Impressive.
Halfway between Mbabane and Manzini, Lobamba is Swaziland’s traditional seat of power, located near the queen mother’s residence at Ludzidzini and home to today’s parliament. The refurbished National Museum houses exhibitions on history, culture and natural history, and the nearby King Sobhuza Memorial Park is an interesting tribute to the much revered former monarch.
Mahamba Mission and gorge
This historic site in the far southwest is the country’s oldest church and marks the point where Christianity reached Swaziland. The nearby gorge is impressive, and home to rare birds such as the black eagle and southern bald ibis. A community project offers hiking trails and simple self-catering chalets.
Mandela’s and House on Fire
This charming family farmstead on the road to Malkerns has expanded into a significant tourist complex, with a bed and breakfast, restaurant, internet café and craft centre. Best of all, it has House on Fire, a unique performing arts venue built around a Shakespearian Globe-style theatre that every May hosts Bushfire, a major festival of southern African music and arts.
Malolotja Nature Reserve
Malolotja is Swaziland’s premier nature reserve and one of the top hiking destinations in southern Africa. A mountainous wilderness in the western highveld, its attractions include impressive waterfalls, a dazzling spring flower display and rare wildlife such as the blue swallow and aardwolf. Driving is limited but an excellent trail network allows for short day walks or week-long hikes. There’s also good self-catering accommodation and camping, plus a white-knuckle canopy trail zipline and a prehistoric iron mine – the world’s oldest – at Ngwenya on the southern boundary. Unmissable.
Mantenga Falls and cultural village
Mantenga is at the eastern end of the Ezulwini Valley. The falls are set within a small nature reserve, which is also the location of the Cultural Village – an enthralling living recreation of Swazi traditional life, complete with dance displays. The nearby craft centre sells original curios and handicrafts and has, at Swazi Trails, the country’s best tourist information centre.
Mkhaya Game Reserve
Mkhaya is a private nature reserve in the southeast that offers Swaziland’s most exclusive safari experience. Various big-game species, including elephant, buffalo, giraffe, white rhino and the rare black rhino, have been reintroduced to their former habitat. Guided game drives offer close-up viewing, and this is one of Africa’s best locations for tracking both rhino species on foot. You won’t see big cats, but you’ll hear hyenas and see plenty of smaller game. The charming chalets at Stone Camp have confiding wildlife, excellent birds, a roaring campfire and a genuine bush ambience.
Mlawula Nature Reserve and Mbuluzi Game Reserve
These contiguous parks in the northeast lowveld share the same habitat but are very different in character. Mlawula is a state-funded reserve that protects a rich variety of fauna and flora and extends to the top of the Lubombo Mountains, from where the Indian Ocean is visible. The self-reliant visitor will find genuine wilderness, good hiking and plentiful wildlife, but larger game is scarce and facilities basic. Mbuluzi is smaller but, under private ownership, better maintained, and supports plentiful giraffe, zebra and antelope, plus hippos and crocs on the Mbuluzi River. Visitors enjoy scenic trails and gorgeous accommodation in riverside self-catering lodges. Both reserves have superb birdlife.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
Just off the Ezulwini Valley, this Big Game Parks property is Swaziland’s first nature reserve, and its most popular and accessible. The terrain is not as wild as in the lowveld reserves, and the game is mostly introduced, but the main camp offers a friendly ambience and good accommodation, and is a popular spot for day visitors. Activities include hiking, mountain-biking and horseriding. Reilly’s Rock, now an exclusive lodge, is the former family home of Ted Reilly, father of Swaziland conservation.
Ngwenya Glass Factory and mine
Ngwenya means ‘crocodile’, referring to a large croc-shaped mountain along Swaziland’s western border. The Ngwenya mine, which lies inside Malolotja Nature Reserve, holds the oldest iron-ore workings in the world, dated to 43,000 years ago. The nearby glass factory is an innovative enterprise where you can watch the glass blowers at work, and supports several other handicraft stalls and boutiques.
Nsangwini cave shelter
This community-run project, located in the Nkomati Valley southeast of Piggs Peak, is Swaziland’s finest example of San rock art. A local guide will lead you down the short, steep trail to the Nsanqwini Cave Shelter and explain the history and significance of the ancient figures and animals painted on the granite overhang.
This gem of a reserve just north of Piggs Peak has its lodge and accommodation ingeniously landscaped into the lush, indigenous vegetation. Overlooking the Phophonyane River and Falls, which run through the property, it has a good pool and restaurant, and a well-maintained network of self-guided trails with excellent birdwatching. Discreet and highly original.
Sibebe is the world’s largest granite dome lies just 8km outside Mbabane. Steep trails wind up the bare rock face, leading to a wonderland of cliffs and huge boulders at the top. Superb views, plus wild flowers and rural homesteads. Access is from various points, including a community-run project in Pine Valley. Fabulous, but not one to attempt in a downpour or electrical storm.
Swazi Candles Complex
Some 20 minutes from Mbabane or Manzini along the road to Malkerns, this craft centre is something of a one-stop shop for the souvenir hunter. As well as the candle factory, where you can watch the artists at work, there are stalls and boutiques selling basketware, carvings, mohair products, batiks and many other products. Also an excellent café.
Swaziland’s most colourful cultural festival is a sacred celebration of chastity held over eight days in late August/early September at the royal kraal, Ludzidzini. Thousands of girls march to collect reeds, which they present to the queen mother, and then join two days of dancing, singing and pageantry before the king. Spectacular.
White-water rafting on the Great Usutu
Most popular of Swaziland’s numerous adventure sports is this adrenalin rush along the country’s largest river. Spend a full day or half day in the wild gorges, negotiating rapids, waterfalls and even the odd crocodile. The activity has been developed by Swazi Trails, who have put Swaziland on the map as an adventure destination and offer numerous other ways to scare yourself witless amid the wonders of nature.
Anybody involved in tourism bemoans the fact that many visitors are simply whisked through on transit. The following suggestions start with the premise that you will be spending at least one night in the country, and extend to activities to fill a fortnight or more for those with the time and inclination to marinate themselves more thoroughly in its unique flavours. Needless to say, they are only suggestions; by all means cherry-pick to create an itinerary that works for you. Or do something different entirely. The beauty of Swaziland’s size is that you can change direction or revise your plans on a whim (advance bookings notwithstanding). Wherever you are in the kingdom, you’re never far from where you want to go.
A few considerations. The best viewing times for most wildlife are dawn and dusk, so safari buffs really need to consider staying overnight in a reserve. (Besides, a night around the campfire is the best part of being out in the bush.) The best hikes take a full day or more, and an early morning start will mean you needn’t struggle in the midday heat. Finally, none of the destinations in the following itineraries is more than three hours by road from any other.
Capital Connections: 1–3 days
Base yourself in or around Mbabane. Explore Pine Valley and climb Sibebe Rock. Nip down to the Ezulwini Valley for craft markets, Mantenga Falls and Cultural Village. Visit the glass factory and ancient mine at Ngwenya.
Royal Heartland: 1–3 days
Base yourself in Ezulwini Valley. Visit craft markets, the spa and Mantenga Falls and Cultural Village. Continue to Lobamba for the National Museum and Sobhuza Memorial Park, then Malkerns for Malandela’s and the Swazi Candles complex. Visit Mlilwane for a braai, horseriding and a game walk.
Rural Ramblings: 1–3 days
A back-roads circuit. From Mbabane head north to Piggs Peak, stopping for views at Malolotja and perhaps lunch at Maguga Dam. Head east after Piggs Peak, passing back down into the Nkomati Valley. Continue to Manzini via Mafutseni on a scenic route through some of Swaziland’s most rural communities. Continue through Manzini and overnight in Malkerns, taking in the craft centres and perhaps a performance at House on Fire. Then return to Mbabane along the Tea Road for another scenic slice of rural life and an excellent view of the sacred Mdzimba Mountains and royal parade grounds below.
Heartland plus Highlands: 2–3 days
Spend one night in the Ezulwini Valley or Malkerns, visiting the craft markets, candle factory, House on Fire, Mantenga Falls and Cultural Village, and National Museum at Lobamba. Or stay at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and visit these attractions from there. Then head up to Malolotja via Ngwenya (glass factory and mine). Stay at Malolotja or Hawane, and make a day hike into Malolotja Nature Reserve. Optional horseriding at Hawane or canopy trail at Malolotja.
Southwestern Circuit: 2–3 days
Starting from Mbabane, spend a night at Foresters Arms for horseriding, fishing, food and forest trails. Then head south via Mankayane to Nhlangano. Visit Mahamba to hike the gorge and visit the historic mission. Overnight in Nhlangano or Mahamba community chalets. Return to Manzini via Sidvokodvo along the scenic Grand Valley. Optional visit to Nkonyeni Golf Estate for the restaurant and small game reserve – and golf!
Fed and pampered: 2–3 days
A splurge at Swaziland’s top hotels and restaurants. Spend one night in the Ezulwini Valley at the Royal Swazi Spa complex or Royal Villas. Visit top local restaurants, including the Calabash, Malandela’s or – for a classy take on traditional Swazi fare – Edladleni. Then to Summerfield, beyond Malkerns, for opulent surroundings in botanical gardens and an excellent restaurant. Both areas are good bases for sightseeing and handicrafts; from Summerfield it is a short excursion to Rosecraft for mohair weaving and a sculpture trail in the hills.
Wet and Wild: 2–3 days
Spend one or two nights at Mkhaya Game Reserve, tracking rhinos and elephants in the bush – or, for a cheaper alternative, Hlane. Then transfer to Sidvokodvo for a half- or full-day’s whitewater rafting on the Great Usutu River. Rafting company Swazi Trails can tack other adventure activities onto your itinerary, including caving or quad-biking, time permitting. Expect to get dirty and wet.
Saddle Sore: 2–4 days
For horseriding enthusiasts. Visit Hawane Resort for riding in the highveld or Nyanza Stables for riding in the middleveld. Full-day trails and accommodation available at both. Then move to Mlilwane for one of the two- or three-day trails, riding among wild game and overnighting in a mountain cave or trails camp beside the river. Rides are available for all ability levels. Mountain-biking is also available at Mlilwane and Hawane.
© Mike Unwin
Best of the West: 4–5 days
A full exploration of Swaziland’s scenic western highveld. Starting from Mbabane, head north to Malolotja Nature Reserve and stay in the cabins or campsite. Ideally spend two nights, allowing for one full-day hike plus smaller walks and a canopy trail. Mountain-bikes and horseriding are available at nearby Hawane Resort. Continue north to Maguga Dam for a restaurant meal and views of Nkomati Valley. Optional overnighting at Maguga allows for a sundowner cruise on the lake. Continue north to Piggs Peak, stopping to view Nsangwini rock art. Spend two nights at Phophonyane Falls, enjoying the restaurant, waterfall, pools, trails and abundant birdlife. Phophonyane can arrange optional local excursions, including hiking or mountain-biking. Peak Craft Centre with Coral Stephens’s mohair weaving is a short drive away.
Hiking Highlights: 4–6 days
The best of Swaziland’s hiking, for those who want to stretch their legs on the trail. Start with at least two days at Malolotja, including at least one full-day hike – or overnight hike, with your own camping gear – following the Malolotja River down to the Nkomati River. Continue north and west, via Piggs Peak and Tshaneni, to Mlawula Nature Reserve. Overnight at Siphiso Campsite and hike a selection of day trails, including up into the Lubombos. Return southwest, via Manzini and Luyengo, to Ngwempisi Gorge. Hike day trails from Kopho Lodge. Allow at least two nights for each destination, and take your own food.
Big Game Bonanza: 4–6 days
A tour of the lowveld’s main game reserves, starting in the northeast. Stock up with supplies at Simunye then head to Mlawula and/or Mbuluzi: the former is wilder; the latter has better accommodation and facilities, and easier-to-see game. Then continue to Hlane for game-viewing around Ndlovu Camp, guided rhino walks and drives into the lion enclosure. Head south to Mkhaya for one or more nights at Stone Camp and excellent black rhino tracking, plus white rhino, elephant and other game. Then south again to Nisela Safaris for giraffe and other wildlife in the shadow of the Lubombos. Allow at least one night to get the best from each park you visit.
Birding Highlights: 4–5 days
Starting at Malolotja, explore the short trails for highveld specials, including blue swallows (summer only), and hike to Malolotja Falls for forest birds and the southern bald ibis breeding colony. Continue to Phophonyane Falls for middleveld and forest specials, including Narina trogon. Head east from Piggs Peak on the northern circuit to spend a night at Mlawula or Mbuluzi, looking for raptors and local specials, including the African finfoot. Then head up to Mabuda Farm near Siteki for forest birds and Lubombo specials, including twinspots. Return via the Ezulwini Valley where, if time allows, Mlilwane and Mantenga have plentiful birds around the visitor camps, while the hillier sections offer a chance of black and crowned eagles. Birding is best in the rainy season, from October to March.
Linger in the Lowveld: 7 days plus
A full immersion in the hottest corner of the country. Spend a few nights between Hlane, Mlawula and Mbuluzi for wildlife, hiking and bush nights around the campfire. Continue to Shewula Mountain Camp for traditional Swazi hospitality, rural village life and the most stunning views in the country – right down to the Indian Ocean. Recharge batteries at Simunye Country Club, with swimming pool and an excellent restaurant, then head up to Siteki, where Mabuda Farm offers mountain breezes, homespun hospitality and excellent Lubombo trails.
Full Northern Circuit: 10 days plus
Northwest highlights (Malolotja, Maguga, Nsangwini, Piggs Peak, etc) followed by northeast highlights (Hlane, Mlawula, Mbuluzi, Shewula, etc). Return via Malkerns, Lobamba and Ezulwini Valley for a day or two of crafts, culture and other activities.