Road Trip Swaziland

Mbabane Travel Blog

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Swaziland is a small southern African country surrounded on three sides by South Africa. Its eastern border is with Mozambique. Although Swaziland is an independent country, culturally it has a lot in common with certain South African cultural groups like the Siswatis (who are basically Swazis living in SA) and the Zulus, who some would argue have their origins in Swaziland as well. Also like SA it has a huge rate of HIV/AIDS infection.

The only monarchy in southern Africa is found in Swaziland; currently it’s led by King Mswati III and his mother the Indlovukazi or "Great She-Elephant". King Mswati III has 13 wives – a new one is selected each year during the Reed Dance ceremony and added to the group. The Swazi Royal house is situated in Mbabane, which is also the nation’s capital. A king wouldn’t be a king in Africa without a crapload of livestock and the Swazi King is no exception. Everytime I drove past the Royal Residence on the brand-new modern 4-lane highway there were a few cows and goats wandering along beside the road.

I arrived in Mbabane after a six hour drive from Nelspruit, South Africa – which was in itself an adventure! I left Nelspruit in a rented Volkswagon Chico (see above for how it looked at the end of the trip!) around 1pm and headed for the Lebomba border post.

Earlier that day I read on a map hanging the Backpackers that this particular border post closed its doors at 4pm or 16h00 to be precise. I enquired about this before leaving and was informed by Nitto (Backpackers’ employee, guide and boyfriend of my friend Debs) that that was not the case and this border post was in fact open until 8pm or later. So I took his word for it and headed off figuring no matter what I would get there before 4 anyway.

After I was on the road less than an hour when things started to get interesting. There was tons of construction which slowed me down, steep and windy mountain roads which I was expecting – but the best part was that the last 40-50km of the journey was on unpaved roads. Surprise!

Unlike many other countries in the region, South Africa has very good roads and you basically have to be pretty deep in the boondocks to come across one that isn’t paved. When I arrived at this particular section workers were actually in the process of paving, or starting to anyway. I was confused to have so suddenly found myself off the asphalt, and I asked them if I was lost. They thought that was funny.

The road was pretty bumpy in some spots - much more so than in the photo - and my Chico was not exactly built for going off the beaten path. I was worried that any second I was going to lose a tire – or worse. So it was slow going. It was also pretty isolated, as it went through a timber farming area and no villages were to be seen even anywhere. I think I passed a total of three other cars going either way the whole time. The lack of traffic gave me a sneaking suspicion that the border post did close at 4pm after all – since this road ended there.

I rolled up to the border post office at exactly 4:10 to find the gates closed and locked (picture a tiny little building in the middle of the wilderness with nothing else around for miles). So it’s probably not hard to imagine how happy I was to see an SA border guard emerge and unlock the gate. He also confirmed that they did close at 4, and I had better hustle over to the Swazi side before they all went home. He didn’t have to tell me twice.

The Swazi border officials told me a car that passed me on the road told them I was on my way, so they waited for me! I thanked them and apologized profusely for making them stay after work. Then I discovered that I didn’t have enough money to pay the entrance fee. Ooops. They were really nice about this too and just let me in, giving me a map of Swaziland and a look that said, “you’re gonna need this.” I guess my planning for this trip was less than stellar…

The next leg went pretty smoothly until I got to Mbabane, where my luck ran out and I became hopelessly lost trying to find my accommodation – Grifter’s Backpackers. See a lot of Mbabane’s roads have recently been renamed, so when I stopped with my out-of-date directions printed off the internet, no one I asked had ever heard of any of the streets! Eventually I got there, but I was lost for a while. And in retrospect, I should have known better.

After the previous day’s driving adventures (and like 8 total hours driving) I was not excited to start again the next morning. But the handicraft shopping in Swaziland seemed just too good to pass up, and you need a car to get around to the various market spots in a reasonable amount of time. First I set out for Ngwenya Glass Factory, a locally owned and operated enterprise that manufactures hand-blown glass products, although I soon discovered I’d taken a wrong turn. Luckily this was not a “train-smash” and I ended up finding some good stuff at some roadside markets on the way back towards Mbabane. AND I also almost ran over what I’m pretty sure was a Black Mamba as it was crossing the road!

The Black Mamba

Eventually I found Ngwenya Glass Factory which was pretty cool, in my opinion, and definitely worth finding! Ngwenya Glass was started as a Swedish development project intended to benefit the local people by training them in glass-blowing and manufacturing skills which they could then use to earn an income.

And it actually worked – Swedish artisans came down, trained a bunch of people, helped them run the factory for a while and then pulled out leaving the whole thing to the Swazis. The factory has changed hands couple of times since the Swedish left but is now predominantly owned by the workers. They make all kinds of glass items from the usual wine glasses to various African animal figurines. Everything is done on site with recycled glass.

The next day it was back out on the craft trail again but this time in the opposite direction on the highway towards the Ezulwini Valley. I hit a few more roadside markets and Gone Rural, a local women’s cooperative that sells handwoven grass items like bowls, rugs, baskets, etc. Somewhere in that general area is another weaving co-op called Rosecraft, which specializes in wool products. I didn’t make it to the actual factory but did see an“outlet” or two and they had really nice stuff. The road through this part of Swaziland is probably the most “touristy” area I found. It was full of hotels – from backpackers to five star – spas, restaurants and even a golf course. The atmosphere in this area is quite different than in the rest of the country.

Donkeys in the Road

I left Mbabane about 10am on the following morning to begin my drive back to Durban. It took about 3 hours to get to the Swazi-SA border post, Lavumisa – almost going from one corner of the country to another. At Lavumisa one can cross into northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. Overall it was a pretty easy drive; the roads don’t have too many holes, there’s not a lot of traffic, and no where to get lost since there’s basically only one highway. There are a number of villages and small towns that the highway goes through, and instead of stoplights or stop signs to slow cars down – they have speed bumps – sometimes appearing out of no where with no warning whatsoever. BAM! I hate speed bumps.

Swaziland is a nice place to visit especially if you're in the market for African handicrafts. I saw alot of what the Mbabane-Ezulwini area had to offer but there were some other stops up near Piggs Peak that I missed which (according to some of the local PCVs) are great for stuff like jewerly, silver and batiks. But in addition to the shopping the country is attactive as its people are friendly, helpful and easy-going with a real sense of pride in themselves, their culture and history. It’s a good kind of pride though – as opposed to the annoying obnoxious kind that I’ve often encountered among some South Africans or Philadelphia Eagles fans. In addition, it’s easy to get around (minus those pesky name-changing streets) and bit less expensive than South Africa despite the currency being pegged to the Rand.
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photo by: jeffy