eSwatini is an absolute monarchy, although the king does rule in conjunction with his mother (known as the Queen-mother) and parliament. It’s a highly polarised society, with some extremely poor housing and enclosed affluent areas and shopping malls.
Swaziland officially changed its country name from The Kingdom of Swaziland to The Kingdom of eSwatini in April 2018. The change was announced at the 50/50 celebrations (50 years since independence and the King’s 50th birthday). The new name derives from Mswati II, the 19th-century king under whose rule Swazi territory was expanded and unified. It means “place of the Swazi people” and is intended to remove the country further from the British (who named it Swaziland) and distinguish the country more clearly from Switzerland.
Advice given is that crime levels are low, but street crimes and burglaries do occur, sometimes involving violence. There have been numerous incidences of car hijackings on major routes from South Africa and Mozambique. Vehicles have been taken at gunpoint. Avoid walking in the downtown areas of Mbabane and Manzini after dark and do not travel around in remote rural areas unless in a group. There is often an increase in criminal activity during the festive season.
I didn't encounter any problems.
I’m not actually heading to the place where I booked today, as the king woke up on his fiftieth birthday in April and decided to rename Swaziland to eSwatini. This came as a complete surprise to most of the population, who aren’t very happy about the associated bill. So, eSwatini here I come, from Zambia via Jo’burg.
I’m met by my driver, Thulani, who isn’t sure where I’m staying in eSwatini. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings. I know I’m booked into three national park camps and I’m hoping they’re not too basic. We arrive at Hlane Park, driving through a great deal of gated fencing and it’s already dark. I’ve been allocated a little hut in a compound; it’s a big site with camping and cottages and there’s no electricity. It’s lit with paraffin lamps, which is romantic as long as you don’t want to find anything.
Thulani is supposed to be showing me to my room, but he can't find it and instead he's dancing around in the gloom declaiming, ’The numbers are confusing me’. I eventually work out which one I’m in and fumble my way in. The contents of my bag go flying as I try and unpack using only the sense of touch. It’s not easy. I’m told to report for a sunrise safari at 5.15 a.m. I double check that. Aaaaargh. Then I reconnoitre my route to the morning meeting place, navigating by following an arc of lamps from a parking lot.
Except that when I venture out at 5 a.m the lights have all been extinguished. I know which way to set off, but I’ve soon gone astray. All I can see is shadowy bush and a group of impala leaping away in front of me. I retrace my steps and realise I’m utterly lost. Time to panic. I eventually stumble across a cottage and knock up the poor inhabitants. They are very understanding South Africans who get dressed and escort me, a little fretful, to the correct place.
The safari park is really just a giant zoo, huge barbed wire enclosed areas of forest and veldt. But the trip passes off well and the resident pride of lions, once discovered, thoughtfully group themselves right in front of our land-cruiser, yawning, growling, licking each other, sharpening their claws on tree trunks and leaping at the odd vulture who ventures towards their recent kill, hidden in the bushes. No spotlights necessary. This is proper elephant country, flat bush interspersed with dead tree trunks and odd thickets where the antelope, giraffe and zebra lurk.
The white rhino (making up the Big Five on this trip - I've come from Zambia) are kept in a separate enclosure, so that they can be better guarded. I’m not sure about this logic. Surely keeping them with lions is a bigger deterrent? Though this way we can be charged separately for seeing them.
Rhino tracking involves driving to a spot where you can see the huge mammals, getting out of the truck and following the guide (very cautiously) upwind of them. They have poor eye sight, but good hearing and an acute sense of smell. Five females are dozing under a tree, lumbering suspiciously to their feet as we approach, then quickly slipping back into lethargy when they deem us harmless. Senzo, the guide has a wooden swizzle stick ready to distract them if they become alarmed. He says their sight is so bad they need clear diversions and the best thing to do is bang a tree if they seem agitated. I’m glad he doesn’t have to.
Then a transfer to another eSwatini park, Mkhaya and more cottages lit with paraffin lamps. I have to concede that this one is actually very romantic, though still very impractical. The cottage has half open stone walls, so I’m actually sleeping in the bush. There are monkeys screaming in the forest and I’ve been warned to hide all my valuables, as they stage raids on the dwellings. The rhino and big game is kept out by an electric fence, but there are antelope wandering just outside my room. The pretty little nyala look as if someone has painted their flanks with runny icing sugar. And I shall be checking my bed for snakes and other undesirables before I get in.
I’ve been spoilt for game in Zambia I feel. Here I’ve seen wildebeest (making up the Ugly Five on this trip), warthog, zebra, kudu and giraffe, but the Swazi varieties are skittish, bolting off as our vehicle approaches. The hippo, however, are curious and swim towards us, heads swivelling as we pass, but they still maintain a careful distance. I’ve also seen plenty more white rhino. This park is one of the few places in the world where they also have the hugely endangered black rhino, (we're told) but these are rarely seen, as they feed from the trees and hide in the thickets.
It’s an open air dinner, with candles round a log fire. Definitely romantic. Fortunately, I can read from the Kindle app on my phone when it’s dark. This is helpful when it comes to the ensuing ‘cultural performance’. I’m stoic for half an hour, but sidle away, when the audience participation commences.
We don’t drive out till 6.15 a.m. this morning, so a real luxury of a lie in. There’s little to see except more rhinos, though I’m enjoying the landscape. The flat-topped acacias and pineapple crested aloes are uniquely gorgeous, the red African sun peeping through them.
A walking safari is scheduled after breakfast; I brace myself for the usual lengthy explanations about vegetation, as we manoeuvre along the paths with trepidation. Most of the plants here have wicked thorns, in order to survive in the vicinity of so much wildlife. And, as anticipated, the guide explains about the amazing medicinal properties of each plant. But there’s also plenty of dung of different varieties, and it’s fresh. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the giraffe and zebra are much more amenable when we’re on foot and we spend a delightful hour hob-nobbing with more than a dozen of the ungulates.
The zebra are hangers-on, says our guide, as they can’t see very well, so they wait for the giraffes to signal if they spy trouble. There’s also another group of white rhino, with two cute babies. The young males entertain the infants with a game of horn bashing, before they collapse for a nap. The white rhino seem more habituated to humans than the other animals here. I wonder if it would be safer for them if they were not.
Another transfer, another dusk arrival. This time I’m at Mlilwane Camp, the original Swazi game reserve. My home for the next two nights is a traditional spherical ‘beehive hut’, in a village circle, with - hurrah - electricity. Except it has no windows at all, which is a little odd, so I still can’t see much. I’ve just sent the curtain on a pole, that divides my bathroom from the main room, flying. The pole supports are well beyond my reach. I knew the cool box Thulani gave me would come in handy for something. You also have to stoop right down to enter, as it has an exceptionally low arched doorway, which has to be modelled on a hobbit-hole.
The setting here is stunning-rich red soil, misty mountains and antelope (very tame indeed here) grazing on jade green pasture in the foreground. The lofty pillar aloes are bearing sunny yellow flowers, beloved of sunny yellow birds. Today, I’m off on a tour to learn something about the country.
Guide, Sifosi, outlines the programme, which includes an overview of the kings and queen of eSwatini's palaces (we’re not allowed close up) and parliament at Lobamba, other government buildings at Mbabane, a cultural village, a cultural show and a waterfall. It ends in a glass factory, so I can do some shopping. ‘It’s all entirely flexible’, he finishes.
‘I’m not keen on shopping’, I begin, but he decrees that we’re going anyway, so I don’t bother to suggest excluding the cultural show too, or dare to inquire what his definition of flexible is.
The cultural show is almost exactly the same as the last one, except that I can see it better, because it’s daytime. And the cultural village is almost exactly the same as the one I’m actually staying in, except that the doors are even lower, to keep animals and other enemies out. It's said to be 'a replica mid-19th Century Swazi village, constructed using authentic materials and techniques. set against the scenic backdrop of Nyonyane mountain', The commentary is amusing, if highly chauvinistic. Women on the left, men on the right. And the scenery is very nice.
Further along the Lushushwane River is Mantenga Falls, as promised, Swaziland’s largest waterfall by volume. The river tumbles through a series of glassy pools.
The food in eSwatini varies in quality, but is always plentiful. Most of the game parks serve buffet style- tasty impala stew, bean and pumpkin casserole, chops etc. There’s usually coleslaw or salad, most commonly with beets. Sadly for my figure, my favourite treat is the sweetish mealie (corn) bread.
It’s raining today and very chilly here in the high veldt. It’s a damp trudge through the squelching mud to the fry up buffet breakfast and the open dining area is dark and draughty. This is why I usually try and avoid anything that smacks of camping. I take my bowl of fruit and yogurt out to the camp fire, which has been protected by a sheet of corrugated metal, but it has been commandeered by two warthogs, who appear to be roasting themselves. I have planned a pleasant walk amongst all the friendly antelopes; this is now a non-starter. I’m not being picked up for my flight back to Jo’burg and onto Reunion until 11 a.m., so I’m marooned in my hut. I retire to bed and blankets.
It’s been a very long day. I’m flying from Brazzaville in Congo to Lusaka. As the crow flies, Zambia is to the south east, but that’s not how it works. I have to travel north east to Nairobi and change planes and then fly southwest to Lusaka, covering over twice the distance a crow would. What’s more I have to stop en route at Kinshasa. At ten minutes this is surely one of the shortest international flights ever and the subject of sheer terror, in case they make me get off the plane and won’t let me back on again. We also stop at Harare on the second leg and Harare isn’t exactly on a straight line from Nairobi to Lusaka either.
When the captain announces over the intercom, ’We’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands’, it doesn’t do much for your nerves. Fortunately, it isn’t too bad. A light aircraft landing at Lusaka has burst a tyre and blocked the runway. It looks as if we might have to divert, but after a few circuits of the city, while they tow it away and repair the tarmac, we land safely and I’m in the land of malls and fast food.
It’s now 1.15 a.m. so it’s technically tomorrow anyway. My visa on entry goes smoothly. I have U.S. dollars. The driver who picks me up insists on waiting for a passenger who subsequently turns out to be fictitious. I wait in the bus, with a Zimbabwean who used to be a BBC engineer. He’s playing modern hymns full blast on his phone, ‘so that I can hear it too’. It seems churlish to point out that I’m not really in the mood. And it’s 3.30 in the morning before I get to bed.
Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 60 percent of people living below the poverty line - 83 percent of people in rural areas. The economy fluctuates, depending on the world price of copper. Nevertheless, in 2010, the World Bank named Zambia one of the world’s fastest economically reformed countries. After a downturn, the price of copper has started to rise again and tourism has been developed, especially at Victoria Falls, on the border with Zimbabwe and the game parks.
Reading tells me that Zambians are exceptionally friendly, and this is definitely true. Everyone has a greeting or offers help (though there’s also some begging). There are rules about who speaks first and, French style, you mustn’t initiate a conversation before exchanging a greeting. Apparently it’s also fine to call on Zambians unannounced. Though I assume that only applies to friends and relations. It’s generally considered a safe country to visit but there are the usual warnings about taking care after dark and especially out of town.
The two main draws are:
The population of Zambia is concentrated mainly around the capital Lusaka, in the south. The city is another urban sprawl and reading isn’t throwing up any must-sees. There’s a definite western influence apparent. My hotel is surrounded by shopping malls –it looks as if they’re still building most of them – and this seems to be where life in the city is centred. I’ve been for a wander round. It’s all very sixties, even though it’s new and the large Spar supermarket products are displayed along American lines – robust and well organised rather than elegant. It certainly isn’t cheap for such a poor country.
I've travelled from Zimbabwe to South Africa in a truck on one of the great classic overland routes: Victoria Falls to Cape Town, through Botswana and Namibia in a truck. There are 12 passengers. We have crossed the border from Namibia at the Orange River, singing Jonny Clegg’s’ Great Heart’ as we go. The river was named in honour of the Dutch ruling family, the House of Orange, by the Dutch explorer Robert Jacob Gordon. And here, we have a canoeing expedition. The others get kitted up and splash frenetically. I plead a bad back and am excused active duty. I am paddled along serenely, like the Queen of Sheba. The sunsets here are as blood red as the Namibian dunes.
So, here I am finally back in South Africa, after a brief trip to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the first time I visited Zimbabwe. My next night is spent at Olifants River Valley, after a long day on the road, in the mountains of Western Cape. The Olifant (elephant) is a tributary of the (great, grey, green greasy) Limpopo River. It's gentle and green and very relaxing. This is where all those oranges and lemons come from. And of course, one area is named Citrusdal. There're also honey, rooibos tea and wineries.
Wonderful Cape Town, tourist mecca, one of the three capital cities of South Africa. This is the seat of the Parliament of South Africa, the legislative capital of the country, the oldest city in the country, and the second largest (after Johannesburg). It's known as the Mother City.
Glorious weather, fantastic restaurants and bars, (ostrich, thick tenderloin steaks, sea food and so on) very cheap, laid back, amazing beaches, mountains, vineyards; it’s one of the great cosmopolitan cities. The must see is the iconic giant mesa that is Table Mountain, although you can’t really miss it, as it provides the backdrop, protecting the Mother City. It's one of the oldest mountains in the world. Strangely, photos don’t do it justice.
Before the truckies depart, we take the cable cars to the mountain’s flat top, for 360 degree views of the city, the numerous gorgeous beaches, the busy harbour and Robben Island, the infamous prison that once held Nelson Mandela. There's a Lion's Head formation, to one side and then, to the other, the range of ravines, peaks and gorges that is dubbed the Twelve Apostles. (There are, arguably,18 peaks). These create the stunning backdrop to the city. There is an option to abseil down, but I think not. Instead, we take the spectacular road through the mountains from Chapman's Peak to Hout Bay.
As if the magic city itself isn’t enough, the Cape Peninsula offers a host of attractions. Past the brightly painted facades bathing boxes of Fish Hoek, south to the Cape of Good Hope, which sadly, is not the southernmost tip of Africa after all. Antelope are grazing peacefully on the slopes here. Rock hyrax scamper away. The black and white Boulders Beach, on closer inspection is white sand, jam-packed with penguins waddling and turning somersaults in the water.
Rugged terrain takes us on to Cape Point. but that's not the African extremity either. That honour belongs to Cape Agulhas, approximately 93 miles east-southeast.
The truckies leave, but I’m not yet alone. I have a great little hotel on the beach at Bantry Bay and a hire car. I eat kingfish and chips by the waterfront (lots of upmarket hotels, boats, of course and other tourist attractions), along with the seals and a Pretorian called Johannes. And I still have other companions lined up. A South African friend has put me in touch with Ann Gail and Chris.
Ann Gail has a delightfully old fashioned town house and three cats, Sebastian, Sobranie and Tai-Lu, each with their own feeding bowl and scratching post. She takes me to Christmas lunch at the iconic pink Mount Nelson Hotel, nestling at the bottom of Table Mountain. Then, Newlands (the cricket grounds), concerts, theatre, the IMAX (suitably, the Lion King) and a New Year’s Eve concert in the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I wind a few South Africans up talking about rugby, but duck if they mention cricket.
Chris, originally South African and visiting his family for Christmas provides holiday romance. We spend two weeks around the city sampling its Afro-chic delights and its numerous beautiful beaches, Bikini , Camps Bay, Fourth, Clifton, Llandudno, Melkbosstrand, Mnandi and Muizenberg, before driving out for a few days at at Hermanus. This is the African whale-watching location and whale themes abound through to museums and huge skeletons. It’s not whale season, but I am lucky enough to catch a mother and calf motor past. The sea is stunningly azure, and inviting, but it's deceptive, the Atlantic currents are numbingly cold,
Romance number one fairly predictably bites the dust, as it transpires that Chris has been entertaining ‘an old friend from England’ in-between seeing me, and forgetting to tell me about her. ‘But it was a prior engagement , of course I felt obliged to sleep with her’.
To the east, it’s an easy journey to the picturesque Winelands destinations, such as Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek. Stellenbosch and Paarl are the two oldest large settlements in South Africa after Cape Town. Picture perfect Cape Dutch architecture: green shuttered colonial mansions, whitewashed houses, tiny turrets and cottage gardens. Huge agapanthus flowers contrasting wonderfully. Plenty of boutiques and cafes too.
Ann Gail works in Paarl and provides a tour of the very modern and efficient, steel drummed wine estate. And Franschoek, which was settled by French Huguenot refugees who of course brought their French experience in viticulture. Franschoek is Dutch for 'French Corner'.
Some of the estates provide gorgeous up market accommodation and restaurants. They abound at Franschoek, where I spend one expensive, but very pampered night.
I’m aware I’m beginning to sound like a travel advert - it’s all so gorgeous (except for the romance), but the townships sprawling each side of the main highway are a sobering counterpoint. I’ve been warned to watch out for objects being thrown from the bridges. In fact I’ve been told by numerous people that I’m mad to even contemplate travelling round South Africa on my own.
South Africa is the third-largest economy in Africa and the most industrialized, technologically advanced economy in Africa overall. Since the end of apartheid, government accountability and quality of life have substantially improved. The country is rich in minerals. But poverty and inequality remain widespread, with about a quarter of the population unemployed and living on an inadequate wage. Crime rates and especially, violent crime are high. There have been countless media stories in the UK about tourists here being attacked and robbed, or worse.
I've been driving around in a hire car, with no problems so far, except the very steep hills and a very small engine. And now I'm departing gorgeous Cape Town for Lesotho.
My journey back to South Africa from Lesotho is far too eventful. The starter batteries on the much-too-little-prop-plane are refusing to comply. The pilot eventually announces that he will start the left one manually. This all sounds much too alarming to me, but we make it to Jo’ burg, though very late. There is a stroke inducing transfer to my next plane and I get bundled into business class (not all bad) and arrive in Durban to find that whilst I’ve made it on time my luggage hasn’t.
So, another late start in a hired VW. Maybe I am mad, driving in South Africa, on my own. It’s raining (again), and I’m fumbling with the map, along the Durban Highway and into the mountain wilderness of Zululand. Twelve kilometres down a dirt road hill composed almost entirely of one foot deep mud. Over a rumble strip and the radio jolts. It’s dead. And the right windscreen wiper is stuck in the middle of screen. Why the right one? Dusk fades into dark, and the cell phone signal disappears too. There is nothing moving in the African bush. Am I glad or not? Finally, slithering downhill to discover my isolated lodge. Survive! Luggage arrives. All’s well.
A thirty five year old American bond broker, pleasant face, six two (not bad then), girlfriend (um), Brian shares wine and jokes. Would I like to tour the battle fields with him tomorrow? It’ll save me driving.
Close by is Isandlwana, where the British were heavily defeated by the Zulus in 1879. The site is marked by white cairns and a church. Six miles away from there is Rorke's Drift. Here, Lieutenants John Chard (of the Royal Engineers) and Gonville Bromhead, (24th Regiment of Foot) successfully defended their station of just over 150 troops against an 24 hour attack by 3-4,000 Zulu warriors. The Zulus had broken off from their main force at the day-long Battle of Isandlwana. A host of decorations, including eleven Victoria Crosses, were awarded to the defenders.
Rorke's Drift is really interesting, with its distinctive rocky outcrop and monuments. It’s even more entertaining trying to imagine Stanley and Michael re-enacting their scenes from the epic film Zulu, which re-tells the tale. How accurately the detail is I'm not sure, though the main story is certainly true. The Zulus don't get much dialogue, even though the film bears their name.
There's a memorial at Ulundi. This is where the British inflicted the final defeat on the Zulu nation. Close by, at Ondini, is a reconstruction of the Zulu Royal kraal., built in traditional manner. The last one was burnt to the ground by the British
Over picnic lunch and in the car, my chauffeur reveals his philosophies and dating etiquette. He is not in love with his girlfriend. Well he's not sure. They now live apart. She comes from Essex but is called Antonia, not Tracey. Dating in England is so much more complex than the States. In the UK girls put out quickly, you shag someone and then decide if you like them. In the States you have sex on the fifth date. If you're lucky the third. You might compromise on the fourth, but definitely the fifth. After that you're going steady. However, girls who have sex on a first date are sluts.
Back at the Lodge we drink champagne and giggle in the garden. Dinner is even louder.
“You're welcome to crash in my room tonight” Brian offers magnanimously. I decline (graciously of course).
“I don't do one night stands.”
He escorts me to my room. A slightly undignified fumble while I reinforce my answer. He leaves muttering:
“Well a guy has to try doesn't he? “
“A case of too much information.”
As I’m drifting off my cell phone beeps.
DBL BED IN MY ROOM. THINK ABOUT IT.
The Age of Romance is not dead.
Brian departs, and I spend a lazy day by the pool, (temporarily the only guest) and walking, escorted by three dogs and a pig. in between our slow ambles they manage to stampede a herd of cattle, and chase a troupe of monkeys.
And then there’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park too. This is the oldest nature reserve in South Africa. It's supposedly home to Africa's Big Five, but all of those, except the buffalo, are elusive. Nevertheless, it's spring, so the park is full of lovely babies - impala, warthogs, kudu and wobbly giraffes blinking in the grass.
Through velvety hills to Uhmlanga, north of Durban. I'd hoped for some beach time, but I haven't chosen my spot very well. The beach is disappointingly dirty and the roads are full of hitchhikers wandering all over the inside lanes. My bed and breakfast establishment is decidedly seedy. The fridge smells and I can't work out how to turn the TV off. So I turn the sound right down and put a towel over it.
My epic South African journey ends with another iconic African destination. The Garden Route proper is a glorious 190-mile stretch of coastline running from the small town of Mossel Bay (Mussel Bay) to the mouth of the Storms River. It’s called the Garden Route because of the lush coastal forests which line the wide sandy beaches. I'm doing what most folk do and travelling the longer distance from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, though most people do it the other way round.
My car and I meander along. More stunning scenery from the thatched cottages of St Francis Bay, to Jeffries Bay with its Disneyesque bridge, to the tourist mecca that is Plettenberg Bay, the oyster bars and beaches of Knysna, to the Tsitsikamma National Park and the adjacent, aptly named town of Wilderness, with its own park.
At Tsitsikamma I wander the beautiful Otter Trail. along the edge of the wild seashore, past the Storm River and a terrifying suspension bridge. There are waterfalls and a diminutive cave turned into a shrine. – Tsitsikamma (pronounced ‘Titzee-car-mah’) is rumoured to still have rare forest elephants walking among the huge old trees.
I’m writing this overlooking the most amazing huge sandy beach, at Sedgefield. Here, there's the Kingfisher Trail to tackle. I had calamari and crayfish by candlelight on the beach last night.
I'm going to catch the 20 million year old Cango Caves, with their stalactite formations, on my way back to Cape Town. Admire the ostrich farms. Then, it's time to go home.
(And read more about South Africa here.)
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