Despite being the smallest country in the southern hemisphere, the Kingdom of eSwatini has a lot to offer travellers. Here are seven things you can do in eSwatini.
Twisted glass – Ngwenya Glass
This famous handmade glass blowing business was started by Swedish Aid in 1979 and for 2 years Swedish glassblowers trained the local Swazi people. The factory closed down in 1985 but a few years later in 1987 the Prettejohn family took it over, got the machinery working again, found the original glassblowers and now have over 70 staff.
They use recycled glass and it’s wonderful to be able to watch them working the huge furnaces from overhead platforms. The one-off pieces are stunning and like me you will find it hard to walk away without buying something.
There are a number of other shops on the premises including a delicious chocolate shop and restaurant.
After going through Oshoek border post look for a the turn off after about 8km to the M1 and Ngwenya Glass.
Mines and make up – Ngwenya Mine and Lion Cavern
Dated over 43 000 years old Lion Cavern is thought to be one of the oldest ochre mines in the world. The ochre and hematite were mined for face paint for San ceremonies as well as for cave painting. Even if you are not interested in this kind of history the walk to the mine platform and the views are spectacular.
The more modern open cast but now defunct Ngwenya iron ore mine is on the same property and has a good visitors centre.
Follow the signs to Ngwenya Mine and Lion Cavern off the M1. You go in at a gate that says Malolotja Reserve but wait for the guide at the gate as he will then show you exactly where to go and open the visitors centre for you.
The soapstone carvers are mainly to be seen on the M1 road to Pigg’s Peak. It’s worth spending some time watching them and stopping at a few. Some churn out the ‘same old same old’ but others are real artists and produce beautiful pieces.
The soapstone comes from the mountains behind where they sell and are from one of the oldest rocks in the world – those of metamorphosed sedimentary rocks from the Swaziland Supergroup – the talc-chlorite and talc-carbonate schists which give them the soft and pearly appearance and a ‘soapy’ feel.
The soapstone is a creamy white but some of the carvers colour them with shoe polish to make them black. The carvers are generally very happy to chat and let you watch them work.
Mountains and cascades – Malolotja Nature Reserve
To me this reserve is a hidden gem in Swaziland. It was proclaimed in 1977 and is 18 000 hectares of pristine mountain kingdom. There are a few roads that are accessible for ordinary cars but the real treat is the hiking and mountain biking. With 200 km of hiking trails you can lose yourself in this wilderness for days.
The little wooden chalets have fabulous views and you will wake up to buck grazing outside your door. They are equipped and the bed linen is good but you might find a mug or 2 missing in your chalet. However, the setting more than makes up for the slight tiredness of the chalets.
Malolotja means ‘many rapids or cascades’ so make sure you get to the viewpoints and trails that take you there. There is also a wonderful zipline over a river and the altitude range from 640 m to 1829m means that there a number of different habitats. Bird and flower lovers will have a field day here.
The reserve is 18 km after you turn off the M3 onto the M1
Dam fine – Maguga Dam
If you are on your way to Pigg’s Peak on the M1 then I highly recommend you do the loop past Maguga Dam. Stunning views, rolling hills and great granite outcrops make this a beautiful drive.
You can stop for a meal at the Maguga Lodge with its view over the dam and then make sure you stop and look over the dam wall before driving to the view site on the other side. The View Point also has a little restaurant and if the dam is overflowing then this is the place to stop as it’s a spectacular site to see the water pounding down the wall.
The dam is on the Komati River and was a joint irrigation venture built in 2002 between South Africa and Swaziland.
If you want another little detour then you can stop at Nsangwini Rock Art site. Just note that it’s a 7km gravel road drive and then a bit of a walk to get there so give yourself time.
Meandering markets – Roadside markets
Shopping at roadside stalls and markets is a must in Swaziland. It’s a great way to meet the Swazi people and the country is small so there is no point in screaming past on your way to a planned destination. Rather meander slowly and stop when something looks interesting.
I bought a tin chicken feeder from Arson at his stall shiny with tin buckets, bread bins, funnels and even an enema! Swazi fabric is everywhere and wooden and soapstone carvings are also popular.
And, of course, there is nothing quite like a freshly roasted mielie cob off a smoky fire to nibble on as you meander.
Madly Rural – Malkerns and Malandela’s
Just past Mbabane is Malandela’s in the Malkerns valley on the MR27. If ever there was a mad fantasy this is it and it’s a fabulous place to stay, shop and just wander.
The Thorne family came to farm pineapples in the 1960’s and then began to sell some of the weaving made by local women. The weaving project was the brainchild of Jenny Thorne and has grown into a huge business, Gone Rural, exporting beautiful pieces all over the world.
Son, Jiggs, studied drama and decided to build a theatre, House on Fire, on the farm which has since grown into a mad fantasy world of beautiful sculptures in metal soapstone and wood.
The Farmhouse Restaurant serves great home grown food and the whole of the Malandela’s centre is a treasure trove of tiny shops, amazing art work and Swazi crafts. Children will love this place so plan to spend a little time here.
Words Sue Adams