WHERE TO STAY AND HAVE FUN:

For general information see www.thekingdomofswaziland.com

  • Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary beehives cost R415 per person per night, or R500 including breakfast, plus a daily conservation fee of R40.
    www.biggameparks.org/mlilwane
    E-mail: [email protected]
    Tel: +268 2528 3943/4
  • Mantenga Cultural Village is open from 8:00 to 17:00 with dance displays at 11.15 and 15:30.
  • Tour guide Nhlanhla Mavuso can drive you around or put together an itinerary.
    E-mail: [email protected]
    Tel: +268 7603 1260
  • Malolotja Nature Reserve zip lines
    www.canopytour.co.za
    Tel: call +268 2444 3048
  • I’m Eexcited as I clutch the key to my bedroom for the night, and stoop beneath a thatched roof to open the door. But I’m groping to find the lock in the moonless night, and when I push open the door, it’s pitch black inside. I suddenly suspect that staying in a traditional beehive hut in Swaziland is going to be an uncomfortable, sleepless night horror story.

    Then my torch finds a light string, and I smile with pleasure as the room illuminates. Swaziland’s iconic beehive huts no longer have cow dung floors, wooden blocks for pillows and a long-drop toilet outside. At least the ones in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary don’t.

    Tradition gives way to comfort once you step inside, and there’s even a bathroom built on the back of the beehive. Some might call that cheating; I call it genius.

    Swaziland is a rural kingdom of villages with rondavels and cows, rolling hills and misty peaks marching into the distance, so for accommodation it makes sense to forgo sophisticated city living and try something traditional.

    Mlilwane sits between a forest, grassy plains and a large hippo pool, with Nyonyane Mountain as a dramatic backdrop.

    Taking a bike ride through the reserve is great fun, especially when our guide points out a large croc that gets us pedalling faster.

    A little later, we slow down to admire zebra and impala almost within patting distance.

    Supper is a basic buffet served in a large rondavel, where the camp’s marketing co-ordinator, Melusi Dlamini, tells me more about this tiny country. We talk about rhino poaching too. Rhinos have been moved to just two nature reserves – Hlane and Mkhaya – to help defend them, and King Mswati III himself is fiercely protective of his rhinos, Dlamini tells me.

    I hear a lot about the king, especially from our guide Nhlanhla “Lucky” Mavuso, who proves to be an entertaining source of facts, tidbits and anecdotes. When Mavuso takes us to Mantenga Cultural Village, he dresses up in traditional garb, explaining that the Swazis are fiercely proud of their heritage.

    A rocky landscape of circular holes carved out by centuries of swirling water.

    The cultural village is excellent, with a cluster of beehive huts that the host, Mbuluzi Malindzisa, leads us around, telling fascinating stories. In the old days, he says, women weren’t allowed to cook all the parts of an animal in case they got funny ideas. “If she cooks the brain, she’ll become too intelligent, if she cooks the feet, she’ll run away, and if she cooks the tongue, she’ll talk too much,” he jokes.

    One woman has laid out a lovely display of beadwork and embroidery, and as she recites the prices, you realise that Swaziland is a pleasantly cheap destination.

    Next comes a vibrant display of traditional dances, with athletic maidens, a magically quivering sangoma and powerful tribesmen with lethal spears, furry ankles and extremely hunky bodies.

    It’s stirring stuff, with the drumbeats reverberating through your bones and stirring something forgotten in your soul.

    Singing tribal songs stir one’s soul.

    Swaziland is an easy destination for South Africans, since we’ve got the place practically surrounded. The Seswati language is similar to Zulu, and the currency is onefor-one with the rand, which is accepted in the shops. English is compulsory in school and all the road signs and most information are in English.

    It’s a five-hour drive from Joburg to Mbabane, the capital, with a border crossing at Ngwenya.

    A great first stop is Ngwenya glass factory. The community sells used glass to the factory, where it’s recycled to create vases, wine glasses and cute ornaments for its shop. A balcony lets you watch the workers insert long metal poles into kilns and bring out glowing lumps of molten glass to roll and twist and tweak. One man glances up and waves, then hoists up the finished object on the end of his pole – a cute, fat rhino.

    For a tiny place, Swaziland packs in lots of adventures. You can find golf, horse riding, 4x4 trails, fishing, caving and rock climbing, or watch cultural festivities like the Marula Festival and the famous Reed Dance, where the king picks his young brides.

    Malolotja Nature Reserve has 10 zip lines whizzing across beautiful gorges, giving you wonderful adrenalin-fuelled views.

    There’s a narrow swinging bridge to tackle too, which makes me more nervous than the lines themselves, even though I’m clipped on in perfect safety. It’s a longish walk to the start of the zip lines, with a pretty stiff hike on the way back up again. If someone could invent a zip line that flies you uphill they’d make a fortune.

    The hardest hike came on a supposedly modest trek to the potholes and The Gap, where the Komati River disappears under a rocky landscape of perfectly circular holes carved out by centuries of swirling water.

    Old style on the outside, but it’s comfortable inside Mlilwane’s beehive huts.

    Mavuso had clearly overestimated my ability to scramble up and down rocks taller than I am. I reached several of the intriguing circular potholes, but let the group scramble on ahead to the final viewpoint. Mavuso admitted he could have taken us an easier way, but thought we might like to explore a more dramatic trail. I was chuffed he thought I was so young and fit.

    Swazi’s oldest and largest bushman painting site is close to The Gap and is managed by the local community.

    Namcile Dlamini guides us across a plain and down a rocky slope to a large overhang etched with ochre drawings of men and animals, dating from 400 to 4 000 years ago.

    The view from the cave across the valley hasn’t altered for eons.

    For souvenir shopping, Mbabane Market is a great place with laid-back stallholders letting you browse without much hassle. There are some unusual objects too, and I came out proudly holding a cute stool with legs painted to look like the legs and neck of a giraffe. It looks a little lonely in my lounge. I think I’ll have to go back and get another one.