Tiny Swaziland packs a knockout

Tiny Swaziland packs a knockout
Maidens carry and lay reeds while they sing and dance during the annual royal Reed Dance at the Ludzidzini Royal palace on August 28, 2016 in Lobamba, Swaziland.
PHOTO: AFP

Just a speck on the map of Africa, Swaziland could easily be missed when one is planning a safari or trip to this region.

Despite being one of the smallest countries in Africa - with a land size of 17,363 sq km, it is smaller than Johor state - Swaziland boasts rich culture, stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife.

We would have overlooked this landlocked monarchy had we not been planning our route from St Lucia to Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Driving through the country was an attractive option that would allow us to experience Swazi culture and scenery.

So, my travel companions and I set off from St Lucia in South Africa shortly before 6am and reached the border at around 8am.

Traffic was thin at the south gate of Golela, and the border crossing was efficient.

With our travel documents in order, we were on our way to a lodge in Mbabane.

Flanking the main road are community farms and clusters of villages with circular huts and grass-thatched roofs.

Villagers, both young and old, could be seen transporting buckets of water, either on wheelbarrows or balancing huge containers on their heads.

They smiled as we drove past, and waved cheerfully.

At a restaurant overlooking thick forest reserve, a family of vervet monkeys surfaced and skirted around the veranda and entertained us while we ate our meal leisurely.

With black faces and silver hair, they remained oblivious to our interest and attention.

At a distance loomed a striking mountain with its exposed granite top.

The Nyonyane Mountain, with its peak called Execution Rock, was the place where ancient execution rituals were held.

Criminals, with spears pointed at them, were forced to walk off the edge to their deaths. That was in the past.

Today, it is a popular trail, with hikers striving to reach its 1,110m peak.

PEEK OF VILLAGE CULTURE

Our next stop, Mantenga Cultural Village, is a living cultural village displaying the life of the Swazis in the 1850s.

It has a troupe that performs twice daily at 11.30am and 3.15pm.

The 20-odd barefooted performers were clad in traditional wear and colourful embellishments.

The women donned two-piece outfits featuring red, white and black bold prints called emahiya.

Additional jewellery and adornments would indicate an individual's marital status, socio-economic status as well as lineage to Swazi royalty.

Their sibhaca dance was strenuous and fast-paced, with each group of women and men coming forward to execute high kicks above their heads, accompanied by chanting and singing in the background.

After the performance, we went on a guided group tour of the village, which holds 16 "bee-hive" huts and structures such as kraals and byres for cattle and goats, and reed fences that serve as windbreaks.

The abode of the matriarch, called Grandmother's hut, was surprisingly airy and cool inside.

It was also spacious enough for all 15 of us to stand inside comfortably.

The adjacent Mantenga Falls provided cool respite as we hiked down the trail to the largest waterfall in Swaziland in terms of volume at 95m high.

As it had not rained in three months, the water volume was low. Still, I found the area serene and tranquil.

No visit to Swaziland would be complete without picking up its fine handicrafts.

Manufacturers such as Ngwenya Glass and Swazi Candles are synonymous with world-class quality glassware and candles, respectively.

Since 1987, Ngwenya has been making glassware in Swaziland from 100 per cent recycled glass. From the viewing gallery, visitors can watch the glass-blowing process.

At Swazi Candles, we gawked at wax-encased LED lights and African animals.

The artisan lineage runs deep in this kingdom.

Everywhere we went, artisans were engaged in wood or stone carving by the roadside in their makeshift stalls.

At the popular Ezulwini Craft Market, we chatted with an elderly woman stringing beads who told us she honed her skills from her mother.

Two days certainly did not do justice to Swaziland.

But now that I had a taste of what the country has to offer, I will definitely return for more.

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