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A Caravan Adventure through Swaziland, South Africa

Author: Peter and Erica Hutchison
Article contributed by: Compact Tours

In South Africa the word "caravan" has taken on a slightly different meaning to the generally accepted one ( as in a caravan through the desert). A "caravan" to a South African, means the vehicle which is used for accommodation during a tour or trek across the country - what most people would probably call a trailer or camper. As a result you will hear us speaking of a "caravan tour", meaning a caravan of trailers or campers travelling together. Erica and I are not strangers to caravanning and camping in Southern Africa.

We started in our early twenties (nearly thirty years ago now !!) when we inherited a second-hand caravan (camping trailer) from a camper hire business in which we had a share at the time. We had never towed a caravan in our lives before but immediately set off on a 3,500 Km trek across South Africa with our two young children Ellen and Nanette (Still in nappies at the time)! Well that was the start.

When once the travel bug bites, the game is over. Since that first trip we have covered our area of the continent from East to West and North to South - not necessarily in that sequence. Since we started with Swaziland, let me relate our experiences from a trip we did there more recently.

Have you ever considered a holiday in Swaziland? In fact I'm sure many people don't know too much about this little Kingdom locked away within Southern Africa. It is a totally independent state with its own royal family - unusual for Africa. Perhaps this has something to do with it being an ex British Colony ... wow - they really got in everywhere didn't they, the old imperialists? Enough of all that let me tell you about our trip.We entered Swaziland at the Oshoek border post. Our first stop for three nights was the Maloloja Nature Reserve which is controlled by the Swaziland National Trust Commission. To get to the park we turned left onto the road toward Piggs Peak (west of Mbabane). About 20 km along this road there is a signposted entry to the park. Bookings can be made through the Trust at Box 100, Lobomba, Swaziland. The road from the entrance to the campsite (about 2 Km) is rough but okay If taken slowly. Only four of the camping sites are suitable for caravans, the rest either being too uneven or inaccessible. The animals have access to the campsite which is not fenced and you can expect to see blesbuck especially, within metres of your caravan. The communal ablutions are basic but very clean. There is plenty of hot water from a wood-fired boiler. Baths, showers, toilets and hand-basins but no lights.

Close outside the gate, along the road back toward Mbabane are numerous handicraft stalls selling hand-carved wood and soapstone items. Some real bargains can be found here, but you must haggle over the price or pay a premium. (South African currency is accepted in Swaziland as well as their own. Since there is a common monetary area the exchange rates are linked in a one to one ratio). There are game and scenic drives through the park, but some of these are definitely four-wheel drive territory. The main feature of this park is its walking trails - some 150 km of them! There are, however, some points of interest accessible by car, notably the Forbes Reef gold workings - take a torch so that you can explore the old adits; and the abandoned iron ore mine at Ngwenya. Walks of two-three hours are also possible through the nature area.

At Ngwenya is the glass factory which is well worth a visit, and a weaving establishment selling wall hangings. Various other places of interest are nearby.

For those with money to throw away there is the casino at Piggs Peak Protea Hotel. The drive to Piggs Peak is, in any event, a worthwhile trip for the beautiful mountain scenery. The main roads are generally good with only the occasional Potholes and animals to watch out for. We enjoyed staying at Malolotja - the only drawback was the proximity of the campsite to the road which was noisy during the day.

There is also a lesser known route across the mountains back into South Africa, following the path of the old mine conveyor into the historic gold-mining town of Barberton - but that's another story ...... (Maybe next time.)

Our next camp was at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary near Mbabane, the capital city. Bookings for the park at Mlilwane can be made at Box 33, Mbabane. Mbabane also has a casino - the Royal Swazi Sun and some interesting hot pools known as "the cuddle puddle". Well OK. The town of Mbabane is the best place to get your provisions re-stocked either at the Swazi Plaza or The Mall which feature the usual retail markets. There are also some excellent restaurants and stores. Along the road from the town toward Mlilwane Camp you will once again come across a number of stalls selling local handicraft and copper-work.To get to the sanctuary it is necessary to take the bypass road towards Manzini and look for the signpost after passing the casino on your right (Ignore all signs stating that there are two km to go!!). About 2 km along this road you reach another sign indicating an ambiguous direction also stating that Mlilwane is 2 Km further. Ignore this one as well. Proceed across the one-way bridge and a little further along (2 Km?) you will find an unlikely looking entrance to the sanctuary on the right. We drove past this one twice because we couldn't believe that it was actually the entrance. The "Office" is about 1 Km from the gate. From here you follow the arrows and "red hut" symbols to the campsite which turn out to be about 2 km further!!!! This was without doubt the worst section of road that we towed the trailer along during the entire trip. Had it been raining I don't think we would have made it. The road is in poor condition with short steep inclines and loose rocks and gravel - speed anything from 0 to 15 km per hour. First gear and proceed with caution. The fees however, compensated for the road, being the cheapest campsite on the tour. One thing to remember, while on the subject of costs - all accommodation is subject to a 10 percent tax which has to be added to the prices quoted by the establishments. The campsites are level and there is sufficient space for about 20 caravans in the park. The communal ablution block at the park is very basic and not very clean, no hot water but with electric light! However, about 70 metres back toward the entrance is another communal block with plenty of hot water, toilet facilities, lights etc. all in good condition including complimentary spiders. Well we are in the bundu you know! They can accommodate tents, camper and caravans and also have self-catering traditional huts and log cabins.

There is an excellent restaurant known as "The Hippo's Haunt" which is set on a platform alongside the hippo pool. They serve an excellent breakfast. Other meals can also be obtained at the restaurant at very reasonable prices. It is spotlessly clean. "Wildwors" ( a locally made sausage using venison as base) can be bought from the small supply store alongside the camp reception office. Wine, beer and cold drinks are also available here. There are game viewing drives through the reserve - but four wheel drive is preferable. At 3:00 PM daily the hippos are fed - providing an opportunity to see these strange animals out of the water at close range for a change. The camp also has many birds, lizards and unusual insects. The night sounds are unique to this area. Being far from the main road the campsite is peaceful. Then the drums start - the staff at Mlilwane take pride in demonstrating their traditional dancing and singing for the benefit of those at the lapa where there is also a communal fire laid on for those wishing to cook out.

After two nights here and a visit to the Swazi Candle Factory it was on towards Manzini and via the bypass to Hlane National Park. This park is held in trust for the Swazi nation by His Majesty King Mswati III, Ngwenyama of Swaziland. There are two campsites, the one being luxury cottages only and the other, the Ndluvu Camp (Elephant Camp) being aimed at Caravanners and campers. There are also self-catering cottages to hire. Open-air showers fed by a wood fired boiler and ladies doing their ironing using coal fired irons make you feel as if you have stepped back in time. There is plenty of hot water and communal ablutions lit by hurricane lamp at night add a certain charm to this rustic camp. From the lapa, once again with communal fire and constantly boiling cast iron kettle, there is a view of a watering hole where elephants and rhino are frequently seen. When we visited the camp rhino were browsing on the trimmed grass next to one of the huts. Since our visit the campsite has been fenced off with a rather flimsy looking electric "fence". Plenty of game drives for those in suitably fitted vehicles and guided visits to the lion and cheetah enclosures provide some good photographic opportunities. To get to the park follow the road from Manzini towards the Lomahasha border post (Mozambique). There is a well-singposted entrance to the left some 70 km from Manzini. Elephant, ostrich, rhino, warthog are seen from within the restcamp from time to time. There is a hippo pool nearby and giraffe also frequent the area.

We spent three nights here before moving a short distance down the road towards Lomahasha through the sugar cane village of Simunye. About 20 km from the Mozambique border you turn to the right to Mlawula Game Reserve - our next stop. This is the "sister" park to Molalotja but the Siphiso campsite is not nearly as well maintained. It has the better location of the two parks and is more isolated - the potential is there, but the maintenance is sadly lacking. The roads within the park are fair to poor with most being suitable only for 4 x 4 vehicles. Places of interest are the crocodile and rhino pools (the literature refers to hippo pools) and caves in the Lebombo Mountain foothills. Cooking gas (as opposed to fuel for the vehicle) is available from the "Tops Clothing Store" in Simunye(?). We came across a number of such unusual combinations of commercial enterprise in Swaziland such as the clothing shop supplying gas. Examples are: "Butchery and Industrial Equipment Supplies", "Hairdresser and Motor Spares" etc. presumable family businesses. Then there was the little shop selling "evergreens" - vegetables we discovered. Leaving Mlawula after three days we headed southward via Big Bend to the South African Border at Lavumisa to the East of Pongola and headed southwards into the province of KwaZulu-Natal and the beautifully run Mkuzi Game Reserve operated by the Natal Parks Board.

Overall we found Swaziland and particularly Mbabane to be clean, neat and litter free and the people helpful and friendly. The weather varies from the Highveld where it is cooler and has a higher rainfall to the lowveld where it is hotter, drier and windier. The best time to visit is April to September.

Travel Tips:

A baggage declaration form needs to be filled in by tourists - failure to do so can result in fines and confiscation, but generally visitors are unlikely to have trouble with the customs control.
Certain nationalities will require visas for Swaziland or re-entry visas for South Africa on return - it is best to check with your travel agent since regulations vary from time to time.
Shops are generally well stocked and prices compare with those in South Africa.
The local currency is the Emalangeni which is divided into 100 cents. The South African Rand is accepted and there is no limit to the amount of money one may bring in.
Tourist information can be obtained from the Swaziland Government Office, P.O.Box 451, Mbabane, Swaziland.
Malaria is endemic and precautions must be taken. Please consult your medical practitioner for the latest recommendations.
If you are using a rental vehicle it is important to check that you may cross the border with it and obtain written authority to do so. It is also a good idea to have certified copies of the registration papers with you. There is a R5 road levy payable at the border and the receipt must be kept in the vehicle.