Swaziland felt different.
Within minutes of touching down at the airport in Manzini, I felt welcomed.
I felt at ease.
I felt safe.
That wasn’t what I had been expecting at all.
The Kingdom of Swaziland is squished up between Mozambique and South Africa, and is one of the smallest countries in Africa; similar in size to Slovenia. It makes exploring the country super-easy, as you can drive from one end of the country to the other in just a couple of hours.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that it’s one of the last absolute monarchies in the world, and that you should not, under any circumstances, insult the king or royal family of Swaziland while you’re in the country. Unless you want to be arrested. It’s even illegal to insult the king on Facebook or Twitter. I definitely resolved not to start any conversations about the royal family while I was within Swaziland, as the articles I’d read before arriving didn’t make him out to be anywhere near an awesome person.
Swaziland is also the fifth poorest country in the world and has the world’s highest prevalence rate of HIV-infected adults (almost a third of citizens aged 15-49.) Swaziland’s TB infection rate is also the highest in the world.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Swaziland will most likely be the first mainland country in Sub-Saharan Africa to completely eradicate malaria.
And the fact that had me most fascinated of all: Swaziland has one of the highest numbers of people struck by lightning per capita in the world, and several of the locals I spoke to knew of someone who had been hit by a bolt.
I passed through immigration with only one a minor incident, where the woman behind the desk asked me where I would be staying while I was in the country.
I was really hoping to have heard somebody say Mbabane before I had to say it aloud. I had no idea how to pronounce it. Even googling pronunciation tips online had brought up three different ways to say it.
“Em-bab-ay-nee?” I tried.
“Mmm-bah-bahn,” I repeated after her, giggling at how strange it felt to start a word with mmmm.
I made my way through the glistening airport and into the arrivals hall, where a local woman was smiling at me while holding up an enormous sign with LAUREN JULIFF written across it.
I walked up her and was greeted with a huge smile and a noticeable sigh of relief.
“Lauren Juliff? Come with me.” She led me outside to a shuttle bus, and most of the people on my flight followed in our footsteps. Although, unlike me, they hadn’t required somebody to lead them twenty metres outside to the only minivan in the car park.
Back when I’d booked my guesthouse in Mbabane, I’d emailed the owner to ask about taking an airport transfer.
There’s no need to do that, she’d wrote back. It will be a lot cheaper for you to take a minivan from the airport to Mbabane, where I will meet you. Don’t worry — I have contacts at the airport and will make sure they take care of you.
I guess that’s exactly what happened.
It was less than $3 for the two-hour transfer to the centre of Mbabane, and as the minivan wound its way through the Swaziland scenery, I was struck by how beautiful the scenery was. Everywhere I looked, there were lush green mountains and hills, along with dusty red-dirt roads, and I could tell I was starting to fall in love. I gasped with excitement when I spotted a sign by the side of the road saying, “Pedestrians, beware of lion & elephant. Big game crossing.”
What was most surprising to me, though, was that this in no way felt like one of the poorest countries in the world.
The roads were well-paved with zero potholes, the cars on the road were neither old nor beaten-up, the minivan felt brand new, and when I later checked in to my guesthouse, I would learn there was completely drinkable tap water.
The rural parts of the country would tell a completely different story, I knew, but I guess I was surprised to discover this much development anywhere within the country.
We pulled up at a petrol station in the centre of town, which was my cue to hop out and meet my guesthouse owner.
“Are you okay?” the driver asked when it became clear that she had not yet arrived.
“Oh, yes!” I told him, “I’m supposed to met my guesthouse owner here, but I guess she’s running late.”
He looked concerned. “Which guesthouse? I can drive you there. I have no other passengers in my van.”
“Upperroom Guesthouse,” I told him. “But it’s fine — I have data on my phone, so if she doesn’t turn up, I can just walk there. It’s not far away.”
“Are you sure?”
“Can I wait with you until she arrives?”
“You don’t have to, but if you want to, yeah.”
“I want to.”
A beaming woman pulled up beside me and waved. “I’m sorry I’m late!”
I reassured her that it was totally fine and bundled myself and my backpack into the back of her car.
“Welcome to Swaziland,” she said with a grin.
“Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.”
On the way to the guesthouse, I told her about my plans for my short time in the country — to spend one day exploring Mbabane and the next taking a game drive in Hlane National Park — one of the best places in the world to spot rhinos in the wild. Swaziland is such a small country, and one that so many travellers just pass through, that I didn’t have to feel guilty about only staying for three nights.
I’d originally planned to spend one of my days in the country with a reader of this site, but when that fell through, I asked her for recommendations on how to spend a day in Mbabane. When she came back to tell me all about the wonderful places outside of the capital city, I knew there would most likely be nothing to hold my attention.
And here’s what Wikitravel lists for things to see and do in Mbabane:
I wasn’t expecting much, so I was surprised when I stepped outside my guesthouse and was met by a stunning view of the mountains.
Mbabane was so pretty.
In my head, I’d expected to spend my day scurrying around a city that looked like Maputo, but Mbabane was the opposite. It was clean with very little trash; the locals were friendly and welcoming, not intimidating and aggressive; the roads and sidewalks were paved, with few pot holes; and the scenery was impressive.
It was also tiny.
Mbabane might just be the smallest capital city I’ve ever been to — you can walk down every street in the city in under a couple of hours.
And was there stuff to do there?
Not unless you wanted to buy some groceries.
But it was surrounded by pretty hills and that was enough for me.
And can I talk about how lovely the locals are in Swaziland?
I’d expected to feel similarly to how I had in Mozambique and South Africa. There, I had felt, for the most part, safe, but still very much on edge. I had been reluctant to get my phone or camera out, and nervous when in a large crowd of locals.
This wasn’t the case in Swaziland.
“I feel so safe here!” I exclaimed to my tour guide the following day. “I’ve just been in Mozambique and South Africa and I was expecting Swaziland to feel similar, but it really doesn’t.”
He let out a chuckle. “Oh yes, Swaziland is much safer. There isn’t a lot of crime. You are safe to walk around here. It’s a very safe country for tourists.”
But the one thing I remember most from my time in Mbabane?
How much it felt like I’d stepped into a time machine and reemerged at some point in the 90s.
Allow me to share a couple of the photos I snapped from my walk around the city.
It was definitely eye-opening to see that there are some parts of the world where you can buy floppy discs and cassette tapes in several of the stores, and especially because more recent technologies, like Wi-Fi, were widespread throughout the city.
After spending time in Mbabane, would I urge you to drop everything and book a flight there right now?
I think you already know the answer to that.
But it wasn’t a terrible place. It wasn’t as mediocre a place as I had been expecting.
What a glowing report!
In Mbabane, I liked that the locals would frequently stop to talk to me and welcome me to their country. I liked the surrounding scenery, that the city was walkable, and that it was peaceful for a capital city. I liked getting to travel to a place unlike anywhere else I’d been before.
So if you’re heading into Swaziland, I can recommend carving out a morning to have a wander around Mbabane. I can even recommend using it as a base while you explore the rest of the country. But I don’t recommend specifically heading there in search of things to do.
Unless you need to stock up on floppy discs.