Discovering Eswatini: Our first African Experience (4K)
G'day, my name is Ricky Dunn and I'm about to trade in the Swiss Alps for what I think is going to be one of the most exciting travel experiences of my life. My wife Nat and I have just finished packing up bags and shortly we'll be boarding one-way flights to Africa. Our first stop is the Kingdom of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland. I was drawn to Eswatini because I found a property online that looked incredible. It's a house in a wildlife reserve surrounded by giraffes, zebra and other animals.
In this video I want to give you a rather candid and authentic look at our experience and give you a feel for a country that very few people know much about. But right now I'm very cold and we've got a flight to catch so more soon. All I know of Africa comes from a work trip to Morocco with Tourism Australia a few years ago and a tour I took around Egypt many years ago as a backpacker. I'm very excited and also nervous. With no direct flights to Eswatini from Europe we need a brief layover in Johannesburg.
From there it's an easy 40 minute flight to Eswatini's King Mswati III Airport. Eswatini is a small country of only 1.2 million people. I've done some basic research but I have little idea what to expect. The airport is new and very quiet. Immigration and customs is a breeze. By the time we grab SIM cards and sign our hire car paperwork the place seems empty.
So we just picked up our hire car. A manual is far far cheaper than automatic. We've got this vehicle for 28 days.
It's costing us about $500 US with unlimited kilometres. And if we wanted an auto it was going to be $1,200, $1,500 US plus. The roads are pretty much empty.
This highway is great so far. We've got about 30 minutes and then we'll arrive at our accommodation. The journey is uneventful and before long we arrive at Dombeya Wildlife Estate.
Where our home for the month and a good night's rest awaits. The sun has just risen on our first morning in Eswatini but I feel like I'm in a dream because this place is amazing. The home is beautiful. We've already seen warthogs and impalas and the grounds here are massive.
I know there's a lot more wildlife out there to see. There's a whole country to explore. I'm going to show you all of that but I'm really hungry. So first we need to go get some groceries.
Getting to the supermarket is simple. Straight for 10km until passing at Petrol Station and some street vendors grilling Corn and then 17km on the new multi-lane highway. After taking the Manzini exit we're practically there. The supermarket isn't what I pictured.
It's large and modern with a range you'd expect in any global city. I can't find fresh juice but 7kg of oranges go for under US$2, small chicken breasts are 70c each and a loaf of bread costs 50c. After gathering supplies we head back to Dombeya, keen to get to know our new home. The property that brought us to Eswatini is named Shonalanga Lodge.
It's one of 18 houses nestled within 800 acres of native bushland that is Dombeya We have no neighbours in sight of our two bedroom, two bathroom home and we have a lot of space to ourselves. It's owned and run by a husband and wife who are passionate about conservation. That afternoon half the duo Stephanie dropped by to welcome us to their home and share some information about Dombeya.
This used to be an old derelict cattle ranch and we've turned it into a game reserve. It's hard to make ecological areas sustainable. It's really hard to find ways to protect nature because it costs a lot of money. The model we set up is a model that's pretty common in South Africa as well where we have private home sites within the game reserve.
A lot of people say winter is a great time to come to wildlife areas because the bush is thinned out so you stand more of a chance in animals coming to a waterhole to drink and the bush is thinner so you can see farther into the bush. Summer for us is amazing also. It's hot you have to like eat but for wildlife it's also wonderful. I mean it's lush and green and you've got babies everywhere. You'll see giraffe, waterbuck, kudu, and Nyala, so many animals.
We don't have any big resident predators so you can feel really peaceful walking. Knowing I won't be a meal for some hungry lion, it's time to go exploring. It's almost winter and colder than I anticipated. Nat's work commitments on this time zone, I mean we're normally up well before the sun. So we head out at daybreak.
With the exception of a few birds, it's silent around us. The crisp morning air makes our presence hard to conceal. The glimpses are fleeting, but we're both so excited to get these sightings at dawn. Before long, the landscapes are painted golden by the soft morning light, and we're able to explore what is a seemingly endless array of trails. It's a fantastic way to spend the morning. Back at the lodge, the morning fog has lifted.
It's time to relax in the warm sunshine. Warthogs start to make their way into the yard. They're oblivious to our presence and hilariously on their knees scoffing down grass.
When they notice us, a brief moment of panic sets in and they trot away. Meanwhile, impala are roaming through the bush in large numbers. Many join the warthogs to graze in our yard. The tranquility is eventually disrupted by some males who have other things on their mind. Our afternoon viewing is like a real-life Attenborough documentary, and I'm had to kick back and watch the show.
As day turns into night, there is barely a moment we don't have animals surrounding us. A few days pass that follow a similar routine. We get our first close encounters with zebras, and are mesmerised by their striking black and white patterns.
Some of the animals we see get our heart pumping, while others we can watch all day. I love everything I'm seeing, but there remains a long-necked leggy specimen missing for my life. So we set off in the car in search of giraffes. There's a traffic jam in Dombeya, so we delay our search. Oddly, it seems most animals are not overly intimidated by the car. Various routes present themselves as we weave through the bush, and I discover the reserve is much bigger than I pictured.
Even so, it doesn't take long until we hit a roadblock. It turned out there were two giraffes, and we had an unforgettable ten minutes of mutual observation, before both of them seemed to agree they'd had enough, and they melted back into the greenery. My first sighting felt special, but so too did many of the encounters that followed.
Giraffe have even made it to our front yard, and I'm grateful for every moment I get with these wonderfully peculiar creatures. More than anything, I can't believe people actually have a chance to see us. I can't believe people actually get to live here.
We booked Shonalanga Lodge at a rate of just under $600 a week, including cleaning and laundry. There are no day trippers, and only three of the homes here are holiday rentals. It feels like we have the whole reserve to ourselves, and at the same time, I feel completely safe. We have almost everything we could want, a small trade-off being Eswatini's 4G towers don't reach the property. 3G internet isn't ideal for our lifestyle, but it seems to hold up for Nat's video calls, as well as other important matters.
The pool is cold at this time of year, but the afternoons are perfect for enjoying the outdoors. All in all, I reckon we've got the deal of a lifetime, and life here is very good for us. Every few days, we take the same drive into Manzini for groceries. There's little traffic beyond random police checks, and they've been routine and very friendly. Once off the highway, downtown Mancini is a little busier. This is Manzini, the biggest sort of urban area.
It's not the capital, but it is the commercial hub of Eswatini. It's 30 minutes to get down here, there's a few different supermarkets. I'm going to go park the car, go for a stroll, and then get some food. Over a quarter of the country's population live in Manzini.
It's a small city, with a couple of shiny developments in otherwise modest surrounds. There's no denying we stand out here. Some people greet us, smile and say so of honour, but many are just busy going about their day. Twice a week, there's a popular secondhand clothes market behind the mall. Most of this appears to hail from the US, but people here say it all comes from Mozambique. My backpack is already bursting at the seams, so I avoid a bargain and stick to window shopping.
Overall, I find the city to be very approachable. Nobody hassles us, and our visits are effortless. [birds chirping] [birds chirping] [birds chirping] [birds chirping] We had yet to go beyond Manzini, but a long-running, three-day music and arts festival called Bushfire seemed like the perfect excuse. We scored tickets just before it sold out, and took a 45-minute taxi to join 20,000 people from all over the world.
[music] [music] Bushfire is one of Aswatinie's biggest annual events, and it features diverse acts from around Africa and overseas. I was surprised to find my highlight on the small UNICEF stage, a local band called Bantu the Tribe. Their energy was infectious. [Music] The festival is not all song and dance. It's a hub of culture and a catalyst for social change in Africa. [Music] It's family-friendly but gets busy into the night.
We had a lot of fun and I'm glad we came. [Music] In the blink of an eye, two weeks had passed. We'd been way too caught up in our surrounds and it was time to see more of the country. [Applause] The tourism industry here is relatively small and it's less developed than neighbouring countries. It presents a perfect opportunity for someone who loves authentic travel experiences.
[Music] A lot of tour guides don't want to come out to Dombeya and in order to see the capital, we were requested that we actually drive in. I've got to say when we first arrived here, I probably would have been too intimidated to do this, but after a bit of time driving between Dombeya and Manzini and a little bit of time at Manzini, I feel pretty comfortable on the roads now. The Hospitality and Tourism Association of Eswatini connected me with Nolu Tours. It's owned and run by Lunga. You got into tourism after realising her country stories were mostly being told by foreign guides. Yes, they have all the information, but they got to learn about it.
We live this thing. We live the life. So that's the reason why I was like, I have to go into tourism.
And funny enough, I lik culture. I didn't even know about that. So that's what led me to tourism. Lunga has a warm energy and is bursting with information, including a positive take on Eswatinis history with the British.
There's a very thin line between the British and the Swazis, and then when you mix that together, it comes like a beautiful culture and a beautiful history altogether. After learning about the past, we set off on foot through the capital, Mbanane, to the city's markets. Eswatini is known for its handicrafts, and this can be a popular place, but foreigners needn't feel intimidated. We have free primary school, meaning almost everyone in Eswatini would hear and would hear whatsoever you say in English. They might have problems in conversing back, like fluently, but you would understand each other. There's plenty to see here, including a traditional Swazi pharmacy.
Apparently many Emaswati people still use these medicines today. I don't need any medicine, but I do need some food. I do love bread.
This is lifete(?), which is like fat cake. So it's bread fried, it's a little bit sweet, and it's delicious. I love it. Slightly less appealing is the Swazi staple of sour porridge. It must be nutritious. It is.
It's made with corn and often topped with a mountain of sugar. After being butted up with a meal, I learned that I'll be driving for the rest of the tour. Lunga proceeds to direct me up a hill and into what she describes as one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods. I'm nervous for a moment, but Lunga is simply demonstrating that this country is very safe. I see a local football game and feel no hesitation pulling out my camera and filming.
Our next stop is Eswatini's top rated attraction, the Cultural Village. The setting is gorgeous, and I'm tempted to go for a walk, but a performance is taking place, and we're ushered inside. I've seen my share of cultural shows and make sure to look sufficiently distracted by my camera for performers to step up seeking volunteers. Nat is a lot more fun than I am.
Following an energetic performance, we're ushered into the grounds of a replica traditional village. Our guide provides a matter-of-fact breakdown on traditional living, from men taking multiple wives to homemade beer. Each wife has been allocated three huts. That's where the first wives sleep. That's where the first wives prepare the Siswati traditional beer. Our local beer, we call it *Unk Hombot*(?).
Can you pronounce it? *Unk Hombot* (?) It's being made of grain. In setups like this, girls share one hut, boys share another, and they only get their own space once they're married. I was wondering how much of this is the case today in Swazi life, and as chance would have it, I was about to find out. Some bad dirt roads ruined Lunga's afternoon plans. In a random village, she gets talking with a couple of local residents who invite us to their home.
It's a bit of an odd feeling walking onto someone's property like this, but we're made to feel welcome. A few curious kids have just returned home from school, and there's time for a quick selfie before we take a tour around the property. Life here is not dissimilar to what we'd seen in the cultural village. A couple of young guys are happy to show us their crop of drying corn, and I enjoy having a chat with everyone. The grandmother is head of the family and as we depart, Lunga gives her a few dollars to say thank you. I find her gratitude very humbling.
With that, our day comes to an end. I had a wonderful time with Lunga, I loved hearing the perspective of a modern Swazi woman and her passion for Eswatini. (birds chirping) There's still a lot to see in Eswatini, and the same day the Tourism Association recommended Lunga, Stephanie also passed on a suggestion for a guide. We're in our way to see a guy called Phumie Mamba. He's the son of a clan leader, and he's gonna give us a look at village life here. Normally when I travel, I like to try and get a feel for local life.
I'm curious, so I learn a lot from talking to people. So he's gonna take us out, we're heading to meet him now, and let's see what the day brings. Phumi is actually Phumi, and as we head into what he calls Mamba Kingdom, we learn about the region and his life as a son of a political figure. Mamba country is part of the 63% of Esitini known as Nation land. governs much of what takes place.
It's an interesting setup that offers many positives, but it's not without its challenges. Much of this area lacks the infrastructure of other parts of the country. This is becoming an upcoming main town in the Mamba Kingdom. It's the only clinic in the Mamba area along with the oldest job in Swaziland. As Africa's last remaining absolute monarchy, politics here is a topic that fascinates many, myself included.
Phumi's happy to provide a balanced perspective, but this comes with its challenges. It's kind of like the egg shells we walk on, which is why we ask people about the name change in Eswatini. (*) we don't know what to say. we don't want to be caught in a situation where we have been rude, we have said what the king has done doesn't make sense, because in our culture, once the king says something, it can't be reversed.
Social media has given Swazi's access to news from around the world. The situation here has calm at the moment, but during pro-democracy protests in 2021, many died. Those who shared political opinions generally held pragmatic views. They were quick to acknowledge positive initiatives of the king, while also being aware of many peoples' desire for social and political change. Things are clearly not simple. We continue further into Mamba Kingdom on route to a school.
[Music] Hey, he's got a West Ham top on. [Laughter] The guard doesn't seem to share my excitement about West Ham, but he's happy to humor me and have a photo taken. [Music] This is a high school focused on agriculture. Our arrival coincides with the students' lunch and they queue for a meal of rice and legumes funded by the government.
Some of the students' Nat Tutors are now in high school, so she's intrigued to hear about their curriculum. But Phumi has brought us here to meet the girls' soccer team, a group he's trying to get to Norway for a tournament next year. The girls are shy, but exchange a few pleasantries as we all pose for photos. As we leave, Phumi shares that he traveled to Europe in his younger years, and he knows exposing these girls to a foreign culture can be a life-changing experience for them. We' brought along a gift that didn't feel age-appropriate, so set about finding it a suitable home.
When we come across a primary school, classes are finished for the day and there's barely a child in sight. A very welcoming principal gladly takes our donation and asks we sign her register. It's been a memorable day with Phumi, and after many hours of talking, it's time to sit back, relax and take in the glorious afternoon views on route back to Manzini. Hello, how are you? I'm fine! With every passing day in Eswatini I've felt more and more at ease exploring the countryside. Our location, smack bang in the middle of the country, means we can reach almost anywhere in a couple of hours.
The country's only coffee roaster, located up in the hills, is less than an hour away. It's called the Green shed at Mabuda Guest Farm. While my motivation was to stock up on caffeine, the landscapes here are a contrast to other parts of the country, and it's worthy of a visit in its own right. [Music] Not far from Mobuda is Mlawula Nature Reserve Some come here to camp and hike, but also makes a lovely spot for a leisurely afternoon drive. Even after seeing so many antelope in Dombeya, they still entertain.
[Music] But the standout here is the expansive views and the tortoises, one who wouldn't budge from the road. There are many other places to visit in Eswatini, from game reserves, parks, social enterprise cafes, and even the beaches of Mozambique are only 150km away. But there is one place on almost every travellers list when they come to Eswatini. On a whim, we make a visit late in the day to Hlane Royal National Park. Next to the camping area is a large water hole where we spot a few hippos in the distance.
I'm excited, but the sun isn't going to last for long, and we're keen to drive through the park and hopefully spot a rhino. A 20 minute loop brings no rhinos, but some beautiful water bucks. Just as we're about to finish our drive and give up, we spot two rhinos on the side of the road only metres away from the car. Rhinos present a double edged sword here. They're a magnet for both snap happy tourists and sadly poachers. As a result, they can find to a smaller slice of the park for their own safety.
With over 300 square kilometres and four of Africa's big five animals, an afternoon is not enough to experience Hlane. We vow to return and see more. We decided the best way to do this was going to be with a guided game drive.
Sunrise is meant to be the best time to head out. However, you're advised not to drive at night here because animals can come out of nowhere and some of the roads have potholes. Next one's at 9am, so we're going to leave as soon as there's light and should make it in plenty of time. It's only about an hour or so to get there.
With a bit of luck, we'll see some more rhinos, some elephants and hopefully some lions as well. We're here quite early. We've got an hour till we head out on our guided drive. In the meantime, there's absolutely nobody here. We've got a group of four rhino just separated by an electric fence, but it can't be more than 20, 30 metres between us and them. It's incredible.
Having slowly woken up, the crash of rhinos make their way into the bush and we pay $20 each to join the 9am game drive, quickly discovering we have the vehicle and seemingly the park to ourselves. We set off in search of lions. Nat excitedly spots a lioness within the first five minutes of our quest. She's done well. They're not always easy to see at this time. Moments later, we discover her male counterparts nearby.
I am stunned by our proximity to the pride and spending 20 minutes in the company of these majestic lions is like a dream come true. I'll guide Johannes tells us it's time to move on. With our road blocked we're reversed to explore a new area. I share Johannes's fondness for giraffes but it's elephants and leopards we're wanting to see. We follow a trail of droppings and footprints and are rewarded with a lone elephant in the far distance. We move in for a closer look.
With our road blocked once more, we reverse again and set a new course. There are no buffalo here and we didn't see any leopards. But we did see lots of elephants and plenty of other exotic creatures.
Coming back for the game drive was definitely a good idea. Dombeya and Hlane have provided unforgettable wildlife encounters, more than we could have hoped for. But since arriving in Eswatini, one thing has remained at the back of my mind. Kruger National Park is only a two hour drive from here.
In our final days, we fight the bullet. We pay for a permit to take our hire car across the border and set off for South Africa. The border crossing is quick and easy, so we take a detour and see a little of the Panorama route before entering Kruger National Park for 24 hours. Living this lifestyle, it's not sustainable for us to do everything we want everywhere we go. But this was worth the time and money. I'll aim to make a video about it at some point, but for now, it's all about Eswatini.
This really has been the perfect introduction to Africa. And on our last evening, I recorded a few final words to sum up our experience. I've loved every minute in Eswatini I think back to a month ago, leaving Switzerland, preparing for all of this, and the trepidation I had in coming to a country that I knew so little about. You know, that's often the case. I don't like to do a great deal of research because, unlike having too many preconceived notions or expectations on a country, I'd rather discover it for myself. But obviously, Africa does come with a bit of a reputation, I suppose, but I really, really have become very fond of this place.
There are so many other surprises, you know, beyond the safety. You can drink the water, barely seen a mosquito or a fly or anything else that worried me. The roads have been great, at least the highways have been great. The quality and range of things that we could buy at the supermarket really surprised me. And the landscapes. I don't know why, and I feel pretty ignorant now in hindsight, but I expected this to be just sort of low-lying grassland everywhere.
And instead, we've been greeted by these magnificent hills, mountains, and that's without even touching on the wildlife. We never would have come to Eswatini it wasn't for finding this place online. And it's been everything we could have hoped for and more.
To wake up every day to giraffes, zebras has been unforgettable. But even outside the compound here, Hlane Royal National Park, $20 each for what was effectively a private tour, where we're metres away from white rhinos, from lions, elephants, and all sorts of other animals. The tourism industry here is pretty raw, it's quite underdeveloped, and that's part of the charm as well.
But overall, I can't fault anything about our experience here. So, I hope this video has done the place justice. If you're considering coming here, I would strongly encourage you to do so.
If you've got any questions, feel free to ask. But we've got lots more of Africa to explore. If you'd like to see what we get up to, you can do so on here, or you can follow on our social media channels.
But until next time, thanks very much for watching. Until next time, take care. Bye.