Swaziland

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Introduction to Swaziland

The smallest country in Africa is also one of the most easy going - laid-back Swazis are more likely to celebrate for fun than demonstrate for reform. A progressive and hands-on attitude towards wildlife preservation has endowed it with a striking bunch of national parks.

Black and white rhino, elephant, and more recently, lion, have been reintroduced into the collection of national parks and game reserves. You can trek, horse ride, raft on wild rivers or cycle through many of the parks and get surprisingly close to a huge variety of wildlife.

While one or two towns get a little rough around the edges after dark, the tension palpably lifts if you have crossed into Swaziland from South Africa. Some of the more important festivals turn the Ezulwini ('Heaven') Valley into a brilliant spectacle of dancing and singing a couple of times a year, as tribespeople decked out in flamboyant costumes reaffirm their belief in the monarchy and their culture. There may be only one museum in the country and little in the way of night-time diversions besides gambling in the casino, but the countryside's thriving and the life's wild.

Full country name: Kingdom of Swaziland

Area: 17,363 sq km

Population: 1.1 million

Capital City: Mbabane

People: Swazi, Zulu, Shangaan-Tsonga and European

Language: Swati, English

Religion: Christian (60%), indigenous beliefs (40%)

Government: monarchy

Head of State: King Mswati III

Head of Government: Prime Minister Absalom Themba Dlamini

GDP: US$3.8 billion

GDP per capita: US$4,200

Annual Growth: 2.9%

Inflation: 8%

Major Industries: Sugar, mining (coal and asbestos), wood pulp, agriculture, soft drink concentrates

Major Trading Partners: South Africa, Japan, UK, USA

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Most people don't require a visa, apart from some nationalities of the European Union who can get them free at the airport. Vaccination certificates are required if you have recently been in a yellow fever area.

Health risks: schistosomiasis (bilharzia), malaria, HIV/AIDS (HIV (Human Immuno-deficiency Virus) develops into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which is a fatal disease. Any exposure to blood, blood products or body fluids may put the individual at risk. The disease is often transmitted through sexual contact or dirty needles - body piercing, acupuncture, tattooing and vaccinations can be potentially as dangerous as intravenous drug use. HIV and AIDS can also be spread via infected blood transfusions, but blood supplies in most reputable hospitals are now screened, so the risk from transfusions is low. If you do need an injection, ask to see the syringe unwrapped in front of you, or take a needle and syringe pack with you. Fear of HIV infection should not preclude treatment for any serious medical conditions. Most countries have organizations and services for HIV-positive folks and people with AIDS. For a list of organizations divided by country, plus descriptions of their services, see www.aidsmap.com)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC + 2

Dialling Code: 268

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The Incwala (sometimes called Ncwala) or 'first fruits' ceremony takes place in December or January and is the most important in the Swazi calendar. Groups of bemanti (learned men) trek over the country, bringing back plants, river water and foam from the Indian Ocean to the Royal Kraal at Lobamba. Finally the king breaks his retreat, dances before the people and eats a pumpkin, a sign that Swazis can eat the new year's crops. In the Umhlanga held in August or September, marriageable young Swazi women journey from all over the kingdom to help repair the queen mother's home at Lobamba. The festival is a showcase of potential wives for the king and draws the nation together to remind people of their relationship and obligations to him.

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Best time to Visit

Winter, from June to August, is probably the best time, especially if you want to avoid those days when you could fry eggs on a tin hat. You'll get cooler temperatures (downright cold at night) in the eastern lowlands and warmer, drier weather in the highlands.If you want to see the two most important Swazi cultural ceremonies, go in August or September for the Umhlanga (Reed) Dance, or in late December or early January for the Incwala (the 'first fruits') ceremony.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Lilangeni

Meals

Budget: US$2-5

Mid-range: US$5-10

High: US$10-15

Deluxe: US$15+

Lodging

Budget: US$4-15

Mid-range: US$15-25

High: US$25-35

Deluxe: US$35

Swaziland is not as cheap as some of the African nations to the north, but it still offers good value. Travellers intent on sleeping in hostels or caravan parks, eating cheap, and skipping most safaris should get by on US$25-35 a day. But there's no point skipping the safaris, because Swaziland is one of the cheapest places in southern Africa to go looking for wildlife. If you're seeking a few more creature comforts, the privacy of your own, air conditioned hotel room and more to choose from in meals, expect to pay around US$75, and if you want to stay in the best hotels (although they tend to be depressingly bland), don't mind what you spend on food and like to have the odd flutter at the casino, expect to spend US$120 and upwards.

There's no black market in Swaziland, and the South African rand is accepted everywhere and is on a fixed, one-to-one exchange rate with the lilangeni. You should have no difficulties changing major currencies, and rand are accepted everywhere. There's no need to change rand if you're coming from South Africa, although you'll be given small change in shops in emilangeni. Several banks change travellers cheques, and ATMs have made an appearance and accept several, but not all, credit cards.

Tipping is as much the norm as it is in South Africa, and around 10-15% is usual. Bargaining isn't unknown but you won't find many situations where you can do it.

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Attractions

Mbabane

Mbabane lies at the northern end of the Ezulwini Valley amid the lush Dlangeni Hills, and apart from stocking up on information and supplies for trips farther afield, it doesn't offer much for the traveller. The main attractions in town are the Mall, the New Mall and Allister Miller St.

Named after the first European settler in the region, Allister Miller St is the main street and where most facilities are found. To the west of the town centre is Swazi Plaza, a large, modern shopping complex that makes a good landmark and houses the tourist office and a further range of shops.

Lobamba

The heart of the Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland's royal valley, Lobamba is home to the royals' Embo State Palace. You can see the monarchy let loose during the Incwala ceremony and the Uhmlanga dance, which take place at the Royal Kraal in Lobamba.

The National Museum is housed here, and it offers displays on Swazi culture and has a traditional beehive village beside it. Given the size of the Swazi family (King Sobhuza II had 600 children), Swazi kings now live at the Lothiza State House, about 10km (6mi) from Lobamba.

Manzini

Manzini is the industrial epicentre of Swaziland. Between 1890 and 1902 it was the combined administrative centre for the squabbling British and Boers, and tensions exploded during the Anglo-Boer War, when a renegade unit of Boers razed it to the ground.

The market on Thursday and Friday mornings is worth a look, but otherwise Manzini has quite a different feel from the rest of Swaziland. Reckless drivers are no doubt agitated by the city's confusing one-way street system (and the country's blood alcohol limit of 0.15%).

Mkhaya Game Reserve

This reserve is run by the people who administer Mlilwane, and has the same energetic approach to wildlife conservation. Sited on former farms, the area had always been popular with hunters for its wildlife, and herds of indigenous Nguni cattle make the reserve economically self-supporting today.

The reserve's boast is that you are more likely to see wild black rhinos here than anywhere else in Africa, but it also supports elephants, white rhinos, and roan and sable antelopes. You can take wildlife-viewing drives and guided walking safaris.

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

Mlilwane was the first wildlife sanctuary established in Swaziland, and is privately run. It lies on the border of the high and middle veld and is an important transition zone for flora and fauna. Among the animal species are zebras, giraffes, white rhinos, hippos and crocodiles, the only predators.

More than 200 species of bird can also be found in its boundaries. The sanctuary is dominated by the jagged Nyonyane Peak, where you can complete several bracing walks. You can also rent horses and mountain bikes, or watch the hippos from the Hippo Haunt restaurant.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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