It’s one of the world’s oldest travel scams but can still work. A friendly, fast-talking stranger approaches, claiming they were the immigration officer who stamped your passport (and who would remember?) before discovering the day and time you’re leaving.
Feigning exasperation, the trickster laments rushing from home and forgetting a wallet. A supposed brainwave follows: “Tell you what, lend me $50. I’ll be on duty when you depart and give you back your money.”
At the airport the supposed official is, of course, nowhere to be seen.
Although I often warn others to be aware of such cons, Swaziland is so delightfully relaxed that I seem to have disregarded my own advice, for here I am myself with a local immigration officer.
Happily, however, he is the real deal. I have met Sambulo through a mutual friend, and as we sit sipping Sibebe Lager, he tells tourists to be aware, but of something even more fundamental to travelling than confidence tricksters: you can’t get in without a passport.
Not South Africa
Many holidaymakers think Swaziland, a tiny land-locked former British colony about a four-hour drive east of Johannesburg, is part of South Africa. They’re wrong. “Almost every day I tell people they can’t enter our country,” Sambulo sighs. “Tourists from all over the world turn up, having left passports in hotel safes to make short side-trips here, even South Africans from next door who should know better.”
In the final years of South Africa’s apartheid regime, Swaziland was a hotbed of spying, a place of intrigue where white supremacist agents pitted wits against operatives of the African National Congress guerrilla movement. Gunfire and explosions signalled an ongoing struggle.
But times have changed. Swaziland has reverted to its more customary state of sleepy normality. And tourism is a major industry in this hilly, tropical nation, one of the smallest in Africa, where most people still practise subsistence farming.
At its helm is Africa’s only surviving absolute monarch, King Mswati III, who by following ancient marriage traditions has accumulated 15 wives. Mind you, each has her own palace, servants and Mercedes. An anti-monarchist minority in Swaziland considers this profligate spending.
But for visitors, it adds to the pageantry of the destination. Locals refer reverentially to their ruler as the “lion of Swaziland” and his mother – believed to wield crucial power – as the “great she-elephant”.
Swaziland’s small size means that wherever you stay you’ll be close to one of the country’s three game parks, so day visits are popular. Accommodation ranges from upscale resorts (a couple with casinos) to simple backpacker lodgings, and with much in between.
Good highways slice through the country, so for me it’s an easy enough drive up through mist-shrouded forest to one of Africa’s grand colonial-style hotels, the Foresters Arms Hotel.
Between them the trio of game parks, Mkhaya Game Reserve, Hlane Royal National Park and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, serve up in-the-wild sightings of Africa’s big five: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino, even the sadly now-rare black rhino. More commonly seen are numerous buck varieties (among them large herds of impala as well as the regal-looking kudu) along with hippos, crocodiles, zebras, giraffes, hyenas and sinewy cheetahs.
Rivers with scenic waterfalls criss-cross this mountainous nation, anchoring a growing adventure tourism niche with white-water rafting, jungle hikes and gently-swaying canopy walkways.
Swazi culture, which is similar to South Africa’s Zulus, is another important attraction, e.g. village tours, song-and-dance performances and numerous cultural festivals. None of these rival the country’s biggest knees-up, the annual Reed Dance (or umhlanga), a centuries-old event which now attracts more than 20,000 tourists and locals to one of Africa’s most extraordinary spectacles.
Typically several thousand teenage girls, wearing only short skirts and ceremonial necklaces and sashes, dance in front of the royal family. Each carries a reed cur from nearby river banks to symbolise their virginity. Their traditionalist parents encourage such a display as it’s a route into the royal family and associated perks; the king chose four of his wives from Reed Dance participants. The 2016 event is scheduled for 31 August.
A short drive from the capital Mbabane leads to an enormous rock rising the landscape. Called Sibebe Rock, it’s Swaziland’s most visited natural attribute and it reminds me of Australia because it’s the world’s second-largest monolith after Uluru. But unlike our great rock, at Sibebe ascents are permitted, ranging from easy uphill walks to challenging climbs.
But as with any great piece of natural beauty, often just looking should be enough.
A year-round destination, Swaziland’s seasons are the same as Australia’s. Animal sightings are marginally better in June-September because of less luxuriant foliage. See thekingdomofswaziland.com, or go to biggameparks.org for the three game parks.
Add a Swaziland side-trip to your South African safari experience. RACV members save 5% on all tours booked through RACV Cruises and Tours. Visit racv.com.au/cruisesandtours or call 1300 850 884 for details.
RACV shops have many travel products discounted for members: maps, guidebooks, adaptors and more. Visit any RACV shop. Don’t forget the essential travel insurance – ask at any RACV shop, call 13 13 29 or go to racv.com.au/travel for a quote.