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 Published in Premier Magazine, September 2013

The Kingdom of Swaziland is a small country, smaller than Wales (which is not even a country), but it’s big on nature. Within the miniscule 17 thousand square kilometre oval-shaped landmass abound no less than a dozen nature reserves over three distinct altitudes and incorporating a wide variety of landscapes from montane grasslands to tropically verdant forests full to the brim with a veritable menagerie of wild and colourful creatures. I last visited the little kingdom while on a protracted six-month road trip that took me into the various wildernesses of all southern Africa’s countries. Swaziland, I had planned, was a mere transit country, a place I had to pass through from the Kruger Park into the famed rhino and elephant enclaves in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. I had not reckoned on staying there but as I drove through, it immediately became clear that Swaziland was a little gem – a piece of paradise (I hate the use of such a cliché but it was, and it truly is). So I decided to linger a little longer.

First stop was the tongue-twisting Phophonyane Falls set amid the rolling mountains in the north-east of the country. Phophonyane has a unique botanical biome including some extremely rare proteas; over 240 species of bird, the highlight being the emerald and ruby-coloured Narina Trogon that chatter and flitter among the canopies; and a waterfall cascading over some of the oldest geographical formations on the planet, an imagination-defying bed-rock of over 3.6 billion years in age. This ancient spot is a place to revitalise the spirit. Perhaps it’s the ancient rocks, or the forest, but Phophonyane is so soothing and peaceful one would be forgiven for thinking you are in the Land of Celestial Nymphs. I never wanted to leave.

But, with the effort of Hercules, I plucked myself away, in part because the next place was also an elixir - and another tongue twister – Malolotja Nature Reserve, touted as one of the most impressive mountain parks in southern Africa with an altitude variation of over a kilometre. There is another waterfall – the highest in the country - with the same phenomenal bird-count plus some large mammals wondering about the flower draped slopes. Zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, oribi happily graze but still need to keep a vigil for leopard and a pack of African Painted Dogs. Yet what really sets this magical fairyland apart are squadrons of brightly coloured butterflies and moths that flit about the tree-tops and grasslands. There are over 700 species in all.

Sliding down to a lower altitude toward the west, one come across Swaziland’s pioneer reserve, Mlilwane. Here, in this secluded sanctuary, guests can sleep in traditional Swazi beehive huts and by day can horse-ride or mountain-bike among zebra and other antelope or simply wallow in the restaurant that overlooks a hippo pool while enjoying a sundowner, or a meals of something ambrosial.

Finally, as I passed into the lowlands, just before I reluctantly continued on with my journey beyond the borders, I took a brief sojourn at Makhaya Game Reserve, home and sanctuary to the critically endangered Black rhino. There are some other ‘bigs’ here too – their cousin the white rhino is an established resident as well as elephant, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, crocodile and leopard. Makhaya, they say, is a trip to real Africa, and I agree. The reserve’s sights, sounds and smells encapsulate the feel of an entire continent. It’s all wrapped into one neat parcel. I would have liked to have stayed and visited some other parks. I was told of an even more striking park called Hlane Royal National Park in the northwest, which is home to the largest herds of game in the kingdom. I guess it’s called ‘royal’ because it’s also the home of what the Swazis call bhubesi - the lion king. Hlane is set to become part of the Greater Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation area, which will include Mozambique’s Maputo and South Africa’s Tembe Elephant Reserve as well as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park a little further afield. When the transfrontier park is finalised, even though small, Swaziland would have contributed to a piece of natural heritage that would be considerably larger than itself.

Swaziland is a little country with the heart of a continent – it’s big on nature and it’s big on its African heritage. It is a country that was big enough to catch my attention. Swaziland, I’ll be back.