On Alien Lands: Exploring eSwatini with Kids

A guest post by Dr. Niladri Sarker & Dr. Shameema Sarker from GeoBeetles.Com

If the geography of this teeny-tiny African nation appears to you as a little bit on the odd side, you haven’t been paying much attention to its society.

This is a land to be explored not just for its unspoiled biodiversity, of which it is endowed to a disproportionately high degree. No, the charm of what’s now called eSwatini, transmuted overnight from its anglicized version Swaziland by its whimsical monarch, is as much in its rituals, customs, and traditions. To us Westerners, these are the attributes that come out as real topsy-turvy.

Still, you’ll find that visiting the country with kids is generally a stress-free affair, something that can’t be taken for granted when visiting most other countries without a theme park.

eSwatini is a small country, so spending just 2 or 3 nights here is quite reasonable and should let you cover most of what it has to offer. But remember, rather than wasting time trying to agree upon the next destination, plan before you get here; your children will surely thank you later.

This post is part of our Discover Africa series

How to get to eSwatini

Even though most people might not know this, air travel to eSwatini is certainly possible. You can take a flight out of Johannesburg, South Africa, to King Mswati III International Airport in eSwatini.

However, most visitors coming here choose to rent a car, which we promptly did in Johannesburg, making our way towards this landlocked nation that’s literally inside of – and being ‘engulfed’ by – another nation.

Sadly, even though its biodiversity rivals its big brother South Africa, eSwatini lacks much of its infrastructure. Its tourism industry, too, has never found a strong foothold thanks to its neighbors being top players in ecotourism.

This – we’ll be blunt – is a shame; on the flip side, less tourists to the country make for a more authentic way of life, and in that regard, eSwatini is second to none.

Entry to eSwatini

For citizens of the United States and most of Commonwealth and European Union countries, you do not need a visa when visiting for up to 30 days.

Many other countries mentioned on the eSwatini government website wouldn’t need a visa either; if you happen to be from a country that needs one, however, make sure to obtain it in advance at the Swaziland High Commission offices like the ones located in Maputo, Mozambique and Pretoria, South Africa, since visa on arrival isn’t an option.

We paid the 50-rand entry fee at the border ($2.75USD) where the process was quick and painless, and drove in. Shortly afterwards, the scene changed remarkably, which our kids were first to notice. Houses gave way to huts, towns showed up fewer and farther apart.

A staggering 40% of eSwatini’s population lies below the age of 15; from schools to roads to playgrounds, there seemed to be large gatherings of children everywhere. As we passed them on roads both dirt and paved, they could be seen doing many things: some carried heavy firewood on their heads, others tended to their family’s cattle, and still others were busy with various household chores.

But in the end, it was quite clear what they loved to do the most. Like all children in the world, they liked to play. Which brings us to our obvious advice to you on the imperative to become a conscientious tourist.

Things to you should know before visiting eSwatini as a family

No matter how many days you plan to stay here with your family, please bring something these local children would enjoy. Candies, toys, crayons – anything that would make one day in their lives memorable and make you the undisputed queen or king of the day. That’s right, we were able to test our theory firsthand.

At some point, your children might want to interact with the Swazi children, like ours did. And that’s quite okay since the primary reason for world travel is to expand your horizons. What better way to do this than having kids discover on their own, across continents and cultures, that the similarities that bind them far outweigh their differences?

This simple, minimalist picture of eSwatini and its plethora of wildlife is something that your kids are bound to fall in love with, presenting for them a rare portal to find traditions that are all but obsolete in today’s demanding times of instant gratification and video games. Doing so is no easy feat in a continent like Africa, however, where traditions are held in highest esteem, and where it has – and always will – face a stiff competition.

Who knows, just when you’re getting ready to leave, perhaps your kids will try to persuade you to let them stay for a few more days in this not-so-strange country. And if that happens, suddenly a life on the road would make all the sense in the world!

Top three attractions in eSwatini for families

Mantenga Cultural Village

If not for the wildlife of eSwatini, the Swazi Cultural Village experience would win hands down as the most popular attraction in the country. As a photographer and wildlife enthusiast, I’m always partial to the local flora and fauna above all else, but even I have sometimes felt swayed by the sheer intensity of these performers.

There’s a small entrance fee in order to experience this ‘living’ specimen of past Swazi culture, but it covers a superbly informative guided tour of their beehive huts as well as the traditional dance performance (sibhaca) that takes place daily. The morning performance begins promptly at 11:15am, but in case you miss that, be ready for the 3:15pm afternoon routine.

Near the end of the electric performance by two dozen dancers and singers, about half of whom are women, you’ll likely be called to accompany them in their group dance, a perfect opportunity to show off those Swazi moves you’ve been always wanting to share. You’ll find the carefully choreographed musical explosion, along with the thunderous drumbeats that follow, quite exhilarating for the soul.

Once the performers have dispersed, grab a free map of the hiking trails available at the reserve, and head for the impressive Mantenga Falls. Along the way, keep your eyes wide open and you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the many warthogs, nyalas, duikers, baboons, and vervet monkeys that roam the surrounding lush green forest.

Royal Hlane National Park

The best part of the Royal Hlane National Park is the tranquillity it exudes. With some luck, you’d likely have the place pretty much to yourself. That’s especially useful when you have kids in tow, and you’re on a self-drive safari in your rental car, feeling your way through rhinos, hippos, elephants, hyenas, and hundreds of other bird species.

And yes, sometimes you do have to let the big guys cross the roads in front of you as you try in vain to calm the adrenalin-rush that your kids (and probably you) are experiencing in the confines of your car. This is also one of those times when you’re allowed to relax the imposed cell phone policy.

The kids ought to be able to take some quality pictures of all the wildlife around them. Case in point: some of the best images shot here during our visit was by our then-fourteen-year-old daughter. You might even want to invest in a decent camera they can use. Remember that this is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for your family, so make good use of it.

Some of the other wildlife reserves of eSwatini where you can explore and spot African animals with your kids in your coveted self-driven tours are Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Mbuluzi Game Reserve, and Malolotja Nature Reserve.

Swazi Candles

I know, I know. It’s hard to get excited about candles. But the Swazi candles are now such an integral aspect of their culture that you wouldn’t want to miss them. Each one of these candles is handmade and unique, being intricately designed in a rich riot of colors and forms, usually in the shape of animals that are endemic in the region.

You’ll find elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, and a host of other animals, crafted meticulously by mixing pigments with hot wax in a style that bridges the gap between the modern and the pastoral, each one with a surprisingly artistic touch.

They’re also unusual enough to ensure that your kids will remain curious with a thousand different questions of their own, even loving the melting wax patterns when they eventually see them in action.

If your kids are even a little bit curious or adventurous then eSwatini might just be the country that lies within the Goldilocks zone: at once remote, tranquil, and exotic, yet brimming restlessly in its biodiversity.

With huge thanks to Dr. Niladri Sarker & Dr. Shameema Sarker for this insightful contribution to the Globetrotters Blog.

About the Bloggers

GeoBeetles is a family of travel influencers who aim to explore every country on earth, seeking out rare and endangered wildlife, vanishing tribes, and far-flung natural wonders.

Niladri Sarker is a university professor and Shameema Sarker is a senior scientist, both working full-time jobs while exploring the world with their three children as they balance work and family obligations. They encourage others to travel, to broaden their horizons, and to become responsible planetary citizens.

Experts at weaving stories from their family adventures in a vibrant yet natural manner, they work as brand ambassadors, collaborating with businesses, hotels, cruises, airlines, and travel-related products as they share unique content with their tens of thousands of social media followers. 

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