An absolute ruler of a small principality that is surrounded by South Africa on three sides and Mozambique on the fourth, it used to be a country then of around 700,000 who were mostly Swazis and Bantus who had migrated from Central Africa a few centuries ago. Their traditions are mixed – both Swazi and Zulu – as they had earlier been part of Zululand.
Though less than 200 kilometres both from east to west and north to south the country exhibits varied physical features. In the west is the Highveld where elevations can be as much as 6000 ft. To the east, the heights gradually yield to slopes, the Middleveld, with rolling grasslands and then on to the nearly flat savannas of the Lowveld less than 1000 ft. in elevation. The climate changes with elevation from temperate in Highveld to generally hot in the rest of the country. Winters from April to September are cool, more so up in the Highveld.
I was there in April and May in Mbabane, the capital, located on the Highveld and it was pleasantly cool. A beautiful little town of about 100,000, Mbabane is almost like one of our hill stations with proliferating tourist resorts and hotels of the famed Sun International chain. A large number of South Africans, especially of Indian origin, were seen flocking to the place to make merry and enjoy the eye-catching landscape in the cool bracing weather.
Apartheid was still in force in South Africa and movement of coloured and black people in its urban areas was restricted. Perhaps, hence the influx of Indians! I couldn’t make it to Johannesburg though it was very close to Mbabane since my passport was not even endorsed for South Africa. We were such pucca anti-apartheid.
From just outside Mbabane one gets a fantastic view of the beautiful Ezulvini Valley – Valley of the Heavens. One gets to see a picture-postcard country right down to the horizon. It is in this Valley that the Royal kraal is located in a place called Ludzidzini. (Most of the names in the country sound so musical) It is the place where the Swazi maidens collect annually for the Reed Dance, a traditional spring festival of Swazi maidenhood and chastity. Dancing, reportedly, barefoot and bare-breasted, the maidens also use the opportunity to catch the eye of the king. The Reed Dance, incidentally, takes place around the same time in almost all southern African countries.
Manzini in the Lowveld is the second town of the country and is also the point of entry and exit. It is the commercial, agricultural and industrial centre and hence is known as “The Hub”. Like Mbabane, it offers good shopping. Arcades and shopping plazas were seen loaded with stuff imported from all over the world. African marketing chains like Ellerines have set up profitable business in the country. Some second, third generation Indians too have set up shops. I espied a small Ganesh bust in one of the shops the owner of which had moved in from the then disturbed Mozambique.
In Manzini, too, hotels are plentiful as also eateries. In the shopping plaza at Mbabane fish-and-chips on offer was as good if not better than what you get in UK. Downed with South African wine, I found it divine. Unlike our cities, sanitation and cleanliness in the country – even in the Lowveld towns – is of a high order.
A game park is located virtually next to the town. Only 20-odd kilometres away from Mbabane, I visited it several times in the very pleasant company of one Dr. Ahmed, a person of Indian origin belonging to Uganda whose family was displaced during Idi Amin’s rule. Settled in Leicester in England, he had come as a gynaecologist from England under British Overseas Exchange Programme and was staying in the same hotel as I. We hit it off very well and were kind of inseparables during our off-hours.
Because of the small dimensions of the park it did not have the big cats as also elephants. But it had a fair number of other games like impalas, kudus, zebras, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles and an assortment of exotic birds. One evening Dr. Ahmed and I were up against a massive hippo blocking our way while returning from the park after dark. Frequently dangerous, we had to wait for some long minutes to enable it to decide to move away. The park offers beautiful views of the grasslands and is ideal for day-long excursions. There is an open-air restaurant right in the middle where one can lunch on (culled) impala meat curry and rice. With delectable South African red wine from the neighbouring store it makes a marvellously satisfying lunch.
The king’s 21st birthday celebrations came along around the time I was there in Mbabane. Festivities were in the air and local bands were seen marching through the principal streets. A lavish day-long party was held in which all of us foreigners were invited. The main function was organised in the Swazi stadium a few kilometres away and was thrown open to the public.
The King and his minsters were in attendance as also the venerated Queen Mother. Kennet Kaunda, the then President of Zambia, was the special invitee and gave a somewhat tiring hour-long address to the gathering. Soon the local men and women wearing their traditional attires entered the arena and danced in gay abandon. Later, everyone assembled under massive colourful marquees for lunch of roasted meat.
Today, King Mswati III happens to be the last absolute monarch in the African continent and yet his people – 60% of whom reportedly live below poverty line – love him. His principality has a constitution but no political parties; the King hates them, perhaps rightly so. Whatever it is, he rules over a beautiful country that is doing none too badly.
Legend has it that King Solomon marched through these parts in his quest for gold. Such a quest today may prove disappointing. But, one would get, if not gold, a delightful break in this beautiful and, in many respects, modern little country. What if its King has 13 wives?