Thursday, September 18, 2008


A tiny landlocked kingdom, Swaziland lies in the spanner-like grip of South Africa which surrounds it on three sides, with Mozambique providing its eastern border along the Lubombo Mountains. Although South Africa's influence predominates, Swaziland was a British protectorate from 1906 until its full independence in 1968, and today the country offers an intriguing mix of colonial heritage and homegrown confidence, giving the place a friendlier, more relaxed and often safer feeling than its larger neighbour.

During the long years of apartheid, white South Africans regarded Swaziland as a decadent playground, where sinful opportunities (gambling, interracial sex and porn movies), forbidden by their Calvinist rulers, were freely available. This image is fading fast, and though Swaziland still feels a lot more commercialized than, say, Lesotho, its outstanding scenery , along with its commitment to wildlife conservation , makes it well worth a visit. With a car and a bit of time, you can explore some of the less-trampled reserves, make overnight stops in unspoilt, out-of-the-way settlements and, if you time your visit well, take in something of Swaziland's well-preserved cultural traditions .

In recent years, Swaziland has become something of a draw for backpackers , with useful transport links to different parts of South Africa as well as Mozambique, some good backpacker lodges and plenty of adventure activities from horse-riding to whitewater rafting.

Swaziland has six national parks , between them exemplifying the country's geographical diversity, and all offering good-value accommodation. While not as efficiently run as South African National Parks, the Swazi reserves are less officious, and many people warm to their easy-going nature. The best-known are those run by Swazi Big Game Parks : Hlane Royal National Park in the lowveld, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary near Mbabane, and the upmarket Mkhaya Game Reserve between Manzini and Big Bend. The Swaziland National Trust Commission, based in Lobamba, manages Malolotja Nature Reserve in the northwest highveld, Mlawula Nature Reserve in the eastern lowveld and the tiny Mantenga Nature Reserve in the eZulwini Valley.

Despite encroaching political dissent, Swaziland remains one of the world's few absolute monarchies, and King Mswati III , educated at Britain's elite Sherbourne College, regularly appears in the country's sacred ceremonies, bedecked in the leopard skins of his office, participating in a ritual dance or assessing the year's crop of eligible maidens as they dance before him. He might even choose to add a few to his collection of wives, carefully drawn from a wide selection of clans in order to knit the nation more closely together. If you can, plan to come to Swaziland for Ncwala (around the end of December or the start of January) or Umhlanga (August or September); both ceremonies are as important to the Swazis as New Year is to the Chinese.

Laid-back Mbabane , the country's tiny capital city, makes a useful base from which to explore the attractive central eZulwini Valley , home to the royal palace and the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary . With your own transport, or a bit of determination and public transport, you can venture further afield, heading into the highveld of the northwest, and up to the fantastically beautiful Malolotja Nature Reserve , with its fabulous hiking country, soaring valleys and cliffs.

If you are trying to get between northern KwaZulu-Natal and the Kruger National Park in South Africa, Swaziland offers a good, fully tarred through route via the Matsamo border in the north and the Lavumisa and Mahamba borders in the south, passing by the Mkhaya Game Reserve and Big Bend. Approaching Kruger this way is a far more attractive option than skirting through the eastern parts of Mpumalanga.

Summers are hot, particularly in the eastern lowveld. Winter is usually sunny, but nights can be very chilly in the western highveld around the Malolotja Nature Reserve and Piggs Peak. In summer, rainfall is usually limited to short, drenching storms that play havoc with the smaller untarred roads. Note that Swaziland's eastern lowveld, including Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Nature Reserve, is malarial during the summer months (November to May).


The history of Swaziland dates back to the Dlamini clan and their king, Ngwane , who crossed the Lubombo Mountains from present-day Mozambique in around 1750. Pushed into southeast Swaziland by the Ndwandwe people of Zululand, the clan eventually settled at Mhlosheni and then Zombodze in the southwest, where Ngwane reigned precariously, under constant threat of Ndwandwe attack. His grandson, Sobhuza I , was forced to flee north from the Ndwandwe, but they in turn were defeated by the Zulu king Shaka in 1819. Sobhuza then established a new capital suitably far from Shaka in the eZulwini Valley, and made peace with the Ndwandwe by marrying the king's daughter.

Sobhuza's power grew as he brought more and more clans under his wing. His alliance with the newly arrived Afrikaners, forged out of mutual fear of the Zulu, was pursued by his son Mswati II (after whom the Swazi people are named), who stretched his kingdom north to the Sabi River and sent raiding parties as far as the Limpopo River and east to the Indian Ocean.

Europeans arrived in greater numbers throughout the 1880s, after the discovery of gold in neighbouring Transvaal and at Piggs Peak and Forbes Reef in Swaziland. Mswati's son, Mbandzeni , granted large chunks of his territory in concessions to the new arrivals, emboldening Britain to ignore his claims to most of the rest, and by the time Swaziland became a protectorate of South Africa in 1894, there was precious little land left. After their victory in the Second Anglo-Boer War, Britain assumed control of the territory and retained it until 1968.

After World War II the British invested in their protectorate, establishing enormous sugar plantations in the northeast, and an iron-ore mine at Ngwenya in the highveld (today, the country's major export is sugar). Meanwhile, Sobhuza II , who had become king of the Swazis in 1921, concentrated on buying back his kingdom, and had acquired about half of it by the time independence came in 1968. The Swazi aristocracy managed the transition to independence skilfully, with its Imbokodvo party winning every parliamentary seat in the first elections. In 1973, a radical pan-Africanist party won three seats, prompting Sobhuza to ban political parties and declare a state of emergency which has technically been in place ever since. A parliament governs Swaziland today, but final authority rests with the king, who continues to name the prime minister (who, by tradition, is always a Dlamini) and approve or veto important legislation.

After Sobhuza's death in 1982, a period of intrigue ensued, with the Queen Mother Dzeliwe assuming the regency until deposed by Prince Bhekimpi, who ruled until 1985, purging all the opposition he could. The current king, Mswati III , the son of one of Sobhuza's seventy wives, was recalled from an English public school to become king in 1986, and parliamentary elections were held in 1987. New opposition began to emerge, most notably the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), which has strong support amongst Swazi workers, though in general Swazis are proud of their distinctive kingdom, and as a result calls for change are tempered by an unwillingness to show disloyalty to the king, or to expose Swaziland to what many see as the predatory ambitions of South Africa.

Thus the maintenance of tradition and appeals to broad nationalism have been key components of Swazi royalty's strategy to retain power. Relations with the new South African regime are uneasy: the ANC remembers the expulsion of its activists during the Eighties and wants speedy political change. Although Mswati III is sometimes said to favour reform, so far none has materialized. The authorities work hard to keep dissent bottled up, by means of sporadic police repression; opposition leaders are prevented from speaking freely in the media, and poor turnouts marked the "elections" of 1993 and 1998. Currently, Swaziland is the only country in southern Africa not practising multiparty democracy. It seems only a matter of time before it is coerced by the other regional powers into doing so

Getting there in Swaziland

Of the twelve border posts serving traffic from South Africa, the main ones are Ngwenya/Oshoek (7am-10pm), which is closest to Johannesburg and is the easiest route to Mbabane; Jeppe's Reef/Matsamo in the northwest (7am-8pm), which is handy if you're coming in from Kruger Park; Mananga in the northeast (8am-6pm); Lavumisa/Golela in the southeast (7am-10pm), close to the KwaZulu-Natal coast; and Mahamba in the southwest (7am-10pm), off the N2 from Piet Retief in the KwaZulu-Natal interior. The northern crossing via Bulembu (8am-4pm) to Piggs Peak is perhaps the most spectacular in the country, but the bad road makes this journey hard going in an ordinary car. Crossing the border is usually very straightforward: you simply have to show your passport and pay the token E5 (R5) road tax .

Transtate buses from Johannesburg enter Swaziland through the Ngwenya/Oshoek border, stopping at Ermelo en route to Mbabane; and through Mahamba, stopping at Nhlangano and Hlathikulu. The Baz Bus runs eastbound from Jo'burg to Durban via Mbabane and then Manzini on Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, departing for Durban the next morning; westbound, from Durban, it arrives on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday and sets off for Jo'burg the next morning.

Swaziland has one international airport , Matsapha (often referred to as "Manzini"), between Mbabane and Manzini. Airlink Swaziland (a partner of SAA) flies three times daily to and from Johannesburg. Swazi Express Airways flies in from Durban daily except Saturday.

ASWAN, Egypt

Egypt's southernmost city (population 150,000) and ancient frontier town has the loveliest setting on the Nile. At ASWAN the deserts close in on the river, confining its sparkling blue between smooth amber sand and rugged extrusions of granite bedrock. Lateen-sailed feluccas glide past the ancient ruins and gargantuan rocks of Elephantine Island, palms and tropical shrubs softening the islands and embankments till intense blue skies fade into soft-focus dusks. The city's ambience is palpably African; its Nubian inhabitants are lither and darker than the Saiyidis, with different tastes and customs. Although its own monuments are insignificant compared to Luxor's, Aswan is the base for excursions to the temples of Philae and Kabasha , near the great dams beyond the First Cataract, and the Sun Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel , far to the south. It can also serve for day-trips to Darow Camel Market, Kom Ombo, Edfu and Esna - the main temples between here and Luxor. But the classic approach is to travel upriver by felucca, experiencing the Nile's moods and scenery as travellers have for millennia. However, Aswan itself is so laid-back that one could easily spend a week here simply hanging out, never mind going anywhere. The tourism scene is much the same as in Luxor.

When To Go Egypt

Deciding on the best time for a visit involves striking a balance between climatic and tourist factors. Egypt's traditional season runs from late November to late February , when the Nile Valley is balmy, although Cairo can be overcast and chilly. However, at these times, particularly during the peak months of December and January, the major Nile resorts of Luxor and Aswan get unpleasantly crowded. This winter season is also the busiest period for the Sinai resorts, while Hurghada is active year round.

With this in mind, March or April are good compromise options, offering decent climate and fewer visitors. In May and June the heat is still tolerable but, after that, Egyptians rich enough to do so migrate to Alex and the coastal resorts. From July to September the south and desert are ferociously hot and sightseeing is best limited to early morning or evening - though August still sees droves of backpackers. October into early November is perhaps the best time of all, with easily manageable climate and crowds.

Weather and tourism apart, the Islamic religious calendar and its related festivals can have an effect on your travel. The most important factor is Ramadan , the month of daytime fasting, which can be problematic for eating and transport, though the festive evenings do much to compensate.


Egypt is the oldest tourist destination on earth. Ancient Greeks and Romans started the trend, coming to goggle at the cyclopean scale of the Pyramids and the Colossi of Thebes. At the onset of colonial times, Napoleon and the British in turn looted Egypt's treasures to fill their national museums, sparking off a trickle of Grand Tourists that, by the 1860s, had grown into a flood of travellers, packaged for their Nile cruises and Egyptological lectures by the enterprising Thomas Cook.

Today, the attractions of the country are little different. The focus of most visits remains the great monuments of the Nile Valley, combined with a few days spent exploring the souks, mosques and madrassas of Islamic Cairo. However, possibilities for Egyptian travel also encompass snorkelling and diving along the Red Sea coasts, remote oases and camel trips into the mountains of Sinai, or visits to the Coptic monasteries of the Eastern Desert.

The land itself is a freak of nature, whose lifeblood is the River Nile. From the Sudanese border to the shores of the Mediterranean, the Nile Valley and its Delta are flanked by arid wastes, the latter as empty as the former are teeming with people. This stark duality between fertility and desolation is fundamental to Egypt's character and has shaped its development since prehistoric times, imparting continuity to diverse cultures and peoples over five millennia. It is a sense of permanence and timelessness that is buttressed by religion, which pervades every aspect of life. Although the pagan cults of ancient Egypt are as moribund as its legacy of mummies and temples, their ancient fertility rites and processions of boats still hold their place in the celebrations of Islam and Christianity.

The result is a multi-layered culture, which seems to accord equal respect to ancient and modern. The peasants ( fellaheen) of the Nile and Bedouin tribes of the desert live much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. Other communities include the Nubians of the far south, and the Coptic Christians, who trace their ancestry back to pharaonic times. What unites them is a love of their homeland, extended family ties, dignity, warmth and hospitality towards strangers. Though most visitors are drawn to Egypt by its monuments, the enduring memory is likely to be of its people and their way of life.


Conveniently linked by a kilometre-long causeway to the southern tip of Malaysia, the tiny city-state of Singapore (just 580 square kilometres) makes a gentle gateway for many first-time travellers to Asia, providing Western standards of comfort and hygiene alongside traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian enclaves. Its downtown areas are dense with towering skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls, yet the island retains an abundance of nature reserves and lush, tropical greenery.

Singapore is a wealthy nation compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, with an average per capita income of over US$15,000. At the core of this success story is an unwritten bargain between Singapore's paternalistic government and acquiescent population, which stipulates the loss of a certain amount of personal freedom, in return for levels of affluence and comfort that would have seemed unimaginable thirty years ago. Outsiders often bridle at this, and it's true that some of the regulations can seem extreme: neglecting to flush a public toilet, jaywalking, chewing gum and eating on the subway all carry sizeable fines. Yet the upshot is that Singapore is a clean, safe place to visit, its amenities are second to none and its public places are smoke-free and hygienic.

Of more relevance to the millions of visitors Singapore receives each year is the fact that improvements in living conditions have been shadowed by a steady loss of the state's heritage , as historic buildings and streets are bulldozed to make way for shopping centres. Singapore undoubtedly lacks the personality of some southeast Asian cities, but its reputation for being sterile and sanitized is unfair. Much of the country's fascination springs from its multicultural population : of the 3.87 million inhabitants, 77 percent are Chinese (a figure reflected in the predominance of Chinese shops, restaurants and temples across the island), 14 percent are Malay, and 7 percent are Indian, the remainder being from other ethnic groups.

The entire state is compact enough to be explored exhaustively in just a few days. Forming the core of downtown Singapore is the Colonial District , around whose public buildings and lofty cathedral the island's British residents used to promenade. Each surrounding enclave has its own distinct flavour, from the aromatic spice stores of Little India to the tumbledown backstreets of Chinatown , where it's still possible to find calligraphers and fortune tellers, or the Arab Quarter , whose cluttered stores sell fine cloths and silks.

Beyond the city, you'll find Bukit Timah Nature Reserve , the splendid Singapore Zoological Gardens , complete with night safari tours, and the oriental Disneyworld attractions of Haw Par Villas . Offshore, you'll find Sentosa , the island amusement arcade which is linked to the south coast by a short causeway (and cable car), and Pulau Ubin , off the east coast, where the inhabitants continue to live a traditional kampung (village) life.

Singapore is just 136km north of the equator, which means that you should be prepared for a hot and sticky time whenever you go; temperatures hover around 30°C throughout the year. November, December and January are usually the coolest and the wettest months, but rain can fall all year round. July usually records the lowest annual rainfall.


The headlong pace and flawed modernity of BANGKOK (called "Krung Thep" in Thai) match few people's visions of the capital of exotic Siam. Spiked with scores of high-rise buildings of concrete and glass, it's a vast flatness which holds a population of at least nine million, and feels even bigger. But under the shadow of the skyscrapers you'll find a heady mix of frenetic markets and hushed golden temples, of glossy cutting-edge clubs and early-morning almsgiving ceremonies. Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, which is just a short walk from the dazzling Grand Place and Wat Phra Kaeo and the very worthwhile National Museum . For livelier scenes, explore the dark alleys of Chinatown's bazaars or head for the water: the great Chao Phraya River is the backbone of a network of canals and a useful way of crossing the city.

Bangkok is a relatively young capital, established in 1782 after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the former capital. A temporary base was set up on the western bank of the Chao Phraya, in what is now Thonburi, before work started on the more defensible east bank. The first king of the new dynasty, Rama I, built his palace at Ratanakosin , within a defensive ring of two (later expanded to three) canals, and this remains the city's spiritual heart. Initially, the city was largely amphibious: only the temples and royal palaces were built on dry land, while ordinary residences floated on thick bamboo rafts on the river and canals, and even shops and warehouses were moored to the river bank. In the late nineteenth century, Rama IV and Rama V modernized their capital along European lines, building roads and constructing a new royal residence in Dusit, north of Ratanakosin.

Since World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s onwards, Bangkok has seen an explosion of modernization, leaving the city without an obvious centre. Most of the canals have been filled in, to be replaced by endless rows of concrete shophouses, sprawling over a built-up area of 330 square kilometres. The benefits of the economic boom of the 1980s and early 1990s were concentrated in Bangkok, which attracted mass migration from all over Thailand and made the capital ever more dominant: Bangkokians now own four-fifths of the nation's cars and the population is forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai


With over six million foreigners flying into the country each year, Thailand has become Asia's primary holiday destination and is a useful and popular first stop on any overland journey through Southeast Asia. The influx of tourist cash has played a significant part in the country's recent development, yet Thailand's cultural integrity remains largely undamaged. In this country of fifty-three million people, over ninety percent are practising Theravada Buddhists, and King Bhumibol is a revered figure across his nation. Tiered temple rooftops and saffron-robed monks dominate every vista, and, though some cities and beach resorts are characterized by high-rises and neon lights, the typical Thai community is the traditional farming village: ninety percent of Thais still earn their living from the land.

Most journeys start in Bangkok . Thailand's huge, noisy, polluted capital can be an overwhelming introduction to Southeast Asia, but there are traveller-oriented guesthouses aplenty here, and heaps of spectacular temples to visit. It's also the best place for arranging onward travel and visas for neighbouring countries. A popular side-trip from the city takes in the raft houses of Kanchanaburi, the infamous site of the Bridge over the River Kwai. After Bangkok, most travellers head north, sometimes via the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai , to the enjoyably laid-back city of Chiang Mai , where they organize treks to nearby hilltribe villages. There's tranquil countryside in bucketloads up in the northern highlands around Mae Hong Son and along the Mekong River in Thailand's northeast (Isaan), where you can stay in village guesthouses and hop across the border into Laos. The northeast is the least visited area of Thailand, but holds two fine ancient Khmer ruins at Phimai and Phanom Rung, and the country's most popular national park, Khao Yai .

After trekking and rural relaxation, most visitors want to head for the beach - and Thailand's eastern and southern coasts are lined with gorgeous white-sand shores, aquamarine seas and kaleidoscopic reefs. The most popular of these are the east coast backpackers' resorts of Ko Samet and Ko Chang, the Gulf Coast islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, and the Andaman coast idylls of Laem Phra Nang, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta and Ko Tarutao. The southern island of Phuket and the east coast resort of Pattaya are more expensive, package-tour oriented spots. In the deep south, Thailand merges almost seamlessly with Malaysia, and there are plenty of border crossing points here; the city of Hat Yai in particular offers convenient long-distance bus and rail links to many Malaysian towns. Getting into Cambodia overland is not so easy, but there are two crossings currently open, Poipet and Trat.

The climate of most of Thailand is governed by three seasons: rainy (roughly June to October), caused by the southwest monsoon; cool (November to February); and hot (March to May). The cool season is the pleasantest time to visit and the most popular. Christmas is peak season, when accommodation gets booked way ahead and prices rise significantly. In the hot season, temperatures can rise to 40°C. The rainy season hits the Andaman coast (Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi) harder than anywhere else in the country - heavy rainfall usually starts in May and persists at the same level until October. The Gulf coast (Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao) gets hardly any rain between June and September, but is hit by the northeast monsoon, which brings rain between October and January. This area also suffers less from the southwest monsoon, getting a relatively small amount of rain.