Swazi Amusement Park

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termite mound
This termite mound in Mliliwane was bigger than Aardwolf
From early on in trip planning Avital was looking forward to Swaziland – she thought its name sounded like it would be an amusement park. In many ways she was right, when South Africa restricted amusing delights like gambling and hookers, Swaziland stepped right up to claim the associated business. Now that that business has gone away, like Vegas in the late 90’s, Swaziland markets itself as a family vacation destination with culture, crafts and casinos for the parents. The remnants of its heyday are still there in places like the Happy Valley Casino and we even had a moment to appreciate it as we had the Cuddle Puddle all to ourselves. The natural hot springs cum swimming pool was once legendary for its late night frolics – now it is a perfectly nice family venue, like Vegas. We were eventually joined by Swaziland’s resident Irishman who settled here 7 years ago after travelling around the world looking for a home, his career as a physical therapist and masseur allowed him to make a go of it anywhere. A South African and his daughter soon joined us. He has business in Mozambique as well as South Africa but insists on living in Swaziland as of the choices it is the safest and most comfortable place to be (he was not the only person to say this). From what I have seen, it is hard to argue with him.

tmnt swazi candle
Talented candle maker shaping his first ever Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for Eliav
Of course, to attract family tourism requires more than nice swimming pools – you need plenty of handicraft shops as well. Swaziland excels there, alongside all the same crap you can get anywhere in Africa half of which is made in China, they have built some novel craft concepts into global brands like Swazi Candles and Gone Rural. At the Swazi Candles workshop they take requests and of course Eliav requested a ninja turtle candle – luckily he was wearing one of his shirts with them on it (really, it would be lucky if he was wearing the one that doesn’t) and the craftsman did an impressively respectable job making him one. We also visited the Ngwenya glass workshop and the nearby Ngwenya mine, dated as the oldest mine in the world first used by humans ~43,000 years ago.

swazi dancers
Swazi dancers performing the traditional ‘I’m still single’ dance
Families also want to learn about the local culture so you need some authentic feeling venue. We went to the Mantenga Cultural Village where, in addition to a traditional dance show, we learnt two very interesting facts of traditional Swazi Culture. First is the reverence for the paternal grandmother; she is the central figure of the homestead and the key decision maker in family affairs. Second is the order of inheritance, the first born son inherits the father’s property (most importantly land and cows, the currency to buy wives) and the last born son inherits the mother’s property – the middle son inherits nothing at all.

Eliav ziplining
Eliav all suited up
Finally, you need some nature and outdoors activities to let the kids tire themselves out. Mlilwane’s lack of big predators makes it a great park for a nice bush walk allowing you to get close to antelope, zebra, crocodiles and hippos while on foot. And of course, given how much the kids enjoyed ziplining the first time, the Malolotja Canopy Tour was a must stop for an enjoyable morning swooshing back and forth across the valley in a beautiful setting. All in all, Swaziland is probably doing better than Vegas as a family destination and still has enough places where you can do the stuff that needs to stay here.

The former cableway that led to South Africa at Bulembu
Our last stop in Swaziland is the old mining town turned missionary enterprise of Bulembu. This seems to be one of those rare do-gooders actually doing good. The asbestos mine in this scenic mountain outpost near the South Africa border was abandoned in 2001 and the village basically emptied out. The land and building was bought from the government (it was never incorporated as a town or village) and donated directly to the ministry with the intent of rebuilding the village as a home for orphaned/abused/abandoned children and enterprises to support them. They have several businesses to supplement donations including honey manufacturing, spring water bottling, a dairy, bakery, sawmill and of course the lodge which hosts visitors passing through as well as those looking for a volunteer-cation. The coordinator of the volunteer activities, Michelle, generously spent the day with us showing us the various businesses, childcare facilities and informing us about Bulembu generally. They have about 300 kids here from infants to 18+, run a pre-school, primary and secondary schools for both their kids and those who want to come from the two nearby villages. They have made great use of the existing infrastructure, repurposing the buildings and fields (like turning the 9-hole golf course into a pasture for their dairy cows) and creating an operation that works with the culture of the Swazi who work it. Having visited many do-gooder organizations, both secular and religious, in the developing in world I have often been inspired by their goals – here is one of the few places where I am impressed with how they are achieving them.

Tomorrow we are leaving Swaziland, really a lovely country if not quite the amusement park Avital envisioned, and heading back into South Africa and into Kruger for a week of camping and game drives.

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