Friday, October 24, 2008

Swaziland - baby steps

Ok, I'm planning to add some pretty on-the-edge Swazi adventures over the next few months, but lets start with some baby steps. For some this may be all it takes to break out in a sweat and get the heart beating. I'm talking about taking the decision to go out for the night for a meal somewhere other than at your place of accommodation.

This topic came to mind precisely because my seasoned travel writing acquaintaince (see previous blog) had asked this question just last night. "Is it safe to drive around here at night? You know when we were in xxxxx (neighbouring country - lets spare them the unsavory name mention) it really wasn't nice to be out at night."

Well, here's my take on travel at night, in Africa in general and in Swaziland specifically. Firstly, I prefer to travel at night. There's a lot less traffic. Statistically having an accident with another vehicle is the biggest risk you're going to face anywhere. Less traffic at night means less risk. Secondly, at night you find a lot less people loitering around. Most self-respecting petty thiefs have better things to do than hang around on the vague off-chance that you are going to climb out your car right in front of them. Thirdly, in this day and age of GPS technology and cell phone contact, there is little reason for being scared of getting lost.

Three months ago Anita, our two kids and I headed off at 16h00 destined for Ponta do Oro in Southern Mozambique. By the time we'd cleared the Mhlumeni/Goba border it was pitch black. Our mission to traverse the backroute to Ponta via Belavista and the Maputo Elephant Park raised some eyebrows at the border both with officials and some fellow travellers. We plugged a waypoint into our GPS, asked it to follow the road rather than the crows flight and off we chugged in our Landy. It was one of the most pleasant journeys I have ever had...starry skies above, a cool breeze through my open window and the odd "beep" when my Garmin had an opinion on which way to go. By 22h00 we were safely in Ponta, our first visit to magic coastal spot. Our late arrival was adjudicated as "taking a serious risk" and was a point of debate in many a conversation thereafter. For the record there is some real 4x4'ing in the last 20km of the route - so don't take a sedan down that way - but why the paranoia about travelling at night ?

I'm sold on night travel - you won't find me choking on dust, dodging pedestrians or squinting into the glare ever again - after dark in Africa the road is yours.

But we digress. Getting back to adventures in of the real pleasures of independent travel is independent eating - finding interesting places with local vibe and the chance of eyeballing the locals and gauging their likely sanity. Finding these opportunities for absorbing local favour is much more likely at a public restaurant rather than a dining room - so don't be shy, get out there and explore. By all means scout some options during the day and ask for local advice, but don't get put off by the receptionist or accommodation manager who says, "oooohh, aaahh, I'd be careful travelling at night." These folk (with all due respect) have a vested interest in you eating on your hotel room account, so don't get hung up with their apparent concern for your safety. Take the gap and go for it...this corner of Africa is safer than most major cities in the developed world. Fullstop.

In general Mbabane, Manzini, the Ezulwini Valley and Malkerns all have a good range of eating options, outlying areas to a much lesser extent. If anything, Ezulwini is probably the place to target, its got far the greatest range of restaurant options and its also within easy reach of Mbabane and Manzini.

At the top end of the Ezulwini Valley, eDladleni Restaurant is a good start for traditional Swazi organically grown food, whilst just off the old Ezulwini road (MR103), The Calabash has been long accalimed as Swaziland's top restaurant. Continental European food is the feature here, Swiss, German, Austrian dishes superbly prepared. Right next door is the cavernous The Boma Restaurant at Timbali. Their pizza's are the best in Swaziland (by far) and the rest of the menu ain't bad either.

Further along the Royal Swazi Sun Valley offers eating options at four hotel-based restaurants. The Valley Blues at the Ezulwini Sun, the iLanga at the Lugogo Sun and a choice at the grand old Royal Swazi Sun between the seriously pricey, but seriously good ala carte at Planters Restaurant or endless buffet at The Terrace or options to mull over.

Fairly new, but fast establishing a reputation for itself, is the Lihawu Restaurant at the opulent Royal Villas hotel. Here it's a fusion of Afro-European dishes that characterise the menu.

Woodlands Restaurant would be the next option going south with classic old European style: waiters with white shirts and bowties, a standard and not too adventurous menu, but with dishes that are well-prepared and certainly good value for money.

The Gables shopping centre is the next big stop with lots of very diverse options. Kanimambo is all about Portuguese dishes and seafood, the Great Taipei is Chinese at its best and Quatemaines offers a mix of pub style dishes with classic steak house fare. A new addition the Bengal Tiger is a curry den, whilst breakfast and lunch visitors can chill out at Linda's Coffee Shop.

Branching off into the Mantenga Valley, further options include the awesome wooden deck at Mantenga Lodge, where the extensive menu is only rivalled by the great view of Execution Rock and the Village Cafe at Mantenga Nature Reserve. The latter often combines traditional dancing at the Swazi Cultural Village, with a cultural tour and braai style buffet dinner. This is a nice option for tour groups in particular. Just outside the reserve gates, Guava Gallery has a lunch-time bistro menu.

Across the Lusushwana River is Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Here one of Swaziland's really unique restaurants can be found at the Hippo Haunt. An open deck looks out onto a murky pool that not only has resident hippo, but crocodile, terrapins, all sorts of waterbirds and small mammals too. Whilst I probably wouldn't drive the reserve's bumpy roads at night for the sake of their food, which is average at best, I would rate the combination of a late afternoon sundowner activity (gamedrive, horse ride, mountain bike ride or walk), with a relaxed evening in the camp surrounded by wild night sounds as a real must-do. The night exit from Mlilwane is a bit of an adventure, as the park does not allow night traffic through the main part of the reserve, so a windy, but well signposted backroute, is the only option. Add a late afternoon thundershower to soften the road surface and you'll have something to write home about.

Last but not least, I'll make mention of Malkerns, another valley branching off from the MR103, which is well cultivated and quite idyllic. Malandela's Farmhouse Restaurant is an institution here. The atmosphere will blow you away. Great views, relaxed local farmers, a cosy little pub with its history and traditions well documented on the walls and access to neighbouring the House-on-Fire performance venue are all drawcards. Despite having the country's most indifferent service, Malandela's is always busy, so get in there early, place your order, then sit back and chill... the food will come.

Not open at night, but worthy ofd a mention is Sambane Tea Garden on the Swazi Candles premises. Magic light meals, decadent chocolate brownies and a Sunday breakfast that is kinda of more-ish. You'll probably find me there.

To read more about restaurants in Swaziland try - Swazi Restaurants

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