Swaziland may be tiny and landlocked, but – like the Tardis – everything looks bigger from the inside. Mike Unwin discovers a country of fierce cultural pride and astonishing natural beauty

Three hunters stride naked across a rocky ridge. Animals abound on either side: wildebeest, antelope, even an elephant. The men look purposeful – intent, perhaps, on their quarry. One appears to be clutching a quiver of arrows, though it's hard to make out at this distance. Their stark silhouettes file onwards into a deep fissure in the rock.

But what's this? The men emerge from the fissure as giants. They stilt-walk into the light on preposterous limbs: one is extravagantly cloaked in feathers; another sports the grotesque head of a praying mantis. Have they entered a different world?

I am squatting halfway down a boulder-strewn hillside in northern Swaziland, peering at a Stone Age fresco on a three-billion-year-old wall of granite. Zanele Sibiya, our guide from the Nsangwini community project, explains that these hallucinatory hunters are in the act of crossing the boundary – symbolised by the crevice – from the material world into the spirit, or "power", world. It's a vivid glimpse into the shamanic rituals of the San people who once inhabited these hills; prehistory preserved for posterity in red ochre and eland blood.

Swaziland itself teeters between two worlds: modern economic reality and ancient tradition. It's a facile observation, perhaps, one that could equally apply to almost any corner of Africa. Yet, in Swaziland, the dichotomy is especially conspicuous – maybe because both worlds are crammed cheek-by-jowl into such a small space.

This morning I had set out north from the country's cosmopolitan capital Mbabane, where young couples gossiped over skinny lattes in a shiny shopping mall. Within minutes I was driving past mud-and-thatch homesteads, where women filed up the hillside with firewood as they had done for centuries.

If Swaziland has an identity crisis, then the ignorance shown by the outside world doesn't help. International post addressed to Swaziland is, I am told, routinely misdirected to Switzerland.

This southern African state, slightly smaller than Wales, is landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique. A brief poll of friends back home revealed that few realised it was an independent nation. Many thought it was one of South Africa's former homelands; one even had it down as an invention of Prince Philip's.

But in terms of cultural identity it punches well above its weight. The million or so Swazis who make up the nation are descended from a handful of clans that fled north during the 19th century as the Zulu kingdom expanded. And though they still enjoy close affinities with their South African neighbours, Swaziland has forged a distinct cultural heritage – one that emerged unscathed from decades of British rule.

At Mantenga Cultural Village, beneath the craggy summit of Executioner's Rock (from which the condemned were once propelled to their deaths), I receive a whistle-stop education in this heritage. After an exuberant display of sibhaca dancing – high kicking and ululation to a pounding of drums – my guide, Michael Mabaso, leads me around a model Swazi homestead. He points out how grass motifs woven into the design of each beehive hut reveal whether it was built for brewing, sleeping or cooking, and explains how the huts are arranged according to social mores: husband- and wife-dwellings kept separate; one hut reserved for communing with the ancestors, and so on. The entrances are back-breakingly low – to guard against intruders – and a central fire fumigates the windowless interiors against mosquitoes and other insect undesirables.

This orderly display, charming as it is, seems like a living museum; an anachronism preserved for paying tourists. But, Michael assures me, all these traditions remain alive and well in rural Swaziland, if often modified into more contemporary forms. As we tour the country over the next few days he points out how most rural homesteads, even those built of bricks and sporting satellite dishes, arrange their buildings in the same basic configuration. And I see many men clad in the traditional animal-skin skirt – the lihiya – though often matched with jacket and trainers.

All this heritage is cemented by a royal glue. Swaziland is Africa's last absolute monarchy, and the king's image adorns every corner of the kingdom, from the office walls of civil servants to the fabric wrapped around the backsides of his female subjects. Today's king, Mswati, came to the throne in 1986. But it was his father, Sobhuza II, who set the tone – and who is now virtually deified in the nation's memory.

At the Sobhuza II memorial, beneath the sacred Mdzimba Mountains, we stroll through an excellent museum dedicated to the modern nation's founding father. Remarkable facts are legion: Sobhuza had more than 70 wives, for example, which means a significant proportion of today's population can claim royal lineage. But it also dwells on his reputed humility – Sobhuza claimed not to have owned anything – and his powers of diplomacy: "Anginasitsa," the king once said, meaning, "I have no enemies". Defenders of the monarchy today cite Swaziland's record of peace in an otherwise strife-torn region as the legacy of the great man's wisdom.

Certainly the current monarchy could do with its defenders. While democracy has taken root across the rest of southern Africa, political parties remain outlawed in Swaziland. Indeed, a new constitution approved in 2005 enshrined the king's powers to appoint the prime minister, the cabinet and judiciary. It is claimed that seven out of 10 people live below the poverty line. Meanwhile Mswati has not been the agent of social change that some had hoped for, continuing to snap up wives from among his subjects (13 and counting), and displaying an appetite for cars and palaces that suggests he does not share his late father's ascetic tendencies.

Small wonder then that the extravagant "40/40" celebrations held last September to celebrate the nation's simultaneous 40th anniversary of independence and the king's 40th birthday did not go down well in more progressive quarters.

Rumblings about the royal wives' shopping trip to Dubai and a new fleet of Mercedes cars bought for the occasion culminated in protest marches through the capital. Some saw the spectacular pageantry, in which thousands of royal subjects donned ceremonial leopard skins and turaco feathers to hail their monarch, as mere orchestrated jubilation: the manipulation of culture for political gain.

But whether you're monarchist or moderniser, there's no denying that Swazis know how to throw a party. Participation in the annual Umhlanga (reed dance) – in which young girls, wearing little but the traditional necklace, tassels, anklets and tiny beaded skirt, converge from all over the kingdom for three days of dancing and ritual at the royal kraal – increases every year. This, like the Incwala ceremony held in January to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest, is no entertainment got up for tourists. It is one of Africa's most impressive cultural spectacles. Lines of dancers and warriors snake across the countryside in their thousands to converge on the royal kraal in a sea of noise and colour. The whole nation downs tools – either to watch or join in. The sheer scale of it is breathtaking.

This is another paradox of Swaziland: it may be a mere postage stamp on a map of southern Africa, but – like the Tardis – everything looks bigger once you're inside. The landscape itself seems hewn on a massive scale. We descend from the undulating highlands of the west to the dusty acacia bush of the east, past tumbling rock stacks, sweeping river gorges and hairpin escarpments, with every new vista framed by a picture-book mountain horizon. You need hardly even leave town for impressive scenery: the brooding massif of Sibebe rock, just a few kilometres outside Mbabane, is the world's largest granite dome.

Big country, of course, needs big game, and Swaziland has its share – as I discover two days later amid the dense thorn scrub of Mkhaya Nature Reserve. Here a short, bone-jarring drive takes us past browsing giraffe and skittish kudu, while buffalo glare balefully at our noisy intrusion. But it is only when we step out of the vehicle into a world of dung that the true star of the show is revealed: Mkhaya turns out to be Rhino Central. Our expert guide Thulani Msetfwa roots around in one knee-high midden, pointing out how its grass content reveals the depositor to have been a grazing white rhino rather than browsing black rhino. (Broken twigs identify the excrement of the latter, since you ask.)

Our progress becomes more cautious as the evidence piles up – literally – and the bush becomes thicker. It seems only a matter of time before we meet one of the beasts. Sure enough, we emerge from a thicket to find a huge bull white rhino, sporting a metre-long front horn, slumbering in a clearing. Fresh, gleaming mud is plastered over his massive two-tonne frame. Small puffs of dust lift beneath his nostrils at each stertorous exhalation.

Nothing to worry about, explains Thulani, as he leads our plucky band up to this tank of a beast as though to a pony in a paddock. But is it really asleep? Ears rotate like radar dishes, nostrils flare and one twitch of a front foot has some of us looking around for the nearest climbable tree. But Thulani reassures us that he knows this individual well and that we're perfectly safe. He would never have tried the same stunt – he later explains – with one of the much rarer, and far stroppier, black rhinos that also roam the reserve.

Finding a rhino in Swaziland wasn't always this easy. Back at camp, Ted Reilly, the owner of Mkhaya and a pioneering conservationist, explains how the first Europeans to reach the country in the 19th century slaughtered most of the big game. Rhinos, along with lions, elephants and many other African icons, disappeared completely. But times, thankfully, have changed, and an intensive conservation programme – spearheaded by Reilly himself, with royal backing – has since succeeded in returning many large mammals to their old haunts. Today, Swaziland can once again boast the so-called "big five". Later, as hyenas whoop from the darkness beyond the campfire, it is not hard to imagine the Swaziland depicted in Nsangwini's rock art: just wild animals and a few bushmen sharing uncharted miles of wilderness.

Of course wildlife does not only mean big game. Swaziland will never compete with such alluring safari destinations as the Kruger National Park, which lies just beyond its northern border. But it has many other more discreet attractions. Birds, for instance, thrive among the rich mosaic of habitats and I find gems to get any serious birder salivating: pink-throated twinspots in the leaf litter of Mkhaya; a Narina trogon among the dripping forests of Phophonyane Falls to the north; bald ibises on the rocky ledges of Mahamba Gorge to the south.

Meanwhile hikers in the rugged grasslands of Malolotja Nature Reserve might even encounter an elusive serval or aardwolf. Such sightings are rare elsewhere; they are nature for the dedicated.

Best of all, Swaziland's riches – both natural and cultural – lie within just an hour or two's drive of the two major towns. And the roads are excellent, give or take the odd stationary cow ("Swazi traffic lights," Michael calls them). It all seems perfect for the independent traveller: southern Africa's greatest hits in a microcosm. Yet remarkably few tourists have cottoned on. Most spend just a night or two in transit rushing between bigger, better-known destinations in South Africa. Haven't they heard that small is beautiful?

As I leave Swaziland I am still struggling with its apparent contradictions. The country is tiny, yet its landscapes seem vast; it depends upon mighty South Africa, yet is fiercely proud of its independence; its people are restless for change, yet remain devoted to the past.

No such concerns troubled those bushmen hunters. They simply disappeared down the crack and popped up in the spirit world. Perhaps if I'd hung around in Swaziland long enough I might just have done the same.

Getting there

The writer travelled as a guest of the Swaziland Tourism Authority (welcometoswaziland.com).

The usual approach is via Johannesburg. The writer flew from Heathrow to Johannesburg with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). From Johannesburg South African Airways (SAA; 0870 747 1111; flysaa.com) offers connections to Swaziland's Manzini Matsapha International Airport. SAA also flies non-stop from Heathrow to Johannesburg.

Visiting there

Mantenga Cultural Village (00 268 416 1151;

sntc.org.sz/cultural/mantvill.html).

Mkhaya Nature Reserve (00 268 528 3943; biggameparks.org).

More information

Swaziland High Commission: 20 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6LB (020-7630 6611; information packs available from: trade attache@swaziland.org.uk).

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