Play word association with ‘Swaziland’ and the first two words that spring to mind are probably `tiny' and `king'. That's if anything springs to mind at all, given how little we tend to hear about this southern African nation. Mike Unwin, author of the forthcoming Bradt guide to Swaziland, sorts through the cliches to reveal a gem for the African traveller.

First, the size thing. Yes, Swaziland is small: at 17,364 square kilometres, it is Africa's second smallest country after The Gambia, and dwarfed by neighbouring South Africa and Mozambique. But once you're inside, what seemed mere postage-stamp on the map unfolds into the panoramic, with wildernesses where you can hike for days and not meet another soul. And the dramatic topography - cool western highlands falling abruptly away to hot eastern lowlands - means not only spectacular scenery, but also a rich ecological diversity in a very small area

Description: High Commission of Swaziland

High Commission of Swaziland

Big game-wise, admittedly, Swaziland's parks cannot compete with the likes of the Kruger (just to the north). But an impressive conservation programme has returned many species to their former habitat, including both black and white rhino. Meanwhile numerous smaller reserves harbour more elusive quarry, from aardwolf to Narina Trogon that is often overlooked elsewhere.

And then there's the King. Yes, Swaziland is an absolute monarchy - under the reign of Mswati III, whose numerous wives and lavish lifestyle make for some unflattering headlines. To some he is an anachronism, holding back democracy in a nation hungry for change; to others he is the glue that binds together a unique cultural heritage. Either way, there's certainly no ignoring this culture, with national ceremonies such as the Umhlanga (reed dance) that are unbeatable for sheer spectacle anywhere in Africa.

Description: Swaziland is an absolute monarchy - under the reign of Mswati III, whose numerous wives and lavish lifestyle make for some unflattering headlines

Swaziland is an absolute monarchy - under the reign of Mswati III, whose numerous wives and lavish lifestyle make for some unflattering headlines

Whatever its politics, Swaziland is Africa in a nutshell: from the wildlife and scenery to the history and culture. And the nation's Liliputian dimensions, combined with its good tourist infrastructure and excellent road network, means that all these attractions come laid on the visitor's plate.

Description: Essential Africa … Swaziland

Essential Africa … Swaziland

Sibebe Rock

The world's largest granite dome bursts up through the green hills just 8km outside Mbabane. Steep trails wind up the bare rock face to a wonderland of cliffs and boulders on top. The views are breathtaking, with abundant wild flowers and picturesque rural homesteads. Access is via a community-run project in Pine Valley. A great day's excursion - but definitely one to avoid in a downpour or electrical storm

Description: Sibebe Rock

Sibebe Rock

Ngwenya glass factory and mine

Ngwenya gets its name from a crocodile-shaped mountain along Swaziland's western border. The Ngwenya mine, which lies inside Malolotja Nature Reserve, is arguably the oldest in the world, dated to 43,000 years ago, when people of the Middle Stone Age extracted its sparkling Specularite to use in traditional ceremonies. At the nearby glass factory you can watch glass blowers at the furnace shaping their miraculous creations from recycled bottles. It forms the centre piece of a complex of local handicraft stalls.

Ezutwini Valley

Starting just below Mbabane and extending some 10km east beneath rugged escarpment walls along the road to Manzini, this 'valley of heaven' is Swaziland's tourist hub. Here you'll find hotels, restaurants, backpacker lodges, handicraft markets, a thermal spa, golf course, casino and riding stables. At the far end is Mantenga, where you can haggle for carvings and candles at the craft centre, or catch a high-kicking sibhaca dance at the cultural village. Ezulwini makes the ideal base for a longer stay in Swaziland or – for visitors in transit - conveniently ticks off many key attractions.

Description: Ezutwini Valley

Ezutwini Valley

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