Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel - Swaziland
Gravel Union On
3 August 2020
Sharing the trails with giraffe, riding through plantations of pineapple and being kept awake by the nocturnal calls of lions – searching for the perfect gravel trails in Swaziland is quite different to your standard gravel riding experience.
“We did some research and we discovered that hyenas can’t climb over walls higher than this, so as long as you remember to close the gate at night, you’ll be fine” said the camp manager, showing me around my accommodation for that night. Normally when you are shown to your hotel room, the staff point out the mini-bar, security features, maybe turn on the air conditioning for you. I’ve never had a safety briefing about the potential for a Hyena to arrive as an uninvited overnight guest before. But then equally, I’ve never slept in an open-sided safari lodge (with a thatched roof and an open air shower) in the middle of a game reserve before. Luckily the safety features worked perfectly and although I was woken during the night by the mighty roar of a lion (luckily kept safely in a different area of the reserve, but still audible on the still night air), I slept like a proverbial log.
The Kingdom of Swaziland (or Eswatini to give it its official name) is probably not somewhere you would have considered going for a gravel riding trip! Although you won't find many actual gravel bikes there, the trail network, scenery and wildlife are incredible and would make for a perfect gravel riding destination. Traditionally tourism in Swaziland has been based around wildlife safaris, with groups shuttled around in open-topped 4x4 vehicles. In the last few years though, the growth area has been in eco-tourism with a number of the game reserves marketing themselves as ideal destinations for walking and (more importantly for us) cycling trips. Most of the game reserves are huge and are criss-crossed with a network of hardpacked dirt and gravel tracks – perfect for some gravel-based animal spotting.
Obviously cycling and wild animals such as rhino, lions and elephants doesn’t make a sensible fit, so cycling isn’t allowed everywhere (and some of the parks only allow vehicle-based safaris). But in the parks that do allow it, you will share the trails with animals such as giraffe, zebra and wildebeest. The giraffe in particular make perfect trail-mates – as long as you respect their space and maintain an appropriate distance, they tended to just stand and observe what we were doing – they seemed almost as interested in us as we were in them!
Although you will find numerous game reserves across Swaziland, if you restricted your visit to only wildlife spotting, you would miss out on so much of the rest of this amazing country. With a gravel bike as your transport mode of choice and some careful route planning, you can experience the huge range of scenery, terrain and culture that this tiny country crams in. Although the tourist sites and wildlife parks are incredible and will give you a ‘wow-factor’ experience, riding the backroads on your gravel bike is where you’ll find the real Swaziland. The local people were super friendly and always waved and smiled – this interaction is what makes travelling by bike so special.
In stature, it might be tiny (the country is slightly smaller than Wales in the UK), but what it lacks in girth, it makes up for in diversity. The western and eastern borders are where the heavily forested, mountainous Highveld area is found; the central section is the hilly Middleveld and the central-east is where the typical African grassland planes of the Lowveld are located.
As well as generating income from tourism, the great climate in Swaziland means agriculture is a big source of revenue – riding gravel trails around the edge of fields full of pineapples or sugar-cane plantations is a typical Swaziland riding experience.
While you could put together a DIY trip, organising a route which took in the best combination of gravel riding and wildlife viewing, let alone getting the necessary permits, would not be straight forward, which is why most visitors tend to book on an organised tour. As ‘pure’ gravel riding trips aren’t common there yet (most companies use 29er MTBs rather than gravel bikes as their hire fleets), a bespoke trip might be the way to go.
Swaziland is renowned for being incredibly friendly and has a peaceful and relaxing air about it, but is still relatively undiscovered by mass tourism, with far greater numbers of visitors heading to neighbouring South Africa. This combination of a great trail network, friendly welcome, a peaceful ambiance and incredible wildlife is what makes a gravel riding trip to Swaziland so special. Somewhere to think about for your next Travel Gravel adventure?
For more inspiration of a gravel riding trip to Swaziland, check out our video here.