DailyMail.co.uk - 13th, May, 2012
By RICHARD E. GRANT
It is possible to fly into the heart of Swaziland - you can hop on a plane in Johannesburg and hop off again 50 minutes later at Matsapha airport.
But for me there is only one way to make the trip: by car. It may take five hours to drive from Jo'burg - the closest airport for direct UK flights - but its worth every single minute.
Widescreen wonder: Richard at Sibebe Rock in his home country of Swaziland
As I cross the seemingly endless Oklahomaish flatlands of Gauteng province in my hire car, the sky seems unfeasibly enormous and my sense of perspective is instantly readjusted. If a life lived in London feels crammed, congested and blurred, as if everything has been filmed in close-up, then the view from the car window here is Cinemascope-wide and empty.
With only a one-hour time difference from the UK, there is no jet-lag to get over and I find that the drive provides time to really clear my head.
For me, there is also always that overwhelming excitement of being on the road 'home'. I was born and raised in Swaziland and, even though I emigrated three decades ago, like a homing pigeon I make the journey back every year.
Just when your mind has snapped out of autopilot mode and you wonder how you've managed to drive for four hours without really noticing time, the landscape becomes more interesting and the route more winding.
Going back to his roots: Richard (back row, fourth left) was born and raised in Swaziland
To the left, there is a sudden view of a plunging valley that makes you feel as if you're driving along the edge of the world. Like a marathon runner who has the finishing line in sight, every sense quickens and your foot hits the accelerator pedal for the rush towards the border post.
Crossing into Swaziland is a two-parter.
First you encounter the South African authorities - your passport is stamped and matters progress efficiently. Then you arrive at Swaziland border control and everything goes into slow-motion. Any attempt at haste is checked by a bureaucratic attitude that echoes Scarlett O'Hara's famous line from Gone With The Wind: 'Tomorrow is another day.' In other words, one must be patient.
The 'Welcome to Swaziland' billboard is battered and surrounded by an assortment of vendors selling corn-on-the-cob cooked over an open fire. The taste and smell of a cheap roadside snack instantly makes up for all the queuing at passport control.
Swaziland's mountainous landscape is so different from the flat plains of South Africa that you know instantly you're in another country.
Natural wonder: The Swaziland landscape has a dramatic, horizon-stretching quality
About 20 minutes from the border post, follow the signs for Pigg's Peak and suddenly you're on a rollercoaster ride through the incredibly steep and winding Komati river valley. You will pass stalls selling soapstone sculptures, and the unpopulated landscape feels as if time has stood still.
A few miles beyond Pigg's Peak - a one-horse town named after William Pigg who discovered gold here at the end of the 19th Century - is the Phophonyane Falls lodge and nature reserve.
It's a gorgeous, low-key, subtropical retreat with incredible views, a pool and thatched cottages. Here you are guaranteed not to be disturbed by any pinging iPhones, bleeping BlackBerrys or 21st century clack.
When I directed the film Wah-Wah here a few years ago, about my adolescent years in Swaziland, I was convinced that my actors - Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Julie Walters, Nicholas Hoult and Miranda Richardson - would be up in arms at the absence of five-star room service, sushi on tap and blink-speed broadband. But the opposite proved true.
Once visitors have recharged their batteries at Phophonyane Falls, I would recommend they climb Sibebe Rock, located on the outskirts of Swaziland's capital Mbabane.
Away from the world: The quiet retreat that is Phophonyane Lodge has a particularly calming quality
This is a gigantic granite 'boulder' that you can navigate without crampons or ropes. The view from the top takes your breath away. Afterwards, you can mosey through the lush grasslands to a natural, clear pond, and take the plunge in your birthday suit.
I love that sensation of being five years old again and caboodling in the water. Why not take a packed lunch - as I do - and eat it while drying off in the sun, then take the challenge of zigzagging down to the bottom of the valley. Here you can take another welcome dip in the Umbeluzi river rapids. I enjoyed many bottom-scraping rides here on an inflatable ring when I was younger.
Another joy is an early evening drive down to the Ezulwini Valley (it means Valley of Heaven), with its landmark mountain range known as 'Sheba's Breasts'.
This is supposedly the site of one of Rider Haggard's adventure stories, but that suggestion is apocryphal. It's more likely to have inspired the famous cone-bra Jean-Paul Gaultier designed for Madonna in the Nineties.
I could see the mountains from my bedroom as a child, and in the early morning the entire valley was filled with mist, save for Sheba's handsome embonpoint pointing towards the sky.
Descend the mountain road and you will notice the cooler temperatures at the top replaced by a semi-tropical heat. Competing for space around the town of Malkerns are sugar canes, pineapple fields and grapefruit groves.
Twin peaks: Richard could see the mountains dubbed 'Sheba's Breasts' from his childhood bedroom window
Take a right turn at Mahlanya market and, after a couple of miles, you'll find Gone Rural. This is a little development comprising a gift shop, pub, restaurant and, best of all, the House On Fire open-air theatre - Africa's version of Shakespeare's Globe.
Inside the theatre, the lighting is housed in dug-out wooden canoes and old paint cans, and there are corrugated iron 'curtains' which were created by Sholto and Jiggs Thorne, who I was at school with and whose late mother Jenny was a great friend of mine.
Jenny arrived in Swaziland from London in the late Sixties, a barefoot hippie who was a wonderful antidote to the end-of-Empire stuffiness that prevailed at the time. There is a three-day Bush Fire festival at House On Fire in May which attracts musicians, artists, poets and revellers from all over Africa. It's like a mini-Glastonbury.
Before going to bed, take a short drive to the natural hot springs nearby nicknamed 'Cuddle Puddle'. This has been a post-party destination for amorous couples for generations - mine included.
An hour's drive south of Mahlanya is the Mkhaya game reserve. Established and run by Ted Reilly and his family for two generations, this is another place where I feel like a young boy again.
The reserve boasts tents and thatched huts, delicious food, pathways lit by paraffin lanterns and the unique surround-sound of wildlife at night.
To complete the experience, enjoy a dawn drive to view the game at close-quarters, including elephants, black and white rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, ostriches, zebras, monkeys, giraffes, wildebeest, warthogs and, if you're lucky, leopards.
Behemoth: Swaziland's wealth of wildlife includes the legendary White Rhino
This is not a wallet-fleecing East African fantasy safari with champagne, balloon trips and four-posters beds under canvas, but rather an intimate, utterly unpretentious trip that no one I know has ever been able to resist.
Book and go!
British Airways (www.ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg from £835.
Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1250, www.rainbow tours.co.uk) offers three nights at the Mkhaya Game Reserve on a half-board basis, three nights at the Phophonyane Falls lodge and nature reserve on a bed and breakfast basis, and one night B&B at the Lugogo Sun hotel in Mbabane from £1,950pp. This includes BA flights to Johannesburg, domestic flights to Matsapha airport and car hire.