Mkhaya Game Reserve – a wild adventure in Swaziland

Our cottage 'Warthogs Wallow' at Stone Camp, Mkhaya Game Reserve, Swaziland
Our cool cottage 'Warthogs Wallow' at Stone Camp, Mkhaya Game Reserve, Swaziland

We spent the last moments of day hunkered down in bed, watching some incredibly cute bush babies cavorting in the nearby trees. A special moment since these primates are rarely seen as they only venture forth after dark. As the light faded and the inky black rapidly enveloped the surrounding forest, we lay still, hardly daring to breathe as sounds of the nocturnal bush heightened our imaginations. We were staying in a traditional dolerite stone cottage deep in Swaziland’s Mkhaya Game Reserve. There were neither walls nor doors, and our only protection from the wild was a thin mosquito net and a whistle. What could possibly go wrong?

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Our open-sided dolerite cottage at Stone Camp

I couldn’t help but think of all the rhino we’d encountered on our game drives that day, to say nothing of the hippo, crocodiles and hyenas that roam the reserve. Would a thin veil of gauze that generally failed to keep even the tiniest critter at bay really deter creatures bringing tons and teeth to the game? An orange glow from the strategically placed oil lanterns danced seductively in the gloom (there is no electricity), casting disturbing shadows on the high thatched rafters that were being used as an assault course by some giant fruit bats.

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

The absence of electricity at Stone Camp makes for a romantic and slightly scary atmosphere!

Burrowing further under the duvet for more protection, clutching hubbie in one hand and the boy scout whistle in the other, I wondered, not for the first time, why I do things that scare me so much. A while later the last of the reassuring flames fizzled out, leaving us to the mercy of the pitch black and the beasties. I closed my eyes and prayed we’d survive to see the dawn.

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

A spectacular Swazi sunset in Mkhaya Game Reserve

I awoke a few hours later, still grasping the whistle after a surprisingly good sleep, albeit not long as we had to be up at stupid o’clock for a game drive. Being an insomniac a good sleep is always a noteworthy occasion. One I hadn’t expected out here in the bush.

Our softly spoken 5.30am wake up call was accompanied by a tray of coffee and biscuits, fortification enough to last until breakfast. Bleary eyed I stumbled over to the bathroom, which was also open to the bush (best loo with a view ever!), wondering what the nyala was thinking whilst it watched me take a tinkle. Is it ridiculous to be slightly embarrassed by having an animal audience whilst going about my bathroom business?

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Now that’s what I call a view from a loo!

You probably know by now that I’m a sucker for an imaginative bathroom, and not only was this a totally unique experience (that included a hot shower!), there was also a whole range of Mkhaya products, and they even passed the conditioner test! Very impressed.

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Our bathroom came with two things we weren’t expecting, hot water and toiletries.

Hubbie interupted my bathroom contemplation with hushed and excited little yelps. Apparently we had visitors. There, just a couple of feet from our cottage entrance, was a baby nyala curled up in the long grass, content and fast asleep. No doubt it was his dad who was perving at me earlier. The parents were nearby but after reassuring themselves we weren’t a threat, they left the fawn alone for hours. It didn’t move for 2 days, except to feed, and we felt privileged to sit so close on our step and watch the interactions and daily routine of this little antelope family.

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Our baby nyala in his favourite spot outside our cottage

A walk-through of Warthogs Wallow, our Mkhaya Stone Camp cottage

We walked the short distance from Warthogs Wallow (the name of our cottage, number 2!) through the forest, past the fresh pile of rhino poo that indicated there had been some other camp visitors in the night, to meet our ranger, who was far too cheerful for that time in the morning. There were just 4 of us staying at the camp so it was pretty much a private game drive with a whole 10,000 hectare reserve all to ourselves! Not bad!

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Rhino spotting on the game drive, Mkhaya

The next couple of hours were great fun, exploring tiny side tracks barely big enough to be footpaths let alone vehicle routes; doing 23 point turns in order to follow animal tracks; and lots of dodging low-flying thorn branches. The bush is fairly open and ‘scrubby’ so sightings are easy and plentiful. In return for our efforts (or at least those of our expert ranger), we got up close and personal with a whole menagerie of creatures, including white and black rhino, hippos, a crocodile, and some fish eagles. Handy tip…if you’re ever lost in the bush and need to find water, look out for these birds and they’ll lead you to the drink!

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Hippo happiness at Mkhaya

Species spotted

Black and white rhino, hippos, crocodiles, nyala, kudu, impala, gemsbok, warthogs, blue wildebeast, white wildebeast (very rare!), cape buffalo, giraffe, zebra, duiker, vultures, hare, guinea fowl, and my personal favourites…dung beetles! There were elephants but apparently they haven’t been seen for 3 months.

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Dung beetles doing their thing. Did you know they fly too?

After returning to the dining lapa where hubbie tucked into a surprisingly wide range of breakfast items (certainly one of the stranger places we’ve enjoyed a full English!) we headed out into the bush again, this time on foot!

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Bush walk to find some rhino in Mkhaya

We were after rhino, and what better way to find them than by standing right in the middle of a huge rhino ‘toilet’?! Apparently the animals defecate in the same place, a very neat and tidy way of going about their business. The trick worked, and we spotted 3 separate white rhino females, all with young since it was Spring, and baby season. Ahhhh. With just a few twigs between us and several tons of muscle, our ranger assured us if we were silent and still we wouldn’t be noticed since rhinos have notoriously poor eyesight. Yet the babies all stared curiously. We stared back, hoping they wouldn’t be too inquisitive. If they came to investigate the intruders then mum would surely follow, and there weren’t any trees we could take refuge in. Luckily they just continued munching their breakfast, and I was left feeling exhilarated, yet a little disappointed it hadn’t been more scary!

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

I can see you! Sort of…well, maybe a bit…ok so not at all. But I know you’re there!

Lunch was simple and tasty, served in the lapa beneath the sausage tree by the shy and unassuming lovely camp ladies. Salads, kudu meatballs and trifle, just the ticket for a bunch of intrepid adventurers. In fact all the food was surprisingly good, with last night’s candlelit dinner being a 4-course affair involving nyala stew (I tried not to think of our little cottage family) and wine from the bush bar. The after-dinner entertainment proved the ladies did have voices after all, as they impressed the guests assembled around the campfire with traditional Swazi singing and dancing. The famous high Swazi leg kicks make the cancan seem rather lame, and unsurprisingly none of the guests could even begin to compete!

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

The dining lapa under the watchful eye of the sausage tree

We were sad to leave Mkhaya at 4pm on our second afternoon, although during the last game drive out of the reserve the heavens opened beginning 2 entire days of non-stop rain, so it was with some relief that we were deposited back at our car. Waving goodbye, we left with memories of a lifetime, some fantastic photographs, and a hand bearing the imprint of a boy scout whistle.

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

You shall not pass! Cape buffalo have to be the grumpiest creatures around!


How to decide where to sit on a safari vehicle

Ok, so it’s probably not the most important decision you’ll be making on your trip, but where you sit during your game drive will make a difference to your experience.

Front – great for hearing what your guide has to say, for asking questions and for the full frontal viewing vantage point. Not so great for the foliage. You’ll be the first through any thorn bushes, overhanging branches and an assortment of spider webs so you need to be vigilant. Miss one and you’ll have some war wounds to add to your tales.

Middle – great for feeling safe. It’s logical that those at the front or back will be picked off first by any ravenous beasts. Not so great for leg room or photography being surrounded by people.

Back – great for elevation, views and being anti-social. Back seats tend to be higher thereby affording a superior vantage point for sightings and taking pictures, without feeling obliged to be asking inane questions all the time. Not so great for those who don’t appreciate roller coaster rides. All movement is exaggerated due to the height, and more than once we were thrown clean off our perches by an over-enthusiastic driver on the ride back out of the reserve. We have the bruises to show for it!

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

We prefer the back seat despite the roller-coaster effect!

Which Mkhaya programme to choose?

There are 4 package options at Mkhaya, and choosing one of these is the only way you’re able to visit the reserve, ensuring it remains an exclusive experience and protecting the wildlife at the same time.

We were pleased with our decision to do the 24 Hour Plus package which begins at 10am on day one, and ends at 4pm on day two. The most expensive at R2270 per person, this is the longest visit available and the only one that includes a bush walk, the main reason we were there.

Pick-up point

Don’t be alarmed when you pull up at the agreed meeting point. This dusty roadside clearing with a couple of huts and some rusty abandoned cars isn’t where you’ll be leaving your vehicle. Meeting times are strict, so if you arrive early be prepared for a wait without any sort of facilities whatsoever. When the river is low, you’ll then have to drive a few kms into the reserve following the guides in the game vehicles. We just about managed in our hire car, but the track is terrible and really more suited to a 4×4. Cars are left at the secure main base within the camp. When the river is high the vehicles are taken elsewhere for safe keeping.

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

The pick up point for Mhkaya

Poaching

Mkhaya is a haven for endangered species, particularly the rhino, and the reserve is staffed and patrolled entirely by Swazis from local communities. It boasts what is seen as Africa’s most effective anti-poaching unit which is funded by revenue generated by visitors to Stone Camp. So as well as a great tourist experience, we’re also doing our bit for a worthy international conservation effort. A couple of days well spent!

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

The sobering truth of rhino poaching. These skulls are all 20 years old, but the problem still remains today.

And finally, beware of untamed, inquisitive and thoroughly unpredictable wildlife in the camp…that ‘door’ won’t stop much!!

Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

Beware wild beasties


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Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland Mkhaya Game Reserve , Stone Camp, Swaziland

33 Comments

  • Jenn and Ed Coleman says:

    I absolutely love the glamping platform to explore areas like this -n particular, luxury glamping. The high price for this adventure seems to have allowed two fantastic opportunities. First, you were able to travel with only three other guests and have a private safari. Second, the money is helping to fund a highly effective anti poaching effort. We all have a choice as travelers and I applaud you for picking with your heart and not your wallet.

  • Monika says:

    A holiday home without electricity – I’d love it!

  • Greig says:

    You guys are brave! I’m just happy to hear that was an abundance of rhinos in the area given a lot of the recent talk regarding their numbers tanking. This area sounds well protected though. Also thanks for the tips of where to sit, sounds like I’d be best suited for the anti-social back of the truck where I can get lost in nature :).

    Greig

    • Heather Cole says:

      They’re doing great things there for the rhinos, although things are very hush hush so potential poachers can’t find out about it all (e.g. the actual numbers). And…all the best people sit in the back 🙂

  • Joe Ankenbauer says:

    This looks like so much fun! I need to do this ASAP! Thanks for the awesome tips!

  • Carly says:

    Wow, what an amazing experience, really helpful guide to where to sit in the jeep, I love the image of you clutching your whistle while you slept!! I’ve felt the same once on a night walk through the jungle! I love the quote – do one thing every day that scares you…. it seems you definitely managed it that day!

    • Heather Cole says:

      I think there was probably more than one thing each day there that scared me, but as you say, it’s a good thing!

  • Els Mahieu says:

    What a great experience! But oh dear, no walls or windows to protect you? I wouldn’t be afraid of a lion, crocodile or another big beast coming in, but would freak out at those dung beetles! 🙂 I stayed in a tent in a jungle eco lodge once and I made sure to go to the bathroom with my eyes closed, just in case I saw something that would freak me out, haha!

  • Samantha says:

    Nice to see a reserve putting in good efforts to save the rhinos…also nice to see a baby one too! It does look like a beautiful place to stay…and thrilling too! I’m pretty sure I would of slept with one eye open and the whistle firmly in my hand!

  • Cameron says:

    You saw sooo much wildlife! It makes me super excited to get to Swaziland. We have a place to stay on a ranch and plan to go there in 2016! Can’t wait! Always interesting to see a post on Swaziland since so few people have even heard of the nation.

    • Heather Cole says:

      A ranch sounds exciting, will you be riding? We had the opportunity at Mlilwane but it’s not really hubbie’s thing, so maybe next time…

  • Ashley says:

    Mkhaya is one of my favorite places to visit in southern Africa!

  • Sumit Surai says:

    I can feel how terrifying it would be in that hut during night, but the place looked awesome. I am sure you enjoyed a lot.

  • Elena says:

    Such a unique experience! Your cottage looks amazing, I can´t believe you were so sacred there but I understand you too doing the same thing over and over again and then asking myself why I do things that scare me so much 🙂

  • Brianna says:

    What a fabulous experience! I have loved my stay at nature lodges and this one looks fantastic. Amazing how close you got to the wildlife!

  • The Roaming Renegades says:

    Oh wow, what an amazing experience this looks. I just love the photos you have taken, that sunset and those animals and creatures, such amazing examples of the things on this earth! Truly inspiring piece, travel should be like this, a real experience and seeing things you never imagined!

  • Megsy says:

    Wow! You guys got such great photos. What an amazing experience thanks so much for sharing.
    P.s. I would have slept clutching the whistle too

  • Lyn says:

    Heather I just love your writing style… and those dung beetles.

  • Bailey K. says:

    Haha, I love your commentary on the bats! I’d love to do this one day. I think hippos are so cute, I’d love to see them in person! Great post.

  • Escaping Abroad says:

    This looks right up my alley! When I finally make it to Africa and go on a safari I might not ever leave 🙂 Excellent photos!

  • Kayna says:

    Those wild beasties sure do look scary! Thank goodness for the boy scout whistle. Great blog, Heather!

  • Renuka says:

    Amazing experience! I am so longing to go on a jungle safari that this post has only added to my craving. Beautiful pictures.

  • Elaine J. Masters says:

    One of the best posts I’ve read about safari experiences. Your pictures are stellar and writing great. Savored every word.

  • Charlie says:

    Looks like a really beautiful place to stay and some incredible wildlife. I really love your blog design by the way, lovely and clean but with catchy fonts, nice 🙂

    • Heather Cole says:

      Thanks! It was one of the most incredible (but scary) things we’ve done. And I’m sure my annoying little brother would be chuffed to know his blog design is admired, but I won’t tell him, it would go straight to his head 🙂

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