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