There are three main national parks in Swaziland that as a tourist you’ll want to see. We had time for just two. Mkhaya Game Reserve was a sure thing, given that we’d get to sleep out in the wild and go rhino tracking on foot. So we had to decide between the plains and peaks of Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, and the bushveld lions of Hlane Royal National Park.
As we were entering Swaziland at the Oshoek border it made sense to visit Mlilwane, despite my slight reservations that it was perhaps a rather ‘soft adventure’ option, popular with families and weekenders. Being neither we weren’t expecting a particularly wild experience, but it looked fun all the same, and I liked the fact we could remain independent whilst in the reserve.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
Located between the cities of Mbabane and Manzini in the Ezulwini Valley (or ‘Valley of the Heavens’), Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is Swaziland’s pioneer conservation area. The 4,560 hectare sanctuary comprises grassland plains and granite peaks, with numerous walking trails and tracks to explore and mingle with the animals.
There are several ways to experience Mlilwane…by mountain bike, on a guided game drive, or even on horseback. I loved the idea of an overnight hack to sleep in a cave, but as hubbie has sworn never to get on a four-legged creature again (which means he hasn’t ruled out ostriches!) we had to rely on our own two feet, and our poor little hire car. We did consider a game drive but these looked really tame and consisted mainly of large tour groups so we opted to go it alone instead. Good move.
But first things first. Where to stay.
Mlilwane caters for a wide range of budgets, and for the first time in years we eschewed luxury in favour of a hostel. Perhaps the sun had finally got to us…
Most of the accommodation is located here in the central Rest Camp. Self catering chalets in national parks all across South Africa are renowned for their functionality rather than their charm, and the ones in Mlilwane are no different. Located in and around the main camp they’re close to all the facilities but felt rather crowded and impersonal. The premium cottages are more spaced out and overlook the valley, but for our money, we just didn’t think it was worth it for the quality of accommodation. There is also a campsite here for those with a smaller budget, but boy would it have been hot under canvas.
The beehive villages are the real draw, with their grass domed huts lined up in semi-circles, enclosed by traditional boma reed fencing. The huts may be simple but have buckets of charm, not least because they are en-suite. I had my heart set on sleeping in one of these, but even six months prior to our trip they were all fully booked. In the event I was glad we weren’t staying here as they were taken up entirely by tour groups and the whole area felt a little contrived.
There is a large swimming pool here in the main camp which looked inviting, yet on our second afternoon it was full of coach loads of school children, their shrieks shattering the tranquillity of the camp. Indeed the sound even travelled some distance away along the park trails. Not quite the experience we’d been anticipating.
Elsewhere in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary there are a couple of other options. Reilly’s Rock is a secluded hilltop lodge surrounded by botanical gardens and feels separate from the rest of the reserve. With a distinctly colonial feel, Reilly’s caters for the upmarket crowd with a price to match. At over £100 a night we felt the value was a little over-rated for the furnishings on offer. Which is why we ended up doing something we haven’t done for a decade.
Stay in a backpackers hostel!
We’re not backpackers, and we don’t do communal living, yet Sondzela Backpackers seemed like the most true-to-value option in the sanctuary so we decided to chance it. Located in the southern section of Mlilwane, it overlooks the beautiful Mhlambanyatsi Valley, far surpassing the views from the main camp, and is truly the most spectacularly located hostel I have ever come across. In fact the best game viewing was from right here at Sondzela, rather than out on the trails! The lodge even has it’s own swimming pool and gardens, with a braai area, small bar and parking.
As it was low season, there were only three other guests staying at Sondzela, so we went to see if we could swap to a house room, which although lacking in charm, looked clean and cooler. Oddly, the lady on reception wasn’t forthcoming with help and even said they were full, no doubt because the rondavels were more expensive! When we pointed out all the empty rooms she eventually relented and allowed us to move, and we ended up having two very good nights sleep. The other bonus of being in the main house was that the bathrooms had lockable doors for privacy, whilst outside the facilities for the rondavels were communal and the narrow plastic shower curtains didn’t leave much to the imagination.
At Sondzela you can sign up for meals on a daily basis for minimal cost, and we enjoyed an impala stew on our first evening, cooked over a communal camp fire by the lovely kitchen camp staff. Normally quite antisocial travellers we nonetheless got into the spirit and ate seated around the fire with the other guests. It was pleasant for a while but soon became a competition of one-up-man-ship as to who had travelled the most, at which point hubbie and I gracefully departed to bed, not feeling the need to show off to strangers.
The lack of forthcoming information at Sondzela about park activities was frustrating. Staff told us we would have to get it from the main camp, a bumpy 10 minute drive away and not to be negotiated after dark. Yet at main camp they told us Sondzela should have everything we would need. We wanted to go hiking, but didn’t know whether it was safe or if we had to walk on particular trails. Eventually, after asking several times, the reception lady at the hostel decided she did indeed have trail maps for sale, and could of course book us onto game drives if we wished. Nothing like a good bit of customer service.
A network of self-guided walking trails spans out from the main rest camp, and we opted for the longer Hippo Trail, simply because it had a cool name. It took in all the different terrain types of the park, from lowland plains and river valleys to forests and upland peaks. It was great going out by ourselves (after signing in at reception for safety) and feeling so free.
We’ve done bush walks before, always with a ranger, but as there are no lions or big game in Mlilwane, visitors are allowed to wander the trails by themselves. There are other animals of course, and you do need to keep an eye out for hippos and crocodiles, giving the perfect blend of anticipation and excitement without the acute danger.
The hippo pool failed to offer up it’s namesake, but we did encounter a couple of crocs gliding through the water, keeping a lazy eye on us up on the bank.
After tramping through wooded slopes, creeping through thick undergrowth and sliding along muddy river banks we emerged on the open plains where our animal encounters really began. There were warthog families scuffling around in the dust and eagles circling overhead, whilst herds of impala, zebra and wildebeest eyed us curiously without interrupting their rhythmic munching. Other assorted antelope were more flighty, and we challenged ourselves to see how close we could get before they spotted us. Needless to say we won’t be giving up our day jobs.
It was only after our hike that we learnt there are in fact leopards at Mlilwane!
Self Drive Safari
It’s so much fun being independent and not knowing what will be around the next corner.
We had a map of all the tracks and just went for it. And this is where I decided I would drive for the very first time in Africa! Not only did I have to cope with an unfamiliar vehicle, I also had deep ruts, steep slopes and rickety wooden bridges to negotiate. Possibly not the best idea in a hatchback but hey, you’ve got to work with the tools you have, right?
Sometimes I had to reverse for long sections upon discovering the track was impassable in our car and on other occasions it was 3-point turns whilst trying not to knock over termite mounds.
Hubbie was really helpful, encouraging me to attempt all the steep bits that only afterwards he admitted were actually a bit too steep for our vehicle! The car certainly wasn’t white any longer after our adventure. Really, if you are able to hire a 4×4 for your adventures, this would be much better!
I have to be honest, we saw more wildlife up at Sondzela and out walking the trails on foot than we did whilst driving, but the scenery was pleasant and it was more about the trail driving experience than anything. Plus this is the only way to really explore the entirety of the park.
We loved the Hippo Haunt restaurant at main camp, even if we did have to battle the tour groups at the buffet. It was very relaxing tucking into toasted cheese sandwiches and chips whilst keeping an eye on two crocodiles that were sunbathing in the pool. Alas there were no hippos during November, but time it right and you might get lucky. The food was decent, service friendly, and prices very reasonable. Just as well as there aren’t really any other eating options.
If you have days to spare, then it’s certainly worth stopping here to hike in the park and enjoy the scenery. Yet if time is short, I suggest you bypass Mlilwane and head straight to Mkhaya for a real Swazi bush experience. Mlilwane is great for families, tour groups, and people looking for soft adventure, but it’s perhaps not wild or exciting enough for many independent travellers. I’m glad we experienced it, and really enjoyed our time exploring the trails on foot and by car, but two nights were certainly long enough.
- Getting there…You can drive to the main camp in a normal car if you take it nice and slowly, although during the wet season you’ll probably struggle with mud. It takes a good 10 minutes from the entrance gate to reach the main camp.
- Sondzela Backpackers…is a further 10 minutes drive beyond main camp, and the road is pretty terrible and badly signed. We nearly killed our poor little car doing it and really wished we had a 4×4. We certainly wouldn’t have made it in the rain as it’s really steep and rutted in parts.
- Wear sturdy footwear…on the walking trails. It gets muddy down by the river!
- Eating at Hippo Haunt…Make sure you reserve a table for dinner, and ask for one up on deck overlooking the pool (the prime table is the one on the far right). Otherwise you’ll probably be eating on the lower deck (without a view) with the large parties. It’s also less busy at lunch if you want a quieter dining experience.
- Daily conservation fee of SZL40 per person.
View from Sondzela Backpackers, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
I’d booked us into a rondavel (main image at top of post), liking the traditional appearance, but we were sorely disappointed with the interior of our hut. It was frankly rather filthy, the floors so slimy we were slipping all over the place, and the bed linen was covered with bits of dirt. The place was stifling in the afternoon heat, and buzzing with sleepy mosquitoes that had waltzed in through the holes in the window-frames. Not for the first time on this trip I wondered what I’d let ourselves in for. Yet we appreciated it was going to be basic, and not the sort of accommodation we were used to, so it took us some while to pluck up the courage to decide we weren’t going to stay here. It doesn’t matter how simple or cheap the room, dirt has no place at any level. We also thought it odd that we were initially refused a room key, and then when we insisted they asked for a deposit.