Swaziland Game Parks and Nature Reserves on a budget
Travelling in Swaziland - Game Parks and Nature Reserves
It was midday when we arrived at the community run National Trust Commission, Mlawula Nature Reserve, near the Mozambique border. The advert had stated that the camp site is near rapids on the Mbuluzi River and is rustic. The friendly lady and her helper welcomed us at reception and took our R200 (about $21) to cover our one night camping and entrance fees. She kindly directed us towards the camping area marking the route on a map which she supplied. The facilities were rustic, if that is a synonym for rather run down. The river was typical of an African Periodic River; sandy, stony and bone dry! After all, this is late winter and the first spring rains are still a couple of weeks away.
Birding in and around the camping area, however, is good and our list soon grew to a respectable 25. We also saw three different kinds of antelope along the way to the campground. Hot water was available in the bathrooms, heated by what local refer to as a “donkey” i.e. a wood fire. Paraffin lamps are the available lighting in the ablution block, with a box of matches supplied to light them. Supper consisted of roasted chicken bought at a supermarket on the way and a salad. We sat in our camping chairs and watched the sun go down in the African veldt. Across the camp ground a couple of Swiss tourists lit a wood fire to do their evening “braai”. They were the only other campers around.
The highlight of our visit was undoubtedly a hike along the fishing trail to the Baboon Cave that wound its way along the Mbuluzi River, one of the two Perennial Rivers in the Reserve. Fever Trees and local palms provided the ideal location for the birding in that area. Here one could find the very scarce Pell’s Fishing Owl, African Broadbill, African Finfoot and the small but beautiful Pink-throated Twinspot. We did manage to add the Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Green Pigeon, Crested Guineafowl and the White-crested Helmet Shrike to our list of Swaziland birds.
The Charma Baboons made their presence known by their barking call and a Nile Crocodile slithered off the sandbanks into the water. Next to the path an animal or reptile noisily disappeared into the bush causing us to jump back a few steps. I picked up a suitable fallen branch from the ground to defend us if necessary, but our fear proved to be unfounded. An African Fish Eagle flew close overhead but the scarce specials eluded us, perhaps because we were purposely walking rather noisily so as not to get too close to the Baboons and startle them.
On the way home we did a quick detour into the Big Game Park called Hlane. A cup of coffee at the deck overlooking the large water hole next to the campground was very pleasant. We saw two groups of the big five, Elephant and Rhino, coming down to enjoy an evening drink and mud bath. There were also a few Hippos lazing in the water but time, however, did not permit us to search for the Lions and Buffalo that are also found in the Park.
Swaziland is only a small country surrounded by South Africa on three sides and Mozambique in the east. Its area of 17,364 sq. km. is home to a population of 1,354,051 people (What’s Happening in Swaziland-July 2013) It is interesting to see that this tiny country by African standards, enjoys a large number of Game Reserves and Nature Reserves, making it a popular tourist destination for visitors from overseas and from South Africa.
While South Africa in my opinion has better Game reserves such as the Kruger and Kgalagadi National Parks, Swaziland’s reserves have a charm and attraction that cannot be overlooked. Kruger is in fact larger than Swaziland at 20,000 sq. km. and the Kgalagadi is a staggering 3.6 million ha.
There are several different types of game reserves in Swaziland. The Big Game Parks consist of 3 Reserves, Hlane Royal National Park, Mkhaya Game Reserve and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. They are run by the company Big Game Parks and remind one of the South African Parks as to organization and accommodation.
Then there are several privately run reserves like Nisela Safaris in the S/E, Hawane Resort, Malalotsja Game Park and Mlawida Nature Reserve in the N.W. These offer a variety of accommodation options and different adventure activities which include Caving, Hiking, Horse Riding, Cycling, Canopy Tours and Fishing to mention a few. Short breaks from lecturing in the Counseling Department at the African Christian College in Manzini have allowed us to visit three of these parks in the past couple of weeks.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is situated in the popular Ezulwini Tourist Route close to the largest towns of Mbabane and Manzini and is the area of highest population in Swaziland. It was the first Wildlife/Game Reserve in Swaziland and was officially opened in 1960. It offers hiking, cycling and horse riding among the antelope and resident river dwellers (Hippo and Crocodiles). It is an excellent birding venue and supports a Heronry and a large number of Bee-eaters. It offers a variety of accommodation options from camping to luxury lodges and the charming Bee-hive huts.
Hlane Game Reserve is another of the “Big Game Parks” and offers four of the big five animals. The main road to the N/E border of Swaziland goes through Hlane and so motorists, cyclists and walkers travelling that way are warned to be on the lookout for Lions and Elephants. The reception area and camp ground just of the main road overlooks a large water hole. The park reminds one of the South African National Parks and supports several raptor species.
Mabuluzi Nature Reserve in the N/E is a community run reserve near the Mozambique border. While it does not have any of the big five animals it is an excellent birding location with a list of over 350 species, including some of the rarer South African specials such as Pell’s Fishing Owl and Narina Trogon. The fishing trail along the Mbuluzi river to the Baboon Cave allows visitors to test their fishing skill among the crocodiles. It follows the river through beautiful Riverine Forrest next to reed beds and sandbanks. One of the local workers warned us to be careful if we went fishing, that we were not in turn caught by the “big” Crocodiles. We decided to walk the trail but not get too near the water.
We have not visited any of the private run Parks as they cater for a more up market clientele and are therefore out of our price range. Even on our limited budget this small Kingdom is well worth a visit, if only for the Game Parks and Nature Reserves.
The Swazi people are friendly and polite and go out of their way to make visitors feel at home. Drivers are more careful and generally obey the rules of the road, unlike their neighbors in South Africa who show less respect for law and order.