Swaziland or Eswatini
The capital is the small town of Mbabane near to the Ezulwini Valley although the country is best known for its wildlife reserves which are home to rhinos, lion and various antelope species. Additionally the Usutu River is popular with those seeking adventure on the white water rapids.
Sadly the protection and conservation of the animals and habitats all across Africa is an ongoing battle facing so many countries. Thankfully though there are some success stories including here in “The Kingdom of Eswatini”
Caroline Joyner is from the travel agent “Travel Counsellors” and she has been lucky enough to travel around Swaziland twice. She has witnessed for herself the efforts and successes of this land locked piece of Africa that is perhaps showing some of its more illustrious neighbours how to protect both the animals and the habitats for future generations to come.
A Rich Conservation Heritage
Tiny Swaziland (which changed its name to Eswatini in 2018) lives in the shadow of its big-5 neighbour, South Africa, but a long conservation heritage has left a legacy of impressive yet intimate game reserves.
Bumping along through the dense bush on dirt tracks, the open-sided truck gives the feeling that the black rhino and her baby are almost in touching distance. Getting this close to a wild black rhino so quickly after entering the Mkaya Game Reserve was unexpected. Critically endangered, there are only just over 5000 of them left in the wild.
Driving through Mkhaya’s densely populated bush provides somewhat intimate encounters with the most infamous of the African wildlife. Giraffes munch happily on leaves and Kudu’s bounce from tree to tree. In movie terms, its Bambi meets Madagascar, but it hasn’t always been like this for Swaziland. Mkhaya Game Reserve, one of Swaziland’s 3 reserves, forms an important part of this tiny country’s rich conservation heritage.
From One Man's Vision
Way back at the end of colonial rule, the Swaziland or Eswatini diverse natural habitats, were once home to abundant free roaming beasts had been left with virtually nothing. The antelope were no-where to be seen, let alone the ‘Big 5’. One young man had watched his country’s demise and after experiencing the true ‘wild Africa’ in Zambia, he decided to do something about it.
At 20 years old, world renowned conservationist, Ted Riley began a campaign to establish what are now some of southern Africa’s most successful conservation reserves, gaining support from King Sobuza II, Swaziland’s reigning monarch at the time. Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary opened in 1964 introducing its first white rhino population in 1965. What followed was 50 years of conservation efforts in partnership with the Swazi Royal House, resulting in the founding of Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve along the way.
10,000 square kilometres of a reserve is quite small by African standards, but the lack of self-drive and paved roads here really does give you a sense of the wild. We stop for lunch at a camp, eating under a sausage tree. “How many rhinos do you have here?”, I ask our guide. “I can’t give you a figure”, he says, “but it’s a healthy population”. Therein lies my first lesson in the current reality of the poaching crisis: guides will not reveal figures for any animal in case this information ends in the wrong hands.
For Future Generations
Like much of Africa, Swaziland or Eswatini finds itself amid a war with poachers, but this tiny Absolute Monarchy is giving it’s larger, more famous, neighbours a run for their money. Whilst South Africa has lost over 3000 Rhino since 2011, Swaziland lost only 3. Swaziland has arguably Africa’s most effective anti-poaching force and it was Ted Riley who began the process.
Back in the 90s when ivory poaching was at its height, Mr Riley deposited a poached rhino outside the King Mswati III’s Royal Palace. His very public protests precipitated fairly revolutionary changes in legislation around penalties for poaching; anyone caught poaching or attempting to poach receives a minimum of 5 years in jail and must pay back the value of the poached animal. If there is a mis sentence the judge is liable and can be sentenced to the same as the poacher which effectively quashes the blight of African justice: corruption.
In neighbouring South Africa, current legislation does not require poachers to go to jail, giving an option of paying a fine to walk free. Poaching numbers peaked there in 2014 with 1215 rhinos killed by poachers that year, but in Swaziland only 3 rhinos have been killed by poachers in the last 26 years.
A Symphony In Stereo
My lodging for the night is in one of Stone Camp’s 10 very special open-sided stone built rooms. Each room occupies its own personal piece of the reserve. As I wander down the rough path through the bush to my lodge, I encounter a family of warthogs playing happily and eland dancing. Apart from quite a pathetic looking “gate”, my little house is open to all – the stone sides only reach waist height. As darkness falls I am increasingly aware of my untamed surroundings. I go to open the safe to find a huge spider sprawled across the door, it’s not just the animals who have freedom of movement here.
At dinner, I ask one of the waiters whether any guests have actually woken to find any larger animals around their lodges. “Not really”, he muses. “although there was a spate where elephants were intent on destroying the trees in-between the rooms”, he muses. “Oh, and there was that Italian lady who woke up to find a hyena in her room”. Wishing I had never asked, I settled down to sleep in my camping-esq bedroom.
In the darkness, every sound is amplified: like someone had just turned the volume right up. The air is full with a chorus of frogs, crickets and bush babies, a symphony in stereo. Each sound becomes distinct from the others in a rhythmic hum, the frog calls seems to be on the beat after every 5 cricket calls. My mind is forcing me to listen for footsteps, breaking trees, branches…..
A Refuge For Endangered Species
Waking early to the splintered sunlight the sounds have changed. Bird call dominates the landscape of tangled trees outside; a whistling call, an alarm clock call, a quacking call. Taking a shower is like showering inside a game hide: I watch as the antelope and the warthogs roam metres from me.
“Swaziland’s refuge for endangered species” has come along way from its origins as a small farm breeding indigenous Nguni cattle. The Riley family’s decision to sell the cattle and replace them with endangered game has paid off; as well as being Swaziland’s best boutique safari experience, this reserve now leads the way in rhino conservation.
The rhinos themselves continue to lie contently in the mud, their noses buried deep, oblivious to the fact that they are part of one of Southern Africa’s most successful conservation stories.
The Kingdom of Swaziland or Eswatini is easily reachable via a short flight or 4 hour road trip from Johannesburg. It is also with easy driving distance of Kruger and the Durban coastline, making it a worthwhile stop off in any South Africa itinerary.
Swaziland’s principal reserves and game parks:
Hlane Royal National Park. This is the largest reserve where the “Big 5” hang out in typical African bushveld scenery, but with none of the crowds of Kruger – you can spot lions, elephants, white rhinos and antelopes and even an elusive leopard if you are lucky. Lodging is simple and this park is an easy self-drive.
Milwane Wildlife sanctuary. Eswatini’s oldest reserve and another pioneering conservation effort, nothing dangerous lives here which means walking, cycling and horse riding safaris are a great way to get close to the impressive list of flora and fauna. Hike up execution rock and watch the sunset over the valley. Accommodation includes everything from camping to luxury lodges but many people visit on a day trip.
Mkhaya Game Reserve. The country’s most exclusive reserve, Mkhaya is explored with private game drives and your own incredible guide. Its home to 4 of the big 5 and has some of Africa’s best rhino viewing opportunities. Lodge at the barefoot luxury ‘Stone Camp’ and enjoy dinner under the stars.
Malalotja Nature Reserve. One of Africa’s most scenic highland reserves, this is where to come for some action. You can hike, cycle, horse ride or zip wire your way through its beautiful rolling hills, grasslands, gorges and waterfalls. Lodging includes campsites, rustic cabins or traditional beehive chalets with all mod cons.
If you are looking for a safari and beach holiday Eswatini is also easily combined with Mozambique’s idyllic beaches.