Expert Reviews – Hlane Royal NP

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eSwatini’s Royal flagship park
Overall rating

With 200km/124mi of game-driving tracks, Hlane Royal National Park is Swaziland’s (now eSwatini’s) biggest protected area and allows self-drive access as well as guided safaris either in vehicles, on-foot or by cycle. Since this is officially the royal park, Hlane provides the habitat for eSwatini’s only lions – a regal symbol – and (rare) cheetahs among its 44 large mammal species and 262 birds.

Just sitting around the huge Ndlovu Camp waterhole in the evening is sure to provide sightings of a lot of wildlife, including jostling herds of elephants. The lions are in a limited-access enclosure, which unfortunately detracts from the wilderness bush vibe (the quantity of prey skeletons makes it feel more like a velociraptor compound), but you are guaranteed close-up sightings and photo opportunities.

The guides are well-trained and knowledgeable and, as a front-line force in combating rhino-poaching, Hlane’s rangers have been selected from the local community and some are reformed ex-poachers themselves. Their traditional bush-skills provided the ideal foundation for the SAS training they received during induction.

As one Big Game Park’s guide points out, “There were probably times when the SAS boys were learning as much from some of our guys as we were from them.”

From King’s hunting ground to safe haven
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This little park lacks true wilderness appeal: animals are kept in different drive-through areas and the road network is pretty limited. However, it is a great place to get up close to white rhinos. These large, primeval-looking beasts are so used to cars that nothing fazes them. This ensures you get to see behavior and interactions that are often more difficult to witness if animals are more wary. There are several very smooth rubbing posts around and we saw several rhinos using them to rid themselves of ticks and other parasites. We were lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in Hlane during the King’s annual visit to the park. This was obviously a big deal and while of cultural interest, it was quite disruptive.

Up close with rhinos
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One of the most under-appreciated parks in southern Africa, Hlane Royal National Park is the place for rhino lovers. Not only are sightings practically guaranteed, you can also opt for a drive which allows you to exit the vehicle and walk within metres of these endangered giants. During our walk, we were only about five metres from a mother and calf, though that distance closed quickly when the young one took an interest in us. We slowly ambled back to the jeep, all the while followed by mom and her child. It was exhilarating and petrifying to be that close to a rhino, but the calm and experienced ranger made us all feel that we were not in (too much) danger. Hlane Royal National Park is also the only park with lions in Swaziland, though they are featured in a separate enclosure which takes the ‘safari feel’ away from the experience.

Swaziland’s biggest park
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Hlane means ‘wilderness’ and the 30,000-hectare Hlane Royal National Park is Swaziland’s largest reserve and home to decent herbivore herds, along with four of the Big Five. With only buffalo absent from this Lowveld park, lovers of big beasties will feel right at home in Hlane.

Without electricity to distract safari-goers from their Hlane bush experience, Ndlovu Rest Camp comes alive at night. Nesting barn owls screech in the wooden eaves of the restaurant, epauletted fruit bats squawk in the surrounding trees, and a crash of white rhino sidle up to the camp’s low fence where they contentedly bed down for the night. Just three strands of electric fence separate you from the heavy-breathing rhino, as you watch them snooze peacefully by the light of the moon. You’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven.

An extensive network of game-viewing tracks criss-crosses the national park, allowing visitors to explore the area on guided open-top game drives or in their own vehicles. Early-morning game drives in search of lions in a surreal landscape of skeletal knob thorns can be followed by guided mid-morning mountain bike rides or bush walks to the hide at Mahlindza waterhole. Here you can munch on your packed brunch in the company of crocodiles, nyala, wildebeest, warthogs and woolly-necked storks. It is reassuring to know that these adventure activities are conducted in sectors of the park without lions.

Hlane Royal National Park belongs in the elite of Swaziland’s wildlife parks. Along with wonderfully low-key wildlife-watching experiences, there’s plenty more to keep you occupied, including wildlife drives, bushwalking, mountain biking and local cultural tours.

A lowland bushveld park that’s home to the largest herds of game in this tiny kingdom
Overall rating

Covering around 300-sq-km and the largest park in Swaziland (now the Kingdom of eSwatini), Hlane features grassland, shallow pans and tracts of hardwood trees. The name means ‘wilderness’ and the ‘Royal’ part is derived from the fact that it’s held in trust by King Mswati III. I found it a very easy park to visit on a self-drive trip – Swazi is a small country and distances aren’t great – and it’s also on plenty of safari itineraries as the best park for large mammals; especially elephant, white rhino, hippo, giraffe and other plains game, and there’s a reasonably healthy-sized population of lion. Birders will love Hlane – it reputedly has the highest density of nesting white-backed vultures in southern Africa, while raptors include martial, bateleur, and long-crested eagles. I was very surprised to see marabou storks – a curious looking and huge bird I’ve only seen in East Africa before. The park is not especially wild, and unfortunately is bisected by the MR3 Highway, but I enjoyed the reasonably-priced guided game drive organised at Ndlovu Camp immediately inside the main gate and saw plenty of game in just two hours. Walking and mountain bike safaris are other options too.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.4/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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