Expert Reviews – Mkhaya GR
Mark is a travel writer who grew up in Africa and has written over 700 titles for CNN Traveller, Travel Africa, BBC Wildlife and others.
Black rhino haven
A macabre collection of animal skulls, snares and traps arranged at the entrance to Mkhaya Game Reserve tells the story of Swaziland’s (now eSwatini’s) battle with poachers. For once this is a battle that seems to be favoring the wildlife and I had come to Mkhaya to patrol with the crack SAS-trained, ranger patrols that are (a rare success story) managing to hold the poachers at bay.
The only way to explore this lowveld park is with guides, either in open Land Rovers or on foot. I had a rare opportunity to photograph shy black rhino interacting on the fringe of a boisterous herd of sparring white rhino. Population figures are a closely guarded secret but Mkhaya offers one of the best opportunities in Africa for getting up-close and about as intimate as you ever can to wild black rhino (the only black rhino in the country). Mkhaya boasts a total of 52 large mammals and this is the only place in the country to see buffalo, sable, Livingstone’s eland and tsessebe.
Stone Camp (designed by Ted Reilly – father of Swaziland conservation) is a great place to get back to basics with a perfect grass-roots wifi (and even electricity) detox with just candles and paraffin lamps. With an absence of large predators (apart from rare spotted hyena), you sleep in luxurious thatched accommodation that lack both windows and doors, leaving you with a blissful opportunity to tune in to all the sounds of the bush as you drift off.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
Impressive wildlife in exclusive surrounds
While Mkhaya is definitely Swaziland’s top wildlife destination, the park is very small and animals are kept in large enclosures to keep them safe. If you’ve been privileged to visit some of Africa’s great wild parks protecting sustainable ecosystems, this may jar a little, but less-experienced visitors may not think anything of it. The park is run like a private reserve with a luxury lodge and all drives conducted by knowledgeable guides in open safari vehicles. Self-drive isn’t allowed, which creates an exclusive vibe. My highlight was tracking black rhino on foot through thick bush. Coming within 30m of a mother with calf was more than a little exciting. Evenings are enjoyed around the campfire – the best place to reminiscence over the adventures of the day.
Lucy is travel writer for a range of publications, including Lonely Planet's guides to Africa, Southern Africa and South Africa.
Open air lodges, inquisitive visitors
While you can visit on a day tour, if you want to really experience Mkhaya Game Reserve then it’s worth spending a night or two at Stone Camp. Day visitors aren’t allowed here, so it’s particularly peaceful and depending on the season you might even have the whole camp to yourself. Stone Camp is an electricity-free camp with open-air lodges: expect visits from the local wildlife, particularly inquisitive monkeys in search of a treat. While Stone Camp is impressively in tune with nature, the reserve is made up of several former farms and there are numerous gates which the guides have to open to enter different sections. It does take away from the overall wilderness vibe of the park somewhat, but the wildlife viewings – including white rhino and giraffe – quickly make up for it.
Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.
Bastion of the black rhino
If there’s just one word to encapsulate what this park is all about, it’s ‘rhinos’. From the moment you arrive at the Phuzamoya Ranger Station on your way into the reserve, you are confronted by a shocking display of mutilated skulls from the last Rhino War that pushed Africa’s rhino populations to the very brink. It’s a poignant reminder as we find ourselves in the midst of the Second Great War to defend Africa’s beleaguered rhinos.
But far being a place of doom and gloom, Mkhaya – named after the prolific knob thorns that dominate the reserve – is the silver lining to the dark cloud that represents Africa’s current rhino woes. Amid tight security and under the watchful eye of a world-class anti-poaching unit, black and white rhinos are visibly thriving, along with a wide variety of endangered Lowveld wildlife species, such as sable, roan and tsessebe.
The top safari activity at Mkhaya is on-foot rhino tracking, with some seriously close encounters with these critically endangered prehistoric beasts. The high density and approachability of Mkhaya’s rhino enable visitors to get up-close and personal with the animals. It’s an intimate, heart-pounding experience that you certainly won’t forget in a hurry.
Mkhaya differs from the other reserves in the Big Game Parks portfolio in that it does not accommodate self-drive or self-catering visitors. The fully inclusive Stone Camp offers accommodation packages, including game drives in open-top vehicles and guided bush walks, which provide visitors with exceptional opportunities to see both black and white rhino in the wild – an incredibly rare and privileged safari experience today.