Expert Reviews – Mlilwane WS
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.
A chance to get your feet/wheels/hooves into the African dust
It was already early evening when I drove into the hills of Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Covering just 46km2/29mi2, Mlilwane doesn’t take long to drive across but I had to keep stopping to gawk: the highland landscape was spectacular with the gold-tinted flank of Nyonyane Mountain looming above the plains. It’s said that in the old days this was the ‘Execution Rock’ from which criminals were thrown and that – with a gruesome sense of humor – Nyonyane means ‘Little Bird’ in the local language.
Happily, those birds are long gone but you have a chance of seeing 245 other bird species in the sanctuary these days along with 49 species of large mammals.
“When I was a kid on Mlilwane, which was then our family farm, you could drive across Swaziland and feel like you were passing through one endless herd of game animals,” recalled conservation legend Ted Reilly.
The old family home is now Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge, an idyllic lodge among a purple snow-drift of jacaranda blooms. Down at the main rest camp you’ll find irresistibly quirky ‘Bee-Hive’ accommodation and a campsite. Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary became the country’s first protected area, but it was never intended to be a Big Five park. There’s a feeling of freedom here and, in the absence of dangerous animals, a delightful sense of being able to stamp your boots into the African dirt rather than simply watch the wildlife from the cocoon of a game-driving vehicle. You’re free to walk and mountain-bike (with or without guides) among zebras, wildebeests, nyalas antelopes and even – with a wary eye open – alongside man-made dams inhabited by hippos and large crocs. This is also wonderful horse-trekking country and a highlight of my visit to Mlilwane was an unforgettable dawn gallop among herds of zebras and blesboks.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
Swaziland’s pioneer conservation area
Mlilwane is a low-key, unpretentious reserve on reclaimed farmland. While it’s pleasant enough, this is not the place to come for an authentic bush experience. On the weekend, local families use the day facilities and drive around with their kids to see the introduced animals. I visited on one of those busy weekends and while I wasn’t very impressed, I did appreciate that at least Mlilwane is accessible and affordable for ordinary Swazi people. Signage and a collection of snares have been erected to educate children and adults alike about poaching. All in all, it’s a great conservation effort and the restaurant overlooking a hippo pod is a worthwhile stop-over if you’re heading this way.
Lucy is travel writer for a range of publications, including Lonely Planet's guides to Africa, Southern Africa and South Africa.
Walk, cycle or run in nature
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is the closest park to Mbabane and, because of that, it can get much busier than the other parks. There are several affordable accommodation options and many activities to choose from, which makes for a popular family getaway, though the dearth of large mammals makes it a less exciting park for most travellers. But Mlilwane is a great place to enjoy safaris at a different pace – on foot or by bike. You can rent mountain bikes or just walk (or run) around the park freely. Also, if you are planning a few nights in Swaziland and need a good base, Reilly’s Rock is highly recommended. Set inside Mlilwane, it’s an all-inclusive guesthouse overlooking the park and is one of the most peaceful accommodation options in the country.
Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.
Safari activities extravaganza
Proclaimed in 1960, Mlilwane means ‘little fire’ and is a reference to the numerous fires started by lightning strikes in the area. At 4560 hectares, this relatively small wildlife refuge was originally established as a stronghold to save the last of Swaziland’s vanishing wildlife. Nowadays, progeny from a diverse array of indigenous species here is periodically translocated to restock other denuded wildlife areas throughout the country.
Taking a game drive past frisky herds of zebra, waterbuck, blesbok and blue wildebeest up to the Nyonyane viewpoint in the heart of the reserve is a worthwhile experience. And because of the absence of dangerous game, the scenic mountainous terrain of the Ezulwini Valley makes Mlilwane a paradise for active outdoor enthusiasts. Ezulwini translates as ‘Valley of Heaven’, an apt description for this fertile valley on the outskirts of Mbabane. With hiking, mountain biking and horse riding all on the agenda, Mlilwane is a veritable playground for connoisseurs of the great outdoors who prefer to abandon their vehicles and immerse themselves in nature.
Horseback safaris at Mlilwane cater to all ages and levels of rider ability. They range from basic hour-long horseback walks for beginners to challenging full-day (or even overnight) rides all the way up notorious Nyonyane Mountain to the exposed granite peak known as Execution Rock. For energetic visitors, self-guided mountain-bike excursions offer superb opportunities to connect with nature and appreciate the abundant herds of relaxed plains game that roam the open grasslands of the sanctuary. And for those in search of an off-the-beaten-track nature experience, Mlilwane offers guided hiking trails to Matenga Waterfall and the pristine mountainous northern section of the park where there are no roads or people.
There is a range of Mlilwane accommodation options, but the best bet is certainly luxurious Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge, which is actually located inside a royal botanical garden of endangered cycads and rare aloes. It’s also home to a variety of threatened small antelope – including blue duiker, suni and klipspringer – and a resident family of bush babies.
Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
A sanctuary offering fun bush adventures and the smaller species of game
At the end of the Ezulwini Valley (‘Valley of Heaven’), 45-sq-km Mlilwane is Swaziland’s (now the Kingdom of eSwatini) oldest protected area, founded by the Reilly family in 1961. The terrain is mainly grasslands and open floodplains stretching up to the striking granite peak of Nyonyane Mountain (‘Execution Rock’).There are plenty of fun activities to do here from sunset drives and walking safaris to horse-riding and local Swazi village visits. But what I like about Mlilwane is that you can also be independent too – maps are given out for self-drive game drives and hikes and you can even hire bikes and go mountain-biking unescorted. This is possible due to the absence of predators so there’s no Big 5 experience here. But Mlilwane has an astonishingly long list of antelope species including impala, nyala, roan, blesbuck, reedbuck and kudu, plus there’s zebra and wildebeest, hippos and crocs in the dams and rivers, and the warthogs are so tame they snuffle around the rest camp. There’s a good choice of varied accommodation too – my tip is to stay in one of the unique domed thatched Swazi beehive huts, or if your budget stretches, take a room at Reilly’s Rock, a quiet hilltop, colonial guesthouse. It’s the country’s most visited reserve, so won’t be wild or exciting enough for seasoned safari-goers but it’s great for families and people looking for soft adventure.