​Expert Reviews – Mlilwane WS

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Stephen Cunliffe   –  
South Africa ZA
Visited: March and July

Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.

Safari activities extravaganza
Overall rating

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 Eswatini’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 Williams   –  
South Africa ZA
Visited: Multiple times

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
Overall rating

At the end of the Ezulwini Valley (‘Valley of Heaven’), 45-sq-km Mlilwane is Eswatini’s (formerly Swaziland) 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.

Average Expert Rating

  • 2.8/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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