I recently went somewhere I never thought I would set foot: Swaziland – The small African kingdom, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique. I had the pleasure of staying at the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary at the heart of Swaziland as part of a larger tour organised by Nomad Tours.
Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve – Safari in the Heart of Swaziland
The Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is the oldest protected wildlife park in Swaziland. Set on 4,600 acres of land, you'll find a number of wild animals on the property that you can get up close to. There are no large predators on the reserve, which makes this park different from some of the larger reserves in South Africa. Here you can choose between hiking, taking a traditional jeep tour or a BMX bike ride through the landscape.
We arrived at the reserve around 5PM after a long drive from the Kruger National Park. This was one of my most anticipated places to stay during our tour. The marketing materials we received from the tour operator highlighted the proximity to animals and the traditional beehive huts at the resort. We were not disappointed.
The evening of our arrival consisted of dinner cooked by the tour operator, followed by a Swazi cultural evening with 15-20 locals performing traditional song and dance routines. 63% of the population live below the poverty line and there are not many employment opportunities around. The locals depend on tourism to sustain a living and tipping is therefore encouraged.
The following morning, we headed off on a hike through the reserve. The landscape is truly beautiful. On our arrival, it was covered in clouds and mist, but by the following day it was sunny and clear again. The weather in this region changes quickly, and you need to be prepared for all kinds of weather.
During our hike, we saw wild zebras up close, monkeys, crocodiles, different species of impala and many types of exotic birds. There are also hippos on the property, but we did not see these during our brief stay.
Staying at the Traditional Swazi Beehive Huts
The resort has different tiers of accommodation. We stayed at the Rest Camp, which is one of three outposts at the reserve. Apart from the Rest Camp, there is Reilly's Rock Hilltop Lodge, which is a more upmarket type of private accommodation, and the Sondzela backpacker's lodge. The latter being exactly what it sounds like, and catering exclusively for international visitors.
At the Rest Camp, you can choose to camp, stay in a shared dorm room or in one of the private beehive huts. The beehive huts are one of the most recognisable traditional types of lodgings in Swaziland. These huts are carefully woven together to resemble a beehive by artisan builders. The huts have to be reconstructed every couple of years to maintain their structure.
The huts have high ceilings and feel very spacious. The en-suite bathrooms are located within a permanent structure attached to the hut itself, so you still get to enjoy modern comforts. The huts maintain a cool temperature throughout the day and resist the cold at night. Unlike the permanent tents found in many other safari reserves, the huts remained comfortable even throughout the night. Another bonus is that you do not have to worry about mosquito nets, as there is no risk of malaria at the Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve.
The huts come with an electric kettle, tea and coffee. There is also a ceiling fan that can be used during the hotter summer months. This may sound basic to some, but it was more than enough for us during our stay.
Facilities at the Resort
The Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary has a bar and restaurant on-site. As a Western tourist, you will get excellent value for money due to the low value of the Lilangeni. A bottle of Savanna Dry will set you back around €0.75. All shops in Swaziland accept South African Rand at a rate of 1:1, however, you will have a hard time offsetting Swazi Lilangeni in South Africa, as evidenced by my collection of random coins. Therefore, I would recommend you get a 0% foreign transaction fee card before you head out and simply use this in most places.
There are also picnic areas on-site where you can eat your own food, and if you're lucky, you might encounter some of the wildlife, such as impalas and warthogs, in this area. There is also a small shop selling refreshments and souvenirs. Wi-Fi is available at the bar and restaurant area, however, this did not work during our stay.
Where the Hell Is It and How Do I Get There?
The Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is a 400KM drive from Johannesburg or you can fly to Nelspruit and drive from there. This would cut down your travel time by a few hours. Many overland tour operators, including Nomad Tours, stop at the resort on the way from Kruger to the Cape.
The latter is likely the easiest way for most travellers to access the resort at a budget. If you prefer to organise your trip yourself, you need to be aware that the journey consists of many dirt roads and patchy mobile phone signal (at best). If you plan on driving there yourself, you need to make sure you have a spare map at hand or a GPS that does not rely on mobile data.
Should I Go?
Yes! We had a great time at the reserve and would go again if visiting the area. I wish I had the opportunity to stay longer at the resort, as there was some truly interesting landscape and wildlife to be seen. Additionally, Swaziland is much less touristy than neighbouring South Africa. Talking to the staff at the resort was interesting and an eye-opening experience.
The tour we booked costs 11,950 ZAR per person including upgrades to hotels and the beehive huts along the way. Other tour operators have similar itineraries at slightly higher price ranges. These may include more meal options and local guides than the tour we took.
Overall, we had a pleasant stay at the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Some of the facilities you might expect as a Western traveller, like Wi-Fi, were hard to come by. However, that's an acceptable compromise given the beautiful scenery surrounding the beehive huts.