National Parks of Swaziland

As the smallest country in the southern hemisphere (about the same size as Wales), Swaziland can't be expected to compare with bigger African countries when it comes to National Parks. There are, however, several small game parks and nature reserves offering excellent game viewing, birding, hiking and mountain biking trails and horse rides.

Perhaps the best known of the country's game parks are Hlane Royal NP and Mkhaya Game Reserve, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and the scenic Phophonyane, Malolotja and Mlawula nature reserves.

The Kingdom of Swaziland has two main conservation regulatory bodies: Big Game Parks of Swaziland, a private organisation under the auspices of King Mswati III (Africa's last absolute monarch) administering the country's better-known wildlife reserves, and the semi-governmental Swaziland National Trust Commission (SNTC), mandated to preserve Swaziland's heritage, both cultural and natural. It runs several nature reserves.

Swaziland's conservation efforts began in 1961 when then King Sobhuza II gazetted Mlilwane, an old family farm outside the capital, Mbabane. This was followed in 1967 (a year before independence from Britain) by Hlane, formerly a famous royal hunting ground. Lion live here (albeit in a large fenced drive-through enclosure) and other species include elephant, white rhino, hippo, crocodile, cheetah, leopard, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and several antelope.

In 1979, Ted Reilly, the doyen of Swazi conservation, established Mkhaya, originally to conserve the traditional Nguni cattle breed, and subsequently as a refuge for endangered species. Today Mkhaya offers exceptional game viewing, with four of the Big Five species, including black and white rhino, elephant, Cape buffalo and leopard. Rarer antelope, such as roan and sable, are also present.

Mlilwane is free of large dangerous game species, as are the SNTC nature reserves of Malolotja and Mlawula, where hiking, biking or horse trails are on offer. Some of the hiking trails in Phophonyane and Malolotja, situated in the misty highlands region, are regarded as among the best in southern Africa.

The small kingdom has negotiated a rocky road along the way to today's conservation successes, losing much of its wildlife to poaching and general abuse early last century and the rhino-poaching onslaught through the 1980s and '90s. Today however, thanks to active intervention by the young king, the country has reputedly the world's best anti-poaching laws.

Mswati III believes: 'We are very serious about conserving the Kingdom's wild animals and game reserves for posterity and making them safe to visit. In doing so we are fulfilling our duty not only to our children but also to God, who blessed us with such abundant natural beauty.'

Although small, the Swazi parks do make perfect getaways for shorter breaks, offering peace and tranquillity often difficult to find in larger, more popular NPs like Kruger or Chobe. All offer a variety of accommodation, from the luxurious Reilly's Rock Hilltop Lodge to well-equipped log cabins, self-catering family cottages, thatched chalets, private tented camps, secluded camp sites and the superbly equipped Sondzela Backpackers' lodge in Mlilwane. Phophonyane Nature Reserve offers a privately-run restaurant and accommodates 16 people in luxury thatched cottages and an exclusive tented safari camp. Mkhaya has semi-open stone and thatch cottages along with comfortable safari tents set in riverine forest teeming with birdlife.

To choose a favourite spot in Swaziland's parks is difficult: they vary greatly, each with its own charm and ambience. The lush highland forests of Malolotja and Phophonyane, with majestic views from the escarpment over the lowveld beyond, contrast markedly with the drier thornveld savannah of Hlane and Mkhaya.

The best game viewing I've had was in Mkhaya, where much of the big game is so trusting one can virtually walk right up to it. Mlawula, on the western slopes of the Lebombo Mountains which form much of Swaziland's boundary with Mozambique, harbours rugged ravines and rocky hills while Hlane has a wild charm, unexpected in such a small country. For splendid mountain views, forest trails, tinkling streams, fern-lined paths and wildflowers, Malalotja is hard to beat.

Hlane Royal

Located 67km north-east of Manzini. Occupies about 30,000ha of former royal hunting grounds. Established 1967, to halt the devastation of heavy poaching. A restocking programme reached its zenith in 1994 when lions were reintroduced.

Swaziland lowveld intersected by the Black Mbuluzi and Mbuluzana Rivers, overlooked from the east by the Lebombo Mountains. Aptly named (Hlane is the Swazi word for wilderness), the park is covered by acacia and broadleaf trees, the savannah plains interspersed with tracts of shrubland and dense bush. Mtfombotsi Forest holds giant hardwood trees up to 1000 years old. Hlane has 100km of roads.

Big game abounds: elephant, dehorned rhino, hippo, crocodile, lion, cheetah, leopard and scavengers such as hyaena and jackal. Also warthog, giraffe, various antelope species, zebra and the highest concentration of wildebeest per km2 in Africa - including the Serengeti. Birdlife prolific, especially around camps; vultures and raptors the most visible. The park is refuge to the world's most southerly colony of Marabou storks.

Excellent game-viewing and bird-watching by car, the park minibus, on guided walks or from hides overlooking waterholes near camps and in the bush. Two self-catering camps: Ndlovu (five thatched rondavels and a camp site) and Bhubesi (remote stone cottages overlooking a riverbed). The nearest shop is 10km from the park gate.

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By Daryl Balfour