Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary – Eswatini (Swaziland). A visual guide of our 3 days exploring the beautiful hiking trails and wildlife of Mlilwane.
Eswatini, a country we had skirted around on previous travels, but had never actually visited. Having just spent 6 amazing nights in Kruger National Park, followed by a stunning drive along the Panorama Route, we were excited to finally getting a little off track in this new country!
Day 1 – South Africa – Eswatini
The drive from Graskop in South Africa where we had spent the night, across the Oeshoek border post had taken us through some stunning scenery. Even the hazy skies were unable to hide the beauty.
Our crossing into Eswatini was very quick and easy, with super helpful border staff. There’s one important thing to know for car renters wishing to enter Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho or Namibia from South Africa. You must be have of a letter of authority to enter these countries in a rental car. The document is obtainable from your rental company at the time of rental. We were aware of the requirement, so had no nasty surprises upon reaching the border! But the staff there informed us that had we not had the right paperwork, we would not have been able to enter Eswatini.
We had pre-payed Avis R550 (incl tax) to take the car into Eswatini. And there was a road tax of R50, which we paid at the border. The road tax applied to all cars with a foreign licence plate and we received an official receipt. From the border, we drove 18km on bumpy, unsealed roads until we reached a tarmac road. From there, it was smooth sailing to our chosen destination.
Choosing a place to stay – Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
As we only had 3 nights in Eswatini, we decided to stay in one location. We narrowed our options down to just 3 places. All were managed by Big Game Parks – Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve. All were very enticing and both Hlane and Mkhaya had great reputations for Rhino conservation. Despite this, we settle on Mlilwane. As well as being the most budget-friendly option, the ability to be able to wander through parks many trails and photograph the wildlife on foot, is what sealed the deal for us. Something different to the normal driving safari. The lack of dangerous wildlife allowed that to be possible.
It was a very pleasant drive into Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the Ezulwini Valley of central Eswatini. The Wild Card (a South African visitors pass to National Parks) we had purchased in South Africa included Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. We just had to show our pass at the gate and sign in. After that, we moved onto our accommodation located inside the reserve – Sondzela’s Backpackers. On the short drive to Sondzela’s, we passed Blesbok, Warthog, Zebra and Nyala. The beautiful golden hour light prior to sunset made these sightings a little more special.
Sondzela’s Backpackers had a great range of accommodation. And after over 3 months of sleeping in a canvas or netted mosquito tent, we decided to book a traditional Rondavel. It was such a treat sleeping in an actual bed, in a cool little hut.
The view from our Rondavel looked out to the Mhlambanyatsi valley and the ever passing wildlife, just metres away. One beautiful and apparently brazen male Nyala seemed particularly fond of the grounds at Sondzela’s Backpackers. We found him in or around the place most of the time.
Day 2 – Exploring Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary by car & foot
The following morning we hiked the Hippo Trail, which sadly didn’t live up to its name. As it transpired, hippos are rarely sighted in the area. However, the 6km trail took us through a variety of terrain and we saw a lot of other wildlife. The highlights were seeing several White-Fronted Bee-e
Following our hike, we drove into a different section of the sanctuary where we found Roan and Red Hartebeest. As always, there were lots of birds around including a few Blue Cranes. And of course, the seemingly ever present White-Fronted Bee-eaters and Village Weavers.
That evening, we made the most of driving around looking for wildlife and being able to exit our car. We were then able to approach animals on foot for photographs. It was fun trying to get some photos that we’d struggle to achieve from inside a vehicle.
Day 3 – Hiking Execution Rock Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
The next day the weather had changed dramatically. The beautiful clear, sunny days had given way to a damp, overcast and moody sky. As the afternoon dried up, we decided to hike Nyonyane Mountain to summit Execution Rock. The hike was relatively easy, taking us up to about 1100m on a well-marked trail, peaking at Execution Rock.
The peak offered great views over the Ezulwini Valley, even on a gloomy day. The name ‘Execution Rock’ comes from ancient legends. Criminals and witchcraft suspects were forced to walk off the edge of the rock at spearpoint, plummeting to their death.
One unwanted type of wildlife we encountered on this trek were ticks, which were literally everywhere. We later found one attached to my calf which Imbi carefully helped me remove.
Day 4 – Leaving Mlilwane
As we were heading back to Kruger National Park for a further two nights, we left Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary early. The early start was worth it, as we were treated to a lovely misty sunrise on our way out.
Very unintentionally, we managed to programme our offline map onto the most impractical and indirect route to the border post at Jeppes Reef. Our little Hyundai was taken from a perfectly good motorway, onto an 18km long unsealed road. The stretch of road was wet, muddy and bumpy and was touch and go at several points. But thankfully we made it to the border unscathed!
Overall, we really loved our 3 nights in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. It was very different to other game parks and reserves we’d been to before. We found it very affordable, family-friendly and it was great to see so many locals enjoying it too.
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