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Big Game Parks in Swaziland

Big Game Parks in Swaziland

Dec 2015

Words and pics Peter Chadwick

A breeze rustles in the gnarled trees surrounding the lodge, as a flock of twenty or so Crested Guineafowl (9 on checklist) emerge from the undergrowth to bath in the garden spray. Afterwards they roll in piles of dust before lazing with half-open eyes in patches of afternoon light. 

Completing the tranquil scene, two blue duikers and a suni emerge cautiously from the thickets to feed in the open, comforted by the relaxed guineafowl that there are no predators nearby. I had barely stepped from my vehicle and here in front of me are three seldom-seen species in full view. 

Ruth Mdluli and Lizzy Zwane, my hostesses, warmly welcome me to Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge in the Mlilwane Game Reserve deep in the heart of Swaziland. Having left the humdrum of Joburg before the early morning traffic, it had been an easy and comfortable drive to reach Oshoek Border Post and passing into Swaziland was, without doubt, the easiest and friendliest experience I’ve encountered in my years of travelling. A short hop later along clearly signposted and well-maintained roads and I was at the entrance to Mlilwane Game Reserve.

Lizzy disappears to fix me a late lunch, and Ruth shows me around the historic lodge, explaining that it was once the homestead of Mickey Reilly, who arrived in Swaziland in 1906 and built the present-day lodge as his home shortly after World War I. 

Carefully crafted from stone blocks, it overlooks a lush garden filled with diverse plants that merge into the distant rolling valleys of Swaziland. Slices of fruit and bird seed on feeding tables at the edge of the spacious veranda attract large charaxy butterflies and streams of Village Weavers, Thick-billed Weavers (10), Black-collared Barbets, Red-shouldered Widowbirds, Bronze Mannikins (5), Cape White-eyes and Dark-capped Bulbuls. Purple-crested Turacos hop about in the trees, and Kurrichane Thrushes and shy Tambourine Doves (4) search for food along the edge of the lawn.

I wander onto a koppie covered in succulents, and watch a family of klipspringers perched on a pinnacle. Greater Double-collared and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds drink from the flowering aloes, White-fronted Bee-eaters, Brown-throated Martins and Lesser-striped Swallows circle in the skies, and a Brown-hooded Kingfisher shoots like an arrow across the top of a ridge. 

Later, as the afternoon shadows lengthen, and with background music from a White-throated Robin-Chat (6), I meet with Ted Reilly, the softly spoken yet pragmatic and highly experienced doyen of conservation in this country. Many years back, when game in Swaziland was all but depleted, a young Ted Reilly decided to turn the situation around and begin with his home, Mlilwane. With the blessing and tremendous ongoing support from the Swaziland monarchy, Ted's efforts have seen Big Game Parks (as Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve are collectively known), firmly set as flagship conservation areas in Africa. 

As we set off in an old, open Land Cruiser, Ted tells me about early attempts to re-establish rare and endangered species at Mlilwane. “It was a vision and dream with an almost non-existent budget here at Mlilwane but, fortunately, much support from many loyal friends and helpers. As a result, we inspired the proclamation of the current network of parks in Swaziland.”

Ted stops before a herd of stately roan antelope. “We have a breeding project here at Mlilwane that is determinedly re-establishing this rare antelope in Swaziland.” He shows me small groups of plump, healthy oribis lying peacefully in the shade. “Mlilwane is an extremely important reserve,” he explains. 

“We are trying to build up viable populations of small antelope, including red duiker, suni, klipspringer and blue duiker. In the longer term, we hope to be able to reintroduce some of all these species into other suitable habitats and reserves in Swaziland.” 

After a circuitous route through the rest of the reserve, and inspections of the other camp accommodation on Mlilwane, we pass through open woodland and find an African Harrier Hawk (2) on the hunt, while herds of impala, Burchell’s zebra, nyala and blesbok stand watching holidaymakers on a guided horse ride. We return to the lodge at sunset, just in time to watch the greater galagos (thick-tailed bushbabies) receive their daily bananas. 

Next morning, a two-hour drive brings me to the north-eastern corner of Swaziland, and Hlane Royal National Park. The entrance to Hlane is a fitting reminder of the challenges conservation staff face in deterring the constant threat of poaching. Walls of thousands of snares collected in the reserve are on display, alongside a sign clearly showing just how rhino poaching isn’t tolerated in this kingdom, and how fully its judicial support is dealing with poachers. 

I soon settle in at a rondavel overlooking a large dam where white rhino laze on the banks and hippos grunt in the shallows. Red-billed Oxpeckers rise in alarm from the back of the rhinos as a lone Marabou Stork parades along the water’s edge and scatters the feeding Spur-winged Geese, Blacksmith Lapwings and Three-banded Plovers. 

That afternoon I relax at camp but am well rewarded with Burchell’s Starlings (3), Black-headed Orioles, Bearded- and Cardinal Woodpeckers, Crested Barbets, Southern Black Flycatchers, Greater Honeyguides, Green Woodhoopoes and Black-backed Puffbacks. There’s plenty else going on, what with herds of impala and nyala wandering about between the visitors, and large fruit bats hanging from the eaves in reception, waiting for darkness and the night-time hunt. 

The sinking sun brings an endless procession of blue wildebeest and Burchell’s zebra to the waterhole, as Spotted Eagle Owls and African Scops Owls (1) call together against the distant roar of two prides of lion. 

My final destination in Swaziland is Mkhaya Game Reserve, where I am to join field rangers on one of their anti-poaching patrols. Incredible woodlands with massive tambotis, sycamore figs, leadwood trees and schotias, some estimated to be more than a thousand years old, set the scene for our patrol.

Herds of giraffe pause from feeding to watch us pass. Green Pigeons, Chin-spot Batises, Southern Black Tits, Yellow-breasted Apalises and Brubrus feed in the canopies. Yellow-throated Longclaws and Rufous-naped Larks fly up from our feet as we pass by and, at one point, we are extremely lucky to flush out an adult Crowned Eagle. At a dam enjoyed by a pod of hippos, a rhino rubbing post offers clues to some of the reserve's other residents. 

Herds of Cape buffalo thunder into the undergrowth as we find the spoor of a black rhino mother and calf. It is fresh enough for the field ranger team to follow up and check on the health of the animals. After a long and zig-zagging trail, we finally find the mother and calf dozing in a gwarrie thicket. 

It’s a grand finale to a wonderful trip, one made even better by knowing that, in this small kingdom, the dedicated rangers and supportive judicial system are so far keeping the rhino safe from the current onslaught back home.  

Source: Country Life

Country Life