Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Swaziland
Up close and personal with a family of hippo in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, an idyllic place to unwind and be at one with nature.
Another day, another country to tick off the list. If you had asked me a week ago where Swaziland was, I would have guessed that it was a state in South Africa. If you visit South Africa, make time to take a trip to Swaziland for a completely different, fascinating experience.
Landlocked Swaziland is the smallest country in the southern hemisphere and one of the few remaining monarchies in Africa; in fact the monarch is the absolute ruler of the country with power to overrule parliament on any matter. Nearly all of the 860,000 population are Swazi and proud of it. Swazi people are incredibly welcoming and extremely laid back. Everyone has a smile for you in this minuscule country. Swaziland has its own currency, the lilangeni (emalangeni is the plural) but rand is accepted everywhere so there is no need to change money. The lilangeni is pegged to the same value as the rand.
After crossing the border, I noticed that the landscape was lush and emerald green, peppered by round, thatched huts. Hitching is a national past time due to the lack of public transport and we had to be careful to avoid pedestrians at the side of the road.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in the Ezulwini Valley (entry E20) is a private reserve that does not boast the ‘big five’. Instead it offers a beautiful setting in which to dawdle along peaceful trails. In the park reception I noticed that there were two photographs on the wall: one of King Mswati III (Ngwenyama, the lion) and the other of the Queen Mother Regent Ntombi (Ndlovukazi, the she-elephant), who rule in conjunction with each other. Their images, captured in full royal regalia, are seen all over the country from petrol stations and take-away outlets to Government offices. The official residence of the royal family at Ludzidzini is strictly out of bounds for tourists so this was the closest I was going to get.
We stayed in the lovely Sondzela Backpackers perched on a hill within the sanctuary along with resident ostrich. The ostrich is more than a little curious so watch out. I was poking around in our boot when Tom caught the ostrich inquisitively peering through the car windows and then deciding to inspect the contents of our boot. Instead of standing my ground, I ran for it, leaving Tom to rebuke the poor bird before it carried off our shiny stew pot (ostriches have a soft spot for all that sparkles and glitters). The hostel offers excellent facilities: a well-equipped kitchen, cheap home-cooked meals, grassy lawn for camping and a chance to do rhino tracking walks in Mkhaya Game Reserve. These trips received rave reviews from travellers in the hostel.
We spent a blissful day, hardly meeting a soul apart from the wildlife, walking the entire length of the sanctuary up to Execution Rock (Nyonyane Peak) standing a majestic 3750 feet above the valley. It was a completely different experience to amble merrily amongst the wildlife rather than drive. We set off at 7:30am and had soon encountered zebra, tsessebe, roan, bushbuck, guinea fowl and impala crossing our path.
The trail was well sign posted climbing over sheer rock, bridges and up precarious wooden ladders. The scenery changed as we gained altitude passing spiky palms, alpine flowers and dozens of flittering butterflies. Dung beetles battled against gravity to move their spheres of dung across the trail as we headed to the summit. I struggled to complete the last thirty minute section over scree, but was rewarded by a fabulous view over the sanctuary. Our descent ran alongside the Hippo Pool where we spotted a rather menacing, three metre long crocodile gliding towards the bank.
A family of hippo were sunbathing and grazing on a tiny island close to the edge of Hippo Pool. The adorable baby was only 8 months, surrounded by four submerged hippos. Getting as close as we dared to the pool edge, we kept our eyes on one hippo hauling itself out of the water onto the island, sapping its energy before gently flopping down for a well earned rest.
Hiking back to Sondzela, we encountered warthog grazing, fish eagle roosting in a nearby tree and vervet monkeys playing in the bushes. Even a swarm of bees hummed fearfully close, just above the long grass – I crouched down on the ground to avoid being stung.
It was a shame to leave this tiny, warm hearted kingdom. The people had been so relaxed and charming; we were never treated as if we had a dollar sign above our heads. On a sad note, the Times of Swaziland had a prominent article on AIDS. Swaziland is counted amongst the worst countries for HIV/AIDS prevalence, over the past 10 years it has risen from under 5% to 35%, one of the highest rates in the world and devastating for a country with such a small population. A quarter page advertisement urged mothers to have their new born babies tested for HIV so that an AZT course of drugs could be administered immediately if the test results were positive.
Since leaving Swaziland, scandal has gripped the country triggered by King Mswati III deciding to take another wife. Not content with nine wives (his father’s record of 99 wives and 250 children is alot to live up to), he chose eighteen year old Zena, sending an emissary to pick her up from school. Her mother claimed that she had been abducted and filed an urgent application in the Mbabane High Court seeking the return of her daughter. In a further twist, Zena was revealed to be a twin – Swazi custom apparently states that a twin cannot marry the king. To confound matters, Zena is not allowed contact with the outside world while her suitability as a liphovela (wife) is determined. This has frustrated two curators appointed by the court to speak to her. I just hope that the whole saga ends up being resolved amicably.