Tiny landlocked Swaziland is often overlooked in favor of its big neighbor, South Africa. But it offers similar opportunities for wildlife watching and some amazing and varied landscapes, all for low prices and so close together you can do it all in a day (if you would want to).
We visited Swaziland on an overland road trip from Mozambique to South Africa’s Kruger Park and back, but it is a valid destination on its own. It is very easy to cross the border by car, or you can fly to Manzini (airport codes SHO or MTS) from Johannesburg.
Day 1: Hlane Royal National Park
Head straight to Hlane National Park (we crossed the border from Mozambique in Namaacha, only half an hour away, but Manzini airport is also just over an hour away) and get ready to tick off at least three out of the Big 5: elephants, lions and rhinos. There are leopards in Hlane too, but they are much harder to spot. The only one missing is buffalo, but there is plenty of other wildlife to make up for that.
Swaziland is small, it tries very hard to conserve its nature but it cannot set aside the same amount of territory for this as South Africa. You won’t see the vast planes of the Kruger Park, but being concentrated also has its advantages. The lions in Hlane are wild, but free to roam only a fenced off part of the park, so you are basically guaranteed to see them if you go on a guided tour. We also saw plenty of rhinoceros here, sometimes from very close up. Now one of the most threatened animals in Africa, Swaziland has been doing a great job protecting them from poachers.
Hlane has a great rest camp, Ndlovu Camp, with comfortable huts and cottages and an amazing view over a watering hole just beside the restaurant. Pull up a chair and watch the show of animals coming to drink one after the other, not forgetting the resident hippos.
Of course, part of the fun of a safari is the search and the excitement when you spot something, so after a quick lunch we got back into our car and went for a drive. Part of the park is open to self-drive, I love going around in your own car, where you can take off your shoes and get comfortable (I am very lucky that my boyfriend doesn’t mind driving). But going with a guided tour has the advantage of extra (and experienced) eyes searching for animals, and their open 4x4s are much higher, allowing for a better view than from most private cars. Hlane also has parts that are only accessible to guided vehicles, one of which is the lion area, which you don’t want to miss. We booked a sunset game drive, which I highly recommend. Besides lions (they came soooo close!), you’ll see giraffes, elephants, rhinos and much more… plus some great sunset views.
There is no electricity at the camp (make sure to charge your cameras in advance!), water is heated by gas geyser and lanterns are provided, very romantic. There is not much choice but to eat at the camp’s restaurant, the food is nothing special but satisfactory and the setting is nice. There is also a braai (barbecue) area available if you prefer to self-cater.
We arrived at lunchtime, so we had time for a self-drive and a guided sunset drive, but if you can only get there later consider staying for 2 nights: there is plenty to see here, and I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more hours just relaxing looking over that watering hole and its constant procession of antelope, warthogs, elephants and rhinos…
Day 2: Ezulwini Valley and Mlilwane wildlife sanctuary
If you haven’t gotten a good enough look at the rhinos the previous day, sign up for a rhino drive in the morning. Hlane’s guides usually have a good idea where to find them, it’s a great way to see these fantastic animals up close, and you may even be able to approach them on foot!
From Hlane it takes about an hour and a half to get to Ezulwini Valley. We had decided to spend 2 nights at Mantenga Lodge, a pleasant hotel in a verdant setting with sweeping views over the valley and Execution Rock. The rooms are clean and comfortable, if a little dated and lacking in charm. The restaurant is nice, especially the panoramic terrace.
Spend the afternoon at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. No big predators here, but plenty of different antelope (kudu, nyala, blesbuck, reedbuck, blue wildebeest, duiker, impala…), zebra, warthog, monkey, hippo, crocodile… and you are free to roam around as you like, on foot, by bike or by car. You can rent mountain bikes by the hour at the reception of Mlilwane rest camp, which I think is the best way of discovering the surroundings. You can also have lunch or dinner here, at Hippo Haunt Restaurant overlooking a picturesque watering hole.
Day 3: Malolotja wilderness and canopy tour
We headed to the scenic Malolotja Nature Reserve in the morning. Bring some warm clothes, it can be chilly up here in the morning before the sun warms things up. In Malolotja you can find some great hiking trails, and the country’s only zip line tour. Feeling very wild and remote, Malolotja is actually only half an hour from Mbabane, Swaziland’s capital. However, you’ll probably won’t see another soul on any of the trails (not necessarily well indicated so pay attention). You can spot the occasional zebra, antelope or bird, but here it’s mostly about the stunning landscapes and beautiful flora.
We had reserved a canopy tour for the early afternoon. The tour consists of 11 elevated platforms connected by zip lines and a suspension bridge, all set within the forested Sihlotswane gorge. It’s a fun experience suitable for all ages and fitness levels, with amazing panoramic views, a must do! There is a restaurant at the reception area where we had a light lunch. A 4×4 vehicle will take you to the start of the canopy tour from here (you can also inform about hiking trails here).
On your way back to Mantenga Lodge, try EDladleni for dinner for a taste of traditional Swazi cuisine.
Day 4: to South Africa
Time to get going again. Take it easy this morning, consider visiting the Swazi Cultural Village (don’t miss the 11:15 am dance). I haven’t been as I was more interested in seeing Swaziland’s nature, but it is supposed to be engaging. Early afternoon we left for South Africa’s Kruger Park, crossing the border at Jeppes Reef (operating hours 7 am to 8 pm). Swaziland is a little gem and definitely worth seeing, but I highly recommend combining a trip here with a few days in the Kruger Park for more safaris, or Mozambique for some beach time, or both!