(Majolotja Nature Reserve Part 1)

October 2018

Malolotja Nature Reserve’s rugged landscape.

Nature Conservation in eSwatini

Almost all nature conservation in eSwatini is managed by one of two organisations, eSwatini National Trust Commission (ENTC) and Big Game Parks of eSwatini. The formation of both these organisations can be attributed to the foresight of King Sobuza II, father of current King Mswati III.

Established in 1972, the ENTC’s first task was to identify areas in the country worthy of protection. The area on the extreme western border of eSwatini from Ngwenya northwards to Bulembu was identified and referred to King Sobuza for his permission to declare a national park. The area was found to have little farming value and the project was given the go-ahead by His Majesty. Families living within the boundaries of the reserve were relocated to better farming land adjacent to the reserve. At 18000 hectares Malolotja is the largest protected area in eSwatini and its diverse terrain and habitats make this reserve well worth a visit.

A large portion of the reserve is true mountain wilderness and very few roads spoil the scenery. The main access points are at the Ngwenya area in the south and around the main camp, approximately in the centre of the reserve. The northern Bulembu mountains are reputed to be the oldest mountains on earth and the only way to gain access into this rugged terrain is on foot and only for the very fit.

Malolotja forms part of a larger transfrontier conservation park with adjoining Songimvelo in South Africa. Together, they protect an impressive 170 000 hectares.


The open-pit mine at Nqwenya is now partially flooded.

Very soon after entering eSwatini at the main Oshoek/Ngwenya border post, visitors will see signposts directing them off the MR3 highway towards Nqwenya.

Nqwenya, meaning crocodile, refers the country’s second highest mountain (1829m) which straddles the border with South Africa in a north-south direction.

The mountain derived its name from its shape which resembled a crocodile. I say “resembled” in the past tense as the shape of the mountain was changed by mining activity that left a huge hole in what was once the back of the crocodile. More about the mine lower down.

Ngwenya Glass

Due its close proximity to the border, one of the first places most visitors to the country are likely to stop at will be the very well-known Nqwenya Glass. Entrance is free and from a mezzanine level above the glowing furnaces, visitors can look down on the glassblowers creating their works of art. Now using only recycled glass, the glassblowers have, since 1981, built a global reputation for their fine work.

There are other boutique shops selling a variety of handmade crafts in a small complex surrounding Ngwenya Glass. All set in lovely indigenous gardens it’s well worth a stop here to browse, have a light meal and buy a unique glass souvenir.

Ngwenya Mine

Lying within the borders of the Malolotja National Park, Nqwenya Mine is another one of eSwatini’s attractions which is well worth a visit.

Considered to be the oldest mine in the world, this site has been mined for at least 43 000 years. The mineral extracted all those years ago was haematite, a red ochre with a glittering sheen used by ancient san people for adornment.

A guide explains the history of the Lion Cave.

Much later, around 1 600 years ago, tribes arriving from the north brought with them knowledge of iron smelting and the iron-rich haemitite found a new purpose.

In 1964 the Anglo American Corporation commenced industrial-scale open pit mining at Ngwenya. An estimated 20-million tons of ore was excavated, mostly transported by rail to Maputo and shipped to Japan. Mining by Anglo-American ceased in 1977 due to flooding in the mine and a drop in the price of iron. The land was donated to the Swaziland National Trust Commission.

22-Million tons of iron ore was removed from the mountain and mostly shipped to Japan.

In 2011 amidst much controversy and in spite of protestations, King Mswati III granted mining rights to Indian group Salgaocar. The deal gave 25% ownership of the mine to the King, 25% to the government and 50% to Salgaocar.

Operations by Salgaocar lasted only three years, ending in 2014. During this time huge and permanent environmental damage was done to the area including severe pollution of the water sources feeding Mbabane. The site now lies littered with abandoned machinery and visible signs of environmental mis-management.

Fortunately, the original site of pre-historic mining was preserved.

Known as the Lion Cave, this rather unassuming hole can be visited by following a steep climb to the top of what remains of the original Ngwenya mountain.

Views down into neighbouring South Africa
from the path to the Lion Cave.

Only days before my visit the excellent and very interesting visitor centre at the mine was completely destroyed in a huge bush-fire. Years of history and ancient artefacts recovered from the site regrettably lost forever. I consider myself lucky to have seen the displays on a previous visit.

In the next post we’ll be heading north and exploring the main part of Malolotja Nature Reserve in Part 2.

Malolotja Part 2


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