My previous destination at Malolotja Nature Reserve is on the western highlands of eSwatini. Due to the altitude (1500m), it can get cold. I also arrived right before a huge cold front that was passing over the sub-continent. After suffering in the cold, rain and mist for a few days I decided to move to Hlane Royal National Park.
On the eastern side of the country and at an altitude of only 250m I thought the weather would be warmer here in the Lowveld. Unfortunately, the cold front that I’d endured at Malolotja had by now moved over Hlane and I was again camping in cold, wet weather! Bad Move!
Hlane Royal National Park was proclaimed in 1967. It was the second area in the country to be set aside for nature conservation after Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary which was established in 1961. Both these areas are managed by Big Game Parks a private non-profit organisation brought about by the vision of Ted Riley who’s own farm was to become Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Mkhaya Game Reserve is the third member of Big Game Park’s portfolio.
Prior to its proclamation as a national park, Hlane (meaning Wilderness), was the hunting ground of the Swazi royalty. Luckily King Sobhuza II (father of the current King) had the foresight to realise the importance of conservation and decreed that Hlane should be set aside for this purpose.
Covering an area of 22 000 hectares, Hlane is home to a large concentration of wildlife and is considered a must-see destination for visitors to eSwatini. Organised school tours also serve a vital role in educating the next generation about the importance of nature conservation.
For overseas visitors with limited time to see African wildlife, this is probably a good place to come to. The park isn’t large and the lions are confined to a separate camp. Access is by guided game drive so the whole experience feels more like driving through a zoo than a national park.
A large part of Hlane has a desolate air to it. Due to bark damage by elephants, most of the old large indigenous trees have died off. Their bare branches now starkly silhouetted against the sky. The surviving shrubbery looks stunted and grass is sparse. This, sadly, is the result of confining large numbers of animals to an area without sufficient freedom of movement. The park is surrounded by rich farmland and the possibility of future expansion is minimal.
The reserve is also unusual for the fact that a main road bisects the park. This further restricts free movement of wildlife and enables easy human access. Poaching is clearly a huge problem as witnessed by the astonishing display of confiscated snares at the main entrance.
A grim display of thousands of snares removed from the park bears testimony to the serious poaching problem.
Accommodation in Hlane is available at two camps. Ndlovu camp is at the main reception area where cottages and campsites are offered. The other accommodation is at Bhubesi, about 16km from Ndlovu in the northwest corner of the reserve where only cottages are available.
A few years ago, visiting Hlane for the first time we stayed at in a cottage at Bhubesi Camp. Situated on the banks of the Mbuluzane River, the surrounding vegetation is dense and shady.
Bhubesi is outside the endangered species area so the likelihood of spotting rarer animals is less but this is made up for by the profusion of birdlife attracted to the water and dense vegetation around the camp. Of the two Hlane camps, this is my favourite.
Ndlovu has the only camping site at Hlane so this is where I checked in for this visit. The campsite is very basic. There is no grass and little shade. Luckily the few days I was there is was cloudy and cool but in the heat of a lowveld summer this campsite will be hot! The bathrooms are large and kept spotlessly clean and gas heaters provide an endless supply of hot water.
The campsite is right next to the main reception and there was a constant flow of visitors coming and going. Bus-loads of people arriving, being re-loaded onto game drive vehicles and then herded back into their buses before the next ones arrive. Even the staff seemed a bit fatigued by this constant pressure to keep the flow moving.
The first visit to Hlane was in mid-winter’s dryness and many animals came to the waterhole near the reception for a drink. This time, it was raining and animals found water in the bush. There was little activity at the waterhole.
I spent two nights at Hlane Royal National Park by which time I was more than ready to move a few kilometres further to Mlawula Nature Reserve.