Driving east towards the eSwatini / Mozambique border at Lomahasha, the MR3 passes through Hlane Royal National Park then through the lush greens of Eswatini’s sugar plantations before rising from the lowlands to traverse the Lebombo Mountains. Here, in this northeastern corner of the country human activity and agriculture give way to wilderness and nature reserves.
This has always been one of my favourite routes to Maputo from Pretoria. Adding only about 80km to the overall trip the route changes the journey from a headlong rush along a highway to a pleasant road trip along the back roads. The two additional border crossings are a breeze with friendly officials on both sides.
Roads, signposted with names like Simunye Nature Reserve, Mbuluzi Game Reserve, Shewula Nature Reserve and, the subject of this post, Mlawula Nature Reserve have long beckoned for further exploration but the cold beers and fresh seafood of Mozambique were always calling and these reserves remained on the to-do list. This was about to change…
With only a twenty-minute drive separating Hlane National Park from Mlawula Nature Reserve, the two reserves are worlds apart in what they have to offer. Whereas Hlane buzzes with languages from across the globe, only the call of a Fish Eagle breaks the silence at Mlawula. At Hlane visitors are herded onto the safety of game-drive vehicles for their wildlife experience. Here at Mlawula you’re encouraged to walk or ride a mountain bike, exploring the reserve at our own pace. In the stillness, the sudden sounds of a fleeing antelope will make your heart skip a beat.
Mlawula is managed by SNTC (Eswatini National Trust Commission) along with Malolotja Nature Reserve and Mantenga Nature Reserve. As far back as 1914 this area was proclaimed a protected area but it was subsequently de-proclaimed and the land was subdivided into cattle ranches. In 1978 the Niven family donated their ranch to the SNTC and it was gazetted as the Ndzindza Nature Reserve. This was shortly followed by the purchase of Mlawula Estates, partly funded by Havelock Mines and the donation of Nyala Ranch by Tibiyo.
With pretty much the same history, the surrounding reserves I mentioned earlier are under separate ownership but form a large unbroken conservation area in this lovely and diverse landscape.
The topography of Mlawula is quite varied. It straddles the Lebombo Mountains, an offshoot of the greater Drakensberg Range. To the west vegetation is mainly dry, thorny savanna. To the east, moister coastal thickets.
Mlawula has several beautiful hiking trails and quite a good network of roads and tracks for game drives. Due to the absence of dangerous predators, mountain biking is allowed and routes can be chosen for each cyclist’s level of fitness.
Hiking, cycling, picnicking, fishing or just watching the incredible sunsets makes Mlawula an attractive venue for everyone.
Mlawula has a variety of accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets.
Magadzavane Lodge is situated near the southern entrance of the reserve and comprises furnished units, a restaurant, swimming pool and conference facilites. It is also very close to the Goba border gate into Mozambique and could be a good overnight stop before entering Mozambique. The lodge is situated on a high ridge with stunning views over the valley below.
Sara Tented Camp sits high on a sharp ridge overlooking the surrounding landscape. To the east is a valley inside Mlawula. To the west the view is across the Mlawula River towards the distant town of Simunye and Hlane National Park beyond that.
The ever-changing views from Sara Tented Camp.
At Sara there are six permanent tents, thatched communal areas and a clean ablution block. Two of the tents also have their own en-suite bathrooms.
When I visited, Sara Tented Camp was used as the camping area for campers with their own equipment. As there were no guests in the tents, I was free to set up my tent under one of the thatched shelters. I was joined on the weekend by another family who used the other thatched shelter as their “campsite”. The third shelter we shared as a kitchen. This arrangement made for a very cosy camp and in spite of the bad weather and frequent downpours we were all comfortably dry and warm.
Siphiso Campsite is the official campsite but it was being used as a base for trainee field guides, hence campers were accommodated at Sara Camp. The campsite is down in a valley and has level sites with plenty of shade.
After a week of peace and virtual solitude at Mlawula, it was time to continue the journey and this time I headed back to the place where Eswatini’s successful story of nature conservation began at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary.