Situated within earshot of the entertainment, commercial and industrial heart of eSwatini lies Mlilwane, a wildlife sanctuary as unusual as its origins.
Mlilwane, meaning “little fire” got it’s name from the frequent fires started by lightning strikes. At the time of my visit, Mlilwane was living up to its name, a huge fire ravaging large parts of the reserve.
A man with a vision.
Regarded as the father of wildlife conservation in eSwatini, the dedication of Ted Reilly needs a mention. Thanks to his vision and lifelong resolve, the decimation of Swaziland’s wildlife was brought to a halt and conservation became a reality.
I quote from Big Game Parks the organisation that came about due to the efforts of Reilly:
At a time when conservation and wildlife were less than favourable, frowned upon by farmers and ignored by politicians, Ted Reilly had a vision. Driven by passion for the natural world at the tender age of 21, he did not take “no” from the British, but turned to the Swazi Monarchy and his own family, finding warm support which enabled the establishment of conservation in Swaziland. At Mlilwane’s official opening in 1964, the SA Wildlife Society chairman stated Mlilwane was “a beautiful but impossible dream.”
That was over 50 years ago. Against all odds, and with love and pride in Swaziland’s natural heritage, Reilly and his dedicated team built a truly unique private organization. What is Big Game Parks today has been built on “the smell of an oil rag” through sweat, toil, sacrifice and unyielding commitment, quite unlike the billionaire investments of today.
Big Game Parks has remained a pioneer in both conservation and tourism in Swaziland.
Leading by example, what used to be the 460ha family farm of the Reilly’s, Mlilwane was turned into the Kingdom’s first wildlife sanctuary. In the early 1960’s commercial farming was ceased and wildlife re-introduced. Mealie fields became grasslands, wetlands and dams were constructed and trees planted. Indigenous species were collected from all over and brought to Mlilwane for protection. In July 1964 Mlilwane was officially opened and in December 1965 it was proclaimed as a nature reserve.
Fifty years later, from its original 460ha, Mlilwane has grown tenfold and today covers an area of 4600ha as surrounding farmland was added to the reserve. It is undoubtedly one of Eswatini’s most-visited attractions popular with both local and international visitors.
During the time Mlilwane was being re-purposed from farm to sanctuary, Reilly, through his friendship with King Sobhuza II, also brought about the proclamation of other reserves in the Kingdom, His Majesty’s own hunting ground at Hlane being one of them.
Activities at Mlilwane.
Mlilwane is unusual as a game reserve in that visitors are not restricted to their vehicles. The absence of dangerous predators make it a fairly safe. The wildlife is accustomed to humans and this makes a visit to Mlilwane unique and memorable. Antelope wander through the camp and warthogs snuggle up to the campfire on a cool evening! The only real danger is near the dam where crocodiles float ominously under the water, waiting for an opportunity to grab a meal.
There is an extremely wide choice of activities on offer from snoozing at the poolside to an exhausting trek up the mountain.
Bicycles can he hired from the main reception or visitors can bring their own. There are tracks catering for all levels of fitness.
Hikes to the top of the nearby Nyonyane Mountain will challenge the fittest hikers or you can opt for an easier walk closer to camp.
Horses are available for those who prefer this mode of transport and guides will lead you on various rides.
Guided or self-drive game drives can be done through the reserve.
For 4×4 enthusiasts, a drive to the top of Execution Rock followed by a hike to the peak is a good morning’s entertainment. In dry weather the steep twisting track isn’t difficult, but when it’s wet, it will be impossibly slippery.
Although check-in’s can only be done during daylight hours, there is a convenient night-gate for visitors who want to make use of the close proximity to the hustle and bustle of nearby Ezulwini.
For a quieter evening, enjoy the excellent food in the Hippo Haunt Restaurant followed by a free display of traditional dancing. Have a nightcap around the huge central campfire before turning in for the night.
There’s a choice of accommodation at Mlilwane to suit all budgets.
For a memorable stay book into one of the beehive huts built in authentic Swazi style with a low entrance and no windows but equipped for modern-day comfort.
The campsite has large, level stands under shady eucalyptus trees. Handy tables and benches and a built-in braai with power points are provided at each site. The ablutions are spotlessly clean and gas provides endless hot water for showers and dishwashing.