Mlilwane, Swaziland’s pioneer conservation area, is a beautiful, secluded sanctuary situated in Swaziland’s “Valley of Heaven”, the Ezulwini Valley, in between Mbabane and Manzini. With 24-hour access to the Sanctuary, guests are free to enjoy the neighbouring tourist hubs of Ezulwini and Malkerns, with their many unique attractions and craft shops. From the western boundary, the huge Usutu Forest provides a dramatic backdrop stretching into the distant hills.
The Sanctuary covers 4,560 hectares and comprises of a southern and northern section. The southern section is predominately open grassland plains with middleveld vegetation, stretching up onto the striking Nyonyane Mountain with its exposed granite peak known as the “Rock of Execution”. Nyonyane is where ancient San once lived and where Swazi Royal graves are situated giving historical significance. Behind these mountains, the stunning Mantenga waterfall and beautiful Usushwana Valley form the divide, before stretching up to northern section, which includes one of the highest surrounding points at Luphohlo. Tourist activities are concentrated in the southern section, with only guided trails entering the pristine mountains of the north.
Mlilwane means ‘Little Fire’, being derived from the numerous fires started by lightning strikes on the Mlilwane Hill. Many a colourful tale can be told about the Reilly Family with special relevance to the early pioneer Mickey Reilly, whose family still manages and lives on the Sanctuary. And the name ‘Little Fire’ now also holds significance as the little fire that started a big conservation movement.
Mlilwane is Swaziland’s oldest protected area, owned and managed by a non-profit making trust. Mlilwane serves as a headquarters for the Big Game Parks including Mlilwane’s sister reserves Hlane and Mkhaya. Formerly a productive mixed farming operation, with extensive tin mining in the low foothills of the Nyonyane Mountains, the Sanctuary has been rehabilitated and is now Swaziland’s most frequently visited reserve where one can enjoy the beauty of the surroundings and the abundant wildlife that grace the plains.
Visitors can explore the southern portion of the Sanctuary by foot, vehicle, on horseback and on mountain bikes. Those who simply want to relax can sit back in the camps and enjoy the tranquility of Nature.
Mlilwane has an outside function area Inkhundla, about 200 meters from the Hippo Haunt restaurant which is suitable for private functions, such as weddings, graduation parties and so on and is often used by members of the Royal Family. It consists of a reed and semi-tin roof, riversand floor, railway sleeper benches, a bar area and has an ablution nearby. Catering can be arranged and the rates of this can be obtained from Big Game Parks central reservations office.
ACCOMMODATION AT MLILWANE
The two villages have the look and feel of traditional Swazi homesteads with grass dome-shaped huts arranged in semi-circles, central log fires and seating areas, all semi-enclosed by traditional Swazi kraal fencing. The huts are simply yet comfortably furnished containing beds, a small table, bedside light and fan. Some are en-suite with their own bathrooms attached. More than 40 people can be accommodated in the village without bathrooms and an additional 30 in the en-suite beehive village.
Rest Camp Huts
The Mlilwane Rest Camp is found in the southern corner of the reserve, in the midst of a well-matured rehabilitated area. Tall indigenous trees, all grown from seed, now tower over the camp overlooking an artificially created wetland system, which is home to hippopotamus, crocodile and a variety of water birds including infrequent visiting fish eagles. The camp is unfenced, yet safe as only smaller species of wildlife occur in the Sanctuary. Warning is given to camp patrons to be aware of hippo during the evenings, though this has not been a concern during the camp’s 40-year history. The camp is tranquil and relaxing with a continual stream of animals such as impala, warthog and nyala – ostrich too, walking between the facilities quietly tolerant of human presence.
There is a semi-circle of 8 rustic Rest Camp huts around the central Rest camp area, all consisting of a single room with an en-suite bathroom. The first six are wooden and thatch huts and the last two are Swazi Style grass beehives.
Situated in the Mlilwane Rest Camp, overlooking the Mhlambanyatsi River, is Shonalanga cottage. Self-catering and suitable for a large family group with its own private braai area and not too far from the swimming pool.
Camping at Mlilwane
The camping ground is situated under an impressive, mature Eucalyptus forest. Fallen logs and a scattered tables mark out the campsites. There is a communal ablution block nearby and electric power points are available. Campers are requested not to leave foodstuff in their tents as warthogs may raid them!
Timber log Dormitory
In Mlilwane Rest Camp is a Timber log complex, composed of a dormitory with a large lounge and 6 individual rooms partitioned from the main living area and a separate self-catering kitchen and dining area. The rooms have bunk beds and share the nearby communal ablutions.
Formally the home of Mickey Reilly, one of Swaziland’s earliest white settlers and a highly entrepreneurial man, the house has remained in the family and has recently been transformed into a unique hilltop lodge tastefully decorated in keeping with its old-world roots by Swaziland’s leading conservation team, Ted and Liz Reilly. Not withstanding the necessary subtle additions and renovations, the house still stands as it was built almost a century ago. Reilly’s Rock is steeped in intriguing history; the main building was built of stone in exchange for an ox-wagon in the early 1900’s, encompassing Swaziland, conservation in the Kingdom and the Reilly family.
The original house has three bedrooms, all accessible form the veranda. Two of these rooms have double beds and their own private bathroom across the veranda, while the third room, Reilly’s Room, is complete with fireplace and en-suite bathroom. The fourth en-suite room is a converted office. Separate from the house is the cottage encircled by a wide veranda comprising of tow en-suite rooms with a communal lounge and fireplace.
ACTIVITIES AT MLILWANE
A network of self-guided trails can be found at Mlilwane, ranging from a leisurely stroll along the plains where a variety of game is often found. Wildebeest, Zebra, Blesbok to mention but a few. Or try the harder trails leading up to the infamous Rock of Execution.
Mountain Bike Trails
Mountain biking in Mlilwane is a popular activity. Mountain bikes can be hired on an hourly basis accompanied by a Swazi field guide. Guests with private bikes may cycle without a guide, sticking strictly to the trails and roads, (for no additional fee). Mlilwane’s mountain biking can be a gentle hourly ride along the plains, or a 3-4 hour mountain bike trail taking you into some of the beautiful mountains of Swaziland. Mlilwane is also home of the Imvelo MTB Classic annual mountain bike race which sells out very quickly – so be sure to add your name to the waiting list well in advance!
Hourly Horse Rides
The hourly rides depart from Mlilwane Rest Camp. Taken at a leisurely pace, according to the capabilities of the riders, the main emphasis is on viewing the wildlife on the plains of Mlilwane from close proximity.
Leisure and Culture
One of the attractive features of the Rest Camp is the Hippo Haunt Restaurant that overlooks the Hippo Pool providing good, wholesome meals including venison while admiring hippos, crocs and birds in close proximity. The restaurant consists of a cosy inside area with a fireplace and comfortable couches as well as two outside wooden deck areas where one can enjoy meals and drinks from the bar.
General public picnic areas are situated around the Rest Camp with communal braai areas prepared daily, a small summerhouse and an outdoor Hippo Pool viewing area for close but safe viewing of the infamous hippo feeding.
Just outside of the main rest camp is the Interpretation centre where one can view skulls and other interesting pieces and read about rhino salvage operations, Swaziland’s heritage, poaching and anti-poaching efforts. A guide can be arranged to talk you through the centre. There is also a very interesting Interpretation centre in the reception building at the main gate and well worth looking at on your way in or out of the reserve.
Sibhaca Dancing is the traditional Swazi dance performed by teams of men (and sometimes even women) at a vigorous pace. The ‘headman’ of the Sibhaca dance will personally invite you to an evening of Sibhaca entertainment so be sure to take along your drinks and gather around the main campfire for an hour or so of good traditional Swazi entertainment.
Umphakatsi Chief’s Homestead Visit
Umphakatsi Chief’s Homestead visit is a hands-on experience of our neighbouring local lady chief, Inkhosikati, in her homestead – a very real glimpse of Swaziland’s culture that will leave you with a newfound respect and basic understanding of the Swazi way of life. Your guide, who will hand the ladies in your party traditional Swazi cloths (Emahiya) to wrap around their waists, greets you at Mlilwane’s main gate. The homestead is a short drive from the main gate and a short walk from Mlilwane’s boundary fence.
Before entering the Inkhosikati’s homestead (Liguma), you are requested to remove your shoes. On entry, the Inkhosikati and the village children, often wearing traditional clothing, will warmly welcome you. The standard Swazi greeting to the Inkhosikati is “Yebo Nkosi”.
The Inkhosikati has a vibrant, energetic and infectious mannerism and not only talks you through how the huts and traditional items are made but also teaches you the siSwati words for them. The Inkhosikati encourages interaction; so try your hand at grinding maize, plaiting mountain grass or join the children in Swazi song and dance. An offering of a taste of local food and sometimes brew is made but forget about your cutlery and try it the Swazi way… with your hands! This experience is both informative and memorable – a taste of true Swazi hospitality – and should not be missed!
CONSERVATION / WILDLIFE AND BIRDS
Apart from abundant bird life and nesting water birds, there are a number of animal species to be seen including hippo, giraffe, crocodile, zebra, blue wildebeest, kudu, nyala, impala, warthog, waterbuck, reedbuck, steenbok, grey duiker, red duiker, klipspringer, blesbok, oribi and suni.
Seldom seen, but present in the reserve are the ever-elusive leopard and a variety of smaller mammals like bushbaby, mongoose, aardwolf, genet, porcupine and civet.
A variety of bird life can be enjoyed which include the black, crowned and fish eagle as well as the purple-crested lourie and at least 3 species of robin being common sightings in the Rest Camp.
Seen along the Machobane trails are common coral trees, common tree ferns, waterberry trees and a number of other indigenous trees and vegetation.
Mlilwane is Swaziland’s oldest conservation area, which not only gave birth to the concept of nature conservation in the Kingdom but is also the root of virtually all that is nature conservation in Swaziland today. Ted Reilly, having witnessed the disappearance of wildlife in the years he was growing up, turned his 450 ha family farm, Mlilwane, into the Sanctuary as we know it today, where Swaziland’s rapidly vanishing wild animals could find refuge and protection. Reilly planted indigenous trees, created wetland habitat and restocked Mlilwane with wildlife. The Reilly family then donated Mlilwane to a non-profit making Trust in 1969 to perpetuate it for prosperity. Mlilwane has since grown to 10 times it original size, through the support of the Monarchy, international support and true individual dedication.