Eswatini (Formerly the Kingdom of Swaziland) may be tiny (in fact its ranked 154th of 196 in the list of countries and dependencies by area), but what it lacks in size it certainly makes up for in its diversity of wildlife and its scenery. Eswatini is home to three key safari destinations; all of which are high on most tourist wish lists; Milwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve. The reasons for visiting Hlane and Mkhaya are fairly obvious; for starters both are home to four of the Big Five (Lion, Elephant, Rhino, and Leopard) and as such tend to draw the tourist hoards for a traditional safari experience. As a result, and in the excitement of hunting down photos of the big hitting predators and ‘instagrammable’ big game, Milwane is often overlooked (other than by locals, who make this park the most visited of the bunch mostly due to weekend visits). After all, it doesn’t have any lion, elephant or rhino to speak of and its leopard population is seldom seen. But are visitors to the Kingdom missing a trick by skipping Milwane? Read on to find out my opinion.
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Wildlife – 3*
In comparison to Hlane and Mkhaya, Milwane is tiny. In fact, despite its length, it’s only about 4km at its widest and sandwiched between Eswatini’s two biggest cities, Mbabane and Manzini. Whilst that might be great for easy access it certainly doesn’t bode as well for big game; there simply isn’t enough room to support the animal world’s biggest tourist attractions. As a result Milwane has a noticeable absence of lion, elephant and rhino. In addition, the park’s leopard population is tiny in number (the presence of any leopard at all wasn’t confirmed until 2013 when tracks were found of a mother and two cubs), so you shouldn’t arrive expecting to see any big cats. In fairness this was probably a good thing seeing as I explored Milwane on my own by mountain bike. Instead of big game a visit to Milwane rewards visitors with more intimate encounters with savannah game; most notably because they aren’t scared witless by the prospect of being eaten by predators. By reverting to stealth mode (and at points almost reverting to commando crawling on my stomach to get closer without spooking them) I was able to get great close-up photos on foot of Crocodile, blue wildebeest, hippo, impala, kudu, nyala, warthog and zebra (please note that I don’t endorse trying to sneak up on crocodile or hippo for a family photo…or in fact any photo). A quiet hike on one of the park’s trails might also bring sightings of aardvark, blesbuck, blue duiker, bushbaby, civet, genet, grey duiker, honey badger, klipspringer, mongoose, oribi, porcupine, red duiker, red hartebeest, reedbuck, steenbok, suni and waterbuck.
Tip: If you’re looking for close-up shots of hippo then my advice is to head straight to the main camp’s restaurant; appropriately named ‘The Hippo Haunt’. Having unsuccessfully searched around Mhlangeni Lake for hippo and crocodile all morning I decided to take a rest from the exertion of riding my rented mountain bike and grab a beer at the Reserve’s Main Camp. I found a table on the deck overlooking what was a relatively small body of water compared to the lake. To my surprise (and a little chagrin considering I’d just spent the last 3 hours working up a sweat looking for hippo), three hippos appeared alongside four crocodiles in the water. Then two warthogs showed up on the bankside and commenced to what I can only describe as goad the hippos out of the water. Not a bad way to enjoy a cold beer!
Scenery – 3.5*
When you consider that the park’s 4,560 hectares was formerly a farming and tin mining area it makes the park’s scenery all the more stunning. With an altitude variance of around 800m the park supports a range of diverse habitats. Tourism is predominantly focused in the very southern section of the reserve which is characterized by sweeping (and highly photogenic) savanna plains which wind their way north towards Nyonyane Mountain which has an exposed granite summit (also lovingly known as the ‘Rock of Execution’). The southern section of the park is also home to a number of wetland ecosystems (most notably Mhlangeni Lake), rivers and streams that’ll have you spotting crocodiles and hippos in no time. Further north (beyond the Lusushwana River) the park transitions into Highveld grassland and forest (if you make it that far north then you’re more dedicated to the cause than I was on my mountain bike – too much uphill peddling for my liking!). In summary, the fact that Milwane is located in the ‘Valley of Heaven’ seems very apt!
Accommodation – 3.5*
If you want to stay in the reserve then you’ve got three options:
The main rest camp offers huts, beehive village accommodation, a family cottage (sleeping six people), self-catering rondavels and camping. The advantage of the main rest camp is that you’re at the heart of the action and have access to the reserve’s reception, adventure center, restaurant (Hippo Haunt) and swimming pool. If you’ve been on a luxury safari before then wipe that experience firmly from your mind. The accommodation at the main rest camp is reasonable but far from luxury. It simply serves a purpose at a half decent price. The main problem with the rest camp is that it quite often attracts large groups and school trips which can have a very negative affect on your time there!
Sondzela Backpackers is exactly what it sounds like; it’s your budget backpacker option. It’s two kilometers from the rest camp and offers dorms, private rooms and private rondavels. In the main it’s clean and does the job.
The ‘luxury option’ is Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge which is 3km from the rest camp and offers a certain amount of seclusion (at a price). Although I’ve termed this as the ‘luxury’ option it’s not the 5* luxury you’d get in other safari destinations and doesn’t offer the rustic luxury lodge experience that you might typically expect in Africa. It’s more akin to a colonial house experience with chintzy furnishings that seem a bit dated. The lodge only has 6 rooms and one self-catering cottage so if you decide to upscale for your visit then I’d suggest that you book early.
Outside of accommodation within the reserve the world is your oyster. Being located slap bang between Mbabane and Manzini means you have your pick of hotels and guesthouses where you can take advantage of day trips to the reserve.
Access – 4*
To be honest, access couldn’t get much better. The reserve is located slap bang in the middle of the country’s two biggest cities (Mbabane and Manzini) with first class road access from both. It also has great road access from Johannesburg in South Africa; meaning that you can take a direct flight from Europe or the US to Jo’Burg and drive the rest of the way (albeit a 4.5 hour drive). It used to be even better – when I first visited Eswatini, Matsapha Airport was the country’s main international airport and Milwane could be reached a mere 25 minutes after touchdown. Since 2014 King Mswati III International Airport has assumed the responsibility of being Eswatini’s international gateway (commercial flights no longer arrive at Matsapha) and that has increased the drive time to 1.5 hours (on the MR3, which is also a good quality road). In the grand scheme of things that’s still a short drive, but given that Hlane is much closer to the new airport you could be forgiven if the temptation of Hlane’s big game is too much to resist.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 3.5*
It’s hard to ignore that the park doesn’t have any predators or big game. Whilst the scenery is stunning, nothing beats the adrenaline rush of a big game safari and that’s something Milwane just can’t offer. Something it does offer is huge tour groups and busy weekends – not exactly what you want or expect if you’re hoping for a remote bush safari. In that sense the reserve’s great access is both a blessing and a curse.
However, one of Milwane’s biggest advantages is the more personal wildlife experience it does offer. This is put to best affect by partaking in one the activities that the reserve offers – mountain biking, hiking or horseback riding (I’d skip the organized game drives personally). Seeing as my horse riding experience includes riding straight into a thorn bush in the wilds of Namibia as my wife (who grew up riding horses on a ranch in the US) rode off into the distance with our guide, I decided to skip the horse riding and opted for a more controllable (but no more comfortable) mountain bike. I can attest that it provided a level of freedom to explore that is rarely afforded to visitors on a regular safari elsewhere. For this reason alone I’ve pushed the rating up to 3.5* when really Milwane is a 3* rating all day long!
Day trips: Milwane is one of those reserves that makes for a perfect day trip from one of the two surrounding cities. In fact, on my first visit I didn’t even have a hire car. Instead I paid a taxi driver to take me to the reserve’s reception and told him I’d call him when I was ready for a pick-up (I’m pretty certain that it’s the only safari I’ve ever been on where I arrived in a taxi)! I then hired my mountain bike from reception and purchased a park roads and trails map at Reception (although you can also buy them at Sangweni Gate) and off I went! The perfect way to spend a day whilst burning a few calories!
Other activities nearby: There are a whole bunch of other things you could do in and around Milwane. A great place to start looking at adventure activities is the Swazi Trails website which offers mountain biking, hiking, quad biking, canopy tours, rafting and safaris amongst other things (and is located right next door to Milwane). If you fancy a spot of culture after all of that wildlife and adventure then you might want to consider visiting Mantenga Cultural Village or visit the Manzini Market for a spot of craft shopping.