eSwatini: a kingdom’s worth of wild travel possibilities

Safari and eSwatini sound like a perfect match, though few people realise that this small African kingdom is ripe with opportunities to view iconic African wildlife. In fact, the country offers some of the best encounters with rhinos on the entire continent.

But these much-heralded horns are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, with numerous other species to see, and many rewarding ways to see them, either on foot, horseback or mountain bike. And the culture, historical treasures and landscapes of eSwatini all have the power to enchant in equal measure.

Two huge white rhino stand head on with a couple of weathered acacia trees standing behind them; in the distance are rolling grasslands
Two white rhino in the wilds of Mkhaya Game Reserve, eS​​​watini  © Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet

Mkhaya Game Reserve

Life isn't always black or white, though in Mkhaya Game Reserve you'd be forgiven for thinking so. Whether on foot or in an open-topped 4WD, safari activities can't help but be dominated by two of Africa's most iconic species: the white and black rhinoceros. The reserve has long boasted that visitors are more likely to see rhinos in the wild here than anywhere else in Africa, and it has reason to say so. Encounters – often of the in-close-quarters variety – are truly unforgettable. Tracking these massive creatures on a bush walk is an incredible experience, and offers the opportunity to seek out Mkhaya's other creatures, both large and small. Following fresh spoor of giraffe, serval, impala or even dung beetles is always as captivating as it is educational.

Two white human footprints are painted onto a red rock as trail markers within Malolotja Nature Reserve; in the distance is a mountain ridge with the sun just set behind it
Hiking trail markers within the Malolotja Nature Reserve, eSwatini  © Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet

Malolotja Nature Reserve

A perfect place to keep your feet on the ground and your head in the sky, Malolotja Nature Reserve is perhaps the greatest destination in eSwatini to embrace the country’s extraordinary landscapes. Hikers and mountain bikers can spend days exploring the myriad trails that criss-cross some 200km of the high-altitude grasslands and lower-lying bushveld. A particularly rewarding hiking option is the 11km Malolotja Falls Trail, which offers vistas of the 89m-high Malolotja Falls (the country’s highest), Majolomba Falls and Silotfwane Mountain. If the sight of the latter is inspiring, there is a difficult 17km trail up the mountain that not only offers views across eSwatini, but also of Mozambique and South Africa. With 19 sites for camping, it’s possible to string together trails for overnight hikes of lasting between two and eight days in duration.

A woman in an orange safety helmet zooms down a zipline towards the camera; the wire leads back up into rocky bluffs dotted with trees
The 50m-long suspension bridge and one of the ziplines at Malolotja Canopy Tours, Malolotja Nature Reserve  © Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet

Those without a fear of heights can fly over Majolomba River gorge and through its lush tree canopy on a series of adrenaline-inducing ziplines. The Malolotja Canopy Tour also includes a lofty 50m-long suspension bridge. While closing your eyes and screaming with joy (or fear) is always an option, you’ll be hard pressed to given the stunning views from the 10 wires, swaying bridge and sturdy wooden platforms bolted to the cliff sides.

Keeping visitors company in the sky are some 280 species of bird, while zebras, wildebeests, blesboks and warthogs are common sights roaming the countryside.

Rich purplish red paintings of human-like figures cover a wall or rock within a large cave
Some of the ancient and intricate rock art within the Nsangwini Rock Art Shelter, Komati Valley  © Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet

Komati Valley

This valley, to the east of Malolotja Nature Reserve, offers a taste of eSwatini’s past and present. Modernity is represented by the massive Maguga Dam, which hems in the Komati River to form a large lake used for irrigation, power production and recreational water sports. Although there are several viewpoints of the dam from the surrounding mountains, it’s at its most impressive from the arching roadway that crosses it. Nowhere is the valley’s history more poignant than within the Nsangwini Rock Art Shelter. Here, well-preserved paintings that date back some 4000 years depict African animals (wild dogs, elephants and lions) and ancient humans in various phases between the material and spiritual world. The latter includes hunters with spears, a man with the head of a praying mantis and others floating with feathered wings. Most of the reddish paintings, some delicate in their structure, were created using a mixture of ochre and animal-blood. Others are black, and are thought to represent the first Bantu pastoralists in the region.

The short hike to the shelter is incredibly picturesque, offering views over the lush valley and distant Komati River.

A guide on horseback points to a herd of blesbok in long grass
Horseback riding through wildebeest and blesbok at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, eSwatini  © Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

eSwatini’s first protected area is still one of its best, with dramatic scenery, iconic wildlife and a wide variety of safari activities. Bar crocodiles and hippos, which are only found in the immediate vicinity of waterholes, there are no dangerous animals to encounter here. This fact allows visitors to walk, mountain bike or horse ride throughout much of the sanctuary without the worry of lurking predators. Taking to the saddle allows access to the most areas, as well as closer encounters with normally shy wildlife such as zebras, wildebeest, warthogs and various antelopes (including the rare roan and blue duiker species). That said, the self-guided walking and biking trails and well-mapped roads for self-drive safaris make for easy and rewarding exploration throughout the day here. The most popular option for all is the ascent of Execution Rock (1110m) – according to legend, the ancient site where criminals and those suspected of witchcraft were forced to take their last step (off its lofty edge). There is no better way to end the day in Mlilwane than enjoying a sundowner near that fateful spot on Nyonyane Mountain.

A smiling traditional healer stands at the door of his home; he has an animal-fur hat, but a standard button-up shirt on. Around his neck and under his left arm are countless rings of colourful beads.
Matena-M Mnisi, a traditional healer in the Lebombo Mountains of Swaziland  © Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet

Lebombo Mountains

These scenic mountains, perhaps best known for marking the boundary between the safari haven of Kruger National Park in South Africa from the wilds Mozambique's Limpopo National Park, also form the border of eastern eSwatini with Mozambique. Here it's not so much the animals on show, but rather the rural riches of the eSwatini. Visitors who stay in the community-run Shewula Mountain Camp can walk with local guides through villages to learn about the culture, to sip freshly fermented beer (not for everyone's taste!) and to even have their health assessed by a traditional healer. The setting is pretty spectacular throughout, with the views east down over Mozambique only being eclipsed by those westward across the Mbuluzi Game Reserve and sugarcane plantations beyond.

Hlane Royal National Park

Once the royal hunting ground, this national park is now the country’s largest protected area. The 220-sq-km park was proclaimed in 1967 by King Sobhuza II, and its name Hlane – fittingly – means ‘wilderness’ in siSwati. Already home to the largest wildlife herds in eSwatini, the park’s population of elephants was boosted further by the recent translocation of all Mlilwane’s elephants. Joining the giant pachyderms are three other members of the Big Five, namely lion, leopard and rhino. Keeping these high profile animals company in the hardwood forests are large numbers of antelopes and numerous bird species, including various vultures and the massive marabou stork. There are areas dedicated to self-drive safaris, and others where guided activities take place, such as walking and birding safaris, wildlife drives and mountain biking.

Matt Phillips travelled to eSwatini with Explore, with thanks to Big Game Parks. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

Article first published May 2017, and last updated August 2019 by Matt Phillips. 

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