Ramblers holiday in Eswatini (Swaziland) | Sense Africa

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Ramblers holiday in Eswatini (Swaziland)15th May '17

The first trip for Ramblers Holiday to Eswatini was a great success, judging by the happy walkers that I left in Simunye. They had all said that they had fallen in love with the small yet not insignificant Kingdom of Eswatini after spending eight days of discovering what the country has to offer, mostly on foot. One of the things was how friendly and relaxed the people of Eswatini were how welcoming everyone was.

We had visited the highveld and walked magical Malolotja, climbed the famous Sibebe Rock on a rather drizzly day (which was very out of the norm as the rainy season should have ended ages ago), walked with zebra in Mlilwane, had a fascinating ramble around Mahlindza dam in Hlane and had a giraffe circumnavigate us in Mbuluzi. It was a trip to remember, and that was only half of it!

But I think it was the people as well as the wildlife and scenery that made it. At Foresters Arms, our first stop on the trip, we went for a walk and met up with children who were skipping next to their homesteads, the skipping rope ingeniously made out of twisted plastic bags tied together, nothing is wasted here. Everyone said hello as we walked by, the guests had only been in Eswatini for a couple of hours and were already getting the friendly royal treatment. Eswatini prides itself on giving a genuine African experience.

Malolotja visit

On our second day we walked in Malolotja, where you wouldn’t be too surprised if you saw a dragon pop up from behind the mountains. Malolotja is heralded as one of the last true African wildernesses, and it really lives up to its end. We could see for miles across rounded mountains and with not a soul in sight, just blesbok, zebra and eland. The guys at the entrée gate were delighted that we were discovering their park on foot, not many visitors there.

rambling in Malolotja

Sibebe Rock climb

Following on our spectacular day in Malolotja were climbed Sibebe Rock, the worlds largest granite monolith, and only the second largest monolith in the world after Uluru.  Although I have heard that there maybe a crack down the centre of Uluru making it half its size. Anna and Bongi guided us up Sibebe Rock and showed us all what a spectacular place it is. Both of them live at the base of The Rock, so it is their playground so they knew a fair bit about its history.

On the top we met a couple of women who had been cutting grass and were making their way down the rock, a normal daily occurrence for them and there we were all kitted out in waterproofs for the hike whilst they were simply in skirts and shirts! Yes, it did rain, which I thought might have spoiled the views but is was still just as amazing as the other ascents I have done.

Mlilwane Walking Safari

Our Ramblers holiday on an amazing safari in Mlilwane with Sabelo, again it rained a bit and at this point I was seriously considering hiring this group out as rain makers for Southern Africa, I am sure I could have made a fortune. But the upside was that we had our drinks for our sundowner at Reilly’s Rock, an exclusive lodge in the park. Every cloud does have a silver lining. Not only did we have beers up there but we also saw red and blue duiker in the gardens along with some of the other 22 species that Ted Reilly is planning to introduce back into Swaziland, how lucky was that? What a privilege. Sabelo also showed his passion for conservation in Swaziland by talking about the great work that Big Game Parks is doing to in the Kingdom, it was very interesting to hear.

Mlilwane game safari

We also had a couple of great walks bird spotting in the park and walked amongst zebra, blesbok and wildebeest. By this point everyone was interested in the birds that we were seeing, there is something mesmerising about the birds of Africa, each one has its own weird tale such as if you imitate the call of an ibis you will be ill or if you see the reflection of a Hamerkop you will get leprosy, nothing positive really…

Hamerkop bird in mlilwane

Walking with giraffe in Mbuluzi – the northern section

But the best walk for Ramblers Holidays was in Mbuluzi where we were welcomed by Mandla at reception and let loose on the trails there. I have spent many a day in Mbuluzi, tracking giraffe, doing vegetation surveys or cutting trails, I love this reserve. Mbuluzi epitomises what Swaziland has to offer, simply to get out into the bush and see Africa by foot. And we certainly did. After an hour of walking through the bush we had seen three giraffe and had stopped at a bird hide for some shade, it was gloriously sunny now. Inside the hide were two of the rangers on anti poaching patrol and they wanted to make sure that we had seen some of the wildlife that Mbuluzi has. Everyone wanted us to have the best time ever.

We had the whole day in Mbuluzi Game Reserve, one of my favourite reserves in the Kingdom, there is something special about this place with its peace and tranquility and the fact that hardly anyone goes there.

We set out from reception to explore the Northern part of the reserve. The Reserve is divided in to two sections, the north near and the southern section, each unique in its own way. The Northern section is less managed and more wild than the southern section and both provide very different experiences.

The reason for the division is from a road that runs through the middle of it to one of the other reserves that make up the Lubombo Conservancy, Mlawula reserve, but also due to the foot and mouth line that crosses the country.

We followed a small section of the road system into the reserve before taking one of the so called mountain biking trails that wind their way through the reserve. I am not a mountain biker at all but I certainly would to want to ride these trails, to me they seem treacherous although I possess no balance whatsoever. I suspect that these trails are for the more adventurous bikers.

The trail meanders through savanna, over rocky out crops and dips into small water courses, beautifully designed to make the most of all that Mbuluzi offers. We saw arrow marked babblers, yellow fronted canaries and blue waxbills and when we arrived at a bird hide we saw a stunning malachite kingfisher precariously balanced on a reed over looking the water. There were also a pair of drongos feeding their hungry young up in the higher branches that stood like sentinels around the dam.

But the prize we were after was a not a bird, it was giraffe. Mbuluzi has the best opportunities for giraffe sightings in Swaziland (or Eswatini as the Kingdom is now called) especially of you want to walk amongst a ‘tower’ or ‘journey’ of giraffe. And this was our goal.

We decided to walk along the road system to give us more chance of seeing giraffe. Eswatini has had good rains, thankfully after four years of drought, and so the vegetation was quite high. Walking along the first roads would give us more field of vision for spotting giraffes.

Rambling with giraffe in Eswatini

Giraffes are surprisingly hard animals to spot, you would have thought that a 5m high animal in a checkered skin would stand out, not the case. Giraffe are extremely quiet animals and can remain motionless for a considerable time so you can simply walk by a giraffe and not see him. Try having a staring contest with a giraffe, the giraffe will undoubtably win, with its big eyes with fantastic eyelashes and an over curious demeanour, it can unblinkingly watch you probably for eons.

Walking in the bush you have to develop a sort of Terminator approach to spotting wildlife, scan the horizon regularly without really focussing. Keep looking for abnormalities in the bush, things that don’t seem quite right.

And that is how we saw our first giraffe, I caught him out of the side of my right eye, he was standing motionless and it was commented that he looked like a tree he was so still.

He was only 20m away from us and stood regally looking at us. My group stood in awe of this beast and we watched him watching us giving us the eyeball. He was a lone male with a knobbly forehead and he looked at us nonchalantly without a care in the world. I suppose if a giraffe can kill a lion with a single kick then he really has nothing to be worried about with a group of ramblers trying to stay in the shade of a tree to escape the sun. It was a humbling experience.

Giraffe of Mbuluzi in Eswatini

After spending time here we decide to move on and give this magnificent beast his own space. The group was bubbling with excitement, never had they been so close to giraffe on foot before. It was a first for all of them. But there was more to come. As we approached the end of the morning walk we stumbled across a group of seven giraffe about 20m away from the road, female giraffe and young, all again curious as to why these people were wandering around in the midday sun. It was actually midday and we were all rather hot. And we were also rather lucky to see these giraffe as well, the Rangers had not seen any that morning.

We watched the group for a while until the heat got too unbearable and decided that lunch was in order. Lunch was at one of the lodges in Mbuluzi and we were thankful for the cool interior to rest up in.

Walking with giraffe in Mbuluzi – the southern section

And then we were out for an afternoon walk, this time in the southern section where the reserve is more managed we could see that there had been a lot of bush encroachment removal which had opened up the line of sight. We followed yet another bike trail, this one even I could manage as it was gently undulating and followed the course of the Mbuluzi river. And then we were out in the open again and immediately saw another group of giraffe, right on the track in front of us. We could not have more closer to them and they simply watched us walk by.  There were three adults and two very young giraffe which had been born that season, and they stared us out as we watched them in awe.

Giraffe calf

This was a brilliant end to the day and what was about an hours walk turned into an hour and a half as we watched giraffe and zebra, exclusive to us, in one of the most peaceful reserves in Eswatini.

An excursion to Simunye

So there I was in Simunye and the next couple of hours reinforced why I love the Kingdom so much. Within two minutes of leaving the group I had been asked to have my picture taken with a young lad whilst with his family. After having shopped in Boxer supermarket, where I did stayed clear of buying walkie-talkies (chicken feet and heads), I got onto a bus to take me back to Hlane Royal National Park.

The bus driver cleared the spinach that was balanced on the engine between him and the guy riding shotgun and gestured saying “Have a seat.” So I sat on the engine facing backwards looking through the throng of people crammed into the bus and got a few smiles from those sitting near me.

As we drove the short distance the driver nudged me and said “There are your animals”. I twisted myself round and could see on the side of the road were four giraffe nonchalantly sauntering along the verge. I am not too sure what he meant by ‘my’ animals, but it was good of him to point them out as I was facing the wrong way.

He then asked me if I had seen a crocodile and when I said that I had he asked me how big it was. He then told me how dangerous they were.

“When you are fishing the crocs push the fish towards you so that you get distracted by the seeing all these fish. This gives the crocodile time to get near you and then leap out of the water and eat you.” I was not convinced about this reasoning but I was more than happy to listen.

I am not to too sure if the bus was allowed to stop outside Hlane entrance gate, but it did anyway. It was a rather steep drop from the bus to the dirt road embankment and I nearly toppled over into the bush. I managed to retain my dignity by remaining upright. Having crossed the road I had only walked ten paces when a car pulled up and a guy opened the door and said “Hop in.” It was a group of guys from ‘statistics’, whatever that means as they said the titles knowingly to me and I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t a clue what they did. They kindly gave me a lift to the park main gate. Still not too sure what they were counting…

At the gate there is a section of road that goes through the elephant and rhino section before arriving at the main camp and obviously they do not want people to walk this. The lovely smiley lady on the gate radioed for someone to come and walk me through. But they were not quick enough, another friendly gesture, this time a couple staying in the park, gave me a lift through the big game area.

What I had envisaged as a bit of a mission to get food for the next two days proved to be effortless and delightful. Simply put, Eswatini welcomes everyone with a bucket load of kind gestures.

So here I sit, with a gin and tonic, in my own cottage by the waterhole listening to the honk of hippos and eating steak, life couldn’t be better.

hippo in Eswatini

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