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Eswatini: Hlane Royal National Park

Covering 22,000 hectares Hlane Royal National Park has proclaimed a National Park in 1967, following Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary (1961), under the instruction of King Sobhuza ll. “Hlane” is the siSwati name for ‘wilderness’. Before this designation it was a hunting ground for the rich folks of Swaziland, luckily not everything was wiped out and the park has the largest herds in the kingdom, including elephants, white rhinos and lions. The terrain is low veld, with open grasslands and hardwood forests.

There are two camps inside the park, Ndlovu Camp and Bhubesi Camp. The camps are 16km apart, Ndlovu Camp being the heart of activity within the big game area, while Bhubesi Camp is a quiet self-catering camp outside the endangered species area. We were staying in Ndlovu (which means ‘elephant’ in siSwati).

I had planned for us to take the morning and afternoon game drives the following day but was a bit wary of the forecast for afternoon rains so when we arrived at Ndlovu the first thing I tried to do was switch out tomorrow’s afternoon game drive to this afternoon. Unfortunately, everything was booked up, so we had no choice but to settle in for the afternoon and evening.

There are a couple of cottages that can be rented at Ndlovu Camp, but these are large with a few bedrooms and more suited for families. I had booked us into one of the dozen or so stone-built rondavels in the camp. These were very basic – essentially consisting of a bed, a small table and a chair. There was a bathroom, which was also basic, but it had a decent working shower, with hot water, and a European-style toilet. There was no electricity to the rooms – so in the evening the only light came from whatever you brought with you, or the paraffin lamps the camp provided (I don’t love the smell of paraffin!)

Hlane Royal National Park - Eswatini, formerly Swaziland
The main lodge at Ndvulo Camp - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
The main lodge at Ndvulo Camp
Our rondavel at Ndvulo Camp - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
Our rondavel at Ndvulo Camp
The beds in the Ndvulo Camp rondavel - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
The beds in the Ndvulo Camp rondavel
The bathroom
The bathroom

Ndlovu Camp has a main lodge building that was made from wood with a thatched roof, and it housed a large dining room and bar. Outside of the cover of the lodge roof was plenty of seating to enjoy views across to the large waterhole, which attracts antelope and white rhinos.

We went over to the lodge to order dinner and grab a beer and take advantage of the Wi-Fi, which was predictably bad (not surprisingly in the middle of the bush). As we were ordering we noticed a sign that said there would be some traditional dancing in the evening after dinner. Something to look forward to.

As the sun went down, we drank to its passing with our beers and waited while dinner was prepared.
Sadly, when dinner came it was very disappointing. Unfortunately, unless you brought your own kitchen with you or were camping it was the only game in town.

We were still grumbling when the local dancers turned up to perform. A large fire was lit in the open area next to the lodge and a smallish crowd gathered to watch. To be fair this is a small camp, so the crowds were never going to fill a stadium! It seemed to take an age for the dancers to gather themselves, but when they did start it was a whirl of arms and legs. The men and the women performed separately, which we assumed was cultural, but there were a lot of movements in common, the most athletic of which was violently kicking their legs high in the air, above their heads. It was exhausting just watching. The woman who seemed to be the leader of the lady dancers was heavily built, but she had no problems kicking her legs as high as everyone else. Very impressive! The dancing was accompanied by drums and chanting songs, which were as energetic as the dancing. After twenty frenetic minutes, the dancing was over and not surprisingly all the participants were exhausted.

It was now time for bed as we had an early morning game drive in our future.

We were rudely woken from our slumbers by the alarms on our phones. It was a chilly morning, and the first rays of light were yet to show as we took our showers, which were more functional than invigorating. As quiet as church mice we left our rondavel so we didn’t wake our neighbours and took the path behind the lodge to rendezvous with the game drive vehicle.

By now it was starting to get light, and we could make out the shapes of about four white rhinos who had taken their spot on the banks of the waterhole, like European tourists who rose to get the best spots around the swimming pool at their resort. Luckily, rhinos have yet to discover beach towels.

There were about ten of us who had signed up for the purgatory of a dawn game drive. We all climbed aboard the vehicle and headed out. We passed through the gate of the lodge compound, which keeps out most of the larger animals and set out to see what we could find.

Hlane has two fenced areas. The one that the Ndlovu Camp was based on is the preserve of the rhinos (both black and white), zebras, giraffes and plenty of antelope. You can drive around this part of the park in your own vehicle. Finding the white rhino was not hard as there are a large number of them at Hlane and they seemed to like to hang around the camps, so we had the opportunity to get up close to several magnificent specimens. There were also some mothers and their calves who were a little more nervous about our presence, but we were still able to get up close to them. There are some smaller predators in this area of the park, but they are harder to see, so we were lucky to get a glimpse of a silver-backed jackal.

Hlane Royal Natiomal Park is home to many white rhinos - Eswatini
Hlane Royal Natiomal Park is home to many white rhinos
A baby rhino with its mother - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
A baby rhino with its mother
Someone needs to teach these rhinos the highway code - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
Someone needs to teach these rhinos the highway code
A silver-backed jackal - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
A silver-backed jackal

We then entered the fenced area where the lions and elephants are found. You can only go in here on an official game drive with one of Hlane’s guides. Inside this section as well as the lions and elephants there are antelope, which unfortunately are there to be part of the food chain for the predators. Once we were inside the fence, I did notice some cheeky impalas looking at us through the fence, who were if human, would be quietly laughing at their fellow antelope who was in with us! Sometimes the proverbial grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

It didn’t take us too long to find the lions. Close to the fence line we two large male lions, who were lying down and surveying their territory in a way that only male lions can do. They were beautiful – which is not something you can always say about lions! The other game-drive vehicle joined us. The nice thing about Hlane, at least in this part of the park you will only see one other vehicle if that. It feels like a very up close and personal experience with the animals. We had spent a lot of time watching these two magnificent animals, when one of the pair decided to get up and start walking down the road, almost brushing the side of the other game drive vehicle. We watched him swagger up the road and disappear. A few minutes later we heard him call, which prompted his brother (we learned of the time familial relationship about this time) to get up and start moving too. The lion who had wandered off returned and they both disappeared off into the bush. Absolutely amazing.

One of the large male lions we saw in Hlane - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
One of the large male lions we saw in Hlane
Its tiring being a lion - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
Its tiring being a lion
Male lions have a swagger about them - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
Male lions have a swagger about them

About 10 minutes later we found some elephants. We were able to get up close to one with a broken tusk, but when he started to get a little grumpy our driver, out of caution withdrew to a safe distance to watch.
It was time to leave the lions and elephants and start to make our way back to the lodge. We had a short coffee and pee break by a waterhole before climbing back aboard the game drive vehicle and heading out. Along our route, we encountered some more white rhinos.

In nature, there are many symbiotic relationships. We’d seen the small oxpecker birds riding on the backs of buffalo and rhinos eating the insects that had burrowed into the larger animal’s hide. But one of the most fascinating beasts we had seen during our travels in Africa was the mighty dung beetle.

These beetles are able to smell fresh dung from incredible distances and are able to get there almost before the dung has hit the ground. As I had found out previously, they can fly, which hurts if you get hit by one on the head at 60km/hour in an open vehicle! We came across a fresh pile of dung that was already being dismantled by a throng of dung beetles (I am not sure of the collective noun for these insects). The male dung beetle creates a perfectly spherical ball of dung to impress the females, who are able to determine and Maserati dung ball from an old clunker, which is how they select their mate. Once the beetles have done their mating, the female lays her eggs inside the dung ball, which is the perfect temperature to mature the eggs and is food for the baby beetles when they hatch. Fascinating (well at least to me).

A short while later we arrived back at the lodge for some rest and relaxation before our afternoon game drive.

A female kudu in Hlane - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
A female kudu in Hlane
A common bee-eater - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
A common bee-eater
A large bull elephant - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
A large bull elephant
A large water monitor lizard by a waterhole - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
A large water monitor lizard by a waterhole
A kite flying above Hlane Royal National Park - Eswatini
A kite flying above Hlane Royal National Park
An industrious dung beetle - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
An industrious dung beetle
Dung beetles move in to demolish a pile of rhino dung - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini
Dung beetles move in to demolish a pile of rhino dung

Whilst we had gone the rhinos around the waterhole by the lodge had moved and they were virtually up on the fence. So, you could get almost within touching distances of these monstrous animals. As we stood there we got chatting to an English family. The mother and father were visiting their son and his girlfriend, who were working as dive instructors in Tofo, Mozambique. They had all come to Eswatini for a few days, but unfortunately their car had broken down, so they were waiting to hear back from the garage (luckily it turned out okay- well we at least saw them leave Hlane).

Rhinos at the waterhole - Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini

Our afternoon game drive followed the routine of the morning drive. We saw more rhinos, antelope and the same two male lions. The rest of the pride eluded us.

The game drive culminated in a stop at a hide by a large watering hole to watch the sunset. Of course, this meant sundowner time. Our driver and guide carried the cooler of beer into the hide, but no one remembered to bring the bottle opener. The young people we were travelling with on the game drive looked flummoxed until I showed them how to pop the tops of bottles on the wooden shelter’s sides. Everyone was happy again.

It was now getting very gloomy so it was time to head back to the lodge for the night.

Planning your visit to Hlane Royal National Park

Directions from Mananga Border to Hlane Royal National Park

Distance ± 55 km – about 1 hour 20min

  • From the border you travel 5km and at the traffic circle take the first exit LEFT.
  • Continue STRAIGHT for + 32km to the T-junction
  • At the T-junction turn RIGHT and travel ± 15km past the sugar estates; continue for ± 7km after Simunye town.
  • Turn RIGHT as indicated by the HLANE ROYAL NATIONAL PARK sign.
  • The entrance gate ± 500m off the tarred road.
  • Ndlovu Camp another ± 500m from the gate.

Please note:

  • The park gate is open between sunrise and sunset only (approximately 6am-6pm depending on season)
  • Guests booked at Bhubesi Camp must check in at Ndlovu Camp before driving through to Bhubesi

Best time to visit Eswatini

Choosing when to visit Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) comes down to personal priorities. This is not one of those African destinations where the seasons force your hand: most roads are perfectly navigable all year round and the wildlife does not all exit the country at certain times. Tourism numbers peak around the Christmas holidays but the place is never congested.

The warmest months are from October to March, when it may become too hot for some people’s comfort in the lowveld but remains bearable in the highveld. Conversely, the coolest are from June to August, when it is chilly at night in the highveld but remains pleasantly mild in the lowveld. In other words, because temperatures vary so widely across the country, you can always go where it is warmer – or cooler – according to taste. The rainy season brings violent electrical storms, generally in the afternoon, and mist often swathes large areas of the highveld. In general, however, Swaziland’s weather can never be forecast with the same certainty as a little further north in Africa, where the rainy and dry seasons are more clearly defined.

Similarly, from a wildlife-watcher’s perspective, there is not the same peak/off-peak seasonal pattern of many safari destinations. The dry season, when vegetation dies back and water sources dwindle, is best for game-viewing in the lowveld. But Swaziland’s parks are small, so the game is never hard to find. The rainy season is best for birds, with everything singing and displaying and, from September to March, all the summer migrants – including such rarities as the blue swallow – joining the residents. The rains also bring out reptiles, frogs and insects, which may or may not be your thing but certainly makes a night in the bush much noisier. Mosquitoes and other biting irritants are more prevalent during the rains but never a serious deterrent. For plant enthusiasts, the highveld floral display peaks in October/November.

Seasonal factors do influence certain activities. Hikers should bear in mind that summer brings sapping midday heat and violent afternoon storms, so it’s a good idea to make an early start to the day. Heavy downpours also have an impact on whitewater rafting and caving, leaving some rivers too swollen to tackle. For photographers, however, there is no doubt that the rainy season brings the best light, with lush foregrounds and dramatic skies. Dry-season bushfires produce a dusty haze that is not conducive to landscape photography.

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