The EA guide to eSwatini safaris
This tiny country formerly known as Swaziland punches well above its weight when it comes to safari experiences given its tiny size! At just 17,360 square kilometres, eSwatini fits literally inside South Africa’s Kruger National Park with a bit of room to move!
An eSwatini safari will impress and surprise those who venture off the main tourist track. You get impressive wildlife, beautiful scenery and for a fraction of the price and far less tourist traffic.
The joy of eSwatini is that its compact size allows you to really explore north, south, east and west. With no attraction more than 2 hours away from any other, it’s easy to visit everything from one accommodation base.
Hlane Royal National Park is located in the northeast of the country and is the flagship reserve. It’s home to four of the Big Five (no buffalo) and in the south of the country is Mkhaya Game Reserve. This small yet impressive reserve is home to a diversity of species and a decent safari experience.
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The best time to go on an eSwatini safari
Unlike many other safari countries, eSwatini doesn’t really get super busy because it’s not well known yet. There is a dry season that runs mid April to mid October. The end of the dry season offers the best wildlife viewing because the vegetation is lower and thus animals easier to spot.
The rainy season runs from late October through to March. Rainfall is usually in the form of thunderstorms typical of a tropical environment.
Wildlife in eSwatini
eSwatini boasts a variety of landscapes and habitats that are home to quite a diversity of species. Wildlife enthusiasts can track rhinos in the wild lowveld or seek out rare species of birds in the rugged highveld.
There are around 500 different bird species recorded in eSwatini. This puts it on par with Kruger National Park which is remarkable for a tiny, landlocked country.
For a more traditional wildlife safari, the best places are Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve. The big mammals are here like elephant, giraffe, hippo and zebra. Predator action is possible in Hlane, home to a decent lion population.
Hlane Royal National Park
Located in the northeast of the country, Hlane Royal National Park is eSwatini’s flagship reserve. Once a royal hunting ground, today it’s the largest protected area in eSwatini – a 22,000-hectare conservation area whose name literally means ‘wilderness’ in siSwati.
It’s famous for its big herds of game and is home to four of the Big Five (there are no buffalo here). There’s also excellent birdlife, especially raptors, and Hlane houses Africa’s largest breeding population of endangered white-backed vultures.
You can enjoy Hlane as a self-driving adventure, and set out under your own steam in search of white rhino, elephant, giraffe, zebra and a variety of smaller wildlife. But if want to see where lions and elephants roam side by side, you’ll need to book a guided game drive with a ranger.
Other activities include walking safaris, overnight bush trails, a dedicated rhino drive, guided bird walks, mountain biking and cultural tours.
Not a lot of accommodation exists here, it’s literally two self-catering camps inside the park. There’s Bhubesi Camp in the north is a secluded bush retreat with only a handful of self-catering cottages, while Ndlovu Camp offers off-the-grid camping and self-catering options, including accommodation in rondavel huts (traditional circular African dwellings with a conical thatched roofs).
Mkhaya Game Reserve
To the south of Hlane Royal National Park lies Mkhaya Game Reserve, a smaller private nature reserve that offers the most exclusive safari experience in the country. Established in 1979, it’s named after the mkhaya, or knobthorn, tree which bears a fruit that Swazis use for brewing beer.
The reserve’s original purpose was to save indigenous Nguni cattle from extinction. These days, the cattle are still here, but you’ll also see elephant, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, crocodile, tsessebe (antelope) and a host of other animals, many of which have been reintroduced. You won’t see big cats, but you’ll hear hyenas and see plenty of smaller game.
Mkhaya is also a popular destination for birders, with the Narina trogon and the purple-crested turaco just some of the exotic species you might be lucky to spot, even if you can’t pronounce them.
The park is best known, however, for its populations of white rhino and black rhino. This is one of the best places in all of Africa to see the critically endangered black rhino in the wild. Guided game drives offer close-up viewing, or you can track both species on foot.