Mkhaya Game Reserve
The Kingdom of Eswatini is a hidden gem for independent travelers who want to experience the African bush in all its beauty and encounter wildlife face-to-face. The landlocked country, formerly known as Swaziland, squeezed between South Africa and Mozambique, introduced strict anti-poaching laws decades ago and has become a paradise for rhinoceros.
Its three semi-private game reserves managed by locals provide authentic experience within Swaziland’s natural heritage. One of them is the Mkhaya Game Reserve, located in the southeast of the country. It’s a refuge for several antelope species, Swaziland’s only small buffalo herds, and most importantly, it is home to a significant rhino population. In fact, it is believed to be one of the top locations in the world to observe black and white rhinoceros in the wild.
Here is what Mkhaya has to offer.
Mkhaya uses open roofless vehicles, which provide great views from all seats. Besides excellent chances to spot black and white rhinos, sightings include giraffes, buffalos, several species of antelopes, warthogs (Pumbaa), and birds such as kingfisher and hornbill (Zazu).
Apparently, a leopard had been spotted by park rangers just before we visited. However, it is notoriously hard to find.
Besides animals, we enjoyed phenomenal views over the thornveld wilderness. When the sun sets, it seems like its rays touch the omnipresent knobthorn trees.
Once a giraffe sticks its head out of the bush and gazes over the acacia canopy towards the sunset, it creates a perfect, almost kitschy African scenery.
Walking safaris are Mkhaya’s signature wildlife experience. We were woken up before sunrise by the sounds of the bush. After a sip of freshly prepared tea and coffee, we drove with a ranger outside of the camp. On the spot of his choosing, we got out of the car and walked through the bush. Once on solid ground, we got a chance to observe much more detail of bush fauna and flora.
We observed a dung beetle struggling with its big pile, and then spotted a pair of antelope eyes in the bushes carefully watching us.
We were just tasting an acacia leaf for its bitterness when out of nowhere, a giant rhino nonchalantly passed right next to us. The feeling, when the gentle giant walks straight towards you is unforgettable.
Photography tip: On a bushwalk in Mkhaya, a 70-200 mm telephoto lens will give you the optimal range for the close-ups of the wildlife encounters on the long end and as well as the surrounding landscape on the wide end.
One can hardly imagine a wildlife experience, which can top this one. We even got a chance to watch a rhino mama feeding its baby from close proximity.
The accommodation in Stone Cape completes the experience of Mkhaya. In the en suite semi-open stone cottages with half-walls and thatch roofs, you’ll fall asleep (and wake up) with the sounds of the bush. Even the bathroom faces the forest, so you can observe the happening in the wilderness while taking a shower.
Good to know: There is no electricity in the camp. Light is provided with candles, oil lamps, and solar panels. Thus, don’t forget to bring charged batteries for your camera. Also, there is no wifi, so you can entirely focus on nature.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served as a buffet of a delicious selection of Swazi barbeque dishes in the communal open-sided tent with a thatch roof. South African wine and local beer are available for purchase as well.
Payment and tips: As the camp has limited electricity, only cash is accepted. There is a tip box in the camp’s office for gratuities that are divided among the staff.
Organization, booking & arrival – our experience
Mkhaya Game Reserve is located on the MR8 road close to the town Siphofafeni, about 430 kilometers (268 miles) from Johannesburg International Airport. Driving from Johannesburg to Mkhaya takes about 6 to 7 hours, depending on traffic, border crossing wait times, and weather conditions.
All activities in Mkhaya are guided and must be booked in advance. Packages are ranging from day game drives to 2-night bush trail safaris. Game walks, undoubtedly the park’s highlight, can only be booked with an overnight stay. We opted for the 24-hours 4pm to 4pm package.
We handled the booking via email specified on the park’s website (firstname.lastname@example.org). The answers from the park’s office were quick and professional. A full payment deposit was needed to confirm our booking. We paid using a credit card after they sent us a booking link.
On the day of our reservation in Mkhaya, we traveled to the reserve with a rental car from Johannesburg International Airport, which we left at 8 am. Even if it is recommended to use a 4×4 during the rainy season, the road conditions were ok, and we didn’t encounter any gravel roads. The border crossing at the Oshoek Border Post went smoothly and took about 30 minutes.
The park cannot be visited with your own vehicle. Visitors must leave the car in a secured parking area and are transferred to the reserve on safari vehicles accompanied by rangers.
By the time of our arrival, around 3:30 pm, rangers were already waiting for 10 more guests and us. We left the car in the parking area, took our small backpack for the night, and started our rhino adventure. 24 hours later, rangers drove us back to our rental car, and we left Mkhaya for the next Swazi game adventure.
Good to know: As rangers have to pick up the groups, there are strict meeting times at 10am and 4pm, depending on the package you choose. Beware that not all 24 hours packages also include the magnificent walking safari.
We definitely agree with Lonely Planet’s selection of eSwatini for the Best in Travel 2020 list and encourage all wildlife enthusiasts to consider putting Mkhaya Game Reserve on their bucket list.