Camping, lions, and a chance meeting with Ted Reilly & a startled giraffe at Hlane NP in Swaziland

We made it safely into Swaziland and the animal adventure began almost immediately upon turning into Hlane Royal National Park as a wildebeest was just running like a crazy fool on the road. We pulled over to wait out his spectacle, but it seemed like foreshadowing of the animal adventures yet to come.
Signage to Hlane National Park

Also, after turning we wondered if we were headed the right direction as the road was dirt, there were almost no people, and it seemed *ahem* ‘rustic’. We asked a passing truck if this was indeed the entrance to Hlane and he assured us it was, so we carried on.
Entrance to Hlane National Park

We would find out that Swazi game parks are not nearly as crowded as South African game parks. These game parks are also smaller than SA game parks. Hlane Royal National Park is only 67 km in area. This game park also separates the animals into different enclosures, which is for their protection and monitoring. With all the poaching going on, the best way to monitor the animals is to keep them in spaces that can be watched.

Yet these parks are teeming with wildlife! And teeming with my favorite wildlife…RHINOS! After paying our admittance fee and camping, we drove into Hlane only to see a huge rhino straight chilling by the large watering hole that the camp abuts. I yelped in delight and raced out of the car to take a million photos. Please not the skimpy 2 strands of barbed wire ‘protecting’ me from the wild animals at the watering hole. It was supposedly electric, but safety is different in Africa.
First thing we spotted at Hlane was a rhino at the watering hole

Snapping photos at the watering hole with a rhino Watching the rhino at the watering hole

Rhino with bird in his ear

Once I calmed down from my watering hole excitement, I took in the campground called Ndlovu campground. I was impressed. It is a simple campground, but a lovely campground.

Curio Shop at Hlane

Grounds of Ndlovu Campground in Hlane

Rondavels of Ndlove Campground

Our cozy tent at the Ndlovu campground

Besides being a campground that wasn’t super crowded, we also found this game park had another unique feature. Game drives were only recommended for vehicles with high clearance as the ground was extremely rough. We did attempt to drive through the park, but after avoiding some serious holes and getting the car scratched by brambles we decided paying for the guided drives was the way to go. Warthog Running in Hlane

The guided drives took you out in a proper safari vehicle and provided access to all areas of the park. As mentioned another unique thing about Hlane is it is separated into sections so the hooved animals are separate from the elephants and lions. We took a tour to the elephant and lion enclosure since I had only seen 1 lion in my time on the continent. Lions are elusive even when they live in an enclosure so we drove around hunting for 1 of the prides. En route we came across some elephants and I do love elephants so I was happy to watch them eat.

Elephant sniffing for us

Elephant Close Up

Eating and Walking

Eventually, the elephant wandered down the road and we continued our search for the elusive lion prides. We drove round and round and round looking in all the normal spots for them to no avail. Then, we rounded a corner and right on the side of the road was a family of lions, 3 lionesses and a male cub. Holy crap, our entire safari car flipped their shit.

4 Lazy Lions

We sat and watched them. I fell in love with the mom and her cub as he was a handsome fella.

Mom and baby Lions

They even had a sweet moment where they cleaned each other and our safari car could hardly handle the cuteness. Momma cleaning her baby

Cleaning his paw

Then he returns the favor

On the drive back, our guide stopped one last time to point an interesting track in the dirt. It was a crocodile track. He hypothesized that the croc was moving from the watering hole by our campground to another watering hole. This freaked my friend out and all night she fretted about it. Maybe it was my Florida upbringing, but this did not worry me in the slightest although she did have a point that the croc would not be stopped by the 2 strands of barbed wire ‘protecting us’ from the wildlife at the watering hole. Crocodile tracks on the road, apparently the croc relocated from one watering hole to another

One of the best parts of Ndlovu campground is that there is a bar and a restaurant on site overlooking the watering hole completely lit by kerosene lanterns. In fact, the entire campground is lit only by kerosene lanterns. They even go into the bathrooms at night and leave lanterns in there for us to be able to see. It makes for quite a romantic mood around camp.

Nighttime at the restaurant

Sunset at the watering hole in Ndlovu

The next morning we took another organized game drive to find lions because seeing them in the AM is the best time supposedly. Thus, we were up and loaded on trucks before the sun.

Sunrise over Hlane

We again hunted for lions and lo and behold we came across the same pride as before, Momma, her cubs, and the aunties. Lions just waking up

We watched them waking up for a bit until they actually arose and began to walk down the road. The guides were quick though and backed up our truck as soon as the lions began to be mobile.

Lion strolling

The lions didn't make it very far

The lions didn't make it very far

Eventually, we left this pride of lions in peace. We drove around the area some more coming across an elephant or 2. And then we are bumping down this road when we turn a corner and find a spectacular site…3 lionesses feeding on a wildebeest. These ladies are just recently caught this poor wildebeest and were going to town on the carcass. Seriously, there was tearing and gnashing and blood. It was a real national geographic moment. Tasty wildebeest for lion supper

Bloody lion mouths

While this was fascinating to watch. It was also a bit unnerving because the animals behaved so differently here. The first pride was super chill and looked at us with boredom. These lady lions were pacing and anxious and stared at us with chilling stares. The guide even seemed a bit uneasy and wouldn’t let us watch them for long. Besides the fact that the roads are narrow so we don’t have much of a chance for escape if one of those ladies decides we look good for second dinner. I was happy to see this amazing site, but also happy to move on and be safe. Lionesses feasting

Lioness looking fierce over the wildebeast

Lioness chasing us off her wildebeest meal

On our way back to camp, we passed a group of 6-7 rhinos just chilling in the sun. Again, I got very excited so I asked the rhinos to move over to the watering hole so I could see them up close.

Bigger group of rhinos

Then as we were hanging out at camp the rhinos came over to the watering hole one by one. Thus, my friend dubbed me “the rhino whisperer”. I just think these rhinos knew how much I loved them so they decided to parade around in front of me allowing me to capture them on film. It was truly a great moment. Birds catching a ride on the rhino

Watering hole

Another rhino napping

Our final Hlane event was to go mountain biking through the antelope section of the park. In other national parks you can bike ride through any part of the park, which has led to hippos being shot when they charged the bike gang. This mountain bike riding seemed awesome because it was safe. We were warned that seeing certain animals was difficult and “only if you were very lucky” would you get to see a giraffe, which was the animal I was yearning to see on the ride. The issue was the animals could hear our bike tires and would run off before we could catch glimpses of them so mostly we saw animals running across the path far ahead or could hear them crashing through the brush away from us.

Nyala crossing the road while we mountain bike

There was one animal though that didn’t hear us before we arrived and we scared him almost as he scared us. What happened was we rounded a corner and since there were a bunch of really tall trees we couldn’t see what was around the corner, which happened to be a big, tall, freaking, giraffe. Thus, we round the corner and startle the poor fella who freaks the eff out. In his startled, freaked out state, he stumbles drunkenly into the path almost unable to catch his footing. We are so close to him, practically underfoot that we can hear his hoof beats as he makes his way off. The whole thing happened so fast I couldn’t even get a photo. I did snap a shot as we recovered from our discovery and we all exclaimed “oh shit” a bunch of times because essentially we almost got stepped on by a freaked out giraffe. Two things I noticed…giraffes are really tall when you are underfoot and man nature is insane that it can hide an animal that freaking tall. Mountain biking, this is just after a giraffe popped out of nowhere and stumbled down the road away from us

The rest of the ride was not as eventful as that moment, but it was still fun seeing some animals and getting to do some exercise in the bush.
Nyalas and Impalas getting hydrated

Sunset mountain bike ride

We returned to camp unscathed and “very lucky” to have seen a giraffe. This trip to Swaziland was proving to be incredible. And unbeknownst to me was about to get totally freaking unbelievable. Back at camp, we wander to the watering hole for our final sunset over the watering hole. A few animals are out drinking and a few people are milling about like us. I am engaged in conversation by an older gentleman with a well worn sweater with the insignia of the park.

ted

The famous and awesome Ted Reilly!

I ask him if he works there and he tells me he does, he runs the 4 parks. Then he tells me about the history of Swaziland, educating me on the animal sounds we are hearing, and explains in heartbreaking detail the plight of the rhinos. He describes the history of the parks, which is that the land was donated and there are 4 parks throughout the country. He tells me all about how the parks in Swaziland are some of the best at conservation saving numerous rhinos. He even tells me about his recent trip to the USA. Of course since I am an American ask him where he went and he informs he that he went to Tampa, Florida. I laugh out loud and share with him that that is my hometown and he can’t believe it. He went to the Lowery Park Zoo there to check on the elephants because they are Swazi elephants! He sent them there rather than destroy them because the population had gotten too big in their parks and my hometown zoo wanted elephants. Ultimately after all our conversations, we end up talking for almost an hour watching the sky turn pink over a couple of rhinos who came for one last drink.
Rhinos at sunset while I talked to Ted Reilly, the man who saved the wildlife of Swaziland

Eventually, we must bid each other adieu as it is time to eat dinner and so I walk with him slowly up the path as he is using a cane. At the top of the path, he thanks me for chatting and puts out his hand to shake mine saying “It was nice to meet you, by the way my name is Ted”. I introduce myself and thank him for taking so much time to talk to me because I truly enjoyed it. He goes on his way and I am telling my friend about my encounter. As I am telling my story, she asks very seriously “what was his name” and I repeat “Ted”. She looks at me surprised and says “I think he is the man who started the conservation movement here in Swaziland”. Sure enough, we go back to the lonely planet guidebook and read all about Ted Reilly (another interview here), the man who helped save the rhinos in Swaziland and also the man who talked to a naive American girl about the animal she loves most in the world. Hlane Royal National Park had turned out to be one of the most memorable weekends of my life!

We ended our weekend with dinner at the restaurant followed by beers at the campfire the campground had begun. A bunch of dudes were also at the campfire who turned out to be game wardens who help take care of the wildlife at game parks across Southern Africa. They solved a final riddle for us. During our weekend, a helicopter had been flying overhead and we were locked inside the camp. None of the staff could tell use why there was helicopter, but the camp ran rampant with rumors of a rhino being poached. We had in fact seen a truck driving out of camp with a big grey mass on its bed. Turns out there was not a poaching, but a moving of an elephant from one camp to another. Because the elephants populations are small in Swaziland the elephants have to shuffled around for genetic diversity to remain intact. Thus, this elephant had been tranquilized by this group of men and loaded up on the truck for transport. The men loved telling their story especially because their plan was almost ruined by the lions nearby. Turns out they had to wait to tranquilize the elephant until the lions departed because they couldn’t be on the ground loading an elephant with the lions hungrily watching (err hunting) them. The helicopter was used as a lookout for the lions! Helicopter still patrolling Hlane

The final morning we wake up and pack up tent. I am a bit sad to leave this park as it has been a magical weekend. I am truly sold on Swaziland and would love to come back. In no other park have I seen so many animals up close, talked with so many locals about the animals, and had such a magical time. Good bye Swaziland, I will be be back!
Departing Ndlovu Campground

To see all my Hlane Royal National Park photos, go here.

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