The lady, a well to do Gauteng tannie if her hairstyle, shoes and frock were anything to go by, seemed very upset.
I had watched her tip toe (in shoes wholly inappropriate for the bush)warily between impala, side step a bush buck and then gingerly sit down upon a bench next to Swaziland’s Mlilwane wildlife sanctuary’s camp fire.
“There are warthogs by the fire side” she wailed at a passing chalet maid “Cant you get rid of them?”
But the maid, being of Swazi origin and possibly not having knowledge of the Afrikaans language, simply smiled and carried on walking.
“Shoo” said the lady to the hogs.
“Grunt” said the hogs, to the lady
A sprawling complex, the Mlilwane Sanctuary camp is a series of grassy lawns made shady thanks to an abundance of oversized fig trees. There are thatched beehive shaped ‘chalets’ in tune with ancient tribal styles, modern wooden cottages, play areas, braai areas, pools and horse stables too.
Its a very nice campsite, but what made it stand out from the many others I have seen was a plethora of wild animals sauntering between the tents, caravans and cottages.
I saw a pair of bushbuck licking the fat of a braai grid, a herd of Impala chilling out on a stoep and a kudu drinking from the swimming pool.
And of course, the litter of little warthogs who were curled up around the fire.
It was a chilly winter’s morning that day in Swaziland; the kind that turns breath into steam and toes into ice. The campfire should have offered some welcome respite from the cold, but alas, the piggies had commandeered it completely.
They lolled around, mere inches from the coals, bathing in the fire’s radiance and grunting grumpily at those who would try to usurp them.
“Shoo” said the lady again “I want to boil my kettle”
But that’s when an old gentleman, dressed in torn clothing and a weather worn hat, wandered over from where he had been having tea in the campsite restaurant.
“Welcome to Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary” said the man “I’m Ted Reilly, the CEO for want of a better word, and I see you have met with our residents”
I was surprised by this man’s somewhat scruffy visage. I had heard of Ted Reilly. He is, in fact, a legend among African conservationists due to his achievements in saving wildlife.
During the 60s and 70s, he had used his longstanding friendship with the royal family and his influence and connections in government to help set up a series of wildlife reserves and National Parks.
He then established an organization called ‘Big Game Parks’ which, even today, still administers most of Swaziland’s conservation areas .
And then, during the 80s, he and his rangers waged a deadly war against rhino poachers.
He lobbied royalty and government,to arm Swaziland’s rangers, and helped formulate laws and protocols that gave said rangers the right to shoot poachers, and make arrests.
Swaziland, to this day, has comparatively tough anti-poaching laws which often result in hefty sentences for the perps…. And all this thanks to Ted!
In essence, without Mr. Reilly and his conservation and political skills, it is doubtful there would be any reserves, any conservation laws, or, for that mater, any wildlife at all in the Kingdom of Swaziland today.
But to me, he looked like a hobo.
The lady, prim and proper and very much out of her comfort zone,must have mistaken him for a vagabond too, because she treated him with disdain.
“You cant just have wild animals running amok in a camp ground” she scolded “Its unhygienic and dangerous”
Ted, in his late 70s by the looks of things, gave the lady a withering look. “Oh sorry” he said gently “This isn’t a zoo or a private game reserve where animals are kept for the entertainment of visitors. This is a wildlife sanctuary. Its their safe place. You and I, we’re just visitors here.”
And with that, he tipped his hat (to the warthogs) and sauntered back to the restaurant to finish his tea.
I was duly impressed by his sincerity, and so joined him.
“Mlilwane is a relatively small reserve” he told me as we sat on a wooden deck overlooking a large lake where hippos ‘harrumphed’ and crocodiles drifted to-and-fro like empty canoes. “Its just 4600 hectares in size, so we don’t really have space for lions and elephants and the like, but we do have a focus on rare and endangered antelope. You must go visit our breeding facility up there on Reilly’s rock”
He pointed up to one of the small mountains on the horizon, a modest hill of granite and trees.
Mlilwane, so Ted told me, has been in the Reilly family for generations, a working farm that, at the behest of Ted (a lover of nature) was turned into a reserve in the early 1960s.
It was the very first wildlife sanctuary of its kind in Swaziland; but thanks to Ted’s vision, it wasn’t to be the last.
“We then established an organization called the Big Game Parks (BGP); an NGO that would work hand in hand with Swaziland’s government and royal family to protect our beleaguered wildlife”
“Together, we identified and gazetted numerous conservation areas, including the 18 000 hectare Malalotja National Park, the 25 000 hectare Hlane Royal National Park, and the 10 000 hectare Mkhaya Game Reserve (the latter two of which are still actively managed by Ted’s BGP)
“When these reserves were established during the 60s, 70s and 80s, we were not only able to offer sanctuary to what little wildlife remained in Swaziland, but also to start bringing locally extinct species back. You see, most of our animals had been wiped out pre 1960s by colonial decree”
Today there are 22animal species living, breeding and doing well in Swaziland that were not there before Ted and his BGP became involved. These include such iconic animals as Rhinos, buffalo, giraffe, lions, elephants and hippos. Even the humble wildebeest was close to extinction.
“But you’ll have to excuse me just now” he said, brushing toast crumbs from his grass stained trousers “I have to go help sort out a veld fire” And off he went in his bakki, waving in equal measures to the kettle wielding lady (who had retreated to the ‘safety’ of her chalet) and the four little warthogs who were still by the fireside.
Later that afternoon, after hiring a mountain bike from the camp shop, I peddled my way through grassy plains dotted with wildebeest, zebras, blesbok and kudu before heading uphill through forests to Riley’s rock Camp.
There I refueled on lunch and cool drinks at the Hilltop lodge before setting out to have a look at Ted’s rare antelope breeding project which has been established , in part, in the lodge’s lush and verdant gardens.
Khulekan Mamba, one of Mlilwane’s rangers, and the man responsible for keeping the resident antelopes happy and healthy, met me in the grounds and offered to show me around.
“Way back in the day, when Mlilwane was a farm, there would have been very little, if any, game here” he told me as we strolled through Hilltop’s jungle like gardens “ Now though, there is a fence enclosing all of Mlilwane’s 4600 hectares and there are many animals which have been reintroduced. Hippos, crocodiles, zebra, blesbok, impala, waterbuck, ostriches, wildebeest, In fact, pretty much every large animal you see here was once locally extinct.”
Mamba, a youngish man of cheerful disposition, had in his hands two plastic buckets filled to the brim with pellet form livestock feed.
These he shook and rattled nosily until a pair of rabbit sized creatures tip toed out from beneath a dense copse of shrubbery.
“These are Suni antelope” he told me whilst scattering pellets onto the ground for the diminutive little creatures.
“They, like most animals here in Mlilwane, were locally extinct because of hunting and poaching. But now they are protected not only by the reserve’s border fence, but also by a second fence that encircles the whole of Reilly’s rock”
This 2nd line of fortification (which has a circumference of some 5 kilometers) was originally erected by Ted’s father after he developed a love for rare and unusual aloes way back in the 1920s.
“He wanted to keep antelope and other animals away from Mlilwane and its Aloes” said Mamba “But when Ted grew up, he changed things around a bit”
Now, the circular fence which once kept antelope out, has been extended and designed to keep rare antelope in.
“We have healthy populations of Suni, Red, Grey and Blue duikers as well as klipspringers and Oribi living right here in the lodge grounds. They weren’t here before” he told me.
I followed Mamba for a while as he walked around the gardens, dispensing pellets and checking on the overall health of the numerous little antelope that daintily came out from their hiding places.
We also walked a section of fence, checking for holes and damage.
“We don’t have poachers here in Mlilwane” he told me “but the fence does serve tokeep jackals and other predators out. We must also be on the lookout for Pythons as well. They would love to eat our smaller antelope species”
Outside of the 5km Hilltop garden perimeter fence, Mamba showed me a series of large, fenced in grazing paddocks.
“This is where we breed endangered species such as Oribi and Roan antelope”
He rattled his buckets and out of a field of tall golden grasses emerged a trio of slender little antelope with ears big enough to make a hare self conscious.
“We at Mlilwane are part of a much bigger international breeding program that aims to stop these species from becoming extinct”
The roan, the Oribi (and, oddly, a small flock of blue cranes) are fed, kept free of disease and are protected from predators, so that they may breed successfully.
“The offspring are sometimes introduced back into the wild in other areas or are sent to other similar breeding projects around the world”
Both roan; a species driven to the edge of extinction due to trophy hunters; and the Oribi (who have suffered unsustainable poaching and habitat loss) may already havegone the way of the dodo if it were not for coordinated breeding programs such as the one being conducted at Mlilwane.
“But it’s important to note that we are not only concerned with breeding and protecting rare species here in Mlilwane” said Ted when I met him later that evening for a braai on the Hilltop Lodge lawns.
A pair of blue duikers walked daintily around our chairs and tables, a suni antelope peered at us from beneath a flowering bush.
“Mlilwane is a sanctuary, which means we offer a quality of life for all the animals that belong here, and that includes impala and the wildebeest and bushbuck and zebra and other less ‘important’ creatures too. Even those warthogs who live down at the campsite”
Coincidentally, the tannie we had encountered that morning was again present. She had left Mlilwane’s campsite (with its feral creatures) perhaps seeking a sanitized safety of sorts up at the more upmarket Hilltop Lodge.
But alas, she wasn’t banking on meeting Reilly again nor encountering quite so many wild creatures.
Bush babies scampered across overhead branches, antelope snuffled at our feet and crested guineafowl ran in noisy circles around the fire.
Reilly smiled at her warmly, tipping his hat before doing the same to the bush babies and antelope.
“Bon appetite” he said to all of those gathered; both human and animal alike.
To find out more about Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and other Big Game Parks in Swaziland visit