As if this Adventure Tour couldn’t get any better, somebody decided to throw horseback riding into the mix. Now it’s official.
Best. Summer. Ever.
We’re going to a little nature reserve just next to the village we just visited called Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. There’s only one terrestrial predator on the entire small, private reserve (just one lonely leopard who tends to hunt at night), and the rest are antelope, wildebeest, zebra, and a handful of hippos and crocs (who keep to themselves near the water). As such, there’s nothing interested in attacking the horses and we get the unbelievable opportunity to ride horses through the tall grasses, surrounded by incredible animals.
What’s even better? We’re split up into skill levels, so I won’t be stuck having to just walk around when I know I can gallop. (Did I mention this is the best summer ever?)
When we arrive, we’re absolutely blown away by the scenery. We’ve been around Swaziland for a couple days now, and have gotten a decently good feel for the area, but seeing it in all its natural splendor—removed from the quaint, developed areas—really is spectacular.
The grass is nice and tall, but healthily grazed down in areas (solid levels of grazing—the Masebe crew approves), and the land rises in falls like soft breaths in the chest of some great slumbering animal. The mountains scramble out of the earth, circling the grasslands protectively, as trees—mostly paper farms—can be seen sprouting up in the distance.
Wildlife is scattered all over: blesboks, zebra, wildebeest, impala, and in the water just next to the entrance, crocs and hippos lounge peacefully side-by-side.
When we arrive at the entrance to the resort section of the reserve (home to the horse riding festivities), we’re greeted by a wooden structure slung with an unfathomable number of snares as well as a sign that reads:
“MORE THAN 20000 SNARES LIFTED FROM HLANE AND MLILWANE BETWEEN 1960 AND 1970 / THIS DISPLAY FEATURES MANY TIMES MORE SNARES THAN THERE WERE WILD UNGULATES IN ALL OF SWAZILAND AT THAT TIME”
The sight comes like a punch in the face. Over twenty thousand snares picked up in just a decade. Though I hope the poaching problem has improved since then, it likely hasn’t.
We’re split up into different groups for horse riding, so while my group waits for its turn, we grab a bite to eat at the restarant part of the reserve’s Bee Hive Hut resort. The food takes a little while but we don’t mind, because antelope and monkeys roam freely through the resort and we get to watch them as the frolic around, looking for fresh grass and fallen fruit.
Before long, it’s our turn to ride, and I am so unbelievably excited. We all go grab some very attractive helmets and then head out. After much deliberation I decide to bring my backpack so I can take pictures if I want to (it has hiking straps, so worst case scenario I don’t use it and it just sits peacefully on my back while we ride).
I greet my horse happily and then hop on. My horse is sweet, but I can tell the riding leaders judged my skill level based off of my level of enthusiasm (it rivaled that of someone who has never seen a horse, just to put into perspective…oops), and put me on the tamer horse. It shouldn’t be an issue for me, but I feel bad for Delcie, because I think they gave her the greener horse. No worries, though. I know our guide will be able to adjust to whatever our riding needs are and I’m over-the-moon to be sitting on a horse at all right now.
We head out, following our guide at a nice brisk walk. We get to trot a little bit, breaking into a canter here and there, too, and it’s like flying. Anyone who’s ridden out on trails can attest to the pure exhilaration of cantering through open pastures, but I have to say, cantering through open land filled with zebras, herds of blesbok, wildebeest—hundreds of animals—is like something out of my wildest dreams.
I discover almost immediately that hiking and horse-riding are far from equivalent as far as my backpack is concerned, and it’s thumping around on my back like it doesn’t have straps at all, so it works out that Delcie’s horse is getting a bit too excited about cantering and we trot most of the time.
I wind up snapping only one picture (actually a video, on my phone) partly because of the risk of dropping my expensive camera from sixteen hands up and mostly because I don’t want to miss a second of this experience by struggling to unpack my camera to take an actual picture.
Though I don’t have many pictures of it, I can tell you that the ride is absolutely extraordinary. We canter our way down dirt paths through rolling hills of tall grasses, splash across a small creek where we let our horse sneak a few sips of the cool water, and saunter right through herds of wildlife that are much more accepting or our presence since we are on horseback. We get so close to blesbok, wildebeest, and zebra, if my horse wasn’t significantly taller than the snoozing antelope and short-legged zebra, I could have leaned over and touched them.
The animals eye us warily, but experience has obviously taught them that the horses are safe, and they snooze peacefully by the dirt path, enjoying the sunshine just meters from our horses’ hooves.
Sadly, there’s another group that still hasn’t ridden, and our time with the horses comes to an end. We dismount, still incapable of wiping the smiles from our faces, and kiss our horses goodbye, thanking them—and more so, our guide—for the experience of a lifetime.
With still over an hour left to enjoy Mlilwane, I grab my camera and walk with Kaye out past the snare exhibit to the front of the park where the grasslands stretch and roll seemingly for eons, fronted by Execution Rock and those same tree plantations, smoking from the slash-and-burn farming techniques used in this area.
The sun is sinking towards the horizon, turning the world gold as it goes. It’s one of the most unbelievable landscapes I’ve ever seen, so peaceful with the antelope lounging in the sun and the few trees that sprinkle the plains casting long shadows in the tall grass. Kaye and I sit for a while, enjoying the near silence of the reserve and watching the wildlife saunter around in the distance.
A male blesbok soon makes an appearance and I can’t help but snatch up my camera and follow him as he enjoys the pure, crisp air and the onset of the chill as the sun slips lower and lower.
He looks out at the sunset just as we do, and I watch him in awe as he takes in the view and walks around, uninterested in the soft grass surrounding him. Every once in a while he’ll spook at nothing and tear across the plains for a few yards before looking back at me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.
Our time here at Mlilwane is starting to run out, and the blesbok and I watch as the final horse riding group walks back towards the resort.
After a few more shots, Kaye and I drag ourselves back to the main resort area to meet up with the others. While we’re waiting for the bus and for the last riding group to finish saying goodbye to their horses, I go watch the nyala nibbling at the grasses near some of the resort’s beehive huts and a group of warthogs contentedly munching, their knees pressed against the ground to get closer to their dinners.
Once we’re all set and ready to go, we start to drive back to the hostel where we’re staying. As we drive out, I can see a line of flames—a small wildfire—searing its way across one of the mountain ridges (an unfortunate byproduct of the tree plantations). Meanwhile, below, thousands of fat, happy antelope snooze peacefully.