By Khulekani Nene
Atop the Lubombo Mountain Plateau lies a world away from the city hustle and bustle – the quintessential Mhlumeni Bush Camp – along the Eswatini-Mozambique border.
Escaping from the city noise and fumes to connect with nature, I shoot down to this idyllic place overlooking the dramatic Mhlabashana Gorge. It is located 30km north-east of the backwater town of Siteki in the Lubombo region. Having opened its doors in 2017, this eco-tourism project offers pristine natural beauty on the gently undulating plateau scattered with mud-and-thatch homesteads. Casting your eyes further north-east, it has all the commanding magnificent view of the Mozambican Coastal plains.
After Shewula Mountain Camp, it is billed as one of the success stories of the conservation and community tourism sites. In just three years, it has become an environmental gem and a gateway for tourists, conservationists and nature enthusiasts. With its spectacular sunset and sunrise views, it is a great place for sundowners.
Mhlumeni Bush Camp has four luxury tents that accommodate three to four people each with separate shared ablutions; bedding and towels provided. It accommodates at least 40 campers. While the camp staff prepare traditional menus, the visitors have an option of self-catering. Each camping spot has a braai area and a water point, but no electricity. Only solar lanterns are used to light up the darkness of the night, thus giving it a feel of a quintessential bush camp.
It is owned and run by the Mhlumeni rural community as part of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA). TFCA is a partnership between Eswatini, Mozambique and South Africa. It had its roots on the TFCA protocol signed in 2000 by the tourism ministers of the three countries to work together in promoting conservation and eco-tourism along the Lubombo Transboundary East Route.
“It seeks to bring socio-economic benefits to the rural communities while maintaining the sustainability of the eco-tourism sector by protecting the environment and local culture,” explains eSwatini National Trust Commission’s programme manager, Seth Maphalala.
Mhlumeni Bush Camp Board vice-chairperson, Florence Matsenjwa, adds that its objective is to uplift the community from poverty. Already 40 community households are reaping rewards from income generating projects that are its spin-offs. Some women residents produce indigenous chickens which they sell to the establishment as it relies on local farm produce to provide traditional food for the tourists. Others keep honeybees known for their production of fresh, natural honeycombs. Visitors get a chance to sink their teeth into natural honeycombs.
Flanked by Mlawula Nature Reserve and Mbuluzi Game Reserve, Mhlumeni community tented camp also offers some wonderful cultural, wilderness and wildlife experiences. This pristine landscape is teeming with birdlife, wildlife and a unique vegetation. Visitors spot a vast diversity of animals including the Big Five and bird species as it overlooks the nearby Mlawula Reserve, Hlane National Park Hlane, Mlawula and Mbuluzi Game Reserve.
Its trained community tour guides offer nature and cultural walks to the visitors. With a wealth of knowledge about flora and fauna, they don’t mind sharing it with the visitors. The local inyanga never tires of educating the visitors about the indigenous plants and medicinal uses.
Mhlumeni camp offers its visitors opportunities for an adventurous trails network including hiking, mountain biking, donkey cart rides, cultural routes, bird watching, waterfall and amazing caves. The guided nature walks lead down to the Mbuluzi Gorge, through a beautiful scenery coupled with viewing crocodiles, birds and other wildlife. The village walks round the community afford visitors a chance to meet local people, visit a school and share some stories over a local beer. After dark, visitors enjoy the communal traditional meals and watch sibhaca dance displays.
As part of the TFCA programme, Mhlumeni Bush Camp has been linked with the community of Goba on the Mozambican side. This is the first cross border trail between eSwatini and Mozambique, according to Maphalala. Once completed, tourists can enjoy eSwatini and hike to Goba camp and enjoy Mozambique. It is part of a transboundary trail with Goba community in Mozambique, as part of the Lubombo Eco Trail.
The camp proceeds go to community development initiatives undertaken to eradicate poverty and empower the community. It has given birth to a cooperative called Siphosethu Multipurpose Cooperation which solicits funding for community development initiatives.
“The bush camp pumped in E5 000 towards the construction of the high school project. We believe this is an important project because there is no high school in the area. And as such, our children are forced to travel to Siteki town (about 30km from Mhlumeni) for high school education,” says Matsenjwa.
Like other tourist sites, Mhlumeni Bush Camp has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. It had to shut down all operations after government imposed a partial lockdown. Following government’s easing of the lockdown restrictions, it is re-open as community volunteers responsible for its running have already started cleaning chalets and clearing hiking trails.
In addition, they have received hand sanitizers and temperature scanners from their partners. Community tailors have been tasked with sewing masks to be used by workers and volunteers at the bush camp.
Contact: +268 7829 2617
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