For a long time Ithala Game Reserve had been on my list of places to visit but the opportunity always eluded me. Almost 500km from Pretoria, it’s just too far for a quick weekend trip and, not knowing the place, I didn’t think it warranted a longer stay. How wrong could I have been!
Leaving Mpumalanga, driving south over the Phongolo River, I crossed into KwaZulu-Natal between Piet Retief and Paul Pietersburg. I made a short detour off the main road to stop at the historic paul Kruger Bridge over the Bivane River then made my way to the small village of Louwsburg.
Ithala Game Reserve was proclaimed as far back as 1972 yet I’ve spoken to few people who’ve ever heard of the place and even fewer who’ve actually been there. It’s a pity because this hidden gem should attract far more visitors but perhaps it is also this relative obscurity which gives it its special charm. For the seven days I spent at Ithala I had the entire place to myself except for the Friday and Saturday nights when I was joined at the campsite by two couples from nearby Newcastle and Dundee.
Ithala is located in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal, a few kilometres from the tiny village of Louwsburg. Driving out of town, the road descends steeply as it makes its way around and down the Ngoje Mountain. The views are lovely and provide a taste of what lies ahead.
The highest point is in the south at 1 446m above sea level and the lowest point is at a mere 335m where the Phongolo River forms the northern border.
No matter whether you’re in the north or the south, the scenery is always spectacular.
Covering an area of 30 000 hectares, the reserve’s vegetation is as varied as its landscape. Vegetation in the higher areas is made up of high altitude mountain forest species. Lower down lie open grasslands surrounded by scrub forest and along the rivers, dense riverine forest.
Before Ithala was proclaimed a nature reserve, it was extensively farmed, hunted and mined causing enormous ecological damage and the scars of this can still be seen in places but gradually nature is repairing man’s damage. Wildlife has been re-introduced and their numbers are increasing.
As a result of the varied landscape, Ithala is host to a large variety of wildlife species. Altogether 80 species of mammals can be found here, including four of the “big five”. Only lions are missing. A personal highlight for me was the brief sighting of a black rhino mother and her calf.
Along the good roads near the main gate game viewing is excellent. Also be on the lookout for the smaller species.
Beware the elephants!
Throughout Ithala there are signs warning visitors to keep well clear of the elephants and allow them plenty of space. I was very respectful of this warning but, without any wrongdoing on my part I suddenly found myself sitting helplessly facing a charging young bull!
I’d stopped on along the narrow Ngubhu Loop to photograph a small herd of elephants grazing in a marshy patch higher up the slope. It was a lovely scene, a few mothers and their calves moving along through the bushes. I switched off the engine and just enjoyed the moment.
As I sat there, a game-drive vehicle approached from behind with two guests on the back. The driver stopped next to me and told me there was a large herd of elephants hidden around the bend just ahead. I thanked him and they disappeared round the corner. Within moments, the car came speeding back around the corner with a trumpeting elephant in hot pursuit. The vehicle drove past me and I was now left facing this charging, ear-flapping, dust kicking behemoth!!! I was facing the wrong direction, there was deep mud and dense shrubs on the sides of the road and the engine was still switched off. I could do nothing!
Perhaps my inability to move saved me because when the elephant was about ten metres away he halted his charge, gave me an angry look and turned around. By now the other vehicle was well clear and I assume the young bull considered his job done, having seen off the game-drive vehicle
Shaking, I started my car and reversed till I could find a suitable spot to turn around and I headed as far away from elephants as I could.
Birdlife is exceptionally prolific and over 300 species have been recorded here. Lowveld and Zululand species inhabit the north, raptors and vultures are at home on the steep cliffs of the south and on the open grasslands Long-tailed Widows, sturdy Bustards and stately Secretary Birds share the space with a myriad of other species.
Along the rivers, the haunting call of Fish Eagles form a backdrop to the antics of the Kingfishers.
Ithala Game Reserve offers a number of accommodation options. The luxurious Ntshondwe Resort is magnificently situated high up on the hills. Surrounded by dense indigenous gardens, it is almost invisible till you stop at the reception. Both catered and self-catering accommodation is available as well as conference facilities and a basic shop.
For my budget, I had so settle for more humble lodgings and I set up camp at the Doornkraal Campsite. Located on the banks of a river with cool rock pools to swim in, this campsite has been one of the highlights of my trip. Facilities are limited. Showers and toilets are reed and thatch structures and there is no electricity at the campsite. There is no fence around the camp and the animals move freely through. Luckily I had no elephants visiting but a herd of impala were a regular sight as they grazed the grass in the campsite. This was camping at it’s best!
Watch my YouTube Video
I made a short video of this incredibly wonderful reserve. You can watch it here.
After seven days in this idyllic setting I reluctantly packed up and headed to another small nature reserve huddled into the corner where South Africa, Eswatini and Mozambique’s borders meet. Ndumo Game Reserve.