KwaZulu-Natal’s glorious game reserves: the ultimate trip planner

Posted by Matt Sterne on 1 September 2021

KwaZulu-Natal is one of those evergreen gems that never gets old. The lush green forests, mountains and rivers are picturesque to say the least, and wildlife is abundant.

If you’re planning a trip that side, here’s all you need to know about the nature reserves in the area.

Use our interactive map for more

Getting there and around

Of the six reserves I visited, Bonamanzi is the nearest reserve to the city, three hours up the N2. The Pongola Game Reserve is one hour further north, with Ndumo on the Mozambique border the furthest from Durban at five hours driving time. 

When to go 

Zululand has a hot subtropical climate and can be visited all year round, but the best time to visit for game viewing is from April to September, when it’s warm in the day but cooler at night. 

Birding is best from November to March as this is when the migrants visit. This is also the rainy season, but thunderstorms tend to be short and sharp and the sun comes out afterwards.

Game Reserves

Bonamanzi Game Reserve

Best for Quick family breaks

Just three hours from Durban, Bonamanzi is a good weekend destination. Young kids will love the tame warthog, impala and nyala that walk around the 4 000-hectare reserve. 

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There’s a five-kilometre walking trail that’s ideal for seeing some of the rich birdlife on the property. Guided walks are also available. A sunset cruise (from R450 pp) on the river will take you into the False Bay Estuary. Crocodiles, hippos and many birds can be seen. A three-hour guided game drive (R420 pp) is offered but self-driving is also allowed. 

Accommodation

Camping – There are 24 powered campsites, four of which are exclusive-use sites with private ablutions. I really like the communal Hlangana Camp, which is laid out in a horseshoe shape around a braai area, large table and firepit. From R200 pp per night. 

Self-catering tree houses – There are two-sleeper and four-sleeper tree houses, built on stilts and nicely laid out in the forest for relative privacy. All are air-conditioned and complete with en-suite bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, braai area and veranda. From R750 pp per night.

Chalets – Basic but come with a coffee station, air-con and DSTV. From R650 pp per night. 

Exclusive-use villas – Tree Lodge is built on a raised platform with distant views of False Bay Estuary and a small waterhole in front of it (accommodates six). Game Lodge has a big lounge area and pool (accommodates 10). Dinizulu Lodge is the most luxurious with three free-standing en-suite chalets, pool, boma and leads onto the large Dinizulu Dam (accommodates six). From R850 pp per night. 

Bonamanzi.co.za

Ndumo Game Reserve

Best for Birding

Near Tembe Elephant Park on the Mozambique border, Ndumo was created in 1924 to provide a refuge for hippoes. The birdlife is best seen on one of the guided walks around the beautiful pans, ringed by fever trees and sycamore figs, or on a river walk.

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Guided walks – There are three walking trails available, all take around three hours and start in the morning. Pongola River and sand forest trail is the best bet for the Pel’s fishing owl, southern-banded snake eagle and African broadbill. Nyamithi Pan is best for water birds and waders. Shokwe Pan is an ox-bow lake, which has a beautiful sycamore fig forest and is a good spot for Narina trogon, twinspots, white-eared barbet and bant-necked romula. R170 pp. 

Self-drive – Guided drives are available but due to low wildlife numbers, you might as well drive yourself and explore. Red Cliffs is a good spot to stop for lunch. It has a braai area that overlooks the Usuthu River into Mozambique. 

Accommodation

Camp – There are 14 shaded campsites, each equipped with power outlets and braai stands. 

Self-catering cottages – They come with two beds, a small kitchenette, DSTV, a small deck and a braai stand on the grass outside.

kznwildlife.com

Manyoni Private Game Reserve

Best for Predator sightings

Manyoni was formed in 2005 from a collection of farms, hunting reserves and eco-lodges, involving 17 landowners. When lions were introduced six years later, Manyoni became a Big Five reserve. Today, there are over 30 lions on the 23 000-hectare property and little sign of previous farming activity. In fact, the stunning landscape is one of its best features.

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Join Manyoni’s wildlife management team on a rhino dehorning experience. You can also go on a wildlife monitoring session, where you’ll learn about the use of telemetry equipment and track one of the collared elephants, lions, cheetahs or wild dogs. Pangolin tracking takes place at night if conditions are right (all subject to availability).  

Accommodation

Bayete Zulu private lodge, with just three chalets, is set within a fever-tree forest overlooking a waterhole. Three-course meals, an infinity pool and luxurious suites make it a superb base from which to explore the southern part of the reserve. From R1 900 pp. 

The main area of Mavela Game Lodge was designed to mimic a crowned eagle. Guests will soak up the wilderness views from either the upstairs deck overlooking the waterhole, beside the pool or on the stoep of their safari-style tent. R4 200 pp per night sharing. 

manyoni.co.za

Somkhanda

Best for Unfenced camping in a Big Five reserve

Somkhanda was one of the first successful community-owned Big Five conservation ventures in South Africa. Ultimately the attractions are the wild camping experience, the self-drive trails and the chance to track wild dogs or monitor lions. But knowing you’re supporting a pioneering, community-owned reserve that has tangible benefits for the local people makes this an even sweeter experience.

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Join monitors as they track critical species (R380 pp) or arrange corporate groups for a rhino dehorning (approximately R25 000). There is also a 20km of self-driving trails.  

Accommodation

The new Haak en Steek Camp is an unfenced camp and very basic with a bucket shower and pit toilet,  R250 pp. There are two adjoining tented camps that host a combined total of 54 people in two-man tents, R350 pp. No 10 in Zebra Camp has the best views of the dam, where the lions often hang out. There are six spacious suites at Somkhanda Lodge that lead onto an indigenous garden, small pool and communal kitchen, R700 pp. Explorations offer three-day catered camping experiences in the reserve, R2 250 pp for self-sufficient campers and R4 695 pp in canvas dome tents. 

wildconnection.co.za

Pongola Game Reserve

Best for Water-based sightings

In brochures, The Pongola Game Reserve is described as ‘the only destination in South Africa to offer Kariba-like, water-based safari activities’. I was sceptical, but my experience proved it to be true. I went on two boat trips and on both days we saw about 60 elephants. I stayed in the southern section of the reserve, which is divided by the Pongola River. 

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Elephant experience – Leaving from White Elephant Bush Camp, guests are driven to the jetty and whisked across the dam in about an hour. You can also see buffalo, waterbuck, hippo and crocodiles along the way. R660 pp.

River cruise – Leaving from Nkwazi in the morning or afternoon, this cruise is great for birding as well as wildlife viewing, we saw three of the Big 5 on our cruise and was on a par with the elephant experience in terms of quality sightings. R395 pp.

Tiger Fishing – A popular activity on the lake. It’s strictly catch and release and while the fish tend to be smaller than up north, they still put up a good fight – a recent fisherman caught a 6-kilogram specimen. From R225 pp. 

Accommodation

Africamps at White Elephant Safaris – The leaders at glamping launched their operation at White Elephant in December 2019. The ‘tents’ can accommodate five people, have a fully kitted out kitchen, a large deck, braai and a wood-fired jacuzzi to top it off. Braai packs and breakfast baskets can be bought from the lodge.

Nkwazi Lake Lodge – With an elevated view over the Pongola River and the wetlands below, Nwazi’s position is breathtaking. The sturdy wooden chalets with private balconies fit the bill and the swimming pool and delicious buffets round it off perfectly. A herd of buffalo slept below the lodge the night we were there. From R1 425 pp per night. 

Pongolagamereserve.co.za

Babanango Game Reserve

Best for Breathtaking views

The 22 000-hectare reserve has established conservation and community benefit as its key areas of focus from the outset. This, coupled with its setting – a jaw-dropping vista of grassland valleys and rocky outcrops that’s threaded by the White Umfolozi River – suggests Babanango has the potential to become one of the most striking reserves in the country. 

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Morning and evening game drives often end up at one of the reserve’s lookout points. Guided walks are also available for all guests. Guests can go in search of the 283 species on the reserve, including buff-streaked chat, mountain wagtail and African finfoot.  

Accommodation

The long infinity pool at Babanango Valley Lodge is probably the best place to savour the view down the valley. The food here is outstanding and the main area is full of memorabilia of local history. It’s the perfect place to have a drink. From R2 585 pp per night. Situated atop a mountainside on the outer reaches of Babanango, Zulu Rock Lodge offers sweeping views from its seven stone-clad chalets, which accommodate up to 16 people. From R2 160 pp per night. 

Babanango.co.za

Images: Chris Galleries

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