KwaZulu-NatalSouth Africa

3 Self-guided hikes in the Ithala Game Reserve

Ithala Game Reserve is one of the only big-game national parks that allows visitors the unique opportunity to do self-guided hiking trails. This was something we took full advantage of during our Ultimate South African Road Trip, and something you should too.

Bevan enjoying a viewpoint over the Phongola River
Bevan enjoying a viewpoint over the Pongola River.

Highlights

  • Visit a national park where the focus is as much on the breathtaking landscape and cultural history as on its game.
  • Enjoy incredible views over the undulating Ithala Game Reserve from the Ngotshe Mountains.
  • Experience the thrill of being on foot in big game country.
  • Take in the peace and quiet that comes with being outdoors.
  • Spend hours spotting big game from your vantage point on the mountains and cliffs around the reserve.

 

Ithala Game Reserve

Ithala Game Reserve is a lesser-known national park just outside the small town of Louwsburg in KwaZulu-Natal, about 65 km from Vryheid. Proclaimed in 1973 it is one of the newest national parks in South Africa.

Perhaps best known for its incredible landscapes, the Ithala Game Reserve is one of the most beautiful parks we’ve visited. The mighty Pongola River weaves its way along the northern boundary of the park, while the Ngotshe Mountains cut an impressive swathe to the south. As a result, there are extreme variations in altitude throughout the reserve. With a range of 400 to 1400 m above sea level, the topography offers some dazzling view sites from the mountains as well as quiet, shady picnic areas in the valleys along the river banks.

Ithala Game Reserve
Breathtaking natural scenery.
The Pongola River view site
The Pongola River view site.

There are a range of activities in the reserve to cater for all kinds of tastes. The self-guided Auto Trail is one of the best ways to experience the various nuances of the park and learn more about the checkered history and ecology of the area. The Bivane 4×4 trail is an exhilarating challenge for those wishing to test their off-road driving skills while exploring a quieter section of the park around the confluence of the Bivane and Pongola Rivers.

To showcase the spectacular scenery and allow visitors a unique opportunity to take it all in, visitors to Ithala Game Reserve may alight from their vehicles at a number of viewing platforms throughout the park as well as picnic benches set back from the road via short trails. There are even a number of self-guided hiking trails accessible to visitors, giving guests the chance to experience the park on foot and at their own pace – a unique feature in South Africa’s national parks.

View site over the Phongola River Valley.
View site over the Pongola River Valley.

As well as the breathtaking scenery and chance to view four of the big five game like elephant and rhino, Ithala Game Reserve has a rich cultural history too. Remains of early human settlement are still visible and there is even evidence of middle stone and iron age civilizations. Added to this, Ithala Game Reserve is great for birding with around 350 different species recorded (we spotted our first ever Little Sparrow-hawk here).

One thing worth noting is that the roads in the reserve are not suitable for vehicles without 4×4, diff-lock or good ground clearance. There is a tarred road from the gate to Ntshondwe Camp, however, the majority of the roads throughout the park are gravel, and can get very steep in places so travelling without a suitable vehicle will be tricky and is not recommended.

Some zebra loving in Ithala Game Reserve
Some zebra loving in Ithala Game Reserve.

1. The Phuzamoya Trail

The Phuzamoya Trail is a short 2-3 hour hike that starts off steep, but once you get onto the plateau is pretty flat and easygoing. It offers some incredible views over Ithala Game Reserve as well as the Ngotshe Mountains that surround the southern edges of the park.

To get to the trail, drive from Ntshondwe Camp along the upper road (to the left as you exit the camp gates). A sign board on your left hand side further along this road will mark the start of the trail.

Bevan venturing towards the edge of the Ngotshe escarpment.
Bevan venturing towards the edge of the Ngotshe escarpment.
The Ngotshe mountain escarpment on the Phuzamoya Trail.
The Ngotshe mountain escarpment on the Phuzamoya Trail.
Bevan surveying one of the many incredible views from the Phuzamoya Trail.
Bevan surveying one of the many incredible views from the Phuzamoya Trail.

The first section of the trail is a fairly steep climb up the mountainside through a densely wooded area. You’ll need to be very alert and on your toes going through this section as the park is home to elephant and the infamously grumpy black rhino so be sure to keep a good lookout and be vigilant as you pass through.

Once at the top of the climb the path breaks right and follows the ridge line along the mountain contour. This part is very scenic and has a number of spots to stop and take in the view. The trail continues until you get to a rocky outcrop that has a panoramic view over the Ithala Game Reserve below. To get back, simply retrace your steps back to the road.

Jill looking over the Ithala Game Reserve from the Phuzamoyo Trail.
Jill looking over the Ithala Game Reserve from the Phuzamoya Trail.

2. The Plumb-coloured Starling Trail

The Plumb-coloured Starling Trail is the shortest of the three trails and only takes around 30 minutes to an hour to complete. Less of a hike and more of a sun-downer trail, the route leads out onto a koppie that overlooks the Ntshondwe Camp as well as the rest of the Ithala Game Reserve below.

The trail starts at the back of the pool area in the Ntshondwe Camp and follows a short, rocky pathway through the bushes and out of the game-fenced area. Once on the other side, the pathway opens up to reveal some amazing views in all directions. The Ntsondwe Camp is clearly visible as well as the majestic Ngotshe Mountains which tower over the camp and the reserve below.

It’s a great spot to sit and watch the sunrise or sunset, or just relax and watch the clouds float by.

Bevan looking out of the the Nshondwe camp.
Bevan looking out of the the Ntshondwe Camp.
Rocky outcrops along the Plumb-coloured Starling Tail.
Rocky outcrops along the Plumb-coloured Starling Tail.
The cliff-faces along the Ngotshe Mountains - home to a number of roosting Cape Vultures.
The cliff-faces along the Ngotshe Mountains – home to a number of roosting Cape Vultures.

3. The Bushbuck Trail

The Bushbuck Trail is a fairly challenging 4km route that starts at the back of the pool area in the Ntshondwe Camp and follows the middle contour of the Ngotshe Mountains. This route has a number of ecological and cultural signposted points of interest along the way and is a rewarding hike for visitors interested in the history and ecology of the area.

View from the Ngotshe Mountain in Ithala Game Reserve
View from the Ngotshe Mountains in Ithala Game Reserve.

The first part of the trail is quite steep and difficult to navigate. There are a number bushy sections that get quite dense and you’ll find yourself scrambling over a few fallen trees along the way.

Once up on the ridge line the pathway flattens out and the bush gives way to rocky crags. As you’d imagine, the views from this stretch are really phenomenal. We found it a challenge in itself to remember to look down from these glorious vistas to keep an eye on where we were walking!

We followed the trail for as long as we could go and ended up on a small outcrop that had a 270 degree view of the undulating Ithala Game Reserve.

Bevan at a lookout on the Bushbuck Trail
Bevan at a lookout on the Bushbuck Trail.

Map of Ithala Game Reserve hiking trails

 

Important information for hikers

Each of these hikes falls within the Ithala Game Reserve so you will need to pay the entry fee at the gate.

Ithala Game Reserve stocks elephant and black and white rhino, among other potentially dangerous game. Hikers complete these trails at their own risk and should remain vigilant at all times. If there is fresh evidence of big game in the area, do not get out of your vehicle.

The Plumb-coloured Starling and Bushbuck Trails both start and end at the Ntshondwe Camp which is accessible via a tarred road. The Phuzamoya Trail requires a vehicle with good clearance to access and should not be attempted in a road car.

There are no facilities on the trails and everything you will need to carry all your supplies in your pack.

 

What to pack

  • Good hiking boots.
  • Sun cream.
  • Water (there are no water points along the way).
  • Hat.
  • Camera.
  • Cell phone with saved emergency numbers and power bank.

 

When to go

These hiking trails are open all year round. Hiking in the summer months (November – March) is extremely hot during the the day, while the autumn and winter months (April – August) are milder. All of the trails are in the open so there is limited shade along the way.

 

Caution

The major cautionary concern to take into account is the fact that you will be hiking in a big game reserve. Species like elephant, black rhino and leopard are present and there is plenty of dung and scat to suggest that these animals are often in the trail areas. If you’re not confident or comfortable with being in these conditions without a guide, then we recommend that you don’t do these trails. We don’t recommend hiking with children or on your own and always let the management at the Ntshondwe Camp know that you will be on the trails. Also, exercise common sense and if there is fresh evidence of large game in the area, leave the trail for another day.

There is a rule in the bush that you should never run. If you do encounter an animal, always be calm and seek shelter as quickly as you can, but never run.

The sun is also a big factor for hikers. There are no water points or facilities along the trails so all provisions need to be brought along in your pack.

There are a variety of snakes that live in the reserve so be vigilant as you go, and as with any hike in the South African bushveld, be sure to check yourself for ticks once you’re back at camp.

Cell phone signal in the Ithala Game Reserve is patchy, so be sure to take note of the areas with stronger signal in case of emergency.

 

Getting there

From Vryheid take the R69 towards Louwsburg for roughly 50 km (you’ll pass the famous Hlobane Mountain on route). Turn left at the sign to Louwsburg and continue into the town on Avenue Street. Take your third right and follow the sign boards from there.

 

Details to keep on hand

Ithala Game Reserve has a number of accommodation options ranging from the central Ntshondwe Camp and a campsite to a few bush lodges in the reserve. For accommodation information, contact KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife on:

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