5 unforgettable game reserves in KZN

Posted on Posted in Blog, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

There are plenty of game reserves in KZN. Not all of them are home to Africa’s big 5, but each has something special and unique about it that makes them worth a visit. Spending time in even a few of the game reserves in KZN should be on everybody’s bucket list.

This beautiful province on the east coast of South Africa is often referred to as the place where you can do everything that Africa has to offer. With majestic mountain ranges, varied cultural and historical sites, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and all of this fringed by an azure sub-tropical ocean, KwaZulu-Natal sure does make a great case for itself.

The Game Reserves in KZN are among the best is Africa
The game reserves in KZN are among the best in Africa

From the oldest protected area in Africa, to the reserve with the highest number of bird species in the country, the game reserves in KZN have got it all.

We have discovered something unique in each game reserve that sets it apart from the others, and makes each one worth a visit. Here is a list of our favourite game reserves in KZN. Let us know which are yours?

1. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi – Africa’s oldest game reserve

One of the most accessible of the big 5 game reserves in KZN, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is within two hours’ drive from King Shaka International Airport and barely three hours’ drive from Durban making it an ideal destination for a day trip or overnight safari.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is split into two sections: Hluhluwe in the north, which is characterised by hilly country and open savannah,  and iMfolozi in the south, which is more of a woodland environment. Together, this combined 960 km² area is home to hundreds of bird, plant and animal species.

A herd of buffalo make their way to the river in Hluhluwe
A herd of buffalo make their way to the river in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi’s northern section.

Established in 1895, this is the oldest of the game reserves in KZN. It has played a significant role in conservation of some of the country’s most threatened animal species, including the white rhinoceros.

It also gained fame as Africa’s oldest reserve, having enjoyed protection during the early days of the Zulu kingdom when it formed part of King Shaka’s royal hunting grounds.

One of the reserve’s unique offerings is the chance to do overnight (2-4 nights) wilderness trails through the reserve. These trips were first started in the 1950s by Ian Player and have since become a bucket list item for wildlife enthusiasts. The chance to view big game on foot accompanied by armed game guards and sleeping under the stars is a truly unforgettable wilderness experience!

A storm brews over the hills of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi during the rainy season
A storm brews over the hills of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi during the rainy season.
Elephants crossing the road are always a treat to spot.
Elephants crossing the road are always a treat to spot.
Dung beetles hard at work
Dung beetles hard at work.

2. Eastern and Western Shores sections of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park – an unspoiled coastal wilderness


The Eastern and Western Shores sections of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park are both very special. These reserves surround the largest estuary in Africa (Lake St Lucia) and form part of South Africa’s first proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage site.

Viewing deck overlooking the Eastern Shores Section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Viewing deck overlooking the Eastern Shores section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Lake St Lucia is a very unique estuary and is the only of its kind in the country. The estuary is 80km long and 23km across at its widest point, and consists of a sinuous channel from the mouth that opens out into two linked lakes. It is home to the country’s highest density of hippos and crocodiles as well as a wide diversity of flora and fauna.

Together with the game areas of the Eastern and Western Shores, visitors to this region can simultaneously view the world’s largest sea, river and terrestrial mammals – the whale, hippo and elephant.

Lake St Lucia estuary
Lake St Lucia estuary: one of our favourite game reserves in KZN
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to the highest density of hippos in South Africa
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to the highest density of hippos in South Africa
The uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk
The uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk looks out over the Western Shores
Finding Zebra on the western shores on our night drive
Finding zebra on the Western Shores on our night drive
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is also famous for it's incredible coastline
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is also famous for its incredible coastline.

3. uMkhuze Game Reserve – the big five and thousand year old trees

uMkhuze Game Reserve is another one of the oldest game reserves in KZN. It was proclaimed in 1912 and today forms part of the Greater iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This reserve has recently become home to the big 5 with the introduction of lion back into the area. It is also a reserve that is well-known for its birding.

The reserve is 400km² in extent and has a number of habitats including a spectacular forest of ancient sycamore fig trees, whose trunks seem to glow a remarkable golden colour. These trees bear fruit all year round that attracts animals ranging from baboons to elephants that come to feed, as well as dozens of bird species.

Ancient Sycamore Fig Trees in the uMkhuze Game Reserve
Ancient Sycamore Fig Trees in the uMkhuze Game Reserve
The Fig Forest Walk in uMkhuze Game Reserve
The Fig Forest Walk in uMkhuze Game Reserve

Visitors to the park can go on a guided game walk through the fig forest, with the chance to view big game on foot. Even more memorable than the game sightings however is the opportunity to be immersed in such a stately environment. Some of the trees in this forest are estimated at being over 1000 years old, and tower above the forest floor.

A huge variety of birds can be seen amongst their wide, fruit-laden branches and in the canopy above. A number of viewing platforms and walkways have been constructed and visitors can spend time on these decks high within the canopy, viewing birds up close and enjoying an aerial perspective over the forest below.

The red sand makes for a colourful landscape in uMkhuze Game Reserve.
The red sand makes for a colourful landscape in uMkhuze Game Reserve.
A male Nyala drinking at the water hole.
A male nyala drinking at the water hole.

4. Ndumo Game Reserve – a bird-watcher’s paradise

Ndumo Game Reserve is the most northern of the game reserves in KZN and is on South Africa’s border with Mozambique. The Usuthu River which forms the border between the two countries runs along the top of the reserve.

This relatively small reserve of 101km² is rich in bird life and 430 different species have been recorded from it – the highest bird count of anywhere in South Africa!

Impala making the most of the evening light at Ndumo Game Resere.
Impala making the most of the evening light at Ndumo Game Resere.

Ndumo Game Reserve consists of unique sand forest habitat, but also has a number of pans and wetlands lined by fever trees.

Visitors to the reserve can go on a guided game walk to the Nyamiti Pan and view hippos and crocodiles as well as a variety of wading and other water-associated bird species.

The fig forest at Shokwe is another spectacular environment within this special reserve. Ndumo is home to three of the big 5 – rhino and lion are not present in the reserve.

Red Cliffs on the South African border.
Red Cliffs picnic site on the South African border.
Nyamiti Pan in Ndumo Game Reserve
Nyamiti Pan in Ndumo Game Reserve

5. Ithala Game Reserve – spectacular mountain scenery

Ithala Game Reserve is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s newest reserves. This 296km² park was proclaimed in 1973, and has a long association with man. Evidence of human habitation as early as the middle stone age and iron age has been recorded from this reserve. It has a number of sites of cultural interest. Most recently, gold was mined from the land in the early 1900s.

Ithala is distinctive in that its attraction for visitors is as much the opportunity to view game as the panoramic views of the landscape itself. The terrain varies from 1400m above mean sea level (amsl) to 400m amsl as it falls dramatically from the peaks of the Ngotshe Mountains to the deeply-cut valley of the Phongola River on the reserve’s northern boundary. Viewing decks and quiet benches are scattered across the reserve, from which visitors can take time out to enjoy the peace and reflect on the beauty of the wilderness before them.

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

Another unique feature of Ithala Game Reserve is the opportunity to experience the park on foot. The reserve has a number of self-guided hiking trails that visitors can explore. Because of the steep terrain, the chance of encounters with dangerous game is greatly reduced.

Hikers can ascend to the top of the Ngotshe range and enjoy breathtaking views of the reserve via the Phuzamoya or Bushbuck Hiking Trails. Another much shorter trail, the Plum-Coloured Starling trail, departs from Ntshondwe Camp and takes visitors to a view site that overlooks the main camp – a great sun-downer spot.

Bevan enjoying a viewpoint over the Phongola River
Bevan getting out on foot in Ithala Game Reserve
View from the Ngotshe Mountain in Ithala Game Reserve
View from the Ngotshe Mountain in Ithala Game Reserve

No matter your choice of game reserve, KZN has something for everyone. Why not take the opportunity to get out and explore, and enjoy this province’s rich wildlife heritage? There are plenty of game reserves in this province that are accessible from Durban or Johannesburg. Use the map below as a tool and let the planning begin!

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