Ithala Game Reserve just outside Louwsburg in northern KwaZulu-Natal is a relatively new reserve. Established in 1973, the land previously had a number of uses including gold mining. Evidence of varied and poor land use management is visible in some areas of the park in the form of erosion that is currently being managed.
Remains of human settlement are still visible too and the area has a rich cultural history; this area has been permanently occupied throughout all of the 19th and 20th century. There is even evidence of middle stone and iron age civilizations.
Today, this region is home to a number of birds, plants and animals that live between the lofty peaks of the Ngotshe Mountains and the Phongolo (Pongola) River.
Breathtaking mountain scenery
For us, the magic of Ithala Game Reserve is as much about the landscape as it is about the animals that live there.
In the north, the giant Phongola River weaves its way through deep valleys carved by the flow of water. The Ntshondwe Camp, where we stayed, is nestled in the slopes of the Ngotshe Mountains further south, and these mountains form a ridge that extends for a fair distance and from which one can take in breathtaking views of the reserve below.
Overall, the landscape ranges from around 1 400 m to 400 m above sea level. The resultant environment is quite spectacular. To our delight we found a number of benches scattered throughout the reserve. Each one overlooking some new mountainous vista, and there are few better spots to sit and contemplate life that we can think of.
Exploring the Ithala Game Reserve on foot...
A unique feature of Ithala Game Reserve is the opportunity to get out on foot. There are a number of self-guided hiking trails that visitors can enjoy. The sheer terrain of the Ngotshe Mountains reduces the risk of encountering dangerous game, and after a steep climb you are rewarded with a panoramic view over the reserve below. Don’t forget the binoculars, because this is a great way to spot game! (Check out some more hiking tips here)
We completed a few of these hikes during our stay. The Phuzamoya Trail took us about 2 hours to complete and afforded beautiful views from the Ngotshe Mountains. The Bushbuck Ridge and Plum-coloured Starling Trails, which leave from the Ntshondwe Camp were also real winners. The Bushbuck Ridge Trail is about 4 km long and follows a ridge on the Ngotshe Mountains, along a route with many signposted points of interest that include ecological and cultural sites. The Plum-coloured Starling Trail is a short 20 minute hike to a viewpoint above camp. An excellent sundowner spot!
...Or in your vehicle
Ithala Game Reserve offers plenty of things to do inside your vehicle too. The Auto Trail takes about 3 hours to complete and follows the Ngubhu Loop. Markers indicate interesting sights along the route, and a booklet obtainable from Ntshondwe Camp reception provides plenty of information at each stop. Almost as good as having your own personal game ranger in the car with you!
There is also a 4x4 trail in the game reserve. The Bivane 4x4 Trail takes about 3 to 4 hours and has some pretty challenging sections. The road begins just past the Doornkraal Campsite and climbs steadily up to a viewpoint before dropping down to the Bivane River in the valley below. There are river crossings, some very rocky sections and in parts the narrow road drops off steeply down into the valley below, which can be hair-raising depending on which side of the vehicle you are sitting!
Ithala Game Reserve
We had a fantastic time in Ithala Game Reserve. The reserve is a similar distance from either Johannesburg or Durban, and combines spectacular mountain scenery with the opportunity to spot four of the big five.
There is so much to do in this reserve that a trip of just a few days will definitely feel too short! We were really impressed by the extra thought that has been put into this reserve with activities like the Auto Trail and self-guided hiking trails that really encourage you to get out, appreciate and explore this wilderness.
Safe to say we will be back!
A huge thank you to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for hosting us at Ntshondwe Rest Camp during our stay in Ithala Game Reserve. We couldn't get enough of the views from the Ngotshe Mountain. We also had some amazing bird sightings in the camp - even a Narina Trogon came to visit while we were there!