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In our experience, KwaZulu-Natal has a few absolute gems - places that very few people know about and even fewer have managed to explore. The Ongoye Forest Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is an unspoiled patch of rare scarp forest, set on a ridge high above the coastline to the east. It is a rare and diverse habitat and is home to an array of endemic bird, plant and animal species including the Green (Woodwards’) Barbet and Ngoye Red Squirrel. It is an area of incredible natural beauty and biodiversity and despite its accessibility, remains largely untouched. Definitely one of our favourite forests in southern Zululand.
Why is the Ongoye Forest so special?
The Ongoye Forest Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is a 3903 ha expanse of scarp forest interspersed with patches of granite outcrops and rolling grasslands. It's situated about 50 kilometres inland from Mtunzini and lies along a ridge of hills at an altitude between 305 and 455 metres above sea level overlooking the Indian Ocean to the east and the historic Nkwaleni Valley to the north.
The Ongoye Forest is an excellent example of the extremely rare scarp forest type, and with its high diversity of rare or endemic plants is a must-see for nature enthusiasts. Giant umzimbeet, forest mangosteen and Pondoland fig trees shelter a rich undergrowth including orchids and many plants of medicinal value. Although extinct in the wild, Wood's cycad (Encephalartos woodii) only occurred in the Ongoye Forest (the last remaining specimen can be viewed in the Durban Botanic Garden). The forest patch is surrounded by grasslands with rocky outcrops of gneiss and schist. (If you love the idea of an ancient forest, you should also check out the Fig Forest Walk in uMkhuze Game reserve).
This forest is home to an array of smaller forest life. Some of the special finds in this area include the endemic Green (Woodwards’) Barbet, Ngoye Red Squirrel and Forest Green Butterfly (Euryphene achlys). Although not limited to Ongoye Forest, the Zululand Dwarf Chameleon is another special find and is abundant in the forest.
Adventure through the Ongoye Forest Reserve
There are plenty of ways to experience the Ongoye Forest, whether by car, bike or on foot. The route through the forest is a single track through-road (not a circular route) which starts at the east fringe and ends at the P204 in the west. There are no deviations off of this route so finding your way is as easy as it gets.
A slow drive through the forest can be a rewarding experience, especially if you take the time to stop for a picnic or short stroll. A 4x4 vehicle is required to navigate the route and this is where the fun really begins! The terrain throughout the Ongoye Forest Reserve is generally rocky and uneven through the forested sections, and more easy-going through the grassland sections. In the wet it can get very muddy and slippery. While the road is simple to navigate, it does get quite narrow at certain stretches (particularly on bends) where the bush encroaches on both sides. Expect a few scratches.
Because of its incredible biodiversity however, the Ongoye Forest is best explored on foot. Because the road through the forest is a through-road rather than a circular trail you will need to double back should you choose to walk the road. There are a number of cattle paths through the forest but we would recommend sticking to well-defined paths and definitely not destroying any vegetation in an attempt to create a new one! Walking gives you the chance to slow down and take in the forest environment - the sounds, smells and feel of the cool forest air. It is also the best way to look for some rare birds including the Green Barbet. Bird guides are available for this area through the Zululand Birding Route.
Our experience in the Ongoye Forest
We explored the Ongoye Forest as a day-away trip from Durban. Since hearing about it, we knew we had to explore it for ourselves and so armed with some directions, a picnic and of course the cameras, we set out. Finding the forest itself was quite straightforward but relied on us looking out for landmarks rather than signposts, which were few and far between!
There is an entry fee for the reserve but it is nominal (and must be paid in cash). Do not be surprised if like us, yours are the only names in the visitors' book for that day, or even week...
Our drive through the forest took about 4 hours. We took it as slow as possible, stopping to climb a koppie to take in the elevated view over the grasslands towards the sea, or getting out of the vehicle to look for birds. One of my personal highlights for the day was driving into a section of forest which had little undergrowth. The floor was carpeted in leaves and the only sound was the wind in the trees above. Everywhere around was green, and there was a peace, or reverence in this clearing that was almost spiritual.
Another highlight for the day was finding the Green Barbet. We had searched fruitlessly all day until, towards mid-afternoon, we were attracted by a cacophony of small birds in a thicket. We got out of the vehicle to investigate and spent a fair bit of time climbing through the undergrowth for a better look. It was just as well there was such a bird party going on to attract our attention because sitting silently in the midst of it all was a pair of Green Barbets! A huge tick for us and the perfect way to end our day.
Even if birding is not your thing, the Ongoye Forest is a truly special place to explore. The beauty of the forest and surrounding grasslands, and the sense of calm that I always experience when surrounded by such a pristine environment made the trip more than worthwhile.
And if 4x4ing isn't your thing, be sure to pack a good pair of walking shoes and spend some time in the forest on foot. And for that you can check out the Salomon online store for some great hiking and trail gear.
The Ongoye Forest is poorly signposted, although relatively simple to find.
The easiest route to get to the Ongoye Forest Reserve is to take the N2 freeway and turn off at the Mtunzini off-ramp. From the off-ramp, head west (left if you’ve come from Durban, right if you’ve come from Richards Bay) until you get to a T-junction at the R102. Turn right and head north towards Empangeni. Follow this road for roughly 11 km and turn left onto a dirt road (you will see a brown sign pointing the way to the Ongoye Forest Reserve). Follow this road for 4.5 km and turn right onto the D1554 (another brown sign will point the way). Finally, continue on this road for roughly 5 km until you pass the Manzamnyama School on your left. Look out for the brown Ongoye Forest Reserve sign and turn right onto a small track. Follow this road for another 3 km to the gate.
This next part is a little deceptive – at the gate you will need to keep right and follow the track to get to the Ezemvelo KZNW Park Office where you pay and sign in to the reserve. This is a requirement for all day visitors. Once you’ve done that you can return to the gate and continue on through the forest.
Places to stay near the Ongoye Forest Reserve
Ongoye is an easy day-trip from Durban, however, if you'd like to base yourself a little closer to the reserve then we'd recommend checking out Mtunzini. Not only is it close to the Ongoye Forest Reserve, but there is some great hiking in the town itself. Check out the booking.com tool below to check out available accommodation in Mzunzini.
There are no facilities in the Ongoye Forest Reserve so you will need to travel with everything you need.
The EKZNW officer in charge of the Ongoye Forest Reserve is resident on station but does not have a phone due to the remoteness of the area. No permit is required, but all day visitors are required to register with the officer and pay the entrance fee. Gate opening and closing times are 06h00 - 18h00 in winter and summer.
The Zululand Birding Route has a number of registered bird guides as well as a basic birders' hut that can be booked for visitors who wish to stay overnight. It is best to contact the ZBR directly to make a booking.
4x4 Route Description
The track starts off through a short forested section and then edges around the east fringe of the main forest for a few kilometres. Keep a look out for the vehicle tracks that veer off to the left and head towards the forest as you’ll need to take that route. If you get to a gate that exits the park you’ve gone too far.
While the majority of the driving is done through forested sections, there are a number of clearings that are worth stopping at to get out and see the views. Just ensure that you stick to the vehicle tracks and take special care not to damage the environment.
The drive is generally easy going with a few technical inclines and descents that may require low range, particularly when wet. As always though, it’s best to drive in a convoy with recovery gear in case one of you gets stuck.
The road through the forest is roughly 6 kilometres but it is really slow going so take your time. Once you exit the forest you’ll do the final 4 kilometres on an open grassland section with incredible views over the Nkwaleni Valley. This final stretch meets up with the main P204 road which marks the end of the trail.