KZN – The inside track on where to stay


So now you’ve arrived, where do you stay? Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife provides a variety of accommodation to suit all budgets; while most areas are easily accessible for self-drivers, walkers or those wanting a guided safari

All the larger and most smaller conservation areas under the custodianship of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are serviced by clean, good-value accommodation. Full details of individual resorts, lodges and camps are available on the website, breaking down into one or more of the following categories:

Holiday resorts
The main form of accommodation in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is holiday resorts, which offer a variety of self-catering units, ranging in some cases from simple standing tents to luxury log cabins or modern chalets in others. Some larger resorts also have amenities such as restaurants, grocery shops and filling stations. Resorts exist in several sectors of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park as well as the following standalone reserves: Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Amatigulu, Harold Johnson, Umlalazi, Oribi Gorge, Mount Currie, Ithala, uMkhuze, Ndumo, Chelmsford, Midmar, Spioenkop, Phongolo, Wagendrift and Ongoye.

Luxury lodges
These are exclusive and well-equipped lodges sleeping parties of up to 6 or 8 in 3 or 4 bedrooms. The lodges come with a self-catering kitchen and common lounges and verandahs (usually with a view), but some also provide a chef or offer access to a resort restaurant. Luxury lodges are available in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Ithala and Maloti-Drakensberg Park (Giant’s Castle and Royal Natal sectors).

Bush lodges and camps
These operate on a similarly exclusive basis to luxury lodges, sleeping up to 6 or 8 people in 3 or 4 bedrooms, but are more rustic in feel, particularly the bush camps. Bush lodges and camps are available in uMkhuze, Ithala, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park (Cape Vidal).

The most budget-friendly option offered by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is camping and/or caravan sites, which are generally aimed at self-sufficient travellers with their own tents and gear. All sites have modern ablution blocks and some provide access to electricity and/or resort restaurants. Campsites are available in several sectors of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park as well as the following standalone reserves: Amatigulu, Harold Johnson, Umlalazi, Oribi Gorge, Mount Currie, Ithala, uMkhuze, Ndumo, Chelmsford, Midmar, Spioenkop, Phongolo, Wagendrift and Ongoye.

The ideal way to reach most conservation areas under the custodianship of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is on a self-drive holiday. The main port of entry to the province is Durban, where the world-class King Shaka International Airport is serviced by regular flights from Johannesburg, Cape Town, Europe and beyond, and all the main car rental companies are represented.

Most resorts can be reached in an ordinary saloon car but higher clearance and/or 4WD might be required for more remote parts of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park and northern iSimangaliso Wetland Park after rain. Once there, wildlife-orientated reserves such as Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, uMkhuze and Ithala are normally explored on well-maintained roads, though most offer guided day and/or night drives, as well as guided game walks.

Montane and beach reserves such as Maloti-Drakensberg Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park are more easily explored on foot, following well-marked self-guided or guided walking and hiking trails.

Wilderness trails
The most exciting way to explore the game reserves of KwaZulu-Natal is on wilderness trails, which offer a thrilling opportunity to escape the modern world and come face-to-face with rhino, elephant and other wildlife in the company of an experienced and well-trained guide.

Wilderness trails also provide a great introduction to smaller wildlife such as birds, butterflies and lizards, while soaking up the magnificent tranquillity of the African bush and nights around the campfire below dazzling night skies pinpricked by countless stars. The most famous venue for wilderness trails is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, where a 300-sq km tract of Imfolozi inaccessible to cars has been set aside for the purpose.

Trails range from three to five days in duration and run from mid-February to early December. For keen hikers, whose main interest is scenery rather than wildlife, there is also the five-day Giant’s Cup Trail, which runs along the foothills of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park between Sani Pass and Bushman’s Nek.

Best for wildlife: Giant’s Castle Resort
Set below the spectacular 3314m-high basaltic protrusion known as Giant’s Castle, this lodge is recommended to wildlife enthusiasts as the best place to see the stately eland antelope and cliff-dwelling raptors such as the majestic lammergeyer. Main Cave, only 30 minutes’ walk away, is a fine prehistoric rock art site containing more than 500 individual paintings.

Best for scenery: Thendele Camp
Arguably boasting the most scenic location in South Africa, Royal Natal Park’s Thendele is set below the Amphitheatre, a towering 5km-long arc of burnished sandstone tumbled down by the 949m Thukela Falls, the world’s second tallest waterfall. An inspirational setting and network of relatively flat trails makes it an excellent base for relaxed ramblers.

Best for hikers: Didima Camp
A good base for enthusiastic hikers, Didima stands below Cathedral Peak, a striking 3005m-high outcrop whose summit can be reached on a tough guided day hike from the base. The innovative multimedia Didima Rock Art Centre provides an engaging introduction to the region’s prehistoric rock art, and several actual rock art sites are within walking distance.

Discover… Maloti-Drakensberg Park
The Maloti-Drakensberg Park ranks among one of Africa’s largest and most pristine wilderness areas. A forbidding range of jagged basaltic peaks bordering Lesotho, it is known to the Zulu – who live in its long eastern shadow – as ‘uKhahlamba’ (The Barrier of Spears). And while it attains a cloud-scraping elevation of 3482 metres, you need to think laterally rather than vertically to grasp its true enormity. Take a map of South Africa, trace your finger slowly along the crescent formed by the upper Maloti-Drakensberg Park and absorb the fact that this entire 200km-long chain of peak after peak is breached by just one solitary road in the form of the unsurfaced Sani Pass. The rest is pure wilderness.

An amalgamation of more than a dozen reserves administered by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the 2500-sq km Maloti-Drakensberg Park is the largest protected montane wilderness anywhere in Africa. It is also sub-equatorial Africa’s most important watershed, being the source of South Africa’s two largest rivers, the Orange and Tugela, and a major hydroelectric scheme. In 2000 Maloti-Drakensberg Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 35 such sites recognised for both its natural and its cultural significance.

The Park’s cultural significance is less immediately apparent, but equally immense. This is the world’s largest and most spectacular open-air prehistoric art gallery, containing a total of 500 painted sandstone shelters whose 40,000-odd individual images provide rich insight into the hunter-gatherer cultures that inhabited the region for millennia prior to the 19th century.

The impenetrability of the upper Maloti-Drakensberg Park ensures that it is feted by hikers. But its vast montane vistas offer much to outdoors enthusiasts of all persuasions. And while the park forms one cohesive ecological unit, the rugged topography means that it is divided into a dozen or so sectors, each with its own access roads and a set of attractions sufficient to occupy you for days.

Growing wild
The park is the centrepiece of the Drakensberg Alpine Centre, a hub of floral biodiversity whose 2153 identified plant species include a wealth of beautiful flowering proteas, aloes and red-hot pokers. Thirty per cent of these plants occur nowhere else in the world, and more than 100 are globally threatened. For birders, it is South Africa’s premier site for endemics and near-endemics such as southern bald ibis, yellow-breasted pipit, Drakensberg prinia, Gurney’s sugarbird and Drakensberg rockjumper. Other wildlife includes troops of Chacma baboon, whose fearsome doglike bark can be heard echoing through the cliffs and gorges, the spectacular Cape eland (which is the world’s largest antelope) and various smaller ruminants.

Best for location: Hilltop Camp
This award-winning lodge has a scenic location near the Memorial Gate entrance to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. Ideally suited to self-caterers, it also has a restaurant and other amenities, including a craft shop, filling station and satellite TV. It is well located for game drives in a valley where rhinos and elephant are common, and also offers thrilling guided bush walks.

Best for game drives: Mpila Camp
The main resort in the south of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park has a good location for game drives but provides exclusively for self-caterers. Guided night drives and game walks are also available.

Best for bush experience: Bush Lodges
Three unfenced self-catering lodges in the Imfolozi sector cater for small parties seeking a full-on bush experience. Gqoyeni Bush Lodge has a wooden deck overlooking a deep natural waterhole at the confluence of the Gqoyeni stream and Black Imfolozi River. Hlatikhulu Bush Lodge also lies alongside the Black Imfolozi, while Masinda Luxury Lodge is smarter and stands on a rocky ridge. All are suited to self-drive visitors, but guided game drives can be arranged.

Discover… Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is the world’s ultimate rhino-viewing destination, with a sizeable population of rhino roaming its 960 sq km. A docile grassland-loving creature rhino – Africa’s second-largest land mammal – the white rhino is a common sight here, while the odds of seeing the grumpier and more secretive thicket-loving black rhino is about the best
of any reserve cohabited by both species.

There’s more to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park than rhinos, however. Scenically, it’s an undulating landscape of spike-thorned acacia trees and cactus-like candelabra euphorbias interspersed with grassy green valleys flowed through by jungle-lined streams and rivers. Wildlife is everywhere. This is a classic Big Five safari destination, home not only to plentiful elephant and buffalo, but also healthy populations of lion and leopard. Look out for packs of African wild dog, lofty giraffe, harrumphing hippo and handsome antelope such as the greater kudu and nyala. Birdwatchers will also be in their element, with a checklist of almost 400 species headed by conspicuous large raptors such as the lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle and bateleur.

There’s some history here too. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is probably the oldest park in Africa – a former hunting ground of King Shaka Zulu set aside in 1895 as two game sanctuaries – and was home to what were then the last viable South African populations of white and black rhino.

Worth visiting in its own right or in conjunction with nearby iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park has a good road network ideally suited to DIY safaris, whether you follow your whim or adhere to one of two prescribed self-guided auto-trails. Guided night drives from Mpila and Hilltop resorts offer your best chance of sighting thick-tailed bushbaby, leopard, spotted hyena and a host of smaller predators, and guided game walks are conducted daily from both rest camps. World-famous guided overnight Wilderness Trails run in a sector closed to vehicular traffic.

Operation Rhino
It’s astonishing to think that the white rhino, the most numerous of the world’s five rhino species, would almost certainly be extinct today were it not for a bottleneck population of fewer than 30 individuals accorded special protection in Imfolozi back in 1916. By the early 1960s, rhino numbers in this area had grown to a point where overpopulation was a genuine cause for concern. And thus was born the celebrated ‘Operation Rhino’, which has led to the ongoing translocation of thousands of individuals from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park to other conservation areas in KwaZulu-Natal, elsewhere in South Africa and even further afield. Today, South Africa harbours more than 90 percent of the world’s estimated 20,000 white rhinos, and every one of these is descended from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park’s original herd.

Discover… iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Protecting the vast unspoilt northern coast of KwaZulu-Natal, this 2500-sq km UNESCO World Heritage Site, incorporates an astonishing diversity of habitats including four separate Ramsar sites. South Africa’s largest freshwater lake lies within the borders of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, as does the continent’s largest estuarine system.

The world’s most southerly coral reefs lie off its shores, while the interior supports rare patches of fragile sand forest and large tracts of classic African savannah – and it’s all hemmed in by a pristine string of sandy beaches set below the world’s tallest (up to 170m high) forested dunes.

This habitat diversity is reflected by a higher count of vertebrate species than any other African conservation area. In addition to 129 terrestrial and aquatic mammals, the park supports 525 bird, 128 reptile, 50 amphibian and 991 marine and 48 freshwater fish species.

You could spend weeks exploring iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Literally. For general game viewing, uMkhuze Game Reserve is a great self-drive safari destination whose trio of hides are a favourite with wildlife photographers and birdwatchers. A more popular tourist focus is jungle-swathed St Lucia Village, from where boat trips onto the shallow St Lucia Estuary offer a good chance of spotting hippo, crocodile and charismatic birds such as the African fish eagle, mangrove kingfisher and trumpeter hornbill.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park’s remote northern sector comprises a serpentine strip of beaches, where marine turtles nest below a spectacular ribbon of forested dunes. Here, you’ll find Sodwana Bay’s Seven-Mile Reef, whose overhangs, drop-offs and mushroom rocks have earned it a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful dive sites. Further north, Lake Sibaya, South Africa’s largest natural freshwater body, supports plenty of hippo and a wide diversity of aquatic birds.

Finally, abutting the Mozambican border, you reach Kosi Bay, a scenic wetland of interconnecting lakes and channels that funnels into an estuary whose mouth offers unusually calm snorkelling conditions and protects some 150 marine fish species, including the bizarre devil firefish. A notable feature of Kosi Bay is the complex maze of fishing traps set in place by the local Thonga people – a highly sustainable traditional form of natural resource management.

A rare site
In 1999, when iSimangaliso (then St Lucia) Wetland Park was inscribed as one of South Africa’s first three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, President Nelson Mandela proudly declared that it “must be the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest mammal (the whale)”.

Six of the best iSimangaliso Lodges
1 Cape Vidal resort
Idyllically located below tall forested dunes, this rustic camp overlooks a stunning beach on an important whale migration route, but the surrounding bush also hosts buffalo, hippo, reedbuck and a fantastic selection of freshwater, marine, forest and grassland birds.

2 Maphelana Camp
These self-catering log cabins south of the Imfolozi river mouth are ideally located for birdwatching, rambling and surf fishing.

3 Sugarloaf and Eden Park Campsites
Fringed by jungle yet within walking distance of well-equipped St Lucia village, these atmospheric campsites form a great budget base for boat trips on the estuary and exploration deeper into the reserve.

4 Mantuma Camp
Recommended to wildlife enthusiasts, this unpretentious self-catering camp lies in uMkhuze, a fine self-drive safari destination populated by black and white rhino, elephant, giraffe and a wide range of antelope.

5 Sodwana Bay resort
Offering access to the world’s most southerly coral reefs, this well-equipped camp, set in a patch of dune forest close to the beach, is a popular base for divers, snorkellers and fishermen.

6 Kosi Bay resort
Tucked up close to the Mozambican border, this stunning off-the-beaten-track resort services a lush wetland system of interconnecting lakes and channels known for their excellent snorkelling, fantastic birding and Thonga fish traps.

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