Although known more for its former king than its natural environment, Zululand is actually home to a wealth of wildlife. Here Philip Briggs explores its top 10 greatest parks and reserves.
It’s late afternoon and Nsumo Pan, the sparkling centrepiece of Mkhuze Game Reserve, is looking serenely magnificent. Set below a backdrop of green hills, its shallow water is encircled by tall fever trees, their jaundiced bark radiating an ethereal beauty in the softening sunlight. The gentle burbling of green-spotted doves fills the air, interrupted only by the occasional cackling outbursts of hadeda ibises, while yellow-billed storks and African spoonbills pick through the shallows, and a flotilla of pink-backed pelicans sails imperiously past a pod of partially submerged hippos.
A warthog family wallowing on the lake margin exudes muddy porcine satisfaction. A male nyala emerges from the bush, its shaggy black coat and large spiralled horns glistening as it treads warily towards the pan, every sense alive to the possibility of a waiting crocodile or leopard. Altogether more oblivious, a white rhino meanders into view, following not its nose but its perpetually masticating mouth along a convoluted path that will lead, in good rhino time, to the water’s edge.
It is a scene that encapsulates the magic of Zululand, a loosely defined region inland of the lush northern coastal belt of KwaZulu-Natal province. With its sticky climate, lush subtropical vegetation and thrillingly wild landscapes, this has perhaps the most overtly African feel of any region of South Africa. And it also vies with the better-known Kruger Park as the country’s most rewarding safari destination, with Mkhuze being just one of a dozen gem-like reserves and sanctuaries interspersed between the sugar plantations.
If the Zululand reserves are famous for any one thing, it is their high density of rhinos, with Hluhluwe-Imfolozi alone supporting about ten per cent of the global population (around 1600 white and 400 black rhino) within an area of less than 1000 square kilometres. Rhinos, however, are just one facet of the region’s astonishing biodiversity, which includes the country’s most pristine stretch of coastline and Africa’s largest estuarine wetland, both part of the sprawling iSimangaliso UNESCO World Heritage site. The Big Five can be seen in several reserves, while whales, dolphins and marine turtles inhabit the oceanic waters, and the region as a whole supports some 600 bird species.
Zululand is unusually varied in terms of tourist development. There are some excellent private reserves aimed mainly at the exclusive fly-in market, most notably Phinda, but also several provincial reserves offering affordable hutted accommodation and camping suited to self-drive safaris. Sodwana Bay is the country’s top diving destination, while the likes of Ndumo and southern iSimangaliso are perfect for birdwatchers and other nature lovers who prefer to absorb the bush on foot. Indeed, it would be easy to spend several weeks exploring this wonderful and often overlooked corner of South Africa, but for those who don’t have that sort of time, here are the highlights:
1 iSimangaliso Wetland ParkTo subscribe or buy back issues, click here
Protecting 220km of unspoilt Indian Ocean frontage that runs southward from the Mozambican border, this 3280-square-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage site incorporates Africa’s most southerly coral reefs and four separate Ramsar Wetlands. And while it is not a conventional Big Five safari destination à la Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, its biodiversity includes the highest vertebrate species checklist of any African conservation area: 129 terrestrial and aquatic mammals, 525 birds, 128 reptiles, 50 amphibians and 1039 fish, of which 48 are freshwater varieties.
The main centre of activity here is the jungle-bound peninsular village of St Lucia, which offers perhaps the best urban wildlife viewing south of Victoria Falls. Hippos grunt conversationally in the estuarine shallows, while basking crocodiles slither below the surface to join other silent submarine killers such as the legendarily pugnacious Zambezi shark, while bushpigs, red duikers and porcupines wander the roads by night, and the forests are alive with fish eagle duets, mewling hornbills and flashy turacos. Boat trips onto the estuary are a real treat for birders (look out for half-collared and mangrove kingfishers perching quietly on overhanging branches) and whale-watching tours and turtle-nesting excursions are also available seasonally.
The most beautiful part of the park is the remote northern sector, where a serpentine coastal strip of wide sandy beaches is separated from a string of freshwater wetlands by the world’s tallest forested dunes. Sodwana Bay’s Seven Mile Reef, with its overhangs and mushroom rocks reaching 20m below the surface, is the main diving spot here. The more secluded Lake Sibaya is South Africa’s largest natural freshwater body, while Kosi Bay, abutting the Mozambican border, comprises eight lakes and a series of connecting channels that drain into the Indian Ocean through a sandy estuary whose mouth offers superb snorkelling conditions.
2 Phinda Game Reserve
Phinda is Zululand’s equivalent to the exclusive Sabi Sands complex of reserves bordering the Kruger National Park. One of South Africa’s most notable recent conservation success stories, Phinda was forged from a tract of neglected farmland in 1991, when a massive clean-up campaign – resulting in the removal of 15 tons of scrap metal – preceded an ambitious programme of reintroductions to boost the low-density wildlife populations that occurred there naturally.
Phinda seldom disappoints when it comes to the Big Five and while leopard sightings are somewhat erratic, it is one of a handful of African reserves where the endangered black rhino can be tracked down with reasonable ease. Its flagship animal, however, is the cheetah, which thrives in areas of grassland and is often seen on the hunt. For more specialised visitors, the most interesting of the reserve’s seven main habitats is a tract of sand forest, where the secretive suni antelope can be seen alongside localised birds such as Neergard’s sunbird and pink-throated twinspot.
3 Mkhuze Game Reserve
The hides of Mkhuze are the stuff of legend. The sheer volume of wildlife that troops past in the course of a typical dry-season day is mindboggling. Impala, warthog, zebra and baboon maintain a near-constant presence. And the endless comings and goings of nyala provide regular opportunities to watch the handsome males perform their spectacular ‘lateral display’, which sees them erecting their long white spinal crests in a bristling assertion of dominance. On a good day the waterhole might easily attract a dozen or more white rhino, while more occasional visitors include elephant, black rhino, giraffe and leopard. For wildlife photographers, there are plentiful opportunities to shoot interaction and tight portraits – often there’s so much going on that it’s difficult to know where to point the lens!
4 Tembe Elephant Park
One of South Africa’s best-kept game-viewing secrets, Tembe Elephant Park was proclaimed in 1983 to protect an elephant population that once ranged freely into neighbouring Mozambique. Since then, the elephant population has grown from 150 to more than 250, and it currently includes the three largest tuskers in southern Africa, namely Isilo, Induna and Makobona. Although this is a provincial reserve, it is managed in conjunction with the local Tembe people, and operates much like a private sanctuary, with just one delightfully intimate and rustic community camp offering unusually wallet-friendly rates inclusive of activities. Tembe is stocked with all the Big Five, but the impenetrable bush – a mosaic of sand forest, tangled thicket and occasional wetlands – can make for frustrating game drives. By contrast, Mahlasela Hide, site of the famous Tembe webcam, overlooks a pan that usually attracts several herds of elephant daily – a magnificent spot to watch pachydermal interaction, with a good chance that one of the park’s record-busting tuskers will burst out of the bush to slate its thirst.
5 Ndumo Game Reserve
Many aficionados rate Ndumo as the single most exciting birdwatching site in South Africa. Abutting the Mozambican border west of Tembe, this reserve protects a lush section of the Phongolo and Usuthu rivers’ floodplains, and an associated network of seasonal waterways and perennial pans lined with jaundiced fever tree forests. An incredible tally of 430 bird species has been recorded within its 100 square kilometres, including localised specials such as African broadbill, Neergard’s sunbird and grey waxbill, and it can be explored on foot (with a chance of bumping into black or white rhino). Boat trips through the swamp are also magnificent, whether you’re hoping for close encounters with outsized crocs and hippos, or glimpses of localised water-associated birds such as Pel’s fishing owl, lesser jacana, black egret and pygmy goose.
6 Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve
Gazetted in the 1890s, Hluhluwe and Imfolozi – jointly managed and linked by a corridor reserve since 1989 – together form Zululand’s Big Five reserve. And while large predators – lion, leopard, cheetah and hunting dog – tend to maintain a relatively low profile, there are a few better places for close-up views of elephant, buffalo and giraffe. Above all, however, this is superb rhino country. Indeed, back in 1916 Imfolozi supported southern Africa’s last white rhinos, a bottleneck population of at most 30 animals ancestral to all but a dozen or so individuals living today. And while Hluhluwe’s impact on black rhino conservation is not quite so definitive, it was the most important South African stronghold for this species in the 1960s, and at least half the modern global population can claim descent from this protected herd. Today, there is no easier place to see white rhino in the wild, and both species are likely to be encountered over a few days’ visit – especially if you book onto one of the reserve’s peerless guided overnight wilderness trails.
7 Ithala Game Reserve
The hilliest of the Zululand reserves, Ithala protects a series of ancient rockscapes connecting the rugged Ngotshe Escarpment to the south bank of the Phongolo River, an altitudinal span of more than 1000m. Wildlife viewing here doesn’t compare to the likes of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi or Mkhuze, but there is still plenty to see, and the scenery is genuinely inspirational. Some of the best wildlife viewing here is to be had in the wooded cliff-side camp, which harbours an abundance of hyraxes and plentiful birds by day, and is probably the most reliable spot in South Africa for nocturnal sightings of semi-habituated bushbabies and genets.
8 Umlalazi Nature Reserve
Another underrated gem, tiny Umlalazi borders the small resort town of Mtunzini and shares many attractions with the much vaster iSimangaliso Wetland Park, but in a compact and accessible area of just 10 square kilometres. Keen walkers will be in their element exploring a trio of short trails that climb over tall dunes and follow the banks of a beautiful lagoon out to the lovely beach. A boardwalk trail leads through two fascinating and unusual habitats: a raffia palm swamp that supports the country’s few breeding pairs of striking palmnut vultures, one of the country’s rarest raptors; and a mangrove swamp inhabited by scuttling mudskippers and hermit crabs, as well as the habitat-specific mangrove kingfisher (most easily located by its high trilling call).
9 Dlinza Forest Reserve and the Valley of Kings
Zululand is also of interest – as the name implies – for having lain at the heart of the mighty Zulu Empire forged by King Shaka in the early 19th century. The gateway to this historic region is the small town of Eshowe. The surrounding rolling green hills are where the peri-urban Dhlinza Forest Reserve, site of an 125m aerial boardwalk, protects the country’s most accessible patch of mist-belt forest and associated wildlife. Nearby, the showy but exuberant Shakaland, constructed on the site of one of Shaka’s original kraals, and the more low-key Simunye Zulu Lodge offer the opportunity to immerse oneself in traditional Zulu culture. Further inland, the former ‘Valley of Kings’, site of Shaka’s grave and the reconstructed residence of his successor Dingane, are protected in the little–known eMakhosini Ophathe Heritage Park.
10 Zulu Nyala Reserve
A great place to photograph cheetah, rhino and buffalo, this private sanctuary abutting Phinda is too small to offer the kind of wilderness experience associated with the other Zululand reserves. However, the main camp has a lovely hilltop setting, and the affordable long-stay packages and central location make it a good base to explore the likes of iSimangaliso and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi on a series of well organised day excursions.
Plan your trip
The aptly-named King Shaka International Airport (KSIA), which is situated 35km north of Durban, is the primary gateway to Zululand for visitors. Emirates (www.emirates.com) connects London Heathrow to KSIA via Dubai, while South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) and British Airways/Comair (www.ba.com) link the two via Johannesburg.
When to visit
Zululand enjoys a warm sub-tropical climate for most of the year. However the summer months (November to February) can be hot and humid.
Most visitors do not require a visa to visit South Africa for a period of less than three months.
Lonely Planet’s South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland (8th ed, 2009) and Rough Guides South Africa (6th ed, 2010) are both good choices for a trip to Zululand.
Find out more
South African Tourism (www.southafrica.net)
KwaZulu-Natal Tourism Authority (www.kzn.org.za)
Unlike many top safari destinations, Zululand is ideal for a DIY self-drive experience. Most of the major reserves are accessible without a 4WD, particularly in the dry southern winter (a lovely time to visit), and there are good facilities to suit all budgets, from budget camping to Phinda-style luxury.