South Africa may not have the most dignified history, but we can certainly be proud of the fact that we have a national park that’s been in existence for over a century. The Kruger National Park recently celebrated its 110th year in existence – definitely something to boast about – but in all the hype I couldn’t help thinking about some of our country’s younger reserves. Most aren’t world-famous or the size of a small country, but that doesn’t make them any less important or incredible.
Ithala Game Reserve for instance, established in 1973, is one of South Africa’s younger and quieter parks, but it boasts an incredible history. Kruger started off as a playpen for the wealthy, but Ithala’s beginnings were somewhat humbler. The mountainous thornveld region in northern KZN that Ithala encompasses varies in altitude from 400 m at the Phongolo River in the north to 1450m above sea level at the peaks of the Ngotshe Mountains in the south, creating a multitude of varying habitats from lowveld and densely vegetated river valleys all the way up to high-lying grassland plateaus, ridges and cliff faces – a relative mecca for indigenous wildlife to thrive.
If, like Kruger, the region had been protected, this may have been the case. However, after years of mining, hunting and overgrazing by settlers, and a nagana (a disease carried by the tsetsi fly) outbreak in the early nineties, the region was damaged, badly eroded, and almost all of the larger mammal species were locally extinct. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the then Natal Parks Board realised the value of the varied terrain for conservation and started buying up farms for rehabilitation.
Starting with only 8000 ha in the early 70s, by 1982 Ithala had grown to almost 30 000 ha and the 23 missing mammal species (including four of the big five) had been safely and successfully reintroduced to the region. Relaxing at our campsite beside the Thalu River, it was impossible to imagine how different, how desolate, the region must have looked. Now, just thirty years later, visitors to the park can enjoy the glorious vista of the winding Phongolo from the Ngotshe Mountain peaks, the scores of game that wander the open grasslands, and even the rumble of elephants or the cough of a leopard in the dense thickets and riverine forests around the campfire at night.
Though small and quiet, in just a short time Ithala has become one of KZN’s major wildlife destinations – proof that it doesn’t take one hundred years or a million visitors a year to make a great park to be proud of, just the foresight and tremendous efforts of a dedicated few.
You’ll want to take all your lenses to Ithala. There are stunning vista’s that can only be captured with a wide-angle lens and scores of game that will be best photographed with long telephoto lenses. Make sure you spend some time walking around in Ntshondwe Resort – there are many relaxed birds around, as well as small mammals like banded mongooses. If you’re driving, the Dakaneni Loop in the north of the park is probably the most scenic in the whole reserve and good for game viewing as well. Mornings in Ithala are often very misty, tempting many photographers to stay in camp. But don’t be fooled – there are actually many dramatic images waiting to be taken in the mist, including ghostlike silhouettes of everything from impalas to elephants, as well as spider webs covered in droplets.
If I want to go:
Where: Ithala is about 370 km north of Durban and 450 km southeast of Joburg.
GPS co-ordinates: S27.54405 E31.28089 (Ntshondwe Resort)
When? Winter evenings can be chilly (June to October) and Summer days rainy (November to January), but generally speaking, Ithala has pleasant weather right throughout the year. Game viewing is also good year-round.
• Doornkraal Campsite: Twenty level stands with plenty of shade but little grass and no electricity located on the bank of a rocky river. Each stand has a dustbin and braai-grid and taps are spaced between stands. There are also two communal thatch gazebos (one with a place to wash dishes), two communal flush toilets and a roofless communal hot shower. The campsite is unfenced so animals wander through at will.
• Thalu, Mbizo and Mhlangeni bush camps: Thalu, Mbizo and Mhlangeni bush lodges (which sleep 4, 8 and 10 people respectively) are secluded little self-catering camps ideal for families or friends that value privacy. The lodges have hot showers, flush toilets and kitchens, but only Mhlangeni has electricity. The other two use gas.
• Ntshondwe resort: A selection of 2-, 4- and 6-sleeper chalets dispersed in an extremely scenic and well-kept camp at the base of a rocky mountain and cliff.
• Doornkraal cam site: R120/stand/night (1 person), R120/additional adult (no maximum)
• Thalu Bush Lodge: R1230/night for 3 people (R205/additional adult) (max 4)
• Mbizo Bush Lodge: R2460/night for 6 people (R205/additional adult) (max 8)
• Mhlangeni Bush Lodge: R2870/night for 7 people (R205/additional adult) (max 10)
• Ntshondwe resort: Four-sleeper self-catering chalets from R1650/chalet/night for three people (R300 for fourth person)
Phone: (033) 845 1000 or phone reception directly on (034) 983 2540.