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You’ll find big rewards in these five small KZN reserves

Words by Justin Fox. Article from the April issue of Getaway. 

Grand names dominate the KwaZulu-Natal nature scene. Hluhluwe, iSimangaliso, Ithala, Phinda – these parks take priority on most bush-lovers’ lists. And for good reason: when it comes to big game in the garden province, they’re unmatched.

But that doesn’t mean they’re all that’s out there. With the morning sun rising over Durban’s golden shores, I hit the N3 heading inland in search of the smaller, two-wheel-drive-friendly nature escapes that slip through most itineraries.

Activities - kayaking, fishing, game drives

Shongweni Dam. Activities – kayaking, fishing, game drives. Image by Justin Fox.

1. Shongweni Dam and Game Reserve

Half-an-hour outside of Durban, I found Shongweni, a place that feels so wild it’s hard to believe Durban’s scruffy outskirts are just 38 kilometres away. I booked into a safari-style tent at Ugede Camp on the edge of the Shongweni Dam. It’s a beautiful spot. Early in the morning, fishermen cast their lines around its shores to an orchestra of birds and frogs. Then come boating groups from local schools and in the evenings the waters are criss-crossed by canoeists.

Apart from the array of non-motorised water sports and fishing (carp, big-mouthed bass, tilapia and barbel abound), Shongweni also has picnic sites, walking trails and even rock climbing on its dramatic sandstone cliffs. Game drives, guided walks and canoes can be booked at reception. The drives are surprisingly fruitful and this relatively small, 1700-hectare reserve is split into two, with the latter home to a wide variety of big game including white rhino, buffalo and giraffe.

Accommodation and activities at Shongweni

Canoe hire: R165 per day.
Game drives: R120 per adult and R60 per child.
Fishing permits: R35 per person.
Shongweni Dam campsite: R100 per person per night (no electricity hook-ups). Tel 031 769 1283. website

2. Inanda Dam

Inanda Dam. Image by Teagan Cunniffe.Inanda Dam. Image by Teagan Cunniffe.

From Shongweni I headed north and crossed the N3 to Inanda Dam, famed for its excellent bass fishing (it hosts an annual classic fishing tour- nament every April). Cradled in the folds of the Valley of a Thousand Hills just beyond Hillcrest, the dam has also become legendary as an overnight stop on the Dusi Canoe Marathon. Activities are mostly of the aquatic variety and include kayaking (kayaks are available for hire), water-skiing, power-boating and there is even a demarcated area for jet-skiing. Fishing for bream, carp, barbel, eel and bass is popular.

There is a 2,5-kilometre walking trail in the Mahlabathini Reserve that takes you through forest and grassland where there’s a good chance of spotting duiker and zebra. Cyclists looking for a challenge can try the 90-kilometre mountain-bike trail around the dam or relax beside the braai at one of the picnic sites that dot the water’s edge (bring your own grid).

Accommodation and activities at Inanda Dam

Canoe hire: R165 per day.
Fishing permits: R35 per day per adult and R17.50 per child.
Inanda Dam campsite: R110 per person per night (without electrical hook-ups) and R130 per person per night (with electrical hook-ups). website
Inanda Dam tented camp: Accommodation in the four-sleeper safari-style tented camps (with en-suite bathrooms and self-catering kitchens) costs R1200 per night for the unit. Tel 031 766 9946.

3. Wagendrift Nature Reserve

Further up the N3, I headed for Wagendrift, an attractive reserve set in the rolling grassveld backed by Drakensberg ramparts. The park gets its name from a ford in the Bushman’s River that was used by the transport wagons of old on their journey from Port Natal to the Witwatersrand goldfields.

Activities - nature trails, bird-watching, boating

Wagendrift Nature Reserve. Activities – nature trails, bird-watching, boating. Image by Justin Fox.
Wagendrift has a rustic resort with basic facilities. Accommodation is made up of two campsites, which have neat ablution blocks but no extra amenities, and an attractive four-bed cottage set on a slope above the dam. The cottage is well appointed and has an indigenous garden thronging with bird life.

To the west, the jagged Drakensberg skyline rises from the horizon. The area around the dam with the campsite has little game but good birding, and the second section known as Moor Park Reserve has good numbers of wildebeest, antelope, mountain reedbuck and is great for hiking (no dangerous game).

Boating is the main activity (the Bushman’s Boating Club has its club house in the reserve). Fishing is popular with scaly, bluegill, bass, carp and eel constituting the main catches. There is also the 3,5-kilometre, self-guided Furrow Trail in Moor Park. It follows the Bushman’s River through a wooded kloof and beside an irrigation furrow built in 1903.

Accommodation at Wagendrift

Wagendrift campsites: R75 per person per night. website
Wagendrift Cottage: Accommodation in this four-sleeper cottage costs R200 per person per night. Tel 072 800 3893, 033 845 1000.

4. Spioenkop Nature Reserve

I continued up the N3, bound for Spioenkop. The reserve lies west of the highway on the R600 about 14 kilometres from Winterton. Spioenkop Mountain dominates the reserve, standing tall over thorn savanna and valley bushveld. From its summit, spectacular Drakensberg views extend from Giant’s Castle to the Sentinel in Royal Natal National Park. Below, the mirror-calm Spioenkop Dam is dotted with picnic sites and the Discovery walking trail (which splits into a three-and six-kilometre loop) winds its way around the dam’s southern shore in an area free of dangerous game (although it is not fenced). There’s also horse riding and anglers can fish the reservoir from boats or the shore. Elsewhere in the reserve wildlife is abundant and includes white rhinoceros, giraffe and a wide variety of plains and bushveld antelope.

Activities - hiking, battlefield tours, horse riding

Spioenkop Nature Reserve. Activities include hiking, battlefield tours, horse riding. Image by Justin Fox.

History buffs might recognise the name Spioenkop Mountain. It’s the site of a famous battle that took place on 24 January 1900 where the British suffered one of their worst defeats in the Anglo Boer War. Today the summit is dotted with graves, a cenotaph to the fallen Boers and trenches where the British made their last stand. The battlefield site is accessible by road but the more energetic can climb the mountain, following the route of the British infantry.

Accommodation and activities at Spioenkop

Horse rides available daily at 8am and 2pm through the game area and cost R120 per person for one-and-a-half hours.
Spioenkop campsite: R75 per person per night. Tel 036 488 1578, 033 845 1000. website

5. Weenen Game Reserve

From Spioenkop, the northernmost point on my route, I headed back down the N3 and took a left to Weenen. This lesser-known reserve lies 25 kilometres northeast of Estcourt in undulating thornveld that stretches to the blue-hilled horizon.

Weenen Game Reserve. Image by Teagan Cunniffe.

Weenen Game Reserve. Image by Teagan Cunniffe.

Much of this 5000-hectare reserve was once badly degraded farmland and considerable rehabilitation by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has seen erosion halted and vegetation restored to original valley bushveld, characterised by acacia karoo, acacia tortilis and acacia nilotica woodlands and thickets. Although it’s not in the same league as a Hluhluwe or Mkuze, Weenen provided the best game viewing of the five parks I visited on this trip. Some animals were quite skittish, but the zebras and giraffes kindly agreed to pose for long photo sessions.

Although the gravel roads inside the park can be a bit rough for sedans, especially after heavy rains (ask at reception about road conditions), the terrain and birding certainly make up for any shortage of dramatic sightings.

There is also the gorgeous, three-kilometre Beacon View Trail that takes you to the edge of an escarpment that drops away into the Bushman’s River Valley. Sunrises are spectacular and watching the rays pierce through the mist tendrils that still linger in the leafy kloofs is a sight worth getting up early for.

All too soon my time was up and the big smoke beckoned. I re-joined my old friend the N3 and trundled back to Durban. A week of driving through western KwaZulu-Natal’s smaller parks produced a surprising result: there are petite tracts out there that provide rustic, no-fuss nature escapes, all for under R400 per person per night.

And sure, they may not have the clout of KwaZulu-Natal’s bigger parks, but there’s plenty in reply when nature calls.

Accommodation at Weenen Game Reserve

Nyandu campsite: R170 for two people per night (without electrical hook-up) and R190 for two people per night (with hook-up). website
Umkhombe Cottage: The five-sleeper self-catering cottage (which has its own private waterhole) costs R480 for two people per night, and R240 per adult and R120 per child thereafter. Tel 036 354 7013, 033 845 1000.

Map 

More info on the town of the Shongweni More info on the eThekwini area

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