Outdoor South Africa

National Parks & Reserves in KwaZulu/Natal
Map of KwaZulu/Natal Province
Special Feature. . .
Choice spots for viewing wildlife in Kwazulu-Natal.

If you could only visit one province in South Africa, dramatically varied KwaZulu/Natal would probably be the most satisfying choice.

Along the subtropical coast, paths lead from beach to beach, to favorite fishing spots, to the many Indian Ocean resorts that entice a yearly migration of visitors. These paths are often graced with hibiscus in vivid flower, with ilala palms and wild bananas, with coastal succulent scrub—and the sight of mangroves that emerge from an occasional swamp. Moreover, day walks have been laid out by municipal authorities, such as Durban, through parks, conservation areas, and green belts.

More agriculturally inclined, the rugged North Coast's sugar-cane fields often reach right down to the shoreline. Lake St Lucia, part of the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands, is notable for its great shoals of fish and abundant bird life and attracts a great number of hikers, as is the Tewati Wilderness Area, where the Mziki Hiking Trail winds through densely wooded dunes past the playing grounds of the hippopotamus. Though parts of the North Coast are often shrouded in mist, the climate is hot and humid in the high heat of summer and antimalaria tablets are recommended when visiting the area.

Further inland, wilderness trails in Maputaland under the supervision of a game ranger are available in the celebrated game reserves of Hluhluwe, Umfolozi, and Mkuzi, where lion, rhino, and giraffe are a great part of the appeal of these well-wooded sanctuaries.

Within the mist belt of the Natal Midlands, neat plantations and intensive farming areas often are reminiscent of English landscapes. Of significance within the region, the "Green Belt" Hiking Trails not only take the hiker past a good many of Pietermaritzburg's historic buildings and sites, but also through park landscapes on the outskirts of the city.

The Drakensberg is synonymous with hiking and backpacking and the spine-tingling adventure of rock climbing. The inaccessible beauty of the individual peaks, the steep gorges, and sheer basalt outcrops present a challenge to anyone who seeks the freedom of clear open skies and unfettered wilderness. From the Amphitheatre, where the Tugela River falls from dizzying heights, past Cathedral Peak, Champagne Castle, Giant's Cup, and Giant's Castle, southwards to Hodson's Peaks and the Rhino, there is ample scope for the most venturesome spirit.

To the north in the foothills of the Drakensberg, Zululand, the cultural homeland of the Zulu people, offers unique hiking possibilities on the Holkrans Hiking Trail near Newcastle, where hikers have the additional attraction of sleeping in open caves. The Ntendeka Wilderness Area near Vryheid has its own unique appeal, revealing to the backpacker the mystic secrets of the dense indigenous forests, rich with fern, and rare tree species. Views from the higher grass-covered hills are breathtaking.

Near Pietermaritzburg
Pietermaritzburg is a good homebase for exploring the rest of KwaZulu/Natal. As the capital of the province, it's cosmopolitan without being congested like nearby Durban. In town, you can walk or cycle the city's system of greenbelt trails, stopping off to admire the city's famous gardens and 19th century architecture. The close-by Cedara State Forest offers nature walks within one-and-a-half-hour drive from the city center. Drive a little farther, and the Drakensburg mountain range begin.

Cedara Forest
Route: In Cedara State Forest.
Length & Duration: 10 km 5 hours
Accommodation & equipment: No facilities available
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Parks in the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands/Sodwana Bay Area

A rich, interconnected system of protected land and marine zones reaching 3 miles out to sea. The earth's most southerly coral reefs are here. Divers, hikers, birders, paddlers, and all lovers of wetland and coastal flora will find something wonderful.

Sodwana Bay National Park
You'd think by the name that this would be the best place to experience legendary Sodwana Bay, but head for Ozabeni if you really want to experience it. Still, this is a good place to orient yourself to the area's marshes and reefs before heading to remoter spots elsewhere. Ozabeni is wild and strange. Once called the Sodwana State Forest, large parts of this park are off-limits. More than 330 species of birds have been spotted here.

St. Lucia Park & Game Reserve
Around since 1897, this is South Africa's oldest reserve. The park takes in the waterbody of St. Lucia lake (which is actually an estuary), its islands and Mapelane, a popular fishing spot across the mouth of the estuary. The waters are shallow and warm. The salinity varies, supporting a wide variety of wildlife including millions of waterbirds. Flamingoes, pelicans, and fish eagles all breed here. Sharing the pool is a healthy heap of crocodiles and hippos.

False Bay Park
This is at the inland, western edge of the St. Lucia Lake. A good place to explore the region's wooded areas. The Dugandlovu hiking trail skirts the edge of the lakes and then heads into the acacia and terminalia woodlands.

Tewati Wilderness Area (Cape Vidal & Eastern Shores State Forests)
From lake to ocean, the starting place for the four-night St. Lucia Wilderness Trail, a guided walk and the three-day Mziki Trail, through dune and forest.

St. Lucia & Maputaland Marine Reserve
From the coastal strip 3 kilometers out to see and taking in the coral reef. This is a nesting site for the leatherback and loggerhead turtles.

Phinda Resource Reserve
For those who like their body pampered and their head expanded at the same time, a 42,000 acre eco-tourist heaven. This reserve presents nine different ecosystems, hosting 360 species of bird, 10,000 heads of game, and three different kinds of deluxe accomodations.

Route: Circular route from Mission Rocks at Eastern Shores Nature Reserve, Lake St. Lucia through dune forest and past freshwater lakes.
Length & Duration: 38 km 3 days 3 Circular routes
Accommodation & equipment: Hut equipped with bunks, mattresses, gas-cooker, lamps, bush shower, and toilet. Hikers must provide their own food and sleeping bags.
Max. Trail Capacity: Min. 4 Max. 8

Route: A circular route starting from Natal Parks Board office at False Bay, 16 km east of Hluhluwe village.
Length & Duration: Optional 1 or 2 nights 9 km to the huts
Accommodation & equipment: 4 huts equipped with beds, cold water shower, gas cooker and bush toilet. Crockery, cutlery, and cooking utensils supplied. Hikers must provide their own food.
Max. Trail Capacity: 16

In addition, there are three wilderness trails (April to September only) which are conducted under the protection and guidance of experienced game rangers in the Umfolizi, Mkuzi, and St. Lucia Game Reserves. Accomodation is in caves, bush enclosures, or tents and the route is chosen by the trail officer.

Parks and Reserves in Maputaland

Maputaland is one of the wildest and most beautiful areas of South Africa. You'll find enthralling wetlands, three huge lakes, the last wild elephants in the country, coral reefs, and some all-around great parks and reserves. The St. Lucia/Sodwanha Bay area in Maputaland is one of the great wetlands regions of the world.

Hluhluwe, Umfolozi and Mkuzi Game Reserves
Declared in 1897, Hluhluwe and Mkuzi are stupendous. Though they don't adjoin, a corridor allows animals to move freely between the reserves. Go for the worldclass wilderness trails system. But this is not a wilderness for isolates—you must be in a party of eight accompanied by an armed ranger—there's some big animals out there after all. The Umfulozi takes in a gigantic 118,000 acres ranging over floodplain and hill country. The Hluhluwe is a respectable 57,000 acres and includes areas of misty mountain forest as well as bush and grasslands. Nearby Mkuzi offers some of the best—and cleverest—wildlife viewing in the country. Mkuzi covers 86,450 acres of grassland and forest, as well as the wetlands of the Mkuzi River and the Nsumu Pan.

Kosi Bay Nature Reserve
One of the most extraordinary places you could visit on the planet. An incredible system of wetlands, taking in mangrove swamps, fig and raffia palm forests, sand dunes, freshwater lakes, and some of the most deserted beaches in the world. Remote, wild, and, if you wanna, canoeable.

Ndumu Game Reserve
Birdlife flourishing on floodplains and pans. Three different kinds of guided walks: to see the animals, to see the birds, to see the trees.

Lake Sibaya Nature Reserve
Part of the coastal forest reserve. The largest freshwater lake in South Africa is here and some of the best fishing to boot.

Tembe Elephant Park
This is practically a pilgrimage site, the place where you'll find the last of South Africa's free-ranging elephants.

Parks and Reserves in Natal Drakensberg

In Afrikaner, Drakensberg means "Dragon Mountains." The Zulu name, Quathlamba, means Battlement of Spears. For all the fierceness of its names, the Drakensberg is perhaps the most beloved and renowned natural feature in South Africa.

The peaks are often covered with snow in winter, while in summer heavy clouds cascade over the escarpmenlt and the gorges shake with brief but awesome storms. In winter the undulating grassy slopes of the Kleinberg are transformed into a tapestry in mellow shades of pink, lilac, brown, moss-green, and yellow. Spring is heralded by a canvas of wild flowers—yellow iris along streams, heather wreathing the slopes, yellow Gnidia and Eriosema, pink candelabra flowers, and red Natal bottle-brush on the inclines and grassy banks. Visually there is so much natural splendor that the amateur photographer is placed in a quandary in choice of focus: a myriad species of wildflowers; the ever-changing subtle colours of the peaks; the startled gaze of a grey rhebok, an oribi, an eland, or the sight of the rare lammergeyer in full soaring flight.

Extensive wilderness areas—Mdedelelo, Mzimkulu and Mkhomazi among them—allow for weeks of mountain exploration. Trails such as the Giant's Cup Trail between Sani Pass and Bushmansnek Pass have been developed in a beautiful area of valleys and impressive heights commanding superb views. To the south, the Ngele Hiking Trail near Harding leads through the largest man-made plantation in the country, through an earthly paradise of evergreen forest and the flower strewn grasslands of the Ngele mountain, within the vicinity of the flow of hills in the Transkei. Here the Fairview Waterfall cascades over rock cliffs to a deep pool far below—accessible only on foot.

Royal Natal National Park
This 19,750 acre park is probably the centerpiece attraction in the Drakensberg. Royal Natal's rich scenery includes a four mile long Amphitheatre, dramatic cliffs, and the Tugala Falls, which drop 2,800 feet in 5 stages. Several peaks in the park attract climbers from all over the world. The Rugged Glen Nature Reserve adjoins the park, and is worth a visit.

Cathedral Peak, Mkhomazi and Monk's Cowl (Champagne Castle) State Forests
The state forests in the Drakensberg offer their own distinctive experiences. Cathedral Peak is a good beginner's peak, a strenuous hike for beginners, or a place for experienced climbers to warm up peacefully and chalk up a peak. Cobham and Monk's Cowl both offer many hiking trails with overnight shelters.

Giant's Castle Game Reserve and Loteni Nature Reserve
Those interested in the life and spirit of the indigenous peoples of the region will want to visit the 85,200 acre Giant's Castle Reserve founded in 1903 to protect the land, the largest species of antelope. Besides stupendous scenery and wildlife, the reserve contains many San rock paintings. The San were the people who lived in the area for thousands of year before the incursions of the Zulu and the whites. Some important hiking trails here. If you visit the scenic Loteni Reserve, you'll want to stop at some of the many Zulu villages along the way.

Not to be overlooked, the comparatively tiny Dlinza Forest Reserve, a 500 acre forest, offers exceptional birdwatching.

Drakensberg: Section Giant's Cup
Route: From Sani Pass in the Drakensberg area to Silver Streams at Bushman's Nek.
Length & Duration: 63 km 5 days (2, 3 or 4 day hikes also possible)
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Route: Circular route in Weza State Forest near Harding.
Length & Duration: 50 km 4 or 5 days or 30 km 3 days
Accommodation & equipment: Converted farm houses equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, stoves, cooking utensils, sleeping bags, lighting, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Route: Circular route in Natal Drakensberg approximately 25 km south-west of Newcastle.
Length & Duration: 18 km 2 days
Accommodation & equipment: Base camp: Beds, mattresses, shower, toilets, drinking water, braai facilities, firewood, iron pots, and electricity. Holkrans overnight point: toilet, firewood, iron pots, water in rainy season.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Parks and Reserves in Zululand

In this area of rolling hills, the Zulu people set the cultural pace. The Zulu are a fierce and proud people, determined to preserve their culture and group identity. If you want an African experience without a European overlay, consider exploring some of the attractions here.

Ntendeka Wilderness
This smallish but diverse wilderness takes in 12,900 acres of coastal and inland tropical forest and grassland, including the Ngome Forest. Besides big game wildlife, such as the giraffe, wildebeest, cheetah, leopard, and black rhino, be on the lookout for several rare bird species and the rare Ngoye red squirrel.

Itala Game Reserve
74,000 acres of a steep valley system for six river tributaries of the Pongola. The reserve shelters 75 mammal species including rhinos, baboons, and the only herd of tsessebes in KwaZulu/Natal. An amazing 320 species of bird, many of them endangered, have been spotted here.

Umlalazi Nature Reserve
This coastal reserve contains 2,223 acres of very distinctive sand dune forest and mangrove swamp.

Harold Johnson Nature Reserve
At 64 acres, this north coast reserve is tiny, but historically important. It's the site of Fort Pearson, built in 1878 as a British outpost for the invasion of Zululand, and the Ultimatum Tree, where the British presented an ultimatum to the Zulu people that lead to the war that did happen. This reserve offers three exceptional hikes, including one that takes a look at the natural medicine both of the native Zulu people and of the white settlers:

Remedies & Rituals
Route: Harold Johnson Nature Reserve
Length & Duration: 2 km
Accommodation & equipment: Camping site.

Route: Harold Johnson Nature Reserve
Length & Duration: 7 km
Accommodation & equipment: Camping site.

Route: Harold Johnson Nature Reserve
Length & Duration: 5 km
Accommodation & equipment: Camping site.

Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve
The stunning Oribi Gorge is a deep 1,190 feet and an expansive 15 miles long, with spectular views all along the way. Carved from sandstone by the Umzimkulwana River, the gorge is home to some 40 species of mammals and 270 species of birds. Get a permit for some great fishing. Canyon lovers will also appreciate the Umtamvuna Nature Reserve on the gorge of the Umtamvuna River. The reserve is home to lots of birds, including the peregrine falcon.

Near Oribi Gorge

Bushbuck, Doosie & Hoepoe
Route: Circular Routes in Weza State Forest from Lorna Doone Forest Hostel.
Length & Duration: 5-10 km, 2-5 hours
Accommodation & equipment: Lorna Doone Forest Hostel equipped with bunks, tables, benches, stove, and ablution facilities
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

More Parks and Reserves in KwaZulu-Natal

Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve
Small but precious. Take a walk through the reserve to a viewing point for Howick Falls, where the Mgeni River plunges 312 feet. One of the best conservation centers in South Africa—over 200 bird species have been identified here.

Weenen Nature Reserve
12,350 acres. Rhinos, wildebeest, giraffes, buffaloes, and zebras roam this park. Two excellent hiking trails.

Special thanks to the South African Tourist Board (SATOUR) for helping GORP develop South Africa park & hiking trails information.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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