Ithala Game Reserve
This spectacular reserve, tumbling from the heights of the Ngotshe Mountains a thousand meters down into a deep valley, carved over the eons by the Phongolo River revealing the world’s oldest rock formations makes Ithala Game Reserve a game viewers paradise.
Ithala Game Reserve is located within the rugged, mountainous thornveld of northern KwaZulu-Natal, the reserve’s multitude of habitats host a spectacular array of wildlife species. Its panoramic beauty aside, Ithala Game Reserve’s most characteristic attribute is perhaps its astonishing geological diversity. Some of the oldest rock formations in the entire world are found at Ithala Game Reserve, dating back 3 000 million years.
With a topographic profile varying from 400m above sea level in the north to 1 450m near Louwsberg in the south, Ithala’s terrain extends over lowveld and densely vegetated riverine valleys to high-lying grassland plateaus, ridges, and cliff faces. The area now proclaimed as Ithala Game Reserve has been occupied by man for thousands of years and there are many sites littered with stone age spear and axe heads dating back some 20,000 years.
There has even been a middle stone age tool found by archaeologists which pushes the date back to anything up to 200,000 years. Recently, in the last few hundred years, with the advent of the Nguni people, iron smelting took place in Ithala and there are a number of smelting sites adjacent to deposits of banded ironstone which was crushed to provide the iron ore.
Ithala Game Reserve has presented the setting for a number of ancient events, from Shaka’s rule together with those of successive Zulu kings, to a variety of gold mining enterprises in the early years of the 20th Century. Ithala Game Reserve provides an outstanding vehicle trail to aid guest’s game watching, and a notated guide booklet is available in the shop at Ntshondwe, Ithala’s superbly designed, multi-award winning camp.
‘Winner of three consecutive AA Travel Guides & SAA Resort of the Year awards’
Virtually invisible until the moment of arrival, Ntshondwe, Ithala’s main camp, is ingeniously camouflaged against a plateau at the foot of the cliffs of the Ngotshe mountain. Towering above the camp, horizontal contours of pink and russet sandstone offset vertically jagged spires of dolerite rock. These provide the ideal haven for raptors, their calls echoing from rock face to crevice as they soar into the sky in a territorial display. Ntshondwe’s 39 thatched chalets blend into a lush setting of acacias, wild figs, cabbage trees and other indigenous flora. A variety of self-catering chalets, with two to six beds each, some of which have been designed for use by the handicapped, are available, while 28 other chalets without catering facilities are geared for tour groups and conference delegates.
These are situated around the visitors’ center which has a fully licensed restaurant, a bar and an open game viewing deck which overlooks a small pan. Other amenities include a swimming pool built around a giant rock, a fully- equipped conference center, and an imaginatively stocked curio shop which also carries a range of basic provisions.
This exclusive luxury lodge offers complete privacy in spectacular surroundings. It accommodates six guests in three bedrooms with bathrooms en-suite and has a small swimming pool, a sun deck and barbecue area overlooking the valley below. Ntshondwe Lodge is serviced daily.
Set on a rocky outcrop overlooking a stream, the Mhlangeni bush camp accommodates up to ten guests in five two-bed units. A central open-plan lounge and sun-deck offer excellent views, as do the showers! Mhlangeni Bushcamp is serviced daily and has gas lighting.
Mbizo is ideally situated beside a series of rapids and pools near the spot where the Ngubhu and Mbizo rivers meet. A total of eight guests can be accommodated here, in two separate bush chalets constructed of wood, reed and thatch. Each has two bedrooms, it’s own lounge, kitchen and viewing deck. The camp has two separate ablution facilities.
Mbizo Bushcamp is serviced daily and has gas lighting.
Thalu Bush Camp is tucked away at the foot of a steep slope on the banks of the Thalu river. A picturesque barbecue area overlooks a large pool in the river where swimming is permitted. Thalu accommodates four people in two bedrooms linked by a kitchen, lounge and viewing deck.
Thalu Bushcamp is serviced daily and has gas lighting.
Ithala Game Reserve – Wildlife
Ithala is a place of great seasonal contrast. In spring the grasslands are alive with warthogs.In summer masses of red “Pride of De Kaap” flowers complement the wild dates on the reclining palms along the slopes and stream banks of this rugged reserve. Hundreds of aloes transform the drab winter browns into a spectacular landscape. With its many perennial streams and rivers, and the frequent occurrence of cliffs and rock faces, Ithala is also the ideal haven for a large variety of birds.
A visitor’s guide contains checklists of notable birds, trees, and mammals that can be seen. Ithala’s big game species include white- and black rhino, elephant, buffalo and, notably giraffe so numerous that they have been selected as Ithala’s logo. The absence of lion makes for a relaxed air among these animals and other game such as zebra, blue wildebeest and a wide variety of antelope. These include impala, oribi, red hartebeest, eland, kudu, waterbuck, tsessebe, common and mountain reedbuck, steenbok and grey duiker. Predators which are not often seen are leopard, spotted hyaena and brown hyaena. Sightings of large birds at Ithala may include black eagles, lappet-faced and white-backed vultures, ostriches and secretary birds stalking across the veld.
Ithala’s exceptional variety of habitats is due to a combination of climate and a steep rise in altitude from 480 m above sea level at the Pongola River in the north to 1 400 m above sea level in the south on the Ngothe Mountain, over a distance of 15 km. The reserve has a typical bushveld climate, having hot summers with afternoon thunderstorms and mild winters with occasional frosts.
Ithala’s steep terrain provides for rugged and breathtaking scenery with many geological formations being exposed. Geological diversity contributes to habitat diversity. Different soils are generated and these produce a variety of vegetation types which can accommodate a wide variety of animal, insect and bird life. From the highveld plateau, Ngotse Mountain drops sharply into the Ngubu basin, which takes its name from the Ngubu River. The surrounding cliffs were formed when molten lava, failing to reach the surface, cooled to form a horizontal sill of dolerite. This was gradually exposed as the surrounding sandstones and shales were eroded. Black eagles, bald ibis, and klipspringer frequent the area.
Below the cliffs are steep rocky scree slopes covered by forest and woodland, characterized by candelabra, cabbage, and fig trees. At the base of the scree slopes lies the vlei areas, characterized by wetland sedges and grasses interspersed with woodland. This important area serves as a sponge, holding and filtering rainwater and maintaining a flow of clear water to the river below. Without this, the rivers would soon turn into silt-choked watercourses all too common in other places. This area is ideal for reedbuck, buffalo, and elephant.
Several rivers rise in or just out of the reserve, winding to the Pongola River, which forms the northern boundary. These rivers are attractive, with waterfalls, pools, and gorges flanked by dense thickets and riverine forest.
Below the escarpment are undulating plains of open thornveld, characterized by scented acacia and inhabited by kudu, giraffe, impala and grey duiker. Thornveld gives way to grasslands used by grazers such as white rhino, zebra, wildebeest, eland, and hartebeest. Each of these has a particular niche in grassland utilization. Animal and habitats have to be continually managed. Ithala, like all KwaZulu-Natal’s reserves, is largely fenced, which restricts game movement.
Inadequate fencing has prevented the re-introduction large predators such as lion into Ithala along with the 23 other species that have been returned to the reserve’s habitat. Thus, while introduced herbivores have flourished, scavengers such as hyena and vultures remained largely absent or at very low numbers due to the lack of carrion in the veld. In the interest of achieving a rational balance in the reserve’s game population, a decision was made to simulate the effects of predators by culling and depositing the amount of carrion, which predators would have left had they been present. This approximates two wildebeest per week, one of which is left in the veld and at the vulture-feeding site near Ntshondwe camp.
The program has been a great success. When it was started over three years ago, there were very few vultures found in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The first arrivals were White-backed vultures, later joined by Lappet-faced and then Cape vultures. Every carcass now attracts these scavengers, sometimes up to 150 White-backed vultures at a time along with others.
An unusual phenomenon now occurs at Ithala where Lappet-faced vultures are seen in groups of twelve (they normally occur singly or in pairs). A Whitehead vulture has been sighted and there have been unconfirmed reports of a Hooded Vulture. Two other exciting scavengers seen have been tawny eagles and bateleurs. Hopefully, these two eagles and the vultures will start nesting in the reserve.
Other creatures ranging from insects to smaller carnivores and larger scavengers are benefiting from the program. Monitoring has established that in addition to hyena and jackal, many other animals are visiting the carcasses. These include mongoose, genet, and African wildcat, even honey badger, and nomadic Cape wild dog.
Although there are encouraging signs of an increase in Ithala’s leopard population, the absence of lion and of the resident population of wild dog will mean the medium term continuation of the program as part of the reserve’s conservation management.
Giraffe, (Giraffa camelpardis), is believed to be indigenous to Ithala unlike other areas of KwaZulu-Natal. Hence the adoption of this splendid species at this reserve’s emblem.
The loosely structured herds in the bushveld areas of the reserve consist of females and juveniles. Males are usually solitary. Females are generally lighter in build than males and have smaller, inward curling horns. The males use their larger and sturdier horns infighting. This consists of butting an opponent with head and neck. Age causes the brown patchwork pattern markings to darken in the males. The giraffe’s long neck is ideally suited for browsing among the treetops. Despite the length of its neck, the giraffe has the same number of vertebrae as any other mammal.
After years of near extinction from this area, 97 red-billed oxpeckers were reintroduced to Ithala in November 1994 from Kruger National Park. This followed a survey to ensure that the reserve would be able to support the birds and that cattle dips and other poisons used on surrounding farms were environmentally friendly. Visitors to Ithala help monitor the oxpeckers by filing in sighting forms. In 1995 sighting of 14 immature birds were recorded. This confirmed that they had accepted their new home and that their preferred tick species were available in sufficient quantities. Oxpeckers nest and roost in natural tree holes. Clearly, the reserve offers this essential requirement as there was a second record of breeding in 1996. Data show that the birds are using a wide range of animal species, from elephant to impala, throughout the reserve.
Ithala Game Reserve – History Of Ithala
Ithala Game Reserve has a rich history of occupation dating back to the Middle Stone Age. The area provided iron ore and wild olive wood used in local Iron Age smelting operations. The San also used the region, leaving their rock art in several sites in the eastern part of the reserve.
The Zulu wars and the reign of Shaka saw many people seeking refuge in the caves found along the cliffs of Ithala. Traces of this refugee occupation are still to be found. Prior to its proclamation as a Game Reserve in 1972, the land had been in white ownership since 1884. In that year, the Zulu King Dinizulu granted more than 1.1 million hectares of land in northern Kwazulu-Natal to 800 Boers in recognition of the fighting services of 115 volunteers. The area became known as the “Nieuwe Republiek”
The game was abundant before the arrival of the white settlers. However, intense pressure for hunting by the settlers and the Rinderpest epidemic of 1896 had a drastic impact on the local game populations. Here too, as in other Zululand reserves, the antinagana campaign, which was waged from 1919 to the early 1950’s against the disease-carrying tsetse fly resulted in thousands of animals being shot.
Gold was discovered in the early 1900’s. The Wonder Mine on the farm Wonderfontein near the Pongola River began to be developed in 1905. It was sporadically mined with little success from 1910 until 1933, producing a total of 147kg of gold. Some 3km southeast of Wonder Mine on the farm Vergelegen, more reefs were discovered in 1911. The Vergelegen Mine opened in 1913 and renamed the Eureka Mine in 1914 produced 129kg gold by 1915 when it was closed. It reopened as the Ngotshe Mine in 1943 and operated intermittently until 1967, producing only 8.3kg gold.
Most of the farms in the Ithala area were used as labor or tenant farms, and drastic overgrazing by livestock gave rise to extensive soil erosion, which is still visible today. When Ithala was proclaimed, it initially covered 8 000 hectares. Conservationist considered the new reserve important due to the dramatic variety of habitats represented within it. The damaged veld was left to recover while the reserve was fenced and game re-introduced. As the 25 mammal species had become locally extinct, records from the former Pongola Reserve a few kilometers away helped conservationist to determine which animals had occurred in the area.
By 1982 Ithala had been extended to almost 30 000 ha. The reserve has since become one of KwaZulu Natal’s major wildlife destinations 23 Mammal species were re-introduced including white and black rhino, buffalo, kudu, tsessebe, red hartebeest, eland, giraffe, leopard, cheetah and brown hyena and more recently, elephant.
Ithala Game Reserve – Important Information
Gate Opening and Closing Times
Summer (1 November to 28/29 February ) 05h00 to 19h00
Winter (1 March to 31 October ) 06h00 to 18h00
Office Hours: The office is open from 07h00 to 19h30
Distance and Time from Gate to Camp: 8 km and 15 minutes
Check Out Time: 10h00
Check In Time: 14h00
Restaurant, bar, coffee shop, information center, petrol and diesel, conferences, day and night game drives, walking trails.
A fully equipped shop selling curios and a range of supplies.
The nearest town which has a full range of services is Vryheid which is 69 km away.
How to get there
Ithala Game Reserve is situated near Louwsburg in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
From Durban, it is best reached via Eshowe and Melmoth to Vryheid.
From the Gauteng area, the best approach is via Standerton, Volksrust, and Utrecht to Vryheid.
From the north coast go via Pongola and Magudu.
From Pietermaritzburg travel via Ladysmith, Dundee, and Vryheid.
Pets are not permitted into the reserve.
Facilities for people with disabilities:
Provisions have been made for people with disabilities in the accommodation and other facilities in Ntshondwe Camp.
Policies of Ithala Game Reserve
Amenities of Ithala Game Reserve
- Bird Watching
- Conservation area
- Filling station
- Free Parking
- Game Viewing
- Guided Walks
- Hiking-Self Guided
- Mountain views
- Open Vehicle Game Drives
- Pets not allowed
- Picnic sites
- Scenic views
- Swimming Pool
- WiFi (limited)
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Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, Game Walks with an armed ranger are also available from Ntshondwe Camp. These are normally 2 - 3 hours in duration
No, guests need to supply their own coffee, sugar, milk, and tea.
There is a limited number of 2, 4 and 6-bed self-catering chalets that are disabled friendly and it is important that you request a chalet with disabled facilities when you make your booking. Our consultants will inform if there is availability and it is important that this feature is also reflected on the guests invoice and confirmation.
There is a shop selling basic foods and supplies, including bread, biscuits, milk, drinks, eggs, meat, charcoal, candles, matches, oil, butter, and a variety of tuck foods. We recommend that you do not rely on the shop as stocks occasionally run low.
No, double beds can be requested but not guaranteed.
Room numbers can be requested, but not guaranteed.
No, Gate opening and closing times are strictly enforced. Gate Opening and Closing Times: November to February: 05h00 to 19h00 March to October: 06h00 to 18h00
An early check-in is only possible if housekeeping has finished cleaning your room by the time you arrive.
All accommodation types except the 2-bed non-self catering chalets.
Yes, Please do not leave food unattended and please keep all the windows and doors to your chalet closed when you are away from your accommodation as fruit and food will tempt them to enter your chalet. Feeding monkeys is strictly forbidden.
The signal is poor and is best at the reception desk area.
Yes, however, large animals are capable of breaching fence's and vigilance is always recommended.
No, guests will have to arrange their own transport.
07h00 - 19h30 (daily)
A filling station is available at the entrance gate to Ithala Game Reserve and is opened between gate opening and closing times. The station offers new technology petrol and diesel, and unfortunately cannot repair punchers. Cash and recognized petrol or garage cards only. Cheques, MasterCard and/or Visa Cards are not accepted.
It is perfectly safe for you to conduct your own game drives. There are simple rules and regulations you should follow. There is a speed limit throughout the park of 40kms per hour. You should not get out of your vehicle except at designated picnic spots and view sites, and even then only after you have had a good lookout for dangerous animals. Remember that this is a Big 4 reserve, and therefore it is dangerous to be exposed. You should not go within 30 - 50m of large game such as elephant and rhino for risk of being charged in your vehicle. The white rhino is reasonably placid and will let you get quite close as they are not too easily antagonized, however, the rare black rhino is very excitable and quick to charge, especially if accompanied by young. Unless you know the difference, please do not endanger yourselves and your family by taking unnecessary risks. If driving past baboons and monkeys, keep your windows closed. Keep voices low when viewing wildlife. To get the best out of your game drives, try not to look at specific bushes or trees that you pass, and try to avoid darting your eyes to the left and right. Rather, try to keep your eyes on a particular angle, scanning the bush as you pass by. It will take you a while to accustom yourselves to spotting game, but once you get the knack, you will find that animals will be much easier to spot. Don't underestimate the camouflage properties of most of the game species in the reserve. It is quite incredible how you can pass game very close by, and not notice at all. On many of our game drives, vehicles in front of us have just driven on, not noticing what is in plain view close by. As one experienced guide said, 'if you leave the park without seeing lion, be comforted by the fact that the lion definitely saw you'. If you are staying in the reserve for a few days, then it is worth keeping an eye on the sightings board kept at Ntshondwe Camp, as the latest sightings of are reported there. If you see something unusual or spectacular, it would be a kindness to report your sighting on the board, so that others may have the opportunity to try to see what you saw. Please adhere to the rules of the park, and not try to go on any of the roads marked no entry. These are private camps and staff accommodations, and trespassers will be prosecuted.Guests can only explore the park between gate opening and gate closing times.
Things to Do
Ithala Game Reserve
Ithala Game Reserve – Activities Ithala has an astonishing range of landscapes and habitats from the highland sourveld grasslands at the top of the Ngotshe Mountains to the Bushveld and Forest along the Phongola River a thousand meters below. Characterized by deep bush filled valleys and gorges with clear streams cascading over numerous waterfalls intoMORE