Exploring Ithala Game Reserve

Tucked away in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Ithala boasts big game and diverse landscapes. In a couple of days, you can cover several of the reserve’s game loops and 4×4 routes. The varied terrain makes it a good spot to put your off-road skills to the test before tackling a longer journey. By Morgan Trimble.

If you’ve never been to Ithala Game Reserve, you’re missing out. This Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife park in northern KwaZulu-Natal is underrated and uncrowded. The beauty is breathtaking, and the incredible diversity of habitats packed into a relatively small area make it exciting to explore.

Situated near Louwsburg, about five hours’ drive from Durban and Johannesburg, Ithala is conveniently located for a long weekend away. If you have just a few days to visit, you can cover most of the park’s roads, but you’ll wish you’d booked for longer.

Exploring the park

There are several game drives through Ithala’s diverse habitats, many accessible without 4×4. Among the best is the Ngubhu Loop, where the main camp, Ntshondwe, looks out from the mountainside. The loop should be passable in a normal sedan, but the section southwest of the camp can get bumpy and muddy – ask about recent conditions before you set out.

Heading south from camp, the loop passes high on a forested cliff. Stop at the lookout points for open views to the valley. There’s also a spot where you can hike up higher on the mountain. Even up here, keep an eye out for Ithala’s notoriously grumpy elephants – there was elephant dung on the hiking trail during our visit. Subsequently, the road makes a steep turn down into the valley, through rolling hills and over open plains before getting back to the camp.

The Dakaneni and Ngulubeni loops cover Ithala’s central region. Dakaneni passes through thick, low-lying forest along the Dakaneni River. Visibility for game viewing here is poor, but it’s prime black rhino habitat, and you can smell the big game, even if you can’t see any. At the end of the road, there’s a scenic picnic site on the Phongolo River that’s well worth a stop.

East of Dakaneni is the Ngulubeni Loop where you’ll think you’re in a different park altogether. This is the place to be for stunning open grassland vistas, grazing antelope, secretary birds and other grassland species. Several picturesque viewpoints on this loop provide an opportunity for a stretch. The one closest to camp is perfect for sunset.

The Ntshamanzi 4×4 Track connects the Ngubhu and Dakaneni loops. Rocky slopes and occasional washouts can prove a challenge.

Short 4×4 routes in Ithala

Ithala has some exciting 4×4 tracks to put your skills to the test. In the eastern section of the park, there are private 4×4 trails for guests of Mhlangeni bush lodge. Luckily, Ithala has three public 4×4 routes to keep everyone else happily bumping along and enjoying the adventure.

Ntshamanzi 4×4 Track, at 4.7 km, is a shortcut linking the northeast section of the Ngubhu Loop with the Dakaneni Loop. From the turnoff from the Ngubhu Loop, the track looks tame, but this short loop serves up some seriously rough terrain and steep hills. The loose rock substrate brought us to a standstill on one of the climbs and we had to reverse down to engage low range. After that, we didn’t have any problems. We did get out a few times to scout the best course over large rocks and washed out ruts. This track has stunning views of rocky outcrops and remote valleys with dense trees.

The 4.1 km Dlabe Track marked on maps is more like a normal gravel road than a 4×4 challenge. High clearance will be useful, but you’re unlikely to need 4×4. It’s a good shortcut to get from the northeast section of the Ngubhu Loop to the Doornkraal Campsite and Thalu Bush Camp from where the Bivane Trail, the park’s main 4×4 challenge, starts. Check out the viewpoint to the south, a short walk away from the road, where you can rest at a bench and take in views of the Ngubu Valley.

Enjoying the view from the Bivane 4×4 Trail lookout point over the Phongolo River.

Test your skills on the Bivane Trail

The Bivane 4×4 Trail is a more purposeful 4×4 challenge. It’s an out-and-back route starting at the park offices in the northwest section close to Doornkraal Campsite and Thalu Bush Camp. The trail must be pre-booked at the main camp, so don’t forget when you set off on your game drive. The Bivane combines a series of challenges including water crossings, steep terrain, loose rock, hairpin turns and a bit of rock crawling. The action starts right away with a rocky crossing of the Thalu River. Then traverse thick forests encroaching on the trail followed by slippery gravel and steep climbs into the mountains. Make sure to engage low range to help you crawl to the crests. Hope that you don’t meet another vehicle because some tricky reversing will ensue.

Also read: Top tips for water crossings

Eventually, you’ll find a not-too-obvious T-junction. To the right is the intended destination for most people: a grassy hill with incredible views of the Phongolo River valley. You can park at a little turnaround and walk up the hill in between stunted trees. It’s the perfect spot to picnic and watch the world go by. If you angle left (downhill) at the junction, you’ll come out at the Phongolo River, but with sunset and gate time closing in, we didn’t have time to try it. It’s always good to save something for the next visit.

Crossing the Thalu River at the start of Bivane 4×4 Trail, a proper challenge that involves a variety of terrains.

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