Why you should visit the wildly underrated uMkhuze Game Reserve

Hailing from Johannesburg, Melanie van Zyl always opted to visit the Kruger National Park for a dose of bushveld bliss. However, the KwaZulu-Natal wilds hold a special strain of magic, and it’s got her totally spellbound. Here’s why you’re sure to fall for uMkhuze Game Reserve too.

Covid-19 may have put the brakes on overlanding trips for a while, but it can’t put a stop to our yearning for new horizons. We’re sharing stories to help you plan your next adventure for when overnight travel starts up again. You can already visit uMkhuze Game Reserve as a day visitor.

Save for truly dedicated twitchers, few South African travellers have heard of uMkhuze Game Reserve, which is odd given it’s one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in the country. The tropical bush has been under protection since 1912 when it was formed to safeguard the elegant stripes and spots of the nyala antelope.

Today, it forms part of the sprawling iSimangaliso Wetland Park and borders the famous grounds of Phinda Conservancy (just with boarding at a fraction of the cost).

Also read: Exploring the beauty of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

uMkhuze Game Reserve measures 40,000 hectares and covers an astonishing diversity of natural environments. From savannah grasslands pricked by acacia silhouettes to tall, dense forest canopies, it’s got a little something for everyone.

When the time comes, why not break your lockdown travel fast at this rewarding game reserve? Here are eight reasons why uMkhuze Game Reserve should be at the top of your list.

Looking out over uMkhuze Game Reserve. Pictures by Melanie van Zyl

1. Size matters

uMkhuze Game Reserve makes for the ideal weekend away. On a self-drive adventure, you could easily traverse the majority of game drive routes (roughly 100km in total) over 48 hours. For some travellers, the park might seem ‘too small’ as a result, but (as the saying goes) size doesn’t matter if you know how you use it. Such sizing allows you to slow down and savour the sightings. Despite the small dimensions, the park has also never seemed too busy during my visits (including peak December!), and it’s possible to find relative solitude on the various routes.

T4A tip: Looking for a similar experience closer to home? From Gauteng, try Marakele National Park. From Cape Town, head to Bontebok National Park. From PE, set your course for Mountain Zebra National Park.

2. Birding bonanza 

Some 420 bird species roam the skies, branches and lilypads of uMkhuze. It is a renowned bird watcher’s paradise. Unique sightings include the Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis and Neergaard’s Sunbird, plus the elusive African Broadbill, Pel’s Fishing Owl and Green Malkoha. Lined with fever trees, the bird-watching hide at Nsumo Pan is a particular highlight – don’t forget to pack those binos!

A Malachite Kingfisher, one of uMkhuze’s more than 400 ticks.

3. Hide and seek 

Speaking of hides, these have to be uMkhuze’s biggest asset. Recently rebuilt during 2018, each one is thoughtfully constructed. The viewing points and waterholes are famous for their productivity and are all set a good audial distance away from the car park. The key is patience. Pack a picnic basket (munch quietly, so as not to disturb other onlookers) and settle in. You never know who might come and visit.

A quiet place to view wildlife.
One of the visitors worth waiting for.

4. Big cats and wild dogs

uMkhuze Game Reserve is a Big Five park thanks to the reintroduction of lions in 2013. Reintroduction was scientifically designed with sensitivity to the environment, lion-pride dynamics, and to best preserve the existing cheetah population. There’s also plenty more besides big cats to keep an eye out for: a plethora of plains game, African wild dogs, buffalo, giraffe, bushpig and honey badgers. Wildlife Act monitors several animals within the park borders to ensure key species don’t escape and trouble the neighbouring communities.

5. Small suni

Not to be mistaken for steenbok or duiker, the sweet Suni antelope is unlikely to grace the popular safari bucket list. Still, this teeny tiny bokkie prefers the rare sand forest habitat found here at uMkhuze and is a notable sighting indeed.

Suni antelope.

6. Wild stays

There are few unfenced stays here in South Africa, but uMkhuze is one of the last old-school Big Five parks where wildlife still roams wherever it so pleases. Accommodation includes the shaded eMshopi Camp Site, chalets and tented units (some of which could admittedly use a little maintenance) at the main Mantuma Rest Camp and two traditional bush camps. I loved Nhlonhlela Bush Camp. The exclusive-use self-catering set up consists of four rustic chalets, kitchen, fire pit and a lovely lounge area, where I could relax with a book in the heat of the afternoon but still enjoy the views of Nhlonhlela Pan.

Rustic self-catering facilities.

7. Forest strolls

This past summer, the reserve received significant rains, and much-need waters relieved the tropical bushveld plains. Sadly for my last two visits, however, they flooded the scenic sycamore fig forest guided walk too. My number one reason to return is to tackle this trail, where a beautiful boardwalk weaves below boughs of thick fig trees that line the uMkhuze River.

8. Proximity

The last reason for visiting this underrated reserve is its proximity to other sensational destinations – the ideal excuse to plan an extended itinerary. With its excellent dive sites, Sodwana Bay is just an hour away, or you could head north and enjoy an offroad adventure on the old sandy road that winds its way through the coastal forest. Following the bottom contour of towering vegetated dunes, the track passes Mabibi (home to secluded campsites and the sublime Thonga Beach Lodge), dips into Lala Nek and stretches north to Bhanga Nek. Then there’s always the little-known Ithala for 4×4 enthusiasts.

Also read: Exploring Ithala Game Reserve

Getting there

From Durban, the main access route is the N2 north. From Johannesburg, take the N17 to Piet Retief, then the N2 past Pongola and drive through the town of Mkuze. To travel on to Mbazwana and Sodwana Bay from the game reserve, exit via Ophansi Gate.

If you enjoy the tranquillity of parks and reserves, have we got good news for you. All our maps show protected areas, making it easy to plan your trips around time in nature. In fact, our Traveller’s Africa GPS Maps provide the most detailed collection of conservation areas in Africa: 2,385 parks in total. Shop maps for nature lovers now.

3 thoughts on “Why you should visit the wildly underrated uMkhuze Game Reserve”

  1. Hi Dave
    When did you last visit eMshopi campsite. My husband and I are very keen to go there, but also noticed it being a little rundown when last we visited the park ,but staying at Mantuma. Since then i have not been able to get information on the present condition of the camping area. Hopefully someone could give us an answer.


  2. uMkhuze GR, what a birders / photographer paradise,to be totally spoilt by the shocking camping facilities, frequent lack of water, toilets blocked as a result, No one cares !!! Its a pity little mention is made of this once beautiful campsite.

    1. Hello Dave

      I didn’t camp there myself, which is why it’s not mentioned. I only drove past in December – and there were many caravans and campers set up. I do know that the campsite was closed for a bit (maybe a year ago?) and iSimangaliso did do some maintenance, but I’m afraid I don’t have the first-hand experience of that.

      During my stay in Nhlonhlela Bush Camp I found the facilities clean and neat, all plumbing working, but rustic overall (which is the charm!), and we spent most of our time out and about.


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