Authored by Jyotsna Ramani
Visiting a game lodge was high on my priority list during my recent visit to South Africa. In the limited time I had, fifteen days to be precise, my itinerary also included Durban, Cape Town and my arrival destination, Johannesburg.
Kruger National Park seemed fascinating at first, however after a little bit of homework I decided to check on some of the private game lodges which abound all over South Africa. I was initially totally unaware of the public facilities offered within Kruger and the other private game lodges, but on advice of a friend I decided to visit the lesser known Zululand Rhino Reserve.
As it turns out, this was excellent advice, and my six nights traveling Africa at the private Zebra Hills safari lodge within the reserve will remain etched in my memory forever.
Game Watching Adventures in South Africa’s Zululand Rhino Reserve
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We reached our destination after a three hour pleasant drive from King Shaka airport in Durban, along roads lined with sugarcane fields, eucalyptus trees and ostrich farms. After a few routine checks, I was ushered in by the cheerful attendant at the Zululand Rhino Reserve entry gate. A short 20 minute drive across open savannah and riverine forests full of Acacia and Marula tree species, and I arrived at the lodge which was to be my home for the next week.
The entire setting of the lodge was picturesque. My room afforded an unhindered view of the camp’s waterhole which was literally teeming with thirsty animals all through the day and night.
The Zululand Rhino Reserve comprises of a staggering 23,000 hectare big five game park, with the Black Rhino Range Expansion being its primary aim. The purpose of this project is to increase numbers and growth rate of the critically endangered black rhino. It does this through facilitating partnerships between landowners with good black rhino habitat, and is what persuaded the 17 different stakeholders to drop their fences and form one big reserve.
A Fantastic Alternative to Kruger
Within hours of arrival I was ready for my first game drive in the African bush. I was pleasantly surprised to find that our safari vehicles were permitted to drive off-road while tracking animals, unlike Kruger where vehicles have to stay on road at all times. This eventually allowed for great close up sightings, as we were privileged to witness a lioness with her almost full grown cub from very close quarters for nearly 30 minutes.
The service and standard of luxury was excellent. All my game drives were undertaken by professional rangers and a tracker, again unlike Kruger, which does not provide trackers for tourist drives. The vehicles used were brand new and the seats afforded the best chance for optimal viewing. Since there were limited number of vehicles operating at one given time, the sightings were all one on one which was indeed exciting.
Since the reserve is a private property, the game drives extended late after sunset to offer the best chance of seeing nocturnal species like the African scops owl, and a chance to see the big cats on a hunt. In addition we had an option to undertake a late evening drive after dinner, which surprisingly resulted in sightings of hippos, a black rhino, and white rhino.
The Zululand Rhino Reserve Experience
A day at the Zululand Rhino Reserve is akin to a day in paradise. The architectural construction of our lodge was such that it allowed a close connection with the surrounding forest and its denizens, with lions roaring in the background and even venturing up close to have a drink at the waterhole hardly 20 feet away from where I stood transfixed in amazement and shivering with fear and delight.
Before breakfast every morning, a magical game drive would take us up close to some of the spectacular wild animals in Africa, like the elephant and black rhino. The drives were always conducted by experienced rangers and Zulu trackers.
I enjoyed spending the afternoons at the pool, with my eyes trained to the waterhole for signs of activity. The evening drives lasted well after sunset. I must hasten to add that the knowledgeable staff would every evening take us to an excellent vantage point where everyone got down to enjoy the sundowners in the fading twilight. Zebra Hills also offered additional night drives to see some creatures like the aardvark and the greater bush baby.
Apart from animals, Zululand Rhino Reserve is a birding haven. This is one of the best places to find the rare Neerdard’s sunbird, the elusive pink twinspot and Woodward’s batis. I was thrilled to hear the call of the crowned eagle and eventually see it fly as it hunted for monkeys.
My six nights ended all too soon. I always felt like a guest of not only the reserve, but the untamed surrounding forest as well. The visit for me has been the highlight of my life. The early morning sunshine as we leisurely sped along the bushveld with its sweeping views will linger long in my heart.
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