East of Vryheid and below the village of Louwsburg in northern KwaZulu-Natal, lies the very scenic Ithala Game Reserve (See Resort of the Month – Ntshondwe). This rugged game reserve is characterised by an amazing diversity of geological formations resulting in many differing habitats that include thornveld in the lower areas, with open grassland dominating the higher plateaux. These in turn support a wide variety of birds and mammals. The southern boundary consists of huge cliffs while the northern boundary is the Phongolo River.
The cleverly-designed Ntshondwe Resort, tucked away in a forest at the base of a cliff, is a great place to arm yourself with binoculars and camera and go for a leisurely walk. The camp buzzes with confiding birds, and around the chalets are treasures such as Mocking Cliff Chats, White-throated Robin-Chat, Cape Rock Thrush, the diminutive Red-fronted Tinkerbird, and a variety of sunbirds working the flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle. In front of the restaurant is a wetland and one can sit on the sundeck to enjoy the weavers busy about the business of nesting amongst the reeds, spectacular Red Bishops in summer, and the little Black Crake. There are many dassies in the resort, so look skyward for the impressive Verreaux’s Eagle which has these mammals on its menu! In the evening you may hear Freckled Nightjars calling, while Large-spotted Genets and Thick-tailed Bushbabies visit the resort regularly. That loud screaming one hears sometimes coming out of the dark and that can make one’s hair stand on end is simply a bushbaby calling – truly a size 4 animal with a size 20 voice! In summer the resort and the rest of the game reserve hosts almost all the Cuckoo species.
Out in the game reserve there is the Ngubhu Loop, which passes through a number of habitats. Go out on an early morning drive – take the first turn-off as you leave Ntshondwe Resort, to the Ngubhu Loop. The first section of the road meanders along the base of the cliffs where, apart from looking for klipspringers, keep an eye open for the African Hawk-Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Jackal Buzzard, and Buff-streaked Chat. As you continue, other birds you could see include the Lazy Cisticola, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and Ground Woodpecker. Keep your eyes open for black rhinos and elephants, both of which could give you quite an adrenaline rush! About half-way along this stretch, the thick bush opens up into savanna and grassland. Here there are good chances of seeing the Lappet-faced Vulture, Secretary Bird, Flappet Lark and Bald Ibis, as well as herds of game.
The Dakaneni Loop is good for Martial Eagles and Bearded Woodpeckers. Once at the beautiful Phongolo River, look for the majestic Crowned Eagle, Narina Trogon and Ashy Flycatcher. The river itself can deliver excellent sightings of the Goliath Heron, Giant Kingfisher, the shy African Black Duck, African Fish Eagle (the sound of Africa), and African Finfoot. Please be aware, if you take a break at the picnic site that the Phongolo River has more than a few crocodiles in it – so do not dip your toes into the river! In fact, please keep well away from the water.
Moving on to higher ground with its open grasslands, the Ngulumbeni Loop can produce sightings of the Cape Longclaw, Croaking Cisticola, Banded Martin, as well as white rhinos. The view-site is a must, especially for the awesome vistas of the Phongola River far below, and the spectacular landscape. Apart from vultures drifting past, male lizards around the platform take on the most amazing colours in summer. It’s an ideal spot to pull out the coffee things and simply enjoy the moment.
There is also the Onverwacht Loop with its possible sightings of the White-bellied Bustard, Shelley’s Francolin, Cape Grassbird, and a whole host of Cisticolas and Pipits.
The magic doesn’t end at sunset either, for on an organised night drive from Ntshondwe one can see fascinating nocturnal birds like nightjars, owls and coursers. Leopards and brown hyenas may also be spotted.
So, all you twitchers – pack your bird book and binoculars and head off to Ithala Game Reserve for a truly rewarding birding experience…