Located near the Swaziland and Mozambique borders in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Mkhuze Game Reserve offers those with a sense of adventure the chance to get off the beaten track.
There are no luxury restaurants, no floodlit waterholes or convoys of slick safari vehicles communicating by cell phone and radio. Instead, the park constitutes some 40,000 hectares of untamed bush crisscrossed with narrow roads—roads that are best explored independently on a self-drive safari.
Self-drive safaris are a great way to experience Africa as it should be - unpackaged and raw, with the potential for the unexpected around every corner. If you don't have your own vehicle, it's easy to rent a car in South Africa.
The Safari Experience
Getting to Mkhuze can be tricky (see below), but the effort is well worth it for the authentic experience offered by a wilderness that has been formally protected for over 100 years. In the evening, your chalet will reverberate to the drone of a thousand cicadas; and in the early morning, the dawn is heralded by the calls of countless birds. During the day, nyala, kudu and even elephant roam freely through the camp; and at night, bushbabies and genets are drawn to your veranda by the scent of cooking meat. Feeding them is prohibited, but watching the firelight reflecting in their gleaming eyes is a magical experience that one does not easily forget.
Of course, the best game viewing takes place outside the camps. Mkhuze’s many habitats support an astounding variety of wildlife, including all members of the Big Five. In addition to the endangered white and black rhino, the park is a refuge for threatened species like the cheetah and the majestic African wild dog. It is traversed by 100 kilometers of road, all of which provide the potential for new sightings; but the best game-viewing usually takes place at the park’s hides. The four main hides - Kubube, Kumasinga, Kwamalibala and Kumahlala - each overlook a waterhole. In the dry season, these are oases that sustain life in an otherwise waterless environment.
Mkhuze is also renowned as one of Southern Africa’s best birding spots. More than 420 species have been recorded in the park, many of which are either endemic or near-endemic. One of the best areas for birding is Nsumo Pan, where innumerable waterbird species come to breed and feed alongside the park’s hippos during the rainy season (October to February). Guided walks through Mkhuze’s Fig Forest can be booked at Mantuma Camp, and offer the opportunity to spot area specials including broad-billed rollers and southern-banded snake eagles. Elsewhere in the park, rarities like the Neergaard’s sunbird and the Pel’s fishing owl have also been spotted.
Staying in the Park
With so much to explore, you should plan to spend at least two full days in the park. Nhlonhlela Bush Lodge offers exclusive group accommodation for up to eight guests and includes the services of a cook, caretaker and private field ranger. Most visitors choose to stay at the main Mantuma Camp, where accommodations range from two-bed safari tents to six-bed cottages. The camp’s self-catering chalets are perhaps the best bet, offering private bathrooms, comfortable bedrooms and ample cooking facilities. Each one has a paved veranda with a dedicated braai area. There is also a campsite with hot water ablutions and limited generator electricity near the eMshopi Gate.
Mantuma Camp has a take-away restaurant and a small shop, but stock is limited and opening hours are subject to change. It’s best to be self-sufficient and bring everything that you need with you - including food and drinking water. If you’re traveling from the south, Hluhluwe is a good place to stop for supplies before entering the park; while those travelling from the north can shop in Mkuze town or Mbazwana. In summer, there is a low risk of malaria in Mkhuze. Mosquito nets are provided in the chalets, but make sure to pack plenty of mosquito repellent and consider taking prophylactics.
Although it is possible to explore Mkhuze with a regular car, high clearance or 4WD vehicles are best, especially if you're planning to visit during the rainy season. There is a fuel station at Mantuma Camp. Entry to the park costs R48 per adult per day and R36 for children under the age of 12. You will also need to pay a vehicle levy, which is R58 for a car with up to five passengers. Gate opening times are as follows: 6:00am - 6:00pm (April to October) and 5:00am - 7:00pm (November to March).
Mkhuze Game Reserve is part of South Africa’s sprawling iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a vast protected area that extends from Sodwana Bay in the very north of the country, to St. Lucia near Durban. There are two entrances: eMshophi Gate in the east, and Ophansi Gate in the west. eMshophi Gate is accessed via the N2 highway. If you're traveling from the north, enter the town of Mkuze then follow signposts to the right that will direct you along a gravel road to the gate. If you're traveling from the south, turn right onto the D464 gravel road 35 kilometers after the town of Hluhluwe and follow the signs.
Ophansi Gate is accessed via the R22. If you're heading south from Mbazwana, follow the road for 28 kilometers before turning right onto the D820 gravel road and following the signs for Mkhuze. If you're traveling from the south, drive north from Hluhluwe for 50 kilometers before turning left onto the D820. Whichever direction you come from, the gates are in remote rural areas and if it's your first time, it's easy to think that you're lost. Trust the signs and keep going - you'll get there eventually.
When to Go
The best time to travel to Mkhuze depends on your priorities. For game-viewing, the dry winter months (June to August) are usually best, as the park’s animals are drawn irresistibly to the waterholes at this time and are therefore easier to spot. For birding, the wetter summer months are better, as winter droughts often drain Nsumo Pan, forcing the park’s water birds to move elsewhere. Migrant species from Europe and Asia also arrive at Mkhuze in summer. Whenever you decide to visit, advance booking for accommodation at Mantuma and Nhlonhlela is essential. Night safaris, guided game drives and Fig Forest walks can all be booked upon arrival at Mantuma Camp.