We arrived at Ithala Game Reserve with little knowledge of this northern Kwazulu-Natal park. All we had was the assumption that the reserve was small, and not very well known. Arriving after 3pm, we were told at reception that we needed to be in our campsite by 5pm, as no vehicles were allowed to drive in the reserve after that time.
There were two possible routes — a round-about gravel road, or a more direct 4×4 track. Needless to say, we chose the latter… and then got lost.
After trekking along a magnificently scenic 4×4 route for roughly two hours, we eventually popped out onto a gravel road. However, the beacon in front of us indicated that we were now on the other side of the reserve, far from where we wanted to be.
After asking for directions from one of the park’s rangers — a very serious-looking guy with an R1 rifle and a look that suggested we were rhino poachers — we finally took the round-about route to our camp. Along the way, we learned an important fact about Ithala – it was not nearly as small as we thought!
Covering roughly 30 000ha, Ithala boasts a surprisingly diverse landscape, thanks to the Pongola, Bivane and Thalu rivers. All three run through the park and have a good flow of water. The area is also quite mountainous, adding to the terrain’s captivatingly complex flora and fauna.
The park features more than 23 mammal species, including white and black rhino, kudu, tsessebe, red hartebeest, eland, giraffe, leopard, cheetah, brown hyena, and (more recently) elephant.
The Doornkraal campsite is located in the park’s western half, not far from the rangers’ station. The campsite itself is fairly large, with just enough space to house a few off-road trailers or caravans. And, if you stick to the main gravel roads, you can get there in a normal car – no 4×4 required.
Although the site has rustic ablutions (open-air shower and toilets), the camp is well equipped. It has running water (supposedly drinkable), gas-powered showers, braai facilities and a communal kitchen area shaded with thatch.
Best of all, there’s a 17km 4×4 trail that starts very close to the campsite. The route isn’t particularly difficult but it is very scenic.
The campsite’s most attractive feature is the Thalu River that runs nearby. From what we were told, it’s safe for swimming — no hippos or crocodiles — but one must be careful when it’s flowing strongly.
The sound of running water close by is what makes this campsite so special, but if the weather’s not conducive to camping, you can stay in the lodge. The chalets are well equipped, and the lodge has a swimming pool, restaurant, shop, conference room and bar.
All in all, whether you camp or not, Ithala is a great getaway option. If you haven’t yet visited this park, I have little doubt that Ithala will pleasantly surprise you. – Gary Swemmer
Condition: Very rustic, but well equipped
Toilets: Flush toilets
Showers: Yes (outdoor)
Hot water: Yes, gas powered
Space for trailers and caravans: Yes
Braai: Yes, steel bowls
Swimming: Yes, river and lodge pool
Cellphone signal: Very limited
Drinking water: Yes
Firewood: Yes, but pricey
Two grade 3 trails.
SAFETY & SECURITY
The campsite feels safe because of its location near the rangers’ station.
There’s a variety of accommodation on offer, from camping (20 sites) and rustic bush chalets to a lodge chalet, close to reception. Prices vary from R140 to R3200.
Ithala Game Reserve is situated near Louwsburg in northern KwaZulu-Natal. From Durban, it’s best reached via Eshowe and Melmoth to Vryheid. From Gauteng, the best approach is via Standerton, Volksrust and Utrecht to Vryheid.
S27º 32 45.229 E31º 18 48.551
– Gary Swemmer