Stretching from the Mozambique border to Sodwana Bay and inland to the Swazi frontier, the wild Maputaland region lies in the far northeast corner of KwaZulu-Natal (www.zulu.org.za). This beautiful and sparsely populated area is one of the most splendidly diverse and unspoilt landscapes in Southern Africa. Sprinkled with coastal lakes, freshwater pans and sluggish rivers, it’s home to a slew of pristine game reserves, wetland parks and marine protected areas: an alluring prospect for any nature enthusiast. During early July I had the opportunity to take the new RAV4 and a Toyota-fanatic friend, Tim Korving, on a circuitous route through Maputaland to explore the hidden reaches of this often under-rated South African outpost as part of an exciting SA 4×4 magazine assignment.
We kicked off our 4×4 exploration of the northern KZN game reserves in wildlife-rich Hluhluwe. Once the royal hunting ground of King Shaka, the towering grassland hills and low lying thornveld of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi have metamorphosed into a world-renowned Big 5 game reserve that is recognised as the pride of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s portfolio of protected areas (www.kznwildlife.com).
From Hluhluwe we moved on to Mkuze – another of Africa’s earliest game reserves that today constitutes the 40 000ha uMkhuze Section of the iSimangaliso Wetland World Heritage Site (www.isimangaliso.com). With Sand Forest giving way to gently undulating grasslands, peppered with flat-top acacias and fever tree-choked drainage lines, the park is well-known amongst ornithologists for its varied habitat and rich birdlife. Twitchers tend to concentrate their energies on Nsumo Pan and the neighbouring fig tree forests, while wildlife enthusiasts focus their energies on Kumasinga Hide: the most productive of Mkuze’s four recently refurbished game-viewing hides.
Situated deep inside Maputaland and abutting Mozambique, Ndumo Game Reserve centres on the Pongola and Usutu rivers. At 10 117ha it is a small reserve with a big reputation. Most people know Ndumo as one of the top birding destinations in Southern Africa and while this is beyond dispute (a staggering 430 species have been recorded in the park), this widely-acclaimed twitcher territory is by no means the exclusive domain of binocular-toting birders. Ndumo’s wilderness walks are another highly entertaining and informative activity available to park visitors.
The next stop on our Maputaland circuit was Tembe. Established in 1983 on Tribal Trust land, the 30 013ha Tembe Elephant Park (www.tembe.co.za) is dominated by sand forest and the game-rich Muzi Swamp in the east. It is home to an abundance of wildlife, including African wild dogs and a burgeoning lion population (over 40 at last count). While Tembe’s carnivores eluded us, the park’s elephants did not. Tembe has built its reputation on its gigantic tuskers. More than 200 of these gentle giants tramp the sandy paths of this pristine wilderness and we soon discovered that sightings are all but guaranteed from the hide overlooking Mahlasela waterhole as well as at nearby Mfungeni Pan. If you have time to visit just one game park in KwaZulu-Natal, I would unreservedly recommend it be the meandering sand tracks of the gloriously wild Tembe Game Reserve.
Having identified an exciting-looking 4×4 route down the exotically-named Elephant Coast of the gigantic iSimangaliso Wetland Park (www.isimangaliso.com) as the perfect grand finale of our Maputaland adventure, we set off along the scenic coastal route from Bhanga Nek to Sodwana. The deep sandy tracks took us first to scenic Dog Point, where we stopped to watch a couple of humpback whales breaching offshore, before continuing on past the breathtakingly beautiful beaches of Rocktail Bay in the Maputaland Marine Reserve and passing Lake Sibaya en route to Sodwana.
With our northern KwaZulu-Natal circuit complete and our great Maputaland adventure rapidly drawing to a close, we returned to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi for our final night, splashing out to stay at the secluded Nselweni Bush Camp overlooking the iMfolozi River. Much later that evening as I sat alone on the veranda savouring my last night in the wilderness, the rasping cough of a territorial leopard snapped me from my musings. A few seconds later the guttural roars of a distant lion pride joined the harmony. As I sat there in awe of the primordial melody resonating from the darkness, the melancholy whoop of a lone hyaena added its voice to the wilderness refrain. To me their bushveld chorus sounded grander than any orchestra or opera, but the real privilege was that the animals of Maputaland were bellowing their farewell song for an appreciative audience of one!