Crack! It sounded like a gunshot but it was just a big bull elephant breaking branches for a mid-morning snack. I was standing just a few metres away and rapidly falling in love with Ithala Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.
One of the staff told us in a whisper that elephants often visit close to the camp, but usually only for a day or two before they move on. This bull had been there every day for the past two weeks. ‘There are also five others, females, who are coming,’ she said. ‘This bull likes to be the only one and he will fight other bulls.’
It’s no wonder we got a list of guidelines for elephant viewing when we entered the gates at Ithala – advice about keeping a distance of at least 30m, not cutting off their escape route, not getting out of our car. There was also info on signs of stress or aggression in elephants, helping visitors to read elephant behaviour and avoid confrontations. It’s a great idea and I think SANParks should adopt it at the Kruger National Park too.
You shouldn’t expect to see the same wealth of game sightings as you would in a park like Kruger. Ithala has elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard, but not Kruger’s numbers and in some areas the bushy vegetation is a hindrance to viewing. But at Ithala there’s a peacefulness and scenic beauty of rolling hills and sharp cliffs of sandstone and dolerite that has its own charm.
On our last day, we walked the Plum-coloured Starling nature trail among the boulders between the swimming pool and the cliffs overlooking Ntshondwe. A flash through the trees was impossible to identify until we heard the call of the trumpeter hornbill.
Ntshondwe won three AA Travel Guides and SAA Resort of the Year awards. Its reviews on Tripadvisor are overwhelmingly positive. So why was the place so quiet? Receptionist Prisca Mbatha shook her head sadly, ‘I think maybe it’s a lack of marketing.’
Well, here’s some marketing for beautiful Ithala: if you’ve been to Kruger and you’ve overcome the urgency to see lions, lions and more lions, if you’re looking for a scenic reserve where you can chill out while watching wildlife, where you can stay in comfort in one of the loveliest camps in the country, then give Ithala Game Reserve near Louwsburg in northern KwaZulu-Natal a chance next time you make holiday plans.
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