Chances are you haven’t heard of this South African game reserve because it’s fairly new. But it’s putting in the work to get the two Cs – conservation and community – right. Its landscapes and lodges are pretty eye-catching too. Find out why to visit Babanango Game Reserve in KZN.
Imagine what it must have been like in 1898 when Paul Kruger first proclaimed a part of what is today the world-renowned Kruger National Park; back when it was in its early days, with lots of development still ahead.
That’s what it’s like today to visit the Babanango Game Reserve between Ulundi and Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Established in 2018, it’s still in the development phase but will eventually be a 22 000ha Big 5 wildlife reserve. Leopard occurs naturally whereas rhino and buffalo have been reintroduced and plans are afoot to reintroduce lions and elephants by 2022.
On your game drives you’ll see rhino, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and antelope like impala and nyala. There are more than 280 bird species, including Verreaux’s and crowned eagle, blue crane and narina trogon, and over 30 butterfly species like the dark-webbed ringlet, Millar’s haritail and mocker bronze.
Lodges at Babanango Game Reserve
We stayed at two of the lodges at Babanango Game Reserve and heard that a five-star luxury lodge to be called Traveller’s Camp is waiting in the wings.
Babanango Valley Lodge
In the south of the reserve, Babanango Valley Lodge is set in an indigenous garden filled with aloes, succulents and grasses. The lodge overlooks the Nsubeni River valley with its striking granite hills, quartzite ridges and sandstone cliffs.
Babanango Valley Lodge is offering special discounted rates until 30 September 2021.
The views at Zulu Rock in the north of the reserve take centre stage. They will blow you away, especially from the deck of the main lodge looking out towards the White Umfolozi River that snakes its way through the valley below. Even the swimming pool enjoys glorious views out over the reserve.
Zulu Rock is offering special discounted rates until 30 September 2021.
Things to do at Babanango Game Reserve
Until lions and elephants are reintroduced to make up the Big 5, wildlife may not be the sole reason to visit Babanango Game Reserve. But already the scenery, the aloes, the birds and the butterflies – as well as the lodges with their warm, friendly staff – are draw cards. Add to that a fistful of experiences and turn your stay into an action-packed getaway.
1. Don’t miss a guided game drive, a chance to get close to nature and admire the changing landscape. We loved seeing zebras and giraffes and antelope, finding rhino tracks and following them till we found these ancient creatures. What a thrill to be able to drive offroad to get closer to them, the heady smell of wild mint in the air, the call of the greater honeyguide in the distance. Find a herd of wildebeest frolicking in the early morning light, learn about the golden orb spider and its super-strong web. See ostriches strut among the aloes on a mountain top, watch ground hornbills search for food, purple-crested turacos brighten the bush with their vivid colours. Admire red ivory, sweet thorn and mountain cabbage trees, discover the importance of the buffalo thorn in Zulu culture. One game drive a day is included in the room rate.
3. Saddle up and go horse riding across the African veld, a wonderful way to experience the wilderness here. An exciting multi-day horse safari should be introduced soon.
4. Tour an old mine from the early 1900s with a guide at Babanango Valley Lodge. Learn about the history of the mine, how geologist Paul Pollitzer thought there was gold, only to discover it was fool’s gold or iron pyrite. Hear how the pyrite was extracted and crawl into one of the tunnels to see part of a mine shaft too. Sadly, the mine was unsuccessful. When Pollitzer couldn’t extract enough pyrite to pay back his investors, he killed himself and you can see his tombstone near the mine.
6. Don’t forget to look up at night to enjoy some stargazing. The night skies are wide and dark and the stars bright. If you’d like to learn more about the constellations and planets mention it to your guide on the late afternoon drive, which comes back to the lodge after dark.
7. Go on a full-day battlefields tour. The reserve is in a historically significant area of Zululand, with the battlefields of Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift and Blood River in reach. Take a tour with a guide who will fill you in on the area’s rich and beleaguered history.
Babanango Game Reserve is making every effort to bring benefit to the local communities, three of which own land that forms part of the reserve. Some 14 000ha was a land claim that’s now part of a trust, and two other communities have about 1000ha each.
Apart from the income these communities are already getting from the lease of their land, the reserve has brought jobs to an area of low employment. ‘There are currently 152 permanent members of staff in the reserve and the lodges,’ says Babanango Reserve manager Musa Mbatha. ‘About 75% of them are from these communities and many have never worked before so they have been – and are still being – trained.’
As a local himself, Mbatha is determined that things must be done right, that upfront engagement with community leaders is vital for everything to work smoothly and successfully.
Babanango also helps other communities living near the reserve, engaging in community upliftment projects through the African Habitat Conservancy Foundation. Think, for instance, of sinking 500 boreholes, furthering education and training, supplying agricultural and veterinary services, and helping to develop community businesses that can be suppliers of products and services to the reserve and lodges.
The reserve has also assured neighbouring cattle, goat and crop farmers that they’ll be compensated for the deaths of animals or damage to crops as a result of introduced animals like lions or elephants breaching the fence. Since human-wildlife conflict is a thorny issue in areas surrounding reserves around Africa, it’s good to see Babanango taking a proactive stance.
There’s excitement in seeing the formation of a wildlife reserve in its early stages, with so many opportunities for both good conservation and uplifting local communities. Visit Babanango Game Reserve now, then return in three to five years. I hope you’ll be surprised at the changes, see how preserving our natural heritage and powering a community-based economy can both succeed when they work hand in hand.
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