Deep in Zululand but just a three-hour drive from Durban along the N2, we found a top-notch Big 5 safari experience that surpassed our expectations. If you’re not one of the lucky ones to have experienced this for yourself, let me share why you’ll love Bayala Lodge in Zuka Private Game Reserve in KZN.
The landscape is bewitching, a blend of steep hills and valleys punctuated by pans that were still full after good rains earlier in the year. There’s a diversity of vegetation and backdrop that give it movie-quality magnificence, from forest to mountains and rocks, from grassland to savannah.
Afternoon game drive
On our first afternoon drive from Bayala Private Safari Lodge and Camp with guide Pieter Maré, we learnt that the Zuka Private Game Reserve grew to 12,000ha in 2018 when another four properties - including the one Bayala Lodge is on - dropped their fences. It’s part of the same 30,000ha Munyawana Conservancy that includes its neighbour Phinda, which you may know from Wild Earth’s live safaris.
An old buffalo cooled off in a pan, up to his knees in the water. A baby hippo rode on its mother’s back in a pan surrounded by fever trees. An elephant bull browsed on a buffalo thorn tree on a hillside. He was after the red berries but taking in branches, leaves and thorns too, crunching noisily. He stretched up to get to a particularly tasty-looking piece but became frustrated and used brute strength to push. A big branch cracked loudly and crashed to the ground. Satisfied, he began feeding on the berries of the fallen branch.
As the afternoon light began to fade we zigzagged up a steep hill and stopped for drinks and snacks at the top, overlooking a vast swathe of the reserve below. Apricot, crimson and brick-red bled into the sky long after the sun disappeared below the horizon. And then the full blood moon rose, hanging low in the sky like a giant burnt orange. There are moments on safari that take your breath away and this was one of them.
On the way back to camp we found lion tracks on the road, a genet crossing in front of us and a crocodile in a pan, its eyes glowing red in the darkness.
Big cats on an early morning drive
At dawn the air was cold, mist stretching along the ground as we started to follow the lion tracks we’d found the previous evening. Tracking is a supremely satisfying activity with a good guide who allows guests to be involved in and understand the process – even if you don’t eventually find the animal you’re tracking.
We spent about 30 minutes following him both on road and offroad as he made his rounds. That’s one of the great things about Zuka Private Game Reserve; guides are allowed to go offroad to follow big cats. After the lion moved into an area of thick bush, we mentally high-fived each other and struck out again to see what else nature would reveal.
We watched a white rhino mom and her calf for some time as they calmly grazed along a tweespoor track. At Zuka the rhinos are dehorned as part of an effort to keep them safe from poachers. It’s strange to see stumps rather than full-grown horns, but we fully understand why it’s necessary. We’d rather see a stump-horned rhino than no rhinos at all because they’ve been wiped out by poachers and traffickers.
Pieter said they’d only recently left their mother. At two-and-a-half years old, they still had some of their youthful mantle behind their heads. They kept us engaged us for a long time until they accelerated into a trot and disappeared into a thicket. Perhaps they had spotted a bird, but Pieter didn’t think they were in serious hunting mode because they’d killed and eaten a baby impala the day before. It was good to know that they were on their way to self-sufficiency.
Bayala Private Safari Lodge & Camp
When you’re not enjoying the landscapes and wildlife or being entertained as you absorb new information at breakneck speed, Bayala Private Safari Lodge & Camp is a peaceful retreat where you can relax and unwind.
Bayala has a three-star grading but we thought the overall experience deserved more than that, given the quality of the guiding, the wealth of wildlife experiences, and the laid-back appeal of the lodge.
Other things to do at Bayala Lodge
Morning and afternoon game drives with a guide who was a walking encyclopedia of remarkable nature facts was all the entertainment I needed. But if you stay longer, you might want to explore some of the other things to do from the lodge.
- Take a dip in the swimming pool to cool down on a hot summer’s day, or just soak up the sun on the deck in winter.
- Depending on the time of year the lodge also offers bush walks, a chance to get even closer to nature, to read the tracks and signs, hear the alarm call of birds and smell the changing aromas of the bush. When the grass is too long for safety, walks aren’t available.
- Enquire about a massage as one of the best ways to chill out and ease the tension from your muscles.
- Get hands-on with vets and conservationists when they go out dehorning rhinos. It’s a way to help fund dehorning and is subject to conservation requirements so you need to book ahead for this privilege. This activity isn’t available during the pandemic but if you’re planning a Bayala safari far into the future, keep it on your radar as an experience you won’t forget.
- Plan a wedding in this serene environment and let the lodge staff help you with all the arrangements to make your day special.
- Explore further afield to some of the jewels of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is iSimangaliso Wetland Park, e.g. Sodwana Bay or uMkuze Game Reserve. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is also within easy reach for a day of self-driving.
Turn east off the N2 to Bayala Private Safari Lodge & Camp some 40km north of Hluhluwe town. It’s about a three-hour drive from Durban, or six hours from Johannesburg. You’ll find the lodge in the southern part of the Munyawana Conservancy, which includes both the Zuka Private Game Reserve and Phinda Private Game Reserve. The GPS co-ordinates are 27.8095° S, 32.2414° E.
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