Ithala, which translates to “a shelf in a high place” or “a place where you store precious things”, is a concise and apt description for this reserve. Set amid rugged mountain in the northern part of Kwa Zulu Natal, it is a haven for wildlife. And Ithala’s remoteness was the perfect escape from the crowds over the Easter long weekend.
I read about Ithala in one of the earliest issues of Wild magazine, and it’s been on my radar ever since. More recently, a blog post about the reserve rekindled the idea. So I was pleasantly surprised to get an (almost) last minute booking at Ithala. Instead of the popular main camp, Ntshondwe, I chose one of the bush camps. Accessible by high clearance vehicles only, Mhlangeni is about an hour away from civilisation, which is its first appeal.
Perched on a hill overlooking the Ncence River and valley, Mhlangeni’s second charm is the outstanding views. Spread across a rocky outcrop are the camp’s five bedrooms on wooden platforms, each carefully positioned to take in the surrounds. The third appeal is that the camp is booked out as a whole, ensuring exclusivity and privacy. It’s the sought of place to gather with a group of family or friends, especially in the large and spacious communal living areas.
The valley at Mhlangeni is a hub of activity. From dawn until dusk, herds of wildebeest and impala mowed the grass, taking breaks to play and rest in the shade. Zebras wandered through the plain, and at times kudu, warthog and giraffe joined the fray. The most rewarding sight was that of a white rhino with a magnificent horn. In the four hours that we relaxed on the camp’s deck, the rhino was never out of sight. Later that day, two other groups of rhino were spotted as well. With all the munching going on, it surprised me that there was any grass left at all!
Back at Mhlangeni, nightfall descended quickly and thick clouds blanketed the full moon. There’s no electricity; only solar lighting (and gas appliances). But that adds to the appeal of this isolated camp. There are no rangers to escort you back to your room after dinner, so you just hope that leopards and hyenas keep their distance.
As captivating as it was to stay put at camp, we did venture out. We took an early morning game drive where we watched the sun rise over the grasslands, bathing the fine hairs on a waterbuck in golden light. Giraffe, the emblem of Ithala are prolific as are the other species that we encountered at Mhlangeni. Russell, the ranger, spoke about how Ithala transformed itself since its inception in the 70’s. Pockets of land were overused by farmers and with the establishment of the reserve, rehabilitation and game reintroductions have restored some of the lost balance. The effects of soil erosion are still prevalent in some areas such as at the mini “Grand Canyon” along the main road to Ntshondwe.
Russell pointed out a black rhino in the distance. Ithala has been spared some of the horrific poaching that has plagued some of our parks. It’s rugged mountains has been its saving grace, but still, they have lost at least two rhino. Ithala has come a long way and the rangers are not keen to lose the fight. Let’s hope that Ithala lives up to its name and remains a place where precious things are stored.