Northern KwaZulu-Natal is one of South Africa’s top wildlife destinations with a collection of game reserves known for excellent rhino and big cat sightings, superb bird watching, and beautiful scenery ranging from woodlands and wetlands to palm savannahs and coastal forests.
What’s more these reserves lie close to the iSimangaliso / Greater St Lucia Wetland Park which means a KwaZulu-Natal safari can easily be combined with footprint-free beaches and the best scuba diving in South Africa: teeming coral reefs, whale sharks, dolphins and breeding turtles are among the highlights of the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
Cradled between the Lebombo Mountains and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Phinda Game Reserve is Big 5 country and home to healthy populations of other classic African mammals such as black rhino and cheetah. The bird watching here ranks among the best in South Africa with 415 recorded species, and keen scuba divers will be delighted to know that diving adventures can be arranged from Phinda - making it an ideal safari and beach destination.
Being a private game reserve means that Phinda offers a very exclusive and tailored experience. There are no crowds or queues, and the six luxury lodges and exclusive-use villas are famous for their exceptionally high standard of guiding, placing a firm emphasis on giving their guests an interactive wildlife experience.
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A pioneer of conservation, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is one of the oldest and most prestigious wildlife reserves in South Africa, and is responsible for bringing the white rhino back from the brink of extinction in the 1950s and 1960s. Home to all of Africa’s Big 5, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi comprises two sections: the northern Hluhluwe area is characterised by evergreen forest and is good for sightings of black rhino amongst the thickets, while the southern Umfolozi section has open acacia savannah making it perfect for predators, elephants, white rhino and giraffe.
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Just north of Hluhluwe, Thanda is set on a 14 000-hectare private game reserve and has a well deserved reputation for excellent big game viewing and birding as well as providing sightings of rare species such as African wild dog. A top choice for a luxurious Big 5 safari, Thanda recently won “Africa’s leading luxury game reserve” at the 2012 World Travel Awards, and its bush villas and safari-style tented camp are members of the prestigious “Leading Hotels of the World” group.
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The Mkuzi Game Reserve was named after the Mkhuzi River which forms the northern and eastern boundary of the park. Mkuzi is known for its exceptional bird watching – over 420 species have been recorded – and a walk through the fig forest on the river bank is sure to be a highlight for birders and nature lovers alike. Mkuzi also offers game drives in search of rhino, giraffe, zebra and antelope, and there are a number of hides overlooking pans where fish eagles swoop to catch their prey.
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Pongola Game Reserve lies in the Lebombo Mountains on the border of Swaziland. This beautiful reserve has four of the Big 5 (no lions) and offers a fantastic mix of KwaZulu-Natal safari activities including game drives, guided walking safaris, boat cruises and tiger fishing on lovely Lake Jozini.
There are just a handful of lodges in the reserve with our top pick being White Elephant: an eco-friendly game lodge that balances conservation with safari luxury.