Pongola Game Reserve Blog

Nestled quietly in northern KwaZulu Natal you will find one of South Africa’s lesser visited areas – the beautiful Pongola Game Reserve, the first proclaimed reserve in the country over a century ago. There are few places that include picturesque mountains, calm waters and the dry bushveld all within one area, and this is only one of the reasons that this reserve is so special. It is also home to many typical plains game species such as giraffe and zebra, four of the Big Five (no lion), hippopotamus, crocodile, and over 350 species of bird.

This was the first destination on my recent trip to South Africa, and I had convinced 5 friends to come along and explore some new areas with me. We landed into Johannesburg on the overnight from London, and immediately headed over to the car-rental desk to pick up our vehicle for the next 2 weeks. We knew we had a pretty long day ahead of us with Pongola expected to take approximately 6 hours from the airport….however, this was a bit optimistic as it took us closer to 8 hours and we ended up arriving well after dark. The main reason for this was the last part of the journey on the N2 was through logging country, and we were stuck behind lorry after lorry after lorry carrying giant logs and slowly climbing the many hills on route. Despite this we were still glad to get this journey out of the way in one hit and when visiting again think we would still do the drive in one go, although might stay a night in JoBurg first so as not to do this long day immediately following a long overnight flight.

Our accommodation choice at Pongola was AfriCamps at White Elephant Safaris, and we absolutely loved it here. This was my first time staying in an AfriCamps, but I will definitely be doing so again as it was exceptionally good value. High quality glamping tents sleeping up to 5 adults with full kitchen facilities, en-suite bathrooms, large comfortable deck areas with a braai and a wood-fired hot-tubs. The camp is self-catering, so we stocked up on all the food and drink we needed at a local PicknPay before arrival, and we then had everything we needed for our 3 night stay. We had a wonderful tent that directly overlooked the waterhole where we could watch wildlife at almost all hours of the day. Nyala, warthog, impala, mongoose, baboons and many bird species were spotted right outside our tent, and sunrise was the perfect time to spot many different animals. At the other end of the day we spent every evening outside on the deck firing up the braai for dinner and having a nice cold drink whilst looking up at the spectacular night skies which were so clear as there is so little else in the area.

There are a number of activities available at Africamps, which can be booked prior to travel or (if there is still availability) on arrival. We did a black rhino tracking drive and a nature drive in search of birds and wildlife on our first full day in camp, and were fortunate enough to see zebra, giraffe and Nyala up close. We also saw about 40 different species of bird, with great sightings of eagles and beautiful colourful birds such as the lilac breasted roller, hornbills and bee-eaters. Over 350 species of bird have been recorded in the Pongola area, with Lake Jozini and the Pongola River also hosting dense populations of water birds such as pelicans, herons, plovers, spoonbills, hammerkop, bitterns, and African jacanas. These relaxed drives across varying terrain offered a lovely relaxing experience, and at 3 hours were the ideal length to still allow time to relax back at the lodge, with the peaceful surroundings and great facilities.

In addition to the drives at Pongola Game Reserve one of my favourite ever (yes it was that good) experiences was a boat trip across Lake Jozini to watch several elephant families from the water. The excursion known as ‘Elephant Cruise’ is a unique educational activity and we travelled with the phenomenally enthusiastic and knowledgeable Suzette Boshoff, whose deep rooted passion for conservation and for elephant welfare was abundantly clear from the outset. The trip was about 6 hours in total (make sure you go to the loo beforehand!) and around 3-4 hours of this are spent out on Lake Jozini. On the route over you travel on a small boat and glide peacefully over the still waters of this tranquil lake, while your guide points out many types of bird along the shoreline. If you are lucky you also have the chance to spot ostrich, rhino, buffalo, antelope, warthog and crocodiles.

It takes about 40 minutes to get to the mountain area where the elephants are known to reside. It is unlikely you will spot them straight away, and part of the excitement is scouring the mountains looking for the first signs that the elephant families are making their way down to the shoreline for water. For large animals elephants are surprisingly quiet when on the move, and it really did feel like they just appeared from nowhere! The reason this trip is so unique is you get to spend around 2 hours just watching the different families up close as they come down to the water. Elephants are always so playful when they are in the water, with the young ones having water fights and the older elephants trying to keep the peace! Being on a boat you get a fantastic close up view from a completely different perspective, and as the engines are switched off it is such a peaceful wildlife experience, with just the sounds of the elephant families to accompany your viewing – beautiful.

As well as being a fascinating and beautiful activity, this trip is important as census and welfare information is collated on the elephants spotted, which is important in the fight against human and wildlife conflict, and also for learning about wider elephant behaviours in this unique region.

Overall Pongola was an excellent start to our South African adventure and it is somewhere I would recommend to those who are confident with self-drive and enjoy the freedom that comes with a self-catering trip. I liked the remoteness of the safari as we saw no other trucks or boats during our stay, offering true peace and relaxation in the bush.

Quick Facts

  • Distance to/from O.R. Tambo Johannesburg – 6-8 hours drive
  • Distance to/from Durban King Shaka Airport – 4.5 hours drive

Updated Note:

Unfortunately in January 2023 this reserve made the headlines as four shots were fired, allegedly by poachers, and these shots were in the direction of a tourist boat on Lake Jozini, and it appears this boat may have been undertaking the Elephant Safari that I rave about above! Online reports suggest that following the death of a local caused by an elephant in September 2022 there have been a number of retaliations by locals, with the killing of a large number of elephants on the Lake Jozini shorelines in late 2022, but this seems to have now escalated. There have been calls on the Government of South Africa from the tourism industry to be more proactive in taking action to prevent actions like this that deeply hurt tourism in South Africa.

13/1/2023 – 12 charges of attempted murder have allegedly been issued against the suspects – awaiting confirmation from SAPS (South African Police Service).

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