On the 15th of February 1912 the Mkuzi Game Reserve was proclaimed in the north of the Natal Province. At that stage the reserve covered 251km², with its northern and eastern border being the river of the same name. In the west the reserve straddles the Lebombo Mountain and in the south it reached to the Umsunduzi River and Nsumo Pan. Before its proclamation the area was popular among hunters, especially in winter when the dangers of malaria and tsetse flies were diminished, and as a result several animal species, including white rhino, buffalo and eland, were wiped from the area. With a large and impoverished human population living around it, after the reserve was established it faced, and still does, a never ending war with both commercial and subsistence poaching.
In the early years there was lots of hostility to the reserve’s existence, with neighbouring farmers seeing it as a breeding ground for the cattle disease nagana (of which the tsetse fly is a vector from game, which is immune against it). As a result, the reserve was deproclaimed in 1939 and control of the land transferred to the government veterinary department. Subsequently more than 38,000 wild animals were killed, with only black rhinos spared, after which an extensive aerial spraying campaign with poisonous insecticides followed. The war to control the tsetse fly was won at great financial and environmental cost. The reserve was re-proclaimed, under the auspices of the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife), in 1954.
Shortly after, the reserve faced a new existential threat when the Mkuze River and the pans it feeds at Nhlonhlela and Nsumo dried up due to dams and extraction for irrigation upstream. With no surface water available for the animals the reserve staff had to sink deep boreholes in the bed of the river to pump water to two waterholes deeper in the reserve to prevent animals moving out. One of these waterholes, Kumasinga, is still a major attraction for both game and human visitors.
In 1972 the Nxwala State Lands, on Mkuzi’s then south-eastern boundary, was incorporated into the reserve, increasing its size by a further 58km². The reserve boundary was later moved further south to beyond the Umsunduzi River to bring it to its current size. Today the reserve covers 400km² and uses the more correct traditional spelling of uMkhuze for its name. It forms an integral part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Have a read here for more about the history of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
uMkhuze is rich in scenery and biodiversity. Records indicate that the reserve is home to more than 700 indigenous plant species, 90 mammal species, 450 bird species, 64 kinds of reptile (perhaps as many as 85), 43 kinds of frogs and 32 fish species. The extensive Nsumo Pan, its shores lined by magnificent fever trees, is a watery haven for a myriad water-dependent birds and a magnet for other kinds of wildlife. Majestic riverine forest trees like the sycomore fig trace the course of the Mkuze River. Sand forest is a unique and endangered plant community in South Africa of which a tiny portion is protected in uMkhuze and the open plains of the reserve are covered by savannas and grasslands with a fascinating mix of plant species. Above this all tower the 600m high peaks of the Lebombos.
Elephants were reintroduced to the uMkhuze Game Reserve in 1994, and today number more than a hundred animals. They are however not seen very often.
While the founding population of uMkhuze’s white rhinos were translocated from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in the 1960’s, the black rhinos have occurred here throug the ages. What a pity that these enigmatic creatures are now again threatened by poaching
In August 2005, buffalo was reintroduced to Umkhuze Game Reserve (from Marakele National Park). Although numbering several hundred, they’re still not often seen and tend to remain in the wilderness areas far from human eyes.
After an absence of 44 years, lions were reintroduced to the uMkhuze Game Reserve in December 2013.
uMkhuze harbours around 300 of the rare suni antelope which finds refuge in the sand forest.
uMkhuze is well know for its sizable population of the beautiful nyala.
Other herbivores that occur in uMkhuze are hippo, giraffe, plains zebra, warthog, bushpig, kudu, blue wildebeest, bushbuck, impala, steenbok, common and red duiker, baboon, vervet monkey, thick-tailed bushbaby and scrub hare.
uMkhuze is considered one of the top bird-watching destinations in South Africa
Cold-blooded creatures abound in uMhuze too, and visitors can expect to see anything from fish to nile crocodiles while exploring the reserve.
In 1958 Mkuzi Game Reserve opened to the public, when three rustic huts were erected for use by overnight visitors. The reserve’s Mantuma Rest Camp today provides a variety of comfortable accommodation options in huts, chalets, safari tents and cottages with a swimming pool available to accommodated guests. Unleaded petrol and diesel is available and the reception office doubles as a small shop selling mainly snacks and fizzy drinks. The Rhino Din-o is a small cafeteria in Mantuma that sells light meals and offers excellent value for money. There is also a well-shaded picnic site for day visitors in the grounds of the reception office. Guided night drives and guided walks through the Fig Tree Forest departs from the main camp. The exclusive Nhlonhlela Bush Lodge, overlooking the pan with the same name and able to accommodate 8 guests, is located a few kilometers away from Mantuma, while the rustic Umkhumbe Camp in the far south of the reserve also accommodates groups of up to 8 guests. There is a spacious camping ground at eMshopi at the western entrance to the reserve. All these overnight facilities are booked through Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Malaria is still endemic in the area and precautions are strongly advised.
There are two access gates into the uMkhuze Game Reserve. In the west, 15km from Mkuze town, lies eMshopi Gate. In the east, providing easy access from Sodwana and the R22 road, is the newer Ophansi Gate which opened in 2006. Visitors have access to a road network spanning 100km within the reserve for game viewing, much of it tarred. There is a beautiful picnic site with braai facilities on the shores of Nsumo Pan. Photographic hides at kuMalibala, kuMasinga and kuMahlahla as well as two on Nsumo Pan are well maintained and very popular. The Lebombo Lookout Tower, just a few kilometers south of the main camp, is another spot not to be missed.