New Trails Base in Somkhanda, KZN

If you enjoy walking safaris, the words “new trails camp” are guaranteed to catch your attention, especially when it’s in a remote and less-visited corner of South Africa. Somkhanda is a community-owned game reserve in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal, west of the N2 and Pongolapoort Dam, with the ephemeral Mkuze river on its southern boundary. Following a land restoration to the Gumbi community in 2005, most of the land was designated for conservation and wildlife tourism and over the years the reserve has reintroduced the full range of big game. There are 12,000 ha of undulating Lowveld bushveld and as well as the Mkuze there are a number of other drainage lines with good tree cover.

The reserve allows self-drive – high clearance is essential and 4×4 recommended. There is one lodge and a couple of unfenced tented camps and a camp site, and guided walks have been offered for a few years. So what’s new? In 2021, the Community Trust established a partnership that has resulted in the addition of a camp dedicated to guided trails. Africa 4 Wild Trails Camp opened in October 2021 and it sleeps eight guests in four tents, with shared ablutions – hot showers and flush toilets. There’s a comfortable lounge tent, and evening meals are served around a camp fire. In all, it’s a step up in comfort from the trails camps operated by Ezemvelo in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, and to our knowledge the only mid-range dedicated trails camp in KZN – so a very welcome addition to the walking safari landscape.

The camp’s daily rhythm is one familiar to readers of Walking Safaris of South Africa – an early start in the company of two professional guides to explore in the most favourable conditions. After a few hours, it’s back to camp for brunch, wash and relaxation. In the afternoon there’s a shorter walk, then sundowners, dinner, stargazing and bed. When conditions are favourable, it’s also feasible to bring a packed lunch and make a day of it – taking that mid-day siesta in the wilds under the shade of a tree is one of life’s most underrated pleasures.

Flexibility in dates and duration is a differentiator of privately-operated trails compared to those run by state agencies. At Somkhanda, the typical walks package is two nights, although given its remote location, a third night is recommended. This could be at Somkhanda Lodge or, better still, as a sleep-out night. There’s a minimum group size of four – contact the operators if you need to make up the numbers, and they can find a suitable date.

What about the walking? The camp is open year round but like everywhere in the Lowveld, trails are best enjoyed outside the furnace months and April to November is ideal. It’s relatively challenging – rough terrain, hilly, dense bushveld – so suited to regular walkers. The birdlife is prolific, making it especially fun for birders. It’s always a thrill to meet African megafauna on foot, and elephant, rhino and buffalo are in residence as well as the big cats and African wild dogs. The trails are guided by Bhejane Nature Training (the name is Zulu for black rhino) who are a FGASA approved training company.

Rates are R4750 per person sharing for a 2-night stay, which is a bit lower than similar private trails in the Kruger area. Somkhanda is a good option to combine with a visit to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park which has a good selection of multi-day trails. It’s also convenient to take in with Phinda, uMhuze or Ithala. All of the above reserves are covered in Walking Safaris of South Africa.

For more information and booking: somkhanda.co.za / bookings@somkhanda.co.za / +21 76 174 8183

Photos courtesy Somkhanda Community Game Reserve.

Somkhanda’s wildlife includes elephant, rhino, African wild dog and lion

In KwaZulu Natal, a new reserve is born

The White Umfolozi river is Babanango’s big attraction for wildlife – and walkers

The White Umfolozi river twists and cuts through southern Zululand in KwaZulu Natal province, creating rugged loops and valleys. Watering a variety of wildlife-rich habitats, it has long been the focus for wilderness trails in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. And now, there’s a new option for getting on foot some 100km upstream – Babanango Game Reserve.

Babanango is one of the latest examples of the very welcome trend in South Africa which sees community-owned land shifting to conservation usage. A partnership between land-owners, private investors and conservation specialists is creating an area with the potential to be a top-class wildlife reserve. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are also involved in a stewardship programme role.

The varied terrain of mistbelt grassland, thornveld and woodlands supports a diverse ecosystem and the reserve currently has giraffe, hyena, zebra, rhino and buffalo, and several varieties of antelope. South Africa’s national bird, the Blue Crane, is one of over 285 bird species present, and the reserve is sure to become an essential destination for birders. The conservation plan will see big game introduced over the next couple of years, including elephant and big cats. At 22,000ha it is bigger than Phinda Private Game Reserve, and offers more interesting terrain.

The mix of grassland, thornveld, thickets and riparian woodlands is not just great for biodiversity, but makes Babanango fascinating to explore on foot

That plan is being brought to fruition by conservation management company African Habitats. In parallel with wildlife introductions, they are busy developing ways to enable nature lovers to enjoy the reserve, and enable the community owners to generate income and jobs.

For now, one attraction for walkers is the ability to self-guide in a 132ha section that is fenced from dangerous game. Guests overnight at Matatane Camp which overlooks one of the many loops of the White Umfolozi. It has all the essential comforts including hot showers and both catering and self-catering are options. The camp has the capacity to accommodate large educational groups, but these bookings are kept for for separate dates to other visitors. There are 13km of marked trails to explore (for no additional fee), and a guide can be arranged on request. As well as walks, a range of adventure activities including horseback trails and mountain biking is on offer, with more on the way.

Alternatively, guests can overnight at one of two comfortable lodges, where professionally-guided walks are offered at an additional fee. As well as tracking and spotting game and birdlife, the guided walks provide an opportunity to investigate historic copper mine works. The guides are adept at finding the fascinating smaller natural treasures that are missed on a vehicle safari, such as plants and butterflies.

The scale of reserve means it is perfectly suited for guided multi-day wilderness trails, and indeed these are in the pipeline for 2022. It is envisaged that the fenced self-guiding area will remain, offering walkers a family-friendly alternative for all ages. The area is malaria-free.

The two reserve lodges are open for bookings now, with opening specials from R1600 pps. See Babanango Valley Lodge and Zulu Rock. Matatane Camp is also available (contact the reserve for rates) while the luxury 12-tent Traveller’s Camp is scheduled to open in May 2022 – just in time for prime walking season.

Under the stars in iMfolozi

In Walking Safaris of South Africa, we include a narrative of a three day Wilderness Trail in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in Kwa-Zulu Natal. It describes the most popular form of trail in the park, whereby visitors are based at a seasonal fly camp, and walk with day packs.

The park also offers a backpacking sleep-out experience, known as the Primitive Trail, an authentic wilderness adventure that includes everyone taking a turn at night watch. Hlengiwe has written about it in a recent article for Escapes magazine and you can read it below.

Adventure-Nov2020