Backpacking in the Southern Lebombos

Some mountains are happy to take second billing. While the Drakensbergs star in a billion photos and promotional videos, the Lebombo range stands in the shadows. Its name is less familiar, yet its mountains span the entirety of South Africa’s top safari zone. Its ancient volcanic rocks are the skeleton of the Kruger National Park and its grassland slopes are the defining geography of eSwatini. South again, in a crumple of rounded hills and river valleys, the Lebombos form the scenic texture of northern Kwa-Zulu Natal and its extensive conservation areas.

If the Drakensbergs are South Africa’s hiking mountains, then the Lebombos are the nation’s walking safari backbone. Almost all multi-day walking safaris take place somewhere in that long arc between the Limpopo and Umfolozi rivers in a savanna biome that supports the best diversity of game animals and birdlife. The modest heights of the Lebombo (which are in the 400-800m range) suit the more gentle nature of the walking safari. After all, the goal is not to cover distance or scale peaks, but to soak up every drop of natural wonder found in the African wilderness.

The protected reserves that sprawl the Lebombo range in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal are the epitome of excellent walking safari territory, blending all the key ingredients: wildlife, mountains, rivers, a variety of bushveld types and excellent Trails Guides. In Walking Safaris of South Africa, we give due recognition to the area’s leading reserves, including Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and Phinda. Since the book was published, we have covered new walks in Somkhanda and Babanango reserves. Now, there are a couple of other areas open to multi-day walks, both sharing the undulating savanna and riparian woodlands that make for enjoyable exploration on foot.

mFulawozi Game Reserve hugs the south-western corner of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and is a relatively new reserve on community owned lands. The White Umfolozi river forms the boundary with the park, and wildlife crosses freely. About 50km to the northeast, Bayala Lodge is on Zuka Game Reserve which is in the Munyawana Conservancy which shares a fenced boundary with Mkhuze Game Reserve and an unfenced boundary with Phinda Private Game Reserve. Both are venues for 3-night backpacking trails operated by Massimo Rebuzzi of the African Bush Company.

Massimo describes what makes this end of the Lebombos so alluring for trails. “One can be tracking lions and rhinos and then dip into a woodland to see forest bird species and plants which give the area a dreamy and tropical feel.” Although he leads walks in the Lowveld and other areas of Southern Africa, Massimo says that Zululand is special because of its proximity to the ocean, the diversity of habitats, fauna and flora and “the general feeling of being in a sub-tropical savanna environment where one expects the unexpected.” He says “I like the fact that the landscape here is very diverse, it opens up drastically in some areas into typical savanna with grazers in the distance and the occasional umbrella thorn dotted on the horizon to forested drainage lines which hold forest species of plants, arthropods and birds which are normally only found in well established coastal forests.”

One of South Africa’s best qualified Trails Guides, Massimo is a mentor for new guides and a FGASA assessor. He favours Primitive-style trails – meaning a sleep-out with a night watch rota is the norm. This is in harmony with how humans have always survived in the wild, and means a little less weight to pack. It’s not obligatory, and there can be occasions to carry a tent – if rain is forecast, the group size is small, or in order to have a place to stash a pack for a couple of nights to walk with a day pack.
The hiking experience in both reserves is similar – participants need to be in good shape and have their own kit. So how should hikers choose between the two venues?

Massimo explains the variation: “Bayala is a typical Zululand landscape of open undulating savanna, well-wooded thickets, forested drainage lines and has the Lebombo Mountains running through the reserve. There is no permanent river but many seasonal drainage lines and dams are found on the property which draw a lot of animal life. The game viewing is very good and the larger, more iconic mammals are often seen on foot and occasionally from camp.”

Trail walkers in Bayala enjoy a splendid variety of camping spots and habitats

In Bayala, the usual plan is a full three-day traverse of the reserve, and water drops are arranged along the planned route. Massimo says this gives the trail excellent variety, “a journey from one habitat type to another with constantly changing views to be had. The area has great birding with several endemic species and KZN specials which are usually only found in the sand forests to the east. And each camp location has its own atmosphere, view and type of habitat, from drainage lines, the crest of the mountain or in secret pockets of bush at the base of rocky outcrops.”

Meanwhile in Mfulawozi the main attraction is the White Umfolozi River and its many drainage lines. Water is sourced from the river (filtering and purification advised). The river is generally perennial, but winter flow is lower than summer. Massimo says “there are stunning habitats along the river and classic large riverine trees such as the sycamore fig which draws in a lot of bird species. Having a river close by is a lovely option as we can always have a swim in a safe area and watch for animals coming to drink and water birds flying to feeding sites. The habitat is not as diverse as Bayala but it does hold many unique aspects and areas which were important Zulu cultural points.”

The proximity to the Umfolozi river and its wildlife is a feature of walking in mFulaWozi

Both mFulawozi and Bayala are about three hour drives from Durban. If needed, The African Bush Company can arrange special rates for lodge accommodation in the reserves pre and post trail. It’s best to stock up on kit and supplies before leaving home, and the company has a discount arrangement with the Trail Food Company for online orders.

Trails are priced at R4400 per person for three nights, based on a group of 8. For more information and booking see:

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